7am Saturday 30th July
So its finally here.. Stood at the start of my latest challenge about to run 11 miles, swim 21 miles and cycle 260 miles – from Jersey to Paris in France. The challenge was called Arch to Arc – we didn’t have a Marble Arch here in Jersey so a specially constructed Jersey Hospice Arch was our start point, with the Arch de Triomphe in Paris the destination.
|At the Jersey Hospice Arch
The decision to set off had finally been made two days before, the original window was due to be 2nd to 6th August but the long range weather forecast had scuppered that plan, and today was identified as the best day of the lot so the whole thing was brought forward a couple of days. Cue frantic emails and telephone calls to get crew, ferry reservations and days off work in place and all was good to go.
The challenge was in aid of Jersey Hospice Care; a charity particularly close to my heart, and the subject of many of my fundraising ventures previously. I had been approached initially to look at doing the challenge by Andy Truscott as a relay in aid of Hospice back in September of 2015, I liked the idea, but felt that for me to be able to ask people for money I needed to up the ante and suggested that he and I do the challenge head to head. The concept of Arch to Arc Jersey was born.
I have never been a swimmer in the full sense of the word; I went through a phase of surfing for a few years and loved the sea, but as for swimming in the pool for long periods of time, it just wasn’t my bag. Give me wide open cliff paths, with sweeping panoramas, open roads on my bike and the opportunity to chat to other people if the going got tough. Swimming seemed too "in the head" and didn’t satisfy my need for external stimuli when doing endurance challenges.
|So happy at the start!
We had set the date of the challenge as provisionally August 2016, which seemed a long time away in Sep 2015. I was cycling a lot at this time, and really enjoying it, I started to do a bit of swimming in the local pool as well just to get a feel for where I was at. Where I was at was the swimming stroke of an epileptic octopus to be honest. I bumped into a few people I knew from running at the pool, each of us being as surprised as the other to find them/me cheating on our first love of running. I started to chat a little about the challenge, and as I swam away imagined them seeing my stroke and thinking "Not a chance sunshine.." I was finding it hard going, I knew the key to being able to swim the distance of 14 miles as the crow flies in the open sea (but more like 18-20 with tidal variation) was efficiency and conservation of energy. A conversation with someone I had met one evening in the lanes proved a pivotal moment, Alastair a friend of a friend at the time suggested taking lessons as he had found this to help his stroke and efficiency. I booked lessons for the start of 2016 as I knew I really needed to address this deficiency.
I opted to go with Leigh, a local swimming instructor, partly as I already knew her through her husband and partly on reputation as being able to bring out the best in any stroke no matter how dire! We started a 6 week course of lessons, and after the first session I knew where I was going wrong and Leigh had put in methods of correction, after week 3 I was starting to glide in the water rather than flounder and I started to believe this might be a goer.
I was now into February, I was looking at around 6 months to go, I had been swimming and cycling and a bit of running, I was fit and feeling OK, I knew it was the next few months where I had to step it up and get some endurance in the upper body. I knew the 11-mile run was going to be achievable, and I knew I wasn’t too far away from being able to complete the cycle; the swim was the monkey on my back. It was too cold still to be in the sea, so I decided to start doing some longer sessions in the pool to get used to the demands of long distance/time swimming. I approached and planned it in the way I approached running training, with a few shorter swims in the week, and then building the longer swims over the months culminating in 6 hours hopefully by the time June came around.
I started with the goal of one hour in the pool, which was achieved soon enough; I then built to two and then three. Pool swimming is tough in many ways – firstly the boredom, the pool where I swam a lot of my big sessions has a big clock so that every time I breathed I could see the minute hand slowly creeping round. Another is the ridicule factor. Once one is swimming over an hour or so the factor of energy and feeding arises: Picture me arriving at the pool, swimming for an hour and then getting out and consuming a Mars Bar, then getting back in swimming another hour and doing the same – the lifeguard looking at me and thinking I am insane, or just extremely intent on getting good value for money. Another factor of lane swimming is the other people in the lanes, broken down into:
-The Alpha Male Swimmer – slightly aggressive and bald or balding and in late 40's or 50's – impressively fast and fluid in the water the Alpha Male owns the fast lane. Woe betide you if you get in his lane and aren’t as fast! He will swim way too close and do tumble turns taking care to splash water just so you know who’s boss! Mostly found at lunch times, either solo or in packs.
-The Oblivious Sunday Driver Swimmer – In the wrong lane for their speed, this person is the equivalent of the cyclist in front of the car when you're trying to get to work or somewhere important. This is where I can empathise with the Alpha Male swimmer as the oblivious swimmer isn’t aware of the lane rules, not sticking to the follow direction, swimming breastroke in the fast lane, pulling out in front of you, you get the idea.
-The Alpha Female Swimmer – See Alpha male swimmer – Powerful, scary and a little aggressive, Alpha female is the counterpart of the Alpha male but more scary for some reason.
-The “I paid my entry fee so me and my child can doggy paddle in the lanes at lunch time if we want to!” swimmer – particularly abundant during school holidays at lunch times – the time when most office workers hit the lanes to get their daily swim session. The delightful offspring of these swimmers will often venture into the lanes with the parent encouraging them, whilst we swim our arms off trying to get our allotted mileage in before we have to get changed, get lunch and get back to our desk all within an hour. These can lead to all sorts of confrontations between normally retiring shy sorts but the added time pressure upping the ante and making maniacs of all.
Of course not all people using the lanes are like the above – a lot of good friends use the lanes and put some hard work in in the above conditions which I decided to view as additional mental endurance training.
So contending with all these issues plus just getting the hours in saw me through the early spring, I built the hours and by early March had done 3 hours and was feeling ok. A bit of a bug and a trip to New York put a 2 week hole in my schedule and set me behind, but once back and recovered I hit a good 10 week run and got in a groove. Another issue was trying to balance the ratio of sessions, trying to run, swim and bike each week was a lot of sessions, averaging 9 -10 sessions a week, and between 7-10 hours a week meant I had to be quite creative with time – double sessions, lunchtime swims became the norm and I threw myself into the routine, enjoying the training and slowly getting fitter and stronger. Being my first serious block of multi discipline training I enjoyed the fact that I could swim, then cycle and run the following day and treat it as active recovery – I definitely notice a lot less niggles as a result of this training and more strength in the core and upper body, which compared to running training was negligible unless doing weights.
May saw me take part in Aix en Provence Ironman 70.3, a race I thought would serve as a good intermediate goal to keep me motivated through the winter. I travelled down with a few guys from Jersey Triathlon Club and thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie with the guys, quite a few of whom I had never met before. The swim was cancelled on the day of the race, but the race went well and I felt happy about the time I did it in. On the way back to Jersey we did a quick ascent of Mont Ventoux the day after the race – a legendary Tour De France mountain climb and as we were so close it would have been a crime not to do so!
|Mont Ventoux Summit
Mid May and eight or nine weeks to go – the sea swimming begins in earnest and the real challenge specific training starts to ramp up - My first sea swims proper see me spending ridiculous amounts of time at St Catherine’s bay at weekends, so much so that I make a new friend, Colin, the guy who sells the sea shells in aid of the RNLI every day come rain or shine. As I was mostly swimming alone it was nice to know he was there and knew I was out and what I was doing. Over this period I was doing 3, 4, 5 hour swims and it seemed that every Sunday I was going up to St Caths and spending most of my Sunday there, and for the first few weeks in particular the weather was always terrible. I found this really hard mentally, I would find I was getting very tense in the week of the lead up to each swim as each time I was adding an hour each time on and pushing the boundary of what I could do in terms of time and distance, and walking a tightrope between success and failure.
During this period we also moved house, which really took its toll on my training in a lot of ways, the house is a doer upper and we had builders in at the same time we were moving which meant it was very stressful. I don’t think we realised how much stuff we had either and everything was all over the place for so long, which added to the feeling of unsettlement. As is life though we got through this and I got back to training and started to put the finishing touches to my last 6 weeks – the plan was to do a 50, 75 and 100 mile cycle with the 6 hour swim and the 100 mile cycle being about 2 weeks before the challenge. I completed the cycles and completed a 5.25 hour swim and a 100 mile cycle back to back just to prove to myself mentally I could do both. So from a training perspective I was pretty much good to go, I was disappointed I hadn’t managed a 6 hour swim but I had eaten too much on the 6 hour attempt and had to cut short due to feeling sick!
So with 2 weeks to go I was quite relieved. After a prolonged period of training, moving house and mentally preparing the day of reckoning was drawing near. I had my life back a little and it meant I could recover, do things around the house and sort the logistics of the challenge, as well as fundraising, which was the main point of the challenge.
The logistics of the challenge were a bit of a pain; we were at the mercy of the tide, which meant that ferry’s and hotels, employers and potential crew couldn’t be made ready as we didn’t know exactly when we could go, the best we could do being a vague window of somewhere between the 2nd and 6th August. Luckily Condor ferries were very understanding in terms of the travel arrangements and gave us a discount and pulled out the stops in making sure we got on the ferry we needed for the challenge when we knew when were going. For a control freak like me this was one of the harder things to deal with, the uncertainty of when we would be doing it and affected how I was seeing it in my minds eye to a degree. I also had very understanding friends who dropped everything to help out along the way – Euros Williams who skippered the boat kindly lent to us by his employer South Pier Marine, Karl Moss, Michael and Leigh Chaytor who were on the boat, and Karl and Michael paddled a dinghy with the shortest paddles in the world all the way to France nearly as we had no kayak and I was struggling to stay on course. Karl also came in the car once I got to France and navigated me across France with my better half Nicola Gott also. I was also really lucky that my boss Prem was so understanding with the vague timings I gave him about the window and then when I told him we were going a few days earlier and that I needed that day off for half day as well as the following 3 days of the following week he didn’t bat an eyelid.
So I was off on the run. Andy and I shook hands and set off after a speech from the guys at Jersey Hospice and a klaxon, which I am sure the people in the nice flats above the lower peoples park appreciated at 7am on a Saturday morning. I hadn’t done much run training, focussing mainly on the swim and to a lesser degree the bike. I had a goal of getting to St Catherines having not worked hard, so I settled into a really easy pace, Andy was just behind me for the first mile or so which unsettled me a little as I was banking on putting a little time into him on the run to offset the one hour time penalty I had taken for wearing a wetsuit on the swim. The wetsuit was necessary as I was pretty sure I couldn’t stand 8-10 hours in the sea in my speedos, so I felt the time penalty adequate to offset any advantages the wetsuit may give in terms of buoyancy etc. The run went quite well, I got to St Catherine’s having enjoyed the run and feeling relaxed, it took me 1 hour 45 mins and that was the first leg done.
|On the run
Andy arrived in about 20 or so minutes later – a lot quicker than I anticipated being honest and it did play with my mind a little as I had thought there would be more of a difference. It was here I realised that I had been outplayed mentally a little, as I had perhaps naively thought Andy would struggle on the run, it not being his strongest discipline. I had a little walk and got my head straight, and managed to get my focus back on the completion of the challenge first and foremost rather than worrying about winning – I still had to swim to France by the way!!!
So 10:50 am comes, I am in my wetsuit, and baby oiled to the nines to make sure no rubbage from the suit on my neck or other bits occurred. I had been take round to the Beau Coup beach by our skipper Euros and I jumped in the from the boat to swim to shore to start the race where everyone was waiting for us to go. Another shake of the hands, a few photos, another klaxon and off we were. Andy seemed really up for the swim, running into the water and getting up to a good speed straight off the line. I was a little more reserved, I knew I would lose time to him on this and was almost reticent to get going – and my body language in subsequent video footage confirm this. The tide was optimal though and the wind was behind us, the conditions were smooth and made for good going. In the first 2 hours I recall looking at my Garmin watch and having swum 6 miles or so, which I had never done as quickly training, which made me feel good. I knew the tide was carrying me, I also knew that I would be swimming more than 14 miles as the crow flies as 4 hours into the swim the tide would change and start to push up rather than across. I kept my head down, fed every hour and tapped out a steady rhythm and felt really good. I was taking on Torq carb drink topped up with hot water and it was doing the trick. As I had never practised feeding on the swim it was a work in progress, it was difficult to get near the boat to get the drink, and to then tread water and try and get the drink down me as quick as possible, but not unmanageable. At one point I had some paracetamol, which the first lot ended up in the sea as I missed my mouth completely trying to throw them in, hold my drink and balance!
|Just before the swim start
Mentally for the first 4 or 5 hours I was in a really good place. Energy wise I was feeling good, the miles were ticking by, however I was inclined to swim off course a little due to no kayak in the water with me. This was when Michael and Karl did their hero act of pulling out the dinghy and paddling alongside me so I had a reference point to guide me. I was a bit of a diva at points I think, as I was so focussed on conserving energy and needing them to keep me on course and sometimes I would drift off course for them to call me back on. It was hard and in retrospect a kayaker would have been a nice to have I think. Around the 7 hour mark Andy’s boat came back past us having safely delivered him to France, I could see the French coast by now and seeing them coming the other way gave me the false hope that I was closer than I was. Euros had said we were still in visual contact with the boat a few hours earlier so I took this to mean that the coast was closer now than it actually was. I didn’t know at this point either that Andy had set a new record for swimming Jersey to France, which is amazing off the back off a run.
So I got over the fact eventually that I wasn’t as close as I thought. I knew I was going to get there, it was just a question of when, I think at that point I had 2 hours to go, the coast was so close but it just wasn’t getting close enough to get out!! I had my head down, didn’t feed and just kept on stroking, stroking, stroking, with my waterproof mp3 playing rock power songs motivating me! I had the bit between my teeth and my crew behind me willing me on. I had heard Andy had been stung by a jellyfish on the way in, and I had my own experience with one coming my way and hitting me my wetsuited arm, it was the size of a football and I was thankful of the neoprene protection!
|The new Jersey to France Dinghy Paddling Record Holders
At around 9pm French time I pushed through the tide and finally saw the beach proper. Nicola was waiting on the beach for me, and the moment the sea turned into beach was amazing, I had made it! The sun had come out, Port Bail was a beautiful long sandy beach and it was an idyllic evening. As soon as I could stand I did, savouring the feel of terra firma again, I turned around to the guys in the boat and threw my arms up and thanked them all – I was so happy, I knew that I could now complete this challenge barring anything catastrophic happening!
|On the beach at Port Bail
As I got further up the beach Nicola greeted my and hugged and kissed me, this was the best feeling in the world, I had used the fact that I was swimming towards her as motivation and to see her there on the beach was great. There was also some fella there with a camera taking photos, which I though a little odd but I was so over the moon I made my way up the beach with Nicola bringing each other up to speed on the day so far. A French couple from one of the houses on the beach came out as they had seen someone in the sea and thought they were drowning! After they checked I was OK and we explained what was happening, they kindly invited us in for a shower and drink, which had I not been pushing on to Paris would have kindly accepted. We instead promised to drop by another time when we were in the area.
Welcomed by Nicola xx
Walking up the beach and to the car, my mind switched to the task ahead: 220 miles (or so I thought at the time!) on the bike to get to the Arch De Triomphe. I was feeling good after the swim and we made our way to the car. Nicola told me the news about Andy’s new Jersey to France swim record which blew me away, I knew that he was about 3 hours ahead of me at this point, and I was keen to get going. I made my way to the car and started to sort my gear, getting out of wetsuit, and putting my bike together all the while my French photographer friend taking pics, and me thinking “Don’t just stand there, help me!!” It later transpired that the man was a photographer from the local Port Bail press and had been made aware of our arrival by the mayor of Port Bail who promptly arrived to welcome me formally to France. This in turn was made possible by Catherine at the French Consulate in Jersey whom I had contacted as I was unsure about passport control at arrival in France. To be welcomed like that was great, we had a few pics and I ate some food and got my act together, getting ready to set out.
At this point Nicola told me she had been chatting to Andy’s crew as they had been travelling over together on the ferry. It transpired that one of the crew members had told Nicola he was there to cycle with Andy “..as and when he wanted me”. This was disconcerting news, we had previously discussed the matter of support riders and as a conclusion of this conversations, I had mistakenly believed that we would both be completing the cycle section solo and unsupported in any capacity.
I set off from Port Bail, having set my Google Maps route up in my Garmin GPS. After 30 mins I realised the route was not fit for purpose with the track of the route not sitting on top of the road, in fact sitting in the middle of nowhere. I went off track and ended up down some country lanes rather than the lovely, flat, smooth road I had been on and quickly got lost. After an hour or so my first phone call to the bike crew. “Where are you?” We quickly realised I was on the wrong road and I managed to correct. The matter of the two of us meeting up was another consideration, eventually we met after a couple of hours, we discarded the route on my GPS, invented another on and set a few ground rules; any decision points in the road they were to wait for me as I was unable to think just do, we would decide on a town to rendezvous and not change the plan and stay in contact.
It was dark by now, however the road had been flat and the road good going. I felt energised and cracked on, the plan worked the guys deciding on the route and stopping regularly. The terrain started to get hilly after 40 miles or so; long straight-Roman roads, going up and then down and repeating ad nauseaum. So much for the “nice, flat” route Google Maps had sold me I thought. I pedalled through the early hours seeing a barn owl in the middle of the road at one point. I thought I had hallucinated this as it was so dramatic but I later confirmed that Nicola had seen it as well. At about 4 in the morning when I met the guys I declared the hills were killing me and flopped down in front of the car headlights in true dramatic diva fashion. The decision was taken to rest, we found a little side track, parked my bike outside the car and I feel asleep in the front of the Nissan Juke for a couple of hours to uneasy dreams about my bike being stolen (half of me hoping it had been when I woke!)
I awakened and was hot, sweaty, stiff and stinky. 3 people and a whole load of gear in a relatively small car creates quite a bit of condensation it turns out, so I decided to change clothes to try and feel human (and smell less!) It was starting to break dawn and I was so stiff, the thought of getting on the bike again and more of those horrible hills wasn’t great but I knew I had a job to and an Andy to catch. I set off and the guys left me in search of coffee and croissants.
I negotiated the first 15 miles of the day, and the hills whilst still there didn’t seem so bad now the sun was up, I could see them and anticipate them at least, and I felt surprisingly strong. The guys were there with pastries as promised – no coffee but it was Sunday in rural France! The mood was good, the sun was coming out, the night had been conquered and we had nothing but the road ahead, and lots of hills! I set off for the next town and began to mull over the Andy support rider situation – was Rhys riding with him? Had we not agreed that there would be no support? Had I known I would have definitely had someone with me, knowing how hard the night had been to negotiate alone, having to think, navigate and look out for traffic and stay alert.
I reached the next town and Karl and Nicola were sat outside a nice café like they were on holidays. There was coffee, the sun was out and I was warming up. At another table was a man, I said Bonjour to him, but it turned out he was from Essex and was cycling around Europe for a year. I was foam rolling on the pavement here, chatting to him but my back was hurting. The cycle of Ibuprofen and codeine started here to try and offset the pain. After chatting to Brian from Essex a little more I headed up the hill with the knowledge that this hill was long and horrible but after that it was pretty nice for a while.
|A bit of down time
I thanked Brian for the heads up, the hill was indeed terrible but after this I made good time. The road opened up and I was able to get some good miles under the belt, I made a stop every 20 miles or so, saw Karl and Nicola’s smiley faces who kept me topped up with food and drink and were giving me updates on how I was closing in on Andy. I had the bit between my teeth by this point; I had been awake since 7am the previous day, it was about midday but I felt great. I had made up 3 or so hours deficit and felt that with about 70 or so miles to go I could snatch this from the jaws of defeat.
For most of the day I had been following a road called the N12, a seemingly innocuous road when it started, nice, flat and fast, however as the miles went on and the closer I got to Paris the more like dual carriageway and then motorway it became. At about 4 pm I met with the guys and we had to make a safety call; 30 hours of minimal sleep, a pushbike, a limited hard shoulder and fast French drivers are a terrible combination. I was gutted as it was evident I was ahead of Andy at this point.
The route was renegotiated going through more indirect but safer roads, the scenery definitely got a lot better, but I was really digging deep. I was not capable of thinking or logic by this point, I was following the guys with them stopping and waiting for me at any points that required decisions. I found this part the hardest of the whole 2 days – it was getting hot, my clothes were caked in salt and I was starting to get tired. I knew I had 30 miles or so to go and I was in pain with my back and had developed severely chapped buttocks, which made me wince in pain each time I sat, or repositioned on the saddle. A couple of times as we got closer to Paris I lost sight of the guys and took what I thought was a wrong turn. I called them and they duly came back to me and I had a bit of a melt down. I was on the edge of my endurance and didn’t know where I was going. They were great, they knew I was struggling and placated me; they guided me through the outskirts of Paris, with both me and them jumping red lights and annoying a few Parisiennes just to stick together.
At about ten or 15 miles to go, the inevitable happened. At a set of traffic lights I had rested on the back of Nicolas car to avoid taking my foot out of my pedal cleats. The light goes green, Nicola pulls away and sideways I go! One bleeding knee and amused French family behind me later and we are on the final push for the Arc De Triomphe. The end was in sight, and I was reinvigorated, we headed in through Versailles and made our way to the centre of Paris. Once the Arc was in sight I was off, riding up the cobbled street towards it on to the Champs Elysse roundabout. I shot straight across the traffic to get on to the Arc de Triomphe and stop the watch at 34 hours and 41 minutes. I was aware that Andy had got in to Paris about 10 minutes or so before me, I looked for him but he was nowhere to be seen, Nicola and Karl had gone to find parking so I was alone - a little anti climactic as I wanted to share the moment with them. I walked around the Arch de Triomphe, full of tourists unaware of the challenge I had just completed. A policeman came to me and asked me to move on, as cycles were not allowed on the Arc. I explained to him what I had just done and he said that “my friend” had just been here and that he was across the way. I started to move along not really knowing how I would get back across that crazy roundabout! I waited and another police car came along and told me to move on. I asked them if they could take a picture of me, which they duly obliged, after I explained again the journey I had completed.
I negotiated the crazy roundabout by hook or by crook and found the safety of a park bench; I sat down and waited for Nicola and Karl to return. I reflected on the weekend and the goings on, not really taking in what I had done, fatigue kicked in and I started to feel unwell. Nicola and Karl then showed up and we took some selfies and celebrated our success. We were all tired and had lived a lifetime but we were happy and relieved we had got there. I was still thinking about the support rider Andy had had, had he relied on him when the going got tough, had he even rode with him at all? I knew we would all soon meet up and I didn’t want to cause a scene by asking him about it; at the end of the day I had completed the challenge, but I knew that I had done this all on my own, I dwelled on the prospect of him having had someone to ride with and the potential benefits this would have had had I done the same.
At that point we saw Andy and Russ and Rhys, his support crew. Andy came over and greeted me, I had mixed emotions, we had completed the challenge, I was so happy about this. I also felt unwell, and was struggling to not be sick. It was decided we would go to a café near the Arc for a beer and food. I ordered a beer and a milkshake but I was struggling, I barely touched the beer and milkshake and chatted with the guys.
Upon finishing the meal at about 11pm ish, Russ kindly took my bike in their van so that we could create some room in the car for us to make the 6-hour journey back to St Malo that night. We were booked on the 8:00am ferry back to Jersey the following and had to get going soon. No one was in a state to drive, having all been awake for so long. We set off, loaded the SatNav and headed back to St Malo, both Nicola and Karl putting in big shifts to get us the 6 hours back to the ferry terminal, and me trying to assist by navigating where needed, particularly coming out of Paris and an early morning petrol stop in the middle of nowhere.
6am arrives and we arrive at the ferry terminal and duly grab an hours sleep, we had made the ferry, just to check in and get to our seats and we could all stand down and grab some sleep. Condor ferries had been kind enough to upgrade us to the club class, so we were able to sleep, and catch our breath.
Back to Jersey and time to disembark the ferry, the 3 of us getting back into our vehicle, with Russ and Rhys waiting for Andy in the terminal carpark to fulfil his media obligations. Sleep was the biggest draw for me not really being able to string a legible sentence together at this point. We arrived home and it was so nice to be back in my own bed. Reflecting on the last few days – I had left St Helier 7am on Saturday morning, and here I was 9:30am Monday morning, lying in bed having lived a whole lifetime in between those 2 days! Lots to process and lots to be happy about.
|On the ferry..
I’ve always felt that the key to completing these types of challenges is mostly in the mind, and I think most people would agree; I would also go further to say that having a really clear idea of why your doing it, and having an emotional connection to completing it really goes some way to ensuring success. I have done a couple of these types of things, and each time I was fundraising for Jersey Hospice Care, which in itself is a great motivation. I have always had a lot of support from friends during these challenges, notably the Marathon Des Sables, and Round The Rock x 7, both in terms of donations to the charity and giving up their time to help me, by crewing me or helping me fundraise, which adds another layer of motivation to complete the challenge, as it becomes about making sure their efforts aren’t in vain also.
After Round the Rock x7 I struggled a lot. The event took place in August 2014 almost 2 years to the day I set off on this latest challenge. Recovery afterwards was difficult – running 236 miles in 7 days meant that I was tired and my body did not know what to do. I didn’t take enough time to recover thinking I was bullet proof, and started to train for a marathon about a month or so later. For quite a long time I was in a battle against my mental reserves and physical limitations – I needed rest for both but I wasn’t listening. I got slower, I found it hard to be motivated, but was afraid not to train as I didn’t know what I would do if I didn’t run. I was entered in the 2015 Marathon Des Sables so knew this was my intermediate next goal. I completed the marathon I had been training for in October 2014 but it was nowhere near my personal best, and I felt awful the whole way around. So began a cycle of intense pressure placed on myself, trying to push through the dip and come out the other side, constantly comparing my paces, times and sessions against the same a few months previously and slowly destroying my enjoyment and desire to continue running. Winter came and went and I trained, and got ready for MDS 2015, but not really having the edge I had when getting ready for MDS 2013. I did a warm up race in February – The Pilgrims Challenge, which I had done in 2013 also, and my mind-set was completely different to then – complete rather than compete. I didn’t know it then but I was fatigued mentally and physically still, I just thought I needed to keep pushing but what I really needed to do was stop and let everything catch up.
On to Marathon Des Sable 2015 and I knew in my heart of hearts that I wasn’t up for it. I trained hard, but wasn’t anywhere near as excited or in anticipation as 2013. I remember going to Gatwick to meet the other guys I knew, and sitting the night before and discussing the impending race, and not really feeling any buzz. We shipped out to Morrocco, I completed day 1, had an OK day, day 2 was hard going but I got through it and then day 3 wore away any resistance had. By the end of that day I had had enough, and the unthinkable came into my mind in the last few miles of that hellishly hot day – “Why not quit? – You don’t need this, you know tomorrow is the long day and it will be twice as bad as today – You know what’s coming and it ain’t good!”
By the time I had got back to the finish line and the camp I was 80% sure I was going to quit, I was tired, hot, hungry and fed up, like a neglected dog. I went to the admin tent to find out the logistics of getting back to civilisation and to see if it was viable, I slept on it over night and the following morning, just as everyone else in my tent was getting ready to run 60 miles in the desert I decided to call it a day. I was not envious of them at all and to this day know it was the right call.
So in the 2 years since then it has been a real up and down experience; I have struggled with being identified as a runner, when in actuality that title left me at the finish line of Round The Rock 2015 when I ran my last real miles in anger. I then went through a real identity crisis of not knowing who I was and where I fit in the world - I was no longer “Paul the Ultra Runner” – running made me unhappy on so many levels, remembering the times I failed, remembering the times I succeeded and knowing I might not get back to that, and seeing other people I knew succeed where I was struggling.
As with any journey though, I arrived at a place where it began to not hurt so much, I got really into cycling and started to cycle with the local cycle club Equipe Flame Rouge and learnt there was life after running. I liked the challenge of learning to cycle, having had a VO2 max test with Tony Williams and realising I was the cycling equivalent of Eddie The Eagle. I was set up with a winter plan over the winter of 2015-16 and I trained away in my garage listening to bad European and 80’s Thrash metal and slowly got stronger and left a Paul shaped sweat mark on the garage floor of our rented house. I had no self-pressure, no expectations and was enjoying making progress.
The completion of this latest challenge has been real catharsis and has meant that life now feels like an empty canvas again, much like at the outset of this midlife crisis back in April 2011 when I ran the London marathon and got into this whole mess. As life would have it a holiday was scheduled a week later at Club La Santa in Lanzarote, and this was a great full stop to the months of preparation that went into the challenge as well as the challenge itself and a great way to enjoy and celebrate it for Nicola and I. I trained hard in Lanzarote, cycling, running and swimming perhaps with an eye to completing a triathlon or two before the year is out, but mostly enjoying the process rather than having to tick boxes or achieve mileages or time in water,
A little film about the challenge
The toll the swimming training had taken on our weekends was evident and I now look forward to diverting the energy used for it to tending to our jungle like garden. I have set a challenge of a nice lawn that the boys can play football on by next summer. This might be one challenge that might be more than I can manage – you cant control mother nature. More posts on this in the Spring on my new gardening blog – Extreme Ultra Gardening with Paul.