The week before the race I was really close to bailing. The Pumpkin marathon went badly, and I was starting to feel exhausted after 10 months of tough racing. But I'd done the hard work in sorting out childcare for the first three days so I could make the start in time, and despite my glass foot, was in ok shape physically with no real niggles to speak of, so I pulled my big boy pants on and decided I'd give it my best shot.
In order to try and cope with the mental aspect of running five tough races on the bounce I made two deals with myself beforehand. Firstly that it REALLY didn't matter where I came, so long as I finished. It would be pretty much unknown territory beyond day 2, it wasn't an "A" race, and I wasn't going to risk not finishing at all for one or two places up the leaderboard in a race I wouldn't be anywhere near placing in, even at my absolute best. It was a challenge not a race, and I knew being ok with that at the start would make things a lot easier. Secondly, I gave myself permission to take two months off afterwards if I needed it. That gave me the freedom to stop worrying about the after effects during the race, like whether I'd still be ok to run Portsmouth in December, or even run again this year. It meant I was in for all five or nothing, no matter how hard it got, and that the physical consequences would be worth it and I'd deal with them afterwards. They were tough deals to make with myself, but I knew they gave me the best possible chance of overcoming the mental part of the challenge ahead.
So, then all of a sudden it was day one. After a nightmare drive to Rivington I found the start, just made the van with my dropbag, registered, and was off five minutes later. I'd missed the recce, and not managed to get over to check out the route beforehand, which was probably just as well. The route was just about perfect for the sort of race it was. It was insanely tough in places and really easy in others, but the best thing was it was perfect for breaking down into manageable bits. Every tough bit was followed by an easy bit, and you never had to really dig in for more than five minutes before any of the toughest bits were over. My approach quickly became:
Intro: Road section from the start to the feed station/start of the loop (runnable every day)
Bit 1: God awful climb up a rocky hill (ran it once, could barely walk up it the other 39 times)
Bit 2: Nice flat stretch kicking up a bit at the foot of the Pike (ran every time, end bit got harder)
Bit 3: Steps up the Pike (walked every time, tough but ok because I knew what was coming)
Bit 4: Lovely long and gentle descent down the other side of the Pike (ran it smiling every time)
Bit 5: Deadly Forest of Rocks (tried running first few times but kept nearly falling, walked the rest)
Bit 6: Nice flat bit, kicked up a bit at the end which got tougher (ran every time)
Bit 7: Forest steps (insanely tough by the end, but a guy told me it used to be Lord Lever's zoo, so looking for escaped tigers and elephants took my mind off them a bit)
Bit 8: Nice long downhill to the awesome marshalls at the feed station (ran it smiling every time)
After 8 laps: Back along the road half a mile or so to the start/finish (ran it grinning every day)
I managed to keep to that pattern every day which seemed to be working for me, and to be honest, there wasn't much variation in the days as far as the running went. The weather was consistently fine, a bit windy and some showers on Wednesday, but otherwise cold and dry. I ran most of Wednesday with a chap called Paul who was doing two days, but apart from that it was just short chats with the same people as we passed at around the same spots, mostly at the steps when everyone dropped to the same pace (barely moving). Some people were getting slower, others getting quicker, and some being really consistent over the five days, so I got a chance to chat with most of the others as we plodded around which was cool.
In between was pretty tough. Each day I finished, ate some of whatever was in the pot at race HQ (beans or tomato soup), stretched, drove home, played with the kids for a bit, had an ice bath, had dinner, washed my kit, went to bed, and got up the next day to do it again. After day two I was feeling sick in the mornings, but it had usually passed by the time I got to the feed van. I'm not sure my fuelling strategy was especially orthodox, but I think the ultras and being a total slob helped. I was chucking down about 300kcal a loop for pretty much the whole five days, mixing up High5 gels, flapjack, Jaffa Cakes, Toffee Crisps, Mars Bars, Creme Eggs, chocolate spread sandwiches, leftover pizza and fudge, washing it all down with lashings of High5 Tropical Fiesta energy drink. That's more than I've ever managed in longer races without getting sick, so I'm hopeful I've finally cracked that one. I weighed myself on the morning of day five just out of interest and I'd put on half a pound which I'm taking as a very good thing - I didn't bonk once in the five days!
Injury wise I think I was really lucky. On day four my right Achilles was really sore and I could only hobble up to the first climb. It was really painful until I got to the top, but then it seemed to warm up, and the fact that most of the climbing was steps rather than hills helped that a lot. I sort of adjusted my gait a bit to go easy on it for the last two days which gradually caused me some pain in my left hip from compensating, but for the most part I only had generic tiredness and non-specific pain to worry about. One guy finished with a stress fracture, another guy Shaun picked up an injury and really struggled on the last day, and Brian who'd done Thunder Run solo was in a bad way towards the end and walked all of day five which was a monumental effort.
The organisation of the race was fantastic, the marshalls at the feed station were amazing and everyone got a hug from Phil the RD at the end each day - although he had to win by about 10 minutes when he ran the course to be able to do that on the Friday!
It was billed as the toughest marathon in the UK, and I don't think I'd argue with that. I reckon I got away pretty lightly by virtue of how I approached it, how lucky I was to reach the start line in good shape and finish injury free, and to get a run of four and a half days of dry sunshine in Bolton in November is astonishing. If I'd pushed it maybe another 10 minutes quicker each day, or injured myself one of the times I nearly tripped on a rock, or it had been wetter, colder or windier, it could have been REALLY unpleasant. As it was, it was tough, but I got to enjoy a huge proportion of it, met some fantastic people, snagged five awesome medals and a 5 in 5 finishers trophy, and with a bit of luck I'll be running again by the end of the week and slowly building up to Portsmouth in four weeks time.
Day 1: 5:21:54
Day 2: 5:42:58
Day 3: 5:40:49
Day 4: 5:39:37
Day 5: 5:30:51
Position: 6th (17 finishers)