8 a.m. Saturday 25th July, 2020. A warm, cloudy, humid morning with a forecast of mixed sunshine and showers. I was feeling happy. I was feeling confident. I was about to start running the entire length of the Sandstone Trail, 55 kilometres in length, 1,268 metres of ascent; an undulating path following sandstone ridges, made up of 225-million-year old Triassic sandstone. It runs from the ancient market town of Frodsham in Cheshire, to rural Whitchurch in North Shropshire. I had decided to run from south to north, as this would mean I would finish closer to home. I couldn’t wait to begin.
In October last year, I had the brainwave of running an ultra marathon. Not just any ultra marathon, but a hilly 100km one in the Lake District. I wanted to raise funds for BANA (The British Acoustic Neuroma Association) and Brain Tumour Research. Fundraising was going well.
At the start of the year, on the recommendation of a mate from my high school days, I enlisted the help of Jon Fearne, an endurance athlete coach. I hesitantly told him of my plans and received nothing but support and great guidance; he felt that my plans were within reach. I was nervous about working with him; he has worked with some awesome endurance athletes, I and feared I would drag his credibility into the mud! I seriously doubted myself. I’m hardly Paula Radcliffe and still battling fatigue, I was struggling to complete three 30 minute runs a week. However, with Jon’s help I soon found myself training 5 to 6 days a week, whilst also working on core strength and balance. Quite honestly, I’d never felt better.
Then Covid-19 happened, and this event along with so many others, was cancelled. I felt utterly lost. I was still out training everyday, but without having a focus and no goal, just stepping out of the door each day became incredibly difficult.
I decided to devise my own event, the Sandstone Trail Challenge. So in July, I found myself stood at the stone archway in Whitchurch, that marks the official start of the trail. My good friend Cerries was meeting me at certain points. My long suffering husband Neil was planning to meet me at roughly the half way point, for some moral support. I knew it was going to be tough, both mentally and physically. It would be the furthest I’ve ever run in my life. I would also be running alone. Just me alone with my thoughts for hours. Was this a good idea? Of course. Would I be capable of it? I think so; no, scratch that. Yes, I was perfectly capable of it. You see, once you’ve been through the ordeal of a brain tumour diagnosis (or any other life changing illness), everything else by comparison is perfectly doable and really not so scary.
The route took me alongside waterways, through fields (some a little muddy, a few full of maize that was as tall as me, others filled with inquisitive cows!), along lanes, through farms up hills, onto sandy trails, and along paths that were overgrown, or strewn with rocks and tree roots. It was a warm day, for the most part, except for the torrential downpour I encountered during the first half; this left me running with soaking wet feet for about 8 miles until I reached halfway, where I could change. I also endured insect bites and nettle stings, too many to count…
The second half was much harder psychologically. There were many miles of not seeing a single person. Paths were hidden beneath undergrowth, and navigating my way through some sections became a little tricky. My trail shoes were great on trails and fields, but as I ran some sections along narrow lanes, the lack of cushioning meant I felt every single impact with the ground. I pushed those negative thoughts to the back of my mind and picked a spot in the distance to aim for. Then another. Then another….
At one particularly low point, only a few miles from the finish, I read through the messages of support I’d received throughout the day. They really gave me the boost I needed to continue, and the final few miles were fuelled by thoughts of how I had felt as I lay in my hospital bed, throwing up and unable to walk unaided. How I would’ve given absolutely anything to be doing what I was doing now.
I crossed the invisible finish line in Frodsham 11 hours 26 minutes later, to be greeted by Cerries, Neil, my two sons Daniel and Alex, and of course, Hugo. It took a little longer than I’d hoped, as I added an additional mile by missing a turn and had to navigate my way around herds of cows, extreme mud, fallen trees and climbing a slippery Jacob’s Ladder on my own on Frodsham Hill, which I was a little nervy about given there was absolutely no one else around; the alternative route was blocked due to a fallen tree! I felt strong. I felt on top of the world. I felt a great sense of achievement. Once again I had given the finger to fatigue and all the other issues I still suffer with as a result of my tumour and again proven people wrong. That gave me great satisfaction.
I loved the whole experience and I fear the endurance, ultra running bug has bitten! But what would have happened if I’d just accepted the hand that fate had chosen to give to me? If I had accepted the balance issues and lived my life within the anticipated limitations? If I hadn’t taken any risks or set goals and worked towards them? Well, I wouldn’t have been running the Sandstone Trail, that’s for sure.
Life is all about choices. Whether it’s a job you’re unhappy in, your health suffering through bad lifestyle choices, you want to increase your fitness or you’re in a bad relationship for whatever reason, you are the master of your own destiny. You can control, direct and influence huge swathes of what happens in your life. You can make your life whatever you want it to be. It all begins and ends with you.
I still suffer with the after effects of my acoustic neuroma, more than I want, less than it could have been. The thing is though, my future is bright.
You can watch my challenge here.
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