I’ve had the draft of this post open on my computer for over a week, the relentless cadence of the blinking cursor mocking me as I sat here idle, unable to figure out how to even start. Do I start with a simple summary, repeating the same old statistics on distance and elevation? Or maybe I should wax philosophical on one of the many things I wrestled with or discovered on this journey. The literal journey itself – the incredible places and landscapes I got to explore… surely a remark on that would be a suitable start. And of course I would be horribly remiss to not lead with a mention of the amazing support I received throughout, without which none of this would have been possible.
The truth is, none of those things alone would sufficiently reflect the experience I had. In fact I’ll go ahead and say that I’m incapable of putting it all into words even with a full write-up. So I’ll skip the whole synopsis bit and get right to it, with everything included in due course. You can find a recap of each section over on my Instagram starting here if you would rather have a brief summary or don’t have time to sit down to the ensuing novella (this is the longest report I’ve written by a wide margin, and I’ve written some long stuff). If you’ve fully exhausted your Covid19 Netflix watchlist and are in for a full binge reading session, there’s also a prequel trilogy on why I decided to do this in the first place, how that first attempt turned out, and what was different going into this second attempt.
I don’t think there’s really anything I can say here that I didn’t say at this point last year before setting off on this adventure. In a way, the very fact that I failed at my first attempt at “The Grand Round” shows that it was a good challenge – one that forced me to learn, grow, and develop a better plan. If a grand challenge doesn’t teach us anything, doesn’t force us to improve ourselves or develop a better strategy, then was it really all that grand?
I’ve made a bit of a habit of setting out to do things that I’m not sure are possible. Mike Hartley’s 31 year old record on the Pennine Way, England’s first national trail, fell squarely in that category – not just as something that I might not currently be capable of but as something that might not ever be within reach. I ended up besting his time by just 34 minutes, roughly equivalent to the ~30 seconds per hour margin I had when I finished Barkley.
Like nearly everyone, my 2020 plans were pretty well wrecked by Covid19. I’m still hoping to cram in a couple of big challenges, though. I’ll be chasing a Pennine Way FKT and giving another attempt at my Grand Round project, barely a month apart. As alluded to in my previous post, I’ll be raising money for the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust through these efforts.
The Spine Race was one of those rare experiences where I couldn’t have possibly imagined beforehand exactly what it would be like, but afterwards I couldn’t possibly imagine it any other way. Granted, I get to look at it through the rose-colored glasses of having achieved exactly what I set out to achieve. If I had come away with the win at some of my other recent races it assuredly would have shaped my recollection of the experience.
But as someone who analyzes data for a living, I’m quite practiced at forcing my own bias aside and looking at only the facts. The facts here are that this race is a truly unique adventure, well-organized with only the necessities organized, and with a group of people who care about every runner first to last being able to safely experience that adventure in full. Thank you to everyone who made that possible and who make the race what it is, from the other runners to the staff and safety teams and volunteers to the random people who showed up in the middle of the night to cheer, hand out food, or provide some brief company. Apologies if there was anyone along the route who didn’t get a more timely thank you and only saw me in “race-mode” or sleep-deprived zombie mode instead of my normal cheerful, chatty disposition. 😉
I’ve long known what it’s like to have a home field advantage. At Barkley, I feel a bit like Brer Rabbit in the briar patch. The first time I ran it I was shocked to see how shocked people were by the terrain. In ultrarunning just the mential stress caused by misaligned expectations can often present a large problem, let alone the lack of proper preparation. Running in the cold is fine. Running in the heat is fine. Running in one when you expect the other (or both in one day) is often disastrous.
And so when Jim Rutherford picked me up to head to the Cheviot Goat Race, I thought I had an idea of what the race would be like. It would be wet, there would be some bogs, but I mean, it couldn’t be much worse than Paddy Buckley on the Grand Round, right? I’ve dealt with that stuff before. It would be fine. And with work having been overwhelmingly busy leading into the race, I just hadn’t been able to prioritize giving it any more thought than that.
I wasn’t planning on writing a race report for the Berlin Marathon, and really, I’m still not going to. Ok sort of, but the main topic of this post is my experience of a weekend where I was running with no competitive goal, no time target, just running for the pure joy of running and experiencing a new place. It’s such a seemingly simple thing, but remarkably important and incredibly easy to lose sight of no matter what level of competition we’re at.
All year there had been another mountain looming in the distance, some other challenge around the corner weighing on my mind. At the end of that road lay Tor Des Geants, a trek around the Aosta Valley in the Italian Alps covering about 205 miles and 80K feet of elevation gain. After getting my first DNF at Ronda dels Cims, I had gotten in a pretty good block of training and was eager to get out there and race. Besides, the last time I went to race in northern Italy I ended up with a rather unpleasant helicopter ride afterwards. So if I could avoid that, I was at least making progress.
The race was one of those types of experiences that will continue to grow in value to me over time, and was complete with all the extreme highs and lows that might be expected during such an event. It was also on the most beautiful course I’ve ever set foot on and was embraced by the villages and rifugios we traveled through in an amazing way. Yes, there were a few logistical issues I wish could have gone better, but that’s to be expected for an event this large and something that I’m sure will continue to improve.
I wasn’t foolish enough to think I was indestructible, but I also didn’t know where my breaking point was. Over the past two years I’ve had a pretty heavy race schedule, with an ultra, long FKT attempt, or iron distance triathlon about every six weeks. And for the most part they went pretty well, great even. Sure, I was just hanging on through some of them (most recently, Lavaredo) knowing that I wasn’t in the best condition for them, but I had never in my life DNF’d a “normal” race (i.e. Barkley and The Grand Round excluded).
Lavaredo had a lot of firsts for me: first time in Italy (and Austria, after driving down from Munich), first time in an ultra that big and competitive, first time competing in an ultra between April and November, and first time in a race in anything that would be considered an alpine environment. I had an unforgettable experience and I think I ran a fairly smart race, but in the end it wasn’t my best outcome. Oh, and yeah, first time in a helicopter too.