“Must be a Kenyan,” I think to myself, as a woman at least 30 years my senior storms past at what must be a Bolt-like 9min/mile pace.
I’m 24 miles in to a 12-hour ‘run’ – run being a questionably speedy term – and I’m about to enter a world of pain. The seeds of this ridiculous challenge were sewn about a month ago with an innocent, off-the-cuff remark during a conversation about feature ideas (“How about we see how far the amateur runner can get in a day?”), which received an unexpected vote of confidence. Having never run further than 13.1 miles, I had just committed to potentially tripling that distance. Yippee.
Four weeks later, I find myself at the entrance to Gunnersbury Park, west London, equipped with my never-before-used hydration pack, bursting at the seams with kit for every peril that the Thames Towpath can throw at me (phone charger, flares, pepper spray, etc) and deeply regretting the preparatory saucepan of pasta I ate the night before.
For the first couple of hours, I adopt a pre-planned tactic of jogging for 25 minutes and walking for five, which sees me breeze past the idyllic, wooded sections by Richmond, Twickenham and Teddington and on to the decidedly less appealing stretch through Kingston. I say less appealing, because not only is it something of a concrete jungle, but in the space of 10 metres I almost step on a dismembered rat and an enormous rotting fish. I decide to up the pace slightly.
By the time I plod in to Walton-on- Thames, three hours and 15 miles in, it’s already the longest I’ve ever run and, unfortunately, it’s starting to feel that way. My hamstrings are tight and my feet are already showing signs of blistering. Happily, a wee in a far-too-public bush and a soggy sausage roll perk me right up.
I’ve arranged to meet the editor, Rick, at Staines station at midday – 25.5 miles in. As I hit the 20-mile mark by Laleham, I’m surprised to find that I may actually be there on time. Cause for celebration: a lavish 15-minute walking break and an unpeeled kiwi. This is the life.
Two hours on, my comparatively sunny pre-Staines outlook is no more. Rick and I have somehow gone off course – difficult to do, you’d think, when following a river – and find ourselves doing five minutes of shuffling, followed by five minutes of walking, along the B376. “I’ve prepared myself for an afternoon of walking,” he reassures me. The trouble is, even that is becoming a struggle.
The following three-hour period is characterised by the odd peak and bottomless troughs. From the elation (and that is not too strong a word) of a refreshing dip in the Thames at the picture-perfect stretch just outside of Windsor, to the ridiculous amount of effort it takes to do a mere minute’s worth of snail-paced jogging, I experience every emotion under the sun (which is continuing to churn out 28 degrees of unbearable heat).
By 4.30pm, around 39 miles in, I am a broken man. The one-minute intervals have long since been abandoned and this is now very much a walk. Ordinarily, I can run three miles in less than 20 minutes. Now, it’s a struggle to do one mile in that time. With each step, though, I am a little bit closer to my predicted finish: the ultrarunning mecca that is Maidenhead train station.
And then, finally, after two of the most painful hours of my life, the most beautiful sign I’ve ever seen, glistening on the side of the A4, looms into view: ‘MAIDENHEAD’. One final mile and the best ‘sprint finish’ I can muster bring the journey to end. After 12 hours, 46 miles, picturesque surroundings and some debilitating pain, I can finally sit down and reflect on a very long day’s work.
Despite the near-immobility, I’ve proved that the ability to go ultra isn’t the reserve of the super-fit or the iron-willed. It wasn’t pretty, and it sure as hell wasn’t fast, but in the space of a day I achieved something I never thought possible. And, believe it or not, I enjoyed most of it. There’s surely no better way to see the world, or, indeed, get to know yourself. The good news is that with enough time, Compeed and acceptance that basic movement might be out of the question for a while, anyone can do it.