I can't really properly describe how I feel about myself now, because I'm not entirely sure I know. On Sunday I ran 44 miles, finding some very good things within myself along the way, but I still don't think it's properly sunk in.
As I've mentioned in previous posts, I ran around 27 miles to the start line of a new local race, a 17-mile cross country called the Hartland Hartbreaker. I was feeling not so much nervous as apprehensive the night before, but the timely (meaning a little early, thanks Amazon) arrival of a certain running/life manual gave me some encouraging reading before getting down to bed - at about 9pm!
The early night was in preparation for a 5.45am start, giving myself an easy-in-theory five hours to get to the mandatory safety briefing for the race. I actually managed to remember all of my preparation as well - no chafed nipples, hunger or lack of heartrate monitor for me (for once)!
I knew I had plenty of time to get there, so the run became an exercise in running easy, keeping my pace nose-breathingly slow and taking regular short (around one minute) walking breaks; I forcibly kept in mind that I was on an adventure because that's what I like doing, not on a run for training or with any particular goal in mind. I took in the mistiness of the beautiful local scenery and every time I felt myself pushing too hard, I had El Gavilán appear by my side telling me to slow down and take it easy (I hadn't had a lot of sleep, ok, and the mental imagery got much weirder in the final few miles of the day!).
I'd had my guts churned up by energy gels before, so was determined to stick to 'real' food for the first 27 miles - that's if the German 'Bifis' that my brother had brought me back from a recent trip count as 'real' food! I took two five-minute food breaks spaced at roughly-even thirds of the way and I was so, so happy to realise after the second of these that after running as far as I had, I still felt fresh and properly rejuvenated by the pause for a bit of reffuelling.
I ended up getting to the start line in around four and a half hours (my pride can't resist pointing out that the route there was a pretty hilly one), already wearing the 130 number that the race organiser had sent out ahead for me (in reference to running 130 miles in August) and took time to grab some more food and juice in the time before the starting shout.
I ditched the accoutrements of a self-sustained marathon, leaving my hydration pack and phone/map holder behind and - although this is probably going to sound weird - feeling energised for the race simply by carrying less and feeling even more like I was out for myself that day, rather than for a race. That is, until the race announcer made sure that everyone knew who I was and why I was there over the tannoy at the health and safety briefing!
Armed with no more mental preparation than thinking 'this is happening, you may as well get ok with it' at the start line, suddenly the race was starting and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I set off still at a relaxed pace, but comfortable doing it. It's certainly very different trying to run to your own pace surrounded by about 200 other runners than when you're on your own!
The race itself was great. It was designed specifically to be a difficult one and it certainly lived up to that! Lots of rooty, muddy forest runs through vivid bluebells, contrasted with long, hot (the sun was blazing) treks across wide fields, to some of the gnarliest and wind-blasted clifftops in the region - definitely one of the most stunningly diverse courses around my region, I reckon! (In fact, at this point I would positively recommend it to either any Brits or 'other-who-fancy-a-visit', it's that good - next one's May 2014!)
Having said how great it was, I had to try pretty hard to stop myself from hating it - of all the courses to attempt after running 27 miles, I could have definitely picked an easier one! At one point, a marshal told me it was around three miles to go... the next one, a long hilly climb later, told me it was about four miles to go (the GPS later showed it was still about seven to go); I'm not ashamed to say the negative feelings started creeping in around then - but instead of fighting them, I let them in. I let the feelings into my house, showed them around and then sent them back out the door, simple as that; then I got back to one foot in front of the other.
Towards the end, I figured I must be pretty near the back of the pack ( I was pretty much running on my own), but I eventually came upon another guy in the middle distance, who kept stopping to walk while I slowly ate up the distance between us. Eventually, I caught him when we reached the final stretch through some very hilly, slippery woodland, where we had to use a rope to eventually pull ourselves up a steep side of a valley. When I saw this particular 'challenge' I felt so tired from running there, but I actually started saying 'I am a whole athlete' under my breath; actually speeding up to the start of the rope. In what turned out to be the climactic finish of my very own inspirational movie, I feel like it was the culmination of all of my work on running attitude and training to move my whole body that meant while I had it in me to keep pulling arm-over-arm, the other guy started faltering and stopping.
I ran strong and confidently down the last road stretch after that and I can't describe the feeling as the race organiser interrupted the handing out of awards to give me everyone's attention as I crossed the finish line smiling. I can actually feel the hairs on my neck standing up now as I write this and remember the volume of the cheering.
As I mentioned at the start, I still don't know quite how to feel. Like when a room has new clutter in it that doesn't have a dedicated drawer or shelf yet, I don't think I have a part of me where how I feel about Sunday can fit. It's made me more confident for the run in August and I've learned a few tweaking lessons about specifics of my running, but other than that it's all still a bit hazy.
I guess after all of that, though, it's on to the next cool impossible - that's the idea, right?