How I started and ended my 40s on the same note
When I look back on both the start and end of my 40s, they are very much bookended by three parallel events.
Shortly before my 40s, I lost my job as a lawyer in the construction industry as it went into recession. A few months later, my marriage unravelled as I was the main breadwinner and there was no one else to step up. Then finally, aware of my looming birthday, I decided to use my redundancy pay-off to have some sort of running adventure to celebrate this milestone.
I chose Marathon des Sables – a 156-mile 5-day event across the Moroccan desert. It sounded like a big enough challenge – one where I wasn’t certain if I would accomplish it or fail – and my kind of thing. I ran Marathon des Sables in 2011 for my 40th and finished 4th woman in my age group. I thought I might be onto something.
However, I met someone new in my early 40s, had a child, and running long distances took a back seat, but I knew that I always wanted to find a way back to it.
Then a series of parallel events happened towards the end of my 40s, just like the start.
At the end of 2018 my relationship with my son’s dad came to an end. The stress caused a relapse in the post traumatic stress I first experienced about 1 year after coming back from serving as an Army Reserve in Iraq, and I fell apart. Thankfully, this time around I recognised the symptoms and sought help. An organisation called Rock 2 Recovery, which supports serving and retired personnel, helped me get myself back together. I continued to live in the family home with my ex-partner until I felt strong enough to leave.
And then lockdown happened in 2020. And I was stuck. Rock 2 Recovery helped keep my head above water during this time.
Just like the start of my 40s, during lockdown my business was affected. I was juggling home schooling, running a business and supporting my clients and trying to keep myself together. I reached burnout and decided to mothball my business.
I needed something outside of my home life to focus on.
I’d always hoped to run Marathon des Sables again for my 50th and beat my time. I wanted to show to myself and others that getting older didn’t inevitably have to mean slowing down in life. However, the entrance fee had increased beyond my means in those intervening 10 years. So instead, I decided to run 156 miles self-supported on the South West Coast Path here in the UK. Although I didn’t have the desert heat to contend with, the hilly terrain makes it a challenge.
If you’re not familiar with this part of the world, popular with runners and hikers alike, the South West Coast Path is a 630-mile path along part of the coast of the UK, taking in some of the most dramatic scenery in this country with a total of 115,000 feet of ascent and descent.
There’s no point doing something this big if it doesn’t benefit someone else, so I decided to run to raise funds for Rock 2 Recovery. Although they’d asked nothing from me, I’d promised myself I would thank them when I was in a position to do so and running seemed a fitting way to do that.
For now, I kept my 50th birthday plans to myself as I didn’t know if my plan was a ‘goer’.
In August 2020, I started letting friends know I was training for an event for September 2021. This seemed the best time of year to run on the coast path as it was (hopefully) still dry underfoot from summer and the weather reasonably good.
I had a start date, but the idea was still formulating.
In September 2020 I came across an incredible endurance athlete known as “Brutal Claire.” She was about to attempt the fastest known time for running self-supported from John O’Groats in Scotland to Lands End in England (about 875 miles, and the two furthest places geographically apart), using a baby jogger to push along all her kit. What struck me was her determination to keep going through all the challenges this adventure threw at her.
I came out to cheer her on when she was passing close to my hometown. I let Claire briefly know about my own challenge, and she kindly invited me to get in touch if I needed anything.
When I’d trained for Marathon des Sables, my plan was pretty much to run the 6 miles from work to home four days a week with my work gear in my backpack, strength train three times a week and run a 1- to 2-day ultra marathon each month (somewhere between 30-60 miles). Then 12 weeks out from the start line, I hired an excellent coach who normally trained mountaineers and other professional sports people, who finished my training and got me start line ready.
This time round I wanted to be more structured.
At the same time, I had this nagging feeling in the back of my mind that perhaps 156 miles wasn’t challenging enough. I got in touch with Brutal Claire, and added another 100 miles to my event, so it was now 256 miles, finishing up at Rock 2 Recovery’s home town of Exmouth. I had 10 days available to complete it as I had to get back for my son and the school run.
Having never run that distance before, I joined a few online forums to ask for advice. The top tip I received was to train as if for a 100-mile event. Armed with this information, a friend gifted me a copy of Krissy Moehl’s book “Running your first ultra” and I near faithfully followed her running plan. Meanwhile, I used my experience as a personal trainer to create my own strength program to compliment my running. It was pretty full on, and I got used to training while fatigued (which would come in handy for 10 days of running / moving). Again, 12 weeks out, I hired a trusted friend and coach to help me finesse my strength training so that I could focus on the logistics.
The blessing of lockdown for me was that I was able to share childcare with my ex, then fit my training in around that and I hoped that by September 2021 restrictions would be relaxed such that I could do my run. That was my focus.
Amazingly, by the end of August 2021 (almost 3 years on) the legal proceedings against my ex had concluded, our family home sold and I moved into my own place. Such relief… but there was no time to unpack as my birthday “run” was just 2 weeks away.
It was still touch and go.
I arranged a dog sitter for my elderly pooch, Cooper, which meant I could go. Life was full on with work and moving.
However, I still had this nagging feeling that I would be disappointed if I got to the finish line and felt that I had a few miles left to give in the tank. So I got back in touch with Brutal Claire. I said to Claire that there was part of me that wanted to double my original Marathon des Sables mileage, so instead of running 256 miles, I wanted to run 312 miles instead.
Claire’s response? “...just go for the double. When will you have the chance to do this again… when you want to get something done, it’s amazing what you can do.“
And so it was settled. Double the miles it was.. and I added another 15 miles – just in case the mileage came out under.
On the day I was due to set off to the start line, it was all a bit chaotic.
I was working all day, my kit was all over the lounge floor, and the dog sitter turned up an hour early – so I was busy talking with him when the taxi turned up at the door. I hastily threw everything into three suitcases and caught the train to Cornwall.
Although I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, I hadn’t had time to study the course in detail, so I read about the first 100 miles on the train journey. I figured that I’d read about the next day’s mileage the night before as I’d nothing else to do for the evening.
My friend met me at the other end of my train journey, and we were up until 2am packing and repacking my kit to fit into my rucksack. I was running as light as I could. Most of my pack was made up of food, but in the end I could only squeeze in 5 days’ worth of food at a time. I used some of the things I’d learnt from Marathon des Sables, such as cutting down the handle of my toothbrush, halving my mirror (to signal for help) and other tricks to pack light and save on space. I also packed just two pairs of pants and socks on rotation (one to wear, one to wash), one T-shirt I’d wear each day (I figured that I’d be sweaty and smelly within the first hour of running anyway) and hand washed it overnight and changed into a base layer to sleep. A running friend lent me a small, lightweight basecamp tent and sleeping bag.
The morning of my departure, my friend drove me to the start, about an hour’s drive away to Bedruthan Steps, just above Newquay in Cornwall. It was cold and windy and I wondered what I’d let myself in for. There was a lot of trepidation, but I also excited to see if I could do it. I reminded myself it was just a question of one foot in front of the other.
I spent long stretches of the coast path without seeing another soul and my mobile signal went in and out along the more remote parts. But I never felt afraid – I’d hired a GPS for friends to keep track of me.
The overwhelming number of people I did encounter were very friendly and curious as to why I was so laden-down (my kit weighed around 24lb-26lb). When I rocked up at campsites, my neighbouring campers and caravanners made me a cup of tea while I put my (very small) tent up. Halfway through, someone treated me to a night in a hotel (motel), so that I could have a bit of a clean up, and a friend of a friend also put me up in their cabin overnight. Towards the end of my run, I was definitely more dishevelled than when I started.
My original plan was to do this self-supported and cover around 30 miles or so each day. However, it became apparent that this wasn’t going to be feasible. It was coming to the end of the holiday season, so cafes were closing and if I’d stopped where I’d intended each day, I wouldn’t have access to drinking water. Plus, there were plenty of signs informing that wild camping was prohibited and I’d heard tales of the coast guard picking people up in the night.
Thankfully my friend came to the rescue. He tried to meet me somewhere on the path each day to help top up my supplies and swap over battery chargers, and in the remote parts, collect me and drive me to a campsite and the following day I would resume the path where I left off.
There were a few comedy moments along the way.
On the first night there was extremely heavy rain (and it would have been a miserable and soggy start to my run), so my friend insisted we sleep out in his work’s van … except once we shut ourselves in for the night, we discovered there was no internal handle to the rear door to let ourselves out again! Thankfully, however, he had a saw in the van, so we sawed our way through the wooden front partition just wide enough so that I could slither through into the front cab and climb out to open the rear door from the outside. We laughed about it once we were free, but at the time I was quite panicked, but too tired from running to fuss.
I hadn’t had time to practise putting up my friend’s tent at home, so I had to look up how to on YouTube. As the light was fading, my brother phoned to check I was OK. When I explained I couldn’t stay long as I was busy trying to figure out the tent, I could hear him chuckling down the phone as I ran off in a huff.
On another occasion, I turned up to catch a local ferry across a river, and the ferryman had clocked off early for the evening and was now down the pub. This isn’t always unexpected in these parts. So a fellow passenger and I commandeered a small inflatable dinghy and a local chap rowed us to the other side of the river so I could continue on my way.
Although I wasn’t as prepared as I could have been, I’ve always had a lot of faith that, when I’ve set off somewhere, it will all turn out OK in the end. For that I credit my five years as an Army Reserve (including a year on active duty), for being able to keep a cool head, work things out, and having the grit to dig in and keep chipping away at the miles.
Despite initial nerves, my time away felt like one massive, fun adventure and endorphin rush. I can say hand on heart I enjoyed all of it, even when I didn’t have much “run” left in me by day seven. It was such a thrill to see parts of the coastline that not everyone gets to see. The scenery was stunning and the terrain so varied. Around Cornwall, I spent nearly a whole day scrambling over rocks. Meanwhile, when I reached Devon, I was back amongst the familiar red earth and woodlands that I find so relaxing. If you ever get a chance to visit the area, I’d recommend it.
As I already mentioned, I only had 10 days to get around. In the end, I covered some 275 miles on foot in those 10 days and lost around 7lb in body weight in the process (it soon came back).
But I wasn’t done yet.
A month later, I went back out on the coast path and picked up where I had left off at East Prawle in Devon and completed the remaining 50 or so miles to cross my originally intended finish line.
Now I was done…and I couldn’t face another hill for quite some time!
Running has given me such pleasure in life.
After the claustrophobia of being cooped up in lockdown, I relished being out in nature all day. It was also the longest time I’d spent in my own company for as long as I can remember. Ten whole days of headspace and stillness!
And I have a profound sense of gratitude towards my body for carrying me this far in life, and to my brother who first got me into running.
Having completed another “long run” for my 50th, I feel I have come full circle and closed the chapter on the upheaval of my 40s. Entering my fifth decade, I have a stronger sense of who I am, and I will never lose that again… and I have another 300 or so miles of the South West Coast Path left to finish off! Watch this space!