Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Why?

A little note before I hit "publish" on this; I actually started writing this post over three months ago, just as I was getting properly back into my training, but I couldn't quite finish it for some reason.
However, now that I'm hobbling around a little after another long event, it seems an appropriate time to ask that same question again:


"Why?"
It's a word that any recreational runner hears on a fairly regular basis from those around them who don't run.
As an ultra-marathon runner, you get used to hearing it even more regularly. It's normally followed by a number of other words - sometimes including expletives - to form full questions about running. But the general theme to all of the questions - and sometimes the entirety of the question itself - is just "why?!"

For a long time I had no real answer, but recently I've felt the need to ask myself the same question.

I first started running because my girlfriend suggested I take part in the Great North Run half marathon. If I'm totally honest, I probably did it because she had already run it and, although she's always been considerably more sporty and fit than me, I really didn't like the idea of her having done something that I'd never even get close to.
So I guess I started running so that I could prove something to her and to others - which I then did.
I gave up on running for about a year after that race (which it turned out was every bit as hard as I'd expected and had led to me being unable to get anywhere near matching my girlfriend's finishing time!)

However, during that year off, a seed of future reasons for running was planted. I was back at university, where gradually, all of my friends heard about me having run a half marathon. All of them seemed to be impressed that I'd done it, and a lot started to ask that question; "why?"

It turned out that their incredulous question became a motivation in and of itself; I craved that look of surprise on people's faces when they heard that I'd run further than they'd ever considered.

The problem was that I went to Loughborough University - the premier sports university in the UK - so the number of people who were impressed that I could run 13.1 miles ran out rather quickly!

After graduation and moving in with my girlfriend, I got back into running again. "Why?" I hear you ask. This time there were some slightly more tangible (and maybe more laudable) reasons; I needed to get fit again, my girlfriend wanted to train up to do a marathon, and with both of us working hard at full-time (and often more) jobs, training runs provided a nice opportunity to spend time together.

This training led to a new reason; because I also wanted to run a marathon. Just one, you understand, I still definitely wasn't a runner - and didn't want to ever be one - but I wanted to prove to myself that I could run The Distance. That's not entirely honest of me, because I also wanted to prove to others that I could run a marathon, and I was beginning to really miss that incredulous look on people's faces as they asked "why?!"

I should explain why I think I desire this response so much - I think it boils down to the fact that I have a strong desire to have my ego stroked!

You see, I am an engineering and design consultant, and I'm quite good at it. I'll never win any major awards or be managing director of a major engineering company, but I'm pretty good.
I am also a hockey player. I'm not at all good at that, but I'm a pretty good club captain. Again, I'll never win any trophies or be a league top scorer, but I'm pretty good.

I love my job and my hockey, but when I tell people people what I do for a living, or that I'm club captain of a hockey club, they are neither surprised, nor overly impressed.
There are other facets of my life of course, but those are nearly all shared with the woman who is no longer my girlfriend, but now my wonderful wife. I love that we share those things, but I certainly can't take credit for them.

But with running, I had stumbled across something that elicited that shocked - and sometimes even impressed - look on people's faces when they found out. And even better, I didn't have to win anything in order to get that reaction; I just had to run further than people thought I was capable of.

And so, in getting this reaction from people, my addiction to running grew. But unfortunately it only continued to grow if I was undertaking challenges that I felt would elicit that shocked reaction, and that's a bit of a viscious cycle!

It started with that marathon, then migrated to assault course races and adventure races. 

Royal Marines Commando Challenge 2008

Helly Hansen Challenge 2008

Then in 2009, while preparing for our upcoming wedding, I mentioned to my wife the idea of running a bit further. "Maybe I could run the length of Hadrian's Wall? I've always wanted to walk it, but the cost of accommodation seems pretty high, so if I could do it in less days, I could limit the cost." There was at least a little method in my madness!

Unlike most fianc├ęs who are busily preparing for their wedding, mine actually thought it was a good idea to train for the toughest event of my life, and even better, said she'd run it with me. 

Hadrian's Wall Challenge 2010

The run was every bit as hard as I'd expected - maybe even harder, given that I was injured and prevented from most of the training. But as I ran the Great North Run on the fourth day since starting the Hadrian's Wall route (aiming to make it a nice round 100 miles in 4 days), people all around me commented on the distance I'd run. Looking at my t-shirt (showing the distances covered each day and the charities I'd supported) I started to hear that question again; "why?!" And unlike previously, this time even fellow runners were asking it. My body was broken before I even started those 13.1 miles from Newcastle to South Shields, but the uplift provided by those comments carried me to the finish line with the biggest smile I'd ever worn during a run.

I dined out on that feeling for quite some time, enjoying the fact that people were always surprised that I'd run from one coast of the UK to the other. 

However, as is probably inevitable, as time drew on and the run receded into history, that feeling started to fade, and I knew I needed a new challenge to feed my desire for recognition.

And so my 2012 challenge was born. I would complete a marathon and two ultra-marathons in three months. Even telling people what I was planning got the reaction I so craved, driving me out on those long, cold training runs throughout the winter and early spring.

The Greater Manchester Marathon in 2012 was a race that is widely recognised as one of the worst road marathons in UK history. Mention that day to anyone who was running that race and you will see the haunted look in their eyes as their memories take them back to the freezing cold wind, continuous torrential rain, flooded, muddy track sections (where runners were forced to shimmy along a fence in an attempt to save their shoes!), muddy finish area and lost finish-line bags. The experience for my wife and I (yes, she had stupidly suggested this run in the first place, so she had to join me!) was not much better. The absolute agony on my face as we crossed the finish line together made what will hopefully always be my least favourite race photo.

The finish line of Greater Manchester Marathon 2012

During the recovery from the race, I found myself frequently asking myself the question that I had previously so craved hearing from others; "why?" Why was I doing this? I had hated about half of the marathon, and was now due to run even further during both of the next months.

Strangely, the answer I found inside myself was still linked to the question; I couldn't handle the thought that all of those times I'd been asked "why?" and had replied with something about proving myself, because I could, or some other untrue answer, may have actually all been in vain, and that I would have to tell people that I had given up.

That fear drove me through the hilly Sanstone Trail 50K race in May, in spite of not really enjoying much of it at all.

Sandstone Trail 50K 2012

It also got me to the start line of the 45-Mile race I had entered for June. It also drove me through the first 30 miles or so of that race, up and down the steep hills of the South West Coast Path in Cornwall. But at about 35 miles I started to flag again, and decided to sit on a rock half-way up yet another steep climb, to consider why I was even doing this silly running thing.

As I sat there in the sunshine, panting for breath as I looked out over the azure seas, another runner stopped to sit alongside me and we got chatting. That runner was Daley, an American working in the UK who was also attempting the longest race of his life to date, and who was also suffering a little. We decided to stick together for the rest of the run, finding that chatting about our lives, friends, work, experiences of world travel and, of course, running made the last ten miles fly past.

Suddenly, I realised that I had another reason for running; one I'd never really spotted in previous events - the people. It turns out that ultra-marathon runners are amongst the most open and friendly people in the world.
 
This is something that I feel road runners and middle-distance runners miss out on (along with having an event that's basically a slow-moving picnic, in terms of what you eat and drink!) On the roads, we get absorbed in our own races, thinking about minutes-per-mile, distance to the finish, personal bests etc. That's fine if you're aiming for a specific race time, but it can sometimes ruin the fun of being out and about at a weekend with a load of like-minded people.
With ultra running on the other hand, half the point (unless you're a true challenger) is to meet new people, chat with them and keep each other going. It's the opposite of competitive, and I realised I now loved that even more than people's incredulity at what runs I'd completed.

Finishing Classic Quarter 2012 with Daley

After my events in 2012 I took a short leave of absence from long runs, while Clare and I took on the endurance event of our lives, by raising a baby through to toddler-hood. I ran a couple of shorter ultras and a half-marathon, but never really pushed myself as I had before.

But when, at the end of 2014, I decided I needed a challenge again, it seemed to make perfect sense to go back to the one which had shown me how much fun ultra running can really be - the Classic Quarter in Cornwall.

So the date was set, the holiday house was booked, and I couldn't wait for June to arrive. Any of you who've read my earlier posts on my fate on that particular day will know it wasn't my finest hour of running, and once again it caused me to question "why?"

I think my answer had changed yet again; this had always been about other people, and how they reacted to me, but now it was about me again. It turned out that I was comfortable telling people that I'd failed to finish, and that their opinion of me didn't decline. So now, my motivation is to beat that demon that is purely inside me; my failure last year.

To do that, I've taken on lots of new pieces of learning, changed my training entirely and entered "warm-up" events like the one I completed last weekend. My body will be fit enough, so now it's just about my brain.

But now I have the right answers for that point where my body is screaming at me, telling me to just drop out and head back to the sofa, and my head asks the question "why?"

  • Because I love finishing
  • Because I hate not finishing
  • Because all the people running are brilliant, and I like being with them
  • Because I want to be able to tell the war stories afterwards
  • Because 99% of the country wouldn't even have made it to the start line, let alone the finish
  • Because I'll love that hug from my wife and daughter at whatever point it comes, but when it's at the finish, it'll feel all the sweeter (and sweatier!)

 
My Two-Year Old Looking Fairly Unimpressed at my DNF in 2015

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