I returned from my final US destination – San Diego – via Chicago and Frankfurt just in time to get myself sorted out and repacked, then get some sleep before a Friday pm drive over the watershed to Wath-upon-Dearne. As I arrived at the hotel I was watching two weeks of dry weather getting undone by a torrential downpour. It might not be too bad by Saturday, but the ground certainly couldn’t be as dry as it was last year.
Around 05:45 on Saturday I had to fight my way out of a darkened, bolted and barred hotel, setting off the alarm in the process. They had not risen to provide the early breakfast as promised. I made the short journey to Dearne Valley College in time to see the early (6am) starters sent on their way, some of whom I would never catch. I was registered on the later 7am runners’ start as usual, but this year I had come to realise that, thanks to all the business travel I was not race fit, pure and simple. Many familiar faces were present, some only seen occasionally. I had not seen Mike Blamires since last year’s Round Rotherham. It was a good reunion of old friends.
After our send-off speech we were set off on our way into the breaking dawn. The street lights in the early stages meant that we could manage without head torches, and so began a day of running at the limits of sustainability, which turned out to be a lot slower than it was last year. I was getting overtaken from the outset and those who were behind me last year had soon disappeared ahead out of sight. Duncan Harris made by far the quickest overtake. He must have had a late start. Ooh, the pressure. I just resigned myself to the usual, which was ‘surviving the moment’ to the best of my ability for as long as it took until I’d finished.
As I plodded along by the rubbish-filled stream and canal towards Elsecar, getting overtaken all the while, a glance at my heart rate monitor showed 176 beats per minute. That could not continue. It needed to be 10 – 20bpm slower if I was to survive the day. I eased my pace even further but could not get the rate below 170. “Stuff it”, I thought. “The only way I’ll get it down is to walk, and I’m not doing that so soon. I’ll just carry on for the 2 hours or so until the inevitable blow-up occurs, then take it from there.” I knew the routine. I would only take walking breaks when I was forced to, then the all-too-familiar survival strategy would commence of walk, fuel, wait for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th winds to kick in, try to run whenever possible and enjoy the scenery and camaraderie along the way. It would be a serious comedown after my performance of last year but as long as I was making forward progress, a DNF would never enter my mind.
My navigation was going perfectly while hardly having to refer to the excellent, cartoon-style strip maps. I usually have a knack for remembering routes. I was surprised in the early stages by getting overtaken by several groups of runners who I knew had been in front. They had failed to fork left to Elsecar, among other failure-to-fork-left mistakes. Some must have lost a lot of time, but it didn’t take ones so fit very long to race to the front of the field again. Colm McCoy was one of the ones who added extra miles. I remember him last year, on the climb through the woods just after Elsecar, thanking me for showing the way. I’m sorry I wasn’t fast enough for you this year, Colm ;-)
As I made my way towards the halfway checkpoint at Harthill, it seemed that ‘every man and his dog’ (and, just to prove I'm not sexist, ‘every woman and her bitch’) had overtaken me, usually with a comment to the effect of: “What are you doing back here, Nick; you’re usually miles ahead”, to which I would reply: “Tell me about it. It’s called lack of fitness”. Somehow I didn’t care. I knew it would happen. I was already resigned to the fact and I had accepted it. Although I was so much slower I was still playing the same mind games, pushing and eking the best performance out of myself. With my perceived effort it still felt as though I was on for a PB. “Just keep pushing.”
By halfway I had found my jogging equilibrium. Shortly after Harthill as I jogged across the fields I spied a familiar figure up ahead. I soon caught up with Mike Blamires, who had overtaken me before 20 miles. Poor Mike now had mental demons going on, had lost the will to continue and was on the verge of dropping. However, he tagged along as we began to talk about anything and everything, and so began a great team effort of mutual encouragement to the finish line. Mike now had an incentive to keep pushing and I had a good reason to keep pushing. These Ultra Marathons are usually lonely affairs as most people push their personal boundaries alone. Now was one of those rare occasions when I got to run with someone. Mike’s and my paces were amazingly well matched.
At Maltby after we had passed through the 40-mile point, Mike checked his watch and commented that we had done a pretty good time for 40 miles (around 8.5 hours I think). He started talking of the possibility of a 50-mile PB. After having been on the verge of dropping, that was a revelation. It was all we needed to keep pushing for our strongest possible finish. We saw the runners ahead as targets that had to be picked off before moving onto the next. We did some good overtaking over those last 10 miles. On the last climb before the final checkpoint at Old Denaby, I was getting competitive and not wanting other runners we had recently overtaken to catch up again, but Mike was beginning to fade. Shaky legs = low blood sugar = food needed, and quick. I offered a Snickers bar. Just one third of it had him motoring up that hill within minutes.
The final 3 miles of fiddly yet entertaining navigation through the arse-end of the back of beyond went seamlessly and satisfyingly as we ran virtually every step of the way, not wanting to get caught by the chasing runners. I felt as if I was on for a PB as well as we ran together to an amazing sprint finish in 10:43. Mike got his PB. Woo-hoo!
As we ran down that final track towards the college, Mike, overflowing with elation and emotion, shouted: “Nick Ham, you are a f----n legend.” No Mike, YOU are the legend. What you did, to finish a 50-mile Ultra with a PB after so nearly dropping out was utterly inspirational. Your success and elation became my own. It made my race so worthwhile, so enjoyable and so memorable. Thank you so much for your company.
The PB glow.
This, the final race in the 2010 Runfurther series brought some super-fast times and impressive performances. Duncan Harris and Harald Aas finished equal first in 6:29:35. The organisers and volunteers did their usual superb job, and Henry Marston's strip maps and course information were the business. It was a stroke of genius to bring this event forward to October.
We had a few rain showers along the way and my camera got its first soaking since its decontaminating wash. It never faltered. The conductive, salty sweat deposits that must have been shorting out its switches and buttons must now be gone. See here for the pictures I took.