Learning on the Run: 2017 Race to the Stones

Avebury 1

CN: anxiety, suicidal ideation

Every time you run an ultramarathon you learn something new about yourself. And the further you go, and the slower you go, the more you are likely to learn. Which means, at least on the second score, I should be a genius by now.

This was my third Race to the Stones, a 100 kilometre run along the Ridgeway. The first time, as I guess is the case for most newbies, the main thing I learned was that I could do it. I also learned that for me the oft-repeated dictum that your body can do remarkable things but the battle is to persuade your mind really doesn’t hold true. My threshold is what my body will do before caving in completely. I already sort of knew that from spending my late 20s powerlifting, living every workout on the very edge of what was physically dangerous. And I knew it from decades of staying alive through mental illness when it would have been so much easier to give in to the desperate desire to be dead.

Last year I learned something surprising. I am not particularly good at lots of things. And at some things I’m not too shabby. But in all things I am absurdly competitive. I had assumed that competitiveness would override anything, but when it turned out Ann was seriously ill mid race, I didn’t think twice about stopping to make sure she was taken care of. Running teaches you about your values, about where your boundaries lie, and it can often surprise you. A similar thing happened during training last summer when I found myself clambering into the Thames to pull out a sheep who’d ended up grazing too close to the edge. I’ve also learned that this border-case altruism most definitely doesn’t extend to swapping pleasantries with other runners while out on the trails – stories afterwards absolutely, but small talk is as unpleasant for the neurodivergent on the trails as off – and has the potential to utterly ruin an experience.

So what did I learn from this year’s Race to the Stones? Well, this year’s race was very much a dance of mind and body, flesh and spirit, learning a great deal about how my corpsely self functions, about the way life and our living of it is not illuminated by metaphor but *is* a metaphor. And I learned more than I have ever done in one concentrated burst about flow.

It has been a very difficult year for training, but for the first time I can remember, the month leading up to the race I was able to put in four weeks of uninterrupted training without any injury. And in the race itself it was clear before long that I was a lot stronger than I have been in the past. A bit heavier, yes (I’m working on that, and losing weight will be key to staying injury free), but with a much stronger core, and that made a big difference to a lot of the more technical parts of the course where I have struggled a lot before.

The Ridgeway is beautiful, and looking at the profile, it’s a pretty gentle place to run. In practice, a combination of vehicle access and soil type means that long stretches are rounded narrow single track consisting of chalk baked like cement with protruding flint. You literally have to watch every foot placement, constantly making tiny – and not so tiny – adjustments to your stride. This is exhausting mentally, but it also places massive strain on your ligaments and tendons, and on muscles like you adductors and abductors that see very little action when it comes to jogging along on a well-surfaced road.

But this year I’ve been working a lot on my core, thanks to Ann’s brilliant, simple tip of doing one leg balances every day – a perfect way to occupy those awkward minutes waiting for the bus. The result has been that, as if by magic, making those adjustments to foot position is now something I can do from the core, sparing my muscles and joints. And it’s had the greatest effect of all on some wonderful downhill paths, such as the root-strewn section of Grim’s Ditch, and a previously vicious quarter mile of single track coming down into Swyncombe, where I can now just open up completely and take full advantage of gravity. And that was the first thing I noticed – the transformative effect of being able to let go of all control completely, legs flying without encumbrance, heart rate never rising so long as the descent continues. The feeling of fluidity – of, literally, feeling that one has become a liquid sliding over the surface of the earth, is utterly magical, and add the side to side movement of those ever changing foot placements and it feels as though one is dancing with the earth.

A second effect of a stronger core and greater residual fitness is the ability to run out of trouble. We have had a warm, dry spring and the Ridgeway has been consistently parched. So, with the forecast showing a beautiful cool overcast day, I set out in road shoes to be gentle on my feet for the tarmaced stretches. But of course the forecast was wrong. The race began with 6 hours of steady rain (given that I am sitting typing this in a library not a police cell I can only imagine that my thoughts towards weather forecasters were muttered under my breath throughout that period). It wasn’t long before parts of the course were becoming like an ice rink. But while this required a sense of permanent at least semi watchfulness, I never felt in danger of slipping and sliding the way I have done in the past. Whenever the surface was a little too sketchy I was able to run my way out of trouble, light, skipping strides creating a contact less prone to losing grip.

So the actual experience of running was different. And that, in turn, changed my thoughts as I ran. There were more times when I was able simply to enjoy the pleasure of moving, of body and nature in contact, dancing together.

My second experience was putting to the test a piece of research I had always felt rang true, one which goes against one of the fundamental tenets of ultramarathon advice. The advice goes to start slow. Really slow, so you don’t blow up and crash out. The problem is while that might work for top athletes, as so often most of us reading the advice aren’t top athletes. And I read a great piece last year that showed you’re far better going out quicker – if you’re in the part of the pack I occupy (I finished Race to the Stones 696th out of 961 non-stoppers) you’ll end up at a crawl however you start, so you might as well bank some quick miles.

So I set out at a pace I knew from training I could sustain for more than 30 kilometres and decided to see how far it would take me. “Keep going till you blow up, then hold on.” I can’t quite understand why I have never formulated it as a principle before. It’s something I’ve applied to pretty much every area of my life where I’ve had any kind of success, yet it runs so counter to what we are told by coaches and memes and podcasts and “those who know” again and again. Which is another reason I need to get on and write my self-improvement for neurodivergents book.

The mantra ran through my head on a loop (when I wasn’t cursing meteorologists), and in particular I thought of one of my great inspirations, Anna Frost, who applied the same approach to her first hundred mile race, going out hartd to get as much done as she could before she hit the wall – only for her the wall never did come. She just won. In a very fast time.

Of course, I’m no Anna Frost so I did hit the wall, at about kilometre 60. But still, I managed to see 10 kilometres more of the course in daylight than I had done before, despite this year’s start being an hour and a half later tI did hang on, at a pace not really slower than when I had gone out more “sensibly”. For the last 30 kilometres at least my thought was simple – “I don’t know how I am going to finish this, but I know that I am.” Of course, I did know – one foot in front of the other and repeat. It’s that simple.

And here’s the important thing about that. Sometimes the cautious approach really is best. Sometimes you need to pace yourself and leave energy in the tank to get you through the last gruelling hours of a challenge. Bt sometimes it’s not, and unless you’ve thrown everything you have at something and then clung on for dear life when you’ve fallen off the cliff – how will you ever know? We hear a lot that life is a marathon not a sprint, but what the hell kind of philosophy is it to make sure you hit your 80th birthday with plenty of fuel in the tank just to be sure you cross the line strong? Besides which we also now know that often the best tactic in a marathon is to go out strong and hold on.

Finally, I learned more about flow. Running is perfect for achieving flow in different ways. On the road, with a sure footing, one can let one’s legs tick over metronomically while one’s mind finds its own rhythms. And on the trail, one is so aware of every foot placement, so focused on each root and rock that one loses oneself completely in one moment after the next.

We hear a lot about flow these days, about the importance, for example, of finding flow in our work, or a hobby. It is often portrayed as the ultimate hipster accessory, an indulgence for the lucky and entitled. But for me it has always been so much more than that. It has been a survival mechanism. When I’m ill, life is petty much about survival in the face of the overwhelming urge to die. It’s all about section two of the lessons learned here, one foot in front of the other and repeat.

But when I’m not ill with depression or mania, there is nothing to mask the underlying state of chronic anxiety. Living with anxiety means living in constant fear. I would describe it most accurately, I think, as living face to the sky with one’s neck upon the block, waiting for the axe to fall. Not knowing when, just knowing that it will. It is all-consuming. One’s life is spent endlessly playing out the different scripts that end with the fall of the axe. And there is never a script that ends any other way. Not ever. Not one. For me, the simplest everyday scenarios all end with my own death or, more often, my wife’s. Any situation that involves contact with, or even proximity to, another human being will end its trail of impeccable logic with death, despair, the loss of everything. I will sleep in an exhausted but delirious relief that I have avoided the axe for another day – but always knowing that the slightest noise in the night could restart the script.

Flow offers precious moments without anxiety. It absorbs so much of the self that there is nothing left over for fear. Worryingly, this is the same function that can be served by intense pain, which is one reason self-harm is one of anxiety’s closer companions. It is why I have never understood the “don’t take it too far” or the “why do you have to do everything to extremes?” voices that ostensibly demonstrate concern. Simple. Because it is only at the very edge cases of or human endeavour that we can find flow, and a few moments’ respite from the flash of the axe about to fall.

What I realised as I ran was that, again, so much of the advice we commonly receive is wrong. We should not be looking to make tiny pockets of flow in busy lives. That is the flow of hipsterism, of indulgence. Valuable, yes, of course. But possible? Not for so many. And its absence a source of easy reprosch for those who would rather blame the despair on the deficiency of the despairing than create a world that would minimize it. Far better to devote ourselves to carving out large chunks of uninterrupted time in people’s lives for them to find true flow, whether or not they find it alone under the stars on the trail.

 

 

 

 

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