All my life, sport has been my ticket to something better. At age 14, I ran away from a dysfunctional home to play football for a youth team in the West Country. When my footballing career hit the skids at age 17, I joined the military because someone told me I could ‘get paid to play sport.’
Fitness has always defined me. But it wasn’t until I undertook SAS selection as a scrawny 20-year old, that I came to appreciate the connection between physical strength and mental resilience. When you’re tabbing over the Brecon Beacons in the dead of winter and your body’s in bits, fitness alone won’t cut it. You have to believe in yourself to get through it.
I continued to train hard after I retired from the SAS. The only thing that kept me from running in the hills was injury. It wasn’t much of a problem in my forties, but it was a different story when I hit my mid-fifties. I turn 58 next month, and like many people my age, old injuries have a nasty habit of wreaking havoc on my training routine. In recent years I’ve suffered from recurring muscle tears to my lower legs. No sooner would I get into a good run than bang—the scar tissue in my calf would rip open like a zipper and I’d be grounded for weeks.
The first few times it happened, I was annoyed. But as my injuries occurred more often, my recupperation time grew longer and I could feel my fitness tanking. It did my head in having to lie up for weeks on end with my muscles wasting away. I felt old and useless. Washed up in every sense.
I knew I couldn’t go on that way, so I made the hard decision to give up hill running in favour of gym sessions that included the Concept 2 Rower and weight training. But there was something about exercising indoors that just didn’t satisfy. No matter how tough I made the workouts, my mind still craved a good run over the hills. The impact on my mood was tremendous and I was rapidly turning into a grumpy old man.
I can’t imagine why, but my wife suggested I take part in a cross-country adventure race in Herefordshire called the Mud Runner Classic. I dismissed the idea straight away, arguing (grumpily) that I’d never stay injury free long enough to train properly. But she refused to let it go, convinced it was exactly what I needed.
Finally, curiosity got the best of me and I had a sneak look on the website. When I saw the photos of previous mud runs and read the course description—7.5 miles over undulating countryside with streams, mud and water pits as obstacles—I couldn’t resist. I registered, paid my fee and started training.
I had three weeks to get myself fit for race day. Instead of hitting the hills cold, I spent the first week training in the gym. Since I was aiming to complete the Mud Runner in an hour and a half, I combined 45 minutes on the Concept 2 or the bike with 45 to 50 minutes of weight training. I also sought out other runners who’d suffered injuries similar to mine to get their advice. All of them preached the gospel of long, deep stretches before and after a workout, and in between—something I’d dismissed in the past to my detriment.
Two weeks before the race, I met a runner who swore by magnesium oil applied to problem muscles before and after a run. She also suggested I invest in a pair of compression socks to feed more oxygen to my lower legs and limit injuries. I said I’d look into them, then went for a run that evening without either—only to tweak my calf and limp home.
The next day I bought compression socks and magnesium oil and started using both religiously. With a week to go to race day, I was like a man possessed, sticking with a low impact gym routine to give my leg every chance to recover, and doing 5 to 7 minute calf stretches whenever and wherever I could—on the steps, getting out of the shower, watching telly.
Two days before the race I attempted a short hill run. To my astonishment, I completed it without a problem.
Race day dawned with perfect cross country conditions—mild temperature, no wind, sun pushing through fog. I lathered my legs in magnesium oil, donned my compression socks and running tights and headed off to the event. There were well over 2000 people taking part and the organizers were planning to set us off in groups of 400 at ten minute intervals. I decided to run near the back of the first group so I could take it easy and—fingers crossed—build up my pace.
As soon as we started, a few runners from the back of the group started overtaking me—which I admit got me biting. But I had to be disciplined and maintain a sensible pace until I was certain my leg could hold out through the mud. After two miles, I felt really comfortable and began to pass a few people (ha! ha!). Some serious club runners were stretching away ahead, but to my delight, I was putting more runners behind me.
The course was as brutal as advertised. Bogs like deep pan pizza, mud pits, steep hills, water holes that swallowed me up to the shoulders. I kept thinking that whoever designed it must either be an extreme sportsman of the highest order, or a complete nutter. Either way, I found it exhilarating—the toughest physical challenge I’d encountered since my time in the SAS.
By the last mile, I was shattered physically but back in my prime mentally. When I heard a crowd cheering runners into the finish line, I was sure the hard part was behind me. Then I turned a corner and found three runners struggling to clear a mud pit I can only liken to quicksand. I edged around the hole, sinking knee deep before hauling myself out on hands and knees. My body was spent by that point and I struggled to get back to a modest jog. No sooner did I regain my stride though than the course threw up one final obstacle—a stream.
For a moment I was under the delusion I’d simply have to cross it. But the course was not that forgiving. I had to run down it, into water that came up to my waist. Hats off to whoever threw in that spanner. Brilliant stuff.
With 200 meters to go, I had nothing left to give and three runners passed me (gits). But I crossed the finish line injury free, which was victory enough for me.
That evening, I went online to see the results. I came in second in my age group (over 55’s), and 272nd out of a field of just under 2,300 runners. Not bad, but now that I’ve learned how to manage my injuries more effectively, I know I can do better. This sportsman isn’t washed up yet. I guess that’s the ultimate take away from my mud running experience. It’s given me back my self-belief.