Name: Sugarloaf Fell Race
Ascent: 526 metres
Terrain: off-road, hilly, fell
Category B: averaging no less than 125ft for every mile of climb, and no more than 30% of total distance on road
NS = navigational skills needed
LK = local knowledge an advantage
PM = course partially marked.
My first proper fell race. I was terrified. I’ve had this feeling pre-race before; initially, I felt afraid every time I ran. Yet again, it felt to be a race far beyond my ability. I was scared of getting lost, of being last, of fainting, of falling, …. of getting lost! I was the driver of a few fellow harriers; it didn’t bode well for me when I got us lost on the way to Abergavenny! Mostly, though, I was afraid of the pain of running – I’m terrible at uphill running.
Earlier in the week, I’d asked a few respected runners about how they deal with the pain of running. How do you keep going, despite your calves burning, despite your body telling you that it’s hurting? More than that, how do you push yourself to not just to simply “keep going”, but dig into the pain? How do you propel yourself faster, harder, to RACE, when your mind and body are telling you to quit?
I’d chatted with Niki about how we live in a society that doesn’t like pain – everything is designed to make existence more convenient and comfortable. People aren’t used to doing things that make them feel any negative sensations. You’ve got to have a certain steely determination to be a runner.
Lisa pointed out to me about how when you stop running, the pain stops. So clearly there is nothing wrong – it’s just your body telling you that it’s working hard. Rather than wanting to stop, get it done sooner, by pushing into your pain and using each step to spring into the next.
Georgie, a track runner, shared how she uses mental imagery and self talk to help her through the pain barrier. She trains hard, telling herself that the harder she trains, the easier she will reach her goals. She also uses markers to break the distance down, and focuses on the finish.
One of the coaches, Mike, encouraged me that each time I push through, even if only for a few seconds, I am making myself stronger. Later in the week, he forwarded an email about Olympian Meb Keflezighi. In it, Meb talks about how he would think about his father’s journey, in the ‘80s in Eritrea, and how he had “walked more than 200 miles to escape imprisonment or death for a chance at freedom for himself and his family.” How at Boston, Meb kept in his mind on “the victims of the previous year’s bombing, and he found just a little more energy to race to victory down Boylston Street”.
I took with me into the race the wisdom shared in these conversations from the previous week. As I struggled up the hills, I thought of the wise words Niki, Lisa, Mike, and Georgie had shared with me. I thought about how pain is temporary. I reminded myself that I was nearly at the top of the Sugarloaf, and the achievement would live on when I’d long forgotten all the pain. I thought about how I don’t ever want to live a lazy, comfortable, easy, existence – how I’m prepared to work hard and sometimes put myself in situations that are challenging or uncomfortable or scary, in order to live purposefully. I thought about Meb, how as an elite athlete he channels the suffering and difficulties of others to inspire him to run harder and honour their lives with his. I thought about the victims of sex trafficking that I am raising awareness and money for, who I’m guessing might really love the opportunity to run up a Welsh mountain, in complete freedom; how the physical pain of muscle burn was nothing compared to physical and sexual violence made to endure. I thought of Beth,* a teenage girl who’d been trafficked by a family member, who I’d met at a rehabilitation centre. I thought of the names and faces of others I’d met, and how it was so unjust the situation they were in. I ran harder, and I was frustrated with myself when on the steeper parts I couldn’t run. I mentally engaged with the pain of running, and I refused to let it win.
Mentally, the toughest yet. Physically, I’d thought it would be the toughest, but in hindsight, Mayhill Massacre was much tougher, closely followed by Cardiff World Half (due to being unwell).
The race itself started out with an uphill section of road, followed by a steep climb through the trees on the side of a hill. It was gruelling. I walked most of it – not uncommon on a fell race of this kind – all those around me were also walking. When I reached the top, I just wanted to collapse into a heap – but I’d covered less than a sixth of the course.
After the first climb, there was a very runnable undulating section. As I passed one chap, he laughed at me, said, “well done, you’re mad”, or words to that effect. It was the first time I can remember passing anyone on an uphill section – most often people overtake me going up hills!
At the base of the sugarloaf, the steepness gradient increased. I was doing an odd run-walk combo, trying to embrace the pain, but not lasting very long. Then telling myself I could do it and trying again, until my silly head told my legs they needed to stop. On the steepest parts, I was grasping onto the grass to pull myself up, feeling dizzy, and fearing I might fall at any moment. Thankfully, the domino effect I’d had nightmares about wouldn’t happen, as there were few people behind me.
As I climbed to the the top, a vaguely familiar face and her dog greeted me and talked me up, encouraging me and offering advice. This friendly marshall was Angela Jones, a notable local runner. I went around the trig point monument and grinned; now the fun began. Many fell runners endure the pain of the uphill for the fun of the downhill. It’s the ultimate adrenaline rush. I kept getting distracted by the stunning views over the Welsh mountains, then remembering I should probably look down at where my feet were going to avoid tripping over the rocks that littered the descent. I was gaining speed, and jumped right over the stream in the path. If only I didn’t slap my feet down so hard – I definitely need to work on my technique!
Downhill is my strength – I overtook several runners on the descent. I was elated when I saw coach Mike ahead. Although I’d not beaten him in a race before, I felt if I kept running strong, it might be possible to take him. And then he had to go and act all chivalrous; when he reached a gate he held it open not only for the runner on his tail, he waited for me to come through and then closed it behind me! Well, if he was going to act the gentleman, then I’d take the advantage! So I stormed on, incredibly thankful for the recce the previous week with Niki, as I came to a road fork and recognised the stile I needed to climb. Looking down at my watch, I noticed was I running faster than my 5km personal best time, and I felt like I was flying. This is all relative of course – compared to faster runners, I was moving at a glacial pace!
There was a sticky moment running through a field – I had no idea where the path continued – I just kept running blindly forward and hoped I’d soon see or recognise where I was meant to go. Mike was gaining on me and yelled across, “to the right!” Once again I was thankful for his courtesy. He was almost neck and neck again with me at this point, and had he not shouted, he would have definitely overtaken me. Knowing the route became a small trail with no room for overtaking, I yelled back for him to go first, so I wouldn’t hold him up, but he refused, and let me through. We were on the closing stretch now, just along a short road, with a little uphill kick, where Mike caught me again. Back on the downhill and onto the sports pitch, Mike running alongside me, we could see the finish flags. Mike shouted encouragements at me, to keep going, to go faster, to push deeper. I could hear Niki and other harriers yelling for me and cheering me in. My lungs were bursting and my legs were moving the fastest they could. Mike faded to the side to let me cross the line in victory. I’d completed the race I’d been so scared to do, and I’d completed it a lot faster than I’d thought I would. I toppled over to the water table and Mike gave me a hug, as fellow faster club members came over to encourage and congratulate me. I’m seriously part of the best running club! I was emotional, exhausted and exhilarated. There’s no feeling quite like it!
To support my 30 races for 30 years and donate to A21, please click here.
P.S. A few people have mentioned to me they’ve had problems when trying to donate. I’m so sorry! If this happens to you, please do let me know, with as much detail as possible of any error messages etc., so I can follow up with A21 and try to fix it. Thank you so much!