Monday, 14 August 2017

Round (Half) The Rock

It's around half past seven on Friday evening when Dean and I encounter a hotel lobby suspiciously full of Datchet Dasher runners in St Helier, Jersey. We've missed the race briefing for the Round the Rock ultra that we're taking part in the next day, thanks in part to someone on our flight not being able to last 45 minutes without a cigarette. The briefing room is empty save for the organisers, rows of chairs and a stash of cardboard boxes. We make our apologies, claim our race numbers, event t-shirts and the highlights from the briefing.
St Helier
Round the Rock is a rather small and exclusive-feeling event consisting of circumnavigating 48miles around the island in under 12 hours. No mean feat when you consider that much of the route takes in the coastal path. You can choose to do it solo, as we had, or as a relay team. All in all there were around 100 runners taking part, making this perhaps the smallest event I'd ever participated in. The only events I could compare this to, in my experience, were Tiree (35 miles around an island) and the Ultra12 (12 hours to do as many laps as you can - I covered 40 miles), neither of which ended up coming anywhere close to the experience I had on Jersey.
Pre-race dinner at Pizza Express. Thanks Nectar points!
We'd gone straight to the briefing from the airport so after satisfying ourselves that we knew where the start was and having a cheap eat at Pizza Express we finally checked into our hotel at about 9pm. An hour or so was spent organising race kit and negotiating an early breakfast with reception then it was alarms set for 4:30am and an attempt at some sleep. Neither of us slept that well, full of apprehension and excitement, but none the less we were fairly chirpy on Saturday morning as we had some food and walked to the Steam Clock in the wind and drizzle under brightening sky. Thankfully the rain didn't last and we set off at 6am on the dot.
Starting at the Steam Clock
The first part of the course is all on road and flat. We went out anticlockwise around the island and quickly found ourselves at the back of the pack. I was determined not to set off too quickly, knowing we had so many miles to go. It was a beautiful morning, and so warm that jackets and arm warmers were shed within two miles. We nattered, admired the houses, enjoyed a bit of Fleetwood Mac being played on loudspeaker by another pair of runners and started to see some views.
One of many biews
The first check point was at around 10 miles. We both felt fine and after a quick drink and a snack, we were off into the second leg. I know we were at the back still, but I wasn't worried. As Dean said, finish lines not finish times. We'd been working on the basis that as long as we managed a 4 mile an hour average we would be fine. We'd banked some time in the first ten miles and Dean was constantly doing the maths on how long we had to make it to the halfway point to be on track. What we'd failed to take into account were the checkpoint cut off times. I wasn't nearly as prepared for this event in terms of logistics as I usually am. I'd only given a cursory glance to the race instructions and not registered that although there was no cut off for CP1 and an overall cut off of 12 hours, there were cut offs at all the other check points. I'd over heard someone mentioning them at CP1 so took a moment to look it up. We had to make it to CP2 by 10:30am. That seemed ok.
Coming up to CP1, when things were still fun.
Then we hit the coastal footpath. Things changed very quickly. The path became narrow trail. We started to encounter steps. Not just any steps, big uneven steps made of sleepers with pins in to provide more traction. Up and down. Dean is more powerful than I am by virtue of a) being a man and b) having done a lot more cycling than me. I started to slow up on the uphills a lot. What was frustrating was that I couldn't even make up much time on the downhills, usually my forte, as there were also steps down, and sometimes the path was so narrow, rocky and close to a drop that I was terrified of losing my footing.
The views were second to none. Vast expanses of blue green sea, swathes of purple heather, butterflies everywhere, bright sky, sunshine galore. It was hard to see much of the route ahead, as it twisted and turned, dropped down and ascended steeply, but every now and then we caught a glimpse of runners ahead and made it our mission to keep them in sight. This often made it only too obvious what we had awaiting us around the corner in terms of ascent, which was quickly becoming soul destroying for me. Dean was motoring on and I was just trying to keep up. Handfuls of M&M's were administered, I finished my electrolytes, gels sucked down, sweat dripped off our noses and down our backs. Our pace had plummeted. The course was brutal.

We passed a pair of girls who were having to retire due to a twisted ankle, we found some marshals and spectators for a few encouraging words. My toes were sore from hitting the fronts of my trainers on the descents. I'd narrowly missed twisting an ankle, got a mini panic attack on an ascent, stumbled a few times. Despite the scenery, despite the fact I was doing this with Dean, who I love running with, I was not having fun. I by-passed the "power sob" phase that I end up in when things get tough and went straight to the "lost all hope" phase. Dean was still fixated on making the half way point by a particular time but I knew we'd missed the CP2 cut off. I think that was part of my undoing.
As we got closer to CP2 and found some road I tried to run again but the hills had sapped everything from my legs. Dean kept waiting for me and I knew that whatever I was doing wasn't quite enough. At the checkpoint we were told that although we'd technically missed cut off, we could carry on if we wanted to. I desperately wanted to be able to continue for his sake but deep down I didn't want to carry on. I doubted I'd make it to CP3 on the remaining coastal path. I was afraid of what would happen if I was between checkpoints and unable to continue. Knowing that Dean wouldn't carry on without me, knowing I was letting him down, having had some proper food, rest and more fluids at CP2 I made the call. I wasn't going to carry on. 21 miles in just under 5 hours. My first DNF. I promptly burst into tears on the poor checkpoint volunteers shoulder.

I normally only have to make these decisions for myself, but knowing I was impacting someone else race with my decision made it so much harder. I do think, now, with some perspective, I made the right decision but I spent the rest of the day beating myself up about it, trying to justify it, feeling like a failure and getting angry that I'd not managed it despite the things I've achieved before. Even the next day, when my legs didn't feel too atrocious, I struggled with my decision, thinking that if I could move today, maybe I didn't push myself enough.

The elevation map
We got a lift back to our hotel from the volunteer with the wet shoulder, in a mini van along with some lovely ladies who benefit from the charity that the race supports. We got cleaned up and wandered over to the race finish and back along the race route to support those coming in. It was bittersweet. We saw the medal and were relived that it wasn't a super duper spangly thing to be coveted. One of the finishers told us how she fell over three times on the route, had to call her mum for a pep talk and that the third leg was still really brutal.
Post run refuelling.
We enjoyed the rest of our afternoon exploring the town. Pasties were consumed, beers supped and we fell asleep in front of the athletics on telly. The next day we played tourists as our flights weren't until the evening, visiting Elizabeth Island and meandering along to St Aubin. In the event it felt as though we had a really great holiday. We talked about whether, given what we know now, we would return to try and complete the race another time. I would only do it if I felt prepared, if my legs were stronger and if the weather was fine. I can't contemplate attempting the route in the rain. It may have been folly to even begin the race and it's taken me some time to come to terms with what happened, but it's onward, preferably not too much upwards, and use this to learn from and fuel my determination to be better. Jersey was tough, but I will become tougher because of it.

Have you ever made the decision to DNF? Was it difficult? Did it affect someone else?

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