For much of my life I have run from my failures. I would blame others for those failures, hide from them if I could or just flat out lie about them. In running it is hard to do any of those things when it comes to races. Sure you can make excuses or blame others but the numbers on the timesheet or medal not hanging up on your wall are hide to lie, blame or hide from. I have always been good at owning up to my failures in running, no shame in failure as long as you learn something or can help others learn from it. However, Hurtwood 50km in 2018 has always been my biggest running failure. On that day I almost finished last in a time of 8 hours 16 minutes. I finished and that is a huge achievement for any runner in any distance but for me that day felt like an absolute failure. I did not enjoy a single step and it utterly destroyed me for many months afterwards. But after 2020 I decided not to let that failure remain a failure, I decided to go back to the Hurtwood. All this pressure of rewriting that chapter in my running life whirled in my head in a painful bedlam as I finally made my way to the start line.
The first few steps of the race were breathless stumbles as I struggled to remove my face mask so it took me a while to get into any sort of running rhythm. The start line was in completely different place to previous years thanks to the joys of Covid, so the first few miles felt like a different race and as we wound our way through a vineyard (a strange thing to see in the UK) with the cold Spring sunshine cut through my many layers it was hard to connect the two races. It wasn’t until about mile four that I started to feel the unsettling pull of dejavu. Jarring juxtopositions of that wet December day that almost threw me off balance whenever I experienced one.
The first one was just a short sharp climb but it was instantly familiar and suddenly I was there mud lashed up my leg, a broken man. The spring sunshine was gone, replaced with the grey cold sky of December and I felt the tiredness that only comes through frailty creep through the memory. These wrenching pulls backwards that would be a constant throughout the rest of the race were a painful reminder of just how easy it was for my mental strength to be nothing but rubble and how long it took for me to rebuild all over again. After the Hurtwood of 2018 it took me almost four months to have any sort of mental strength again, just in time for Marathon des Sables. I was at my weakest mentally in the lead up and after that race I was at a new low but ultrarunning also helped me get back up again. It’s incomparable power is truly why I love it so much. Ultramarathons, unlike any distance, can show you who you truly are and help you find fortitude you never knew you had. They can just show you how much you are ok pooing in a bush ten feet from other people or that even at your darkest you can find a small shard of strength to keep moving forward. Sometimes it is years later, when it can show you that you are capable of more than you think. These thoughts rumbled around in my head as I carried on running, not with a my head down like the time before but with my head up high and a smile on my face. I was running with absolute glee, feeling like an entirely differently runner.
For anyone who has done the race will know there’s a long straight section from mile 5 to 8 and it was along there that I felt the two worlds so close together. Bathed in the warm spring sunshine the trail was forgiving and I ran along it with joy that only those kind of trails could bring. But I could feel the past following me like a shadow. As it is an out and back race, you come down this section near to the end of the race and it was at this point I was stumbling half blind in the darkness slipping in the mud at every step. My headtorch was dying, my body had all but given up and my mind had clocked out and given up miles ago. It was these jarring parallels that kept pushing me forward, using failure as fuel.
At the top of the first big climb at around mile 8 is the stunning view from Leith Hill but I didn’t stop to take a photo or admire the view like I had before. I knew the massive downhill that was coming and like a child I hurled myself down it in playful glee towards to the first aid station at the bottom of it. However, once again I didn’t stop, shunning the covid safe all you can eat buffet, instead ran straight through it. While most people were wearing 1.5 litre capacity packs, carrying little to nothing extra I was running with a 25 litre capacity bag on with 1.5 litres of water strapped to my front. I may have looked like I was out running for many days instead of many hours but the time it saved and the comfort of knowing I had all I needed on my back was huge and paid dividend in the aid stations to come.
Following the aid station the next section was broken up by short, sharp uphill sections. As I came to one of these, again I was pulled back: ahead of me struggling in the slippy mud like everyone else was a man with a glorious beard and sporting a Mrs Claus outfit. I knew Derrick from Instagram and he very kindly asked about my grandmother and how I was feeling. I felt that wave of kindness wash over me just as it did two years ago as I followed in old footsteps. It is an incredible thing; the simple act of kindness, a few words between relative strangers in a strange place and yet two years on it still brought a smile to my face.
It was at about the halfway point that my partner and her friend joined me back in 2018 for the 10km loop before going back on the trails you had come on so far. I remember faking conversation and happiness when all I wanted was to be anywhere but there. This time however, I hurtled down the trails I had dragged myself along three years before. In my race post from 2018 I recalled how I felt in the last ten miles “I had 10 more miles to go and wanted to just be done. I wanted to sit down and stop. I knew I couldn’t, so staggered on slower than ever.” This time however, as I moved into single digit miles remaining I still felt a joyous spring in my step, my head up compared to back then when it was low and heavy. Sure the sun was helping my mood but it was my self confidence on the trails returning with every step, a feeling I had been missing for far far too long.
The tight narrow sections of this part of route gave my mind little opportunity to wander as I was so focussed on not falling over, a strange meditative state washed over me with the mantra “don’t fall over now, don’t fall over now” repeating over and over. It wasn’t long until 20 miles had ticked by and remarkably my legs still felt fresh. Until that point I had been fuelling purely on gels but now my ultra runner stomach began to rumble and I could deny it no longer. So as I reached one of the many hill top viewing spots I threw my bag over my shoulder and rustled around for the life giving jelly babies. After consuming a kindergarten’s worth of them, I hurried back down the hill sugar surging through my veins.
As I made my way back down the long slow downhill I had run up in the early part of the race, I could feel myself sliding backwards once more. By this point in the race I had tied myself to a few other runners I knew from Instagram, in our delirious state in the darkness we stumbled our way onwards together. These strangers who are now friends (the silver lining to that day), stayed with me until the finish line but this time I was alone. With the sun cutting through the trees and my legs seemingly on autopilot down hill I checked my watch and tried to do some simple maths to workout my finishing time. It was then that I realised that I wasn’t just a little bit ahead of my 2018 time I was almost two hours ahead. Different headspace, different runner echoed around my head like a lesson I should never forget.
27 miles down and with the long endless hill that been a welcome downhill at the start was now a long slow trudge upwards. This was my slowest mile of the race, unsurprisingly, but I knew that in a few short miles the finish line would be in sight and while I longed to put to bed the demons of 2018 the joy I was experiencing on the trails was unmatched to any race I have done. As I crested the climb I popped my headphones in for the first time for the entire race and played just one song “Surprise Yourself” by Jack Garrett. It is the soundtrack to my first year of running, to crawling my way out of my mental health spiral and to finding pure joy in life. I ran down through the vineyard knowing that the finish line would be in sight soon and I would put the demons of the past to bed once again and that I had surprised myself all over again.
However, I attempted a glorious last mile sprint to the finish line to end on a real high, only to get 50 metres before needing to walk again. I was running on empty and there was no way around it. The final mile was almost entirely down hill but try as I might I had nothing left and yet this did nothing to lessen the smile that felt as though it could break through my cheeks. That was until I got overtaken by two guys in the final 200 meters and decided that was one step too far. I gritted my teeth, summoned whatever strength I had left and stumbled onwards. I crossed the line and tears of joy fell effortlessly with the unburdening of memories I no longer needed.
I finished the race in a time of six hours and 18 minutes, almost two hours faster than 2018. Two whole hours.
When I looked back at Hurtwood 50K before this race, I thought that it reflected the worse in me, the grumpy, self-loathing and self-doubting version of myself. But as I pushed on for those final few miles I could scratch those words away. Sure the conditions played a huge part in the time but equally as crucially was the head that stood upon my shoulders now. Steady ground where once was treacherous mud. Steady head where once there was only doubt and frailty. Hurtwood now reflected the best in me; the happy runner, driven and mentally bulletproof. I have many running moments that I am proud of, too many to list right now, but Hurtwood 50km 2021 will remain at the top of that list for a long time to come. Because regardless of what may come in the future in that wood in the heart of the Surrey Hills, I proved to myself that facing failure is far more potent than running from them.