So what motivates someone to sign up for a multi-day ultra? Not just a multi-day, in point of fact, but one with neither rest days nor processional 10k to finish – full ultramarathons six days in a row, totalling 235 miles.
Peer pressure? Poor impulse control? Staggering overconfidence? Bit of them all really, along with a healthy dose of why many of us first went over 26.2 – the desire to find out just where personal limits lie and surpass them. When I first saw Deadwater advertised in September 2016, my initial response can be summed up as “ha ha ha, no”. But, I was on the back of a massive high. In June 2016 I completed my first ultra, the 69 miles of Rat Race The Wall, having never gone further than a half marathon before, and only been running at all since September 2013. This was followed up with a pair more (personally) stunning results at events around marathon distance, so confidence in not only where I was, but faith in what I could achieve with a plan and discipline, was at an all-time high. I had/have the MDS on my bucket list too, so when those more in the know were describing Deadwater as harder, but with none of that disagreeable sand and heat…. well… the devil on my shoulder said “stuff it, give it a go”, and the angel on my other chipped in with a “yeeeees, go on, give it a go”, and my fate was sealed. Fifty places open, forty-five filled, and one of them – oh God, what have I done – was mine.
The event itself
To say I was nervous on arrival at the start camp would be an understatement. There was the expected polite conversation as we measured each other. All I could take in was being significantly further from the traditional runner build than everyone else, and the amount of MDS kit from previous completers. The fact the gentle patter concerned “my last 100-miler” etc was doing no favours to my trepidation either. But I had trained, I had prepared, and I was going to give it my best. The fact a whopping 27 had dropped out before even making the start line was both disappointing and encouraging. Disappointing as who doesn’t love a good field, but encouraging as at least I’d had the sense to take care of myself and be in a position to even start!
I expected the first day to be the most taxing mentally. Not through its difficulty, you understand, but through the mantra of “no heroics”. I know I can smash out a 45-50 miler. Learned that between sign up and race day with some “small” events. I also know it can leave me walking like John Wayne after a particularly rough enema if I go all-out. The new factor here was to endure. To not just hobble across the line at the end of my strength, but to be ready to go again, and again, and again for a week. It’s worth noting we were waved off at the start line by local resident Bob Graham (no, not that Bob Graham), which gave a humorous and auspicious commencement to proceedings. The fact some of us managed to go the wrong way before even getting past where we had camped the night before was also a bit of an omen too (looking at you, Mr Palmer). This was also the section where our phone signal would be unavailable for most of the day, and we would be following bananas (no, really, best biodegradable route marker idea for a long time) as we found out just how good our navigation skills were. It was here where we lost our first competitor to injury. Despite an optimistic day of steady pace and feeling strong for the rest to come, that stabbed home the reality of how one misstep or poor decision to could end my week very quickly indeed. The scenery was beautiful, but that didn’t mean the challenge would be getting any easier.
We marched on for the next two days, enduring “drizzle” that forced route changes, mists that hid hilltops, and midges that seemed invulnerable to every anti-bug spray I had purchased. Being overwhelmingly on the trail, the pack rapidly spread out each day, leaving us all more isolated than ever, for the most part. Some might stay together for a few hours, but others could be literally miles each way from the next person ahead and behind. It’s amazing how hours later back in camp you could all recall a particularly slippery rock, personal… diversions… where you had to correct your route, and views that took the breath away whether at midday or sunset as each came across them. The steady attrition also continued, with us losing a racer a day to one cause or another, and each loss hurt, as our community of shared hardship and discovery grew tighter yet smaller.
Day four was the big test though. The one we all craved, anticipated and feared. 57 miles of Yorkshire terrain, 9,000 feet of elevation. A worthy event on its own, and one to make any racer with sense take pause by itself. After three ultramarathons though, we were lean, hungry (maybe a little too literally in some cases), and ready. Our routine was run, eat, shower, sleep, repeat. The energy was electric as we all knew we were breaking the back of it today. Come through, and completion was almost assured. Conditions were tough. The “drizzle” closed in on some tough ascents, heavily dampening pace, spirits, and runners. Once again the pack spread out, and the extra length of our “long day” left literally miles of separation between us at times. My personal low point occurred here, lost on the moors at 2 am, calling the RD to give up, but instead being greeted by a calm and reassuring voice of how close I was to road, and how close that road was to the next checkpoint. Oh God, that checkpoint. Deadwater is a self-supporting event – apart from tents and cold water every 10 miles or so if you’re not carrying it, you don’t have it. But at that checkpoint RD Richard, bent his own rules to offer us a hot meal and drink, before heading on. I think a lot of us, most, probably, was teary, and as we demolished everything on offer and were mentored and encouraged by Tom (one of Richard’s regular marshals), without whom I at least would not have finished. Never underestimate a logical mind and a kind hand when you are at the end of your limits and need to go further. Finally, finally, somehow, I got to camp, to be greeted at the stage line by Tom and front-runners who were frankly shocked someone was still moving 24 1/2 hours after starting. Another small incident that tells all is the character of Arctic Jon, our race leader and eventual winner. Despite being in front and needing his own rest and focus, he got up to walk in tail runners, and helped prepare food and set up beds for the weary. We may all have been racing, but we were no longer competing. A touching atmosphere made all the more poignant by dignified handshakes and well-wishes as three more racers retired. We were down to twelve.
A dozen racers started “Canal Hell”, day five. It was well named. Having had only a half hour or so sleep I put the wrong trainers on and had zero cushioning for an ultra along Manchester’s canal network to the penultimate stop. The endless, relentless, hard underfoot paths turned my feet to fire. Even so, the change and surreal feeling of disembodiment were all around. That almost floating feeling of not really believing your surroundings. The terrain had been ever changing. Yesterday I’d been alone on the moors. Today I was in a packed Manchester city centre, dodging cyclists, and navigating by street names and junctions. It didn’t seem real until we escaped back to the countryside for the very end. Nothing like lying on a pub bench in the dark reading encouragement texts when you’re only a few miles from home!
The final day was a blur of emotions. I honestly can’t recall a thing about it until the last two miles, when the residents of Chester were treated to a very smelly, very tired, very overwhelmed man crying (again) as he realised he was about to make it. Last man home of the survivors, still a technical top 60% of the starting field, top 27% of those who put their money where their mouths were. But the Deadwater Dozen was completed and the event brought to a close as I jogged over the traffic lights outside the Abode Chester, to find finishers, retirees, friends and families, and the incredibly dedicated marshals all gathered. Victory. I had never, ever dreamed such a thing was possible. That might sound melodramatic, but just three years earlier I couldn’t run 5k without stopping from breath. Now I had crossed a country. I had done the impossible and felt mighty for it. One of my favourite photos of the event was captured without my knowing, as Jon and I shared a few words, first finisher to last. You don’t have to know anything about us to see the mutual respect and connection, and in it encapsulated the mutual respect, admiration, and friendship of all of those who had taken part.
Deadwater gave us something more than a race. It gave us a community of shared effort, hardship, and success. We have a bond, the Deadwater Dozen, that can only come from such an intense and all-devouring event. I can’t speak for the others, but I can also say it gave me an even greater core of self-belief too. Sometimes it really is simple. You never know what you can do until you try.