“Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face.” Victor Hugo, writer of Les Miserable and Guernsey Resident.
Two years ago, I ran around Jersey. I went with a bunch of awesome people from my running club Datchet Dashers and finished broken, mentally and physically. I came home with more than just some fractured ribs, I was enthralled by the beauty of the paths and trails I ran down, I was in the middle of finding my own passions and drivers in life. The experience, despite battering inspired and motivated me.
Would I go back to Jersey? I’m not sure. What I did do, was sign up for Guernsey Ultra. 36 miles around the edge of the island. I didn’t really tell anyone I was doing it (except Amy), didn’t know anyone else going, didn’t really have a plan and I didn’t really train for it. I figured that Boston would be my long training run and I’d carry on just training for my main goal race of the year – Leeds Triathlon.
About 8 weeks before Guernsey Ultra, while I was fretting about Boston, Liam signed up to join me on a few run-cations. A talented marathoner and ultra runner in his own right, he signed up for the ultra too. One Sunday morning, after Boston, in the Peak District two tired runners debated going for a hike or a run. I convinced him to run. I got to the peak and had to walk. Whilst walking we discussed the upcoming ultra.
Neither of us feeling ready or fit enough to race the challenge. Neither of us really had the time to pour over the race notes either in the weeks approaching the race, but one thing I did know was that it was 16 miles of hills, steps and coastal path then 20 miles of flat, tarmac and beachside paths. This plays in to my strengths, it’s a running joke during long runs that a tiny bit of tarmac lifts my spirits and my pace. While on our Peak District walk with a bit of running… downhill, we discussed how perfect the GU36 was for me and Liam casually offered to pace me.
I didn’t really take him seriously, 36 miles is a long way to pace someone. I’m sure he won’t mind me saying but a pack of runners to Liam is like a rabbit to a greyhound. More often that not an ‘I’m just taking it easy’ turns into a top 3 finish for Liam. So I mentally prepared to run the whole lot myself. The week before (after we both had an okay run in Geneva) he confirmed his offer again. We had never run a race together, plenty of running, but no racing. Was starting with a 36 mile ultra the best or the worst idea?
We’d kind of joked months before that I might be able to win it, annoyingly these things always come back to you at the worst possible moment and the night before the race I started to get nervous. A brain full of irrational thoughts.
Luckily race morning went pretty smoothly, early breakfast, coffee, short walk to catch our lift and the sun was already shining. I knew three or four other people running the race, so distracted myself at the start line by catching up with Sam, Rach, Stephen, Emma, Mark and Al. So much so that chatting to Mark and Al by the Gnomon (or Liberation Monument) and we sort of missed the start, cue frantic pegging it up the main road, past the pack for all four of us.
Mark and Al disappeared as we turned off the tarmac and up the first (of a kazillion) flights of steps.
I found the first 8 miles of the race good fun, up steps, through woods, down steps to amazing views. There were lots of people around us. I took my time when I needed to, and as another person passed me on the stairs, Liam said “okay, you’re fifth now”. The sun was beating down (I’d already tucked my visor in the bag) and I half jokingly said “oh I better give up then”. Liam, who was trotting behind me up ANOTHER flight of steps give me a smack on the bum and told me to not be stupid, there was a long way to go.
He was right, there was still about 30 miles to go at this point. The check points were well spaced out and much better stocked than advertised. We whizzed straight through CP1, I don’t even really remember it.
As mile 16 loomed, I started thinking about needing the toilet. I knew the flatter section started after this check point so it was a perfect pit stop. Liam went to refill his bottles and I whizzed off to the loo. As I came out lots of things happened –
- I was desperate for some Cola and stumbling towards a lovely volunteer with a shiny red bottle
- Another volunteer was standing there with my bags asking me what I needed and offering to fill my hydration bladder
- Another volunteer was asking “are you guys running as a couple? My husband would kill me”
- Liam seemed to still be faffing with bottles.
I was rather overwhelmed by all of this from the heros in orange and just barked COLA, drank a cup, then told Liam to catch me up and sped off. Another lady had approached the aid station at the same time as I me and I just wanted to get out on the tarmac!
Liam caught me up, we had 20 miles of relatively flat terrain ahead of us, I felt strong. Liam starts waffling about the aid station and someone sitting there. I’m concentrating on running and eating/drinking. Guernsey was sunny with no wind, we jogged along coastal paths, sometimes hitting deep sand dunes, sometimes on grassy, mossy paths, sometimes on pavements. The heat made my brain foggy but didn’t seem to impact my legs. Eventually I realised what Liam was telling me, I’d passed another lady in the aid station, I was third.
Looking back now, I don’t really remember checkpoint three. I gave Liam my front water bottle (which I’d already put a hydration tablet in) as my bladder was empty and I’m pretty sure I downed 2 cups of cola and made Liam do the same. I absorbed some orange segments as by this point in the race, nothing else appealed. Both of us had gone off solid food and there were only 10 miles to go.
Leaving the checkpoint we know we had to make it round parkrun (which we’d run the day before), some more coastal paths and then about 3-4 miles of tarmac at the end. The sandy paths were becoming tiring and the more tired I get, the worse my footing gets. Keen not to fall, my pace dropped slightly.
Remarkably on some of the last stairs of the course I saw a lady walking up ahead, it took me a while (longer than it took Liam) but I realised she was the second place lady. We reached the top of the stairs and a cacophony of noise from some sort of banger rally/race on the beach. She was still walking and Liam picked up the pace, I didn’t even think, I’m not sure I had the capacity to, I just followed suit.
~28 miles ish into an ultra and it felt like running 5k flat out. I could hear footsteps right behind me, we weren’t the only ones able to pick up the pace. I wanted to shout “I CAN’T” “it’s too fast” but the screams stayed inside, I didn’t want her to hear. This attitude surprised even me, and I felt quite guilty for overtaking her.
The footsteps got quieter, I asked Liam to slow down and we approached an industrial site and recycling centre. There were no clear markings here. I asked Liam if he remembered the briefing. “I’m sure he said something about turning inland at the quarry,” Liam admitted not really listening and took my word and we turned inland. 10 minutes later the banger rally reappeared. SHIT. We stopped and looked around. A baldy guy appeared behind us and DOUBLE SHIT the woman in black.
All four of us ended up loitering at a cross roads, kind of arguing each direction and looking at each other. A bit of running back and forth, a bit of help from a dog walker and we soon realised A) this was not a quarry and B) some guy with a van using the recycling centre had blocked our view of the markings. We then had to run on a small path between the coast and a tip/landfill (not quarry).
I am at this point pretty tired and bit exasperated. Negative thoughts spiral, one wrong turn and goodbye to my trophy, no idea why I suddenly wanted it so bad. One wrong turn and it’s all my fault. However the pace ramped up again to try and put a gap back between me and the lady in black. So I stopped being able to think about anything except running. The loud footsteps are behind me again, but I really need to slow down. We come onto a narrow path and the footsteps are so close. I get tripped. As the narrow path ends I stop and pull over to let her pass, little baldy man looks shocked and jogs past. Second? Could I do it?
Relieved we slow the pace, the coast is wiggly woggly North of St Peter’s Port so you can’t see the town for a while. But the world begins to get more built up around us, there are choices to run on the beach, coastal paths, or promenade. I take the prom. Liam and I take a left turn at a roundabout (familiar from this video) where St Peter’s Port is signposted. This felt really huge, I knew it was all tarmac, I knew I had it in my legs and I knew the end was close. However, we weren’t sure how close, from getting lost we’d past a poor guy in cool sunglasses twice, the second time we asked him what distance he was on, we were 2k ish out.
Back on our own, trying to hold the pace, I saw one of those standard yellow signs with big black arrows pointing inland at a roundabout. Ah! This must be the bit at the quarry. I crossed the road and Liam ran across in front of me, ah I see another arrow. I followed, we were feeling good and motoring along.
The shops and busy roads quickly turned to quiet residential streets, being so close to the finish, it didn’t feel right. Sorry to the residents of this random street. Liam and I had a bit of a gap between us, were 33 miles tired and quite stressed at the prospect of being lost (again), “STOP, let’s look at a map.”
I had loaded up the route map the night before, and so as I got my phone out and opened google maps I could see straight away that we were (what felt like) miles from the thin red line marking the route. The tears came quickly. Liam is a natural navigator, took my phone, took a few moments and got us back on a route. This route involved walking up a big hill on tarmac. Two very tired ultra runners, with hopes of glory dashed, walked slowly and grumpily up the hill. I felt pretty dejected. Running down the hill the other side and back towards the harbour, our spirits lifted, third could still be possible, but we had no idea, the field was so spread out by this point.
Back on the route, with what we estimated as two km to go, we saw poor guy with the cool sunglasses. Could we catch him again? Had the lady in black passed us? Could we even keep running? TWANG… I almost heard it myself. Liam is stationary, doubled over in pain. I think there is a mile left, I have no idea what position I am in, the afternoon sun beats down on us. “What’s happened? Are you okay?”, “ I don’t know, it’s my groin” I didn’t even ask, I didn’t need to speak, I didn’t need to make the decision. He just said “Keep going, I’ll catch you up.”
In hindsight it feels awfully harsh, abandoning my potential injured boyfriend on a busy road.
In the moment, I just ran, I even tried to speed up.
I ran, I tried to catch sunglasses guy, but it wasn’t happening. I just ran, past an enthusiastic european spectator waiting for his loved one. I ran, I could hear ompah music, I could smell the harbour, I could see the flags on that final roundabout and I ran. Round the corner, touched the Gnomon, Mark and Al were there, the band were playing, kids were queuing for icecream. I ran down the steps and towards the orange tent where we’d collected our numbers hours earlier.
Peter was there with an envelope and my medal. I finally stopped.
He placed the medal over my head, I welled up, I told him how happy I was.
He took my t-shirt out of the envelope and then turned around away from me. My eyes suddenly caught sight of all the food I missed out on at the aid stations …. Horrrah! I can try it all. Then Peter was back, shaking my hand with a small, beautiful, copper milk can. I turned around, Liam wasn’t there. SECOND place! WE DID IT, but my partner in crime wasn’t there. In a daze, Al and Mark hobble over, congratulating me, Mark was second and Al was fourth… what a team! Then we hear the clapping as someone turns the corner. Liam appears, my face lights up and he touches the Gnomon to finish the race.
I’m shouting WE DID IT, WE DID IT. I’m still not sure why, but we both seemed frozen to the spot. Liam at the Gnomon, me at the tent (food) I hold my milk can high shaking it LIAM I CAME SECOND!!!!!!! The top flies off, clatters to the ground and I have to chase it. Unfrozen now, I finally get to Liam. Slightly overwhelmed, slightly exhausted, I don’t know if I said Thank you, or I Love you, or any of the other things I thought. So here they are, I couldn’t have done it without you, and the trophy is ours.
My lovely Guernsey milk can has a big dent in the lid and I think the dent is my favourite part of it. Liam and I ran for 6 and half hours together. I reckon we can survive anything now. I’ll let you know after we’ve been on our first Ikea trip!