Last week, some of you might remember that I gave you a helpful 10 point guide to planning a long run. Using it, you’ve probably got your own long runs planned, right? I thought so.
My run began on Sunday June 14th and, thankfully on time, I reached Walmer Castle on Thursday 18th. (Sorry, should have said ‘spoiler alert’ there, to let you know that I did actually make it. There was no guarantee of this, you see.)
So what is it like to run almost 90 miles?
Erm. It’s hard to know, really. Mentally, I’m one of the feeblest runners I know. When I cheat at doing press-ups at Project Awesome, I can hear a little voice inside my head going, “You’re only cheating yourself,” and then another one, which goes, “Yes. And I’m fine with that.” I’ve made my peace with my cheating complaining ways because surely if no-one sees you, it’s like it didn’t happen, right? Surely by simply attending Project Awesome sessions, my arms will get stronger?
Given that this is my general state, what on earth did I think I was doing, attempting to run 90 miles by myself to a castle on the coast?! I’m not sure really, other than a quote I’m about to steal from ultramarathoner Scott Jurek, “Sometimes you just do things.”
My levels of preparedness were despairingly low prior to leaving. As mentioned in my last post, I used the bag once and cut my back to pieces so I stopped using it, in order to heal, so that when I hauled it’s heavy bulk onto my back on Sunday 14th, it was the second time that it and I had ever touched. I had not prepared my mind, other than expecting there to be some serious ‘deep thinking’ en route, and perhaps even some ‘midlife crisis’-ing. I had known there would be about 20 miles per day to cover, which would take me about 4 hours, and that there would be all the other daylight hours to fill with my inevitable musings on life. Here’s what actually happened.
The big day had arrived! There was no getting away from it now. Shit.
I went to Apsley House, my starting point, where I happened to know that the staff there have bacon sandwiches every Sunday morning before work begins. A bacon sandwich seemed like the very worst way to start a long run as I’d be thirsty as soon as I started running and I knew I had to smash through 23 miles my first day. So of course, I delayed my intended start time by an hour and ate a bacon sandwich.
I got on my way by 10am and ran into town, to Waterloo station for the photo opportunity.
Then I headed out of town towards Eltham to meet a work colleague for a coffee. I was half an hour later than we had originally arranged because bacon. He understood. I had been thinking to myself, on the run there, “I’ll get some water first, cause I’ll be thirsty then. And maybe a coffee to perk me up.” It was harder going than I had thought it would be, with the pack weighing quite a lot, causing me to crash into the ground more forcefully than usual on every step and resemble some kind of unstable human train crash about to happen. You know what I mean, you’ve all seen those runners.
When I got there, I obviously ordered a huge strawberry milkshake thing that was full of sugary crap. Good choices you’re making today, Laura. Good choices.
I remember optimistically telling my colleague over milkshake that I only had another 13 miles to do that day, which I could split into two.
“I’ll do six miles from here, which will take just over an hour, then I can stop for a good hour or so then do seven miles when I get going again.”
Haha, the happy naivete of day 1! I chuckle just thinking about it!
The hard lesson that day 1 taught me is that progress with a big heavy pack and legs that have already run double figures is not like running a half marathon with hundreds of other people and carrying only a water bottle! I didn’t actually realise this lesson until I finished my entire run. I continued, for four and a half days, to be baffled by my drearily slow progress across the map. See what I mean, about not having mentally prepared?
My watch recently broke and the pocket on my bag which held my phone was too far around to easily reach so I just stumbled on forwards until I felt like I really must sit down. There was a small grassy bank next to the road so I trotted over and sank down in a heap on the floor, not bothering to take the bag off. I bloody couldn’t anyway! I had strapped it on so tight, to avoid it moving around that the whole procedure of getting it off started to be more trouble than it was worth. I just had to get used to it being there, it was my home, like a snail. There was one pocket on the side that I could reach, the pocket which held the chocolate coffee beans. I would squidge my arm around until it felt like it would surely break, wiggle my fingers slightly in the pocket and, if lucky, dislodge a bean or two which would usually roll onto the floor. I would snatch it up like naughty child and stuff it in my face. I don’t ever remember feeling any effects after eating the beans. I just used needing one as an excuse to stop and sit down. (As though I would need an excuse!)
I remember the place names running through my head. Swanley, I need to head toward Swanley, then Eynsford. Look for signs to Eynsford. From Eynsford, it’s only 4 miles to Otford. At Otford, we stop. I can’t wait to stop. I should stop for a break now. No, go a little further. There are still 9 more miles in this day before we finish. It’s 3pm….! Wait, what?! It’s 3pm! Am I moving forwards or backwards? I left Eltham two hours ago. How have I only moved 4 miles?! O god. Am I lost? What if I’m lost? No, I’m not lost. I know I’m not. I should probably stop to check though.
And thus, the habit of stopping at any available opportunity was thoroughly embedded into my days. Mentally, I never tackled that, that need to stop all the time. If I had to make it somewhere with a deadline, I wouldn’t. But if I was left to my own devices? Bloody useless. (But I NEEEEEEED some chocolate coffee beans!)
When I finally chugged into Eynsford, I yelped unexpectedly and felt the odd kind of liberation that comes from making loud noises when you’ve mainly spent the day inside your own head chanting town names and mileages to yourself over and over. This feeling would see me through many a long mile the next few days. There was a little canal and some children with rolled up trousers playing in it and I immediately went over, stripped off my shoes and socks and sunk my little red feet in, ankle deep. It was divine.
It was getting on for 5pm and, in the general spirit of the trip, I hadn’t booked a place to stay in Otford. Obviously I hadn’t. As I ran into Otford, I felt totally elated. 23 miles! Aaaaamazing! I rule the world. I RULE THE WORLD!
I saw a country pub and, counting my blessings, went inside to inquire about how much rooms cost.
“We don’t have rooms, love. I’m sorry.”
“Ok, no problem. Where’s the nearest place?”
“Oo…. um….” the barman looked at the men standing at the bar and they all looked a little bit puzzled. “A lot of places have stopped doing accommodation recently. O, there is a little place called Michael’s Diner. It’s about three miles up the road.”
That’s when another thing which seemed to happen a lot on the run happened for the first time. My little eyes welled up and I croaked out, “Whereabouts is that, please?”
He proceeded to tell me the directions to the place which was three miles in the wrong direction from where I wanted to be the next day so I thanked him, went outside, sat down on a wall and cried while googling towns in the right direction for tomorrow’s run. The next town along was called Kemsing so, for lack of other options, I headed in that direction, adding another two miles on to my day and wondering if my body might just give up and I might die of exhaustion halfway between the two, in someone’s front garden.
On the way, I called the only B&B in Kemsing that I could find on Google. Obviously they were full so I couldn’t stay with them. So now I’m running down a country lane as the light is fading, I’m crying (quite audibly) and I’m thoroughly exhausted. I just want someone to FEED ME and let me SLEEP. Surely there’s SOMEONE who can rescue me, sniffle sniffle, loud gulps and gasps. That’s when I remember that the full up B&B had mentioned another place in Kemsing called…. what was it called? I was too busy trying to get off the phone so that I could indulge in some hardcore crying that I forgot to listen. From somewhere deep in my brain I remembered. Park Lane B&B.
Google gave me the phone number and a woman told me that yes, I could stay with her for the night.
Cue violin playing and angels flying down and bright rays of sunlight as I float along to her house and arrive at the doorstep. I was much more composed by the time I got there and just couldn’t wait to sit down. Sonja opened the door, said hi, asked me if I wanted a cup of tea and suddenly…. lump, throat, gone again.
She put the kettle on and I sloped into my room for the night to try and hurry on the tears. After a cup of tea and a good long natter about my day, in which I made myself sound a lot more heroic than I was, I headed to the nearby country pub to grab something to eat and read my book. Thus ended day 1.
Day 2 was different to day 1. Very different. Despite the many stops and my confusion at my slowness on day 1, there was still a kind of underlying knowledge that I would actually get there if I kept moving. Day 2 contained none of those assurances.
After a cooked breakfast, loads of cereal and toast and four cups of tea, I set out on what was to be my planned route, following the North Downs Way for the next 65 miles. It didn’t take me long to realise that although the countryside is very pretty, extra mileage is not. So I scrimped. I ditched the North Downs Way and opted for more direct roads where I risked nettle stings every time I jumped aside to let a car past but didn’t have to deal with foot-level brambley nonsense the whole time. It was a payoff I was ok with, because it meant less mileage.
Day 2 was really one long moanfest, if I’m honest. Everything made me feel like moaning.
Shut up, cars! Shut up. Can’t you see I’m trying to listen to an audiobook here? I can’t hear a thing cause you’re all driving and shit. Cars should be banned. Or made quieter. It should be the law that all cars can only be a certain volume so that runners can hear their audiobooks while they’re out running. And what’s with there being no pavement? Who decided that? At least don’t have two steep inclines on the no-pavement sections. I’m too LAZY to climb them to get out the way when cars come. Bloody fence thing, why isn’t it made with bigger sections so that people with backpacks can climb through it easier? Don’t they realise that I need to illegally enter this field in order to cut this corner off and save myself fifty steps?! And what’s with this bloody backpack anyway, hey?! Bloody backpack thing. It’s just like the most heavy thing anyone has ever carried ever. What’s that about? And my collarbones! Why does this bag not allow for people to have collarbones? I’m sure there’s actually less padding there than all the other places on the strap. Who designed this? Who designed this BLOODY backpack? They’ve given me collarbone bruises. I’m going to write to them. I’m going to bloody write to them. Yeh. That’ll learn them. And the ‘air flow’ mesh section on the back which is supposed to keep my back cool? Useless. There is NO airflow to my back, no air flow, people! None. The only thing on my back is a ton of sweat and bruises from this back pack! Bloody…. grr…. grumble…
And so passed day 2. I remember thinking that if I didn’t get out of the way of a car in time and it hit me so that I had to go to hospital, I would at least have a valid excuse to not finish the run. Yep. That was where my brain was at on day 2.
I arrived in Maidstone eventually, after only a 14 mile day but feeling rougher than the previous day. As was fast becoming tradition at the end of the day, I found a place to sit down and cried. Once that task was completed, I stood up, saw a Travelodge nearby and headed straight there. After checking in, I headed to the room and, unexpectedly, sat down and cried again. And thus ended day 2.
(Running makes me emotionally unstable, is that what you’re getting from the story so far?)
Day 3 was a good day in my brain. I had 18 miles to cover to get to a cutesy little farm I had found on Google the night before (Google rocks my world, clearly). My legs felt fine and I had made a formal decision to stop hating on the backpack. The backpack was my life, my freedom. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to do the run. It contained everything I needed. Don’t hate, embrace, Laura. Embrace the backpack. So off we went, backpack and I, to find Hollingbourne. Hollingbourne was four miles away and the first place in my never-ending mental list of the places I had to pass through to reach my evening destination.
Hollingbourne was essentially three pubs so took me two seconds to pass through. Then I was aiming for Doddington. I was feeling so jolly that I took up greeting horses and sheep aloud. “Hello horse!” I’d yell across a field and the horse would run over and I’d get a bit scared and scurry off. “Hello sheep!” I also took up singing at this point. My biggest ‘hit’ of the trip was the song I made up at this point on day 3. The lyrics go like this:
“I’m looking for Doddington. It’s the next on my right.” *repeat in time to your steps for the next two hours ish*
I sung this aloud until my throat was sore and it kept my thoughts from being too loud. At some point on the way to Doddington, I had a rash situation on my lower back/bum area from the bag that needed dealing with so I ran into some foresty thickety bit, whipped my pants down, slathered the Vaseline on and went on.
Remembering this is how I know that day 3 was not the best, bodywise, and so the explanation for my mind feeling better can’t be that my body was doing well cause it kind of wasn’t. The more I ran, the stinkier I got, even when I rinsed my clothes out overnight. My left boob was dealing with some serious boob rash issues and my second toe on my right foot was getting steadily more swollen each day. My knees were kind of stiff in the evening and morning unless I walked an awful lot after stopping running and let’s face it, I didn’t want to move even an inch once I’d finished running. So I mainly didn’t.
Whenever I decided to stop under a tree and eat some chocolate coffee beans, getting going again was kind of embarrassing cause my knees would’ve stiffened up so when I started moving again, it would look like I was doing the robot dance for the first ten steps, a kind of jerky uncomfortable straight-legged stumble thing. Then my legs would remember what running was and off we’d go. But always the robot dance first.
At about 4pm, a friend who has recently moved to Kent sent a text that she would meet me after my day’s running. It was unexpected and totally exciting so I text back I’d be in Faversham in an hour and got my run on…. in the wrong direction. The only time I ever went the wrong way was on this one day, when I actually needed to be somewhere. I blame the town of Eastling for having a road named after it which does not actually head towards it. After having a little fuck-up on Eastling Road, I got my groove on and sped up so that I was moving at least as fast as a tortoise and arrived much later than my friend.
This did kind of interrupt the flow of my evenings, which consisted of having a good cry before doing anything else so I was a bit put out. But I showered, put on unflattering shorts and compression socks and my friend and I wandered about the farm looking at the ducks and horses and talking the face off the other poor innocent holidaymakers who couldn’t give two hoots about my nonsensical run to a castle they’d never heard of.
My friend promised to come and meet me the following day as well then left me to my own devices, at which point I put on some music and stomped around the room in time to it, in what I think was supposed to be dancing but I can’t be sure. Once that strange episode finished, day 3 was done.
Day 4 started with uncertainty. Having a time constraint (I had told my friend I would be in Eastry about 5pm) and coming off the back of a good day, mentally, I worried that I would have another day 2. I needn’t have worried. Although I didn’t feel as strong, I cut back on the breaks, in order not to be late, and found myself somehow making excellent time. Instead of collapsing down onto grass verges every twenty minutes cause I just neeeeeeded another of the chocolate coffee beans, I instead swung my bag round onto my front and took walking breaks, giving myself sixty seconds to swig some water, munch something, then get going again. It worked a treat.
Midday on day 4, Canterbury taught me an important lesson on the road. It taught me about the necessity of wearing black t-shirts if you will be around people. I had unwisely chosen to wear a turquoise coloured t-shirt. When I went into a Subway to use their toilet and buy some water, I took my backpack off to get money to pay and looked down to see that backpack was still on me…. in sweat marks. And the section between the two across-body straps was just a solid block of sweat because of the lack of air to that section. People looked. They were shocked. I acted cool and calm despite the disgust in their eyes. And then I fled back to the hills and fields where the horses and sheep did not judge me.
By 2pm, I was well within sight of Eastry so started taking the piss, stopping under every tree, eating almost all of the supplies in my bag, finishing my water (o, the confidence!) and taking an actual nap in a field. I arrived at the country pub where I was spending the night at 3.30pm, showered and swaggered about the place like I was a million dollars, with my sunburn, nettle stings, rashy bum, toe blister and ridiculous compression socks.
A lovely evening with my friend completed day 4 and I only had 6 miles to go!
Day 5 was a bit of a nothing day really. It was only 6 miles so I didn’t have to gear my brain up or anything. I just turned on my audiobook, put on my least stinky running clothes and did it. One amusing highlight was that I passed a place called Great Mongeham but essentially I just chanted place names through my mind again until, instead of being in front of me, they were behind me and, as I rounded a corner and the audiobook I had been listening to since day 1 finished exactly on time, I saw the sign for Walmer Castle and sank to my knees in front of it.
I had made it. From some madcap idea in January that I told people to impress them, I had actually really done it.
The residual glory which resulted made the whole bumbling affair seem like something quite fantastical and, as I waited for Danda to arrive to pick me up, I basked in the glow. I did go inside the castle to look around and, on introducing myself to the man behind the till, I did my usual crying thing then went and got some lemonade and cake.
Looking out from the windows in the castle, I realised I was on the beach and so went down to the water’s edge and dipped my tired feet into the freezing cold water. When Danda got there, we wandered about the town for a while then walked out onto the pier to eat fish and chips before driving back.
So there you go. That’s what it’s like to run almost 90 miles. It only took me a day of being back and thinking I’d ‘never do anything like it ever again’ before I was stewing over where my next run can go. I think that means that in some odd peripheral way, in among all the ranting and raving and rashes, I enjoyed it, sort of.
Sometimes you just do things.