Alison Cowling

Alison Cowling

Director | Actor | Musician | Writer

Running and The 50k Challenge

The thirteenth entry of The Running Diaries, covering my first ultra adventure, a distance that was testing, tough and maybe a little tiring!

Their faces stared back at me. Long noses, dark eyes and hairy ears that were flicking sporadically, sizing me up as I approached the gate. I took a breathe, my hand lingering on the metal. A gentle push and I could slip through, take silent steps, breathe shallow and live to run another day. But just as I set my shoulders back and stepped forward, they snorted. With huffs and puffs, some were rising to stand, others swaying their weight, slumping towards me. I jumped back. I would just have to re route myself. No way was I going through a field of cows!

Though my surname leaves me with some highly likely links to Cow relations, they have always left me uneasy. Mainly from a rogue map reading moment in my early 20’s (haha that makes me sound old, I’m only mid 20’s…just) which left me and my friend Claire, running for our lives from a herd that we soon discovered after were bulls! So never again do I want to confront Cows of any gender!

And a change of route was hardly going to throw me. Would it affect my months of planning, researching and training that had gone into this 50k? No not at all….cause I hadn’t done a single bit of prep! Apart from buy a packet of Haribo Tangfastics!

W A R M    U P ?

I had reached another half term so I knew another challenge was calling my name! But what with the restrictions lifting and my social life filling up with more things than spending my evenings cleaning and  watching Friends on repeat (though lets be real, I watch it on repeat whatever 😛 ) I knew I could only give one day to a challenge, instead of spreading it over several days like previously. The furthest I had ever run was 27.2 miles (when I miscalculated my marathon!) so I wondered what running to 31 miles would be like, the big 50k.

A couple days before I messaged Elise Downing, another Bristol ultra runner, for some route suggestions, and went with her first recommendation, one that would take me out of Bristol to Keynsham, following the river out then back in towards Bristol again. A lush route through the countryside. I’m a country gal at heart and the weather was damn fine this week. (Note to self maybe research the heat… when doing any research).

Wednesday morning arrived and after a chilled breakfast with my housemate Becky, her pre run speeches have become just the vivacious pep talks I need. This one included “Why on earth are you doing this? You don’t have to. It’s very far. Just get an uber half way.” 😂 Previous rousing energetic quotes have been “Is someone making you do this?” and “Have you thought about going back to bed?”. But they are just the kick I need to laugh at myself, and laugh at the situation. Why was I doing an unsupported, unplanned run on one of the hottest days of the year so far? Something I had plenty of time over 31 miles to think about.

M I L E S    Z E R O    T O    T E N

As I began to take my first tentative steps, I realised I had forgotten to stretch and do any warm up. But even worse, I hadn’t made a new spotify playlist! Luckily I’m quite the DJ, so stuck on some banging tunes and headed off. The route was heading straight for my favourite stretch along the river, so my nerves though shaky to begin with, began to settle as the 8.30am sun shone down, heat already setting in and some friendly insta messages cheering me on.

Music pumping, the miles ticked over as I headed further from the city. I thought about how I had walked this section of the course years ago with a “yesterbae” 😛 and how that version of Alison would never have had the courage to try something like this. It was strange to imagine me running past that girl, someone who was very different and for years forgot how great running is.

I pushed on and started to go beyond the point I was familiar with. As I reached some beautiful fields, my mood was well and truly getting lighter. I was feeling like I could do this. My surroundings were getting greener, the sky bluer and the sun warmer. I sang aloud to ABBA, there wasn’t a soul around (unfortunate really, they would have loved my breathless rendition of ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’) and soon reached mile 10. A third of the way under my belt.

M I L E S   T E N   T O   T W E N T Y

After taking a short break to do my insta shout outs (much more important than refuelling :P) , I started off again, but forgot to restart Strava, so half a mile not logged meant I’d have to add a bit more on to the run. Just a slight annoyance, but no bother. So off I went. Then I reached a cross roads. I had to check my map again. No bother. Off I went again. Damn, which way was it? Stop. Map Check. See phone battery already dwindling. Stop music. No bother. Off I go – hang on…Check Map. Off I go. Reach a field of cows. Re route. Slight bother. Off I go. Reach a field with Bulls. 100% re-route. Oh bother. Flat fields turned into uphills, with choruses of sheep staring at me as the sky welcomed the sun’s raging rays and my body started to heat up. Now I was all hot and bothered.

My singing aloud turned into cursing aloud as I heated up, and my energy was draining as fast as my phone’s. I started to walk. I was annoyed that I was already walking this early on. As I reached a particularly long uphill stint through a field and up a rocky woodland path, I pulled out my phone. I went to call someone. But didn’t know what to say. I’d run this far before with no problem. What was happening? Why were my thoughts turning so sour, my legs turning to lead? The rocky path flattened and opened out onto a field. I slouched down and pulled out an orange carton. I’d only packed one, thinking I wouldn’t stop and drink much, the camel pack of water I had would be enough. I downed it in 10 seconds. The sugar hit my brain and I realised I had turned hangry, so I ate the one oat bar I’d packed. I told you my preparation was very little!

It was the little lift I needed and I trotted on… though too soon I was cursing I hadn’t brought more food. I reached a beautiful village, passing smiling people wandering and enjoying the heat as I sweatily, panted past. I made it to the other side of the village and found myself on a country lane. I went back to walking and bitterly noticed that on the map I was still only about half way. As I grumbled, realising this was definitely the hardest challenge I have done yet, I had a moment of realisation. It was the hardest challenge that I was doing… now! In previous challenges having them broken up across days and hours, you have time to get back in the game, re focus. It suddenly hit me that I wouldn’t have that. I was doing the 50k now – unless I wanted to jack it all in and waste the miles I had already clocked. I knew then I needed to re wire my mindset. Moaning wouldn’t get me to the end. Getting on with it and doing it would. Moaning wouldn’t achieve anything, apart from squash the fun. I could hear my sister’s voice in my head. “Come On!”. She has always been a voice of encouragement in my life. Helping me through some of my toughest times. I even remember as a kid in primary school, picking her as my hero I looked up to. And here she was popping up again, her fire spurring me on, realising I needed to change this mindset. Positivity would get me back to Bristol. And as I lifted my head to start to power on, I looked across the field and saw the city staring back at me. I had got to the half way and highest point of the route. It was across, then downhill from here (In a good way!)

M I L E S        T W E N T Y       T O        T W E N T Y  N I N E

I had spent the last ten miles using mile 20 as the next landmark in my mind. If I could just get there it was only 11 miles left. And by that point I would have to finish it as I didn’t want to waste all the miles I had already racked up. After my miraculous mindset shift, it had rained for about an hour. I sang some made up songs to myself, my shorts soaked up the summer rain, and I had no choice but to step into very muddy tracks. I reached a busy main road and got beeped at as I bent over to check my map again. Good to know beeping a woman is never too old fashioned for 2021. Of course it didn’t surprise me, it wouldn’t be a run without a man beeping, or catcalling, or staring. So it didn’t even annoy me to be honest. Just reminded me that even when I’m lost in my own head, my body is still on display.

I was thankful for some miles under cover of trees after that, to be soggy and quietly alone. As I reached Long Ashton the rain started to subside. It was then that I was so grateful for not having a real plan that I was sticking to. I knew I was on the home straight in terms of miles, only 8 left. So needed to head back towards town where I could map check no more and fall back into a steady rhythm.

As I made my way along the busy harbourside I hit 26.2 miles. A marathon, yet when your end goal has been pushed further, the mileage doesn’t seem the same. 5 miles to go. I headed towards home, knowing it wasn’t quite 5 to home, but that nearing the house, might make the finish line seem closer.

M I L E S      T H I R T Y       A N D        T H I R T Y  O N E

As I got near the bottom of my road I knew I had 2 miles to run, but my pace was slower than a sloth slumped on a snail’s shell. I had been daydreaming about water for about 10 miles. Drinking water from a glass seemed so amazing at this point so I made the decision to go home. And stopping for 10 minutes to drink, eat flapjack (thanks mum!), recharge my phone and get geared up by my housemate and her sister was the best decision of the run.

I headed out for the final two miles and felt like a brand new runner! I definitely had a spring in my step and I ran my fastest mile of the race at mile 30 – 9 min 29sec.

Finishing felt like a daze. I was so happy to be home, ready to sit and stretch and order a Maccy D’s!

C O O L    D O W N !

It really didn’t hit me that I had just ran 31 miles. It tested me in new and very different ways to my previous challenges. The all in one go, was probably the hardest aspect. Finding motivation when I was out on my own for such a long time was definitely the trickiest thing. Which is probably why that when I was walking parts, or jogging along like a tractor, I felt like I was doing it wrong. But then again, I hadn’t done any preparation – I didn’t know how I was meant to be doing it right! Next time I will research, not just how to prepare and train but what to expect.

But maybe being so unaware led me to some of my highlights of the run. If I knew I would hit a wall, then would I have felt as proud of myself as I did when I got through it? If I knew I would be changing my route to listen to what my body needed, would have I have learnt what I liked? And if I had had support or company, would I have discovered how much I can achieve when I’m flying running solo?

And with each completed challenge, comes plotting and planning the next. I was busy deciding it whilst I was busy doing this one (even when I was hangry on a hill!) It’s going to be a big one. A final running project in this city I love so much, before I make my move into my next chapter.

(You can watch the whole adventure on my instagram stories @alisonc93)


Soundtrack to this entry: ‘No Tears Left To Cry’ Ariana Grande – on repeat for the final two miles!

Snack for this entry: Tangfastics!