The joys of injury and being a fat and unfit (ultra)marathon runner – Gareth Bell

The joys of injury and being a fat and unfit (ultra)marathon runner – Gareth Bell

Next week I travel to Cornwall to visit my parents, this got me thinking that the last time I was there I
was just starting the comeback from a long-term injury plodding out a few cautious miles on the
coastal paths feeling very fat, very unfit and scared of how my leg would hold up. A quick bit of
number crunching reveals I have now been back running 8 months, a whole 1 month longer than the
period I was out injured in 2018. I use the term “running” quite loosely because I certainly don’t feel
like a runner anymore!

Casting my mind back to last year and picking up a tendon injury in the early wintery months of 2018
it really does seem a long time ago (15 months now) yet it still sits at the forefront of my mind and I
am still struggling to accept that I am no longer injured, scared that any attempt to run faster than 8
min/mile pace seems to cause me pain and a fear of it all happening again. Like any endurance event
and my preferred long-distance trail running it has been a long, hard and often lonely experience
that has tested me both mentally and physically.

The injury I picked up was a tough one to get diagnosed, taking a few GP and physio appointments
to really work it out. What started with tightness in my calf at the track turned suddenly overnight
into an inability to weight bear on my right leg for 2 days. The enforced limping triggered weeks of
back & hip pain, sciatica and a lot of pain in my ankle and calf, my whole leg felt pretty much broken.
After a few weeks of sleepless nights and being on some very powerful painkillers the physio
narrowed it down to an overuse injury he had seen before in military personnel who do a lot of long-
distance exercises, FHL tendonitis and some secondary piriformis tightness. Apparently, this FHL
injury is also common in ballet dancers, we put it down to the amount of long-distance hill work I
had done in 2017 and then a shift back to shorter speed work and being up on the toes. The issue
with this tendon is it is connected to the big toe meaning push off hurts like hell, I could hardly walk
for the first month never mind contemplate running. So, I did what most runners wouldn’t do in this
situation… I actually quit running! (much to the physio’s amazement)

Despite knowing the inevitable it took me a good few months to adjust to the fact I couldn’t run, I
had entries for London Marathon 2018 but more importantly the Yorkshire 3 peaks fell race which
was my major target for the year. I tried to get out on my mountain bike to keep fit, but this only
made matters worse. Once I deferred / cancelled these race entries the reality set in and I got
focused on the slow and steady rehab process, stretches, strengthening exercises and very painful
self-massage with a hockey ball. (I would highly recommend this for the feet and heels after all your
runs). Once I was back walking with no pain, I started to get out hiking and found myself back up to a
decent distance by the early summer months. Whilst I didn’t race the 3 peaks in 2018 I did manage
to walk them in around 8 hours in the middle of one of the hottest weeks of the year, not bad for an
injured idiot who was supposed to be taking it easy.

Anyone who knows me will know how much I like beer and food. Having what my mum would call a
‘healthy appetite’ on top of a lack of regular exercise and an unquenchable thirst for ale means my
already hefty weight crept back up to the 16 stone marker. This really made getting back into
running hard work (not as hard as putting on my club vest though). Whilst away in Cornwall last year
I did start to try a bit of running again and despite a few aches and pains it seemed to go ok. This was
the start of my come back to running again. One of the big problems with this is judging yourself
against previous fitness levels which was now 7 months ago, and more like 8 or 9 months if you add
on the wind down period for Christmas and new year after a very busy 2017. My previous marathon
race pace now something I would struggle with over a 5k race weighing heavily on my mind.

I set myself a couple of targets for the end of 2018, of course these were a little extreme, but they
also seemed to be the right thing for me. Rather than getting back to just running regularly with the
club and doing some 5 & 10k races I got myself back out on the hills and moorlands for long days on
my own. My first task was to get myself around a day of Hell of a Hill marathon in Rivington. This is
still my favourite marathon and I hold fond memories of the 2016 event when I had my strongest
ever run at that distance. It was also the scene of my first 2in2 marathon in 2017. 2018’s attempt
was never going to be quick and it was always going to be a struggle, but I finished and felt ok. This
set me up nicely for the other target before the new year, the forest of Bowland trail marathon in
December. The extreme weather (freezing rain) and intervention by the mountain rescue team
meant the race was called off and I was pulled out at mile 22, I was very disappointed as in my mind
this was my actual comeback race (HOAH had been a training run).

So that brings us up to the turn of the year and 2019, Christmas and new year had been good fun
but bad for my fitness and the weight had crept back on again! Unless I quit drinking and run 3-4
times a week it is inevitable that I will look more like a rugby player than a marathon runner. I knew I
had London marathon approaching yet had no interest in this at all, I had no desire to train and no
real intention of hitting the tarmac for 15 & 20 milers. Instead I entered a double (2in2) ultra-
marathon and convinced myself that I’d get myself about fit enough in a couple of months. I
eventually realised that 2 days wasn’t a great idea but still managed to finish one day of the west
Pennines ultra-event and clocked up 32 self-navigated miles in yet again more nasty weather, why
would anyone want to run in anything other than snow, rain & hail? Rather than building on this run
I slipped back into stagnation, and the beer and food grabbed hold again. With only a few weeks
until London I decided I’d better do some road miles, so did make it along to a couple of training
nights and even entered a road half-marathon (its over 3 years since I last did that).

The least said about London marathon 2019 the better, for anyone who hasn’t done it… don’t
bother! Unless you like spending 4 hours of your life being elbowed, tripped up, dodging slower
runners, slipping on water bottles, struggling to breathe and being screamed at relentlessly by
people telling you to “keep going” and that you are “nearly there”. Put me back on the west Pennine
moors for 8 hours of solitude, snow and map reading anytime! Anyway, I finished London, grabbed
my t-shirt & medal and got out of there pretty sharpish, I was in the pub back in Lostock hall by 8pm
the same day (after some strange girl finished sniffing me on the train).

So here we are I’m heading back to Cornwall again, and despite having run an ultra-marathon and a
marathon in the last couple of months I am still feeling very fat, very unfit and still scared of my
injury recurring. I am also sadly lacking any sense of love for running, my mojo has gone and
unfortunately with it my passion for all things red rose. All I can say is I haven’t given up hope that it
will all return, and I will keep on plodding along in search of that feeling again. When I get back from
holiday it will be 8 weeks until the Lakeland 50 mile ultra, just 8 weeks to try and shift some weight,
get some miles in the legs and drag my fat unfit body around that route again. I’ve also got a 60K
ultra in September to keep me occupied and no doubt I will take on at least one day of hell of a hill
again. If there is any race that can spark my interest again it will be that one; you really can’t beat
26.2 miles over multiple laps of Rivington pike on a cold dry day in November.

3 thoughts on “The joys of injury and being a fat and unfit (ultra)marathon runner – Gareth Bell

  1. Dildo Master

    What doesn’t challenge you, doesn’t change you.

    I row my boat alongside yours. The inception of running was amazing and the completion of various tasks previously unthought of served themselves as incredible encouragement to persevere.

    All that is gone now. All ability. All strength. All endurance. All that challenge.

    It is harder now. Because I have achieved and progressed to those achievements quickly. Now to be beneath even my original starting points disheartens me greatly.

    However. It is never square one. It is just a different square to start off on.

    The challenge was the same then. It is the same this time. And it will be the same next time.

    Success is not the finish line; it is the start line.

    Love you brother.

  2. Tom McAteer

    Brilliant blog Gareth.. and shows to me once again that the path of a runner is never one of constant improvement..it’s never a destination and always a journey.. and your story reinforces my philosophy that every run is a gift…

  3. Annie Owens

    Thanks for sharing your blog. I hope you find your mojo….in whatever form…it doesn’t have to be competing.

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