Friday, May 11, 2018

Challenge Accepted

I’m not a big believer in setting resolutions at New Year’s. Probably because the term “resolution” strikes me as fixing a perceived negative, such as losing ten pounds, dumping cigarettes, etc. There’s an element of punishment to it. I prefer to think in terms of goals and striving for a positive. For me, that goal could be learning a new skill, tackling a writing project, or taking concrete steps to improve my mental and physical health. 

This year, I set several writing goals (more on those in future blogs), and a big physical one. Author JF Penn (aka Joanna Penn) invited her Creative Penn podcast listeners to join her on an Ultra Challenge: a two-day, 106 km circumnavigation of the Isle of Wight. Entrants could walk, jog, run, or crawl to the finish.

For those of us who are metrically challenged, 106 km is 65.9 miles. I know because when I heard Joanna mention it on her podcast, I plugged it into the calculator to see.

I contacted Joanna and joined Team Creatives. Tackling 106 km was an audacious goal, but one that excited me. A positive. I started planning my training runs that day, searched out marathon preparation sites, and booked my travel to the UK.

Team Creatives - ready to roll!
In the end, six of us made up Team Creatives. Thanks to Jo, the team also consisted of Ali Ingleby, Guy Windsor, Jane Steen, and Donna (DJ) MacKinnon. At the starting line, we were nervous but excited. While we all started together, the plan was to each go at our own pace and to tackle our own distance goals. The course was planned so that entrants had the option of completing a Quarter Challenge (25 km) or Half Challenge (52 km.) As I stood in the starting pen, reading the bibs on the entrants around me, I realized that a few years ago I’d never run a 10 km race. When I’d decided to try that 10 km, I drove the course first. Even in the car, it felt incredibly far. Yet here I was surrounded by people whose bibs declared they were going 25 or even 52 km—further than a full marathon—and I’d registered to do the full 106. 

One step at a time, I told myself. I'd trained for months. I could do this. We strapped on our backpacks and were off.
The view from the top

The Challenge was unlike any road race. The first indication occurred around the 3 km mark, when I spotted a huge backup in front of me. Those who’d started in an earlier group were at a standstill, looking down. I soon discovered the reason: the trail narrowed to a set of muddy stairs that required a slow, single file descent. I waited nearly twenty minutes for my turn, then was off again. Over the rest of the first day, there was mud—over my shoes, at times—lengthy hill climbs, and more than a dozen fences to clamber over as the trail traversed farmers’ fields. I hadn’t expected the fences. The first time I saw a runner in front of me go over one, I assumed he was diverting from the course because he couldn’t wait for a porta-potty. Nope. He was following the marked trail up and over the fence, through a field, then up and over a second fence on the far side.
Happy pub sign

Okay, I thought. Up and over! To my surprise, I found I liked the fences. There were other good surprises along the way, often found in difficult situations. The giddy laughter as racers stopped to help each other retrieve lost shoes from the mud. The calls of, “Keep going!” and “Well done!” from locals as we made our way through the twisty roads of coastal villages. The stunning sights of mustard fields in bloom and bright sea cliffs that spread out like a movie cinematographer's final shot after we'd climbed a steep hill just before the day’s midpoint. The unexpected pub sign near the day's finish that welcomed goats…a sign I would’ve missed if I hadn’t been compelled to slow down as I rounded a tight corner in Cowes.
Day one mustard field

I made it to the 52 km stop at the end of day one muddy, bloody, and sore…but immensely happy. Some of my teammates were compelled to drop out due to blisters brought on by the heat, but they too made it down the mud stairs and over numerous fences. We all agreed that the views from the midpoint hill had been stupendous and worth the long climb. Each of us had accomplishments to celebrate. I wasn’t sure my shaky legs could take a second day, but I was determined to do my best and walked--slowly--back to my bed & breakfast.

Day one mud
At 52 km...after washing at the 35 km rest stop!

Essential travel item - The Stick
I spent the evening cleaning my mud-encrusted shoes, drinking as much tea and water as I could manage, and using a travel size massage stick on my legs to ease my tired muscles. Despite my exhaustion, the day’s events left me so wound up I couldn’t sleep. I managed maybe two and a half hours, then stared at the ceiling, wide awake ten minutes before my alarm sounded. As concerned as that probably should have made me, I felt ready. Just go, I thought. If I could drag myself to Northwood House, the starting line for the second leg, I could finish.

Ali Ingleby and I met at 5:20 am to make our way to the start. We recapped the previous day’s events as we walked. We each had blisters, we were tired, and we still had race nerves, but we were ready to go.

Ready for day two!
On day two, I kept a good pace to the first rest stop, at the 66 km mark. I refilled my water bottle, drank a cup of fruit juice—which I rarely do—and took off quickly. Most of the day’s course followed cement and hardtop road along the seafront, which became hotter and hotter as the day progressed, cooking my feet. What little mud I found on the trails occurred in small enough patches to be jumped over or jogged around, and there were few fences. There was, however, a long hill prior to the 83 km rest stop. More than once, I moved to the side of the trail, put my hands on my knees, and sucked in three or four deep breaths to rally myself for the rest of the climb. Later—somewhere around 90 km, I think—a set of stairs took us from the seafront to the top of the cliff. I made it about 2/3 of the way, then turned and sat on the stairs for a solid thirty seconds before gathering my energy to move ahead. I'd seen only a few bibs since the 80 km mark. Being alone for such long stretches was simultaneously disconcerting and peaceful. It also meant that if I took a few breaths to rest, no one knew but me. I entered the 96 km rest area triumphant. I’m going to do this! Only 10 km left. It wouldn’t be long and I could drop my backpack, take off my overheated shoes, and enjoy the lasagna dinner the organizers had promised to all finishers.

I stayed at the rest area the minimum amount of time necessary to refill my water and visit the porta-potty, and I was off. I could feel the finish line waiting for me. When I passed the 100 km sign, I smacked it with my palm. Yes!
Surprise behind a wall

Afternoon view
At 102 km, an ambulance idled at the side of the road with two medics sitting beside it. They asked if I was doing all right or needed extra water. I assured them I was fine. “Only four kilometers to go, right?” I asked. “Yes, you’re nearly there!” one assured me. I think I clapped as I passed them. My brain was so fried I wasn’t sure. 

Then disaster struck. At a roundabout in the village of Niton, I couldn’t figure out the signs. I saw another person wearing a race bib heading up a hill, in the direction I was pretty sure the signs indicated I should go. I followed her, passing her halfway up the hill. I was all the way down the other side when I hit an intersection. I couldn’t find any signs. That’s when I realized I hadn’t seen a sign since the roundabout, and that at least twenty minutes had passed since I saw the ambulance.

I backtracked part of the way uphill and didn’t see the woman I’d passed. However, there’d been road signs pointing toward Chale on a road that angled to the left and backward from the intersection. She had to have taken a path that went through the houses to that road. I pulled out my phone, did my best to zoom in on the map provided in the race app, and still couldn’t figure out where I’d gotten lost. It looked like I was right on top of the trail.

Almost there!
The road I’m on and whichever trail that woman took have to meet up on the other side of this hill, I told myself. So I went back to the intersection, took the left, and wound around a bunch of houses to the other side of the hill. The road signs indicated that Chale was ahead, so I figured I’d come across the race trail soon.

Ten minutes later, I realized I should’ve backtracked further. A lot further. Road traffic forced me to ditch into the high grass repeatedly as I made my way back up the hill I’d just gone over, albeit on a different road. No paths emerged from between the houses, though, and I started to worry. The village faded into a series of mustard fields, but still, no race trail. The coast was off to my left, and I knew the trail followed the coast, so I had to be close. I stopped and checked the app again, but still couldn’t tell where I was missing the trail. Finally, at the top of the hill, I spied a pair of men jogging on the far side of one of the mustard fields, close to the cliffs. When I reached a safe crossing, I sprinted across the road and squeezed between the mustard plants and a stone wall until I reached the trail where I’d seen the men. A pink marker indicated that it was the race course.

I won’t lie. There were tears when I realized I’d finally, finally found the right trail. I wasn’t sure how I’d missed it, but I’d gone so far on my detour that I knew the finish line had to be just beyond the stone wall.

I followed the pink markers through the opening in the wall and along a grassy trail…then saw a sign that said 104 km. I still had two kilometers to go.

Just. Finish

I said it to myself over and over as I ran the last two kilometers. Don’t think about the missed signs or the fact I should’ve finished nearly a half hour earlier. Just go. Finish.

I’ve never been an event person. I like running or walking on my own. But crossing the finish line and hearing my name announced was fantastic…a high I’d never anticipated. The congratulatory champagne nearly toppled me, but I found myself laughing at my bobble. I was that person who did 111 km to get to 106 km, but I was okay with it. It wasn’t long afterward that Ali messaged the group that she’d crossed the finish line, too. Even better was the note a short time later in which she waxed poetic over the finish line lasagna.

Mud, blood, heat, hills, and all, the journey was a positive one.  Even if I hadn’t finished, it was a worthy goal. Much gratitude to Joanna Penn for pitching the idea to her audience of writers and other creative entrepreneurs. I wouldn’t have attempted it without her.

As a PS: Never have I enjoyed a breakfast so much as the one served the next morning at my bed and breakfast, The Caledon House in Cowes. Perfect poached eggs = perfect reward for a goal met. Thank you to Mark and Andrea for being such wonderful hosts.

Reward time!

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