Piece of String 2019 | A Post-Mortem of a Total Head F**k of a Race

I finished the fourth edition of the Piece of String Fun Run in the early hours of Saturday morning. In the 48 hours since, I’ve felt like I have been hit by a truck. I have struggled to understand why this is – the race was “only” 66 ish miles long. It was a flat route. Really flat. It wasn’t awful weather, and it wasn’t a mountainous sufferfest. It was very average. In fact it was a monumentally boring as far as routes and distances go. So why do I feel so broken? 

Line up of idiots. (Photo: Centurion Running)

Line up of idiots. (Photo: Centurion Running)

 It’s because this race is set up to completely mentally fuck you. It’s the running equivalent of an SAS interrogaton. You are so concentrated, so hyper aware, so ready for every eventuality, and you’re stuck in that state for the days before and during the event, however long that may be. You don’t want to make a mistake. When you DO make a mistake, you very quickly have to rectify it. And that’s the killer. Stress situations are exhausting. When you have high levels or Cortisol surging through your body for hours on end, it can have quite a horrendous effect on your physical and mental health. In retrospect, it doesn’t really matter how long in miles PoS is or was – that’s secondary. It’s a test of how long you can live with yourself at a very high stress level, and how well you can manage yourself before you go utterly mental or just give up. 

 Most ‘seasoned’ ultrarunners I know are hideously organised (or most of the more successful ones are).  They have taken a lot of time, sometimes years, to organise their kit, nutrition and support strategies.  They know where stuff is or will be, when to change it, when to carry it and how to use it. Their nutrition is on point. They know what to eat and when to eat it.  They know a lot about themselves and how they work. More often than not, they have a crew that also know this who will help look after them. Their preparation for any event is split pretty much equally between physical training and admin. If your admin and crew are on point, if you have studied your route, maybe even run parts of it, you are halfway to glory. It’s all pretty much common sense. And there’s the kicker. 

You cannot admin a race when you don’t know anything about it. 

 So, the thing that the ultra-runner is in theory best at, is completely flawed. And the runner knows that. They are left unable to plan anything at all, not even potential weather, so they have to plan for every eventuality, and that is totally overwhelming. Before you have even started this race, you are blindfolded, spun around and set firmly on the back foot. 

 In the run up to the race I wrote a blog about all the stuff I was scared of and managed to almost talk myself into the idea this WAS a fun run and all I could do was try and enjoy it. I was still worried, but I really did prepare as well as I could. I had loads of food, spare kit coming out of my ears, spare shoes and a fucking heavy pack. I weighed it. It was 11kg. I thought I had managed to manoeuvre my brain into a good place. Turns out I hadn’t. 

The glamorous start point.

The glamorous start point.

I stayed at my pal Lou’s house on the Thursday night and she very kindly agreed to drive me to the start point at the Morell Rooms in Goring on Friday morning. It was all LOLS in the hall at 8.15. Kit check done, money paid and everyone milling about looking a bit nervous. 

Out of the total 10 entrants, 9 had turned up. We had Matt, John, Tremayne, Paul, Nigel, Dave, Ivor and Andrew. And me. Everyone looked very, very fit, very, very experienced and very, very male. I’m not going to bang on about it, but I was the only female there. Again. I wondered if anyone else had even applied. Surely it couldn’t be that hard?

Both the James’ (Elson and Adams) were on hand to mutter weird shit at us under their breath, while the lovely Drew, Nici and Nina did our waiver forms and took a moment to wish us all a shit day. For some reason James Elson was wearing a weird Italian chef apron with pictures of pasta on it. 

He’s taken the apron off. But he was defo was wearing it.

He’s taken the apron off. But he was defo was wearing it.

James E asked us to line up against a wall so he could take a picture that would look good on the front page of The Daily Mail when we all died later that day. He then gave us the worlds shortest briefing (no crews, no cheating) and a photocopy of a map with an orange highlighted route that apparently appeared to be the start of Chiltern Wonderland going backwards. This was my first moment of abject fear. Fuck. Map. I’d not done Chiltern Wonderland. Some of the others professed to not knowing how to read a map either. I didn’t believe them. We decided to follow a guy called Dave who said he knew the way. I know that generally, in trail running, following a guy called Dave who says he knows the way often ends in disaster, but did it anyway. It was an emergency situation and I panicked. 

James asked if we had any questions. Yes, why was number 6 missing from the line up? We had been given numbers 1-11 for our trackers but number 6 missing was missing. Apparently, we don’t talk about number 6. You’ll know why if you’ve seen my strava. The class thing on the entrants list was to do with stamps. Long story. Means nothing. Sort of like this blog. 

 So that was it. With no fanfare at all, they set us off through Goring village. We stuck together chatting and introducing ourselves, until we were intercepted about 1km down the road by Elson, who directed us to the train station. Adams was stood there, grinning like a loon, with train tickets for everyone. We were going to Reading. And when we got to Reading, we were going to run back to here. Goring Train Station. We had until 12.15 to do this. Seems legit. We all know the route – it’s the last leg of Autumn 100. Piece of piss. 

Yeah laugh it up, train ticket man.

Yeah laugh it up, train ticket man.

This leg was fairly uneventful. Got coffee, got on the train got to Reading, got off the train and ran back to Goring along the Thames Path (or the FUCKING Thames Path ™ as it is better known to me and you, my dear reader). The group started to split pretty early, with most of the lads heading off up front. I was slightly behind them with Dave and Nigel and we appeared to have lost Ivor somewhere. I couldn’t keep up with the main pack, so I stayed on pace at the back with them. On reflection, I should have done my own thing because I still ran this part too fast for what in my head was going to be a 100-150 miler. I was running it like it was a trail marathon and decided to start snacking on things that I fancied rather than needed – these things included shot bloks. Me and shot bloks have an interesting relationship. It was too early in the day for me to be eating sugar and this decision would come back and haunt me. I did have a lovely chat with my new pals, which stopped me having a meltdown about the fact I was in Reading. At least I was running away from it. 

 When we got to the train station at about 11.40, Ivor was standing there and had been for quite some time – he knew a shorter route. We were very quickly issued with more tickets and a map of the FUCKING Thames Path ™ by Mr. Adams. We were going to Maidenhead. This really was a treat. This was like Ultra Tour of British Shitty Cities. James Squared (that’s both Elson and Adams) decided to get on the train with us. They showed us on the maps where we needed to get to. It was a place called Bell End Mill. Ok it wasn’t a place called that. It was the car park near Bell Weir Lock. But I knew I would remember it if it was Bell End Mill. Turns out that’s great for me because it’s funny, but when you can’t find Bell End Mill on the map later on, it’s not so funny. When you ask people where it is, that IS funny. It was near Runnymede. It was about 20km away. That meant we got to run though Windsor, Slough and maybe if we were lucky afterwards, towards Staines! We were living the dream! The rules? If you came in more than four hours after the front runner at any checkpoint, you were timed out. 

The irony of looking at a map when you haven’t been told where you are going (Photo: Centurion Running)

The irony of looking at a map when you haven’t been told where you are going (Photo: Centurion Running)

After we jumped off the train the pack really spilt. The boys were off, like Kipchoge’s pacing squad, but with a distinct lack of facial hair. Dave and I were at the back, but he quickly vanished, leaving me on my own with my two nemesis’, the FUCKING Thames Path ™ and myself. 

About 5 miles in to this leg, I started to feel a bit shit. My stomach was not playing ball. And this doesn’t really happen to me. It was the shot bloks. I usually only resort to them when I am really tired and near the end of something, but I had been a silly sausage and taken them too early because I was all excited. I just don’t do that well on sugar, and mix that with the stress and uncertainty of the whole situation and you’ve got a recipe for Bailey in a Bush – a fun game where I find bushes to jump in and out of on a regular basis, whilst trying not to upset locals or the police. 

We had been told that we would see our drop bags “once every 5 hours” or sooner depending on how fast we were. I had a decent amount of food in my bag but because I felt awful, it was hard getting it down. I was also drinking a lot of water – it was pretty warm out there and the first leg had left me a bit sweaty and gross. I ran out of water a few times and had to resort to shops to get refills. Pace wise I was doing ok. Trying to stick to a 10-12min mile for the first 5-6 hours. What I really suffered with was loneliness. Nobody to help distract me from me and the pointless maths going on in my head. I tried listening to music and thinking how lucky I was to be outside, but then I realised I was in Staines so I wasn’t lucky at all. Time went by incredibly slowly and I managed to go back on myself at one point, meaning I added on an extra 1.5 miles. Brilliant thing to do so early in the game. It’s actually a really easy thing to do on the TP. Because I was so brain tired, I just followed the wrong acorn sign and only realised when I came past a house I had run past before in the other direction. The thing is I have done this before, at exactly that point on another race. 

Windsor. I didn’t take many photos because I just couldn't be arsed.

Windsor. I didn’t take many photos because I just couldn't be arsed.

Eventually, about 5.5 hours after I got off the train I got to the checkpoint. All the boys had already gone through an hour before me, so I didn’t dick about, grabbed some food and water and had a quick chat with the Elson twins AKA James Squared. I was feeling monumentally rubbish at this point. I told James E I had resigned myself to being timed out. He told me not to be so stupid. But the truth is I had. I was properly beating myself up about how slow I was. I felt totally out of my depth and pretty angry at myself for not being able to shift my shitty mood or my arse faster than 10 min miles. Instructions were to keep on the FUCKING Thames Path™. Cool. I looked at my watch, but because I had kept it on during the train journey, I couldn’t work out how far I had actually run. AT ALL. I think it was about 27 miles by this point. It was a brain scramble. Again, I was told I would see my drop bag in “about 5 hours unless you’re intercepted”. Gah. 

 The next bit was the worst leg for me. I was totally devoid of joy. I suppose that’s the point of it. I was going over and over how shit I was at everything, my stomach hurt, my legs hurt, and worst of all my feet hurt because I was wearing trail shoes on what was ultimately a road race. I had road shoes in my drop bag but because I didn’t know where we were going, I’d opted not to change them. I decided that I was definitely, 100% going to get timed out. The weird thing is that although I thought I knew this, I kept going. I don’t know why I didn’t stop there and then. I guess I thought that I would just get to the next checkpoint “to see”.  In less dark times, I have always told myself that I won’t pull out of a race unless a RD pulls me out. I think this is engrained in my brain. It must be. I kept going. 

We were heading towards London, all stops via disappointment parkway and shattered dreams central. Getting closer and closer. I started thinking about the Thames Barrier – that was a long way away, but I knew that route because I had done it before. Then what? Would they put us on a boat? Yeah that was it. A boat. 

The path started getting more and more recognisable. I passed runners out on another event and ran through stretches that I have run probably hundreds of times in training. I was still, with every step, beating myself up. I had tried music, podcasts, but my brain was too loud. I can’t really explain what it was like, but it was not enjoyable. It’s very, very hard to be rational when you don’t know how far you have to go, to where or if you will get timed out. I never found my joy. I was constantly on the lookout for James Squared to usher me away onto another path. I felt very, very stressed. 

Hello darkness my old friend……..

Hello darkness my old friend……..

It started to get dark as I got to just outside Hampton Court. I think. This might be wrong. Before long it was pitch black on the TP and, if I’m honest, I got scared. I can’t help being scared. As a female, I have spent most of my life being hyper aware of being out running at night on my own or being anywhere on my own really. It’s just the way it is, which is a shame. I wonder if any of the men had felt the same? No. probably not.  There were a lot of people out on that part of the trail with no headtorches and that was just fucking weird. Every time I saw a light up ahead, I thought it was the checkpoint and it wasn’t. Foxes crossed my path and their little eyes lit up. It rained. It stopped. It rained. It stopped. No checkpoint. I looked at my phone. We are 58 miles from Goring. Maybe they will turn us round and set us off back in that direction? Who is this coming towards me? Is it the fast boys on a turnaround? No. It’s nothing. There is nothing coming towards me. Never ending darkness. 

 I missed a sign at Kingston Upon Thames and got on the wrong side of the river. Idiot. Had to go back a mile or so to get on the right side. I had no idea how much further it was to the imaginary checkpoint. For some reason 6 miles came into my head. I decided to stick with that. Just do another 6 miles. There were more people out now – pub closing time. I wondered if any of the men running through had been propositioned by the pissed-up wankers of west London when they’d come through? I got my poles out. For no reason other than to protect myself if it came down to it. Men can be such basic bitches. 

The trail turned dark again. I was now running a mile, marching a mile. I had to keep a little bit of gas in the tank for all the imaginary miles ahead. My feet were killing me. I hate road SO MUCH. My shoes weren’t right, and I knew this was my own fault. It was pretty miserable. 

Eventually just outside Kew, I saw a headtorch in front of me – my favourite Elson twin, James Adams. YES! There he was like a beacon of hope. It was just him at the checkpoint, probably because everyone else had moved on to catch up the menfolk. I wasn’t yet timed out. The leader was about 3 hours ahead of me. FUCK. But also, YES. Very strange feeling. 

 Where I had been taking my pack on and off and on and off, I had managed to chafe my back right under my sports bra. Missed it with the lube hadn’t I? I got James to stick a plaster on it and drank 17 litres of Pepsi. He apologised for the checkpoint being so far away. And then broke the news I was sticking to the FUCKING Thames Path ™ for the foreseeable. And to be careful at Battersea because the park was shut. FFS. We were defo going central London on this one. 

It was about 11.30 now and I’d done about 53 miles running. My watch said 83 miles overall (trains included). In my head I had at least another 50-60 to go. I knew I could do that physically, but in reality, I just really, really didn’t want to. I was bored of myself and my constant inner monologue.  And I didn’t know if I could do with without the timeout button going off. Only one way to find out. Off I trotted into the night. The trails were still very, very dark even though we were heading towards London. I was still eating, and my stomach felt better, but my pace was awful. It was all over the place. 

March a bit, run a bit. No idea how far to go. It’s still going to be dark for another 6 hours. It’s already been dark for 7. I’m bored. I hate this. What’s the point? Oh, look a fox! Urgh Hammersmith. I know, I will march the night out and then run the early hours. I WILL change my shoes at the next checkpoint. And clean my teeth. Yeah. What time does Costa open? Oh Putney. You are full of posh people. And you’re all drunk. Now we’re in Wandsworth. Good old Wandsworth. Theres a Natural History Museum lock up here. That’s interesting isn’t it? No. They’re doing lots of building work here. Again. God my feet hurt. What’s wrong with me?? I’m tired. How many miles have I done since I last looked? Oh 0.3. Cool. Where are my headphones? Shit I’ve lost them. FUCK THIS. Oh, that’s where my friend Livy lives. Is that James Elson? No, it’s a lampost. 

 All these things are things that I thought. 

I decided to focus on the dawn. I will just get to the dawn. 6 hours of darkness until dawn. Then I will feel better. I wouldn’t say I felt strong at this point, but I had kind of just decided that this was how it would be. I still felt stressed and anxious, but I had an acceptance that I didn’t have before. I accepted that this was shit, but I was in it and eventually, in a day or so, it would be over. 

As I trotted up towards Albert Bridge, I saw Drew leaning on the railings. What does he want? He wants to see my map. He wants to show me how to get around Battersea park because its closed. Thing is, I use to live near here and I did most of my training for my first marathon here. I know how to get around it. I need to get to Balham train station, he says. Why Balham? Surely tubes aren’t running from Balham? Trains might be. Anyway, that is 2.9 miles away and my bag is there. Fresh shoes, clean teeth and get on with it. Big girl pants on time. 

Map. Yes it is upside down.

Map. Yes it is upside down.

I’m on a proper march now. Just need to get to Balham. It takes ages to get around the park and then I hit Queensbridge Road and start feeling like I might be sick, because I hate this road for very many reasons. I look at the busses. Maybe I could get a bus? That is technically cheating, so no. And my strava data would look weirder than it already does. I get to the crossing that goes over to Cedars Road and onto Clapham Common and Adams is standing there telling me I can’t go up it. BUT THAT’S THE WAY! No worries, I will go up the road that runs parallel. I’m pretty lucky I know this area, right? Right.

I set off up Victoria Rise trying to forget the night I left a house party there at 3am and ended up asleep at a bus stop 300 metres from my own house. Those were the days. The days when endurance meant how may pints can you drink without soiling yourself. Now it’s how many shot bloks can you eat without doing the same thing. 

Just up to road I see a centurion flag. This must have been the aid station for the boys. They have obviously moved from here to Balham, but surely Nina needs to pick that up? I march past it and then see a little body sat asleep in a chair outside the flats – its Matt! Speedy Matt! He must have pulled out and be waiting for support. “HULLO? Are you OK?” I say to him. Then I hear James Elson running towards me making a stupid noise that wasn’t just him speaking.  Then this happens. 

It’s over. I’m done. What the actual FUCK? How can this be happening? I still have 50 miles to go. But I don’t and I have finished. Piece of String is done. And I am the final finisher. 8 out of 9 have finished and I am first and last. I have both won and lost this race. 

I feel suddenly fine. All the horror melts away. Matt has stayed up for at least 3 hours to make me a coffee. The race has finished at his house in Clapham. James Elson informs me it’s exactly 100km that we have covered, and I oddly feel cheated. Surely it should have been more. I don’t want it to be more, but still. There is no medal, no T-shirt and no Bailey support crew. 

It’s now 1.30am and I have to find a way back to Abingdon where I am staying. That’s a long and even more boring story, so I won’t go into it here, but it’s safe to say Paddington station is a shit place to spend 90 minutes on a Saturday morning. It’s a whole. new level of endurance when all the bars are shut. 

So, what’s the takeaway from this? It’s a strange one. I don’t feel particularly proud of myself. I feel like I let myself down on pace for a start – it wasn’t that far to run in the grand scheme of things. I feel like it’s an achievement that matters only to very few people, me being one of them, and I have never been one to spend days telling myself how awesome I am post-race. It’s actually left me with raging doubts about myself. I honestly hated a lot of it. Mainly because I hated myself for a lot of it. I need to be better at this. Or do I? Why do I feel like this? I think it will take me a while to process the whole thing. I honestly feel like I have let myself down, but I don’t know why. I went out to complete it and I did. But still the self-loathing is there. That’s not a fun end to the story, but it’s how I feel. Maybe this race is supposed to make you feel like that. It’s totally, utterly pointless in every way. 

What I have I learnt from it? That I am not very good at spending a long time on my own and I like to know where I am going and how far. I should have changed my shoes earlier and I shouldn’t have eaten shot bloks at breakfast time.  My bag was really heavy, but I needed it to be. I’ve learnt that I am resilient. I knew that, but this has shown me that even in the darkest recess of my brain, a crack of light comes through enough for me to see stuff through. Will I go back and do it again? Absolutely. But this time with a little more positivity and grace. I have so much more to learn and lot more to prove to myself that I am worthy of doing the stuff I attempt to do. 

On the Sunday after the race, I go out for a 4 mile recovery run. I hate it and I am ratty and everything hurts. My dogs piss me off and I end up crying at the top of a hill. Maybe that’s what I needed to do. Just have a cry at the top of a hill. I also need to find my love for running again, because right now I hate it.

Massive thanks to the others that took part and to James and all at Centurion for putting up with my ratty ways and supporting us. You’re all legends. One day I will look back and be proud, it’s just not today. 

Oh, and to the Thames Path – FUCK YOU. See you next year. TP100. FFS. 

Back in the arms of my beloved.

Back in the arms of my beloved.

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