As I mentioned in an early blog (Why do I want to run a hundred miles?), one of the main reasons I sign up to do these sorts of events is to test how far I can push my mind and body. I’m not quite sure where or when I developed this urge. I’ve heard family members try to rationalise is (‘I’m not sure who he inherited that from?’) but I believe a seed was planted in my mind at some point in early adulthood and it’s blossomed over time as I’ve drawn inspiration from reading books. Oh and I also blame / thank the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour for spawning at least two of my adventures
So far, I haven’t found an event that has broken me physically or mentally. The Atlantic Coast Challenge came pretty close in 2013 when I felt woefully underprepared to complete three marathons over three consecutive days. The last marathon took about seven and a half hours if I remember right, with all the coastal steps slowing me down to a crawl. The camaraderie of running with a good friend (big shout out to David) and and the beautiful scenery carried me through.
But I have to go even further back to find the point where I’ve come closest to quitting. That was whilst on a survival course in Utah back in 2009.
It was a fantastic “experience” which has left me with memories I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. But it did throw up a few challenges. In essence I would describe the course, back then, as:
- 3 days of a controlled fast – basically only eating a few berries and leaves we found on the trail to get our bodies used to coping on fewer calories
- 4-5 days (can’t quite remember) of group hiking with guides
- 2 days of isolation
- 2 days of a group hike without a guide
- a final half-marathon pre-dawn to get back to base camp where you were treated to a Native American sweat lodge and the best bacon, eggs and fried potatoes I have ever eaten.
I should also point out that there were no watches/phones/torches allowed, no extra food or water, and no books (apart from a survival textbook). The only technology allowed was a camera.
It was the final day of that 3-day fast where I had a complete sense-of-humour failure. You see the set-up of this phase was basically: hike a lot, make camp (without food), cuddle up with some complete strangers for warmth, and then hike a lot more.
Without a watch you had no real sense of how long the day was. Having not eaten anything with double-digit calories in almost three days we found ourselves hiking uphill in the dark, tripping over branches we couldn’t see, scratching ourselves on brambles we couldn’t see, and with no end in sight. All of our (increasingly frustrated) questions of ‘how much further?‘ were met with ‘not far now‘. Repeatedly.
If there was a way out there and then I would have quit. Without a doubt in my mind. I was hungry, thirsty and lethargic, all of which made my clumsy, and we were just expected to keep going.
When I think back to that night it’s easy to see what led to my state of mind:
- Hunger – it’s hard to concentrate when you’re very hungry (or thirsty), let alone march for (what felt like) 14 hour days.
- Lack of control – I had no real control on the situation. Don’t give me any of that ‘you can control how you feel‘ lark. I had no idea where we were going, how far away we were, how long it would take to get there, what lay in wait when we got there… any of it.
- Lack of preparation – I wasn’t ready for it. I had gone into this expedition in good physical shape and with a reasonable understanding of what would be involved, but I had not prepared mentally for what was to come.
Helpfully I can even match each of these triggers to low points of races that I’ve done, but thankfully they have yet to feature collectively:
- Hunger – First marathon (2009) – I didn’t work out how much fuel I would need to get around and misjudged when the Powerade stalls came in the race so hit the wall pretty early on.
- Lack of control – Trail marathon (2013) – poor marking of the trail by organisers (or some mischievous locals removing signs) meant about 10 of us found ourselves lost on a route without a map (not required). We added about 4 miles on to a marathon and lost time getting cold, all of which were out of my control at that time.
- Lack of preparation – Newport marathon (2019) – I signed up with three weeks to go thinking I could get around comfortably without any dedicated training. I got around. Uncomfortably.
So these are all things which I pay a lot of attention to nowadays and will need to keep in mind when setting out my training plan over the coming months.
Of course, there are lots of others things I’ll also need to consider (coping with injury, gastro problems, sleep-deprivation) but one step at a time, eh?