At 6.30am last Saturday I gathered with several hundred endurance runners in Richmond Park, London, all of us bound for Brighton, some 100km south of our current location. I looked around at the lycra clad bodies, gulping down various sports drinks and energy gels, feeling more than a little out of my depth, and then, as I heard the count down hit zero, I put my head down and ran.
The first 10km was perfect. Cloudy, breezy and flat as you like along the Thames path. It was a glorious day, with rowers out on the river and dog walkers shouting support. The first leg passed without incident and soon I was at a rest stop for a quick drink before heading straight off again.
Now we were running through the suburbs and I reminded myself to enjoy it and to take in every moment. My legs felt good now that they were warmed up and everything was going my way. Check point two came and went, and we headed up onto the North Downs for some off road running, my favourite kind.
After an enjoyable stretch of undulating fields, at around 30km I started to flag. This is always a distance I struggle with and today was no different, but I had an Ipod loaded with plenty of uplifting music that I had been saving for this exact moment. I put my headphones on and instantly got a second wind. Soon I was coursing through woodland, singing Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ at full volume, which I hope cheered up a few weary souls as I passed them.
My pace was still good when at around 40km I turned down an incredibly sleep slope on hard ground. I never run down steep hills, because I find them even harder than going up, but with my spirits high, for reasons that I still cannot explain, I began my descent at full pelt. Within a few steps I felt my knee just ‘go’ and staggered to a stop.
Confused, I walked a few steps before trying to run again, but the pain was too much. I walked further this time, to allow it to recover, but again, as soon as I tried to run it became excruciating.
The next 10km passed awfully slowly. I had no idea what I was dealing with, but all I knew is that I couldn’t run. Could I even continue? At some point I came to one of the dreaded stiles that punctuate the course as a form of torture, and the man behind me, seeing that I was struggling, offered to help me over. As soon as he took my hand, I burst into tears. He kindly checked that I was alright, gave me some painkillers and (at my insistence), went on his way. At that point, taking help from (and sobbing on) a complete stranger, I realised that I was in very dangerous territory.
Over the next few kilometres I gradually came to terms with the fact that medics at the next rest stop might pull me out of the race. I was gutted. I had trained for months for this day and I would never get the opportunity again. I felt utterly flat and dejected.
Then, just short of the half way stop, my friends and support crew for the day, arrived to greet me. With that and the painkillers kicking in, everything changed. I ploughed on to the half way point and got myself checked over. Once I was given the all clear from the doctor (with strict instructions to pull out if it got too painful), I loaded myself up with yet more painkillers and a huge pile of pasta and went on my way. For better or worse, it would take more than a knee injury to defeat me.
This time my spirits were soaring again and I marched through the Sussex countryside singing my heart out, determined to get to the finish line unless I had to be physically scraped off the ground.
As the sun set I took in the beauty of my surroundings and how far I had come, not just that day, but the in the 700km of training runs that I had completed since the start of the year. How did I go from struggling round the block this time last year to signing up for this epic race? How did I ever think I would be capable of it? I signed up because I wanted a challenge that scared me, and that would push me to my limits. This is what I had come here for and it was very much what I was getting.
Soon I was at the 80km rest stop where my friends and another plate of food were there to greet me. At each stop I checked my phone and the supportive messages on Instagram kept me going through my darker moments. I knew that everyone believed I could do it, and so I believed it too. From the moment I left the half way point with an all clear from the doctor, I didn’t doubt for a second that I would reach the end. ‘She believed she could, and so she did’.
As darkness fell, I switched on my head torch and set off on the final leg of the challenge. By now both of my knees were painful and anything resembling a downwards slope caused a lot of difficulties. There were moments when it all felt too much to bare, but I think the thing that kept me going was knowing that as long as I kept putting one foot in front of another, that eventually, it would end. I drew deeply on my experiences of childbirth and took solace in the fact that I had made the decision to undertake this challenge, in order to raise money to support women whose experience of chaos and vulnerability were something to be lived daily, not by choice as a ‘life experience’. I had chosen to be here and I chose to keep going.
At 88km my friends joined me for the final time and walked with me for the grueling ascent up into Brighton. By that point going up hill actually felt like relief. It worked different muscles and didn’t aggravate my knees and when I finally saw the lights of Brighton I let out a whoop of joy. The end. In sight.
Of course, 12km is still a long way to go, especially when you have slowed to what might be described at best as a hobble. But I dug deep and kept moving forwards, forwards, forwards, each kilometer marker making me stronger and more determined. ‘Stronger with every step, stronger with every step, stronger with every step’.
The final rest stop came at 94km and as I saw the familiar surroundings of my old university I finally became completely overwhelmed with what I had achieved. I had run, walked and staggered all the way from London, to my home town of Brighton, raising £1000 for the Brighton Women’s Centre in the process. Tears streamed down my face as volunteers helped me fill my water pack for the last time and handed me snacks to see me through the last hour of the journey.
Those last 6km seemed to last for years and it started to feel as if the Race Course would always be just out of touching distance. And then. There it was. And there was I, pushing on as quickly as I could through the darkness of Brighton and towards the finish line. It felt surreal, almost anticlimactic. It was almost 18 hours since I had left London and I had been awake for over 20. I was exhausted, aching to my very bones, but quietly, quietly satisfied. I hadn’t given up. I hadn’t stopped. I had done it.
Thank you again to every person who has sponsored me, it has been utterly overwhelming and I know that the money raised (I have just tipped over the £1000 mark), will be greatly appreciated by the Brighton Women’s Centre. Thank you to my Instagram family for your words of kindness and support and your utter belief in me. And the biggest thank you to Jen and Richard for being there on the day, telling me that I was doing great, distracting me by talking about podcasts and giving me something to aim for at each rest stop, you guys are the best.
If you still want to sponsor me you can find my page at: https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/stefgoesrunning