I waited patiently to cross the 26.2 mile threshold before recording a video of the achievement. This was the first time running over that distance. There obviously a long way to go, and it was becoming clearer just how much the rain had affected the trail, but an Ultra I was. It had been an ambition for some time, and I had made it.
I thought back to my first marathon in 2005, coming in at 4h 54m, barely able to walk and suffering heat stroke. I didn’t walk to move again let alone run. It’s been a hell of a journey folks.
As the run continued, the rain held back. This was fortunate given the pools of water sloshing in my trainers from the ponds below. It was bad. And to make matters worse, so was my right knee. I began to have trouble lifting it to avoid the water in a natural position so ended up adjusting my feet as I approached each one and swinging my leg outwards, compensating with additional weight on my left. This got progressively worse as I moved through Warrington and Lymm and would do for the remained of the race.
An impromptu inbetween stops meeting of Gemma and Ethan, and one of our friends Michelle, perked me up. I had a couple of minutes to refresh and refocus. The next checkpoint was at 32 miles, and I was approaching 29 at this point. I loaded on jelly babies, gave some assurances about how I felt and made my into a part of the trail that seemed an age to cover.
A long stretch of woodland, weaving between puddles and mini-ponds, with muddy edging, it proved to be one of the most challenging parts of the run. With my knee pain beginning to take hold, I began to use what I can only describe as an outward sweeping movement that would allow minimum lift but meant that I was able to jump over the water which was key. My pace began to slow, but I was relatively comfortable with my breathing and general fitness still. It just became more and more frustrating.
Frustrating because I had felt no such pain in my months of training. I was as fit as I could be but when it mattered I had started to feel a niggle. And in an ultra, I soon learned that a niggle has nowhere else to go but develop. My new running style meant that I began to compensate for the lack of movement in my right leg with additional in my left. As I left the 38 mile checkpoint after seeing Gemma and Ethan, I began to feel a slight twinge in my left groin. Perfect.
As I passed the threshold into Greater Manchester, I felt a surge of relief and joy. Although over 10 miles away, the end was in relative sight. I could see the Hilton Building on Deansgate in the distance and knew I was on my way. I focused and counted down mile by mile, limping through a mixture of walking and shuffle-running. I was going to make it; I just didn’t know when.
My pace was slowing bit by bit and I came to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t make my target time. I had built up a plan for sub-10 hours and felt so good for so long that it took me a couple of miles of feeling sorry for myself to get over it. It’s always disappointing to miss a target set; no matter how others view your achievements, you set your own and not meeting them after training for so long can hit you hard.
I came out of this lull as I approached the final checkpoint; mile 44. On approach I saw a mini-me in the distance and could hear his shouting. As I got nearer, he started to run towards me; my boy, Ethan. His face filled with pride, happiness and love, such that I had not seen on his face before. Now, at 3 years old he obviously didn’t insert the context, but he knew I was doing something big and that I needed his support. And he gave it just at the right time and in abundance.
The final 6 miles are abit of a muddle. In amongst dealing with a now aching left achilles to go with my groin and knee, I had a key stretch of the River Mersey to negotiate just at the point when the weather again turned sour. I was alone, shouting at myself and the elements, daring them to get worse as they couldn’t beat me. I had to keep myself going somehow!
At Chorlton Water Park, my stepdad was waiting unexpectedly, armed with some supplies incase I needed them. I took a minute, let off some steam and carried on. It was needed and very much appreciated.
That though wasn’t all. As I approached 47 miles, a friend of ours and came running along the Mersey in my direction. I almost didn’t see him until he flung his arms out. He had come to help me and didn’t he just?! He got me talking about the run, Ethan, holiday plans; anything to keep me going. The final couple of miles passed much easier because of him and I will always be grateful.
So then, the approach. Finishing at Didsbury Sports Village, my friend veered off to run home where I would go later for some food and a rest, and I turned into the sports ground hearing Gemma shouting, “Wooo, come on Anthony, not far now. One lap to go.”
One lap? Of what? I was here, I had arrived. Nope; false dawn! Argh! One lap of a rugby pitch to go.
It felt like the biggest pitch I had ever seen. Every step brought water up my legs; muddy puddles everywhere and my feet struggling for balance. But, I could see the finish. I laughed out loud at myself. I couldn’t believe it!
I came down the home stretch and again could see and hear Ethan in the distance, and it all made sense. It was the single biggest sporting achievement of my life as I crossed the line, picking up Ethan for a cuddle (just about!) and having a silver medal (gained for being between 100-200 in finishing) put around my neck.
It was over; I was done.
I am an ultra.