Running Wild; Lundy Island Half Marathon

Earlier this year I ran my first half marathon. (see previous post “Running For Mental Health”). It was a 21km trail run following a stunning route in Devon along canals and estuaries towards the sea. I was curious to see whether I could complete the 21km route – knowing that my trail running experiences to date had been varying distances and terrain and all totally dependent on how I was feeling mentally. I’ve often heard that with any physical challenge, it is your mind that gives up before your body does and with my mind often working against me, I wanted to push the boundaries and find what was there.

I completed that run. I showed up, and completed it. I wasn’t going to win any prizes for my time, but my personal win was that I did it, despite the usual negative thinking that threatened to sabotage my attempt. This surprised me and left me wondering what else I could try.

And so. When I saw that PureTrail Running would be organising a half marathon event on Lundy Island (a wild and remote place I’ve always wanted to visit but isn’t easily accessible), I knew I would be going.

Now, it is here that I admit to perhaps being somewhat over confident”.

Having completed one half marathon distance, I assumed that I would be capable of completing another. I gave little thought to the fact that Lundy Island would be entirely different (and much more challenging) terrain. But the knowledge that my relationship with trail running has always been about the landscape, and how it influences my mental atmosphere while moving through it, encouraged me to sign up. Surely the experience of running around a wild island would be enough movitivation to get me through?

It is my love of wild spaces that inspires me to run through it. I’m not a treadmill fan, or keen on running on pavements. It is the scenery, the space, the sounds, the smells that feed the soul. I am rewarded with an energy that comes from the land. This energy converts into a desire to move, and the result is undeniably a positive output; the “holy grail” of happiness endorphins. But even more than this, the experience leaves me feeling connected to the wild around me, the seasons, the weather, the wildlife; and it ignites something wild and liberating inside me.

We were due to board the ferry to Lundy island at 08:25 on a Sunday morning in September. This meant getting up at 05:30 to drive from Dorset to Ilfracombe, Devon in time to board. The 2 hour crossing was fully booked with over 200 runners travelling to Lundy. It was a damp misty morning and with a reasonable swell in the channel it meant that sea sickness was a risk. A few unlucky entrants were struck with it, retreating below deck to try and find a place to quietly die, or sleep.

The scenery is simply stunning as you get closer to the island. On arrival, the dramatic rocky cliffs and sheer drops that plunge into the sea seem quite imposing. No glimpse of the overall landscape is revealed here, just a harsh wall of cliff. Seals appear in the harbour, inquisitive and playful with their dark eyes surveying the crowd as we disembark and begin the steep 1mile climb up to the starting line. Once at the top of the island we are blessed with blue sky and unusually hot autumnal sunshine. A welcome breeze reassuringly whips around us we prepare to start.

Lundy Island 21km Route

The route is essentially made up of 3 loops, incorporating a fairly level central granite trail which runs south to north, 2 x lengths of the west and east precipitous coastal paths and a final smaller loop to bring us back to the village to finish. As we set off up a narrow track, we are a slow moving colourful crowd. I run for a while with a lady I chatted to on the ferry until she picks up pace and moves off gracefully picking her way further to the front. I’m greeted by highland cows, horses, butterflies and heather and I’m enjoying the scenery and steady pace until we come across the first challenging route which takes in the West coast path. This narrow path is nothing more than a wild goat track with deep bracken either side. A sheer drop to your left leads to certain death on the rocks below and with this sheletered side of the island yet to have warmed up in the sunshine, it is a fairly wet and slippy path. We are reduced to walking pace. With rocks and boulders to scramble over there are times when I am on all fours to steady myself, this is slow going and tacticle, nothing like my previous half marathon experience along the level estuary trail!

And here is where the unhelpful naysayer of my mind decides to contribute to the situation;

This is dangerous, “I’m going to slip”

I think “I might have under-estimated the terrain”, “I’m getting too used to walking, I’ll never be able to get going again”. “I’m holding up the other runners behind me”, and most frequently “What the actual fuck am I doing here – you’ve never done ANYTHING this hard before!!”….

After a good half an hour of this relentless obstacle course and mental arrest, I am utterly relieved to finally find our way onto a wider path. Although this bit of the course is a steep gradient I am using less mental energy and more leg power. (this sounds more professional than “head first staggering”). At this point we reach the first “cut-off” point. It’s been 7 miles so far and I’m in good time so with a quick drink and slice of orange I’m back on the trail feeling relatively hopeful.

This next loop takes in the east coast path. It is a wide open space with little shelter and the elements take you hostage as the wind and sea comes in from the atlantic ocean and batters the island with it’s full force. The winds are fairly tame today given the mild weather, and I’m grateful for a breeze to accompany the overall drama of the landscape; it inspires me to run and I like to think that I make up time for the cautious slow approach earlier.

Here is the point where I miraculously manage to find the one and only bog on the entire island. Despite there being a helpful stone path through it, I misnavigate and my left foot plunges into the dark wet stench, reappearing with a black wet trail shoe, and leg glistening like tar. Cursing at my foolishness I tackle the ascent up the cliff from the bog of stench only to be greeted by a full view of the island which literally takes my breathe away! This is an incredible moment, I feel a real sense of my geographical location and it hits me that I’m “actually here, doing it”. So much so that I have to do a double-take when I see the end of the island, and realise how far I need to run in order to reach the 2nd cut-off which takes place at the infamous Lighthouse (and it’s many many steep steps).

Feeling a little deflated about the distance still to cover, I am also aware that there are runners now coming up behind me. This unsettles me. Not necessarily because I am competitive, but I just find it really pressurising! I find myself trying to imagine eyes in the back of my head, like the game “What’s the time Mr Wolf”. I’m wondering how close they are now, should I slow down so they can over take, or push on and use it as a motivator? I can hear their casual conversation and I’m reminded that I am here alone. No friend, no running group, not even a familiar face as I’m a newcomer to these kinds of events.

I push on, their conversation becoming less audible in the wind and I just plough on until eventually I see the point where I need to make the descent down to the lighthouse (and back). The steps down are narrow and steep, the path carves it’s way through large boulders of rock. It is with mixed feelings that I am obligated to hang back while other runners who’ve arrived before me tackle their return climb up the steps. I’m relieved to stop a while, but also terrified by the look of sheer strain and determination on their faces as they pass, unable to speak.

“How the hell am I going to do this? This is going to be brutal… oh god, I feel sick”.

The descent
The ascent

Let’s just say, it took every ounce of anything that was left in my body to make it back up to the top of those steps. My lungs on fire, my head pounding, my legs screaming, I stumbled onto level ground and felt a sickness that you only ever experienced from over exertion. A deep, lower body nausea that has you feeling heavy and unable to move. I clumsily wobble to the aid station, unable to speak or even gesture towards the refreshments. My peripheral vision blurred, like on the spinning Waltzers at a fairground, everything was rushing past in long streaks of colour while all I could do was focus on what was immediately in front of me.

Other runners arrive at the aid station jovial, managing to find funny things to say to their co-runners, upbeat, quite chipper even. I however, am sensing a dark realisation that this is WAY beyond my ability. That I have been totally stupid to think that this would be doable. It was sheer madness to think I could complete this based on a “love of wild places” and a whimsicle belief in “mind over matter”. Quite simply; You are either physically fit enough. Or you are not.

I tentatively begin to consider my options. I am at the north of the island and I need to return to the South in order to finish. Even if I don’t run it, I still need to get to the South of the island to catch the ferry home. Could I walk? Should I tell the aid station that I want to exit the race? Could I somehow carry on, maybe just crawl the last 5km back? Perhaps I could take a shortcut?

I am convinced that everyone else is far fitter, far more experienced than I am. I am SURE that I’m at the back of the race, and not far from last and that I’m falling further behind the longer I stand (wobble) here on the spot. There are so many indicators that I have bitten off more than I can chew of this island. I am simply not physically capable of running any further.

And then, a number of things happened…

I see her. The girl that parked in the same car park as me back on mainland. She’s beautiful, well toned and wearing exactly the right combo of expensive gear for a proper trail run. I’d assumed she was a pro, and that she must do this kind of race as a regular Sunday outing. But perhaps I was wrong? She is, after all, a good 1/4 mile behind me, coming along the east coast path that I’ve already covered, slowing to a walk just as often as I need to. I know this sounds utterly shallow, but it made me feel better!! Is that bad?? It’s just; this girl (I’m sorry whoever you are) made me feel a bit intimidated, jealous even. She represented all of the imaginery reasons why someone like me would never be as good, or able, or fit enough to finish a run like this. Ridiculous as it sounds, the truth is that how someone LOOKED threatened to mess with my confidence enough to feel I couldn’t do something I wanted to do. And here she was…. no further ahead, no quicker, no less tired in her appropriate attire, on those well toned legs looking wildly beautiful. She was battling as much as me to keep going. The only difference between her and me being able to complete a run like this, is that she was showing up, and getting on with it, just like I was, but she wasn’t giving up.

At this precise moment in time something caught my eye. I span round just as a bird of prey shot past me at what seemed to be a million miles an hour

As I fixed my gaze on the outline against the sky I realised it was a peregrine falcon. It turned expertly and returned, shooting past me and out along the wide open ground. It was a magical sight to watch, full of freedom, yet naturally in control. In that moment I was in awe of it’s ability, at how lucky I had been to witness it’s performance. It was also the boost I needed.

As I gathered my spirit, I began to run, one foot in front of the other. I was joined by a small group of runners. I couldn’t help but notice that they were wearing ‘Plymouth Trail Runners’ vests. “A running club” I thought… “that MUST bode well for me; we’re all running at the same pace”. I also realised that one of the runners was wearing a Happy Birthday Banner! I absolutely loved that she was choosing to run a half marathon on Lundy Island for her birthday, and their comoraderie and banter brought a fun vibe to the next few kilometres. I realised that they’d been behind me for a while, and recognised their voices as the runners I’d allowed myself to feel pressurised by. They commented on the (many) ocassions that things kept dropping out of my (non) trail running rucksack!! Embarassed, I admitted that I hadn’t invested in any proper kit and that the rucksack was literally held together by bungies and clips. They gently teased me saying “you do realise that “trail running” isn’t leaving a trail of your belongings as you run!??”. I laughed. I don’t know how I managed to find the energy, but I laughed.

Somehow, something shifted mentally as a result of these things. I stopped being hard on myself. I began to take it all a little less seriously and I even managed to tell myself there was every chance that I could make it to the end. That it didn’t matter if I walked, or came last, or didn’t finish even. It was ok to feel utterly exhausted and sick from exerting myself, it was an epic half marathon and I was giving it my best shot! I’d come to an island, I’d seen every inch of it, witnessed it’s brutal beauty, it’s harsh side and it’s wild side. I hadn’t come here for the people, or a place in a long list of times but it WAS a part of the experience, and I needed to accept that somewhere in all of that, I was included, and I was part of it too. This is something I struggle to get my head aroud… PTSD and Social anxiety doesn’t usually encourage me to feel “part” of things. It is usually a case of feeling “apart” from things.

Despite the odds, I had got this far. And just as I thought it would never end, I crossed the finish line. It had taken 3hours and 22minutes to complete the 21km route of the island. I had run, walked, climbed and crawled my way to that finish line, and came 157th out of a total of 197 runners that finished. (Some did not). I’m telling you this because I want you to realise that I am not fast, not uber fit, and perhaps this further illustrates this.

I received a shiny medal of a puffin (the island’s famous for this seabird) but, too tired to wait in line for the BBQ, I grabbed a packet of salt & vinegar crisps and a sausage roll and collapsed in a quiet spot in the sun against a stone wall.

I’m not going to lie; Aside from giving birth, I have never felt so utterly exhausted in all my life. Every part of my body was screaming. I felt so sick I was unsure if I’d be able to make it back to mainland on the ferry. I lay on my back in the grass, looking up at the drifting clouds as I stretched my muscles. Every time I closed my eyes it felt as if the world around me was all at sea. But in amongst the sickness and the soreness, there was a deep sense of satisfaction. I’d done it. It nearly killed me. But I’d finished.

“I still wonder if it was beyond my ability”.

My doubts creep in even though I finished it! I can hear the voice of the naysayer telling me “I was lucky I didn’t do any serious damage to my body”. “You’re like a cat with nine lives”. As I watch the last of the runners coming in to finish I am amazed at the determination and spirit of these people. How, if we can push ourselves to do these things that maybe it can unlock the secret to how we can make it through life unscathed. I cheer and clap as two runners finish together, both must be somewhere in their 60’s and as they cross the finish line. I see them as their younger selves, the look on their faces reveal something close to mischief. Defiance even.

On the ferry home, I bump into the lady who I’d chatted to at the beginning of the run. Also there alone, she had completed it in good time but had also felt really ill afterwards. We ended up drinking tea together and discovered we shared a whole load of common interests including our obsession with sea swimming. A happy bonus to the day and again, showing me how pushing yourself out of your comfort zone can bring unexpected rewards.

Tired and weary after a long day, we are rewarded with an incredible sunset. There is something quite ethereal about witnessing a setting sun while out at sea, it’s as if you are between worlds somehow. It felt something like freedom. To have escaped the “norm” of feeling anxious about the future, to have experienced something wild and crazy, and to have survived certainly felt otherworldly to me.

There are days when I simply can’t face the world at all, let alone run a half marathon on a remote island.

As I stand on the deck steadying myself as we ride the waves, the colours in the sky reflecting on the surface of the water seem to intensify this sentiment. I breathe it in. Grateful for being alive, here in this moment.

It was only later that I discovered that the Plymouth Trail Runners that I’d been running at the same pace with, and had encouraged me that I was “keeping up” with the professionals, were in fact doing a recovery run after having completed a 100km run the previous weekend!!

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