Four years on and Lee has returned. There are no elite runners flanking him on either side, nor is there an intimacy of unspoken suffering building between the competitors. Instead, it’s just Lee and a friend on a motorbike supplying his drinks. As the coronavirus continues to stalk the world, the racing calendar remains empty, with no indication of when events attracting a global field might return. So Lee turned to the highest mountain in Thailand and what is one of the few courses that has a continuous uphill climb for 50km. Here, he asked himself: can he go faster alone and break his own record even when there are no competitors?
To achieve such a thing would be the stuff of legend. In the early hours of the morning, he comes into view like a mirage, Obi Wan Kenobi appearing to Luke on Hoth. But this is real life and reality doesn’t listen to scripted endings or romanticised plots. He checks the splits written out on tape stuck to his arm. With 45 minutes to go it’s touch-and-go. At the 30-minute mark he realises he isn’t going to do it. But there’s the familiar tune of Supersonic playing in his head, the Oasis anthem for a generation that refused to conform and play by the rules. He repeats the line that has become a mantra for him: “How much do you want it?”
‘Ok, how much do you want it? You can stop if you want, but how much do you want it?’ Lee thinks.
He already knows the answer.
‘I just really, really want it.’
Here is what happened to Lee Grantham’s promising young athletic career: women. If athletes are single-minded to the point of obsession, Lee’s pursuit of excellence had yet to meet its toughest rival by way of the female form. Up until that point, he’d shown all the trappings of becoming a marked sportsman. A love of football had seen him develop an endurance base that translated easily to cross country, and in his junior years Lee was pretty much unbeatable. Race wins came easily, a mere footnote to a talent that refused to be confined to one sport alone. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy running - at an age defined by social status, what 13-year-old is going to turn down the currency of glory that comes with a podium finish - but it wasn’t his whole world. He didn’t love the solitary efforts it demanded, not when he could be out there on the football field or cricket pitch, where banter was heralded a skill and the result didn’t excavate his entire psyche but was instead shouldered by a uniformed collective. Then Lee turned 17. Women entered his life. As he tells it, “That’s much more interesting than any sport could ever be.”
The days of solo running were over. Fitness became something honed in the gym and as though following a predetermined roadmap dictated by the Manchester scene, Lee became a headhunter. The competitiveness he showed in sport coloured his professional career as he became fixated with the leader board and seeing his name on top. If he heard there was someone better than him in the Birmingham or Amsterdam office, he went there, shadowed them, talked tactics and learned from the best. Then he’d come home and apply these newfound skills. Life, for Lee, was going well; he was ticking boxes, being seen, sporting the watches men’s fashion magazines advised and eating at the restaurants insiders proclaimed, but there was a restlessness deepening in the sinews of his musculature that cried out for endurance.
What happens when the life everyone expects of you isn’t the one you want to be living? Some are too crippled by the weight of comparison and peer judgment to ever find out, but Lee isn’t one of them. In 2009, he took himself on a sabbatical cycle tour in Asia. “I’d wake up in the morning and just cycle until I was hungry, then eat breakfast, then cycle until you’re knackered, then have dinner, then cycle until it gets dark,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘this would be hell for most people’ but it was brilliant for me, I really loved it. Those were some of the best days of my life.”
His childlike enthusiasm for sport returned but there’s only so much time on the butt-crusher-that-is-a-bicycle one can take. Lee promised himself that when he returned to Thailand - where he’d now set up a home base - he’d get back into running. His plans were pedestrian: go out for an hour jog, return home, recover, go again in the next few days. “I remember saying to my girlfriend at the time, ‘I’m just going out for a run, I’ll be about an hour.’ I came back five minutes later like, ‘fuuuuucken hell’,” says Lee. “What the fuck. None of that cycling fitness had translated to running, I think I’ve broken a muscle in my thigh, I’m just useless. My girlfriend was laughing at me.”
Anyone else would likely have called it quits, or perhaps stuck to cycling. But you forget that this is Lee Grantham, a man who was once unbeatable in the County as a junior runner, who kept a keen eye on the work leaderboard and ensured his name never wavered from the top. He thrived on the game of winning, on the meritocracy that comes with applying yourself to a single pursuit where the reward must be earned, and the process, the doing, the relentless effort required is a tapestry where winning is just a single thread in the finished piece. Remember this and Lee’s response suddenly doesn’t seem too odd. “I said on that first day, ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to do it professionally.’”
He recalls the day his running journey started: January 3, 2010. Where it really began was five months later, at a 10km race back in his hometown, Manchester. The starting line was a who’s who of elite distance running, with the likes of Mo Farah and Haile Gebrselassie toeing the line with a nervous energy. Even then, surrounded by the best in the world, Lee’s mind flirted with victory. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to win this.’” Instead, the end result reflected the four months of training he’d put in. There was no major upset, just a stitch, a break at 2.5km and water consumed around the halfway mark which, as any 10km runner will know, is never done. Water consumed during a 10km run is a wounded animal parading before a pride of lions. It’s saying, “Stick a fork in me, I’m done.” But his course time was superfluous to what transpired at the finish line, conveniently located on Deansgate. “Rewind four, five years ago, and that’s where I used to go partying, where I used to make sure I had a table in VIP, make sure I was dressed in the right clothes,” Lee recalls. “Instead, here I was surrounded by all these runners who are just salt of the earth people, and were asking, ‘What was your time, mate? Oh, you can do so much better with a bit more training.’”
His tone isn’t so much wistful as it is thankful, the difference between a holiday reveller and a man rescued from an ocean rip. “I just thought, ‘these are my people.’ Those people who were out last night - who, by the way, are still coming home now after the race has finished - those are not my people,” says Lee. “I remember having so many acquaintances but so few friends. Through sport, especially in ultra-running, you go hours and hours side by side, and then one of you comes out on top. Some of your friends or the people you respect the most are the people you have the biggest battles with.”
From that point on, the identity of Lee Grantham was carved and the persona he’d crafted in recruitment shed. “When I do something, I get obsessed with it. I’m either doing it, or thinking about it, or thinking how I can improve,” he says. The progress curve is always steepest in the beginning but as it began to flatten, Lee’s obsession with running only grew. He was doing it, living a life authentic to his passion. He knew he was doing what he wanted to do, but as he began looking for more races to enter, he questioned if he was really giving it as much as it needs for him to be successful. He’d taken new jobs, changed living conditions, and even moved overseas. Still, it wasn’t enough for Lee, not if he was going to achieve what he wanted to in the sport. That’s the thing about Lee Grantham, remember? It’s the game of winning, the meritocracy. And when it comes to running, only the fastest man wins.
“What? 50km? I thought it only went up to a marathon?”
In 2010, Lee’s naivety to the ultra-running scene was almost laughable. When a friend alerted him to a race in Granada known as Subida Pico Veleta, Lee signed up immediately, driven by equal parts curiosity and stubbornness. A rational human would likely decline the challenge of running what has been deemed the world’s toughest ascent. Lee wanted to know what it felt like. He wanted to experience the body’s response to a constant climb averaging six per cent for 50km in a temperature of roughly 35 degrees Celsius, and a finish amidst lashing winds on the highest road in Europe at an elevation of roughly 3,400 metres.
The pain cave is familiar territory for distance runners. The sport prides itself on grit and the understanding that when it comes to besting your time, the body - and its organs - will fight against you. Heaviness in the legs is welcomed, the build of lactic acid worn like a necessary uniform, and oxygen debt serves as a badge of honour. Running is to endure sustained suffering. It’s not so much the feeling of walking across fire as it is the sensation of holding your hand in a non-extinguishable flame. These things are to be expected but the Subida Pico Veleta is something else entirely. It will plumb the very depths of your soul. “All races say they’re the hardest race in the world, but any race is the hardest in the world if you put everything into it,” Lee admits. “I would say it’s probably harder to run that 50km uphill than it is to run 100km.”
The race was in ten weeks and Lee, still living in Sweden at the time, was having to endure a winter of heavy snow and freezing temperatures that made it near impossible to train outdoors. His geographic location prevented him from acclimatisation but he had a gym at his disposal, so he simulated the gradient climb on a treadmill which he pounded for two to three hours at a time. Lee arrived to Granada an amateur, yet in a field of 500 competitors he finished 38th. The theatre of sport has produced all manner of cliches that fit neatly on a coffee mug, each of which pertain to failure, success and the peculiar celebration of suffering in such physical pursuits. It could be that we’ve become immune to such platitudes, or simply are reluctant to believe them unless accompanied by a cinematic score. There is truth at their core though, there must be. Why else would we return to that pain cave, sometimes daily, if not for what it reveals of ourselves? For Lee, that first 50km unlocked a new direction for his life. “At the top of that mountain, for the first time in sport I was emotional,” he reflects. “I was looking at the guys on the podium and thinking, ‘I want to be like those guys there.’ They were just stick-thin upper bodies, and then these muscular legs I’d never seen before. What we’re seeing now looking at them on the podium, that’s the glory moment that’s going to last just a few seconds,” he says. “But stuff that happens behind the scenes for them, all the hours and years of training, that’s what people should be seeing when they look at them on the podium.”
By the same principle, it would be easy to look at the runner Lee Grantham is today and see only a highlight reel of success. He returned for Subida Pico Veleta in 2011, this time with a knowledge of the course and more training under his belt, and shaved a sizeable amount off his time. In the years that followed, he finished 8th, then 5th, then 3rd. He ran the race as the favourite and let poor race tactics betray what should have been a victorious finish. Then came 2017, a year that not only saw Lee win the race but set a course record. The wins are captivating, but behind these victories is a man who, upon completing that first 50km, changed the entire course of his life aged 27 to become the best ultra-runner the world has ever seen. “I feel as if I owe that race quite a lot, it really set me off in the ultra-running world and led me onto a number of things,” he admits. For Lee, there are no lofty goals, just actionable decisions and so he moved to Granada and traded the security of a high-paying salary for months where he funded his own professional career.
He’s not the first to do so, in a sport notorious for lack of funding for its athletes, many a runner has had to sacrifice it all to achieve their dreams (or at least, take a shot at them). Though Lee had rediscovered his love for the sport, he was coming up against athletes who had running embedded in their DNA. These were the child prodigies, national champions, those who had been doing it from such a young age and for so long that they had yet to even ask of themselves if they were running simply because it was what they were good at, or if they were running because it’s what they loved. For Lee, his time away from the sport wasn’t a competitive disadvantage but the very thing he needed to see his commitment flourish. “Once I had a trade of recruitment, at any point in my life I can just go back to that,” Lee explains, with the kind of calm rationalisation that suggests there was no other way forward. “I’m not from a privileged background or anything like that where I’m on the phone to my parents all the time saying, “Hey, can you loan me another hundred thousand pounds?” It’s nothing like that,” he chuckles. “I always have that confidence in the back of my head that I can return to it at any point, and it gives you loads of freedom to think, ‘Well, if I move to Spain and I don’t like it, I’ll just move somewhere else.’"
Here is where Lee Grantham is now: Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, where the usual traffic that chokes urban streets instead becomes long boulevards lined with trees. Here, he calls his home ‘the jungle’ and just a short bike ride out of town reveals a densely rainforested countryside where you can count elephants amongst your neighbours. Regardless of your geographic location, the global pandemic has become the great equaliser, a way of uniting us like some kind of perverse meme in which we are all the protagonist. 2020 bled out from the calendar like a stain, a run of empty days that became months that soon came to haunt the New Year with the futures we had all imagined for ourselves. It’s fair to say that no one was immune to the uncertainty and challenges of this time, but for athletes the devastation was immense. Never has the world of sport seen such an extended (and indefinite) period of lockdown. With their competitive calendars cleared, athletes suddenly had their very existence called into question. They grappled with their identity and who they were outside of sport, while their fans wondered where to place their emotion and blind faith now that the player number emblazoned on team jerseys was rendered obsolete. It was as close to a mass existential crisis as we’ll ever see.
Lee, like all professional runners, was training for a gruelling race schedule. Then the pandemic came. Understandably, many struggled. Running is, fundamentally, a solitary affair and to spend such an exhausting amount of time by yourself is to sacrifice all manner of social activities. It’s for this reason that racing is so sacred. Races stand out like lampposts on a blackened highway, giving a runner something to pin their efforts on. Take those away though, and the highway stretches on, unforgiving. Lee could have taken a temporary hiatus, or at least dialled back the intensity of his training. Instead, he got creative. He set goals to become faster than before, goals that would not only see him reach limits previously experienced in racing but also surge past them, alone. It was a no-brainer for the now 38-year-old. “You’re either motivated extrinsically or intrinsically. If winning races or prize money or the glory is your motivation, you’re going to struggle right now,” he explains. “Whereas if you’re motivated intrinsically like me, you’re just going to love going out there and setting goals for yourself.”
The first in the anthology of Crazy Shit Lee Has Done During The Pandemic came by way of a treadmill and mandatory 14-day quarantine. Having left Spain to return to Thailand, Lee found himself facing two weeks of hotel quarantine in Bangkok over Christmas. Naturally, to get through such an ordeal, he decided to hook a webcam up to a treadmill positioned just three metres from his bed in the hope of breaking the 50km uphill record on a treadmill with an incline of five per cent. Even by Lee’s standards, it was “surreal”. “The power went on the webcam and at that point I was thinking, ‘What am I actually doing?’ There are no fans, and that’s no problem, I’d be doing it anyway. But there’s a part of me thinking, ‘If at any point I just want to step off the treadmill, I could do that and nobody’s ever going to know.’ But I’d know,” says Lee.
He broke the record, completing the 50km in a time of three hours, 37 minutes and 36 seconds. The ridiculousness of such a stunt isn’t lost on him, and even now as he reflects on the experience, you can still hear his mind reeling from what occurred in that Thai hotel room with minimalist decor. “It’s not even going to be a world record because there needs to be witnesses in order for that to happen. So it became quite fun that I was just this lunatic in a hotel room pushing myself to the limit, in order to do something that’s not even going to qualify.”
It may have been for an audience of one, but Lee’s pursuits in lockdown have captured the attention of global audiences not simply because of the sheer lunacy, but because ultimately, it’s this defiance of human limits that captures the heart of sport itself. In cycling, athletes like Lachlan Morton have taken to Everesting - the challenge of cycling an ascent equal to that of the world’s highest peak - while more recently professional ski mountaineer Caroline Gleich did the same, but on skis. Even outside of the professional world, those in lockdown have clocked marathons in their backyards or simply looked to the outdoors as a means of solace. The work isn’t always easy, but in challenging ourselves in such physical pursuits we find the strength to take on the chaos that presents in everyday life. As Lee has come to exemplify, perhaps now more than ever we’re not training to race, but training simply for the joy of the everyday grind.
Lee’s competitive drive to win may have seen him become a dominant force in the ultra-running scene, but it’s never been what sustains him. In conversation, podium finishes are brushed off with endearing humility. Only feats of endurance that defy the odds are celebrated. As Lee explains, “I don’t need to be involved in these virtual races or anything like that to get inspiration. I can just try and run up my local mountain as fast as I can.” And so he did.
On that lonely road in Thailand, Lee attempted to break his own record of the Doi Inthanon 50km. Just after 2pm, a message from Lee comes through. “Wow. That was tough. Nearly got it, but knew with 5/6km to go that it would be a struggle,” it reads. There’s a screenshot of a Strava map, a line of orange snaking through an endless backdrop of green. The elevation reads 2,465 metres and to the bottom right is Lee’s time: 4h6m. It’s still the second-fastest time recorded for the Doi Inthanon 50km, but to Lee it’s a failure. The record he was chasing remains, unbroken.
“No excuses, I’m dead now, and I’ll try again in a more forgiving month…”
When we speak later, his tone is soft, a little weary with fatigue, but far from self-pitying. “Nothing changes, even though it was a solo attempt, it wasn’t a race and there was no competition, you still failed at what you tried to do,” Lee explains. Somewhere deep in his sinews is a box that remains unchecked. You get the feeling that Lee will return to the foot of this mountain repeatedly, until he conquers it. To Lee, his Monday effort fell short of his goal, but to all those who have been following his journey, it proved that even away from competition, there’s still much to learn from trying. It may have all been for an audience of one, but Lee Grantham proved that even in the hardest of times, mountains are, after all, just a hill.