Still inspiring, always remembered

It still surprises me when people comment on things I’ve done since I lost Sharon, and I continue to balk at the various unfamiliar and unjustified ways in which I’ve been described. After all, what could I ever be challenged by that could in any way compare with the words we heard just over ten years ago, and the subsequent journey I accompanied my beautiful wife on.

The challenges since have been varied. The realisation that life can still hold positive moments and bring more amazing friendships and lifelong bonds has truly been a lifesaver.

It’s started to feel like life has settled down somewhat. Training for my next sporting challenges continue to bring comfort and time to process thoughts, friendships grow and the days roll on.

Reminders will always be there and it goes without saying that I’d have it no other way. Some things however still have the ability to completely blind side me.  I never thought I’d ever wear my race t-shirts from last year again, and I certainly never expected the raft of emotions associated with putting one back on for an event that took me completely out of my comfort zone.

IMG_0717

The organisers of the lake run had heard about my challenge and asked if I would open the race for them this year. A couple of weeks on and I still find the whole situation rather surreal really. My initial reluctance was overridden by the fact that Sharon was still being remembered and that her legacy of inspiring others was continuing.

thumbnail

It was an honour to be asked to open the run, something I didn’t really feel was ‘for me’, and I will always be proud to keep Sharon’s name alive no matter how hard the emotion is to deal with. I’ll always be grateful for what we shared together and the power of the emotions she is still able to elicit from me and others.

6

Advertisements

From ‘The Toughest Footrace on Earth’ at the top of Africa to ‘The Ultimate Human Race’ at the bottom of Africa in seven weeks

What the hell was I thinking !! …. nothing was ever going to be able to follow my running journey of 2016, however 2017 is certainly giving it a good crack.

After coming out of MDS relatively unscathed other than less skin and nails on my toes, attention necessarily turned to preparing for a road race like no other, and one that I didn’t really know how to prepare for.

Good friends with valuable experience and advice accompanied me along the way and provided much-needed support, I was going to need it. Having only ever run up to 30 miles on the road before, this was going to be an eye opener …

And so the short period between the two races was predominantly spent trying to concentrate on hill training in preparation for the over 5000ft I’d need to climb in South Africa over the course of many hours and 54 miles.

Comrades is a race steeped in folklore, a major historical event in South African sport and a race that will literally bring you to your knees if you don’t pay it the respect it deserves ….. it also brings out a camaraderie in its participants that will be hard to find in any other race.

The Comrades Marathon was borne out of the tragedy and devastation of the great war. When the smoke cleared from the battlefields of that terrible time a young soldier by the name of Vic Clapham had a vision to create an event that would create a positive legacy and try to recreate the camaraderie he and his comrades experienced during this time. Despite many obstacles and some opposition, Vic Clapham eventually gained the approval required to stage the first Comrades Marathon between his home in Pietermaritzburg and Durban on May 24th 1921. Traditions grew from the inaugural race and survive to this day, making Comrades a very special race indeed.

Sixteen people finished that inaugural race. Almost 14,000 people completed this years race, a true testament to Vic Clapham’s visionary idea and a legacy indeed to him and his comrades. The Comrades Marathon is the oldest and biggest ultra marathon in the world and is considered worldwide to be ‘The Ultimate Human Race’

So, accepting that I would be going in to my first ‘road’ ultra somewhat unprepared physically I tried to prepare myself mentally for what was to come. My fellow BCRC comrades were a much appreciated and valued source of advice and reassurance.

Alison and I travelled out to Durban via Dubai a few days before the race and met Danni there to prepare for the race and complete the registration process to get our race numbers.

A tradition of Comrades is that the run alternates between an ‘up run’ from Durban to Pietermaritzburg and a ‘down run’ in the opposite direction. Whilst it would initially appear that the down run, being predominantly downhill, would be an easier 54 mile race (!), opinions differ greatly with many runners preferring the ‘up run’ due to the toll taken on the quads from running downhill for such a long time. This year was an ‘up run’ of 54 miles with an elevation gain of over 5000 ft.

Alison and I, joined by Damien another BCRCer took a coach tour of the course on the Friday to familiarise ourselves with the route and learn a little more about the history of the race and the impact it has on the communities it dissects. It didn’t take us long to appreciate that this course would test us to our limits come race day. With the coach struggling to climb some of the hills, Damien and I being novices to Comrades gave each other increasingly nervous looks !

However, a real highlight of the tour, and one that moved everybody and helped put things into some perspective, was a visit to Ethembeni school which the race passes by around the halfway point. Ethembeni is a school for physically disabled and visually impaired children and is a truly inspirational place providing education and shelter for children who for many reasons aren’t able to live at home. http://ethembenischool.co.za/

The children gave us a warm welcome, with a child representing each country wishing us well for the race wherever we had travelled from. They performed some traditional dance and song for us and gave each runner a much valued bracelet of beads, 87 beads representing the 87 kilometres we would run come race day. It was nigh on impossible to be unmoved by the hope that radiated from the staff and children.

After leaving the school with more motivation, if it were needed, we continued our journey to Pietermaritzburg and a visit to Comrades House, a museum dedicated to the history of the race, and a chance to buy the obligatory merchandise. Returning to Durban we ran the gauntlet of the Expo, collecting our race numbers without too much bother and spent some time buying yet more merchandise …… it’s tradition ! ….. and grabbing a bite to eat.

Saturday morning and more glorious weather, an indication of what we were due to expect on race day, saw team BCRC turn out early for the local parkrun along with over 2000 other runners ! …… definitely the biggest parkrun I’ve ever been part of. A post run breakfast with fellow UK-based comrades and a hearty lunch saw us relax for the remainder of the day in an attempt to arrive at the early start in a fit state to run.

Despite falling asleep to the sound of waves from the Indian ocean crashing on to the shore, as per usual I didn’t manage too much in the way of sleep and was up around 2.30am for my go to delightful pre-race pot of porridge. Fed and watered and all kitted up, I met Alison and Danni in the lobby from where we joined the steady swarm of people attracted by the hope and potential glory of the Comrades start line.

It was already warm enough at 4.30am to wander around in T-shirt and shorts, with the forecast only showing that the day was going to get hotter as it and we progressed. Splitting up as we approached the start at Durban’s City Hall, Alison and I made our way in to our respective start corrals allocated on the basis of your sub 5 hour marathon qualifying time.

I met Damien in my corral and things started getting real ……….

….. thoughts turned to the children at Ethembeni School and their rendition. With the theme to Chariots of Fire and Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika, the South African national anthem also played and sung, the enormity of the task ahead as we drew closer to the traditional cockerel crow and start cannon became palpable. I was about to become part of the tradition of Comrades by running its 92nd edition.

The cockerel crow and the start cannon filled the air and along with 17030 other runners I tentatively made my way along the early kilometres of the course in the fading darkness of the previous night. Making the most of the early lower temperatures I made pretty good progress at the same time trying to preserve some energy for the 24 miles I’d never run before on top of the first 30.

I started out using my usual gels that I use for marathon running despite the 46 well stocked refreshment stations that line the route providing water, around 30,000 litres of coca cola, 3 tons of boiled potatoes, 800kg of bananas and 8 tons of oranges along with a variety of other sweet treats. I did make good use of the water available at these stations offered in small tube-shaped ‘bags’ which you just bit the corner off of for hydration or cooling. As the temperatures rose into the high 20’s a good hydration strategy soon became essential.

I eased through marathon distance in around 4 hours 19 minutes, a comfortable marathon time for me and so I wasn’t unduly concerned at my pace as I knew the majority of the ‘big’ hills were in the first half and behind me. A common mistake of a Comrades novice I understand !

We made our way to Pietermaritzburg and over the legendary Comrades hills, names ingrained in ultra running lore …… Cowie’s, Botha’s, Drummond, Inchanga, Polly Shorts and her deceptively named sister ‘Little’ Polly’s where I asked a fellow runner “if this is Little Polly’s what the hell does her big sister look like ?” which elicited a brief chuckle between strained breaths.

Support along the course from fellow comrades, supporters enjoying early morning barbecues or ‘braai’s’ and volunteers was outstanding. For such a long race, it was just lined and encouragement was shouted throughout, helped by the fact that our names were on show on our race numbers both front and back. The race numbers also showed the past experience of each runner, denoting how many previous Comrades had been run in addition to whether or not the runner was an international runner. My BCRC T-shirt also garnered many a comment.

A highlight of the support for me was seeing the children of the Ethembeni school lining the route outside the school. I stopped for a few emotional moments to high-five the kids there which we were encouraged to do during our previous visit. It was around this point I ended up with blurry vision for some reason ! …….. it happened a few other times along the route, notably at around 26 miles when I could hear ‘I just can’t help believing’ by Elvis Presley being played over a loudspeaker.

As the race progressed with the temperature increasing the brutality as well as the beauty of the race, fellow comrades began to struggle and I started taking more regular walking breaks, especially on the remaining hills. The fact that this event is known to have the world’s largest temporary medical facility outside of a conflict zone says much about the strain that attempting Comrades can put on the body. It would transpire that by the end of the day, for whatever reason, just over 3,000 of the starters would not get a medal this time round. Around 400 of those were treated at the medical facility, slightly above the average for Comrades reflecting the conditions. 80 were temporarily hospitalised, 40 of whom were admitted, all but three had been discharged by the Tuesday after the race.

I’d gone into this race much as I had with MDS, just wanting to return home with a medal. However, unlike MDS I knew I had the potential to run a ‘good’ time for me as this was all on road, and so I headed out looking to maybe go under 9 hours despite my inexperience at this distance and with these hills.

Another unique feature of Comrades is that different finish times dictate which medal you get.

  • Gold medals: The first 10 men and women.
  • Wally Hayward medals (silver-centred circled by gold ring): 11th position to sub 6hrs 00min
  • Silver medals: 6hrs 00min to sub 7hrs 30min.
  • Bill Rowan medals (bronze-centred circled by silver ring): 7hrs 30min to sub 9hrs 00min.
  • Bronze medals: 9hrs 00min to sub 11hrs 00min.
  • Vic Clapham medals (copper): 11hrs 00min to sub 12hrs 00min.

It soon became evident around the 35 mile mark that I wouldn’t go under 9. I wasn’t particularly disappointed as by this time I knew I would at least finish, even if I resorted to walking my way in for the remainder of the race.

My gels got discarded after halfway in favour of boiled potatoes, biscuits, sweets, coca cola and pretty much any other goodies I could lay my hands on to keep me moving forward. I’d heard a story of an experienced comrade at a previous edition even stopping at McDonald’s along the route to get a burger and milkshake, and being pushed to the front of the waiting queue when the customers realised he was still part of the race ….. Alison in true ultra style resorted to an ice lolly around the 45 mile point …. I still have much to learn about nutrition for ultras !

With approximately 5 or 6 miles to go and with sub 9 hours a distant memory the sub 10 hour pace group, or bus as they’re called at Comrades, went past me.

I wasn’t having that ! I knew sub 9 would have required perfect conditions and probably better preparation for the whole race, but I knew I could pull out a sub 10 if I just dug in. So soon after they passed me I passed them and was soon joined by a UK runner, Rebecca, a friend of Danni’s who I’d met before the race, and in true Comrades spirit we ran the final miles together keeping the sub 10 bus a healthy distance behind us. We both finished in 9 hours and 53 minutes, cheered into the finish at Scottsville Racecourse by Danni and his merry band of supporters to immense relief and emotion.

There’s generally only one thing to do when you cross the finish of a race like Comrades, actually most races, and that’s to hug someone so that’s what I did ! The relief of finishing was overwhelming and after being presented with my medal and taking a moment I made my way to the International runners compound to reunite with Danni. I promptly hit the deck !

Damien had a great race finishing around an hour and a half before me and Alison followed not so long after creating a BCRC hat-trick of Comrades ’17 finishers. Another new Comrades friend we spent some time with before the race and introduced to us by Danni, Holly, also had a great race finishing shortly after Rebecca and I.

After some refuelling and watching the finish of the race, with the contrasting emotions of the pure elation of those just finishing within the cut off of 11 hours 59 minutes and 59 seconds, and the utter devastation of those just missing out, we made our way back to Durban both exhausted and jubilant.

A couple of days by the beach with much food, beer and wine was definitely in order after such an amazing race.

The strapline for this years race was …… ‘It takes all of you – Zinikele’ ….. they’re not far wrong there.

I was told before I travelled out to South Africa that this race is different, it gets under your skin. I said I’d do it once …….. ahh, what do I know ……

32nd Marathon Des Sables – Southern Moroccan Sahara

32nd Marathon Des Sables.
7th – 17th April 2017.
Southern Moroccan Sahara.
 
This race does not hold the moniker ‘The toughest footrace on earth’ for no reason …….
 
Unlike some I never really held any long-standing ambition to run this ‘race’. I entered at a time when I didn’t care about much, or about what would happen to me, I guess I entered without too much thought about what was to come.
 
So, I originally made mention of the race to the wonderful people of the BCRC and I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised when within a few days one of the group had signed up ! ….. so I was almost left with no choice. As it turns out if you’re going to do this ‘race’, it’s definitely better to do it with friends, and having a Danni as a friend is a pretty special thing.
 
After signing up myself, Graham jumped on board together with a couple of his friends and Hari soon followed. No matter how much research you do into a ‘race’ like MDS nothing will ever quite prepare you for the utter brutality of it. Read all of the books you like, listen to people’s personal experiences, but at the end of the day ….. as with any race, you just have to go with what works for you personally. Pretty much all of us had differing approaches to MDS, but the one thing we all had in common was some apprehension about what was to come.
 
The approximately eighteen months leading up to the race were obviously pretty busy race wise for me, and so whilst it was always somewhere in the back of my mind, it kind of crept up on me very quickly after completing my year for Sharon. I decided to jump on a plan in the new year for Barcelona, and fortunately I reaped the rewards from that race setting up my plans for 2018.
 
With goals achieved and back home with a cold after overtraining, MDS came starkly into view.
 
Graham had been great in prompting me to get kit sorted and encouraging me to do some specific training, and from afar Danni, Hari and Penelope had been a wealth of knowledge testing products and kit combinations. As it turned out, other than one sandy training run and some valuable, and uncomfortable (!) heat chamber sessions, I would be going into the toughest multi-stage race in the world slightly underprepared off of a heap load of marathons and some ‘hide the thermistor’ sessions !
 
Kit all assembled comprising a compulsory kit list to include an anti-venom pump, survival sheet, compass, sleeping bag, head torch, knife, signalling mirror, whistle, lighter, and a minimum of 2000 calories worth of food for each day, I attempted to fit it all in my 20 litre back pack a few days before we were due to leave for Morocco.
A few tantrums and swearing fits later and after binning my walking poles and stove I managed to squeeze it all in with seams seemingly at breaking point all over.
 
A few people didn’t want me to take part in this ‘race’, me included …… things had changed somewhat since signing up, and whilst I still experience some pretty rubbish days, I’m rarely in the place I was back then. And so catching the taxi up to Gatwick in the early hours of April 7th for our scheduled flight to Ouarzazate, the gateway to the Sahara, I was feeling a mix of emotions and I don’t think excitement was really one of them.
 
I travelled with Graham and two friends, who by association and shared experiences to come would soon become friends and a mutual support. It’s not surprising how quickly you get to know someone when you sleep next to them whilst getting sandblasted, slice open blisters on your toes whilst borrowing their iodine, and give each other that knowing glance when you trot off with crap bag in hand ! This was going to be close quarters battle …… a battle against the elements, the environment, the fragility of our bodies and against our minds …. this race in all of it’s beauty and brutality would test every part of us and at this point we had little idea quite how much.
 
After a pretty smooth flight and six hour coach transfer …. yep six, we arrived at the bivouac where we would stay for a couple of nights completing all of the admin including submitting our ECG and medical paperwork for scrutiny and re checking our kit was in order for what was to come.
 
We had been given our Roadbook by now, our essential guide to the ‘race’ detailing a typical days routine prior to the start of each stage, how each stage would look in terms of terrain and distance and what you could be penalised for (in time or money) …. no sleeping bag or compass = 3 hour penalty, No race bib = 1st warning, 2nd out of race, Lateness of more than 30 minutes at departure of stage = out of race, Receiving extra water = 1st 30 minutes penalty, 2nd 1 hour penalty, 3rd out of race !
 
Now, we knew what each stage held on paper. Stage 1 = 30.3km, Stage 2 = 39km, Stage 3 = 31.6km, Stage 4 = 86.2km, Stage 5 = 42.2km and the Charity Stage = 7.7km, all stages being described in more detail as containing a variety of sand dunes, stony plateaus, hills, rugged terrain, and jebels (mountains) ….. the odd phrase did stick in the mind …. “CAUTION ! Technical descent of over 20%. Sandy then Stony” or “Go SW for difficult climb. 25% average slope until summit. Climb alternating rocky and sandy parts” or one to sharpen the senses “CAUTION ! Imperatively follow markings to stay on track and avoid crevasses” …….. expletives consumed my thoughts !
 
I’ve written too much already and could go on forever, but you’d get bored and I’d have nightmares ! so I’ll write what I wrote each evening in the roadbook at the end of each stage word for word.
 
Stage 1 = 4 hours 1 minute. Ran well up to 14 miles, walked dunes, very hard in sand, walked 4 miles, hot but breezy.
 
Stage 2 = 7 hours 40 minutes. Started with Danni and Hari walking, walked mostly, big dunes, mountain climbing !! Didn’t want to run. One blister on top of toe.
 
Stage 3 = 5 hours 7 minutes ? Started well, mostly ran, beautiful views on Jebel’s, very technical climbs with ropes, 46 degrees celsius, blisters.
 
Stage 4 = Ran first 10 miles, then sand, horrendous, back at 0330 hrs, hardest physical effort ever.
 
Stage 5 = 5 hours 20 minutes. Marathon, great day, not much sand, I’ve done it !
 
Stage 6 = Tent 134 stroll in the dunes – Happy it’s done.
 
Now, to say I had tears in my eyes when just writing about stage 5 might go some way to expressing just how hard this ‘race’ was.
 
It tested me absolutely, I had moments when I didn’t think I could take another step and I had moments when I just didn’t want to. It was without doubt the hardest physical effort I have ever subjected my body to. The shiny website and emotive video’s produced for this event should not be misinterpreted and entry into this ‘race’ should not be underestimated. It will test you to your limits and it will try to break you. People had to be removed from the race due to heart attacks, toe amputations, dehydration and pure exhaustion.
 
You were soon forced into getting used to the daily routine. Having your tent taken down around you whilst waking up or preparing breakfast, the queue for your morning water ration, the sand getting everywhere, chatting to tent mates about shared experiences, waiting for emails from home to lift you at the end of the day, wondering what the hell you were doing trying to run day after day in scorching temperatures ! The bivouac soon resembled a refugee camp with people hobbling around on blistered feet in filthy clothes looking dazed as the sun rose over the dunes. This scene was repeated as the camp moved further into the Saharan desert.
 
That said it did provide moments of beauty and wonder, and quite simple things like a cold can of coke after the long day took on extra significance, as did a cold beer after stage 5.
 
Running across the ridge of Jebel’s with sheer drops on either side was a highlight, the camaraderie, the shared experience, the sense of achievement, pushing the boundaries of all that you ever thought you were capable of, the daily emails and encouragement from friends and loved ones at home …… but one moment truly stood out for me, a moment I’ll never forget. Standing on top of a high dune alone in the darkness on the long stage I took a moment to stop and look out at the hostile beauty of the landscape. Now I don’t have a spiritual or religious bone in my body, but in that moment I felt closer to Sharon than I’ve ever felt since February 24th 2015. It was like she was right there telling me it was ok, that I was going to be ok and not just in this race.
 
For that moment alone I will forever be thankful that I took part in The Marathon Des Sables. This brutal ‘race’ will not build character, it will expose it and force you to re-examine who you think you are.
 
I doubt I’ll ever take part in anything of it’s like ever again. I’m an MDS finisher, and I have the utmost respect for anyone who’s even willing to toe the start line of this ‘race’. I can’t keep referring to it as a ‘race’ ….. it ends up just being about survival, a perfect interpretation of life I guess.

What’s next ? ……..

So, after the efforts of last year I decided to jump straight on to a training plan in order to try and qualify for the Boston Marathon next year and with ambitions of improving my personal best.

I was also missing the challenge of 2016 massively …… as I knew I would.

I am about to travel out to Morocco to take part in this …….

…. and so expecting my feet to be a little battered afterwards I thought a March marathon was the way to go.

After hearing good reports from friends about Barcelona’s marathon I decided to target that as my priority, risking being a little under prepared for the Marathon Des Sables.

I’m not sure how taking the risk will affect MDS, but at the moment it’s one that I’m glad I took. I finished a tough race in 3:09.26 taking 7 minutes off of my personal best time from Amsterdam 2015, in the process I qualified for Boston with a big margin and managed to get a good for age time for London.

If all goes well I’ll try to follow MDS with the Comrades Marathon in early June.

Life still has its ups and downs, but running and the people I’ve met through it, remains a positive influence.