I completed my first Ultra in 1982 as a young, fresh faced squaddie. It was a 50 mile journey around Dartmmor in horrendous weather conditions. I had no idea what an Ultra was back then and at no point was this particular exercise called or reffered to in any way as an Ultra. There was no burly Sergeant Major bawling at us with the words “Right you ‘Orrible lil lot. You is off to run an ultra marathon now. Lets be sharp now.Move it. Move it.Move it!”. No – we were merely loaded into the back of a 4 tonne Bedford, driven out to the Middle of the Back End of Nowhere……….and dropped off. We were then split into groups of 4 and a map was dulely provided. “You are here” was said by one of the Instructors as a stubby finger pointed at our current position on the map. “You must get to grid 123456 by such and such ‘o’ clock”. That the was entire knowledge we had at that point. Off we set, unaware of what we were doing, how long it would take, where it would take us, or even why we were doing it. Ignorance really can be bliss sometimes.
Some 4 hours later we arrived at the first grid provided only to be told ” Right, now you must get to grid 654321 by such and such ‘o’ clock””. Off we set again. This pattern repeated itself until we eventually reached what was deemed as the finishing point – 50 miles from where we had started. I was extremely cold, extremely wet, extremely tired, and extremely hungry. It wasn’t until many years later that it dawned on me and registered that this was an achievement that I should be proud of. In fact I learned an invaluable lesson that day. This came from my overriding memory of the day at the 25 mile point. We had taken shelter behind a small stone wall in a feeble attempt to gain some temporary respite from the relentless wind and rain. I attempted, and was failing spectacularly, to set light to some hexamine blocks with my stone cold, freezing hands. My aim was to get a hot drink inside me and warm myself up a wee bit. Alas the combination of strong wind and my useless hands not working as they should meant this simple task was rapidly becoming an ultra in itself!! I persevered and eventually got the blocks to light. Hot sweet tea then ensued and I shortly set off again afterwards feeling somewhat envigourated and refreshed. What was the lesson I learned? That no matter how tough I think it is…… take enjoyment from the simple things:) It was, only after all, a cup of tea. But I can testify to the fact that it was the best cup of tea ever made by man!!
I ran throughout my time in the military representing both my Squadron and Regiment at cross country. Every wednesday afternoon was Squadron sports afternoon. One of my Squadron Sergeant Major’s was a keen and avid runner himself and I recall many a Wednesday afternoon partaking in a “fun run” led by him. The entire Squadron of somewhere in the region of 120 men careering around the countryside of what was then known as West Germany. After about 5 miles he would invariably stop and address the mass of sweaty, lung heaving bodies with the words ” I said this is a fun run. So is everyone having fun?” There was always one. Not neccessarily the sameone. But none the less, there was always one who muttered under their breath “I’m bloody not, no”. The man must have had radar implants in his ears because he never failed to hear that comment. No matter how whisper like it was said. “Right then” he would say as he pointed to the happless individual. “We will carry on then until Jones/Smith/Brown (or whatever the culprits family name was) is having fun”. Off we would then go for a further 2 to 5 miles until he he stopped again and said “Right then Jones/Smith/Brown.Are you having fun yet?” The answer at this point was as predictable as the answer to his original question – “Yes Sir.Lots of fun”. His reply “Good. We will head back now then.” Off we went on the return route of the way we had come.
Within 3 weeks of leaving the Regular Army I joined the Territorial Army (TA). I continued to run and exercise regularly until I left the TA in 1993. I then didn’t really run or execise at all for the next several years. However, in 1999 I qualified as a youth football coach and began to take part in regular exercise again. In 2001 I found myself coaching a youth football team, I was also playing in a 6 a side league, and I also qualified as a football referee. I now started to run again. Running again as a stand alone exercise, Not just as part of another sport. The “running bug” very very quickly returned and I have not been tempted to take another prelonged sabbatical again.
Once this bug had returned, and like many other runners, I became a tad obsessed with timings, pace, and had a constant need to become faster. The primary aim of all my training runs were to be faster. Allways faster. If I entered a race and wasn’t faster than the previous year in the same race – I was dissapointed. Despite what I told friends and family – I was dissapointed. It didn’t consume me in it’s entirity, but it did leave me feeling somewhat flat. I remained like this until 2011. As with previous years I had entered The Bath Half Marathon. Unlike previous years though I had not prepped myself or trained properly. Well……… thats what I was telling myself. However I had paid my money to enter this event so I decided to do it anyway. Inside my head I was telling myself “Just go and run. Just go and enjoy it. Don’t worry about how long it takes you. Just enjoy yourself”. So I went, I enjoyed, and I posted my PB for that particular event! Go figure eh. By removing all the previous mental pressures that I put on myself I actually did better – if “better” equates to “faster” that is. However for me this equation was no longer true. From that point forward my reason and rational for running became one of just for the enjoyment. Purely to enjoy. In respect of ultra running my mantra has become “Start slow. Stay slow. Finish.” I am enjoying the journey now and not just the end result. I take time to appreciate my surroundings when running. I stop (oh my god!!) to take photographs. The finish line will still be waiting for me – no matter how long it takes me to reach it.
Now I would be a downright liar if I didn’t say that I have lost my mojo from time to time, but I have always been safe in the knowledge that it will always return. After all………. running is my lifestyle choice.