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More than a Marathon


Rachael Bateman tells us why she runs so far

When I was writing The End of the World Running Club, I got a lot of help from a group of runners and ultra-runners, who told me what it was like to run very long distances and why they ran them. One of them, Rachael Bateman, went a step further and agreed to write this brilliant description of a 50-mile race she recently ran.

Thanks Rachael, over to you…

More than a Marathon

What? You ran that far? How long did that take you? You really ran that in one go? These are the responses I get when I’m asked what I did at the weekend if I’ve run a long way. People’s tones range from disbelief to mockery, through awe, respect, doubt and ambivalence. Few really understand what I do, although I would love to be able to communicate it and give some kind of insight into what it means to run more than a marathon. This is part of why I started to write about my running experiences which escalated quickly from a couple of short runs a week to training hard for long distances. I went from two 5k runs a week to ultra-distance running in 18 months.

A marathon is far. I think, at least in modern Western society, we’ve benchmarked that magical 26.2 miles as very far and we place it on the outer limits of normal in terms of an achievable physical challenge for the majority of people with reasonable physical fitness and perhaps youth and determination on their side. But what about more than a marathon? Where does that even come from and why would anyone want to run that far? What is the gain? I don’t run for accolades and praise, although a recent survey I completed on my sport psychology suggests I thrive on recognition for my achievements. But isn’t that human? I’m not fast enough to win anything yet so why would I run 40, 50, 100 miles, and how?

"...when I started, I struggled to corral the concept of 5k in my mind."

The first thing I will say is, I never consider running a long way in one thought. I mean, I never hear the gun go or the start declared and think, I’m going to run, say, 50 miles. That would be like being told, “you will live for the next 50 years!” expecting to picture clearly how that will pan out. No one can. So in terms of running, when I started, I struggled to corral the concept of 5k in my mind. Now of course I can and I run it in a fairly average way. I’ve got a reasonable idea of how that 5k will go. Up to 26.2 miles, I have a reasonable idea of how a run will go. However, when it comes to more than a marathon, life within the run evolves in a very different way that in my opinion is impossible to comprehend fully until you’re in it and running. I of course plan carefully beforehand how I will run each section of the journey, like I did for the 50 miles I ran recently. I recced this race between the checkpoints on my own and with friends in the weeks leading up to it, calling to mind how each of the sections would likely feel in terms of effort and psychology as I sat at home with a glass of wine marking out the map. I had a goal time, 12 hours and I planned my pace between each checkpoint rigorously in order to meet that target. I chose the right equipment, hydration and food but so much of ultra-distance running is about dealing with what comes while on the journey, which I was reminded of when my plans began to unravel around mile 32 on this latest race.

"...ultra-distance running is so much about the mind."

I can quite comfortably run 30 miles and not feel intimidated or overwhelmed by it. I don’t see this as anything to brag about particularly, it is just a fact that is part of my make-up as an athlete. Frequent checkpoints and crisp, cloudless daylight in that first lot of miles are all great for your mind and ultra-distance running is so much about the mind. Positive mental attitude and emotional resilience are key factors in managing the physical strain when your legs and shoulders are aching and when the lazy, gluttonous monster of tiredness starts to eat away at your mind in the dark. And of course darkness does come on ultras because of their length.

Night. At the same time both vaulting and smothering, night blinkers you with a tight focus that can bring resolve as much as despair. So when I was grouped with 4 men just after dark at the mile 27 checkpoint, I was very pleased. They’d all kept a great pace earlier in the day and I knew at that point, my head was losing the strength I needed to dig in and keep the pace I had planned for the second half of the race. I knew I needed the challenge of their pace to bring me through at least the next 5 miles until I was settled into a rhythm again. So with a mixture of banter and assertiveness, I made sure they took me into their grouping. Prior to this, I had analysed those around me while I prepared myself quickly to go again. None of us could leave there alone due to the rule on that race, stipulating that you have to be grouped for night running. I was not sure of the other possibilities for a grouping as I cast my eyes around the marquee housing the check point. I wasn’t sure whether I felt confident in the other people I had observed as we milled around: a disjointed, tired community of runners, sizing one another up in the hazy yellow light, shoving the calories and swigging sugary tea.

"...as my team mate lay in the frosty grass, writhing with stomach cramp and vomiting profusely, a mixture of emotions took hold of me."

Plunged into darkness in the woods outside the checkpoint, I swigged the last of my tea and fastened the mug to my pack. We ran on, me and the four men, getting to know one another on the way. It soon became clear that only a couple of us were confident of the route and could map read. It turned out I was one of the stronger runners too and I pushed us on towards the next big climb, keeping the compass bearing in mind for the run off the summit while casting my thoughts forward to the route but not the distance ahead. We yomped up the hill and found the rocky slope down to the next checkpoint. As we left the hill and ran through the fields, we could hear music and the singing along of the people manning the checkpoint. We could soon see the lights of the barn where they were waiting for us with tea, tiffin cake, biscuits, jelly babies, Bovril, soup, hot chocolate... Two old farmers were somewhat incongruously playing Scrabble on an iPad while we ate and drank and refilled bottles with water. It was slightly surreal. It was here, at mile 32 that I became aware one of my team was unwell. He was struggling with his stomach. A common problem when you run long distances. When he’d been sick, we continued and by the top of the next hill at mile 35, he was deteriorating rapidly. Our pace had slowed on the path to this point and other groups had caught us up. I could see their lights and hear their voices close behind us. I was aware I could lose my place as 6th lady if we didn’t move. Primitive selfishness wells up and subsides like a dangerous tide at times like these. So as my team mate lay in the frosty grass, writhing with stomach cramp and vomiting profusely, a mixture of emotions took hold of me. I wanted to run on alone and leave them all, run my own race. I wanted my team mate to be safe though and I realised that I had to dig deep and encourage him on to safety 3 miles away at the next checkpoint, where thankfully there was a medic waiting. It was very hard to leave him there, unsure whether he’d finish the race later, or even be ok.

"Around my feet, scarab beetles darted and in the heather, the faces of fairies peered out at me."

It was so cold. The sky was black, cloudless, still. We ran on from where we’d left our teammate. We held a strong pace, chatting, joining with and overtaking runners who had overtaken us earlier. Then 40 miles into the race, we hit the moor. Running in the direction of the star I had been told to follow by a fellow runner over breakfast that morning, we fell into a rambling silence where my mind trickled out through my exhausted gaze over the heather and the peat hags. I was imagining things that were not there. Hallucinations were always something I thought only happened at much longer distances. To my left were phantom whitewashed Spanish houses I could almost touch. Around my feet, scarab beetles darted and in the heather, the faces of fairies peered out at me. It was bizarre; not frightening, just bizarre. I knew that what I was seeing was not real and when I reached the road and we began to chat again as a group, I found the experience amusing. I find it interesting how the mind can buckle and shift and move under pressure and how quickly it can return from the edge. Ultra-running shows you this.

The last 10 miles were painful. Everything hurt. My hip flexors had taken a battering on my right hand side and the final descent of the cruellest, steepest hill was limped. The slow drag into the finish at race headquarters a mile later was wearisome and starkly comforting. I’d run ultra-distance before and got into the car to go home feeling empty and overwhelmed by anti-climax. Not this time. There was a huge sense of achievement. I knew I’d done well but more than the position, it was the journey travelled that was both critical to my desire to race and my accomplishment at the finish. Self-indulgence is the preserve of the ultra-runner, I believe. We are all looking for meaning. We are all looking to understand our limits. Our blogs analyse our approaches to life and our training; they celebrate human endeavour and the world out there under the sky. This is why we run far; because we can and because something in our make-up compels us to do so.

Rachael was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in the mid-1970s. Personal and political difficulties drove her English parents back to the UK and so from the age of three and half, she grew up in Wales, the place she calls home.

She now lives in England with 2 brilliant children, teaching English to teenagers with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. And guess what? She also runs and writes.