Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

May 31, 2011

Housman Hundred, 101 mi, 28-29 May 2011

Smiling before the start, with the halfway bags still piled behind me
Well.  100 miles.  After months of anticipation, my legs have carried me the entire distance, and I have finished my first hundred mile run in 34:54.   

The whole event sort of split into thirds, not of distance or time, but in terms of mental capacity.   I have to admit now, it was the toughest thing I have ever done.  To be completely honest, the distance broke me, and turned me into a blubbering, painfully hobbling wreck somewhere in the middle.  But I digress, and will start at the beginning.    
First a few statistics: 
422 Male and 128 Female starters
154 First timers and 25 have completed 20 or more LDWA hundreds
Entries from Spain, Italy, Holland, Canada, and USA
Average age of entries 54
Youngest 18 and oldest 81
Only 23 entrants less than 35 years old and 202 over 60 years old

The 12 o'clock start

Comments are already circulating about how this may have been the toughest 100 in the last few years for sure.  Out of 524 starters, 158 retired before the finish, with a few taking up to the full 48 hours to navigate the course. 
The LDWA hundred mile event is held in a different location every year.  This year was in Shropshire, and named after the poet A.E. Housman.   Hence the Housman 100, and I will include a few short poems, just because.

Into my heart an air that kills 
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
  What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
  I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
  And cannot come again.
The first mental third was the easy one (duh).
I arrived in Ludlow via a long drive from home, just in time to see the majority of the 500 starters head out at 10 a.m.   I had chosen to start later at 12, just to get a full night’s sleep after working the day before (seemed like a good idea considering it would be another night or two until my head would hit a pillow).   A much smaller crowd of 49 runners started off with me, and although it rained on us on the short walk TO the start, once the clock started, I at least never saw another drop of rain.  Considering the forecast was predicting lots of wet stuff, it was an unexpected pleasure.
The first 25 miles were beautiful forest trails following the Mortimer Trail.   It was sunny at times, the trees blocked the wind, and the vistas were amazing.   It was neither warm nor cold, and I drank lots of liquids to try to stay ahead of dehydration.   I really enjoyed the pine forests as there aren’t many of them near my home in Yorkshire.   But the trail also started a disturbing trend, namely of checkpoints located in the valleys, and the trail in between leading up and over some very steep hilltops. 
By checkpoint #2, I had started to catch up to the 10 a.m. starters and the hall looked like a tornado had swept through it, leaving only crumbs and empty dishes!   I pushed onwards and navigation was easy as a steady stream of walkers were there to show me the upcoming trail junctions.
After leaving the Mortimer Trail, we picked up Offa’s Dyke Path and crossed over into Wales.   The third checkpoint was a welcome sight, and for the first time I stopped for a meal, and so began the parade of the strangest things I have ever eaten during a race.   At this stop it was potato salad and hot quiche, which I must say tasted great and was easy to eat.   Later checkpoint stops offered ravioli on toast, pasta, soups, a full English breakfast (skipped that one, sausages seemed like a bad idea!), and baked potatoes, plus a selection of tea, coffee, cake and other snacks.   It seemed like I was constantly eating and drinking, which I had been looking forward to, really (who doesn’t want to pig out once in a while!), but in the moment, just seemed like a necessary chore to keep my body fueled. 
With daylight failing, I was quickly out the door again, up and over another big hill (or two) to reach checkpoint #4 and the 35 mile mark.   That made 1/3 of the race complete in just over 8.5 hours, and I was really happy with that time as it boded well for my goal of under 30 hours (ha!).   Even better, I immediately saw a few friendly faces from the West Yorkshire LDWA club, so I had people to walk with for the start of the dreaded night section.  They had recce’d the whole route over a long weekend a month before, so as dark fell and the headlamps came out, I was confident in their route choices and making good progress.
The pace slowed dramatically, however, as every step at night required more care on the steep climbs to not slip, slide, or fall down a hillside. Crossing hundreds of gates and stiles slowed us down further, as tired legs made the huge steps over even harder.  The lights of other head torches strung out ahead of us along the black ridge, as the route description promised great views (ha!) over the Welsh hills.  I had been using a brand new pair of Leki Traveller trekking poles, and found them to be absolutely brilliant, in that I could unclip my wrist straps from the poles to get my hands free for digging in my pack, yet not have to finger grip the poles at all to get traction while walking.  The poles made me much faster on the uphills, and helped push me along at a good clip on the flat parts as well (not that there were many flats).   I slowly pulled away from my friends, and pushed on into the dark, focusing on catching the headlamps bobbing ahead of me. 
A downhill stretch to checkpoint #5 was where I first noticed that my knee hurt quite badly on steep downhill sections and I could no longer run downhill for fear it would buckle under me.   I was now using my trekking poles to help me limp down the steep stuff; although on more reasonable terrain I could walk or run without pain.   I set out alone again, pushing through several groups of torchlit walkers to help speed me over the trail.   Another lone walker caught up to me, one of the very few people to pass me over the entire event.  We struck up a conversation and carried on.  It turned out that Al, who had the distinction of being the only person on the event to carry his pack over just one shoulder, had recce’d the night section and knew it like the back of his hand.  Walking at 4 miles an hour, he navigated with no hesitation and I desperately tried to keep up with him.  At times I had to run to catch up, but the miles ticked by and we were at the 55 mile breakfast stop by 5 a.m.   The English breakfast didn’t sound good, but my halfway bag was waiting for me, so I took the time to change my shoes and socks, massage my feet, and stock up on snacks again. 
Al was ready to head out about when I was, so we set off together again, with him navigating and me trying desperately to hang on.  The next ten miles passed quickly with the strong winds at our back and a fine mist coming down.  The trail around the rocky peaks of Stipperstones was beautiful, but this was no time to stop and dig in my pack for the camera.  And so we reached checkpoint #8 and the 66 mile mark in just over 20 hours. 
White in the moon the long road lies,
  The moon stands blank above;
White in the moon the long road lies
  That leads me from my love.
Still hangs the hedge without a gust,
  Still, still the shadows stay:
My feet upon the moonlit dust
  Pursue the ceaseless way.

The world is round, so travellers tell,
 And straight though reach the track,
Trudge on, trudge on, 'twill all be well,
  The way will guide one back.

But ere the circle homeward hies
  Far, far must it remove:
White in the moon the long road lies
  That leads me from my love.

The middle mental third was a nightmare.

I bid farewell to Al, as I knew I could no longer keep up his pace, and set off alone to finish the final 1/3 of the distance.  The trail, as always, left the checkpoint and headed straight up the next hillside.  At the crest, the trail was now heading roughly south back to the start, so we were now facing directly into the howling wind.  It immediately started to get to me.    I hobbled on, following a figure ahead of me, but by now the trail was nearly empty of other walkers, having passed almost everyone that I would catch up with for the whole race.  Everyone else would stay ahead of me now.   After a few miles, we turned down a steep hill directly into the wind, and I focused on just putting on foot in front of the other.  After some never-ending torturous forest trail along a creek at the bottom (I would have thought it beautiful on any other day), finally checkpoint #8 appeared.  

Sitting down in the shelter of the tent brought tears to my eyes, and the nice ladies manning the checkpoint bustled about getting my water bottle filled and asking what I would like to eat.   I didn’t feel very hungry, but focused on getting my emotions under control, which lasted until I took a few steps out the other side and realized that my other knee now was stiff and hurting, this time when I attempted to straighten my leg to take a long stride.  Really hobbling now, and sniffling at times, I started a long lonely climb up to a ridge top open to the penetrating winds.   At the top, it was another 7 miles along the ridge, with the winds in my face and pain in my feet and legs. 

One of countless stiles to climb over
Here, the distance really started to get to me.  I tried to tell myself that I only had a marathon left, yet a marathon suddenly seemed an enormous distance.  I tried distracting myself with food, drink, and music, but nothing was enough to take my mind off the pain.   For a moment I would feel under control, but just a few seconds later the tears would roll down and I would blubber for a while (luckily no one was around me to see it).   At the same time, somewhere deep inside me, I was strangely content to feel so broken, as it had never happened to me before.   My athletic exploits have been getting longer and harder in an attempt to find my limits, and finally, I had.   Wow.
Needless to say, those hours on the ridge passed about as slowly a root canal without Novocain.  I never had a thought of stopping or quitting, but my finish time, which I was constantly recalculating, started creeping possibly late into the second night.   Finally the ridge ended, with just a steep downhill and another small hill left to checkpoint #10.    Ouch, but the downhill was almost too much for me.  I sat down for a minute, practically sobbing with pain, as another walker caught up to me, hobbling equally badly.  Brian and I managed to distract each other from the pain for a while with conversation, and so got into the checkpoint with 18 miles left to go.   More nice volunteers bustled around us, obviously caring and concerned, filling water bottles, reciting their food choices from memory, and bringing me hot chocolate and a baked potato with cheese.   A few faces started to appear familiar as well, as the event photographer seemed to be always waiting as I came into checkpoints, along with a couple of other friendly marshals to show the way.
It was hard to leave again, and my legs had stiffened up from sitting for just a few minutes.  An immediate downhill cracked my fragile pain threshold still within sight of the checkpoint, and I sat down unable to conceive of walking farther.  Brian soon came up to me, and although I never take pain medication, I begged him for a dose of the anti-inflammatory pain medicine that he had offered a few minutes before at the checkpoint.  

In my own shire, if I was sad,
Homely comforters I had:
The earth, because my heart was sore,
Sorrowed for the son she bore;
And standing hills, long to remain,
Shared their short-lived comrade's pain.
And bound for the same bourn as I,
On every road I wandered by,
Trod beside me, close and dear,
The beautiful and death-struck year:
Whether in the woodland brown
I heard the beechnut rustle down,
And saw the purple crocus pale
Flower about the autumn dale;
Or littering far the fields of May
Lady-smocks a-bleaching lay,
And like a skylit water stood
The bluebells in the azured wood.
The last mental third was…a breeze (really)!

After the drugs started to kick in, walking was still painful, but in a distant sort of way.  I kept up with my drug-lending savior and his friends, and the conversation soothed me as evening fell and the wind dropped dramatically.  Our pace was quite slow now, but in a rather pleasant way.   Although I felt a bit guilty that my husband had been waiting for me at the final checkpoint for hours (and we were still hours away from it!), I finally gave up all pretense of a fast finishing time, and just walked along enjoying the sunshine and forests and the company.
All 4 of us appear to be grimacing, about mile 94
Just before checkpoint #11, I was amazed to see my husband walking up the trail toward us!  Turns out he had gotten bored of waiting and followed the trail “upstream” to find me.  I was happy to have his company, and after a short stop for snacks we were off again.   Perhaps the drugs were making me a bit loopy, but after seeing Rob, I almost felt that we were close to finishing, but we still had 10 miles left to go.  At our hobbling pace, that would take us into the second night for sure. 

The section between #11 and #12 was the only flat section on the entire course, and it was a welcome relief to stay in the valleys along flat roads and trails.  Soon we were getting into the final food stop, refilled our water bottles one more time, and downed some snacks.   Our little group of five set off with the hope that we wouldn’t have much time in the dark before the finish, but between us and the end was a very 
large hill.  My husband didn’t feel like tackling it, and took the road back to the school instead, and I wished that I could have done the same, but nothing was going to stop me from finishing the route now.
Darkness fell as we entered the forest on the final climb, and extra signs and marshals helped us find our way through the thick, dark, deep trees.   There suddenly seemed to be a lot of people around, with a few lost ones searched out by volunteers, and close to 20 people finished within a few minutes of me.  I was convinced that everyone had taken wrong turn somewhere, as the final few miles took forever, but that was just fatigue and darkness making me confused.  The lights of the school were a vision from heaven, and I walked into the hall to the sound of clapping, with everyone looking at me.  I couldn’t help smiling.   

Oh whence, I asked, and whither?
  He smiled and would not say.
And looked at me and beckoned,
  And laughed and led the way.

And with kind looks and laughter
  And nought to say beside,
We two went on together,
  I and my happy guide.

Across the glittering pastures
  And empty upland still
And solitude of shepherds
  High in the folded hill,
By hanging woods and hamlets
  That gaze through orchards down
On many a windmill turning
  And far-discovered town,
With gay regards of promise
  And sure unslackened stride
And smiles and nothing spoken
  Led on my merry guide.

By blowing realms of woodland
  With sunstruck vanes afield
And cloud-led shadows sailing
  About the windy weald,
By valley-guarded granges
  And silver waters wide,
Content at heart I followed
  With my delightful guide.

(All poems by A. E. Housman)
Running though a flock of sheep being herded to the same gate we want to reach!

No, I'm not "leaning"...just avoiding a tree branch!


  1. Well done Dawn. A very good time that for a first 100. You did well to keep going when it got tough - what it's all about!

  2. Very well done, Dawn; your first 100 completion of many! I'm sorry I missed you during that long weekend. See you at Osmotherley?

  3. as a non walker and first aider on the 100 - at newcastle and event centre - i think your all fantastic !! im so so impressed by you all and your grit and deternmination to get the 100 done - i raise my hat to you all x