It’s about eight in the morning and I’ve just arrived at checkpoint four in Fontanales. I’ve been running since 11:00pm the previous day, have missed a night’s sleep and have covered a marathon distance in the nine hours since the start. I grab a ham and cheese sandwich and sit by the side of the road for half an hour, contemplating the future of my race.
I am on target to complete the race in 25 to 30 hours; what I’d estimated it’d take. But fatigue has started to set in, my right hip hurts and I’m having minor stomach issues. A small ziplock bag of painkillers in one hand, I ask a marshal what the process is for withdrawing. Then Lucja comes around the corner and into the checkpoint. I tell her I’m not sure I should continue and we agree to take the next stage easy together. I remind myself that, in the final few hours of darkness, I’d promised myself to stick things out until daylight, at least.
I think back to the first 20 kilometres of the race, which had been positive. The first ten kilometres, hiking in procession with hundreds of flickering head torches stretching into the night like a string of fairy lights up the mountain. After over 1,000m of climbing, we reach the first checkpoint, then descend steeply down the mountain on the other side. The trail is rocky and crooked, and I am grateful that the darkness hides the steep, exposed drops below. By 4:00am, the novelty of running at night starts to wane. Checkpoint two and another steep ascent; the lack of sleep starts to kick in and my eyes hurt from focussing on my footing in the dark.
Daylight comes and I’m running through a pine forest with a soft carpet of needles underfoot. I eat regularly: cold pizza, kinder chocolate, bananas. Just hours before I’d turned off my head torch and pulled up by the side of the trail with the onset of an upset stomach, so resolve to eat small amounts as often as I can.
As Lucja and I make our way out of Fontanales into the Cararian countryside, the path turns from soft trails to hard, rutted concrete. We are some of the very few runners without hiking poles, but this doesn’t really concern us, as neither of us have used them before, so don’t know what we’re missing out on.
My stomach and hip check in with me at regular intervals. My feet feel good and the sun is shrouded in cloud, making the temperature much more bearable than it could be. We are moving slowly, but considering the steep gradient of the hills we’re climbing, this is to be expected. I try to mask my tiredness with strong, sugary coffee from the aid stations and return to my mantra at increasingly regular intervals towards the latter stage of my race. It’s an adventure. I’m out in the wild, doing something I love. But another voice in my head reasons that an adventure is not a 30 hour death march, nor is it something that should jeopardise your chances of being able to run for the rest of the year.
We make a steep, rocky descent into checkpoint eight at Tejeda, alongside someone else who is wondering if they should continue on. Lucja is strong and I tell her to go ahead. I am devastated not to be able to run the last 60+ kilometres, but another twelve hours of pain is not my idea of an adventure either.
I think every runner that drops out of a race questions their decision to do so, and wonders if they could and should have dug a bit deeper. In fact, I doubt most of us would make it to the start line of extreme events like Trans Gran Canaria if we weren’t the sort of people always striving to walk the line between our every day lives and one where our emotional and physical selves are pushed to the limit. In the next few hours after dropping I am very sick and I realise I’ve come a bit to close to the barrier that normally stops me from getting injured, from being logical, for seeing things for what they really are. My time spent in the medical tent in Garañón, next to someone who has clearly become very disillusioned about his limitations and what his body is capable of, makes me even more aware of this. He hasn’t eaten for 12 hours, is vomiting and is sure he wants to continue, but somehow the medical staff convince him otherwise.
I spent a lot of time during the painful few hours before my DNF, and during my time in the medical tent afterwards, contemplating the future of my running, and questioning whether I could complete the 100 mile race planned in August. But after a good night’s sleep, I resolve to channel the lessons learned from Trans Gran Canaria into facing my next challenge head on. It might take a while for my body to heal, but when it does I’ll be stronger and better prepared for it.