Adventures of Geography and Soul
‘How to run an ultra-marathon? Puff out your chest, put one foot in front of the other and don't stop till you cross the finish line.’ – Dean Karnazes
I was thirty five years old, tipping the scales at 19-stone and physically washed up. I'd always been sporty. I had played rugby for Oxford University; I had done the Three Peaks Challenge; I had run two marathons. Now the closest I got to meaningful exercise was a two-hour Fifa run out on the Xbox and a game of golf at the weekend.
I was broken. An operation for Compartment Syndrome on both legs had given me an excuse to get lazy. I tried a comeback half-marathon and it nearly killed me. I was officially fat. Very fat at that.
Getting fat creeps up on you. It doesn't happen overnight. You don't notice it really. Even your family don't see it as a major change, just a slow morphing unworthy of dramatic action. The portions get bigger, the habits get worse. That's okay though because you are under pressure at work. You're just relaxing. Finding a little sanity. Then you reach a point when you know it can't go on. For me it wasn't about vanity. It was a realisation that I loved my daughter and I wanted to be around for as long as possible. To see her grow and support her in life. I was scared and life was just getting away from me. I had to do something, but I didn't know what.
I was sitting in the office, leafing through a copy of some running magazine or another. Then I saw it. An advert for The Thames Path Challenge. 100km from London to Henley along the Thames Path Trail. Run it or walk it, your choice.
Something clicked. This was it. I didn't have to go fast, I just had to get from A to B, even if worst case that was a long walk. I lived in Henley, so the notion of coming home made sense. I knew this what I had been looking for. I hadn't got a clue where to start.
By chance my wife Trish had just started kickboxing classes with Robby Elson and she noticed he was a running coach.
It was all falling in to place. Robby was an ultramarathon runner himself and could train me to get me through this. My friend Sam signed up for the adventure as well. I had a purpose and I knew I wouldn't stop as I wasn't prepared to let myself and everyone else down once I had signed up.
Robby is without doubt the best trainer I have ever met. He quietly coaxes the very best from you, with knowledge and humour. His running is the same. Easy, relaxed and incredibly skilful.
We set out on the journey and I began to love running again. Robby made sure we did plenty of technique work to ensure I didn't get injured. Regular massage got me through the pain.
The long runs at the weekend got longer and longer. All the time Trish supported me. When 20 miles on my own seemed daunting, Robby ran it with me. Sam, my partner for the day, dropped out injured. Robby said he would take his place.
I stuck to the program. The long runs were horrific. I was slow. I walked. I never failed to finish though. I started to enjoy seeing just how amazing it was being on trails and exploring the world. I had trained for my marathons on a treadmill, now I was outside loving it.
The 14 weeks went by and I headed off on holiday knowing that 100km faced me on my return. Two weeks later, as we landed at Heathrow, my father had a heart attack.
As I stood at the start line I was tired. I hadn't slept in three days worrying for my Dad. He was due to have a quadruple bypass that morning. I had decided to push on. I hoped it would make him proud.
We set off on our journey. It was a long one. Looking back it’s a bit of a blur. I remember elation and I remember some of the darkest places I have ever been to. As Robby said, ultras are adventures of geography and soul.
During the long hours you learn an awful lot. Above all you learn the resilience of humanity; the incredibly ability of the human body to cover unbelievable distances. At times the running feels great. At others you are walking at snail’s pace whimpering quietly. But as long as you are moving you are getting there and that's all that matters. I learnt humility and gratitude as I moved slowly towards my goal, not least from the amazing messages my friends sent me.
We reached the finish after 19 and-a-half hours. I had hoped for 15, but I didn't care. I was never ever going to do an ultramarathon again.
Within a week I was running again. Within a month I had signed up for another ultra. Within four months I had completed it.
I've learnt that running is important to me. I've also learnt that it's a skill. I don't view it as a chore anymore. I actually look forward to it. I'm now a certified coach and hope I can help others travel the same journey.
Fat doesn't go away overnight either sadly, but at least I've puffed out my chest and put one foot in front of the other.
Gavin is now a part of the Movement Clinic coaching team. That's him in the picture at the top of the page. If you want help with your running – whether you're a seasoned athlete or a complete novice – get in touch now.