This is not a race. This is a challenge. There is a difference. Rob Jones and I came up with the idea in 2017 as we were on our way to another challenge. At no point during the conversation that day did we speak about a race. In fact quite different the words were “do you think we can do it?” What those words really meant I’m still not sure, leave it with me.
Human nature, testosterone, ego, many other things somehow find it hard to decipher between challenge and race though and that’s the beauty that I have watched unfold at ITD for the last 5 years, for myself and for others. It’s always a thriller.
You could say I’m a bit disturbed…….I love the first bike leg, it’s a game, it’s throwing the cat amongst the pigeons, it’s fishing, it’s racing in some sense I guess. Ha ha. Contradiction already. But in reality what it needs is way more respect and awareness than I think anyone ever gives it, myself included.
6:59pm Friday night, the mercury is still pushing 40 and we roll out for “coaches ITD”. 10 mins on the front with Tom and we roll and let Rob (Skinny from now on for ease) and Stevie take over. I’m not sure if they maintained the pace or increased it but having ridden with Skinny a lot I know when it’s business time as his position on the bike is totally different. It’s not long before Stevie has had enough and the perfect scenario is unfolding. 1 line and when you are on the front full gas. We have all ridden enough together to know. Some smiles, but no words are spoken, aside from when Tom tried to go and sit with Skinny, I suggested he leave him up there for a few minutes, he obliged.
35km down, 40km average, what was I saying about it not being a race. There are a number of things I’m looking out for in these scenarios where there is a decent chunk of work to come. How much am I drinking? How fast am I recovering when I’m not on the front? How much am I sweating? What are the signals I’m getting from my legs? How do those around me look? And the list goes on. I’m not making knee jerk reactions but creating as many data points as possible in the hope that any decisions I make are right. We are always taught to “control the controllables” but how will we ever know what the controllables are without creating some awareness of them.
I see a couple of the group are flagging and I let Tom know who is “foot to the metal” on the front. He doesn’t seem to care. I smile and sit tight thinking that we are in for an absolute treat in a few hours time.
Tom and Skinny are fast out of transition, they have a plan. Rob and I are seemingly more relaxed, of course I make a video clip on my Go Pro. Carla who is training with the team for Comrades in a few weeks joins Rob and I for the run. She has already run 20km today and is smiling from ear to ear as she always is.
As we set off we share few words, Carlas first comment is about haircuts, she seems to know! Meanwhile I’m back in data collection mode. The first few KM off the bike always need heightened awareness and focus. There is no race plan for ITD. It’s a challenge not a race remember. If you think you are going to run a certain pace based on some beautiful chart training peaks has thrown at you then you are sunk. The environment is way to unpredictable, the variables too many, the mind and body have to be more relaxed than ever to make changes based on the moments. If you are someone that likes to know how your calendar looks in 9 months time and carry that to endurance then you are in for a hell of a ride. This sport and this challenge can change by the second, stay present and aware.
Rob is keeping us entertained coughing his guts up as he is recovering from some sort of chest infection which I can only imagine was further damaged during the ride. He goes through 5km and to my surprise after a water refill at 10km keeps going. This is where Steph joins Carla for a few KM which is good. We immediately distance ourselves from them. My mind needs some space, it’s been doing a lot of late and I fast know that I’m going to need it for tonight. The heat is not dropping, I am dripping with sweat, I’m thirsty but don’t want to put too much water in as I know it will all come up and the game will either become increasingly harder or it will end prematurely. Both I don’t want or need. This is ITD, this is the challenge, will I play with the right variables, I have been here before, been successful more than not, but every time it is so different, tonight it needs a special plan and some special gears.
At 15km Rob smartly calls it a day which I’m happy about as he is not in good shape. What a guy though. He turns straight into support and ends up staying right to the end. I’ve said it before and I will say it many times again, I love that guy.
Steph stays with Carla until 25km where she rightly decides she has run enough today having supported “the other Steph” for a few KM and also been at the coffee run in the morning! The 25km mark brings with it more entertainment as Skinny appears as I refill my water bottle, “Projectile vomit” he explains. I smile. Carla and I run on and at 26km pass Toms car which doesn’t make any sense, I do not see Tom nor ask anything. We hit the 30km mark and Carlin and Rob (as they were every 5km) wait for us with water and food refills at the ready. They inform us Tom is also in the same boat as Skinny, projectile vomit. I smile again and think back to my reaction to their plan when they shared it earlier in the week “sounds perfect I will peel you off the tarmac somewhere between 25-30km.”
This life, this sport, these people. All of it, all of them, totally brilliant, inspirational. The balls to go out and look for limits, to try, to learn, to fail, to smile, to come back stronger. It’s hardly a surprise they are on the trajectory to being the best endurance coaches in the best endurance team on the planet.
3 down, Carla and I left, not many words and then we get a random visitor. I could have sworn I had fallen into a dream as right next to me I hear an insanely loud and venomous hiss. I keep running and after a few seconds check with Carla if she heard what I heard, to which she replies “that was a snake wasn’t it?” She confirms I was not yet sleeping. Close call, hope he had a nice evening and sorry if we disturbed him.
The final 17km of the run can destroy your soul if you allow it. You can tell yourself you are nearly there, you can tell yourself it’s straight and boring, you can tell yourself and load of absolute bollocks if you want and most of it will destroy you. Or you can stay present, smile, think but not too much, be grateful, be relaxed and in some way you may enter a mental state you have never achieved before. Remember you chose to be here, this is not a race, this is a challenge, there is a difference. Stay relaxed.
Thank you Carla for being there on the run, as you so well said after I hadn’t spoken for around 3 hours that “the fall of our trainers on the tarmac was enough.” You are so right and I am so confident and excited for what you will achieve in Comrades. There is one spoiler alert though, that will not be your last ultra, you were way to good today, your smile is far too big to be a one hit wander. This is just the start.
On all the other occasions I have done ITD we have ridden the final bike leg in a pack which does not make your legs any fresher but mentally it is easier. This year I was being served a first and I was thrilled about it, I got to spend the last 50km bike ride alone, just me. I’ve done a couple of these types of things before to know how golden these opportunities are. It’s too early to say too much about the final bike leg but in the coming days things will come to me and I will process them, when the time is right I will share.
Rob and Carlin drove the car round the final lap to make sure I was safe which was incredibly kind of them. I was blown away to find them sat at Zads when I finished with Steph, Jack and Skinny. Genuinely couldn’t figure out why they were still there, ends up it was for me. Wow. Mental but thank you! They left. I sat alone and had a bottle of sparkling. The challenge was complete. The ultra life remains beautiful. I drove myself home and crawled into bed.
I guess I could close out in so many ways but I will end similar to how I started and use the words Rob and I shared when we first discussed the idea….. “do you think you can do it?” rather than “I hope you win the race.” I promise you one thing, the former will serve you bigger and for longer than the latter in this case.