Out of the Comfort Zone – Spine Challenger

11/01/2017

Within anything there can come a time when you wonder “what next”. That can apply to your job, your home, your relationships… we get comfortable where we are, we feel safe… the parameters are pretty much “known”. It can be good to stay here to absorb everything we’ve learnt in life, to enjoy, to rest… but what about if you want “more”… if you want to challenge what you’ve become accustomed to, want to grow… well beyond that “known”… that’s when you go out of your comfort zone.

Change … It’s scary

Out of the comfort zone is not supposed to feel warm and snuggly and known. It’s most likely going to feel uncomfortable, hard… awkward… it’s going to trigger a whole heap of negativity as well. It can trigger self-doubt, anxiety, fear (whether that be emotional, mental, physical)… it makes you question what you’re doing, why you’re doing it… and all of this can mean we can set ourselves up to “fail”… it’s too hard, too scary… the goal might not be achievable… it’s easier to stay where we are… it’s where we feel strong and not weak, safe and not vulnerable…

And so it was that I decided to sign up for another race which would be a challenge. After all, if that’s what clients can do as I sit alongside them as their counsellor on their personal journeys… how can I not challenge myself from time to time, albeit in my own way? Walk my talk as it were… and in this case, it’s going to be quite literally! I’ve run in a bit of heat, and I’ve run (ok there was a lot of walking 😀 ) some long distances over the past few years. It’s been quite a journey. To go out of my “known” zone now, I need to do something I’ve not done before, and aim for something that may not be possible. After all, you can’t know what you don’t know (thank you Tom Jones for that little gem!).

I now find myself facing the very daunting task of setting foot on the start line of The Spine Challenger this weekend – have a look at http://thespinerace.com/msc/.

spine

For those that haven’t heard of this, it’s the first 108 miles of the Pennine Way, in the UK. In winter. It’s the “smaller” aka baby version of the main “Spine Race” which is the full Pennine Way of 268 miles. Now that’s a crazy race!! This should be sane by comparison right? I don’t do cold. I don’t like being cold. I’m one of the first to get the scarf and gloves out and layer up for the commute to work and one of the last to let them go. To willingly go into a cold race where risks include hypothermia (very common), ice burns on skin and frozen corneas (yep one guy was medically removed from the race for this I believe), where the temperatures are going to drop below freezing, where you could be wading or falling waist deep in snow… and do all that over 108 miles… it sounds pretty terrifying. An attritional hike is how one friend described it. And that’s without the sleep deprivation! You get 60 hours to complete the race, and that sounds way more than enough. It’s not. People DNF on the cut-offs due to the terrain, and the risks already mentioned. I’ve heard for the main Spine Race, one winner didn’t sleep for 2-3 days. How is that even possible?

The stats for Spine Challenger are:

Distance: 172km
Ascent: 5637m
Descent: 5636m
Max elevation: 695m (Pen y Ghent)

There is one checkpoint at 73.9km in. You have to run with a pack with a lot of mandatory equipment, which is due to the safety requirements (I’m dreaming of around 6kg at the moment) – haven’t dared weigh my pack properly because I know it’s likely to be much heavier, and am just praying I can get everything in. I may have to sit on it as I did with my suitcase for the dropbag stuff. I’m not even sure if there are a couple of points for water… the streams are going to come in handy, as is the water filter I rapidly bought – there’s a lot of sheep out on those hills.

Did I mention the route marking? There is none. This is a national trail and you have to navigate, map and compass. Handheld GPS is also required, and often needed due to the fact you could be on a whiteout on some of the “hills” and can’t see the occasional flagstones or “trail path”… or pretty much anything to be honest!

Kinder Scout – Peak District South 2 North, Ranger Ultras
Photo credit: Peter Owen

A lot of runners who enter this race have either years of running experience or a background of being outdoors, hiking, mountaineering, love the cold etc… so how does a townie with only a few years of running prepare for something they know nothing about? I take you back to the post about accessing your tool box or “kit list” (which can be found here). So in this case it’s:

Physical:
Training – sessions with my coach and following my training schedule that he writes for me
Testing kit – there’s a lot of kit, and then there’s even more. You need to test what you’re going to be using in as similar conditions as possible
Recce – checking the route you will be running, although it could look a lot different depending on the weather conditions

Pyschological:
Goal – you have to know what you’re aiming for and set a realistic goal
Expectations – modifying these as you learn
Self-awareness – know your weaknesses and strengths and how to minimise/utilise to your best advantage

Knowledge:
Past experience – use what you already have as a foundation
Learn – get help where you feel you have weaknesses

Emotional:
Support – ensure you have the right support around you, from those you learn from to those in your inner circle as it were
Positivity – if you’re around people who bring you down, how will that help you? Be around those who encourage, want the best for you
Drive – call it what you will… the human spirit… a yearning… a chest-thumping feeling in the very heart of your self… that call to adventure… it’s what can carry you through some of the dark parts…

My coach has been fantastic with numerous pep talks and encouragement, and he (alongside others) have also reminded me about the positive skills I have from the past (basic navigation and first aid (should the worst happen) from the Army, albeit a few decades ago), just over 3.5 years of running, 3 stage races… numerous other ultras/challenges… I’ve also finished two Centurion Running 100 milers now so it’s only (ha!) another 6ish miles longer than my longest race. I’m also hoping to run this alongside one of my tentmates from the Marathon des Sables (he couldn’t get time off to do the full one, crazy man!). I have the experience of few severe “hills” from a recent race which I didn’t finish: the CCC (more on that in another post).

The Spine Race also hosts a training weekend so I trotted along to the Peak District for that, where I met some really great people for the first time and got the chance to catch up with another MdS tentmate who’s doing the full race. They had various speakers (Richard Lendon in particular stuck in my head – “it’s not a race” complete with pictures of several full Spine Race starts where he’s flying over the start line!) over the weekend, plus the chance to get out on a nearby training loop, and where they test you on a variety of skills (such as bivvying out, distance & timing, the use of your stove – I think I nearly blew mine up – first time I’d used it *oops*). The coordinator for the Spine safety team (Stu Westfield) also hosts races, training, and guides expeditions, see here for his website. His courses includes Spine specific ones. Due to my nervousness and lack of experience especially around navigation, I wanted to attend these, but unfortunately time and travel didn’t allow. However there’s usually a second option, and in this case I booked Stu for a 1-2-1 over two days up in the Peak District. This was very good and I can’t recommend highly enough for anyone considering doing the same. Usually you’d go away after a day of full on navigation and absorb before going back and putting into practice, but I didn’t have that option. So the second day out, the aim was to move and navigate a lot faster. Which it was. Although compared to most, I’m probably still extremely snail-like 😀 But that, combined with Stu’s everlasting patience, meant that I got the train home feeling more confident, and meant some of the more “negative voices” were being drowned out. Every little helps!

Fast forward two weeks, and there was a race to be used as a “training run” – the Peak District South 2 North, which is a 100k self-navigational race over two days. A local running friend who has also signed up for Challenger had highlighted this to me a while back, so I agreed to run the second day (Dark Peak Challenge) with him as it was on most of the route for Challenger. However two days before the race, he had to pull out due to injury, so I trotted off on my own. Daunting was an understatement. It was an utter and complete wake-up call, plus the weather was so bad that they had to abandon the wilderness sections and we followed just the Pennine Way. Over 13 hours to get through less than 29 miles, lack of visibility, waist deep snow in parts, icy rocks, windy, not much to run on and no lovely flagstones in sight. See the picture above for the beginning up on Kinder! There was also lots of falling over, breaking new trail, sliding down parts on my backside for safety and at one point in the dark we got lost and ended up on the edge of what appeared an abyss… looking down into a sheer drop of blackness. I refused to go down for fear of injury and never getting back up! Thanks to the navigation skills of the guys I was with, we ended up contouring round and got to where we needed to be. When I say huge wake-up call, what I really mean is had I done this before signing up to Challenger… I wouldn’t be hitting the start line on Saturday because I would never have signed up for it! So for anyone who wants a “taster” be sure to try Stu’s race first!

Another tool that was due to be added into my “toolbox” was a recce on course, however the person I was meant to be going with, and who would be driving, dropped out. Extortionate train fares (everyone in the UK would probably nod their heads in agreement at that description)… meant I then had to forgo this, so instead I figured some more nav awareness would be key. Luckily the director of a race I did only a month earlier, and who coincidentally is also on the Spine safety team, lives not too far a distance from me. If you’re in the Essex area you have probably already come across, or heard of, Lindley Chambers of Challenge Running. Lindley came down and helped me to work out how to use my handheld GPS, how to load up the gpx files, and how to plot some of my own basic courses. Highly recommend his tuition, which can be booked via his website. Unfortunately I’ve not had much time to practice with it, but again… every little helps and you have to start somewhere!

And then there’s support: well as I mentioned earlier, I’m planning on doing this challenge with my tentmate from MdS, James (front of picture)… and there will also be two others doing the full Spine (Lee (behind me) and Gwynn (number 501)) so hopefully we will get the chance to catch up pre-race…

329Half of Tent 117, Start Line
Charity stage – 30th Marathon Des Sables 2015
Photo copyright: Michelle Payne

… and The Spine is up North… not too far from where a certain incorrigible person lives, who helped to start me on this whole ultra running lark. Had I not had Helen’s support in Sierra Leone (and encouragement to switch races), who knows whether I’d have moved up to ultras at all! She and her other half are coming down to see us off the start line, and (hopefully) over the finish line. Then there’s all the others who have helped and encouraged along the way, fellow competitors who have emailed and offered advice and help… this race creates a family where everyone wants everyone else to do their best, and do not hesitate to look after each other (and rescue them *eek*) when things get bad!

So now race day approaches rapidly. Reality is kicking in especially when it comes to expectations. Doing the PS2N means I am being very realistic about chasing cut-offs yet again, the wake-up call regarding terrain was much needed however as we are now only days away, there isn’t much more that can be added into the toolbox. The weather is predicted to be snowy, wet, gale force winds, black ice, gnarly, boggy and with plummeting temperatures… aka a nasty start. Winter on the Pennines… why would you expect anything else 😉

For anyone that wants to track some sane (Challenger) and crazy (Full Spine) racers, check out http://spine.opentracking.co.uk/race/ – it starts with the Challenger on Saturday at 0800 hours, and the full Spine on Sunday! I’ve already started carb-loading… or as one friend literally said to me this afternoon when she read my draft post… “Have you ever stopped!”… how rude 😀

When it comes to goals… to challenges…

Dare to dream it, plan it… learn, grow… you never know where one decision may take you… just who you might inspire… who might think that “because she or he can “do it”, so could I”.

Challenger start line… here I come! Please don’t be too cold…

Wishing you a great week ahead 🙂
Michelle

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HARP – Southend’s Homeless Charity, Running and Christmas Meals

30/10/2015

As the nights now draw in and the the colder, darker and wetter weather kicks up another notch, it’s perhaps rather timely that the next Charity I wanted to add to the list on this site, and one that I had a leaflet to hand about, was HARP.

The Charity

harp

HARP is an action-based charity that is located and works in the town where I live, Southend. It aims to help the local homeless by providing essential services and emergency housing and works with people on a long-term basis so that they can hopefully get off the streets and rebuild their lives. They have two charity shops, offer emergency services including a drop-in centre for advice, hot meals and washing facilities and also offer supported accommodation. When someone is feeling hungry, alone, vulnerable… when they have no home and no shelter… when they feel lost and have no hope… HARP is there to help.

From their website, the services they offer:

  1. Emergency Services at the Bradbury Centre: advice, support, a hot meal, help in finding emergency accommodation
  2. Acorn Housing – a supported housing scheme for single people;
  3. HARP Restart – supports ex-offenders who are receiving treatment for substance misuse with not just hostel accommodation but rehabilition programmes;
  4. Learning for Life – provides accommodation and life skills to support those who have difficulty maintaining a tenancy, including support for the long-term homeless who often have very complex needs.

They do amazing, and staggering, work. From their website, the following facts:

  • HARP provided 3,900 food parcels and night packs in 2013, and over 4,500 in 2014/2015;
  • HARP’s volunteers are crucial to keeping the charity afloat. We have approximately 60 volunteers across our sites including our charity retail shops in London Road and Hamlet Court Road (both in Westcliff), including kitchens which are all run by volunteers,
  • All food donated to HARP is used in food parcels, night packs and for meals at The Bradbury Centre, the emergency hostel and our other specialist hostel;

As with any charity, help from the general public is vital to their ongoing work. There are many ways to help, from donating money, donating goods, fundraising and volunteering by donating time.

The Running

And for those runners who visit here, please note that they also have a local annual run… Harp24! This is a 24 hour race for either relay teams or solo runners, of 4.2 mile cross-country loops , and which raises a lot of money for the charity… so the more entrants, the more money it generates to help the charity provide the above services within the Community. The first of these races was in 2012 and it has grown in size every year since… over 300 runners for 2015! I had the pleasure of participating last year as a solo runner, one of only two idiots who ran with a weighted pack… and what a fantastic party atmosphere it had… friendly competition, camping, friends, families, children playing… unfortunately it clashed with my 8in8 marathon challenge this year so I couldn’t go.

Fab race reports available online from a variety of clubs, including one from Flyers Southend which can be read here and one from Rochford Running Club which can be found here, you might even spot me in one of their 2014 photos!

So for those of you who fancy a challenge, why not keep an eye out for next year’s event… enter a team or go solo, run for fun or use it as training for an ultra or stage race… and for the seriously crazy (or normal, depending upon your perspective 😉 ), how about going for a 100+ mileage and becoming a centurion?

And so to the last part of this post’s title…

Christmas Meals!

It’s a little while off, but at the beginning of December, HARP will hopefully be kicking off their yearly Christmas Meals campaign/appeal again, which I participated in last year. I know that there are many appeals at this time of year, but imagine being on the streets with absolutely nothing, which is awful enough during any day… but at Christmas when homes light up with their decorations, trees and families gathering… when wherever you go, you hear about people’s plans for eating, drinking, having fun… belonging, being cared about, being loved, being wanted… what about those who don’t have food or a roof over their heads, those who don’t have any of this, have no-one? HARP aims to provide all who turn up a christmas meal at their Centre and these are funded entirely by donation. A donation doesn’t just provide a meal though… it also gives people access to the Charity’s full range of services which in turn can then ripple out to create new beginnings for them. So, for those who are interested, this is a heads up to please keep an eye out for when that appeal happens.

And lastly,  for those that would like to help this fantastic Charity in any of the ways listed above, please click here for their website and here for their Facebook page, where you can find further information on doing just that.

Wishing you all a wonderful Friday and week ahead 🙂
Michelle


The Marathon des Sables, 30th Edition – How hard can it be? – Part 3

10/05/2015

Fear

Resilience

Longing

STAGE 3 – BAKED ALIVE & SCARY TIMES

By the time Stage 3 dawned we were into a pattern… almost like being institutionalised really… you adapt quickly, but then you have to. This is your life for the week… you expect it to be a bit rough and basic. If you don’t, you’re in for a bit of a shock 😉

We went through the usual start… waiting, Patrick speaking… waiting, speaking, waiting, speaking… the music, the countdown… the start line tape fluttering to the ground as runners spilling out… hundreds swarming around, in front and behind… the helicopters flying sideways… the feeling of wondering just what lies ahead…

Small parts of the days fade from memory as time passes once you are back home… I forget just where I bumped into my tentmate Matt, but we were together at Checkpoint 1… he was having a tougher day on Stage 3… so we shuffled along together along the flats… he’s strong, he’d done countless Ironman events all across the world… and he’s faster than me. I had a lot of time / places to make up so wanted to try and push through the day and therefore decided to try and keep up with him.

You’re in the Sahara, surrounded by sand… it’s hot. You’d think that would be a given but one year there were flashfloods, so it ain’t necessarily so. However we had heat and lots of it. I’ve heard some video clips that say it was in the 40s, and I’m sure it was at points… but Stage 3 was what I called Salt Flats day and this day felt Hot! Hot! Hot! We had a lot of flat runnable terrain including dried up lakes but due to the heat there was total haze in the distance behind us as I looked back at Checkpoint 1… total haze in the distance in front of us… and around us… pretty hard to get a photo while actually running!

Running

There was hardly any breeze to help… and it was this day which coined my phrase of “being baked from the feet up and the head down”. It felt unrelenting and I’ve since heard we hit temps of 50+! One foot in front of the other, keep going, keep pushing… but when you looked up… when you saw where you were… what a feeling… people seem to think and talk about how tough the race is all the time, but there are also lots of great times… of laughter, fun, joy… what’s not to love about exercising, being in nature, being with friends? I obviously hated it…

237

And just because you’re in the middle of a desert, it doesn’t mean that there is only sand… ok it may not be the prettiest scenery to some… but there’s a saying by Henri Matisse: “There are always flowers for those who want to see them“…

flowers

and the smell… I think it may be camomile but at points you get a waft of the most delicious fragrance…

and the birds… listen for the birds… out on this stage I kept hearing birds… apparently they nest on the ground in bushes or plants… I couldn’t see them but could hear them…

I’m glad I did, because those moments kept me going through what came next… I’ll give you one guess… yep, more dunes. Rolling sand dunes… one after the other, after the other, after the other… and boy did you get baked! They weren’t too high but as Matt pointed out later that day… the inclines were deceptive. We were getting in some elevation and it was sapping the energy from our legs. You’d hit the up and feel a breeze… get to the bottom and feel like you were just burning… and up to the top… search for the breeze, suck it in… hit the down, burn… and on and on and on… until it was time for another jebel! Two main ones on this day… I remember one part being particularly narrow… pushing on through… seeing Ian Corless waiting to take photos, telling him Matt was just behind… I kept pushing… until I saw camp in the distance… shuffling through more and more soft sand… amazingly coming in 6 minutes ahead of Matt and feeling rather pleased with myself.

Then we waited for Mike… Mike who had waited with me the day before to help Gwynn… 30 minutes… which became an hour… then an hour and a half… I must have stepped away for a few minutes, I can’t remember where to, but when I returned Mike was back.

But… things weren’t looking good. Mike was laid down, not talking properly… my other tentmates trying to get him to drink water and have something to eat. He needed hydration badly… one of the guys from #116 next door came in and checked him over… someone from the med tent came down to us… they checked him over as well… the verdict? He had to get to the med tent where they could keep an eye on him 😦 They got him up… arm under his shoulders… walked him over there…

Some time later 3 of us wandered over to go see how he was doing, have a chat, try to lift his spirits… that was the intention. It didn’t quite work out like that. The med tent was very busy, there was a queue… we looked in and saw Mike on a camp bed sitting upright and next to him appeared to be an opening… we went round that way instead so we could stand by him… he’d “gone”. Even now… typing this… it’s upsetting. Where are those tissues?

It was scary, it was worrying… and I never want to see him, or anyone else, in that position ever again. He was sitting up yes, but hunched, his hands gripping the sides of the camp bed, rocking slightly back and forth… he didn’t hear us, he didn’t acknowledge us… he didn’t speak… his eyes were totally gone, he was in a faraway land and I was scared… he had his water bottle with him, no drip… how the hell could he drink his water and get hydrated in that state? We stayed for a few moments, tried to hug him, let him know we were there. Nothing. No real response. We collared one of the med guys… they’d been checking him every so often, along with others… we insisted he had a drip. Now!  He needed help, Now! They promised us they’d do so, but insisted we left. They needed the space, had more people coming in. It was awful, just awful leaving him behind… not able to stay, not able to help. We went back some time later… but the docs were busy then helping him too…

Our tent waited. We waited to hear news, waited to see if he’d return… wondered if he would return that night and if so, as time ticked on, how on earth he’d be able to tackle the next day because the next day was the Long Day, the one day everyone fears and worries about out of all the others. It’s the one you hold back at the beginning for, the one you want to reach because it’s the one most likely to break you. The guys got his bed ready, figuring that if he did return tonight, he wouldn’t want to be faffing about sorting his bag and stuff out… he’d need to get into bed and get to sleep.

JOY!

He turned up!!!! It was late, very late by camp standards… around 2200 hours, but he turned up. What a happy happy moment…

He shuffled into his sleeping bag… we tried to sleep….

STAGE 4 – THE LONG DAY aka THE DAY YOU NEVER WANT TO REPEAT!

After what felt like only an hour’s sleep, it was time to get up. I’d probably managed about 2-3 hours proper sleep at the most, not ideal for what lay ahead… just under 92km of terrain to be covered in one hit before reaching the next camp. We checked to see how Mike felt… he was determined to toe that start line. If he ended up not finishing MdS it wouldn’t be through choice… just like Gwynn the day before (who, by the way, came in on Day 3 in position 135 I believe… amazing!)… what determination, to absorb what happens, suck it up… push through… learn from it, use it as a stepping stone… what Resilience…

It was “windy” or breezy as we called it! Every evening in camp we had had sandstorms hit… if you were out of the tent, you’d have to turn your back so as to breathe… pull your buff up around your face, keep your sunglasses on… that way you didn’t get blasted too badly as they swept through… although of course you were still breathing sand, eating sand… absorbing sand… but the morning of Stage 4 it kicked up a notch… the start line inflatables bouncing away… hair whipping the face… I actually naively believed this was a good thing… at least it would keep the temperature down!

The atmosphere too was heightened… front row start today… the faster runners were held back… no Elisabet to give me a reassuring smile 😦 … waiting, waiting, waiting… the nerves building… how tough would it be, how long would we be out for… how the hell are we going to see through the swirling dust and sand… how much slower should I go… have I got enough nutrition snacks to see me through… how will the feet hold out… should I stop and sleep and should I push through… when will the elites pass me… I hurt… my back aches so badly… my shoulders are so sore… my eyes, feet and face feel puffy… will I get more blisters… how tough will be it be… how long can I go for… when will this bloody sand stop swirling… Patrick please stop speaking… oh thank god the music is playing and countdown has started… Oh god it’s starting… can I walk yet?…

All these thoughts flash through in moments… we were released…

And we were going the way we had come in… uphill, on very soft sand that over a thousand competitors had churned up the day and evening before… pointless to waste energy at this point… I walked.

We reached the base of the last jebel from Stage 3, huge boulders of rock… only instead of jumping, climbing and running down them, now it was time to go up. Steep sheer rock on either side… creating a tunnel of heat… I took my time, conscious oh how far there I still had ahead of me… people passed… until eventually I reached the top and paused to absorb the view… only… what if I had to go down the other side the way I had come up 😦 … that had not been a good moment… we didn’t… but…

there was a rope…

it was a long way down…

and it looked steeper looking down than it did once I’d reached the bottom, looking back up…

I took a last glug of water, stashed the bottle onto the top of my front pack… grabbed the rope and turned my back. No way was I going down face first. Inch by inch, step by step… I was conscious others wanted to get past… I stopped so a couple of guys could do so… I reached the last bit of rope and had to turn round… time to dig the heels in. Others were racing down, I tried… but due to how steep it was, picked up too much speed too quickly… I didn’t want to fall and there were lots of rocky bits in the sand and if you didn’t hold back enough you’d take out people below… I later heard someone had come down so fast they had such a choice… potentially take out others or veer towards rocks… he apparently veered towards and somersaulted onto the rocks and was very lucky not to get severely injured, only smashing his mouth in. Shudder.

I reached the bottom and looked back up… my God, I’d actually come down THAT! I took a picture… and as I squinted at it in the sunshine, it didn’t seem to do much justice to just how steep it was…

Stage 4 Jebel descentPhoto copyright: Michelle Payne

I zoomed in and took another… Wow… look at them go… little ants speeding through the sand…

Zoomed in stage 4 jebel descentPhoto copyright: Michelle Payne

I felt rather proud of myself for completing that bit! However, much more distance to get done… time to get going. I’d already been overtaken by a few of the front runners, including a couple of women… but it was at this point Elisabet passed… she’d been First Lady for the first three days but wasn’t going to go all out on Stage 4, rather maintain as consistent a pace as she could on the terrain… as she said, the day was a long race and it wouldn’t do to be “blowing up”.  She waved, paused very briefly and checked how I was doing… another Brit just ahead asked her to have a photo taken with him… she paused with him too, had her photo taken… chatted as she passed people… looked to be enjoying her day… making it look easy! I put my head down and continued… memory fails and most of the day has kind of blurred into wondering which bits happened where… but eventually I reached Checkpoint 4, which was roughly the halfway point so I thought, the light would be dimming and time to get the headtorch out. Now… do I wait and see if there’s anyone I can buddy up with as I’ve done on previous races or go it alone? On the last two races there were a lot less competitors and you were likely to end up with no-one around you, sometimes for quite a time… in another country this could be quite dangerous… but here? As I was debating, I saw Nichola from next door #116… she was part of the Walking with the Wounded team and we’d first met briefly at the Country to Capital race back in January. She was taking a few minutes to get her pack sorted and would then continue… we decided to pair up and I must admit I felt very reassured as I’d been feeling a bit yucky and thought I was getting a stomach bug… as it turns out, I think it’s more a reaction to the heat and stresses of the event, as I’ve had this on every stage race at this point! I dug out some anti nausea tabs… Nichola sorted out a milkshake and we cracked on…

No laser beam to guide us in as darkness fell on the 30th edition… I was rather disappointed about that as I’d been looking forward to experiencing it… instead we were given glow sticks… these were “switched” on (cracked) and pretty soon we were onto sand… and there was the theme that was to accompany us for the rest of the stage. Dunes, dunes, more dunes… dear god how many were there until the next checkpoint? You could have been forgiven for thinking you were hallucinating… by the time we got to checkpoint 5, it seemed there was a party going on… music blaring out, deckchairs, and a bar… a bar that was serving hot sweet tea…

We collected our water and since we had planned on having a little rest to check feet, blisters, snacks… snagged two deckchairs that were miraculously empty… it was also cold and once you stopped you could feel the wet of your clothes where you’d been sweating… no daytime heat to dry you out… I pulled out a top which I’d deliberately put inside the top of my pack to keep warm. Nic got her sleeping bag out… just a little snooze…

Nic - Stage 4 CP5Photo copyright: Michelle Payne

I didn’t dare… I knew if I got mine out and snuggled into it, it would be even harder to get back out there! I got another cup of tea. Patrick was there, dancing with a racer… there was much laughter… people hobbling in and out of the deckchairs… it sucked you in… you could forget where you where… you could have a little sleep… how easy just to drift off, take your time… you’d still have all day tomorrow, would that be so bad? 5 minutes more…

Our planned 30 minutes were up… 13k of sand dunes apparently behind us, surely there wouldn’t be that much more ahead! Another quick cup of warm sweet tea downed… the top put into the pack, shivering… it had gotten much colder… time to move, get the legs going… we left…

Sand, sand, sand, we noticed a couple of guys out to our far right getting quite a pace on… Nic figured that they must know where they’re going, there must be a reason for it. We decided to copy them and were happy to find the ground was a little firmer, probably helped because it hadn’t had hundreds and hundreds of competitors churn it up. Time passed… we made good progress all things considered… my stomach was not good… I dug out some different tablets… my watch had failed… probably because it had taken on quite a bit of water when I was pouring it all over myself during the day… Nic kept reminding me when it was time to take my salt tablets… we reached checkpoint 6 and although we’d planned on a good 20 minute break, pushed through after only 10. Between checkpoints 5 and 7 we hit a bad sandstorm… there was no let up in it. No goggles to protect my eyes… nothing to stop the sand blasting my face… hard to breathe… I changed my buff to cover my head, neck, mouth and nose as best I could… it was a bit harder to breathe but at least I wasn’t sucking as much sand into my lungs… I pulled it as close to my eyes on the side as I could… I turned my head sideways so I could still keep going… but the sand blasted my eyes a lot. I squinted. This was one of the more hellish times of that stage and the night… the terrain was tough to push through… I felt miserable, cold, nauseous and my stomach was cramping… my top was wet with sweat and water from where I’d poured it earlier in the day… I didn’t dare stop and take my pack off to get my top back out… my achilles was screaming at me… I worried what damage I was doing to it on a more permanent basis… the negative thoughts started crowding my mind…

Nic kept talking to me… pulling me away from the place where I wanted to just stop, curl up and sleep on the side of the dune (some people actually did do this I believe)… we made a good team. When I was down, she was up… when she went down, I was up… we balanced each other well and kept each other going! We eventually hit checkpoint 7… the last one before home… what a relief that was. As we came through I remember the person who clipped our water cards ask if I wanted a fresh bottle of water. I had no energy left for conversation and managed to snap out “No”. Are you ok? A short and sharp No in reply. Do  you want to see a doctor? No. Are you pushing straight on? Yes. I wasn’t meaning to be rude, but I had nothing left to give. The world was not a sunny nice happy place, but the dark twisted sandy hell that Patrick had created, which although we had willingly undertook to go through and paid for the privilege of doing so… at this point in time, had led to the question of why the hell were we here? We’d “pondered” this extensively during the course of the night… and by pondered I mean cursed the place, the course, the race, and the director himself… with every descriptive swear word I think either of us have ever heard or used and maybe created a few new ones… well you do have hours of sandy hell to fill as you trudge through… I think we’d have made a navvy blush… but hey, when you are going through that many hours on course, regardless of how fast you are going, when you feel like you are going to throw up for hours on end, endure stomach cramps, dehydration, can’t bear to get any food into you to keep you going and when you are literally falling asleep as you walk… I think you earn the right to swear as much or as badly as you want!

The sun started to rise… we kept seeing lights and hoping it was camp… but no… vehicles on course checking racers were ok or tending to some by the side of the dunes… we kept going, our feet tenderised by the constant pounding like pieces of steak… we caught site of the camp from a long distance and picked up a bit of speed, the ground a little rockier… another crest, and more distance… it felt like a mirage you could never quite reach! See… twisted! Until eventually the finish line… and just in front… oh yes, another little sandy hill… we saw one person go round by the side… others go over it… we looked at each other.. after everything we’d been through, how could we NOT go over it! It had to be done… we were not going to wuss out at this point. Hell no! We pushed over it and then trotted over the finish line.. the relief immense as we hugged each other. Long Stage done in one go!

I’ve done a few races which are longer than this stage… I’ve been out on course for longer.. but never have I felt so absolutely destroyed during a race as I felt during that one stage… 21 hours 42 minutes and 49 seconds…

I reached the tent… my tentmates awake… all back except Mike… I dumped my stuff, had a protein drink, inflated my thermarest, got out of my wet cold clothes, laid down… I must have instantly fallen asleep… for all of an hour. I got up, pottered around… a couple of hours later and Mike returned! We had a full tent! Now this may not sound such a big thing, but it is… and given everything Mike had gone through on Stage 3… to then hit the start line after being so ill, to push through such an awful evil hell of a Long Stage and without stopping for sleep!… stubborn, resilient, crazy, admirable and strong. Someone I am very proud to call friend!

I managed another hour’s sleep. Everyone pottered during the day, I tried to wash some of my running gear… we all pinned our clothes up and our tent looked like a laundry… at least I didn’t wander into someone else’s tent during this day, something I’d do unwitting every single day as they all look the same! Eventually the last racers came in… everyone congregated around the finish line and clapped them in. The hours seemed to pass slowly but before you knew it, another stunning sunset, time to eat and get to sleep for the next stage ahead. Just where does the time go in Patrick land?

Holiday 2015 - Morocco - Marathon des Sables 30th Edition 087Photo copyright: Michelle Payne

STAGE 5 – TAKING IT EASY

Marathon day dawned and I wondered if I’d ever be able to see again properly… due to all that lovely sand blasting, I could barely open one of my eyes. They were both swollen badly, but one side was much worse. I knew it was bad but it wasn’t until I got home and saw some photos that I realied quite how bad I looked… as if I’d been in a boxing ring, had gone 10 rounds and lost badly! Thank God my glasses covered everything up!

Anyway… the last day for competitive purposes… the faster runners being held back once more. We were on the front row… myself, Matt, Gwynn and James… Mike behind us… the other 3 in the fast group… it still took a while before we were released as usual… but once that tape was lowered, James sprinted off… leading the MdS… how could I not do the same?

jamesleadingPhoto copyright: James Penson

The last day… I may never be here again, may never race across the Sahara or hear the Highway to Hell again in such a venue… never experience the whirr of the helicopter blades as it passes sideways as runners stream across the sand… that little sprint didn’t last long for me… I slowed… and continued slowing until I walked. I felt surprisingly ok. The legs were like lead but to be expected… the achilles hurting… to be expected… I walked, or rather fast marched pretty much the rest of that day. Not because I couldn’t run… not because I didn’t want to place higher or make any places back up… I chose to walk because I wanted the day to last longer. It sounds crazy after the Long Stage, after calling Patrick Bauer every name under the sun (and then some 🙂 ), but our tent had agreed to walk the Charity Stage together so this would be my last day, just for me. I wanted to remember it as much as possible, to choose to enjoy it… to look back on what the journey to MdS had encompassed… what I had experienced in this wild and wonderful place. Don’t you find that too often when we look back, we remember the stuff we feel we “should” have done rather than acknowledge what we have achieved and experienced? What if we lived our lives going forwards with such acknowledgement, such gratitude at the experiences we have been lucky to have… to let them change us, let them help us to grow and become… “more”?

There was heat, there was sand… there were smiles and brief chats with other competitors… there was a herd of camels… I never knew they made the sound they did en masse… amazing! One checkpoint, then two… then the final hill and a little shuffle… I passed someone who looked like Patrick but felt confused… wasn’t he at the finish line to give me my medal, a hug and kiss on each cheek? The finish line appeared… I hung back… I didn’t want it to be over! There was then a gap before me and the finish line… I ran it… how could you not? Done. Finished. No Patrick Bauer… it had been him on the hill… instead 3 assistants handing out the medals… to be honest I felt a little disappointed after watching all the youtube videos and marketing about that… I gather it’s so there isn’t a queue building up… understandable, but still disappointing.

I checked my time, just over 7 hours… and I think ranking of 701 of the day… amazingly, even though I’d dropped so much on Stage 2, I had managed to gain back most of those places – overall position 744, not that it really mattered. Unless you’re in the elite category, who really cares what position you get… most of the time people just want to know if you managed to finish it!

The rest of the evening passed in a blur as we still had to go through the usual daily rituals, although I did get to see Elisabet crowned Ladies winner that night… she’d won every day, total grand slam! Nice trophy too 🙂

STAGE 6 – CHARITY STAGE

Everyone in blue… tents walking together… the “race” aspect finished and this was much more about unity and highlighting the charity Unicef… although our tent had started together, Elisabet and I ended up walking a little faster, chatting about everything we’d been through over the week, what we had planned for when we got home… the messages we’d received from friends and loved ones at home… support from our local running club (we both run under affiliated club Leigh on Sea Striders)… and then there it was… the last finish line… we paused before it and took some photos, saying hi and chatting to others… and then it was straight onto the coaches… another 6 hours back to town, to the hotel… to clean running water… to a proper bed!

POST RACE

You certainly appreciate the little things when you’ve been through such an extreme experience… food that is not rehydrated or in a bar! Drinks, fresh fruit… to sleep in a bed… toilets, a shower… shampoo… to be able to brush your hair! Proper sleep…

The last day was spent… queuing. Well in part… you had to go and pick up your finishers t-shirt, which was way too small and fits a teddy bear… I jest not… no gym bragging rights for most competitors this year 😦 check out any goodies/memorabilia you wanted to buy from the “store” they had going on in the same room… Elisabet was also already in demand for an interview so I collected her stuff and her trophy! A few people wanted to hold it and touch it… I was petrified I’d drop it, damage it or break it…

More food, celebratory drinks… the UK gathering/party… we found an appropriate spot afterwards for Elisabet…

Queen of the DesertPhoto copyright: Matthew Cranham

and then time for the journey home. Away from the heat, the sand… backpack training… rehydrated food… but also away from your tent, your friends… from an experience that changes you… that leaves you with a longing… for the new family you have created and spent time with… for the heat (especially when you return to the cold UK)… for being able to leave the everyday worries and routine behind for something much simpler… for the opportunity to meet like-minded people, for the running, the scenery, the challenges, the happy, the sad, the exciting, the scary…

and a feeling of gratitude for being able to have the experience of all those things… so to end this post, I will simply say thank you to all those who have supported me along the way to this event and during it… and especially to:

my friend and coach Rich Condon for the past 2 years, for keeping me going, getting me there, for believing in me…

my friend and sports therapist Sandy Pass for keeping my legs and heart in one piece, for having my back…

and to Tent #117… simply… the best x

Tent 117Photo copyright: Michelle Payne

Now… as for my next little challenge… just how hard could it be?

© May 2015 Michelle Payne

 


SL Marathon 2013 – Update – Street Child Project 3

06/07/2013

So a brief post about the third and last project… after all, we still had a race to run, had landed only a couple of days before and the majority of us were due to then return home in a couple more days… talk about packing a lot in!

This visit was firstly to the main Project Centre in Makeni:

Sierra Leone 2013 070

then disbursing into smaller groups and actually going out into the local community and visiting people who had their own businesses, thanks to help from Street Child. What is important to note here, is that Street Child supports, assists and teaches everyday people how to create a sustainable business, instigate small savings plans at the same time as reintegrating the street children back into those families… until a certain point when the Charity can then step back and those helped have reached a stage of self-sufficiency. Street Child are helping people help themselves and once that is done, they gone on and help others… such influence rippling out as I mentioned before… which will positively affect generations to come!

Sierra Leone 2013 075

Here, we’d gone out to visit two businesses: the one above featuring a mad marathoner (more on her in later posts – bad influence, bad! *grin*) was with a local lady who collected firewood and sold it on, who was helping support her family, and her sister’s family if I remember correctly, and keep the girls in education and while as shy as a lot of the other kids, the two little ladies above chatted to us about what their lives were like and how proud they were of their family for helping each other. An ethos a lot of people could do with adopting!

We then headed back to the Project Centre where some surf shorts were handed out: one of the marathoners was from New Zealand and had brought a load over, and I’ve never seen anything like it. The street kids are allowed into the Centre but obviously the Centre is not there to feed the town’s children, nor would it be able to. But they do what they can, with what they have. So when you have kids with nothing, absolutely nothing… and boxes of shorts are being handed out… there’s gonna be a melee… it was actually a heartbreaking sight… to see children so desperate for a pair of shorts that was likely too big for them… and how proud they were of having something new and clean to wear… it’s not the same as watching it on a tv, reading about it in a paper… you’re totally disassociated from the experience that way… it’s not “real”… here, to see it, in front of your own eyes, mere steps away… heartbreaking!

And then lunch… Street Child did a fantastic job of catering for us… the food was included in the package price… no-one got sick… well Reece did have some salad on the last day and was very queasy on the plane home, but then again that could have been his Freetown hotel… anyway… lunch! We lined up, got our food, found somewhere to sit and ate. Surrounded by kids that hadn’t probably eaten what we would call “proper” meals for… well, God only knows! And they came and sat by us, behind us… and still I didn’t twig!

Naive or what!

One of the guys didn’t finish his lunch so passed his plate back to the kids… who promptly grabbed it off him (with thank you’s I hasten to add)… and of course when I finished and had food left on my plate, I didn’t pass it back quickly enough… with the consequence I was mobbed and food went everywhere… mainly over me! Sure there’s some photos out there somewhere of me brushing rather a lot of food off me… and what a waste, because it meant it ended up scattered. So when you remember being told as a kid to eat all your food because some kid in the world would die for what you’re throwing away… it’s true. I’ve been there, I’ve seen it… and it is not pleasant to witness.

Next post up… the running part of the trip!

Links:

Street Child

Sierra Leone Marathon 2013

© 2013 Michelle Payne


SL Marathon 2013 – Update – Week 6 – The week Hell decided to visit #SLM13

31/03/2013

Where has the time gone?  I meant to get this posted last week but time and circumstances have conspired to pile things up to such a degree my to-do list has it’s own to-do list!  Not good!

So five weeks in and the initial euphoria was starting to wear off as I mentioned previously, and as is often the case, when you’re experiencing difficulties with one thing, then many others will very often appear to turn to crap as well… sod’s law or whatever you want to call it, this was the week that Hell decided to come calling at my door… and what a doozy it was… I don’t think one area of life was unaffected!

And then, just to add to the delights of the week, I had to slightly extend my longer run… 70 minutes along the freezing seafront… when it was attempting to rain/sleet/snow… into a nasty headwind that not only saw my baseball cap flying off (gave up on that in the end) and freeze my hands within 5 minutes but one that meant I couldn’t actually breathe when facing straight ahead.  35 minutes of that before I could turn around… there was a saving grace however… the weather was so crap and cold that it meant there was virtually no-one out… and therefore no-one to see the grimaces I pulled, the language I muttered… or the colour I turned!

It’s at times like these that finding positivity and maintaining focus is especially hard… time to be pleased with the small gains… health results that came back positive (or rather negative LOL), college work that went well, loving supportive friends and family, a fantastic personal trainer who on seeing the state of me on the Wednesday not only boosted my confidence but took the time out to give me a hug… and even of being grateful that I got to finish the cholera vaccinations (seriously… it does not taste like raspberry Andrews salts like they tell you it will!) which had been sitting in my fridge for a week. Probably a very good deterrent if anyone had wanted to raid it for chocolate…

cholera-fridge

Training for Week 6 included:

***lunchtime treadmill run of 30 minutes x 1

***PT session with Activate Plus PT x 1

***lunchtime outdoor run of 40 minutes x 1

***lunchtime treadmill run of 40 minutes x 1

***weekend run of 70 minutes x 1

***2 hour karate session

Total overall running: 19.45 miles / 180 minutes (3 hours)

Unfortunately the yoga had to get sacrificed yet again due to needing to leave the office early to get to the hospital, and much as I would have loved to do it afterwards, that was Tuesday and the worst day of Hell week and I had to go straight from hospital to college! A very long and hard day indeed. My Friday treadmill pace also was a bit slower but I put that down to the Cholera as I had the same reaction as the previous week… it’s obviously not something that agrees with me 😀

Overall, I was pleased with how the running progressed, how my hip handled the increase in exercise… and it held a valuable lesson in learning where and who I do and can learn on when I need some extra motivation to get me through the tougher times and just where my psychological challenges lie! I wonder how many other runners encounter weeks like this…

But it got done which is what matters… so to quote one of my Texan twitter friends (who happens to be in sports himself)… “I GOT THIS” 😉

Links:

My fundraising page: MichellePayne13

Street Child

Sierra Leone Marathon 2013

© 2013 Michelle Payne


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