Ali and I took on a race which was destined to never be easy: a cross-country, incredibly hilly mud-fest on the eve of December. As first marathons go, I honestly believe that Ali has the story to end all horror stories. What happened to us on that day is something I'd never wish on anyone and I really hope that it hasn't completely destroyed his expectations for the year, given all the hard work he has put in despite painful injuries. I was very lucky to have Ali with me, whenever I reached the verge of tears he would share my frustrations and we'd laugh together, imagining the hot baths and cocktails we could enjoy when it was all over.
Like every other race this year, the TrailScape Marathon was entirely unique and there is little I would change about the experience as once again I learned things about myself I may have otherwise, never discovered. Namely, that I am disgustingly stubborn.
Meg, Mark and Dan were going to be running the half marathon on the same day so we were expecting plenty of support on course and to welcome us back at the end of the race. We were all kitted up in our Team Run 12 vests, being snapped at by various photographers from the local press and the event organisers who had have been great supporters of the Team Run 12 initiative. With very little warning, Ali and I were pushed to the start line. Mark had only just arrived and had organised first aid kits, foil blankets and whistles for us to carry - part of our mandatory kit - but the rush meant we didn't get time to take them from him. Ali and I laughed at the thought of even needing any of this 'mandatory' kit and were smug that we didn't have to carry any excess weight for the next 26 miles.
As we disappeared out of eye sight of the 'support crew', leaving behind Dan's bellowing voice of 'BYEEE BEXXXX, BYEEE ALIIIII', we were immediately greeted by ankle deep mud and plenty of puddles. The crowd of around 30 runners stuck together for the first two miles, all getting lost due to some awful signage in the first 2 kilometres. The crowd started to thin out as we made our ascent up a steep hill. Ali and I stopped at the bottom to stroke a horse that was roaming around the fields. I am notoriously terrified of horses and this one was no exception. I swear it wanted to bite me for even thinking about petting it. After a quick selfie, we started to climb the hill. 'My calves are in bits' Ali said, 'Ditto'. The hills were not gentle but great steep climbs, we would have benefited from walking sticks and boots!
My watch beeped to tell us we were approaching the eleventh mile, we were both looking pretty good, if a bit muddy, and were wondering more how Meg, Dan and Mark were getting on than what the rest of the course had in store for us. The signs were, at times, very difficult to follow and we could run 500 metres without even seeing a 'buff ribbon' which we'd been told to look out for throughout the course to keep us on track. Having seen Karen, Darren and Ellie en route we had no fear that we were making good progress. We battled up one hill that was so steep we had to climb up it on our hands and knees, constantly fearful of literally falling backwards.
Ali had fallen over once already after trying to remove some mud from his shoes on a dusty pathway, his side covered in chalk, luckily we still didn't have a need for the first aid kit we'd been told that we needed.
We finally spotted a marshal at what I was led to believe was the 13th mile, 'No no, this is mile 10' the marshal told us, I looked at my watch again, we'd definitely covered more ground than that and hadn't seen any other runners in a long while. I questioned the marshal who assured us that we were just ten miles in. Disheartened and a little bit deflated we plodded on, running when we could, climbing when we had to and wadding through mud when there was no other option
After what seemed like an eternity of treacherous muddy paths, chalky fields and even a small swamp, we found ourselves running down a country lane. We picked up our pace, stretching our legs and enjoying a mile at our fastest speed yet. At a T-Junction, Ali looked left, then right, then to me confused as there was no arrow pointing us in the right direction. 'The sign must have blown down, that goes towards Meopham, lets go that way'. I followed Ali as he continued down the winding country lanes, after about a kilometre we stopped again, we hadn't seen any signage for a long time and were starting to worry. I made a phone call to the race directors who explained we'd come off course and to turn back around. Having covered an additional three miles already, this is the last thing we wanted.
We jogged back up to the T-Junction, by now we were both frustrated, upset and desperate to see more mud - that may, at least, mean we were back on the right track. With a near empty water bottle we made the decision to stop in a pub we'd seen 'The Amazon and Tiger'. The kind owners filled our water bottles, offered us bananas and gels (the landlord was also a runner) and tried to help us decipher our map. 'You're going to cover about 18 more miles if you get back on track,' the look of horror must have shown on our faces as the landlady tried to explain the course to Ali. 'Come on, i'll give you a lift back to the church' she said, digging her hand in to her pocket for her car keys. 'No. No. NO.' I said, probably more abruptly than I should have to someone who was only trying to help us, 'I'm sorry, I just can't give up, I have to finish the race', I explained the concept of Team Run 12 to them and they wished us well as we left again.
After about an hour, we found ourselves back on an path way littered with arrows and ribbons, as if they'd been blown off. The marshalls cheered as we finally pulled in to the 12 mile stop point - having clocked nearly 17 miles. 'Do you want a lift back?' they asked, again we refused, this time with far less want to finish the course, before continuing to plod on through fields full of sheep, up steep hills and over electric fences.
Approaching another T-Junction we were greeted by two arrows, pointing in opposite directions. We stopped to video the signs to show everyone what we'd been dealing with. By now, Ali and I were both so angry with how our race was going. How could anyone mess up signs this badly? My watch beeped as we randomly selected to go left. Up a hill we passed some walkers, 'we've seen people like you, towns about 4 miles that way, head there'. We'd covered nearly 22 miles and still hadn't found the 18 mile marshals.
I called Dan when we realised we'd come off course again. They'd just finished a 14.5 mile run (a little bit off being a half marathon!), after a quick congratulations I started to panic. Dan reassured me that we'd make it when my phone signal cut out again, as it intermittently appeared, I received dozens of texts and missed calls.
A search and rescue team had been sent out to look for us.
After what seemed like an eternity, we saw another marshal. She looked relieved to see us and promised to call ahead to let everyone know we were safe and on course to make it back in about 4 miles time. We climbed another fence and were greeted by a '5km to go sign'. I looked down at my watch, 'Ali... We've done 28.6 miles'. With his hamstring giving him grief, he trudged on, continuing to attempt to run where possible and jumping over fences to keep on the course.
After another two miles we found two more marshals, sat at the bottom of the evilest hill I'd ever seen (see picture below) who explained search and rescue were still out looking for us, they promised to call and let everyone know we were safe. 'You've only got 5km to go' one said. WHAT? That was the case nearly 5km ago! Realising that a TrailScape mile didn't quite equate to a real mile, we ploughed on. Tears pricked my eyes, three miles seemed an eternity when we had already come so far.
'I can't do this. I want to stop', I text Dan. I couldn't bring myself to say the words outloud incase Ali agreed. I started to jog ahead of him, hoping he wouldn't notice the tears in my eyes and lump in my throat as I swallowed back an embarrassing desire to give up.
Around 3 miles later we bumped in to another group of marshals who'd been sent to look for us. They shouted out to us as they saw us approaching to check we were okay, 'We can't stop. We have to keep running, our legs won't work otherwise'. I wasn't lying, we were both exhausted, drained and dehydrated. Given we'd come so far off course and were approaching our 32nd mile, the lady was shocked to hear my response!
The other marshal was on the phone to someone back at the finish line 'They'll be about 10, maybe 15 minutes' he said, assessing the slow, plodding pace we were maintaining. Ali and I looked at each other in despair, 15 minutes meant another mile.
'Count backwards from 60' I said to Ali. '60, 59, 58...' he continued down to zero then questioned why on earth I'd made him do that. 'That's one minute down, 14 to go'. A few minutes later, I could hear noise. I thought I was hallucinating, having earlier on thought I'd spotted Beth at the gate of a field. So the relief that washed over me to see Dan standing waiting for us at the edge of the woods was unbearable. I broke in to what felt like a sprint and threw myself in to his arms, tears welling my eyes. He took my hand, then took Alis when he approached us, starting to jog with us. 'You want to run?' he asked, 'Come on, we'll run together'.
We plodded on, as we came out of the woodland, the loudest cheer erupted from everyone waiting for us. Tears welled in my eyes, 'Come on Ali, come on', I grabbed his hand and we crossed the finish arch together. I collapsed in to Meg's arms, sobbing uncontrollably. Over 6.5 hours, 32 miles and a whole load of mud, we'd made it. The race organisers explained that some children had been found on course removing signs, moving them and turning them around which had caused us to go so far off course. We couldn't be angry at anyone, we just had to accept the race for what it had been. An ultra-marathon.
As we approach the final race my emotions are so mixed. I've said this month after month but as I type this I'm just five days from the final finish line: just 26.2 miles stand between me and succeeding with this challenge.
I'm so incredibly proud of everything that Team Run 12 has become. When I announced that I wanted to take on this challenge in 2013, I put myself in a risky position. I was throwing myself in to the unknown, preparing to push my body and mentality to its absolute limits and risking very public failure - in front of those who believed in me more than I believed in myself and in front of those who laughed at the idea of me even making it half way.
It was ludicrous, I even doubted myself. In fact, I've doubted myself the entire way through this year; its taken a long time for me to proud of what we've achieved and feel as though I have created something valuable, something that I can now see has bought people together, made people stronger and challenged people in ways they never thought possible.
Talent is irrelevant. Hard work, determination, a pinch of stubbornness and the want to try are the key to success. Life is comfortable and we, all too often, fail to challenge ourselves; we rarely commit to anything we feel may lead to 'failure'. Taking a risk has been the most satisfying experience of my life so far and I will be eternally grateful for the support I've received.
My family could have turned around and told me to not be so ridiculous when I suggested this was something I wanted to do, instead they have been there. They've begged for raffle prizes and sponsorship, they've told everyone they meet about the Team Run 12 vision, they've laughed, they've cried but most importantly they've held my hand when I've lost belief in my ability to put one foot in front of the other.
In 2015, break the mould. Do something that scares you, even if it's just once. Do something bold, brave and out of character. Now is the time to join the gym, learn a new language, tell someone you love them or find a new job. Whatever it is, do it now. Life is for living, not surviving or getting by. Make a change. Be the best version of you, and please, please, take the time to tell me about it.
Together we can beat cancer, and until we can beat it, lets ensure that anyone, and their families, living with a cancer diagnosis has access to the support they need.
Please donate here: uk.virginmoneygiving.com/teamrun12
Merry Christmas to you all. x