Another four challenges gone by, and I’m hit by two thoughts: firstly, the relief that I have reached a milestone, the peak of the mountain, the halfway point; secondly, that if the second half of this year is anything like the first, this is really going to hurt. I guess how I choose to process that makes me one of two people.
Positivity is prevailing however, because what is a year? I have had 23 so far, with hopefully another 50 good ones left at least. Besides, it would be ironic of me to be pessimistic, given that the intended recipients of this fundraising challenge have all got it sooooo much worse. This is borderline #firstworldproblems.
This has been a really intense three weeks, and as such, provided me with a whole essay of thoughts and actions. Take your time – I have provided water breaks in the form of titles, just to break it down a bit. There’s also a really special message at the end for those who read all of it.
TOUGH MUDDER SCOTLAND
On the penultimate weekend of June, four of us made our way up to Dumfries, Scotland for yet another Tough Mudder weekend. Our team were to be running on the Saturday, and supporting me through my second run the following day. Six hours of driving at a really inconvenient time on a Friday night, and we arrived late at night to our Airbnb house for the weekend. Exhaustion left us mostly zombie-like, and bed quickly called to us once we had been shown where the towels were.
Saturday came, and dare I say it, became a really enjoyable day for all of us.
Between my brother’s sport injury and Katie cracking two ribs navigating an obstacle, fun was had by
all most. The weekend was a beautiful one, and despite taking our time, we eventually completed the course in very high spirits. Celebratory drinks were on the cards, until we realised that we were in Dumfries. Not exactly Ibiza.
With the added occasion of Father’s Day on the Sunday, I was under increased pressure to see through a quick Sunday run in order to reasonably get home for a classic Ash family Father’s Day Roast Dinner/Barbeque in the roasting 28°c sun. Luck and an unforeseen reserve of energy played a part in seeing me complete the course in under half the time of the previous day – all without being that selfish guy, because no-one likes that guy at Tough Mudder. We hastily headed for home, a mere 307 miles down the motorway. Disgusting.
With a shorter break between than normal, the most exciting event of the year came around: the Big Five Marathon. With only three days back at work, my prompt flight out Wednesday night was a long one – not due in to O.R Tambo Johannesburg Airport until the following morning. After completing my first marathon – the plane journey – I arrived and quickly found a group headed for the marathon, naïvely excited about the idea of what we were doing without any knowledge of what to expect. How opinions changed the following day. A route inspection on our first full day quickly turned happy faces into slightly less happy faces, as their safari vehicles made slow progress up a steep, windy hill, engines screaming as they were forced to struggle in the lowest gear.
As a group clearly not easily intimidated, not a single person shied away from running the full marathon in favour of the veritably difficult but naturally shorter half-marathon route. To add insult to injury, the start line sat at a casual 5,860 feet above sea level. The hill was difficult enough without the oxygen deficit – this was just taking the piss.
Race day came, an early start in a chilly Africa – winter brings days similarly warm to the UK in Summer, with evenings as chilly as… like, maybe Spring at worst. All the same, a safari vehicle driving at 50mph makes you feel like you’re stuck in a wind tunnel, and that wind was not a warm one. Arriving at the start, most scurried to the shelter of the adjacent lodge to consider whether wearing two layers really was going to be enough, and gathered ready for a 9am start.
Little warning came before the gun went off, and everyone set off on the safari track. Sat in 5th and 6th place early on with my marathon running partner Rebecca cynically set off alarm bells in my head about the realistic nature of my being there. My concerns were soon answered, as the oxygen deficit took it’s toll on my muscles and their insatiable need for much more than your average 11st. (70kg) runner. Looking utterly pathetic after inadvertently convincing too many that I was a good runner because “I must be by now”, there were many stops in the first 15km before the downhill part came around. As we headed down the 1500-feet decline to the lion enclosure, I realised that the course had tired of destroying my lungs, and was now ripping my knees a new one. A sensible pace and changes of direction narrowly spared our joints, and upon reaching the bottom of the hill, we were greeted by an excitable group of African men and women, water and a much more manageable level of oxygen. A new lease of energy was awarded to me, enough for me to be able to confidently say aloud “it should be easier down here”. I had a habit of speaking too soon. With my lungs and knees strained, our hips and ankles were next: miles of beach-deep soft sand to stumble over. Despite my best efforts, running became futile when an old hip injury flared up at the first hint of unsure footing, and once again ‘”this is my first marathon” Rebecca’ was making me look very amateur. A further friendly but unhelpful voice joined the group at this point, informing me that he was “pretty slow” given that he could only run a “3:25 marathon at best”… Who are these people?? The remainder of the lion enclosure loop came and went uneventfully, and soon the hill appeared in front of us.
The first few steps sent my heart rate soaring up to 181bpm. Every step felt like a fire through my quads, and with 3km of hill to climb, it was pure torture. My energetic and clearly inhuman running partner quickly left me behind, and I instead found more physically well-matched Tomasz, a software developer from the Czech Republic – his identically pained expressions said all I needed to know. Between us, we struggled up the hill to the top, slumping into robotic persistence and hoping the pain would numb. Like the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, we reached the top and the 30km marker after half an hour of climbing. The heat of the daytime had taken hold now, and with four legs and two injuries between us, much of the remaining distance was painfully completed at walking pace while the sun burned in to our backs. Entering the last 2km of the race, my enthusiasm and my remaining energy stores kicked in to action, prompting gingerly-placed footsteps on the uneven ground as my pace picked up. 41km gone, and it was all downhill from here, literally – with stones, pebbles and rocks littering the track, descending towards the finish brought out my inner twinkletoes (I am yet to see the footage, but I guarantee it will be all over the place). As always, the mere sight of the finish line on the horizon sent a powerful shot of adrenaline in to my spent muscles, and with it the irresistible opportunity of another sprint finish. With the happy faces of 44 people who finished before I did, and my calves nipping with the all too familiar cramping sensation, I crossed the line – relieved to have no further to run. Relief that was short lived, looking now towards my next marathon just a week later.
I would like to say the marathon was the hardest part of this whole excursion, but that truly special accolade had to go to the combined journey through the O.R Tambo circus that they called security, and a combined 17-hour plane journey from South Africa all the way to Norway. Safe to say with the homesickness and far too many plane meals, I really did not want to be in Norway by the time I arrived. After a miserable morning travelling to my hotel in Bergen, I decided to force myself out on a short run to explore and get comfortable. What I saw in this city was truly stunning: mountain ranges all around me, a beautiful coastline and a glorious, but also rare, sunshine.
I know this is a long one but as I cannot resist sharing some fun facts, I have some prepared:
- Bergen receives an average of 266 days of rain every year. That doesn’t even guarantee 100 days of sunshine, most of those are apparently cloudy. I happened to be there on the sunniest day this year. A place that actually has worse weather than the UK…
- Even as far south as Bergen, there is relatively little darkness during the summer months. Night time while I was there was better described as an ‘extended twilight’, and only really lasted from 11:30pm until 03:00am.
- Lakes are not fjords, and fjords are not lakes. Most people probably knew that, this was a new discovery for me.
After a quiet couple of days recuperating in the city, I made my way to Førde, my last stay before the marathon. The event was buried deep within fjord country in Western Norway, and the run was alongside one of the many lakes. I arrived early the next morning, after accidentally chatting on my Airbnb host’s balcony until gone midnight because it never got dark. Tired, and a bit starving, I signed in and went through the usual process. Employing my classic small talk, I asked how many other runners there were from the UK. “Just you”, was their answer. I have never felt smaller in my life.
Lining up at the start with minutes to go, it became very evident that this was not your average international marathon. With less than 100 runners, most of which looking fairly serious, I knew the outcome before the starting gun even fired. Mere miles into the race, and I was trailing far behind the pack. Fed up, hot and still a little sore from my previous week’s venture, exhaustion was an easy mistress to give in to. I walked/jogged/stumbled for hours, clocking water stations as a way to mentally break down the remaining distance. At this point of hysteria a good sense of humour is critical: I managed to talk an official into taking this lovely photo at the half marathon point.
I think this is the first marathon to have broken me mentally. Deciding that making a snapchat video was more important than focusing on the marathon in hand, was one of many decisions made that day which showed the very real crossover into hysteria. Nothing brings out a hysterical reaction like being tired, alone on a rural road in a foreign country with nineteen kilometres left to run.
After entertaining myself for 25 minutes, I refocused on finishing what I started – also not actually being last place. Cramp had set in earlier on in the race, stopping any real progress happening, but progress was made anyway. After a ritualistic run-walk over much of the remaining distance, the last 2km was in sight and a glimmer of hope for finishing. Once again adrenaline, and the realisation that I was going to miss my bus back to Bergen, pushed me through to the end and very quickly down to the local bus stop. Strolling through Bergen in full running gear and no shoes later that evening, is probably as casual as I’ve ever been in a city abroad.
There is no special message I am afraid, other than to say thank you for dedicating yourself to reading this. If you know of anyone who may be able to help this cause and sign themselves up to the Bone Marrow Register, they can visit Anthony Nolan’s website here and find out more. Any donations are always appreciated and often encouraged – my JustGiving page is here! Just like a mountain I recently climbed, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and every healthy individual having a place on this register is that light. It’s a crowdfunded cure for cancer, and it is my hope that as this year goes on, we will be moving ever closer to it.