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  • Writer's pictureAlison Fenton

the long distance runner within

Someone called me an ultra-marathoner a few months back and I felt really uncomfortable with the label. I felt like I didn't deserve the title, but secretly I liked it.

A couple more ultra's done including the Heysen 105 last weekend and I feel much more comfortable with it now.

I may not be fast but I can run a really long way. Let's face it, 100km isn't just a stroll around the oval, although I guess you could go around it 250 times if that appealed to you.

This year I ran two marathons, two ultras and a bag load of kilometres in between. It took a lot of work. Early mornings, running in the dark, the rain, occasionally the hail and at least two electrical storms where I ran like a frightened rabbit. Up hills - my personal nemesis - and down again. Short runs during the week and long runs on the weekend in between watching kids' sport and doing loads of washing.

I wasn't born a runner. I didn't take it up until I was in my forties. My love of horses meant that the only running I did when I was younger was around the paddock in pursuit of a departing steed.

After hanging up the riding boots, back pain saw me getting into the pool. I wasn't a fan of cold water, but found the repetition of laps quite soothing. Frustrated by my slow improvement, I wondered if a small amount of running might help with my fitness.

I started jogging from my office to the car, about two and a half city blocks. It felt brutal. A colleague put me on to a Couch to 5km training program. I bought a pair of decent shoes, downloaded some songs and jammed in the headphones. Little did I know there was a long distance runner lurking within!

I told my husband that I would be ecstatic if I could run 5km, but at the time it seemed like an elusive dream. Then I discovered that somehow I actually liked this running gig.

Over the next couple of years I ran a handful of road races. I formed some tight relationships with friends as we ran together, three mornings a week. 5km crept out to 10km and then someone had a crazy idea to run a half marathon.

Surprisingly I didn't totally stink at running and consistently placed in the top half of the field for my age group. Then somewhere along the journey I discovered trail running. This was a running revelation.

In the early days I particularly enjoyed running with other women. They were fun, friendly and encouraging.

As my dedication to running increased, so too did the injuries. One after the other. For years it seemed that with progress came new problems. I don't think it was ever the same thing twice.

I now know that you don't run to get fit, you get fit - or strong - to run.

I thought that distance runners were somehow super-human. I remember thinking that I could never manage a marathon, so I don't know why I thought I could do an ultra-marathon. I probably got swept up in the hype of Yurrebilla, one of Adelaide's early trail ultras.

I trained, I entered and I ran 56km. I was hooked. And I was injured; again!

From that moment I was plagued with ITB issues and compartment syndrome in both my calves. Strengthening exercises helped with the ITB, but the compartment problems were another thing altogether. Physio, stretching, dry needling and massage all provided limited relief but my training was still fairly hampered.

The following year I learnt about an ultra in the Flinders Rangers called the Hubert 100. It captured my imagination and I set myself for the 50km distance. I incorporated bike riding and swimming into my training and ran less to manage my calf problems.

I finished respectably but paid for poor nutrition during the race and lack of running training prior. I tired in the last 10km, lost concentration and my footing and took a crash. I turned my ankle. Then 200 metres further on, I did it again. This time I heard it crack and I knew I had done some damage.

I kept hobbling; I didn't dare stop. By the time I finished the race the ankle was black and had changed shape.

For the next two and a half years I was limited to running 5km or so. I stopped racing and running with groups. Parkrun kept me going, although I was on the verge of giving up the running gig several times.

After a six month break due to a holiday, I decided to give it another go. I got an MRI on the ankle and saw a sports physician. She thought the ankle would hold up to some reasonable distance, maybe 20-30 km. It was all I needed to hear. It was a virtual green light to the next ultra.

I joined the Kathmandu Salomon Run Club which ran weekly in Belair National Park. Its members inspired me with their achievements and I found people of my ability who I could run and walk beside.

I entered running events over the summer with my son, Oliver. I struggled to complete the first 8km event just last December. It hurt my lungs more than I could believe. I just couldn't remember running being so hard. It was soul-destroying.

I found a great physio and coach, someone who was always looking to find the missing pieces in the puzzle and go beyond the same old treatment. He put me back together, trained me and taught me about race nutrition.

On new year's day I quietly announced that I was going to run the Heysen 105 this year. I never really believed it would happen and consistently added disclaimers during any conversations about it.

I put on a heart rate monitor and walked hills for months. I followed the training plan, but despite liberal doses of psychology applied by my coach, constantly worried about my lack of speed.

Sometimes I felt good, sometimes I didn't. Niggles came and were managed. I was improving and the distances were getting longer, but I was full of doubt.

And suddenly Heysen arrived. I was nervous but excited. My previous longest runs were 56km. I was confident I'd make it to 80km, but less so about completing 100km plus a bit. I thought it might take me around 18 hours to cross the finish line.

Based on my current form, Coach said if I was having a great day I'd manage 16.5 hours or 17.5 to 18 hours on an average day. We were both wrong; I finished in 16 hours and 21 mins, so I guess it was a really great day!

It wasn't a world beating time but it didn't matter. For me it's all about the reward from achieving something that is truely out of my comfort zone. It's about showing my kids what you can do if you put your mind to it. Even if it hurts like hell, which it did over that last 18km!

I feel proud, thankful and ecstatic and I'm already thinking about what's next, such is the addictive nature of achieving your goals, whatever they are.

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