Story 8: Ultra!


Shivering slightly in the cool morning air, Alastair Taylor stood on Westminster Bridge with 136 other ‘sight-seers’ in summery beachwear, at the unlikely time of 7 a.m. on a late September Sunday. Not a single Japanese tourist was present to photograph the scene. To the left of the towering mass of Big Ben, the moon was clearly visible. Its rays fell on Alastair and his fellow lunatics.


Three hours earlier, startled from uneasy sleep by a piercing telephone alarm call, he had stuffed down toasts, jam, coffees and two slow sodium tablets. Then he made a silent exit from his friends’ flat and hauled his rucksack down to Wimbledon Station for the 5.31 a.m. train. Having explained with difficulty to a pair of London Irish cops what a tracksuited weirdo was doing at that hour, he joined the local dossers and grew increasingly worried as the train delayed its arrival. The need for an expensive unnerving dash by minicab became more likely.

Eventually the diesel rumbled out of the gloom fifteen minutes late. By 6.10 he had navigated from Waterloo (to make preparations for a personal battle) to the G.L.C. County Hall, where all was light and bustle. Polite posters indicated the route to the dressing rooms as taxi-loads of more affluent or less tight-fisted competitors and supporters arrived. There were dozens of aged, incredibly pukka officials of the organising Road Runners Club. Otherwise, the place was packed by a posse of Yanks, most wearing the scarcely modest luminous orange vests of the Central Park Track Club, New York. They broadcast in ‘faghorn’ voices to their adoring female fans. Pushing pins through his number into a boring plain blue vest and tee-shirt, and drink bottles into cardboard boxes, Alastair jogged to the loo and warmed up twice round the luggage bus.

Having established that his joints were functioning, and thus relieved the tensions of a pre-race runner with rampant hypochondria, he relaxed on a bench for five minutes. A final glass of water was sipped, while he scanned the information booklet on this, the thirtieth running of the London to Brighton footrace. No wonder there was an abundance of blazered officials – not only a starter but also a referee, judges, stewards, timekeepers recorders, police, a medical officer, an announcer, results staff, a rear guard and even a pilot were required! There were to be 12 refreshment stations. Dangerous traffic and diversions might be encountered along the route; and fatigued competitors were likely to become vague in thought and movement. So it was as well that umpteen road marshalls were prepared to help (mainly athletes and boy scouts).

This would be longest ‘Brighton Road’ at no less than fifty-four miles and four hundred and sixty yards. He tried to forget that stamina-sapping statistic while glancing at the list of participants – 170 entrants (including eight ladies). The majority, of course, were English, but countries represented include the USA , Canada, Australia, the Bahamas, Yugoslavia, Sweden, Finland, Holland, Germany – and Scotland (two runners). They were to proceed, two abreast or single file, on the left hand side of the road, because the Highway Code considered them ‘a marching body’. He hoped to avoid both marching and ending up a body. The time limit was to be eight hours, twenty-three minutes and, after that, ‘all facilities’ would be withdrawn. Anyone having to run for that duration, Alastair mused, would find that ‘all faculties’, both physical and mental, would have withdrawn of their own accord.

For a provincial lad like Alastair, trotting casually up to the starting line in the heart of London did give a certain sophisticated devil-may-care feeling. En route he fastened on a Gloucester athlete called Dave Martin, whose consistently good ultra-distance form Alastair had researched back home. He introduced himself, checked correctly that Dave would be going for a finish time of 5 hours 50 minutes at a steady rate, and boldly expressed the hope that he wouldn’t mind company for a few miles if things went to plan. As a mere marathon runner, Alastair needed all the guidance he could get! Dave seemed agreeable and they lined up with the rest. A heartbroken harrier from Birmingham was moaning about his favourite football team losing a vital league match the day before – but since the time was a few seconds to seven, his self-centred audience had no time to share his grief ………………………………………….

BONG! On the first stroke, they all headed over the bridge and made for the south coast. Psychologically, distance runners have been described as introspective, independent, intelligent – and a wee bit mad. The latter seemed most significant to Alastair at that moment. Trying to absorb the Thames scenery, he gave his weaker ankle one nasty little wrench (amazingly, the only one of the entire journey). The first two miles seemed uncomfortably fast, as he manoeuvred himself along the Gloucester man. Then the pace eased and they settled into a steady rhythm at something faster than 6 minutes 30 seconds per mile.

By now the previous year’s winner Alan Rodgers from New York, bronzed legs shuffling along with a short jerky gait, had gone straight into the lead. He was defending his title in a most determined manner, despite having spent Saturday ill in bed (possibly due to lager-loading during Friday’s reception in that ancient public house ‘The Cheshire Cheese’ in Fleet Street). A Finn was tracking him, as he gradually moved away from his major challengers. The main one was likely to be Ian Hill. This was his ultra debut, but he had been an international marathon champion. Ian’s light, even, deliberate stride did not falter – and Rodgers’ lead never extended beyond forty seconds.

Back with the pack, at first Alastair felt a touch warm and took off his tee shirt, leaving the mesh vest in the patriotic dark blue of Scotland. But he soon encountered a cold white mist which insisted that the tee-shirt went on again for the remainder of the race, in spite of the brighter conditions which prevailed towards the end.

During the first seven miles, apart from the first three thoroughbreds, an assortment of experienced ultra men (often noticeably chunkier than marathoners) and foolhardy optimists disappeared into the distance. Thereafter the traffic was one way only, as Dave and Alastair edged slowly up the field. History records the first successful completion of the London to Brighton distance by a ‘pedestrian’ (a running, race-walking athlete) in 1897. Alastair was resolved to do everything possible to emulate the pioneers. He knew that, as nothing more than an apprentice ultra-distance runner, he would have to pace his efforts very cautiously.

A knot of serious-faced officials shouted out a time for Dave and Alastair of just over 64 minutes at ten miles (Croydon). This did seem over-timid so they decided to increase their tempo a little in an attempt to catch (by twenty miles at Redhill) the small bunch of competitors who were trotting along easily a hundred yards in front. They did not succeed despite a 63 minute stretch but they overtook quite a few stragglers.

Alastair’s legs were just beginning to stiffen up, a process which continued inexorably throughout the event. Gradually increasing sunshine dispelled the mist, and he was mildly annoyed that, just when an increase of fluid was becoming essential, the organisers forgot to hand him his bottle. (He was to miss at least three precious containers along the way, including the two with a plastic bag of dates tied to the top! It was probably just as well he didn’t get the chance of experimenting with mobile munching.) Luckily, Alastair was given a share of one of Dave’s drinks. (He was mainlining on a preparation known as ‘Accolade’.)

Not unexpectedly, maintaining their speed throughout the third ten required an increase in effort. Alastair was gaining even more respect for his small but stocky 25-year-old partner, who was pushing on vigorously with a well-balanced mechanical motion. They were running well, but Alastair was starting to wish Dave would slow down! They re-passed a suffering soul who had overtaken them much earlier, and then the most elegant of the New Yorkers, his Christian Dior neckerchief less jaunty than previously. When he was still twenty yards in front of them, they heard his ‘dying words’ of instruction to his back-up car. The strangled grunt from his pain-twisted visage was ‘The other shoes!” Desperation personified. (He later dropped out – surprise, surprise!)

Alastair halted momentarily to siphon off excess liquid (the first pee of his racing career, but not performed using the non-stop system previously described to him by a World Record-breaking ultra expert!) Hurriedly he caught up with Dave and they passed the traditional checkpoint at Crawley at the unlikely distance of 31 and a quarter miles in three hours sixteen minutes (including a 62 minute ten). However increasing tiredness informed Alastair that he’d have to let go of his energetic new acquaintance before long. Dave stopped at 35 miles for a fresh vest, and although Alastair plodded on past a fading star and one Peter Hastings (of whom more later) he guessed correctly that the redoubtable Dave Martin would soon bowl past, commencing his planned run-in to Brighton beach. When this happened, Alastair wished Dave luck, thanked him for the pacing and companionship and watched him vanish over the horizon. Alastair settled into a survival struggle to the sea.

At roughly the same stage but twenty minutes earlier, Ian Hill, who had not actually drawn alongside Alan Rodgers until Crawley, had cruised away up a hill into a commanding lead he was in no danger of losing. In Ultras, the ‘man-to-man stuff’ tends to be over by about thirty miles, and then individuals are left fighting on their own to complete the course.

Alastair’s problem was lack of adequate preparation, and muscles unused to more than a maximum of three hours on the road. Averaging 66 miles a week for the previous ten months, completing two marathons and eighteen runs over twenty miles in length had given him a reasonable background – but it was hardly ultra-training. The real specialists tend to run 140 miles per week and frequently insert three or four hour efforts into their schedules. Alastair’s only genuine attempt had been five weeks earlier when, without prior rest, he had completed the ‘Two Bridges’ thirty-six mile race as a steady training run. All had gone well for thirty miles and then he had ‘hit the wall’ and had difficulty in finishing fourth. However the time was only 3 hours 38 minutes – over two hours less than this trial was liable to last.

Therefore the final eighteen miles was to be a voyage into the unknown by a hopeful novice who feared the worst.

Symptoms of imminent collapse started to appear at Bolney (forty miles). At least Alastair’s carbohydrate-loading pre-race diet, plus sensible tactics, had got him this far. Clinical assessment of his condition revealed that the front of his thighs were sore and becoming more so due to the switchback nature of the Brighton road. He was also in danger of cramping up. Consequently a comically stiff and straight-legged mode of progression, like an arthritic giraffe, seemed necessary; plus a tendency to beg complete strangers for something, anything to drink. He even tried an eccentric piece of ultra ‘wisdom’ – rubbing Coca Cola on sore muscles to ease the pain. This made him very sticky but was otherwise a failure! A degree of mental angst was caused by the optimism (by two whole miles) of road signs and spectators – they both underestimated how far it was to the finish.

Peter Hastings tended to close on downhills and Alastair stretched away on flat or uphill sections, but he wasn’t particularly interested in other runners – just in keeping going himself. Fatigue was making his aching limbs heavy and reluctant, and he found himself becoming increasingly prone to irritation (caused by minor things like sticky hands) and panic (about the likelihood of cramp and the whole stress situation). ‘Stitches’ and slight nausea did not ease his discomfort. Yet there was no real chance of cracking mentally – just a danger of total leg collapse. Lack of a ‘second’ (i.e. a back-up car) meant isolation and insecurity. Alastair had heard an anecdote about a supporting wife who, on seeing her ultra-running husband suddenly crumple to the verge, his legs knotted with cramp, had simply hauled the invalid to his feet. Then she spread-eagled him unceremoniously over the bonnet of the vehicle, yanked powerfully at his ankles, dumped him back on his feet and kick-started him on his way again. Alastair yearned for the relief of similar loving massage.

When he passed Dave’s fan-club van with eight miles to go, Alastair’s scrambled brain didn’t register the fact that the Gloucester man must have given up. (Due to, as Alastair later found out, dehydration, leg pains and loneliness.) What a pity – he had really been going well until then, but Alastair was sure there would be a next time for a man of such obvious talent. (Later, Dave became a World-Record-breaking 24 hours runner.)

At the Pycombe checkpoint, the notorious Dale Hill signified that, in seventh position, Alastair had seven miles to go. He was in the finishing straight, but the worst part of the race, despite the fact that the road was mainly flat or downhill. The two pillars beside the sign saying ‘Brighton’ meant, as he had been warned, six whole miles left. The traffic was really heavy now, streaking past his right ear and blowing foul fumes up his nostrils. Fortunately he wasn’t ‘wobbling’ much, but was surprised more competitors didn’t end up under passing cars. (In Victorian times, six-day events were popular, the winner being the ‘pedestrian’ who covered most distance. Such races were nicknamed ‘Wobbles’, for obvious reasons, but at least they were held indoors, away from the horse-drawn carriages.)

A pavement appeared – a safer place to be than the road, and the ordeal (as it had become) continued. With two miles remaining, Alastair realised he was being reeled in again and managed just a little extra to hold him off. Brighton Pavilion, that Turkish Delight of an architectural curiosity, was not even noticed. Half a mile to go and at the end of the prom, the Dolphinarium swam into the blurred sea of Alastair’s vision. Suddenly it was all over – round a corner and the finish just a hundred yards ahead. No sprint for the crowd’s benefit – just a dogged dream-like plod over the line, and stop dead, holding onto a barrier.

Having reassured the guy with the blanket that, of course, he could walk unaided, Alastair suddenly found that he couldn’t! Temporary seizure of the front thighs. However a tee-shirted beauty assisted the hirpling old cripple into the breakdown van, which carted him off to the Park Side Baths.

An agonised hobble down some steps, backwards, a tired wriggle out of soaking gear, and into the deepest hot bath (individual tanks) he’d ever had. Ankle-deep he was compelled to scream for help – the water seemed close to boiling point! Sinking back, relaxing at last, Alastair drank two cups of water and one of tea, but couldn’t face a biscuit (unusually for him). Yet within five minutes the sick, totally drained feeling passed, and he was on the mend – legs helped by the heat treatment and liquid intake gradually increasing. The steady pace meant that no real damage had been done – he found it possible to race in a short road relay only six days later!

The next couple of hours were spent sunbathing in a deckchair on the prom, as well as eating ice-cream, drinking coke and chatting to a number of early finishers, while watching slower runners wending their weary way home. Alastair’s time ((5 hours 52 minutes) had been 37 minutes slower than the record pace of Ian Hill, whose opinion of his fifteen minute victory was “Apart from the sore feet, quite pleasant.” He was awarded the Arthur Newton Cup, and the winning team (runner-up Alan Rodgers’ New Yorkers) won the Len Hurst Belt, both old trophies named after famous ultra runners of the distant past. The ever-lovely Lynn Weston, masseuse of must marathoners’ dreams, who had run more than 150 races of 26 miles or over, arrived only an hour after Alastair but well ahead in the Ladies’ competition. As she strolled up to receive her prize from the Mayor of Brighton, she looked cool, composed and elegant. By contrast when, trying not to limp, Alastair stotted onto the stage to collect a tiny but treasured first class standard medal, his main worry wasn’t appearance (more rumpled than ever) but, during the descent of the steps, avoiding a prat-fall because of buckling knees.

A truly amateur affair, and apart from Hill versus Rodgers, not really about competitive sport but personal challenge and self-esteem. Having read the pessimistic pre-race comments in his training diary, Alastair’s exasperated partner had written “Into the Valley of Death! What about REALITY?” And indeed Alastair recognised that ultra distance running was worlds apart from the ‘normal’ stresses of domestic and working life. However this did not make the experience of completing the London to Brighton race unreal. ‘Ultra’ meant beyond – beyond the marathon, testing his stamina and determination beyond previous limits. Achieving his physical potential, living on the edge for a few hours, had been vividly and intensely real. Ultra-distance running might be ultra-eccentric, or painful, or even farcical – but also ultra-satisfying!