The next 14km’s took me 5 hours, it was here my DNF awaited.
In 2018 I arrived to Race to the Tower on the back of two DNF’s (Did Not Finish). For some stupid reason, I was full of confidence even though I didn’t train for it. When I say ‘didn’t train’, I mean, I sat on my arse, got super chubs and I pretty much had quit running. Fuck yeah I can do the toughest Threshold Sports ultra without training! Bitch please I’m chubs2cockylife! You be pleased that a lesson in humility was learn during this race however that was how I viewed it. Not the best approach, but I’d rather be honest. Anyways, I didn’t research this race, I didn’t know exactly how insanely hilly it was or where the checkpoints were. With my can do attitude, I ventured through the Cotswolds oblivious to the painful lessons that would await me. Key word, ‘painful’. Someone enter a hashtag about the biggest understatement of this blog. Fast forward 13 miles in and I was ready to quit. Yeah, those thoughts came up rather quickly. The hills were never ending and ridiculously steep (second biggest understatement of this blog). My quads were ruined and lets not talk about the blisters. At basecamp I had a needle put through my foot to pop one of the worst blisters I’ve ever had. I managed to make it to checkpoint 6 however I spent an hour vomiting non stop – please note that as I type this blog I am accepting your future thanks for not posting photos of said blister. I couldn’t keep anything down, which during an ultra is basically the best indication that you need to stop immediately.
Right, my blog, my rules so listen up. Here are some tips/pointers/lessons/shit you need to know.
1. If at any stage you experience the above, stop.
2. Don’t be a hero, you aren’t saving lives by continuing on.
3. You will cause even more damage to yourself and as you will soon read, you may end up in hospital as I did.
4. No I didn’t get a medal for it, nor will you for being an idiot. I should have be branded an absolutely f**king idiot for continuing. Push the limits but please know when to stop. Anyways!
Of course I very stupidly didn’t. The next 14km’s took me 5 hours, it was here my DNF awaited. During the next five hours, I became so dehydrated that I collapsed on the trails, I saw Mel on route however have no memory of this, I lost control of my bowels (yep, shit literally happens) and after 21 hours I would finally quit. Following this I would end up in A&E as a completely broken man with infected blisters and a huge sense of complete failure. What was even more frustrating was that while this race broke me, I knew I’d have to go back in 2019 to collect my medal.
For the next 12 months everything was about Tower and finishing. An obsession was what it became, in fact not a day would go by where I wouldn’t think about that race. Each step would be analysed as a reminder that I DNF. While not training for the event certainly helped set myself up for failure, I also came to the conclusion that I simply was not good enough. A difficult thing to accept and also the motivation I needed. I would go on to lose a lot of weight, train on the hilliest sections of The Ridgeway and prepare mentally for going back to the race that humbled me more than any other race.
When I returned to the start line of Race to the Tower 2019, I wasn’t full of confidence nor did I have a cocky attitude of ‘Do you even know who I am? I can do this with my eyes closed!’. Instead I arrived knowing that this race had previously ruined me. Not beaten me, but ruined me. Physically and mentally, this race destroyed who I was and forced me to rebuild from whatever scraps were left. So very humbly I arrived with a mixed look of fear, determination and ‘fuck this for a fucking joke’ on my face (James is going to have a field day with that sentence!). With all of these emotions floating around, the sky decided to open up, let it rain just for an added kick of bullshit. Just what I needed! Fuck this, I’m off to to find my people. I saw Charlie and James huddled in the race marquee out of the rain. They asked how I was feeling and I typically said, ‘I just wanting to fucking get started’. My friend Graham aka Lord Ultra (appropriate nickname!) was on pacing duties. He is one of the best pacers and I’ll forever be grateful for him. Typically he was full of confidence, along with sharing stories about other ultras he had done. Graham is the type of person who can run for days on end. He’ll stick by your side talking for 24 hours straight, however if you need him to shut up, say so and he will. I’ve found him to be very selfless when it comes to getting me through events. Last year he completed Tower in 12 hours, however this year he would suffer more than ever. We all stood around for a brief moment of silence until I decided it was time to jump ahead a few waves for an early start. No magic start moment. No light bulb moment. I didn’t see my life flash before me. We ran over then starting mat, clocked in for a double marathon to seek redemption and off we went. I waited 12 months for this moment and now the final stretch had begun.
Our race tactic was the same as it is for every ultra. Seriously it doesn’t change and most of the time it works. In fact when people ask for ultra advice, I usually tell them this. We ran the flats, walked the hills and took it easy on the downhills. Race to the Tower route along the Cotswolds is the hilliest race of the series. Some of the hills were so steep, they were not safe to run down. Naturally we had a few trips and stumbles but nothing major to write about. The first 20km is always fun. People are talking all around you and there is a wonderful buzz in the air. It was rather nice as I had many people pat me on the back wishing me luck as they ran past. I don’t like the whole influencer bullshit thing, however it did help having so many people tell me that this was my year to finish Tower.
As we approached the hills Graham let me borrow is rather expensive poles, Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z poles. They are £90 on Amazon, a lot more expensive than my £10 poles from Decathlon! However they worked a treat going up the hills. Last year I used sticks that made me look like super chubs version of Gandalf. The poles seemed to make you feel lighter and took a lot of pressure off your body, which then helped going up the hills with ease. I had never raced up a hill faster than I did at Tower, so I strongly recommend you look into buying a set yourself. Maybe try the cheap ones first? Anyways! As we tackled each hill aka mountain, I kept comparing things back to last years race. I was struggling a lot less and I seemed ‘ok’. Lord Ultra kept the spirits up with many words of encouragement as did our amazing crew support from our PA’s – Mel and Sarah. We seriously would not have been able to do these ultras without them.
As we took on yet again another mountain climb to the halfway pit stop, focus turned to time. We some how were approximately four hours ahead from last year which was just crazy. I simply wanted to finish however knowing I was doing better than last year was highly motivating. We live in a world that seems to encourage us to compare ourselves with each other, however we should only compare ourselves to ourselves. This was my race, my redemption. So knowing I was better than I was 12 months ago, gave me an incredible boost. A very quick refuel and off we went. Leaving the half way checkpoint always is difficult. Behind you are people who have showered, smell nice, are relaxing, sitting with their feet up, laughing and will not be running again for the day. Yet you have to leave that to continue the ultra marathon torture. After many non stop ultra events, I still find leaving halfway the most difficult. The mood for the next few kilometres simply was shit. We were sore and it just wasn’t going to end any time soon, a bit like these fucking mountain climbs. I’m not a mountain goat, if I was I’ll be one that complains about being a mountain goat. Lord Ultra kept making reference to the amazing views from the top of the hills. 50km into an ultra, do you think I give two fucks about a view? No, no and no. However it did distract me from the pain. My feet began to ache and my chub rub began to chafe slightly. Thankfully our PA’s had a change of clothes for us both. We met between checkpoints for an impromptu change. I changed my pants and shoes, along with re applying my 2toms butt chafe wipe. Incredibly I felt like a new man. It’s these small things that get you through the brutal runs, so I do encourage a change of pants etc half way through an ultra. With my nads no longer red raw, we picked up the pace. I would randomly break out into a run knowing that Graham would be able to catch me. Without mentioning it, I needed time alone and he gave me that space. The worst was about to come and mentally I needed to prepare to face my nightmare.
As we entered checkpoint 6 we were still four hours ahead of last years time. Excited? No. Scared? No. Petrified? Yes. I began to cry in silence as we ran along the track into the checkpoint. It would be one of our fastest pit stops. We simply filled out bottles, grabbed food and off we went. Last year I should have ended my race there, instead I carried on and suffered for it. This year, we charged on. Fuck last year, let’s finish this race. With 15km to the final checkpoint, our run turned to a slow plod. Mentally it was brutal. With each step I began to remember how I felt last year. Running out of fluids, hallucinating, being sick, feeling lonely, it all rushed back. There were parts of this section that I remembered quite vividly. There were two specific climbs that are some of the toughest on route, they were the final straws that broke me last year. However, somehow, this year we took them slow but steady. As Graham yelled out to me, ‘just put one foot in front of the other’. So I did. Then repeat. At the top of the hill we were reunited and I showed him the spot were I DNF’d last year. I told him that I had never been past this point before. Isn’t it crazy how you spend 30 seconds in a random spot on a trail, yet 12 months later you still remember everything about it? Last year it took me 21 hours to get there, this year it took me 14 hours. We continued into the final pit stop and a rather crazy reunion. I don’t remember the name of the man, but I remember his story. We met at last years race. At checkpoint 6 he DNF’d and I told him I most likely would as well later on. Yet here we were at the final checkpoint 12 months later. We laughed and shared a moment of ‘we are going to do it this year’. Now was the time to throw everything at your body, fill it with everything that will get you through the final push. I devoured all the sweets and was on a sugar high. Head torch on, it’s time to finish and get my medal.
The final 5 miles wasn’t nice. We made our way through some fields until we reached the final town. Typically it felt as though it would never end, we simply were just going through the motions of movement. We saw Mel and Sarah one last time for a quick refuel. Stupidly I took on even more sugar. 30 minutes later I would find myself in a field frantically trying to get some privacy. Yep. Let’s leave it at that. With my head torch back on, we realised we had a one mile climb left. Yes. 1600m to crawl, up the biggest hill of the race. Having the finish line at the top of the biggest hill is a major cock move. I surprisingly didn’t complain. I used this time to reflect and smile.
Over the last 12 months I dedicated everything to this race. On my wall was my bib as motivation. I’d look at it daily as a remind of not failing, but as something to strive for. I would learn many lessons about myself through that bib number, most importantly that it’s ok to quit. One of the best things I’ve done in my running journey was to DNF last year. It provided an opportunity for growth and to learn how to push forward during adversity. If you want to get stronger, prepare to be weak. If you want to stand up, be prepared to get knocked on your arse first. I wanted to finish this race, but first I needed to DNF.
As we opened the final gate along the path, I looked up and for the first time I saw Broadway Tower. It was beautiful. I closed my eyes and gave thanks. I whispered to myself ‘you can go home now’. We ran towards the finish line, with our cheer squad loud as ever, we ran over the finish line. To my surprise the person who gave me my medal was Chris who is the Marketing Manager of Threshold, however more importantly is my friend. This event meant so much to me, so for him to give me my medal was just perfect. I will never forget this race. Since this race, I still haven’t taken down my DNF bib and I don’t think I ever will. Nor will I take down my 2019 bib and finishers medal. I can’t have one without the other. I wouldn’t have it any other way
At some stage in your running journey, you will come across your own DNF race. It may even be at Race to the Tower. I promise you that this is ok. It is ok to DNF, it is ok to feel broken. It also is ok to dedicate everything you have in going back to finish that race. While it will be difficult, give it everything until you make it over that finish line. My name is Andy and I wish you a very good race