It’s just after three o’clock in the morning, 15 hours into a 24-hour endurance race, and I’m in a tent, convinced I’m about to die.
My heart is beating a million times a minute. My head feels like it will explode. This is it. This is how it’s going to end – in a (borrowed) tent, in a park in the middle of Leeds. It’s not quite the end I’d want. I’ve not even finished the race and got the tee-shirt.
After my fourth lap of five miles I’d felt fine, but now, back in the tent, where I’m supposed to be resting and recovering before I go again, I feel anything but fine. I’ve pushed my body to its limit and it can’t take any more.
Next to me, Chris is flat on his back, snoring. I nudge him. ‘Chris, wake up.’ He mumbles something, but his eyes stay shut.
I shake him harder. ‘Chris.’ I’m trying to whisper and shout at the same time, because this is urgent, but I don’t want to make a scene and disturb the other runners. Dying quietly comes to mind. I shake him again, and this time speak louder. ‘I think I’m dying.’
His eyes snap open, a look of panic on his face and for a second he looks like he’s the one who might have a heart attack.
‘I think I’m dying.’ There isn’t much else to say.
He takes one look at me and lays back down. ‘You’re not dying.’
‘I really don’t feel well. It’s my heart,’ I say, feeling the thud of my knackered old heart in my chest. ‘And my head.’ I touch my head, because let’s not forget I have a humdinger of a headache.
‘You’re not going to die,’ Chris says, and snuggles further into his sleeping bag.
‘Divorce,’ I think. I can’t be married to a man who clearly doesn’t give a shit.
I lay in my sleeping bag thinking about what possessed me to sign up to this stupid race in the first place. It had been a moment of madness, and ever since agreeing I’d done my best to get out of it. I couldn’t, and once you’re in a team, you’re in a team, and you can’t let the others down. And now I’m about to pay the ultimate price.
Outside a shadow passes over the tent and for a second I hold my breath, thinking that death is about to descend, but then the shadow starts chuntering and I realise that it’s not the grim reaper at all, but Mark, a friend and fellow runner.
Unlike Chris, who has been on the pork pies and beer all day, Mark has actually been running. He will understand.
‘Mark,’ I shout. ‘I don’t feel well.’
Mark doesn’t reply. Instead he collapses into the camping chair just outside my tent, groans loudly and puts his head into his hands. ‘Jesus Christ,’ he says.
‘He can’t help you, Mark,’ I say, and start laughing, forgetting about dying for just a second.
‘I wish he’d do a lap for me.’ Mark says. ‘He could even do it in over-40.’ Mark’s team is leading the men’s race by three seconds. The pressure is on. ‘It’s brutal out there,’ he says.
‘I’m not well,’ I say.
Ten minutes later one of my teammates returns from her run.
‘Liz doesn’t feel well,’ Mark tells her.
‘Who’s not well?’ She asks.
‘Me,’ I shout. ‘I’m not well.’ This is my cry for help. This is me saying I’m not up to it, not physically able to run another step. She’ll understand. She’ll tell me she’ll help. She’ll do a lap for me.
She comes closer to my tent. All I see is the shadow of a body stood over me. ‘Liz,’ she says. ‘You’ll be fine. You don’t have to run for ages yet. Plenty of time to recover.’
This is not the response I’d wanted. Where is the sympathy? Where is the offer of assistance?
‘You will be fine. We’re in the lead. You just need to get round.’
‘Effing hell,’ I think. ‘I’m going to have to get up from my death-bed, put my trainers on and do another lap.’
‘You’ll be fine,’ she says again, then moves away.
There’s no getting out of it. I have to run. And I might die, or my bowels might explode mid-run, or I might be sick. I’ve done 20 miles. I’ve never run more than 14 in any 24-hour period and now I have to run 25.
I wrap myself up in my sleeping bag and worry some more about the task ahead. At some point the negative thoughts turn to positive. I can run five miles. It’s my favourite distance. I can do it. I might not have speed, but somehow, I can push my weary body to run another five miles. I can do this. I will do this. I lace up my trainers and step out of my tent.
‘I’m doing it,’ I tell my team. ‘But it’s going to be messy, and it’ll not be fast.’
‘You can do it,’ they say. ‘You just need to get round.’
‘Do it for you.’
Team talk over, I stagger towards the start, and off I go. The conditions are good. Over the last 24-hours we’ve run in 30-degree heat, and freezing fog, but now at 8am on Sunday morning it’s quite pleasant. The weather that is. The run is painful and hard work, but on I plod, every step taking me closer and closer to the finish line. And then I turn the corner and there is it.
Chris and my friends are cheering.
My eyes fill with tears. I lift my arm, and wave. I did not die. I did it.