The quiet narrow streets of Alfriston had a surreal, fairytale quality to them as I gritted my teeth and passed out of the village and into a field of cows. Everything seemed so real, the colours so vivid, life so immediate. Despite the pain, I felt positive. The cows soon put paid to that. One blocked my path, glaring at me in a menacing kind of way. I hung on a minute, waiting to see what it did. It began to move towards me. I felt more vulnerable than usual in these situations. Two more runners came up behind me. Clearly not scared by domestic cows, they hurried on, the cow shuffling off, clearing my way. I shuffled on, smiling wrily.
The path began to head upwards. I dared to think consciously about my groin. It was hurting, but manageable on this gentle uphill. My hope flared. The sun was now beginning to feel warm, even at this early hour. Other runners passed me by, some stopping to chat for a minute, before the mutual good luck parting. My thoughts went back to when the injury happened, and how I’d gone from being able to initially walk, albeit slowly, to then only a very short painful limp. My mate Ian, who I’d been running with from the start, stayed with me for a mile or so, even at this slow pace, and much to the detriment of his own race. For that I was grateful. As we crept down from the trail towards Alfriston, another runner with poles overtook us, asking if we were ok. I explained the problem, and he lent me his poles, saying he’d wait at the finish. For that, I was also so grateful. I told Ian I was going to drop at Alfriston and we decided he should go now and make the best race he could for himself. It was an emotional parting, and he shot off with huge vigour. Coming down off the trail was excruciating. I took the time to reconcile myself that I’d made it as far as 89 miles, and that to drop at 91 was no disgrace. It was a bitter conversation with myself.
But, the Tim Vincent who entered the door of the church hall in Alfriston was very different from the Tim Vincent who left it. My mind had shifted levels in that small room, thanks to five small words. You have so much time…
The path began to get a little steeper now, and my pace slowed further. The stunning scenery had been taking my mind off my pace and pain, and I’d made steady progress for an hour or so, but now I was definitely shuffling rather than walking. Bryon Powell’s Relentless Forward Progress mantra kept rolling in my head. Just keep moving.
I eventually got to Jevington check point. The steps up into the hall were torturous, but I’d set my mind on a cup of tea and some cake (I quite like cake). As I sat down, one of the volunteers checked on me and said that nobody would think badly of me for dropping here. Before any part of my mind could even think about conceding defeat, that other part, the same that had asked for the painkillers in Alfriston, made my mouth speak the words ‘I’ve not come 95 miles to drop now.’ A curt nod from the volunteer and a few minutes later I was on my way, my face screwed in pain as I came down the steps out of the hall. Downhill was so much more painful than any other kind of movement.
A short stretch of road lead to an uphill slog to the trig point. I still had my base layer on underneath my running top from the cold night shift. The sun was hot now, and stopping part way up the hill to take the base layer off, I realised that the pain in my groin was far worse now. The shutters slammed down in my mind – don’t think about it Timbo, sort your clothes out and just keep moving!
I made the trig point at I think around 9am, the time I’d calculated to be finished based on 3mph pace from Alfriston. From here it was a steep downhill through a narrow gully, and then onto the flat road into Eastbourne. I guess the gully section is perhaps half a mile long, but due to the very narrow and uneven nature, it took me about an hour to get down. I was using the poles heavily here, putting all of my weight onto them before inching my feet forward one by one. After what felt an absolute eternity, I made the bottom. A lady was waiting here for another runner, and she told me it had taken her 20 mins to walk to here from the finish. Hope flared again.
I’d thought that once I was down off the hill, I could put on a much faster pace on the flat, so hoped that even if I was twice as slow as the lady I could make it in 40 minutes. A few steps told me otherwise. The gully had taken its toll, and the pain was now so bad it was all I could do to just keep moving forward.
For this race, I’d bought a Ultimate Direction race pack, its grey and blue material and front mounted bottles with red teats looking like something NASA may furnish their astronauts with. By now, there were more people up and about in Eastbourne, and I became aware that one of a group of people waiting at a bus stop was eyeing me curiously as I approached. I tried to smile, and said ‘I’m nearly there, aren’t I?’ to which the old lady spread her arms, and loudly pronounced ‘Ooooh yes! This is Eastbourne!’ I laughed aloud!
Buoyed by my immense amusement at this, I shuffled on, edging ever closer to Eastbourne Athletics track. I hit the path which bends its way toward the finish, remembering this from the SDW50 the year before. I was nearly there. Runners passed me, offering congratulations and encouragement, which I gladly accepted and returned. ‘Nearly there now mate.’ Not long now!’ But this path went on and on. And on. I didn’t remember it going on for so long, and if it hadn’t been for the other runners passing me, I would have thought I’d gone wrong somewhere. Then a lady told me the finishing track was just around the next corner. My heart leapt. I tried to go faster, couldn’t. The ‘corner’ turned out to be a very long slow bend, but nevertheless, I did eventually round it, and then saw the stadium. All of a sudden, a huge bubble of emotion shot up from my stomach and threatened to engulf me. I was going to make it.
As I crossed the road to enter into the athletics stadium, I became aware of a line of people on the left. It was some of the Centurion race volunteers. It seems that word had got round about my struggles, and as I entered the stadium, this line of people stood and clapped me in, a Centurion guard-of-honour. I swallowed a lump, blinked back the emotions, and felt utterly lost. As a mid-pack runner, I’d never experienced anything like this. One of the race organisers, Nici, joined me for the lap of the track. It had taken me 5 hours to cover the 9 miles from Alfriston, and it took me 12 minutes to get round that track. A new course record apparently.
My final time was 29 hours and 16 minutes.
I would never have made it without those poles, and my thanks to that runner is immense.
And I would never have made it without those five words…