"Never again" I vowed as I delved through the depths of my sanity at mile 85 of the North Downs Way 100, having run through one of the hottest days of 2015. Never again.
A little over a year later, the alarm pierced through the peaceful autumn morning, rousing me from a restless night’s sleep. Though 3 or 4 options of running kit covered the floor, predictably, I grabbed my usual set up: 10-year-old leggings with holes in them and my Lavaredo ultra t-shirt. Given the nonsensical hour, it was too early to expect a cooked breakfast from the B&B, so I boiled the kettle, made myself some instant porridge and washed it down with an unappetising warm yogurt and cup of coffee. Full of food and apprehension, I wandered the few metres down the road to the start.
A quiet hum of excitement and nerves spread through Goring village hall. There were a few familiar faces - you won't be surprised to hear that the ultra world is relatively small so you get to know the field. I scoured the crowd for my friends who'd convinced me to sign up to this, my second 100-mile race, but at 5ft 3, it's not easy to spot anyone who's not directly in front of you.
Just before 10am, we gathered outside to listen to the pre-race babble. We clapped for the first timers and for those who were doing all four Centurion 100 mile races in the year. I wished they'd clapped for those who had turned up totally unprepared and under-trained for the event.
I usually choose races with a different start and finish point because it means that from the very first step you are edging closer to the finish. This race, I realised after signing up, started at a centre point and went 12.5 miles out and back in four directions. Great for supporters, who could set up camp in the centre. Also great if you sensibly decide to duck out halfway. Not so great if you're hoping to finish.
I ran the first couple of legs with friends. We stuck to Justin’s plan: 9 minutes of running, 1 minute of walking. It's a good way to save your legs and allow you to continue for longer (in theory). The first leg along the Thames path was nice and green - a bit flat for my liking, but a good, gentle start to a long day. Like an excited spaniel, Ilsuk, one of the group, ran ahead and then obediently waited for us to catch up.
It always surprises me how tired I am at the beginning of any race. I always think I’ll struggle to run 5 miles, let alone 100. I start with my usual plan: enjoy 50 miles and then call it a day. It’s never quite worked out that way.
9 hours and 50 minutes from the gun, having run 25 miles on the Thames path and nearly 25 on the Ridgeway, our group had dispersed. It was just Sean and me at the back, battling the ground, chewing the cud, slowly eating up the miles. As a new father, Sean had a good excuse for putting in fewer hours of training than usual. But he was doing okay. I was struggling. I remember thinking this might be the first time I do as planned and stop before the real pain begins.
With big blisters and tired legs, I took a much needed seat. Cocktail sausages, fruit and chocolate consumed, I tended to my feet. My wonderful parents were there - mother putting her nursing skills to good use, father refilling my water bottles. I told them I'd had enough. After bursting the blisters, I wasn't in pain, but I knew that if I kept going I soon would be. Unfortunately, there were lots of people around willing me to continue. I looked okay so they figured I just needed a mental push. I resisted the temptation and took off my race number.
My parents were delighted. They were careful not to show it, as they knew I had to own the decision or I'd look back and blame them. But I knew how much they wanted to take me home and tuck me up in bed. Part of me wanted to give in. But then what was I going to do? Sleep? I could do that tomorrow. Sean had stuck with me until I convinced him I wouldn't be heading back out. I now regretted that.
Once again, I threw my plan out the window and tied my laces.
Hating the thought that I'd be out there in the middle of the night on my own, mum hurried back to her hotel room and slipped on her trainers. If there's a better mum out there, I'd like to meet her. Race number reattached, I headed out into the dark, mum by my side. She stayed with me until I found a small group to join and was ready to run again. I promised I'd let her know when I was approaching the centre for the penultimate time and headed off, amazed - as I often am - by the sheer selflessness of the woman.
My new friends and I stuck together for 7 or 8 miles before we fell into our own paces and I turned to Spotify for company. It was a long, undulating slog through the night, which I spent lost in my own thoughts. Not miserable, but not exactly having a blast, I knew that I would push to the finish now and celebrate with a long bath. I just had to put my head down and get on with it. I went in and out of the final checkpoint quite quickly, 25 miles to go. That's not even a marathon. Easy...
Aches and pains forced me to alternate between running and walking. Emphasis on the walking. And when I say running, I mean moving my arms faster, gritting my teeth and imagining I was running. The best part of this leg was bumping into some other friends - Kieran and Richard, the former a fellow competitor, the latter a triathlete who didn't understand why we did this, but had offered his services as a pacer. We shared some pizza at a food station, compared pain levels and tried to convince Richard, and ourselves, that this was a great sport.
We ran together for a while but I lost them on the hills. The pain in my legs was becoming unbearable. I wasn't wearing a watch (I never do) so I didn't know quite how far away my bath was. A bit doolally, I realised I needed some assistance. Scrambling around in the bushes, I found a couple of sturdy sticks. And named them. Esmeralda, Matilda and I soldiered on.
Mum! I wasn't at the finish, but the sight of her walking towards me told me I couldn't be far from it. She confirmed that I was nearly there as she turned to walk, once again, by my side. She lied. I wasn't close. Just a little further she said. No mum. Don't tell me what I want to hear, tell me the truth. When you're in so much pain you can barely hold it together, you don't want any surprises - you want to know exactly how much longer it will last. Then, whatever the answer, you can deal with it. Nevertheless, I was grateful for her company in those last couple of miles.
Forty minutes later, I was being carried up the hotel stairs by my father. Exhausted, relieved, medal round my neck, yearning for that bath.
I'd like to say never again, but I know that would be a lie. I crave the whole thing. The denial as the day draws closer. The excitement at the start of the adventure. The satisfaction of an egg sandwich, a bowl of rice pudding or a salted potato. The still, quiet nothingness as the body and brain switch off and you finally rest your head on a fluffy pillow that never felt so good.
Maybe just one more race...
About the author: Becky Shuttleworth is an ultra runner and Sundried ambassador.