Nothing is as scary as the unknown. The only limit in its potential horror is your imagination, and it is impossible to prepare for. Last week I signed up for the Eliminator Marathon, then suddenly realised that the terrain, the ascent and the course all remained unknown.
I’m a meticulous planner when it comes to race preparation. I know that at the London Marathon there are two Lucozade gel stops with 30 grams of carbs each, four stops with 330ml Lucozade bottles, containing 22 grams, of which I will drink only half, meaning I will need to run with three of my own 22 gram gels to see me through . So having completed my research on the Eliminator and being faced with the same blank page, I began to worry. Ironically I had only signed up to the marathon because I felt I wasn’t fit enough to take part in the 10 miler the day before – I wouldn’t be quick enough to challenge over a short distance, but in the marathon my experience would hopefully make up for that. However, as reports fed back from the 10 mile course on Saturday being harder than Hell Runner, I started to question my decision. We were scheduled to start at 7:45 to allow everyone enough time to finish before dark. 7:45?! Either I was now living in Norway or the organisers knew this was going to be a beast of a race… and they weren’t wrong!
We arrived in the dark to see the wreckage of what used to be the Mudstacle gazebo, broken by the wind during the night – an ominous warning of what we’d all be looking like in a few hours. I looked out over the course and you could see for miles. It was beautiful site, until it dawned on me that you could only see for miles when high up. With lots of hugs and wiggles completed, we stood together to watch Dean gave the race briefing:
‘This is not a race, this is about surviving. Please try and run with others at all times. Do you all have your phones packed in a water proof container in case of an emergency?’
That was just the usual confidence inspiring speech you need just before you start. I had dressed for speed – just a base later, vest and shorts, but most were fully layered up, some with Camelbaks and, as I started shivering, I questioned my wisdom.
The start gun went and immediately I came to a standstill. I had tested how my gel belt felt on me when running, but I had neglected to test how my gel belt held on to my shot bloks and, after a few meters, they lay strewn across the ground. I scooped them up and restarted – with six packets of shot bloks and a banana in my hands, trying to figure out how to deal with this. I put four of them in the zip at the back of my shorts but, as wonderful as my shorts are, they weren’t designed for this sort of weight and I developed what looked like a severe case of haemorrhoids. For about a mile I ran, holding up my shorts with one hand, as my roids repeatedly high fived my bum. I tried to retie my shorts, but struggled due to the thickness of my gloves – I’m a meticulous planner. Eventually with shorts retied and roids retreating, the race began.
Two of us started edging away and we looked at each other assessing how much of a threat the other was, the mind games began. He looked like a good runner, but was scared of the mud. We darted down a slippery tight corner, he slowed and went wide, I ploughed on, slightly misjudged my footing and fell, rolling and springing back up in one motion; a move I would never have been able to pull off if planned. I looked back at him, as if to say ‘that’s nothing for me I’m badass’ and I knew I’d won the battle – it convinced him running carefully was the best strategy.
We approached the first water hazard. My plan was to pull my tops up to my neck, then wade with my arms held high, to keep my clothes and gloves dry. I felt like a tactical genius, as I revealed my pasty belly to the baffled stewards, then two steps in – branch! I flipped over and got soaked from head to toe. So much for that!
It’s often questioned whether natural OCR races should be part of the Mudstacle League, some arguing they’re just trail runs, but the Eliminator puts this idea to bed. We entered the woods and that’s where the trails ended. We were running in every direction – between trees, under trees, over trees, down banks, half up banks [bugger the branch snapped], back up banks. I’ve never thought of a marathon as a mental challenge, but you had to be careful where you placed every step, which took great concentration. The route kept on changing, so while concentrating on the floor you somehow had to keep your eyes up, constantly scanning for the bright orange arrows, taking you another direction. I realised how hard this was and decided to sit behind the leader, allowing him to do all of the work, having to repeatedly adjust his route, decelerating, while I could pick the racing line from afar. Three miles in though and the terrain was becoming trickier and I could tell he wasn’t comfortable. We entered a ravine and descended down its small waterfalls, me – jumping, splashing, smiling; him – gently lowering himself over each obstacle. I made my break and on exiting had completely dropped him.
It felt like mission accomplished, until I scrambled up a steep hill, aided by a large tree, crested and edged to the right. It looked familiar, but I continued until I started catching up with other runners, was the course looped? I continued for a while, trying to figure out what was best, before doubling back and running to the track. I looked back up at the route and realised that a tree had blocked my view of the arrows that you could see from 50 meters – I’d lost concentration and found myself in 7th.
Anger flowed through me and adrenaline kicked in, I started chasing them down, ‘it was only a few minutes, let’s go get them’, but what was I doing? There were 22 miles left, why was I sprinting? I intentionally slowed and tried to breathe deeply and calm down.
I slowly made my way through the field – across swamps, a dead tree playground, every mile was completely different terrain; you could never relax. Nine miles in and I caught sight of the leader, a different runner to before, as he did that cool flip over a gate in one motion – ‘Damn you! Not only are you beating me, you’re doing it far more stylishly.’
We were slipping down to the river beside a picturesque bridge. I took in the view and [BANG!], another root, another fall, snapping back my middle finger – ‘Ahhh I think that’s broken’. That’s not a problem in a normal marathon, but I was relying on my hands to pull me up steep banks; this was going to hurt.
I caught the leader then others appeared. Two became six, they’d gone the wrong way too and had somehow ended up ahead. They were good runners too, who I’m pretty sure would beat me currently at the shorter distances. I was tired, struggling mentally and felt as if the gods were against me.
That’s when the mind games really started. I’ve always wondered how mentally tough I really was. I’m stubborn, but also a sensible runner. I’d stopped at The Nuts Challenge after only one and a half laps, realising that my clothing wasn’t going to see me through all four. It was the sensible decision to make, but it has left me with a doubt that maybe I wasn’t as tough as I wanted to be. They looked fresh, with renewed spirit to be at the front and I had to make a hard decision – put some pace in to mentally break them or stick to the plan of sensible pacing. The marathon runner in me said the latter, but how do you pace for a race like this? Pacing is about even effort, prolonging your energy for as long as possible, but the terrain was hammering my legs and I wasn’t sure that my legs would let me run at any speed by the end anyway. It’s like trying to pace your face in a boxing match. The course was unknown, if there’s an opportunity take it.
We had been following the perimeter of a fence on a smooth path for the first time in several miles, then thankfully we deviated back into the brush. Now was my time to test their technique and I kept up the speed from the path, trying to dance over the roots and dried bracken ‘smooth like Albon, tough like Miller’. If I could get out of sight quickly they’d slow. We were following the fence, but the route became the most challenging of the race – crater to crater, separated by trees, climbs, rocks. This wasn’t running, this was climbing.
I’d broken free and tried to settle into a rhythm, but I was running scared – they could catch me at any point, my legs were shot, but I was wired on sugar, I had to push on. We looped back onto the course we had partially covered and there was a stretch in the open, followed by a sharp right up the hill. If they could see me here it would give them hope, so I pushed my pace again ‘don’t look round, it will make you look weak.’ I scaled the hill and used the natural angle to peer back. There was no sign of them, but they could still be close.
The race continued, each mile lifting my spirit, but every noise filling me with paranoia that they were catching me. The water hazards became your friends – their coldness acting like morphine on your tortured legs. Another double-back up, right and down the hill, Lou cheering at the top:
‘How close are they?’‘Six minutes behind at fifteen miles.’
With only five miles left, I was down to doing ten minute miles, the terrain sapping me and small inclines becoming mountains. I was starting to walk some, but reminded myself that they might be running them – nine minute miles is nothing to someone on the hunt.
The music blared out in the distance and the event village came into sight. The sun was out and as I jumped through the final puddles, the cheers began.
A beaming Mark Buller held aloft the ten tonne medal, as I crossed the line with a grinning whimper – 4:32:00.
I think I’ve now completed 16 or so marathons and this was by far the hardest, but also the most amazing. It’s as much about mental strength and endurance as physical. The terrain changed constantly, with the course repeatedly chopping and changing direction. I stopped counting how many times I fell over at 15, the ‘path’ was so unpredictable underfoot and that’s what made it so hard – the unknown. You cannot find a rhythm, never relax or mentally turn off. Every single mile is hard won, which makes it so impressive just how many OCR racers completed this as their first ever marathon.
So congratulations to Dean on Mark on creating a truly unique course and experience – the toughest marathon in the UK. As I warmed myself in their heated hut, one of the finishers smiled at me, mischief flickering in his eyes.
‘So are you ready for their next race?’
‘It’s called The Unknown’
'Oh Dear God!'
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