They call her Irongran, and although that triathlon suit does look a little like a superhero’s spandex, Edwina “Eddie” Brocklesby is not a new character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She’s a 76-year-old grandmother of four who has been demonstrating what’s possible for older athletes since she completed her first marathon at 53. In 2005 she ran the London Marathon… Read more →
LONDON ELECTRONIC POP DUO JOSEPHINE VANDER GUCHT AND ANTHONY WEST ON RUNNING ON TOUR JVG: At school I hated athletics with a vengeance. Plus I was so into music I just wanted to go to gigs all the time. So basically the whole of my teenage years I never ran, which is kind of crazy when I look back at… Read more →
“There have been two defining moments in my life, 30 years apart, where I’ve felt completely at peace, completely at home, and like I’m where I’m meant to be,” says Carl Adams. “They were my first drink, when I was 13, and my first time in the woods doing outdoor fitness. They almost triggered the same feelings in my mind,… Read more →
In the middle of 2017, overwhelmed by the stresses of living and working in London, Jessica Robson began retreating every weekend to her parents’ home in East Sussex, where her mum would drag her out for Sunday runs. “That was quite a dark summer for me. I was really struggling to cope,” she says. “But I found I was opening… Read more →
It’s amazing the power of a throwaway comment. One morning over breakfast, full-time adventurer Anna McNuff revealed her latest plan to her boyfriend: 50 marathons, across the UK, entirely barefoot – “Barefoot Britain” was the phrase that had been stuck in her head since her last challenge, cycling 5,500 miles through the Andes across 2016 and 2017. Of course, given… Read more →
“Our main hope here, the barefooted lightweight wonder, Bruce Tulloh,” the Pathé news reporter says in delightfully plummy tones, over black-and-white shots of the British athlete’s victory in the 1962 European Championship 5,000 metres in Belgrade. “That frail form conceals a lot of strength.” Tulloh, at under 5’8, close to 8 stone and gently spoken, could have been a… Read more →
A marathon doesn’t usually start in a pub. But that’s sometimes where they begin, years before the inaugural bang of the starting gun.
In the case of two relatively new Sussex marathons – the Moyleman, which loops around Lewes and first took place in 2015, and Brighton, which has been the UK’s second biggest marathon since 2010 – the pub was where those first speculative conversations were had. Could this be done? Why hasn’t anyone done it before? Could we do it?
It’s a tale of two cities – well, one city and a market town. The two races couldn’t be more different. Brighton sees about 12,000 runners trotting along the famous seafront, cheered on by a further 60,000 in an event that rivals Pride and the London to Brighton Bike Ride as one of the largest events in the South Coast tourist destination’s calendar. In its fourth year, the Moyleman has grown from 90 participants to 350 and follows the trails in the hills surrounding Lewes, 10 miles east of Brighton, including a sizeable chunk of the South Downs Way. The spectators are mostly sheep.
Brighton began because two locals used their expertise to spot a gap in the running market. Tim Hutchings was a former GB runner with medals for 5000m at the European Championship and Commonwealth Games. He’s also a Eurosport commentator and had worked as the London Marathon’s International Coordinator for 10 years. Tom Naylor is Brighton born and bred, the son of parents who had long been active in local running events. They used to organise Brighton’s half marathon. His mum, Chris, is the current President of the city’s Arena 80 athletics club.
“They organised their first race when I was about seven, so I’ve had many years of stuffing race packs in the kitchen. That was just a thing we did in our family,” says Naylor. He competed as a high level club runner in 1500m and 5000m before going on to open a running shop in Hove. “Tim had seen the London Marathon change and grow hugely, and had also travelled the world commentating on running events and seen how many major cities across Europe have their own marathons. We couldn’t understand why London was the size it was, rejecting so many people in the ballot every year, while there was nothing else close to being that big.”
The Moyleman, in contrast, began as a less ambitious concept but has still grown to the immense satisfation of the local mates who thought it would be a fun thing to do. It’s named after Chris Moyle, a local runner who died from stomach cancer in 2009. The spot where his ashes are scattered looks down on part of the route. Its real genesis came, however, when Duncan Rawson, a keen mountain biker, met Ash Head, Moyle’s training buddy, in a pub, and enthused about his day spent riding a punishing lap around the local hills. He said he’d covered about 28 miles, which switched on a lightbulb.
Head wrote a blog outlining a speculative marathon route, saying: “This’ll probably never happen.” The reply came back from another friend and local runner, Tom Roper: “This MUST happen.” Rawson and Head now share the job of race director, while Roper is chief marshall. Two more friends, Rob Read and Brian Courage, handle PR and money stuff respectively. No one spends so much time on the organising that it ruins the experience, though Rawson still replies to every querying email personally, so the immediate run-up gets hectic.
“It ebbs and flows, the amount of time it takes up in our lives,” says Head. “Six weeks out, you might have nowhere near enough marshalls. Organising the roving 4×4 medical teams is a significant job. But the bar is set reasonably low. There’s not a lot that can go wrong. The thing we fear the most is people getting hurt, injured, lost.”
The Moyleman doesn’t require any road closures, and finishes in the deliveries yard of the helpful local brewer, Harveys. Instead of a medal, you get a branded pint glass, complete with beer, at the finish. The only piece of private land used requires verbal permission from a friendly local farmer, who they treat to dinner in a nice restaurant once a year.
Brighton Marathon, in contrast, completely takes over a significant chunk of the city. “It impacts everyone in different ways. For some people it’s a bit annoying. For others it shuts down what they’re trying to do,” says Naylor. “We’re dealing with an under pressure hospital. Bus routes, taxi routes, fire stations, car parks, all have to be considered. The Council were great – they wanted to do it. But it took a long time to get the route into position and make them confident that we weren’t going to ruin a lot of people’s weekend.”
Naylor’s and Hutchings’ company, Grounded Events, has eight employees who work on the Marathon all year round. But as race day approaches, that number ramps up considerably. They bring in 25 events professionals who have worked on big occasions such as the Olympics and the Tour de France, supervising a 200-strong events team. There’ll be about 500 stewards and security people across the event, as well as 150 medical volunteers – doctors and senior nurses – and 400 St John Ambulance first aiders. Plus about 1800 volunteers handing out race packs beforehand and managing drinks stations during the race.
Their race was popular straight away, attracting about 7,500 runners in its first year. Like Edinburgh, whose marathon had just over 6,000 finishers last year, it’s an attractive city to visit for a weekend anyway so has instant appeal. Brighton’s immediate success was also helped by the cunning decision to take place the week before London, hoovering up many who want to train through the winter and didn’t get into the big one.
Social media also helps these days, enabling them to publicise the race far more widely and quickly than putting an advert in the back of a magazine. “It’s created an experience market,” says Naylor. “People challenge themselves in a public way, and are inspired by seeing other people challenging themselves. Up to 70 per cent of people doing our marathon are first timers.”
But it has its downsides too. Complaints are aired more widely too. What kind of criticism has Brighton had? “Anything and everything! It’s somebody’s once in a lifetime experience, so anything that makes that the slightest bit negative – queueing, the loos, not liking the start location, hating the music – that feedback starts to come in immediately after the race has finished.”
So putting on a marathon is an evolving process – they’re still tinkering. The Moyleman organisers now have to put up their route arrows at the last minute in one village, otherwise they get taken down again by hostile locals. Brighton is experimenting with a start time 45 minutes later this year, to make it easier for participants who don’t live in the city. While they fiddle with this, as well as a slight route alteration and changes to the park and ride system, they’ve made the number of entrants a bit lower.
Yet both sets of organisers know that they’ve created something valuable, loved by many who come repeatedly, and have no desire to make their races much bigger or smaller. “Someone suggested a while back that we could make this the Sainsbury’s Moyleman. Over my dead body,” says Head.
“We like to be at the finish line and shake everyone’s hand,” says Rawson of the Moyleman’s low-key finale. “We never set out to make money. Watching people cross the line, the tears and the hugs, it’s incredibly emotional. That’s the real pay-off.”
TIPS FOR ORGANISING YOUR OWN MARATHON
IT’S NOT WHAT YOU KNOW
Through their backgrounds as high level runners and Tom Naylor’s experience running a small business, Brighton’s organisers already knew plenty of the key people to speak to about putting on a local marathon. Moyleman organiser Duncan Rawson’s background in farming got him access to the right fields.
It can take a few years for that initial pub idea to become a reality. The first conversation about a Brighton Marathon took place in July 2007 and it was licensed in May 2009. An unofficial Moyleman for 15 running friends took place the year before they did it for real.
ACCEPT YOUR MISTAKES AND IMPROVE THE NEXT YEAR
One of Brighton’s biggest problems was the year that the kit bags turned out to be too small and flimsy. Unfortunately they only discovered this when thousands of them arrived two days before the race. Needless to say it didn’t happen again.
HAVE FAITH IN PEOPLE
As a small race relying largely on local goodwill, the Moyleman can cut it fine to be completely ready. Marshalls often only emerge at the last minute, or have to be ferried from early in the race to near the end to man a second post. One year, in the absence of anyone else, a medic crew took over a water station for a while.
Without the investment of numerous charities, who receive their money back fivefold when people receive their allocated places and do sponsored runs, Brighton would struggle to operate. Although it doesn’t have any offcial charity involvement, the Moyleman gives any profits to Martlets, the local hospice that cared for the race’s namesake.
Spoiler alert! There’s a new film out about Usain Bolt, and I can tell you exactly how it ends. The man they call “Lightning” defeats the baddies, wins all the medals and returns home to Jamaica covered in more glory than a Magnum ice cream is covered in delicious chocolate.
It was a slight problem for British brothers and co-directors Ben and Gabe Turner: how do you give a documentary film the required dramatic tension when practically everybody in the world already saw your finale in Rio, August 2016? Besides that, how do you maintain interest in a protagonist who has barely put a foot wrong since his first spectacular trio of gold medals in Beijing 2008? Even the cheesiest Hollywood blockbuster puts its hero in grave peril before the obligatory happy ending.
“With a guy like Usain who’s given so many interviews and had the same questions constantly asked of him, it’s not interesting to make a film telling you stuff you’ve heard again and again,” admits older brother Ben, 39. “We wanted to find out what HE wanted to say about his life. What’s it like to him to be this dominant athlete? He’s the fastest human being in the world so to get into his perspective and find out what it’s like to be him – that’s fascinating to me.”
The brothers spent a year and a half following Bolt, beginning a few months before the World Championships in Beijing in August 2015. They captured him training hard, hating ice baths as much as anyone, dying of boredom in hotel rooms and yes, partying hard too. Crucially for the film’s dramatic value, the Bolt of these World Championships and Rio is a different man from the one who set the 100 and 200m World Records in Beijing 2008 looking like he was just nipping past on his way to the shops. Having raced less regularly than others, he’s got the USA’s Justin Gatlin – an easy sell as the villain of the piece – snapping at his heels. A few months before Rio, he suffers an ankle injury that he must go all the way to Germany to get treated. “The older I get, the less fun it is,” he complains. He’s no longer the clear favourite.
“He blew the field away in 2008. He won that on talent, on sheer God-given ability,” says Ben. “But by the time we got to Rio, others could run faster times than him. He won that with character. He won because of who he is, not because of talent. That’s a tribute to what it is to be a champion.”
Watching the film, the man who smiles, dances, then opens his stride and puts acres between himself and the seven other fastest men in the world, does turn out to be human. He struggles with motivation, given this unprecedented physical gift but preferring to go quad biking. He shows his father, Wellesley, and his second father, coach Glen Mills, quiet respect. He irons his own shirts!
Viewers may be surprised by his training setup, which appears to be a handful of people, including his schoolfriend and manager Nugent ‘NJ’ Walker, and a tent in a dusty field in Jamaica. Mills is a star of the film, a man so chilled that hospitals could boil him down and use him as morphine. He looks like he should be playing dominos outside a rum shack, but if he tells the fastest man on the planet to sprint up and down dragging a sledge loaded with weights, Bolt will do it. “We don’t need to have a military thing. If you can reach people you tend to get more out of them – that’s my philosophy,” he says, very slowly.
The Turners didn’t have much trouble winning Bolt’s trust. They arrived on the project fresh from making a documentary about the sprinter’s favourite football team, Manchester United. Class of ’92 told the story of the blessed batch of United youngsters that included David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and the Neville Brothers. Helpfully, Bolt had no problem with being on camera all day. “He’s very of the modern world,” says Ben. “He’s always filming himself on his phone.” At one point they were worried that his Snapchat feed was going to be more revealing than the documentary.
But it’s the self-shot footage from Bolt and other members of the Jamaica team that gives a new perspective on events that might otherwise be overfamiliar. You can see part of the 2008 triumph on decathlete Maurice Smith’s tiny, flickering athlete’s village television, and hear Smith’s jubilant reaction. And you get a sense of the flipside of that ecstasy when Bolt is sluggish and contemplative in hotel rooms, talking to his phone camera because he has nothing else to do.
It’s not an unbalanced idealization of the 30-year-old, though you’re unlikely to come away from it loving him any less. It’s simple, says Turner: he really is as cool as you hoped he would be. “He’s not actually a dickhead who’s pretending to be a good bloke. He just is who he is. He’s a special man and doesn’t think that he’s a better human being than other people. He restores your faith in everything you hope sport should be.”
So when he looks straight at the camera and says: “I am the greatest,” it’s not the big talk of an idiot. He just is. Who else could prompt Pele to announce that he is “one of my idols”?
These are the stellar circles in which he now exists. There’s Serena Williams comparing him to Pele, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and, um, herself, as “amazing athletes that reached beyond what any other athlete has reached.” There’s Sebastian Coe saying, “I don’t think I can remember anybody since Muhammad Ali that has just grabbed the stage in any sport in the way Usain did.”
So there may not be much that we can glean from the film to help our own running. His is an ability that will remain in a different universe to ours no matter how many extra Parkruns we do. “What did I learn from him? Just that I’m a very ordinary human being physically,” says Ben. “I’ll never forget the sight of him in full flight. It’s so beautiful. Everybody runs, it’s part of humanity, so to see the fastest person ever recorded, the idea of what that represents… You’re dead if you don’t care about that. It’s like the Moon landing.”
BOXOUT: FIVE SURPRISING BOLT FACTS
1 – He works harder than you think
Supposedly he won his Beijing Olympic titles fuelled by chicken nuggets, but by the run-up to London 2012, he was fully committed to training. “I vomited daily,” he reveals.
2 – His greatest moment came when he was 15
Never mind the World Records. According to Bolt, it doesn’t get any better than winning the 200m at the 2002 World Junior Championships in front of a home crowd in Kingston, Jamaica.
3 – He wants to play for Manchester United
For his post-athletics career, Bolt hopes to avoid the pundits’ box and switch to the top level of another sport entirely. It would be unprecedented, but so was the triple-triple.
4 – He doesn’t think talent comes naturally
“If you want to be a winner you have to work hard to be a winner,” he says in the film, suggesting that those who aren’t prepared to graft should take up, “What’s that sport with the broom? Curling!”
5 He’s a terrible singer
After all the elation, the enduring image of I Am Bolt might actually be the fastest man on earth rolling around his hotel room on a hoverboard scooter, crooning R Kelly like a cat on an operating table.
I Am Bolt is released in cinemas, on digital download, Blu-Ray and DVD on 28 November. iamboltfilm.com
As R Kelly sang in Bump ‘n’ Grind, the R&B superstar’s famous song about cross country running, “My mind is tellin’ me no, but my body, my body’s tellin’ me YES!” We can receive conflicting messages when racing, and it’s hard to know what to believe. Most confusingly, how can we tell that we’re trying as hard as we can when we run?
If you cross the finish line and are able to chat straight away, or indeed feel comfortable enough to natter during a race, you could probably give a little more. The problem is that we don’t usually recognise that until late on. If you can summon a blazing sprint finish at the close (and most of us can – that’s the best bit, isn’t it?), who’s to say that you couldn’t have used that extra energy more effectively in the rest of the race?
“The question, ‘How can a runner tell if he has given his best effort over the full distance of a race?’ is fundamentally unknowable,” says coach and author Matt Fitzgerald, who wrote the book How Bad Do You Want It? “No matter how hard an athlete feels he has tried, he always finishes a race – or at least reaches the point where he begins his finishing kick – with a reserve of physical capacity. This is because runners pace their races based on subjective perceptions of their physical limits, and humans appear to be wired to always underestimate these limits.”
You can’t win a top level race without trying your hardest though, surely, so how do the big boys do it? I ask triathlon gold medallist Alistair Brownlee who, as a less than ideal interview mix of single-minded professional athlete and Yorkshireman, doesn’t have much to offer in the way of deep psychological insights.
“It’s hard for me to answer because it comes quite naturally and I’ve done it from a very young age,” he says of his ability to push himself towards first place. He isn’t a believer in visualisation or other ways to train your mind as well as your body for success. “I’ve never let myself focus on crossing the line. I have to remain very much in the moment. I am aware somewhere that I’m really really pushing hard, but I’m staying in the moment, trying to hold on til the next corner, breaking the race down and staying in the present. My opinion is, train as hard as you can physically, get yourself on the start line and embrace the challenge of the race. Just get on with it.”
Simple, huh? “You can almost always try harder than you think you can,” he continues. “So basically you do something as hard as you can, then try and do it about five per cent harder.”
It makes sense that a good way to understand your effort level is to have done something before. When you do it better the second time, you have measurable proof that you’re trying harder. Plus, as we know, having a goal to beat is a great motivator.
Fellrunning world champion Ricky Lightfoot understands the determination that results from doing less well the first time you try something. When we speak he’s just back from the Grand Trail des Templiers in France, a 76km race in which he finished a mere 24th. However, his previous visit was worse. “Two years ago I had an injury at this same race which stopped me finishing it, so I was more determined than ever to finish this time,” he tells me. “I’ve been carrying an injury for about two years. It started hurting after about 30k in this race. I found myself almost wanting to give in and stop. It’s points like that when you feel a bit of self pity. I found myself wishing I had my phone so I could call my partner. But I knew it wasn’t going to get any worse. I just kept on telling myself: get a little bit further, get to the next checkpoint. I told myself I wanted to get to the finish, and I was more than happy with that.”
You’ll have noticed both Brownlee and Lightfoot thinking about their races only in small increments. If you tried to comprehend the magnitude of, say, the Marathon des Sables and its endless stages all at once, you’d run screaming in the opposite direction. But putting one foot in front of the other, then doing it again, and again, ought always to be something you can manage. In practice you can persuade your brain to think positively about repeating these small achievements, according to Andy Lane, Professor of Sport and Learning at the University of Wolverhampton. It’s interval training that will teach you how to push harder for longer.
“If you’re doing 20 reps, you don’t think, ‘I can’t do 17 more of these.’ You don’t have to think about that. You only have to think about the next one,” he tells me. “So you think, ‘Can I do one more? Yes.’ That brings the mindset: ‘Can I go quicker? Yes I can.’ That’s the foundation of mental strength for any endurance event: ‘Can I do this again? Yes. Can I push myself hard? Yes. Is it tiring? Yes. But am I stopping? No!’”
A problem that we face is that we almost always feel that we are trying our hardest, even if the reality is that we could try harder. Matt Fitzgerald cites a study in which cyclists completed a time trial, then did it again racing against an avatar on a computer screen that was programmed to do it two per cent faster than each cyclist had done it previously. The cyclists did better the second time, but on both occasions reported that they’d been trying as hard as they could.
So what you’re trying to do is increase your maximum tolerance for perceived effort. “When you complete a hard workout or race and realise that it didn’t kill you, you feel comfortable pushing a little harder in the next one,” says Fitzgerald.
But how do we measure that effort during a race? An attempt to run at a certain pace per mile can come unstuck when there are hills or a headwind. Using a heart rate monitor can teach you the top level at which you can work, and help you to know the line to keep just underneath. However, they can lag, continuing to climb after you’ve already reached the top of a hill, for example.
Some devices, such as those made by Stryd and RPM2, can now offer a power reading in watts, of the kind used by cyclists. It could be a more accurate way to keep track of physical effort regardless of hills, wind or technical trails.
But no one has yet come up with a gadget for measuring mental toughness. For that, you simply have to suffer. “You’ve got to be broken a little before you can improve your mental strength,” says Ricky Lightfoot. “Without seeing how far you can push it, you’ll never know how much you’re capable of.”
5 TOUGHEST RACES FROM AROUND THE WORLD
Self Transcendence 3100 Mile
Your best chance of achieving running nirvana or going completely bonkers. Run 3,100 miles (you read that right) over 52 summer days around a single block in Queens, New York: 164th Place to Abigail Adams (84th) Avenue to 168th Street to Grand Central Parkway.
Marathon Des Sables
If, on your regular runs, you find yourself thinking: “I wish I had more sand in my socks,” why not go for the big one? Over six days, masochistic runners cross 156 miles of the Sahara Desert.
An island-to-island “swimrun” near Stockholm, competitors must cross 24 islands, running a total of 40 miles across them and swimming just over six miles between them. Pippa Middleton did it in 2015, so how hard can it be?
A daunting traverse of the whole of Wales from north to south: 200 miles in five days, including about 8.5 miles of ascent. The organisers insist it’s “the toughest 5-day mountain running race in the world.”
Mid-July in California’s Death Valley is a fine place for lizards and cacti, but less so for runners. Nevertheless, people keep attempting this 135 mile course in temperatures of up to 54C.
5 ATTRIBUTES/PERSONALITY TRAITS THAT MENTALLY TOUGH ATHLETES SHARE
They’re hyper competitive
“I’m always trying to win, and giving up is like losing. Being mentally strong and trying to carry on to the finish is probably my way of winning,” says Ricky Lightfoot.
They stay in the moment
“I don’t want my mind to wander off from the moment,” says Alistair Brownlee. “If you’re in a race thinking, ‘I can’t do this. I have to make myself do this,’ it would already be too late.”
They stick to a schedule
Says Andy Lane: “Pro athletes’ ability to stick to training programmes is collossal, plus their ability to run on the edge of where it hurts and be okay with that. Most people could get a lot better at learning to cope with more.”
They exhibit inhibitory control
That’s the ability to stay focused on the thing that you want most, even when confronted with two incompatible things, such as A: wanting to finish quickly, and B: not wanting to suffer.
They know it’s not just about effort
Technique is important too. “There’s a balance between going as hard as you can and maintaining your technique,” says Brownlee. “You can try too hard and lose out in another way.”
5 WAYS TO IMPROVE MENTAL TOUGHNESS
Reframe your suffering
As author and runner Haruki Murakami reminded us: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Andy Lane elaborates: “You can train your brain to interpret sensations of fatigue as sensations of goal achievement.”
You know for sure that you’re trying harder if you do the same thing again, and do it better.
You’re more likely to try harder if you perceive your extra effort as worthwhile. So go for that PB, or that good position.
Do short intervals
The shorter the better, says Lane. “Make each rep short enough for you to go hard and not overthink pacing. When it’s short, you can do another one and develop your ability to say, ‘Yes, I can keep going.’”
Pace yourself smart
“If you did a Parkrun in 20 minutes, the first half in nine and the second half in 11, a lot of people would go by you in the second half and you’d feel awful,” says Lane. “The other way round, you’d be accelerating and finish feeling fabulous.”
Beat the Sun sounds more like an undertaking for astronauts than athletes. They call it “nature’s toughest challenge”, though at 5.44 in the morning, the toughest challenge for the residents of the hotels that surround Chamonix town square is remaining asleep while commemorative cowbells clang, flares erupt and a DJ greets the alpine sunrise with deafening dubstep.
ASICS have been putting on this relay race for three years now, the brainchild of French race director Laurent Ardito, who has found that sweet spot for a test that is daunting, just about achievable and captures the imagination. In the simplest terms, it’s easy to understand: start at sunrise, run around the Mont Blanc massif, finish in the same place before sunset on the longest day of the year. To say it again with numbers, that’s 87 miles through three countries, including 29,000ft of ascent (the equivalent of scaling Everest) in 15 hours and 41 minutes. This time eight teams of six will attempt it, three elite runners and three amateurs, in 12 legs, the longest of which is 11.8 miles.
Chamonix, the site of the first ever Winter Olympics, is accustomed to being invaded by trail runners, as the home of the iconic Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in late August. This course is similar but a little shorter, following a hiking path that usually takes walkers 7-9 days. The town sits beneath the surrounding mountains like the plug in a gigantic sink, and when you’re there, the only inclination is to go up. A statue of 18th Century Swiss explorer Horace-Benedict de Saussure points enticingly towards the summits in the central square. They look inspiring, overwhelming, and astoundingly beautiful as the previous day’s lowering sun turns the snow caps golden.
Matty Hynes, the only British elite taking part and the primary runner for Team Europe North, is feeling less poetic in the build-up. “The first stage is a twat of a stage,” he announces. He’s a Middlesborough man (“God’s country,” he says more than once) who came 17th in the 2015 London Marathon with a time of 2:16:00, but missed out on a place at the Rio Olympics due to illness during qualifying. He’s also something of a wild card among the more robotic stars of distance running, struggling to sleep the night before the race because he’s so angry at England’s feeble football performance against Slovakia in the Euros, and slipping into a Joy Division T-shirt as soon as his sporting duties are finished.
A remarkable array of different talents gathers to meet the press on the day before the race. There’s Ryan Hall for Team Americas 2, runner of the fastest marathon by an American (2:04:58 in Boston 2011). Now retired at 33, he’s been spending his time body building and looks quite the beefcake. There’s Deena Kastor for the same team, an Olympic marathon bronze medallist in 2004. Eun Ju Kwon, for Team East Asia, held the Korean women’s marathon record for 18 years. Also present are Olympic speedskater Erben Wennemars from the Netherlands, Italian cross country skier turned trail champion Xavier Chevrier and German obscacle course racer Charles Franzke.
Americas 2 is the team everyone wants to beat. But leading Americas 1 is the real expert: Colorado trail champ Megan Kimmel. She’s participated in both previous Beat the Sun events and known the pain and the joy. The inaugural event in 2014 was a two horse race between a team of four ultra runners and a team of seven shorter distance runners. Kimmel’s team, the latter, missed the sunset by just 33 seconds. Last year’s Beat the Sun featured five teams of six and included amateurs selected from thousands of applicants for the first time. Kimmel’s team won, outrunning the sun by 38 minutes. “A lot of our trails in the States are made for trail running, whereas in Europe a lot of them are just old passes for going from town to town. They’re more direct, and more vertical,” she says.
In any case, she doesn’t have much of an advantage on her return, because this year they’ve decided to do the course in reverse. There’s a lot more snow this year, and they want to get the whitest leg out of the way early on. “It’s too dangerous to have this part at the end, with the risk of crossing a high pass in the dark,” says director Laurent Ardito. “The race is very technical this year.” He’s got three helicopters on standby and eight mountain rescuers.
At 5.44 on June 21, damp greyness slowly pales and the first eight runners begin to head upwards. By the end of the first leg, when the elites hand over their tracking devices to the first set of amateurs, there’s already an 18 minute gap between first placed Chevrier of Europe South and eighth placed Kwon of East Asia, who looks utterly spent and has two more legs to run later in the day.
Leg 3, a steep descent in thick snow, is tackled by two team members together, holding on to a rope as they stagger and slide downwards. The doubling up here means that each team’s first runner has to tackle three legs in total. “I didn’t want to flatline on the first leg, as it’ll catch up with you,” says Hynes. In his training for this event he’s cut out his big Sunday runs but gone out twice a day to get used to running on tired legs. “Everybody tries to complicate marathon training, but all it is is learning to run when you’re tired.”
The long day wears on. It’s not easy to spectate, and much of the race is spent peering at coloured icons creeping along a map on a computer screen. It starts to be a battle between the three European teams – North, South and Central. But by the leg 7 handover, in Courmayer in Italy, it’s obvious from the huge gaps between teams that many are struggling. Teams East Asia and Oceania-Pacific are eliminated at this point, having failed to meet their cut-off times. Brazilian amateur Mariana Bruger from Americas 2 has to pull out here with a leg injury and be replaced by a substitute. “It was not an easy decision but I need to think about my team,” she says.
The British amateur, James MacDonald, takes on leg 7, the shortest and steepest. It’s been switched at the last minute for safety reasons, from a climb that requires ropes and a helmet to a plain old horrendous ascent. He’s a cancer survivor who organises the Junion Parkrun in Wilmslow, and has an Ironman coming up in Bolton a few weeks later.
After that he can head off for a well-earned lie down in his hotel spa, while Hynes waits patiently for leg 12, a road run, relatively flat, back into Chamonix. His yellow-shirted team mates join him for a triumphant sprint through the streets, an amazing 51 minutes ahead of the sunset. They’re 38 minutes ahead of Europe South, the only other team to beat the sun this time.
“I just see myself as an ordinary runner. I can’t see how I would ever top this day,” says a beaming MacDonald. Deena Kastor, despite finishing in the dark, can’t stop smiling either. “I can’t believe how challenging and joyous it was at the same time,” she says. The sun will make the same journey again tomorrow, but the runners have more than earned a long rest.
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