It wasn't even that hot. Maybe 22 degrees? I was apprehensive of the combination of the temperature and the hills and had decided to take it easy if I felt like it was all becoming a bit much. As for the Midsummer Munro last year, I met up with Seanie at the start and after a typically low-key intro from Dr Rob - aside from a verse of 'Happy Birthday' for his Mum, and a decidedly half-hearted rendition of the National Anthem - we were off up the hill.
After last year's half marathon I was sure I didn't want to see the infamous Box Hill steps ever again but although they are ridiculously long and steep, it was actually a lot of the other sections I'd conveniently forgotten about. Well, not so much forgotten, more misremembered how tough they are. I imagine the heat made them harder too but I got through the first nine miles feeling pretty good, and saw the familiar face of Richard Goulder - sub-24 hour finisher of the recent SDW100 - at the quarter-way water station. I told him I'd see him again in a couple of hours.
Then it all started to unravel.
I knew I'd be out on the course for at least five hours so planned to take on food every 90 minutes at least, and S!Caps to replace salts at least once an hour. The amount I was sweating after the first hour made me decide to up the dose to two caps an hour. Whether it was this, or the heat or a combination of the two, I don't know, but suddenly my stomach wasn't happy. I won't presume to speak for anyone else but for me, the odd parp tends to escape during most runs. All that jiggling about I suppose. This felt different. Like something a bit more substantial might escape. I briefly considered jumping a fence to relieve the pressure but decided against it, hoping it would go away.
After going down the steps for the second time, I couldn't wait any longer, found a tree and let it all out. Without going into detail, let's just say it wasn't the most solid delivery ever. Luckily I had a tissue with me, although even as I used it I wondered what would happen if I needed to go again.
I got going and then had to climb the steps as the final part of the first half of the course. It's hard enough at the best of times and this was definitely not the best of times. I saw Claire and Dan who I'd met on some training runs and Claire told me I was looking strong. I was feeling anything but strong. It was around this point I first considered dropping out. If I did so at halfway, I'd still get a medal for the Munro and I could live to fight another day. On the other hand, I was still moving and as the old saying goes, as long as you can put one foot in front of another, keep going.
As I reached halfway and topped up my bottle with water, I decided I had to carry on. I wasn't feeling so bad since my toilet stop and probably just needed some food to give me the energy to carry on. So back up the hill I went, walking this time, and had a bit more of my trusty peanut butter Clif bar, which had served me so well at Edinburgh Marathon last month.
Back down the steps I passed most of the Munro runners who had set off two hours after the marathoners and saw Louise Ayling who said my name and kind of woke me up from my reverie but not quickly enough for me to produce a coherent response. On reaching the bottom it was, ironically, my own bottom that made itself known. I found another bush and had another rapid liquid evacuation of the bowels. With no tissue left, I made use of the nozzle on my water bottle and cleaned up via a quick squirt, making sure to keep a good distance between bottle and botty. Not ideal, but better than nothing.
At the next water station I had a couple of Jaffa Cakes, some water and set off back up the steps for the third time. At the very top of the hill there was another water station and I helped myself to more Jaffa cakes, deciding I could eat myself better. Or at the very least, get some calories on board.
Down the hill there was a bit of gurgling but I put this down to going faster than usual. By the time I reached the foot of the hill, things were happening once again and I had to scurry to the side of the path. As I was crouched in the foliage, the phrase "projectile diarrhoea" came to mind. With no tissues left, I looked down at my sweatband and decided that its usefulness as a sweatband had just been superseded.
Slightly lightheaded now, I staggered back to the path and stood for a moment. I'd completed about 15 miles and could have made my way back. I knew my estimated finishing time of about five hours was now impossible and my main concern was my girlfriend worrying about me when I didn't get in touch around 7pm. I didn't want to quit though and figured I'd probably learn more about myself by continuing, as long as I was sensible.
Going uphill meant I could justifiably walk but it took energy, none of which I had and yet all I could think about were the huge hills to come. So I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, trying not to notice that miles were taking 12, 15 or 18 minutes to cover. Every step was getting me closer to the finish.
Running on empty
After the second climb of the Eiger steps I bumped into Seanie and asked him to get in touch with Cate when he finished. He seemed a bit tired too but given his longest training run had been about 10k I wasn't surprised. He promised to pass on the message of my late arrival and on I went.
I was mainly managing to jog the flats but now and then nausea kicked in and I had to walk. It was supremely frustrating because my legs were fine, there was just no juice in the tank. By this point, I'd given up eating, figuring it was doing more harm than good, cut back on S!Cap intake, and was only drinking when I could stomach it. I ran because it meant I'd be finished marginally quicker than if I walked. Mainly though I wanted to lie down in the bracken.
On and on. Up and down. Steps. Hills. Amazing encouraging race marshalls. Knowing, fatigued nods and the odd "Well done" from other knackered runners. One guy even told me I was awesome which I was so unprepared for I simply gave him a thumbs up.
Finally, another water station and the assurance I was just three and a half miles from the end. Three descents and two ascents. I tried to convince myself it was just a bit more than a parkrun left but I couldn't fool myself. I was the best part of an hour away. It just had to be done.
Down. Up. Steps down. Steps up. A little walk to get my breath back and then the final glorious downhill jog to the finish. It had taken me 6 hours and 25 minutes but I had finished. Of the 98 people who started, 66 completed the full course, with 27 dropping out at halfway. The winner was Alistair Green in 4h21m, Dave Ross was second in 4h25m, and third was Carla Denneny in 4h39m, and also first lady by almost an hour. Seanie finished a very creditable 30th in 5h40m.
Two days on, I've got mixed feelings about this one. I'm really pleased to have finished. My Edinburgh PB a month ago might look more impressive on paper but this was by far the bigger achievement. To give it some context, in the South Downs Way 50 mile race there was 4,800ft of ascent and descent. In the Picnic Marathon there is more than 6,000ft of ascent and descent in just over half the distance.
For the most part it wasn't much fun and I'm annoyed I couldn't appreciate the beauty of the course as much as I would have liked - it really is stunning. Having said that, the camaraderie of the runners and the incredible support of the race marshalls was again phenomenal. Thank you all for keeping me going, and for putting on such an epic race.
Will I do it all over again in two years' time? We'll see...