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Friday, 1 October 2010

Going the Distance

April 1982 saw me in Austria skiing again. Three years ago I returned to this sport and I have enjoyed a week of skiing in the French and Swiss Alps with Gina each year since then.  
Skiing Now

It’s not racing any more but there is great delight in being in the mountains and we love spending the days moving between the very fine restaurants and cafes on the slopes .  Back in 1982 I was not only racing down the slopes but my diary records morning training runs of about 5 miles before skiing as well. 
Skiing Then

Where was all this leading?  I had become intrigued by the limitations of human endurance.  The more I investigated it seemed that no matter how far, how extreme the challenge someone had always done something more extraordinary.  I don’t put myself in any category of ‘extraordinariness’ but I was intrigued by the thought of how much could I do as one of the ‘also rans’?
The world of ultra-running in 1982 was even more of a niche than it is today but for someone based in Southern England I saw an opportunity in participating in the LDWA (Long Distance Walking Association) annual 100-mile event held over 48 hours over the late May Bank Holiday weekend...that year the event was in the South-East.  The basic idea was to cover 100 miles on foot navigating on a route that was mainly footpaths; an ascent of around 10,000 feet was also aimed for.  The bulk of participants were walkers (imagine, if you will, walking for 48 hours...hardy souls) and there were always those who would try to run the route in less than 24 hours.
I realized that this was a major step up from covering a marathon distance so I set myself a training run along the Ridgeway footpath from Ivinghoe Beacon to Avebury...a distance of 85 miles.  I had walked this path with Olwen the previous year so I knew the route reasonably well.  I was joined on the run by my college friend Chris Windley and, over several stretches, by his girlfriend (now wife) Pam.  We aimed to cover the route in two days...and succeeded. 
The Plymouth Marathon 1982 - Chris Windley in number 086
On 23rd May 1982 I did the Plymouth Marathon (noted in my diary as ‘a training run’) in 3 hrs 5 mins 3 secs...coming in 43rd place.  
All was set for the Pilgrims 100 ~ from Guildford to Canterbury on the 29th and 30th of May 1982.  It is all about the mindset.  I ‘jogged‘ the first 25 miles in about 4 hours feeling entirely within myself.  By 75 miles, having gone through the night and drawn deeply on my reserves, I still felt that I could get to the finish line but the challenge had really started to bite.  I got home in a time of 23 hrs 28 mins, at this distance it is largely a blur in my memory.  My diary records ‘One and only (?), oh, so difficult’.  
[Researching the records revealed that I was joint second home in the 100 mile event.  This achievement was a little overshadowed by the fact that some participants had actually done a ‘100 Plus‘ distance of 142 miles and achieved a better time than me at 100 miles but the more pleasing thought was that I was joint second; this made me remember sharing the last 20 miles or so with a fellow runner.  Ultra distance events, perhaps more than most, are often shared experiences where the truly gritty moments are battled against  in company.]    
So what do I gather from this recollection?  My first thought is that the capacity for human endurance is much, much greater than many of us would think at the outset.  Not many years before this run I could only fantasize about the feeling of completing a marathon, believing it to be far beyond my capability.  Training and self-belief proved otherwise.  
I hear many successful people in the running world and in other spheres who state that “If we really believe that we can do something then we can” or similar.  I think that we have to run a caveat over this thought.  There are physical limitations.  I can’t run a 9 second 100m or a sub-2 hour marathon.  I am sure that no matter how certain my thinking was my physical limitations meant that I could never have achieved them...indeed they’re beyond human achievement at the moment.  However, if I make my goals within the realms of my achievement then they are there to pursue.  When I sought to achieve a goal that was, to my mind, extraordinary but achievable then I found the wherewithal to run a distance of 100 travelling to that achievement I ran a hilly marathon one week before my 100 mile run and saw it simply as a training exercise.
We can all do extraordinary things within the bounds of our own lives if we believe and commit to them.  You have to work at your physical training but the make or break point will be in your head.  
Now, within the limits of this short blog and my own capacity of language, I need to be careful not to suggest that you should ignore warnings of injury when trying to achieve endurance events but it is within the mind that the greater component of success or failure will reside. 

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