You're reading an extract from 'Failure is an Option' by Matt Whyman. Available to purchase here.
Credit for banner picture: Phil Rodham
There it was, shining like a beacon of hope from the corner of the car park. Fronted by two Centurion feather flags, the gazebo had been planted with glow sticks around the perimeter and illuminated inside by camping lamps. Just then, the Blue Bell Hill checkpoint felt like the most welcoming place in the world. Crossing the timing mat, I interpreted the beep as confirmation that I was cleared for entry.
‘Welcome,’ said the volunteer who had adopted my role this time as a sort of concierge for crushed runners. ‘What can we get for you?’
Just as it had been when I manned this checkpoint, the place was littered with runners who appeared to have powered down. All the plastic chairs under the gazebo were occupied. Some individuals were dealing with blisters on their feet. Others deployed a dead-eyed stare into the night. Only a few chatted with sandwiches in hand like someone would be round with the rosé at any moment.
‘I’m just looking for something,’ I said.
I glanced at the food on the table, and the kettle whistling on a camping stove to make tea and coffee. The volunteer offered me both, but I was only here for one thing. This had been a pivotal part of my race strategy from the moment I signed up, in fact.
As a marshal, I had seen many runners pick up pacers here. Aware that I might well be feeling wobbly at this point, I had recruited one for myself to steer me through the rest of the night.
‘Finally,’ declared a voice from the gloom. ‘I thought I’d get here earlier than planned just in case.’
I faced the car park to see my running club friend, Emma, clipping her race-pack straps together. When I had thought about who could pace me, it made sense to approach her. Emma was an experienced trail-marathon runner with similar times to me. She was also aware of my vestibular issues, and as she worked as a physio I figured I would be in good care should I start going sideways. Aware that I was asking her to sacrifice her Saturday night, and leave her husband to take care of their two small children, I had shown my appreciation when she agreed by presenting them both with a bottle of gin. Having stressed that it wasn’t a run-for-booze arrangement, but just a token of my gratitude, I knew that I could rely on her.
‘Sorry to make you wait,’ I said. ‘To be honest, my hopes of making the podium are fading.’
The marshal laughed.
‘If you’ve made it this far then you’re a winner,’ he said. ‘Just one more marathon to go!’
Seeing a familiar face had a briefly energising effect on me. Having arrived at the checkpoint at a low ebb, exhausted and aware that my efforts to fight the dizzying effects of running in darkness were beginning to grind me down, I set off with Emma at a jog with stories to share from my day on the trail.
‘You didn’t see a ghost,’ she said dismissively, after I had hoped to dine out on that tale. ‘You’ve been running for nearly twenty hours, Matt, and to be honest you don’t sound too with it. Make sure you drink and eat, and let’s leave that kind of thing for when we’re out of the woods, OK?’
‘All right,’ I said, feeling as if I had just been firmly put in my place, and to be honest that was fine. I was so deep into this act of endurance, and so far gone, I realised, that I was happy to be told what to do. ‘Sorry.’
‘Don’t apologise,’ said Emma, who was leading the way with her head torch shining bright. I was finding it much easier to just follow like this rather than concentrate on my own beam, and my pacer was clearly taking her role quite seriously. That she had twisted her hair into professional trail-runner plaits should have told me she meant business. Now I was finding out from her relentless forward progress. While it had come as a surprise, from a clubmate who excelled at endurance chatting, it meant I was moving with more sense of purpose than when I had arrived at the checkpoint. ‘Let’s just focus on getting to the finish.’
Credit: Pete Aylward
Plugging onwards, we followed a path through dense forest. The dark- ness was absolute in places, with just the reflective strip in the red and white tape lighting up in our torch beams to guide us through. Here, our casual conversation about life at home and work kept at bay the fact that we were effectively running through the set for some backwoods slasher movie. Eventually, the path began to climb until it reached a series of steps made from wooden sleepers. They were so challenging I had to push on my thighs to help my aching quads. Had I been alone, despite the seemingly real possibility that an arrow, axe or poisoned dart could thwack into a nearby tree at any moment, I might well have stopped to rest. The fleeting high of running with a friend was certainly beginning to pass. As my legs grew heavier, no kind words of encouragement could distract me from the fact that I was in the teeth of an ordeal here. With a pacer who had come out this far to help me, however, I didn’t want to be the runner who just gave up. Maybe Emma knew that if she indulged my grumbling it would all be over, because whenever I so much as muttered to myself she didn’t sugar-coat the situation.
‘How much further to the next checkpoint?’
We all know how it feels to be tired. If we stay up late or work too hard, that feeling of fatigue weighs heavily upon us. Sometimes we can find ourselves nodding off for nanoseconds, which is usually the mind’s way of telling us to turn in. Eighty miles into an ultramarathon, having been too keyed up to properly rest the night before, those brief snatches of sleep on my feet evolved into something more disconcerting. Running in silence along a rutted path behind my pacer, literally following in Emma’s footsteps in the hope that she had picked the right line, I registered a shape in the glade to my right and processed it as a dinosaur.
‘Wow!’ I said under my breath.
‘What is it?’
Just as soon as the thought had entered my head, I knew I was imagining it.
Unlike the girl in the field, who was likely to have been out with friends after a party or whatever, this was mostly definitely not real. Teenagers often hung out after dark. A triceratops was history. I had read a great deal about long-distance runners experiencing hallucinations. I just hadn’t anticipated that it would happen to me. Then I saw another, one of the nice ones with the long neck, calmly grazing from the treetops. I had no doubt it was just an illusion, but as these great beasts continued to form out of the darkness it was also out of my control.
I wasn’t scared of imaginary creatures, but the fact that fantasy was now merging with reality unnerved me. For a while I dealt with it by talking about dino-free subjects like track etiquette and TV shows we had each been watching. While it passed the time, and slowly ticked through the distance, it did nothing to stop me from feeling like this ultramarathon had morphed into late-night Jurassic parkrun.
‘I was looking at the live results while I waited in the car,’ Emma told me, unaware that I was tripping exhaustion-induced ultra-balls. ‘Quite a few runners have pulled out along the way, so you’re doing brilliantly.’
I heard her loud and clear but said nothing in response. This was because I didn’t perceive that my pacer was doing the talking here. It was the baby facing me that was strapped to her back. In my mind, I knew it was just a communication breakdown between the reflective strips on Emma’s race pack, my tired eyes and my scrambled brain. Nevertheless, in that heart of darkness the infant was seeking to motivate me so earnestly that I registered it as real. I watched its little hands curl into fists of encouragement and logged it as just another unforgettable moment on a run that felt more like an odyssey with every step.
Decades passed before we dropped out of the woods to reach the next checkpoint. At least that’s how it seemed to me as we finally cleared the trees and arrived outside a village hall. With the doors pinned open, I could hear the rousing strains of ‘Gold’ by Spandau Ballet. The volume was low, given that it was about three in the morning, but with the lights shining brightly it felt like we weren’t too late for the party.
Credit: Pete Aylward
‘Two minutes,’ Emma instructed me as I negotiated the single step. ‘Grab what you need and let’s crack on.’
I was I no doubt that my clubmate’s presence and positive words had provided a focus for me to keep moving forward rather than spinning out. Emma also knew about the cut-offs, which she seemed to be treating like some apex predator with my scent in its nostrils. By my fuzzy calculations, we had plenty of time to cover the remaining twenty miles or so. I figured we could even afford to slacken off a little. Nevertheless, with every mile we put behind us, the more my pacer was beginning to turn militant on me.
‘I’m not sure I can eat anything,’ I said to her, as a volunteer in a Centurion Marshal T-shirt, complete with plastic floral garland and grass skirt, invited us inside with a flourish of her hand. ‘In fact, I just want to sleep.’
The urge overtook me with frightening ease. On being greeted by another eighties belter, and registering that in fact every marshal present was dressed for a Hawaiian night out, I no longer knew what was real or imagined. Either these guys had gone to great lengths to dress up the place and lift the spirits of weary runners, or I had lost it completely. It felt as if my brain was shutting down, and that was enough for me to plead with my pacer to give me a break.
‘Fifteen minutes?’ I asked. ‘Just let me lie down for a quarter of an hour.’
Emma considered me for a moment. Before she responded, I could see she had noted that I was on the verge of passing out.
‘Twelve?’ I asked.
‘Ten. And then we go.’
Slumping on a straw mat, I closed my eyes and effectively disappeared from existence. The music ceased. The light turned to darkness. Silence reigned. What felt like a second later, I heard someone calling my name with great alarm.
‘Matt! Matt! What has happened to Matt?’
As my head rebooted, and the sound of a party in full swing returned, I opened my eyes once more. The first thing I noted was Emma standing over me. She was dancing happily by herself to Wham’s ‘Club Tropicana’ while eating a Twix. She only stopped when Dimi – the runner I had met earlier in the race – crossed the floor from the food table with a cup in hand and concern in her expression.
‘I’m fine,’ I said, groaning as I hauled myself into an upright position. ‘Just stretching.’
‘Oh!’ Dimi sounded both relieved and amused, and swapped a grin with Emma. ‘I thought he was dead.’
My pacer consulted her watch.
‘Time’s up,’ she said. ‘Strictly speaking, you have another two minutes but seeing that you’re awake ... ’
As part of my strategy for this race, sleep was not something I had factored in. It had turned out to be nothing more than a power nap, but as we set out once more it proved to be exactly what I needed. In those first moments after waking, it had been a struggle to get my head around the fact that I still faced another eighteen miles. Once I’d shaken off the stiff- ness that had set into my limbs, however, and gulped the tea that Emma had made for me, I began to feel annoyingly fresh.
‘I feel great!’ I said, perhaps a little too brightly as we passed a runner reduced to a pitiful shuffle. ‘How are you doing?’
‘Better now we’re on the move again,’ said Emma, who was carrying her phone in one hand. ‘I was looking at the live timings while you were out,’ she continued, consulting the screen once more. ‘There have been so many dropouts. The field is down to about 200 now, but you’re doing all right, Matt. In fact, as long as you don’t lie down again, there’s a chance you could finish in the top 100.’
My position in this race wasn’t something I’d considered since fantasising about coming first. My sole focus was on running 100 miles. Nothing else mattered to me, but clearly my pacer had other ideas.
‘What position am I now?’ I asked anyway.
‘Oh, quite far back,’ she said breezily, ‘but we’re not that far behind a lot of runners. We can do this, but you can’t mess around any more.’
I didn’t have the energy to spell out just how much I had needed that nap. While I was enjoying fresh wind in my sails, my legs were already beginning to remind me that it couldn’t last. As Emma set a pace that felt punishing because it wasn’t a walk, I fell in behind her once more and just got my head down.
Credit: Pete Aylward
We ran in silence for quite some time. It was a relief to find I had left the hallucinations behind, and a dawning joy to register that the sky was beginning to brighten and colour. I had never run through the night, nor believed it was something I could do, but when the first golden bars of sunshine broke over the horizon, I felt like I had arrived in a whole new world. I was beyond tired as I switched off my head torch and stowed it in my race pack. Left to my own devices, I had no doubt that I would be shuffling along in the early morning light like the trickle of competitors we passed. We exchanged greetings with everyone, along with words of encouragement because it really did feel like every runner in the race was in this together. Emma was first to remind them that they didn’t have far to go now, wishing them well as she dragged me onwards.
It was only when the next competitor in turn came into her cross hairs that her commitment to my cause came into play.
‘Ten more to go,’ she muttered.
‘Miles?’ I asked, a little confused because I was still working in kilometres and my brain was too tired for maths.
‘No,’ she said, like it was obvious, ‘the runners you need to take down.’
I looked across at my pacer, unsure if I had heard her correctly. Emma had always struck me as pleasantly well-mannered and easy going. Now here she was displaying a competitive edge that practically glinted in the early light.
‘We’re not out to kill them,’ I said. ‘I mean, we’ve all come a long way.’ Emma tutted sharply on the trot.
‘Do you want to make the top 100 or not?’
With just a parkrun to go in distance, I had set my sights on a cup of sweet tea. I never normally took sugar, but it was the only form of fuel I had been able to manage over the previous ten miles. Just peeling off for the final aid station in the farm courtyard had required some negotiation with my pacer. Quite simply, the closer we got to the finish, the sharper her focus became.
At first, on having to shift up a gear, I had come close to resenting the relentless pushing. As the end became a realistic proposition, and with just a few more runners to pass to place as planned, I was surprised to find it turn into a motivating force. I had to break for short walks on a regular basis, but they didn’t control me. By extension, my pacer oversaw every- thing, and was living up to her job description. I had to dig deep to get by quite a few runners, but by then I was sold on the goal. The prospect of a top-100 finish, having pushed harder when I wanted to coast, was some- thing that suddenly seemed of the utmost importance.
I was just in the process of sharing my experience with the volunteer who had kindly brewed my tea when Emma cut in that we didn’t have time. ‘But it’s too hot for me to drink,’ I said, blowing madly at the steamingliquid in my cup.
‘You can have as much tea as you want at the finish!’ Emma had stayed on the farm track when I trotted across to the trestle table. She looked back along the stretch we had completed. I could tell from her anxious express- ion that the runners we had overtaken to get here were on their way. ‘Just grab a water and hurry up!’
The final leg of the race breaks from the North Downs Way, cutting through a field of sunflowers. As we ran between the giant dials, closing in on a pair of runners who were walking intermittently, the enormity of what I looked set to complete weighed upon me. With just a few kilometres left, I just felt intensely emotional. I thought about the moment I could Face- time my wife and show her the buckle I had earned. I wasn’t there yet but it was close at hand. Physically, I was functioning on fumes. Mentally, I had no defences left as tears flowed freely down my cheeks.
‘Sorry,’ I said, wiping my face with the heel of my hand. ‘I’m so grateful for what you’ve done, but it’s broken me.’
‘Of course it has!’ Emma checked I wasn’t about to lose it completely. We still had to join the country lane into Ashford and then follow the tape to the stadium. By her reckoning, providing I pushed to get beyond the two runners we were closing in on, I would make the top 100 from a starting field three times that number. ‘You’re going to do this, but isn’t it better to look back knowing you gave it everything?’
She was right. I knew that. It’s just this race was so vast in scale that I had only been able to approach it by putting one step in front of the other. Even estimating a finish time had left me feeling like I was tempting fate. What’s more, I knew that from the halfway mark I might well have let things slide without a pacer. With time in hand, I’d have been content to allow the walks to control me. Instead, as we finally hit the tarmac, swapping encouragement with the two runners as we passed, I found myself pushing with the same commitment to shaving off seconds as I did at much shorter races. Powered purely by a rush of adrenaline, and in the wake of my pacer’s motivational ploy of targeting people to overtake, I held my head up in defiance of the dizziness that had accompanied me this far. It hadn’t defeated me as I had feared. Yes, it had made this race more challenging, but then I had no doubt that every competitor faced down demons of their own to reach this point.
‘One hundred miles,’ I said out loud because it felt like I owned it.
‘One hundred and four,’ said Emma to correct me. ‘You missed the triple-figure moment before the last checkpoint. I didn’t want to say anything in case you decided to stop and celebrate.’
The North Downs Way 100 finishes with three quarters of a victory lap of Ashford’s Julie Rose Stadium athletics track. With less than 400 metres to go, as the morning sun strengthened, I joined the inside lane feeling like my race had only just started. On the other side of the field, which nobody would dream of crossing by foot, I could see and hear volunteers at the finish line clapping and cheering alongside the Centurion staff. Another runner had just reached the line, arms aloft but then dropping his hands to his knees. The sight served to spur me on. I wanted to be able to stop as he had, with no urgency to keep moving. Like him, I needed to put that trail of red and white tape behind me. After just over twenty-six hours since setting off, I could not wait to just be still.
‘Are you sure this track is 400 metres?’ I asked Emma breathlessly. ‘It feels longer.’
‘Just go,’ was all she said in response, before dropping back as I approached the home straight.
For the first time since the concept of running a 100-mile-long race came on to my radar, I realised I could do it. I had to see the finishing arch to believe it, and that felt like a landmark moment in my life. I’d had my doubts throughout, from signing up to setting off to seeing the sun set and then questioning if I’d still be running when it rose again. As a boy, skittering to the end of the pavement with my dad, this distance would’ve seemed like a journey to another planet. Finishing last at the inter-schools cross-country race, holding back tears at being so useless at something I enjoyed, it would’ve been comforting to know that one day I would earn a buckle recognising that I had run further than I could ever imagine.