The momentum is already too great, any semblance of control I had only a second ago has dissipated, and so I crash to the ground for the third time in the last two miles and then roll off the trail down an embankment. I come to rest on my side, a face full of heather and utterly furious. The roar of frustration is out of my mouth and bouncing off the surrounding hills before I’ve even consciously formed the will to shout.
I’m about fifteen miles into this race. Aside from the series of falls I’ve already been lost twice, the second time fairly catastrophically, causing me to drop from a strong third to a distant fifth. The route marking is sketchy at best. Sixth and seventh places are on my heels. My liquid nutrition strategy is not working, in fact it’s looking a given that my liquid nutrition is going to make a reappearance in the very near future. It’s cold, it’s wet, I’m nauseous. I’m annoyed at everything and everybody, particularly the organisers, but especially at myself, for going off plan and throwing in a late entry to this jamboree and pushing a boundary that didn’t need pushing right now.
I haul myself back to my feet and take a deep breath. Glancing back down the trail sixth and seventh place are working together to close the gap. I will my body to move and muster a trudge back up on to the singletrack, and then the short distance down to the next aid tent. I refill water bottles and take a few pieces of watermelon whilst attempting to compose myself. It’s all quite the effort. Tellingly, as I leave the aid station, sixth and seventh arrive. The gap is now down to almost nothing.
I don’t know the next section of trail and so I pull out a small laminated card from the front pocket of my pack. I put some brief route notes together yesterday, just in case. It’s a little deflating to read that I’ll be climbing for the next two and a half miles, but then I catch sight of the quote that I’d included on the card, again, just in case. It’s a timely intervention from Joss Naylor.
It all suddenly seems so very simple. I get my head down and start to powerhike, hard, and quickly tick off a mental checklist as I move;
Physical condition: fine, although feeling a bit sick. Legs are good.
The battle for third place: over. Realistically my race is now the fight for fifth. Focus.
Mental condition: all over the place. This is where I am losing my race.
I’ve been at that aid station before. I’ve quit races in the past when I’ve been in a similar mindset. Where physically I could probably endure but I’ve allowed my headspace to become muddied, anxious, unfocussed. A lack of perspective that can be more damaging than any fall or route walkabout. More debilitating than a lack of calories or a spasm of cramp. If the mind is unclear the body will struggle to understand what it is being asked to do. And this is where I can make a choice. I can choose to be resilient. I can choose to embrace the hard bit. The challenge is keeping that choice at the forefront of the mind. The choice is to be present in the moment.
A quick check behind me, and already I’ve opened up a slight gap on the climb. I start to note timings by features whenever I get good a line of sight. A minute soon becomes two. I focus on grinding out the climb with maximum effort. Because being hard, that’s the hard bit. I keep tabs on what is going on behind me. It’s not always clear, but I’m sure this gap is increasing. I hit the foot of Swine’s Back, and suddenly I am in familiar territory. Now I’m away, fast and easy towards Jacob’s Ladder, the long stretch to Edale, and my wife and son waiting for me at the next aid station.
It’s not until I’ve made the climb up to the Great Ridge and I look behind again that I see sixth and seventh, still together, crossing the Edale Road below. I glance at my watch. I’ve built a ten minute lead. The route diverts sharply to the right towards Mam Tor, and I start to traverse. For the first time in many miles I can see the bright green shirt of fourth place ahead of me. Being hard, that’s the hard bit.