To insanity, and beyond!

As the torch light flickered, the woodland track ahead of me flickered too, in and out of the darkness. I looked down at the map. My thumb placed strategically where I was. All around me I could hear absolutely nothing. The occasional rustle, but no cars, no people, no running water, nothing. I knew I was in last place. Bringing up the rear, alone in the woods in the dark, trying to make checkpoint 4. “About 6 miles to go”,  I said to myself, already knowing I was slowly grinding to a halt on anything more than a slight uphill slope. Barely five minutes ago, I had stumbled up a practically vertical climb where I had to stop at the top and sit down. The only positive from that was looking down across the expanse of darkness below over to the twinkling lights of a nearby town, wondering who was still awake, who was looking up at the hill wondering what that light was, moving around. A hundred thoughts went through my mind. Why was I struggling? Was I failing? Just what would Jesus do?? I thought about my support team, loved ones, friends, the charity I was running for. I dug deep – seriously deep. Alas, however, at 12.55am, after 47 miles, I had to retire from the race.

I have never not finished a race, either as a runner, tabber or cyclist. It was therefore unfathomable to me that despite my best efforts, I’d not made it to half way. Here, I could list all the reasons and theories why. To some they would sound like excuses, to others, legitimate reasons. This isn’t an investigation, a witch hunt of sorts though, so I’m going to look at it from the other end, which luckily, many of my fans have.

My initial thoughts were that I had not even made it half way. In reality I had almost ran two very hilly marathons back-to-back. Now, this year has been very strange, and a lot has happened to me. One of the big things that has happened is that I have found a little support network in unconventional places, and not necessarily from people already in my life. The wave of support from all these people surprised me and saved my mind from visiting some iffy places. One such message of support came from Krister, the subject of a blog post whom I met on a previous ultra marathon. He had a similar experience attempting a 100-mile race where he had to retire. He started by congratulating me on not finishing. Interesting perspective. His view was that it showed I had pushed through and shown strength in doing so. I really hadn’t thought of it like that. Very refreshing. A vital thought process for us all. The first port of call for most is feelings of failure.

The other positive from this event was my on-the-day support. Two of my oldest school friends came to support me from the word go. A friend whom I’ve ran and cycled a lot with over the years and fellow ultra marathoner also surprised me at the second checkpoint. Biggest of all though was my partner and her kids. The biggest change of all this year has been meeting someone who, for some reason, loves me unconditionally. She’s never far away and just radiates support despite the fact that these events I do are a tad insane. When I was approaching checkpoint one, which was at the top of a pretty meaty hill, I was, as most of the time, thinking about her and the kids. Then, all of a sudden, her eldest daughter sprang into view and leapt and bounded down the hill towards me. The first thing I did was ask her to pinch me to check I was actually there and not unconscious under some hedge a few miles back. Once at the top, my two friends were there, and the youngest daughter. I started to jog, and passed a photographer. When the photos became available, one in particular summed up the day and my life nowadays. There I was, in focus, running. Behind me were four people and a dog, rooting for me, supporting me and wanting me to succeed. The only person missing was my partner, but naturally, she was at the feed station getting food ready for me. I can honestly say, as she and the kids stayed with me until my 1am retirement, I would not have made it that far without her.

It was at checkpoint one that the phrase that forms the title of this blog first appeared. The eldest girl remarked that the colours on my vest of the charity I was running for made me look like Buzz Lightyear. So, as I stood up, after thirteen miles, to attempt the next stretch in hot conditions, I exclaimed, “To insanity, and beyond!” Not exactly a million miles away from the truth.

Mission complete…for now

My journey into tabbing has been well covered in previous posts. Some five and a half years from being a runner and cyclist, I moved onto running with a backpack. It has helped shape who I am today and has allowed me to find strength and determination I never believed I possessed.

Also in other posts I have bored the socks off you with references to the Fan Dance. I will assume you are either (a) a regular reader and know what I’m talking about, or (b) intelligent enough to use a certain famous internet search engine (which now seems to be a verb) to find out more.

Anyway, after five years and two attempts, I was back in the Brecon Beacons on Friday night to register for my third attempt on Saturday. With many things going on in my life this year, my relevant Fan Dance training was practically zero compared to the previous attempts. I had two reasons to be quietly positive though. Firstly, I bought a better pair of boots last year and they were proving to be a winner. Secondly, at the end of April, I did a solo Fan Dance exercise and did it within the four hour time window, but with a slightly lighter backpack (19kgs).

Registration is an interesting arena. Mixtures of quiet competitors, mean looking ones, terrified ones, and worst of all, in my opinion, loud cocky ones. In the middle of it are the Directing Staff, giving out instructions, and organising everything in precise military fashion. One key thing is to listen carefully. Even then, you can go wrong.

The other purpose of registration is to get your Bergen weighed, checked and tagged. I got mine out of my car, weighed it with my trusty luggage scales and it came in at 16.5kgs, which is half a kilo over, which I can live with. So over to the weighing tent I go. Put it on theirs and it’s underweight. Shock. They weigh it in pounds, so it turned out it was a pound and a half under. So, back to the car to find some dead weight to go in it. I was tempted to nick a stone off a wall nearby, fully intending to replace it later, but thought better of it and used my rubber mallet instead. Back to the tent and who should be at the scales, but my Fan Dance nemesis. He remembered me from the Paras 10 in May and we had a pleasant chat. The bag was bang on. Relaxation time. It did make me think though that if my scales are wrong, my 19kg practice Fan Dance could have easily been 18kgs perhaps. Making me wonder if I could really do it in under four hours with 22kgs.

The campsite was fairly lively, which was great, but not when your alarm is set for 5 am. So, in with the earphones and off to sleep I went, and frustratingly woke up at 4.40. So I got up and started boiling water for breakfast. All admin sorted, and got to the start at 6.15.

rrem

In a world of people getting offended by things, the race brief was not for the easily offended. A very frank, to the point speech about giving it your all and to politely start at the back if you weren’t going to go hard. I had no intention of bring intimidated and made my way to the front. The rapid march started just after 7 am and off we set. Finding myself in touch with the front runners and rapidly overtaking other marchers. Being careful not to blow out in the first two, and arguably most brutal, miles. Over the summit and down Jacob’s Ladder, I could see very little in front of me in terms of competition. Within one hour and forty minutes I was at the halfway point, refilling my water carrier and hitting the trail home. It’s always a great feeling knowing that you’re over half way. I set myself a seemingly unrealistic target of reaching the summit, some four miles away, within one hour of the half way. This four miles including the Roman Road, predominantly uphill and the infamous and punishingly brutal Jacob’s Ladder. I knew it was near impossible but I needed something to aim for. As unbelievable as it sounds, my right hand touched the very last rock to scramble over at the top of the ladder only one hour and ten minutes from the half way point. At that moment I realised my dream was possible. Just two miles down the mountain lay the red telephone box and the culmination of five years’ training, thought and possible obsession. I began to think how bittersweet it felt. On one hand, my dream of completing the march in four hours before I’m 40 very much assured, barring any disasters, yet on the other, the void of having potentially no dreams or further aspirations to motivate me coming up.

So it was head down, brain off, legs striding down the hill to finish in three hours and thirty-five minutes. To be told I was 9th overall and my time was elite, was very humbling, and the emotion of surprise support at the finish line made the experience even more special.

rrem

Four days later, I’m still struggling to take it in. Today at lunchtime, I entered the next big target so the motivation continues. The Fan Dance still has a huge draw for me and I will definitely return in some capacity either supporting or competing. Self belief going through the roof, it’s hard not to wonder what else I’m made of.