Three Forts Challenge



Running friends were not scarce to ask the question; none runners just thought it was another stupid attempt to prove something. 

Me myself, I’ve often asked that question, but until this weekend never about running. 

From mile 9 to 20, through thick fog, up and down hills and into savage winds it was all I could think of and I wasn’t sure this time that I had an answer. 

I know why I started to run and although people have questioned it I’ve never really doubted why.  Watching the first Brighton Marathon in 2010 oblivious to the fact it was happening and weighing 100kg I finally, a few weeks later on my 37th birthday, in a bout of mid-life crisis signed up to “run” the marathon to tick it off the proverbial bucket list. The idea was just do it once. 

So, why 20kgs lighter was I 4 years later fu*%ing about running 27.2miles up and down the South Downs with 3,450ft of elevation through thick fog and rain, especially when I’d already been stupid enough to run it before 3 years previously. Clearly I’d not learnt my lesson…

…but Sunday made me think what that lesson is; if there even is one? I’ve traversed the journey from struggling to break 4hrs30 to finally reaching 3:27, but many people had asked me why. 

Breaking 3:30 was “why” for a long time, but amongst the long weeks of training what I’ve really enjoyed is trail running; 9 of the 16 marathons I’ve done have been off-road.  It’s not quick, doesn’t trouble the scorers, and it’s certainly not pretty, but having said that there isn’t a race photo in existence where even my mum would say I look pretty, and quite frankly most of the time I make it look like bloody hard work.  

There are books and soundbites in abundance on running that often seem to sum up why we do it. At any one point they all resonate, but I’m not sure I could really say why if you pin me down.  Why I did it today is probably different to why I’ll do it tomorrow.  

All I know is that post Brighton 2014 I lost part of that reason.  

Breaking 3:30 was a goal and I let it define me as a runner, so was not then having something to aim for after that the issue; was it following Brighton with the Weald Ultra and then South Downs Marathon and feeling knackered come the summer; was I quite frankly a happier person and not reliant on running for escapism and an emotional crux; was it in July my wife being diagnosed with cancer (from which she’s now hopefully recovered) or being too busy at work with a growing business?

In truth probably none defined or dictated why, but I lost my mojo, my desire to run, or at the very least I gave myself an excuse to get back on the slippery slope.  Really none of them actually stopped me running, but I still did.  

I ate the wrong foods, drank a bit too much, piled on 5kgs and hit Christmas 2014 running like a sack of sh*t.  Worse still the love and enjoyment had gone; along with perhaps more importantly the desire.  Let’s face it, there’s never been any great desire to put in track sessions and improve those 5km, 10km times, but the weekly mileage disintegrated along with the love of running.  I’d agreed to pace 4hrs at the Brighton Marathon but backed out in February with confidence obliterated, feeling fat and out of shape.  Quite frankly it was the kick up the backside I needed.  I told the organisers I wouldn’t pace, then sat there thinking I’ve let them down, but more importantly I was letting myself down and my family after the work I’d put in over the last few years to get healthy, let alone what my wife had faced of late. 

So, I immediately signed up to Thames Meander trail marathon, a beautiful small event, knocking out a decent time, clocked 15 marathons in 4 years with Brighton and then in a moment of marathon-envy madness signed up to Three Forts the week before race-day because Daz Avery told me to.  

So after reading this version of War and Peace, what actually happened?

We started in a field in Worthing in the rain, it was thick fog from start to finish, you couldn’t see a bloody think and had no idea if you were going uphill or down most of the time.  You were alone, cold, but had to dig deep and could finish with a sense of pride and accomplishment.  The views were spectacular but you couldn’t see them.  The winner did it in an ungodly 3:07 and 4:20 would have had me finish 65th; but I wasn’t that quick. Took me 4hr40mins to run 27.2miles up and down stupid hills and I finished 122nd out of 331 finishers.  

Miles 9 to 20 were hell; slogging up and down trails alone for the most part, through the fog giving me plenty of time to wonder why. It started well enough running with Andy Walters and Daz Avery chatting away and “enjoying” the rolling countryside, and bizarrely the final 7 miles weren’t all that bad either; perhaps imbued with a sense of it nearly being over, but for vast swathes of the “race” all I could think was “why?”.

Contemplated dropping out between about miles 15-18, legs were gone, head wasn’t far behind it, but couldn’t bring myself to quit.  I wanted to, but didn’t.  Not deep down.  So I kept running, shuffling, walking; a bearded oaf struggling through the wind and fog eyes not straying too far from the path at my feet, petrified of the idea of having to run more than the extra mile the organisers tag on to make it 27.2. 

Why was I doing it, what did I hope to achieve?  I’d love to say I have an insightful answer but I don’t have one, all I could think was ever steps takes you closer to the finish.  Never far from my mind were the two mantras I often fall back on when running gets tough, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” and “F*ck your legs”; one is a tenet of Buddhism, the other is from Tony’s Trials, which is often just as enlightening.

Why do I like the punishment of trail running? 

I haven’t got an urge to go quicker on the road; frankly I just don’t seem to care anymore, but what I do enjoy is the battle and challenge of the trails.  I’m not driven by the same pressures as on road chasing times and splits, of course pride dictates there’s a goal to aim for, but the physical and mental battle to keep pushing yourself up and down, running for the most part alone seems to suit my psyche.  I love the camaraderie you get on the trails, but I also like to the isolation and seclusion of something like last Sunday where you are one of 330, but running alone, fighting with the landscape and the elements, hoping to believe you beat them, and just trying to be the best you can be that day.

In a nutshell then as a race report, the Three Forts Challenge was brutal!  

Could I have done something more productive and worthwhile to humanity in those 4hrs 40minutes? Without doubt. 

Would I have done?  Without question, no!  

As my mate Danny Cartledge put it, “there is absolutely nothing to enjoy about blowing out your arse running as hard as u can up some bloody mountain traipsing thru shit”.

Did I enjoy it?  Quite frankly probably not; certainly not until a bit later in the day when the cold had eked its way out of the bones and I could think about the pleasure and enjoyment of running with friends; of taking on the elements and not giving in.  You never regret it when it’s over as they say.

Maybe, that’s it.  Maybe, that’s why I run.  

The pleasure you get from being with friends and the fulfilment you get from not giving in, and just trying to be the best you can be that day. I’ll find out again next weekend at River Adur trail marathon if that’s true; although the fried breakfast at the finish next week might also help with “why”.

Will I do Three Forts again next year?  Probably not, but then again if Daz calls me the week before and asks “why not” I might struggle to think of an answer and be found staggering across the hills once more.
Stephen Whitehurst