Spine Challenger 2017 – Scary, Sublime and Surreal

23/01/2017

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I wanted a challenge… to be taken out of my comfort zone… and boy did the Montane Spine Challenger do just that! Like most things, a pivotal point in your life can seem very innocuous to start with, and I have a feeling that this race was one for me… the full effects not yet known or even felt. Writing this up a week later, some parts have slipped into the murky depths of memory and some are still very much at the forefront, much like any major event we look forward to, plan and then experience. So how did it go and just what kind of challenge did the event provide?

I travelled up two days beforehand as, given the propensity of our railway system for delays, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t late for any kit checks and race briefings, plus I wanted to attend the pre-race Masterclass held by Ranger Ultras. I also had masses of luggage with me. I duly arrived in Castleton where I was staying (a 15 minute drive from Edale), sorted out lots of kit and then my friends arrived. They had originally been coming over just for dinner as a chance to catch up as we live quite some distance from each other, but wanted to see us off over the start line, so changed their plans to stay and do that! A fantastic emotional and mental boost to start with 🙂

Friday morning dawned and once I’d managed to re-arrange and sort most of my stuff which had, as usual, exploded throughout the whole room, we had a wander about and some pre-race celebratory cake. Now I hadn’t realised quite how far Edale was at this point, so a huge thanks to Helen and Len for ferrying me about! We drove over to Edale, they dropped me off for race registration and kit check while they went to check into a different venue for their second night. Here I caught up with with Harriet, Karl and Kate whom I had originally met at the Spine training weekend: Harriet had passed on some extremely helpful tips for kit over the past couple of months so I passed over some homemade cookies for them to have at the halfway point. I had originally thought of leaving a “positive message” for them at Hebden CP1 (Harriet and Kate were running Challenger, while Karl was crewing them) but given how people can react differently on races, changed it to cookies. I figured food is always good! I registered for the race and got my number (276) and then straight to kit check where of course I had to be the one to draw out the lucky dip number for a FULL check. Cue another explosion across the floor. Luckily I’d brought everything with me… plus a few extras!  Then it was back to Castleton to dump the kit off, have a cup of tea and back over to Edale for the race briefing and then the masterclass. That finished, a few steps down the road to the traditional Spine venue of the Ramblers Inn to meet up with everyone and grab some dinner. It’s amazing how quickly the time goes. En route I spied James who had just arrived and let him know where we were. Food, a quick catch up and hello to a few people… it was then back over to Castleton again and time to make sure everything was ready for the big day. The nerves now kicked in. I had already triple-checked everything before I left home. However after chatting to a few people at the pub, I decided to pack my yaktrax instead of Kahtoola spikes as they were supposedly more suitable if Kinder was especially icy or snowy, but I couldn’t get them in. Cue yet another major explosion across the room (I’m sensing a pattern here 🙂 ) as I spent the next hour re-arranging my whole pack and ending up with the sleeping bag, liner & bivvy bag on the outside. This doesn’t sound very “major” but I was concerned given the balance of the pack and that I hadn’t trained with it lopsided in weight. Still… it was the only solution I could find and by midnight I just wanted to go to sleep.

Race morning dawned and on too little sleep (I’d managed about 4-5 hours), it was time to get up, get out the door and over to Edale. Helen and Len were lifesavers once again and the pub (Castle Inn) had very kindly agreed to let them check us out so we were able to leave all our other luggage behind, which they came back and collected for us. The sun was coming up, trackers were placed on the runners… everyone seemed to be smiling… and off we all trotted to the start line.

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Photo by Racing Snakes

Sometimes it’s a good thing you don’t know what lies ahead for you!

The countdown… the cheers… trotting over the start line… James reminding me to not dash off too quickly… when we signed up, we had agreed to run this together. We were tentmates (#117) at the Marathon des Sables so I knew he was solid, someone you could absolutely and utterly trust… that if he said he would stay with you, he would… practical, kind and also generally a very positive person. Basically a great and fun big brother!

It felt good on the way to Jacobs Ladder, although once we hit there, the climb up felt laborious as I’m so slow on hills… but it got done and wasn’t too icy, and then onto Kinder… my stomach dropped… pretty much a white-out… howling stinging wind… head down, goggles on… too much a repeat of the Peak South 2 North race… when we encounter similar circumstances we’ve already experienced it can trigger not just the memories of what has previously happened, but also the mental thoughts… and straight away I was worrying about whether we’d be breaking trail, falling into bogs and encountering waist deep snow.

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Photo by Racing Snakes

The first challenge of the race had appeared much earlier than I had expected! Time to acknowledge that, accept it and mentally tell myself it’s just a thought and we don’t know what’s around the corner. The head game for this type of race is vital to finishing. We were trotting behind some others and that was the first mistake… don’t rely on those in front knowing where they’re going! We went about 400m off course, so then had to realise that and make our way back, with most, if not all, having gone past us. Back on track it was push on through until eventually we came to the roadhead at Snakes Pass. Luckily the white-out had eased and the snow wasn’t as deep as the previous race, so whilst we weren’t running as such, the path was easier to be seen and we were a lot quicker than I’d been last time. There were also some crazy people at the roadhead… grinning and waving… cameras in hand… I couldn’t work out who they were to start with until we got nearer… Helen and Len had decided to stop by and cheer us on… another fab boost! A quick top-up of water and off towards Bleaklow. More snow, lots of trudging although others were around so it didn’t seem too isolated. We got up to the top of Bleaklow Head although it looked different due to better weather this time, and once I realised where we were, knew we were on the descent to Torside Reservoir. A good point as we were approaching 16 miles in with Crowden on the other side. Now the descent last time had been very treacherous and technical, with lots of ice on the rocks, so this time I figured I’d try to actually run or shuffle down it. Big mistake number 2! The rocks were not runnable for me, so I opted for the grass at the side… which was very wet… and slippery.  Cue a bit of a scary fall… where I actually somersaulted over a couple of times! Once I’d come to a stop I was a bit winded and couldn’t move for a few minutes. James checked to make sure I was ok but I’m pretty sure I heard a laugh or two once he knew I wasn’t injured! Luckily no major issues and just some aches as a result. Lesson number 2… don’t drop your awareness and get ahead of yourself… pride cometh before a fall, literally!

After checking in with the roadhead safety team, and a whinge about the fall… we also saw Helen and Len here, with Helen carrying a goody bag of snacks in case we needed them and both offering hugs.  How wonderful to have people come all the way out and cheer you en route… the value of emotional support from others cannot be underestimated! It was time to cross over the reservoir, through some woody areas and get a shuffle on towards Wessenden. I remember telling James about seeing some wildlife here on the last race and remembering which turning to take! We then came across Matt and Ellie from Summit Films, who mentioned something along the lines of being 4th lady I think, which was a surprise, and certainly not a position I expected to stay at. I put it to the back of my head, because you don’t want to let anything derail you from your plan. Trying to push and catch others up wouldn’t be good for the main goal here, which was just to achieve a finish. Nothing much stands out in memory now for this part, apart from it being daylight and that much easier to see where we were going compared to the PS2N race and where I had got lost in the dark! We followed the correct route and just before we started the descent towards the A635, saw the most incredible colours of the sunset… absolutely stunning. We paused to take it in… this is part of the reward…

We reached the roadhead and checked in with the safety team, topped up water… 27 miles done… it felt a lot longer. Time to get a shuffle on and get down to the turning. We also met up with Paul Bridge as we shuffled around the reservoir , who I’d run (trudged) part of the PS2N with. Now the memory is rather faded but one thing that stands out is the awesome orange moon! Simply spectactular. Words cannot do it justice, and it was one of the highlights of this event! I remember eventually getting to Standedge I think it was, although I more remember a sign saying Harrop where the safety team were that we had to check in with. I topped up my water and was given a hot coffee and then heard a very familiar northern voice… Matt, another of our tentmates from MdS had driven out with his daughter to come and cheer us on! He’d also brought hot chicken noodle soup and lots of snacks!  What a huge boost at nighttime!! He wouldn’t let the puppy out for a cuddle though 🙂 We spent about 15 minutes here, but as James said, it was well worth it. Having something hot to eat, hugs, chatting… well you don’t want to lose too much time on races with chatting, but at challenges like these, having a friend make the effort to come and see you, bolster you emotionally… it’s priceless. Standing around however can make you cold, and my hands were getting freezing. Just as we were about to set off again, I made the (very wise as it turned out) decision to pause so that James could get my mitts out of my pack before the next leg. We said our goodbyes and turned towards the darkness of the moor.

The first full evening… cold temperatures and no clear path… the moor felt very creepy and I have, thankfully, shelved most of this bit to as far into my distant memory as possible. I think this was where it was wet, wet, wet… boggy ground… basically lots of streams that you tried not to have to walk through else you’d kill your feet. I lost sight of James for a short while (he had to speed up so as not to get cold) and every bit I could see looked the same as the rest. Trying to hop onto bits of grass but sinking into yet more water. Icy parts too so you couldn’t rush too much. As I’m not used to the terrain this meant I slowed down even more. Fear kicked in big time here and I could feel signs of anxiety start to rise: racing heart, dry mouth and the feeling of sheer panic… I felt a complete and utter wuss, and yelled out to James who unfortunately couldn’t hear me. So this was the next mental challenge… how do you cope when you want to dissolve into a heap of fear? Thanking my CBT training I paused, got some sugary snacks out, swilled some water round and took stock of the situation logically. I wasn’t on my own and knew James would be waiting. I had my GPS which I got out and checked… I’d veered a bit too much right… this wasn’t forever and it would end… plus I had all the safety gear I needed in an emergency. Suck it up and get moving! Literally a few minutes later I found some slabs as I moved towards the left! And then shortly afterwards caught up with James. Eventually the horror disappeared in our rear view and we made our way to Stoodley Pike… chatting to other racers as they passed by… I think it was around here (if not before) that the first MRT Challenger passed us even though he’d started 4 hours after us! My apologies to the other runner that was with us at this point but I’ve forgotten who it was… as we came off Stoodley we started to go too far left and had to hack back up to get on track… this was now on the “home run” to Checkpoint 1… the only major one we had in the whole 108 miles where we could access our drop bags, have a change of clothes and also hot food indoors! As for thoughts of running on the lovely descent through Callas Woods… unfortunately that had to be shelved due to the amount of ice underfoot… skidding and sliding instead felt to be the norm. Still we hit the bottom and then started on the up to CP1… only we seemed to get a bit lost, and I didn’t recognise the “main” type of road we were supposed to be on… checking the GPS it seemed we were following a parallel road and finally ended up on the correct one, but a bit further along… a nice little shuffle down to the turning and then carefully going over the very slippery, boggy, muddy route into checkpoint.

Volunteers… the help you get from these wonderful people cannot be appreciated enough… races would not exist with them! At Hebden when they  know you’re approaching, someone will be already waiting outside for you with your drop bag… the rule here is get out of the wind into the entrance, take off your disgustingly wet, boggy, mud covered, stinky shoes (and everyone’s will be!)… put your poles in a corner and then shuffle indoors. Kit bags go into the far end room where they stay! No going into the kitchen… make your way to the racers room on the other side where some very smiley, happy, friendly volunteers offer you hot cups of tea, coffee and juice… profer hot food and make sure there are plenty of snacks. Turnaround time is crucial on a race… as is knowing what will benefit you the most. James went straight in, had food and went to crash. We landed around 0100 hours and agreed to set the alarm for 0430. Remember all those kit explosions… it kinda happened here too 🙂 … instead of sleeping, I chose to have a hot shower and a complete change of kit and was glad I did: I felt a huge boost mentally, physically and emotionally. Time then to grab hot food, several hot drinks and then try for sleep.  As I was so tired, when I tried to sort my kit out ready for getting started on the second leg, I could not think coherently and ending up faffing. Recognising this I figured there was no point wasting more time, so grabbed the spare sleeping from my drop bag and headed to my assigned dorm. Thankfully no snorers!!! Eye mask on, ear plugs in. I managed about 20 minutes sleep before someone’s alarm at 0400 woke me.  I laid there for 10 minutes, debating the benefits of trying to get another 10 minutes sleep but gave up, telling myself I’d had just under 2 hours “rest” even though I hadn’t really slept. I also knew James would be up and ready quickly so got up in order to sort my kit bag out, re-tape my feet and have more hot drinks. We were out the door at 0505 hours.

Now I’m not sure how it happened but we got lost… before we’d even made it out of the climb to the road! Somehow we ended up higher and following a fence and then through a field until we found a road. Checking the GPS and then navigating back, we had gone way too far to the left and had then had to turn back before finally reaching the turn we’d originally taken to descend to the checkpoint. I reckon we lost about half an hour easily here. And it was cold. And raining. Not a great start to the second leg. Off we trotted only to miss the turn back onto the Pennine Way… were we really that tired? Probably!

Another moor… another cold and yucky wet wet wet boggy foggy dreary cold and icy hell… oh how I longed for the warmth of Hebden… I think it was here that we bumped into Paul again… and I think it was on this section that I took my second nasty fall, only this time there was no laughing or as James described it… not so dramatic! There were slabs on and off across this section and most were covered in ice… some moved… a lot were underwater… I stepped on one I thought was there to find it didn’t exist… my right foot plunged straight down into knee-height water, my shoes filling with water (thank god for knee high waterproof socks)… with the result that I slipped and instead of my left foot landing on the next concrete slab, my left knee did, with my whole body falling fully flat! Pain flooded through my leg and I can’t remember the last time I just wanted to sit, cry and give up. Shaking, the lads helped me up and after taking a minute to get my mental state back together, we carried on. I was beginning to really hate the wet moors areas!

However, it was now daytime and that meant energy levels rose a fair bit. Onto Cowling and in and out of the safety team check. I was very happy to see these as they carried some water which we could top up with. I originally expected none to be available so had packed a Sawyer filter to be on the safe side. Well those streams have sheep nearby… can’t be too careful regardless of how much peat there is to filter stuff out of it! We came out of the Cowling point and headed downhill… to another one of the best points in the race! Our lovely friend Mike (who was also an MdS tentmate) had driven over with his wife Zoe to come along and give us a hug. They’d also brought loads of snacks! As James said, it almost felt as if we were supported with a crew. We must have stopped for about 10-15 minutes and by the time we left, our emotional “tanks” had been filled up 🙂 Happy days! Thank you guys!!!

cowlingPhoto by Mike Fetherstone

It was then onto Lothersdale where the fabulous Hare & Hounds pub had put plastic sheeting downstairs on their carpet so that Spiners could pop in and get drinks and food if they wanted. They were also kind enough to allow me to use their facilities upstairs. Thanks folks, much appreciated.  We were still with Paul who was being crewed, so we stopped when he met Ste who then very kindly gave us some cuppa soup… before we all pushed on to Gargrave together. Paul had mentioned that there was a fish and chip shop so as we got nearer and nearer, I didn’t eat as much as I should have as I planned on a hot meal there. I remember passing Maxine when we were beside the canal who looked to be in really good spirits, albeit she was having problems with her feet… she had one spare pair of socks but was holding onto them as it was boggy going up to Malham. I had been planning on changing my socks too, but after hearing that, decided to push on and change once we got that far. Anyway, we reached Gargrave to find Helen and Len had come out again. Helen has since said she was really worried about me because I was shaking so much. It had gotten much warmer on the second day, so I didn’t have my insulating layer on. This also meant I had a layer less to protect my shoulders from the pack weight… so much so that I was in agony just walking and they had to help me off with it. We walked around trying to find the fish & chip shop, forgetting it was a Sunday evening and therefore closed! My heart sank. I’d been so looking forward to that. Food is energy and hot food even more so going into night hours when you’re so cold. Anyway, nothing to do but put the insulating layer on, get sorted and get going. We had also decided by this point that we needed to try and get some sleep so would push to Malham and bivvy out before heading for the CP1.5 at Malham Tarn. Now while we had encountered lots of muddy soul sucking squelching mud that was more than ankle deep (the wet conditions and rain had been more than helpful in this regard)… what was to come was absolutely draining. No wonder Maxine hadn’t wanted to change her socks! It was a different version of hell, horror… extremely slow going… how anyone can run in that stuff is beyond me! It felt to take forever… and probably did!

Malham arrived like a beacon of life… Paul directed us to where we could bivvy and be out of the rain… not wanting to waste time, we got our stuff out and settled down to sleep… with a local dog nearby howling. A lot! The rain had soaked through my thermarest so I couldn’t put it inside my bivvy, which I think contributed to a lack of heat. There was a bit of a breeze and it felt really cold, so I got my little hotties hand warmers out of my gloves and stuck them in the sleeping bag with me, wrapping everything up but one small gap to breath through. About two hours later, and after what must have been only 20-40 minutes of sleep max, it was time to get up, have some food and get going again. There were some toilet facilities there with a mirror… I don’t know if it was as a result of side winds during the previous section, or whether it was where the cold had got into the bivvy bag, but my right eye had swelled up very badly… I looked like I’d been punched 😦 … nothing to be done but ignore it.. time to change socks, layers were put on, water was heated (my coleman gas wasn’t brilliant but did work), some rehydrated food eaten and then we were off… homeward bound! We reached the CP1.5 where the lovely John Bamber greeted us and gave us a very welcome hot drink, checking to make sure we were all ok. Two guys came in while we were there, but unfortunately they weren’t going any further. It was lovely and cosy indoors but we needed to crack on… spirits were high as we went through a wooded area… and then it was onto Malham Tarn… climbing, steps… going up, limestone… hard on feet that had already been tenderised like pieces of steak… darkness, fog… I pretty much followed Paul and James for this section… how on earth they made the navigation look so easy is beyond me. Had I been on my own I would have taken ages and been micro-navving with my GPS! Next up was Fountains Fell which seemed to go on forever. Luckily although it was cold, it wasn’t icy enough that I needed my spikes especially as I’d forgotten to swap out my yaktrax for microspikes! And then it was onto the horror of all horrors. I really don’t do heights, have a fear of them… I get physically shaky and nauseous… so I don’t usually climb up mountains! Or big hills! Ladders either if I can help it. I had also wondered what John Bamber meant when he’d asked if I’d been up Pen-y-Ghent before. He must have been either inwardly chuckling or thinking what a daft fool when I said No!

Now I have no idea what it looks in the daytime… but in the nighttime all I could see what a dark outline to my left and right, big rocks to be used as some kind of steps going straight up… and drops to either side that would mean you die. Paul went up ahead, and I think there were a couple of others around too… James was very kind and stayed behind me, encouraging me each step of the way like you would a child. At one point it felt so steep I couldn’t even lever myself up on my feet, but ended up with both knees on a slab thinking I was going to throw up. However… what are the options when you get stuck? Go back down, quit and whimper and wait for hours for someone to rescue you… or suck it up, and (very very slowly) follow someone’s direction, someone who you trust so you just keep going? I obviously chose the latter, and eventually got to the top. I’m very glad that James didn’t tell me he’s taken his youngest up there in the daytime… I’d have felt even more of a wimp! I’m also very very glad we didn’t have bad weather… apparently previous Spine editions have had 50mph winds gusting and black ice on the rocks while they’ve scrambled over. Was the horror now over? Nope… now we had to navigate down without falling down the side! By this time it was Monday morning, but we were high up and there was so much fog and mist it still felt like night! Eventually we started on the descent, and at one point we almost got lost again with the lads ending up climbing over a wall… I think it was on this section but my memory could be wrong… and I went back to the road I thought we should take… to see Pavel and Eugenie pass by… they’d set off 24 hours after us and were going to be going all week. Amazing!  Eventually we descended towards Horton… and there was some really good terrain that would normally be runnable… however at this point, on less than an hour’s sleep it was more a stumble. I’ve never really had hallucinations before, but kept thinking I was seeing Spine support crew because there appeared to be a moving blue object… until we almost reached said blue item to find it was a huge wheelie bin 😀 … good job it was then that we came upon the Pen-y-Ghent cafe! Absolute stars… hot bacon, fried egg and ketchup sandwiches and mugs of tea ordered, nothing has ever tasted so good… I also needed to change. I had expected it to be cold going up Fountains Fell and Pen-y-Ghent so had added a pair of RAB polartec powerstretch over my leggings and under my waterproofs. This had meant that although I was warm enough in the night on the climb, for the rest of the time I had over-heated… given the gaiters and shoes were clad in mud too, it was rather a messy change over… luckily the toilet facilities in the car park had running water to wash hands before eating!

Short of a disaster, we knew we had enough time to make it although that didn’t mean loitering. It also didn’t mean going over the wrong bridge which I very nearly did, much to the amusement of Paul and James! More ascent, more fields… and eventually onto the Cam Road. Paul had dropped back a little bit and seemed to be wanting to have a moment to himself, so I hurried to catch James up. We came to the turn off and saw Karl there who said Harriet was about an hour behind. We trundled on, the road seemingly never ending… and saw a runner disappear off towards the muddy hill… we followed but there was no clear path. I then looked back and saw Harriet up above!

We must have been about 1.5 to 2 miles away from the end at this point, so James gave me a verbal kick up the backside and told me to run… have to work for it, we haven’t come this far to let anyone pass by now! Well… to coin a phrase, I pegged it down that hill like I never believed I could. It felt to be a 6.30 min mile pace (although was probably more like 8)… and my sleeping bag stuff had come off from my pack. James re-attached it but once we started running again, it came off again. Nothing for it but to tuck it into the crook of my arm, move my poles into that hand and then try to balance with my other hand as we bounced down the muddy boggy hill, trying not to fall over. I veer between dreading there being video footage of this bit as I probably looked really deranged or wanting to see it in case it looked awesome and I actually was running really fast… anyway, James had so much energy he bounded on ahead, opening up the gates for me so I could run through… and then it was onto the paths… where I saw two figures waving, iphone in hand (eek… I’ll leave you with one guess as to who they were…) before I turned onto the main road and ran up to the hall. Instead of running through a finish line triumphantly with poles aloft, instead was a gasping, red-faced, huddle of a human being hunched over. Realisation suddenly dawning… it was done… James came over and gave me a big hug and I could barely hold the tears back. Such a very surreal and sublime moment…

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54 hours, 12 minutes and 13 seconds 🙂

I broke the Montane Spine Challenger… and 4th lady at that!

As for injuries after such a challenge… no real blisters anywhere, some toenails that will likely come off and a bit of a (temporary I hope) loss of feeling in a couple of toes. All expected effects of the pounding over such a distance and terrain. The only other issue I had on course really was a painful lump from that lopsided pack… the shoulder muscle on one side developed into a swelling a bit bigger than the size of a golf ball… I didn’t even have any DOMS and could walk down stairs easily the day after. Although I think I was slurring my words that evening at dinner due to the sleep deprivation *oops*.

Congratulations to all racers on Spine Challenger, the MRT Challenger and the full Spine Race, especially my other two MdS tentmates, Gwynn and Lee who I dot watched over the rest of the week once I’d left Hawes (and seen Lee into his CP2)! What an epic event (yeah I know… cheesy words… but oh so true).

A huge huge thanks to those who came out to support us en route (Helen, Len, Matt, Lucy, Mike and Zoe) as well the other racers who encouraged at different points, Paul and his support Ste, the Spine Safety Team and all volunteers who looked after us so well. And most especially to James… I certainly could not have done that without you!

A challenge like no other… the only problem now… is what do I do next!

Wishing you all a adventurous week ahead 🙂
Michelle


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/.

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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


You

26/08/2015

29685136_s

You

You are…

who
what
how you choose

to be
to see
to feel
to believe.

What others think
or want to see
or you to be
is irrelevant.

They don’t wipe your kids tears from their eyes
they don’t look after your parents when they’re sick
they don’t cuddle your pets

they’re not the ones who…
live in your body
feel your emotions
think your thoughts.

It’s not their face looking back in the mirror
it’s not their life you are living
so why should you adopt
their hopes
their dreams
their wishes
their demands
their fears
their beliefs?

You are
wholly
totally
unique
in this world.

How wonderful that is!

Your Heart
Your Hopes
Your Dreams
Your Abilities
Your Possibilities

Your Amazing Potential.

You are your own home.

Make your home loveable
liveable
comfortable
warm
accepting.

After all
it’s where you will be
for life.

Words: © August 2015 Michelle Payne
Photo: 123rf.com


To Let Go Takes Love

13/05/2015
Copyright: Andrea Danti/123rf.com

Copyright: Andrea Danti/123rf.com

To Let Go Takes Love

To “let go” does not mean to stop caring;
it means I can’t do it for someone else.

To “let go” is not to cut myself off;
it is the realization that I can’t control another.

To “let go” is not to enable,
but to allow learning from natural consequences.

To “let go” is to admit powerlessness,
which means the outcome is not in my hands.

To “let go” is not to try to change or blame another;
it is to make the most of myself.

To “let go” is not to care for,
but to care about.

To “let go” is not to “fix”,
but to be supportive.

To “let go” is not to judge,
but to allow another to be a human being.

To “let go” is not to be in the middle arranging all the outcomes,
but to allow others to affect their own destinies.

To “let go” is not to be protective;
it is to permit another to face reality.

To “let go” is not to deny,
but to accept.

To “let go” is not to nag, scold, or argue,
but instead to search out my own shortcomings and to correct them.

To “let go” is not to adjust everything to my desires,
but to take each day as it comes, and to cherish myself in it.

To “let go” is not to criticize and regulate anybody,
but to try to become what I dream I can be.

To “let go” is not to regret the past,
but to grow and to live for the future.

To “let go” is to fear less and to love more.

~ Robert Paul Gilles ~
(Copyright 1997)
from the book Thoughts of the Dream Poet : vol. 1


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

 


The Marathon des Sables, 30th Edition – How hard can it be? – Part 2 (Stage Two)

03/05/2015

Character

Determination

Courage

STAGE TWO – WHAT WOULD YOU DO?

And so the second stage dawned… our tent had gelled well… banter, giggles and laughter pretty much from the moment we woke up, each and every day! However you have to get sorted relatively quickly… if you are not ready when the tents are taken down, they won’t wait and eventually what had been an amazing layered horseshoe of tents looks like a refugee camp in an astonishing short space of time!

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We actually had enough time after our tent had been taken down that my own personal hairdresser was available to plait my hair! Ladies, helpful tip… if you have long hair you might want to consider something other than just leaving it in a ponytail… it will get matted with sand and you won’t be able to get a brush through, IF you took one considering how much they weigh. If however you took a comb… forget about using it! James aka Bear Grylls (is there anything the man can’t do?) said he could plait bread (he cooks too)… so… bit bulky given the sand that would never leave me for a week, but hey… you take what you can get in situations like this… even if it means your hat won’t sit properly… it definitely helped and I didn’t particularly fancy having to get a ball of matted mess cut off at the end of the week!

It was then time to make our way over to the start line… (fourth from front again)… the nerves kicking in… Patrick starting speaking… surely this wouldn’t take as long as yesterday? It did… Patrick carried on speaking… as with the day before I looked over to Elisabet… she’d done so well on Stage 1, we nicknamed her the “First Lady”… but she’d kept a steady pace and wondered if the other top ladies were holding back and whether she’d gone out too fast… we smiled at each other… she went into her “zone” as you do… Patrick carried on speaking… I checked where Gwynn, my other tentmate was… right behind me…

Gwynn had gone out really hard on Stage 1. He’s a fast runner, is used to fell racing, has raced up to 83 milers (his first 100 is in July woop woop) and had come in that day with a time of 4:45! As a result however, we think he either had some heat exhaustion or dehydration… he’d been ill throughout the night dashing to the toilet, and then spent the morning throwing up. This of course meant his electrolytes were seriously out of balance and he knew that he would not be able to push through Stage 2 in the same way. I’m a (much) slower runner so he prudently thought we’d stick together for the first bit and see how he felt. If he felt ok, he’d push on and if not, we’d stay together. That way he could also pull me along speed wise as my competitive side had kicked in and I wanted to try and stay (just) in the top half.

We had a sandy track for the first few clicks/km… I struggled to keep up. We then hit some small sand dunes and it became a walk/jog/shuffle.. more stony ground… on inclines… and then the climb up Hered Asfer Jebel. Dear God. It felt steep, it felt hard… I puffed and panted my way up… Gwynn ahead of me… but the views once there… amazing… we had some photos taken… I made sure he was on the side nearest the edge… self-preservation and all that 😉 …

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… we then trotted along the crest before hitting the down… note when they say technical, your feet are going to get bashed! “Rocky bits” seems somewhat of an understatement. We then had to cross a valley before hitting Checkpoint 1. Gwynn decided to stick with me and we pushed on…

Now I class myself as slow and I will walk because a challenge like this is about the overall distance and getting it done… besides I have a somewhat fast walk (I blame the Army and all that marching 😉 ), but I started to get concerned when Gwynn dropped back… I kept turning around and making sure he was there… I needed a toilet break so he continued and I shuffled to catch him back up… we slowed even more… he was struggling to speak full sentences although he was able to nod and let me know he understood what I was saying… we were out in the full daytime sun and being baked alive… he wasn’t eating, was struggling to get fluids down… in the end I noticed a bush with a little bit of shadow around it… I put his arm over my shoulders and helped him to it… he sat down. I wet his buff, poured water down his back, wet his hat, held the wet buff against his wrists… he wasn’t speaking… when I looked into his eyes, he didn’t seem to be “there”… although I didn’t say anything to him, I was worried… I’d seen someone go down with heatstroke in Sierra Leone and he had had to be helicoptered out… what to do, what to do… hit his SOS button and potentially end his race, make him push on with the possibility he’d get worse…

What would you do?

Racers streamed by…

Gwynn said he wanted to continue… I couldn’t end his race… I know if that had been me, I’d try and push through until I physically couldn’t go any further… and although I hadn’t know him that long, I did know he had a similar mentality… I knew he would regret not giving everything he had to go on… I helped him to stand. We agreed we’d push on until we found help…

Eventually the next jebel loomed high in front of us… and thankfully there was a 4×4 with med staff in it… I helped him take his pack off, the crew there were amazing… they helped him into the car, checked him over… he was severely dehydrated… our tentmate Mike then reached us… the med staff asked Gwynn what he wanted to do… how did he feel… was he capable of pushing on ahead? Would he choose an IV?  We looked up… we were at the base of Joua Baba Ali Jebel… it was a steep climb… if he collapsed on that, it would be hard to get help to him… it would take time to get him off and he’d pretty much have to wave bye bye to the rest of his race… he asked about time penalties… he made the (very wise) decision to take the drip and told us both to go on ahead with him.

What would you do?

Would you stay?

Would you leave him behind?

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He’s a tentmate, a friend… out here in the desert this becomes your family… I knew I’d lost my top half place… and although a part of me was wanting to go and race… a bigger part knew what I would hope for in this situation… and that would be for someone to stay with me. I could do no less for someone else. I told Mike I’d stay and he could push on if he wanted to. He also made the decision to stay… we would wait for Gwynn and stick together… we would finish the day together! And we would have a full tent finish for the whole Marathon des Sables!

When you experience something like this, it’s part of the challenge in my opinion… it shows you what kind of character you have, what qualities you demonstrate… the “walking your talk”… it tests not just your physical capabilities but how well you manage so many different aspects… and then there’s the mental challenge… Gwynn has since said he was almost ready to hit that SOS button… I watched him battle what he had believed “failure” to mean when he accepted the IV drip… how he pushed through when he felt he hit rock bottom there… and that, to me, is courage… it’s strength… it’s determination… it’s endurance… your mind is what will ultimately carry you through the dark times… when the body wants to give up, when your emotions are all over the place… it’s the mind that will say “you can do this”… although it may kinda help just a little when you also have two stubborn tentmates refusing to move without you 😉 …

And for those who have asked how do you hook up an IV in the middle of the Sahara desert and keep it from boiling up when the temps are hitting the 50s…

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Trekking poles have a variety of uses…

We waited around an hour and half in total… Gwynn had two packs of fluid pushed through… the equivalent of 44 salt tablets… for those who that means nothing to… I was taking two to three salt tablets every hour!

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Time to push on and get up that jebel… just go up a bit and then turn right… which was steeper and higher… until eventually…

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Gwynn had recuperated enough that he had a new lease of life… it was like he’d been given a cocktail of energy! He waited for us to keep up! As we eventually espied Checkpoint 2 of the day… I wondered where we were to go… we were surrounded by a mountain pass… there appeared to be no way around (I didn’t check my roadbook)… there was no way round… Mike pointed out racers going up… but there appeared to be such a steep sandy hill without a mark on it… then an ant-like figure would pop up on the crest… how did they get up there?

My fear of heights would soon be engaged once more… we took a 10 minute breather at CP2 and pushed on… Jebel El Otfal… what was called in the roadbook a “difficult climb”… up and up… up and up… on soft sand… we went up the side bit… sand and rockface… two steps up, one sliding down… we clambered… this was climbing up rocks!!! Mike offered to carry my poles but they gave much needed confidence at levering myself up… keep looking up, keep looking to the right (to the rock and not where I could slide back down)… it felt like it went on forever… and there were many racers behind… I couldn’t stop… because if I did, I might not move again!

And from there, once you hit the down, it was supposedly only 5km to base camp… it felt much longer and of course… what was becoming the norm… more sand dunes to get over… eventually we hit the finish line… and went through the usual ritual… tea, water bottles… back to the tent…

We’d been out on course for just over 8 and a half hours… Gwynn had incurred another 2 hours with his time penalty… my first day position had been around 655, the second day was, I believe, around 1203… giving me an overall place of, I think… 1003.

It was a lot to drop 😦

BUT…

we all finished the day…

and on arrival home at #117… we had a full tent once more 🙂

And a beautiful setting sun to watch as we ate…

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Was the horror of the day over? Not quite… I’d picked up another 4 blisters so once I’d emailed a friend to let them know what had happened, I hobbled over to Doc Trotters in the dark… oh how naive I’d been… that one little blister that had been sliced the day before… today a different person to help me… 3 that were opened up… 3 that were INJECTED… (I hate needles)… let me just repeat that because I had never heard of this happening before it happened to me… INJECTED with iodine.

Note this hurts.

A hellavu lot!

I swore, very loudly… and the lady who held that needle seemed to look rather surprised at that… hell, they were sticking needles in my toes and heels… it stung and hurt… I’m hardly likely to smile sweetly… although I did thank her afterwards.

So for those who can, practice blister care beforehand… and for those who have to endure this in the future… it does actually work and will dry those blisters out… except for one which reformed the next day… but that was probably just me!

Surely we weren’t likely to encounter any more trouble… two days in: kit going missing, dehydration, illness, IVs out on course… blisters and needles… surely the worst was now over?

© May 2015 Michelle Payne


The Marathon des Sables, 30th Edition – How hard can it be? – Part 1

29/04/2015

Perception

Interpretation

Understanding

We all see, hear and experience things differently, so naturally we all interpret things differently… surely then, it’s logical to realise that we all understand things differently. Yet often people are surprised by what they encounter because they base their expectations on others’ experiences and beliefs.

It is with this as a guideline that I often end up saying “How hard can it be?” because what I may find hard, someone else may breeze through, or what I find easy, someone else may never even contemplate trying.

If you don’t try, you won’t ever know.

At the end of the Long Stage at the Grand to Grand, after over 27 hours on course with no sleep, as I reached the finish line and Tess (co-owner & director) hugged me, I told her how much I hated dunes and sand and that I never ever wanted to experience anything like it again. I was done and cancelling my entry into the Marathon des Sables. She, with years of stage racing experience, told me I would feel differently once I’d had some sleep and that if I wanted to continue with stage racing, I’d have to get used to dunes because a lot of races have them! She was right, although thankfully they don’t all have the amount of sand and dunes that Marathon des Sables has!

dory1

I obviously didn’t cancel my entry and did make my way to Morocco because as a lot of runners will know, once home and post-event, your brain forgets the hard bits, you become like Dory from Finding Nemo and eagerly sign up for something new!

So… here’s what happened for me…

THE JOURNEY THERE

For the UK, entry is via a company called Run Ultra and I have to say what a smooth process they make it. They had 3 flights departing on the same day, someone to meet you at the London airport, dedicated check in desks for departure and then, on arrival in Morocco, Steve was waiting alongside other representatives to guide you to the correct coaches for the journey out to bivouac. Do make sure you have your data roaming switched off (especially if you are Vodafone customers) because uploading just 6 photos to Facebook will incur 3 text messages telling you that in the space of 10 minutes you have used enough data to have already incurred a fee of GBP 45.00. If you are a very lucky Vodafone customer, expect these messages to come in late, in reverse order so you won’t actually know about this, or be able to do anything about it, until it’s too late!

What a view coming in to Ouarzazate…

mds1Photo copyright: Michelle Payne

There was a lot of waiting around for all planes to arrive and buses to load up, and the coach journey is long… up to 6 hours… so be prepared and do take the water offered en route. Then you will encounter lesson number 1… the toilet pit stop! Here’s how it goes…

Men out to one side…

Women to the other…

Women find something to hide/squat down behind… and pray no-one is taking your photograph… yes, I saw several people with cameras out… but be reassured, eventually during the week, some of you (make that most of you)… will stop caring about being seen…

You will also stop for a packed lunch. If you find you need a toilet break here, get your packed lunch first in case they run out. If you avoided the toilet pit stop before, this is the time to take full advantage over any worry about being seen, because nearly everyone else is fully engaged with their food on the other side of the coach, sitting outside on rocks or on the ground eating. Do however be aware that although you may think you aren’t able to be seen… as you stroll back to the bus feeling much more comfortable, especially if you didn’t take advantage of pit stop 1, you will most likely sight locals in the distance… who will be watching your direction! If so, squash those thoughts down and concentrate on your food… you really won’t care on the return journey home!

A helpful tip: ensure you have antibacterial hand gel in your hand luggage and make sure you carry it on the bus (backpacks which you will use as hand luggage and have squished as much of your kit into as you are able within the 7kg allowance, will be put into the storage compartment under the bus)…

Watch out for camels… we were lucky enough to see some and the coach stopped so we could get some photos…

mds2Photo copyright: Michelle Payne

We arrived in darkness. Given that tents are allocated on arrival, our tent (organised beforehand) had a plan… one of us… aka who we thought was the fastest runner…  would grab the nearest tent and text the others… this worked well and we ended up with a tent nearer to one end than in the middle… I obviously didn’t work this out until I’d trudged round the whole arc of tents… Tent #117 was going to be home for the week 🙂 … it was a little roomier than I expected (thankfully) but way more open with virtually no privacy at all… if you feel you need some, get one of the ends… it’s not much but psychologically it can help! And yes, they are held up by sticks… which can collapse in sandstorms…

mds3Photo copyright: Matthew Cranham

Ground cover is provided by a rug, but the rocks will not have been swept out before the rug is laid.  If you have an inflatable mattress, you might just want to try and get rid of as many sharp rocks and pebbles as possible… if you want a good nights’ sleep… ok virtually no-one gets that, but if you want a reasonable amount of sleep, you should also try and make the ground as smooth as possible. Note, this does not apply to any sleep for the night/day after you finish the Long Stage…

Dinner, which is catered, was still available when we arrived and tasted great, much better than I had expected… and it’s a great opportunity to chat to your tentmates and get to know each other a bit better, and you will also get a glimpse of how your personalities will mesh together over the coming week.

mds5Photo copyright: Michelle Payne
with Matt Cranham and Gwynn Stokes 🙂

Then it’s back to the tent, sort out who is sleeping where… work out how to use the toilet system (more on that in the next section), brush your teeth and wipe your face over before snuggling into your sleeping bag and going to sleep looking out at the stars as a gentle breeze flows through the tent… it was a rather lovely start to the Adventure!

KIT CHECK DAY

We’re British, shouldn’t we be used to queuing?

Helpful tip… take a full 1.5 litre bottle of water with you when queuing.  It’s hot, it’s going to take more than a little while.

You will be given a time slot to go through kit check corresponding to runner number. You will hand over your big bag before going through kit check so make sure you use the first night to finalise anything you want to carry during the course of the week, rather than waiting to see how much your pack weighs (such as sleeping bag liners). So queue number 1… hand over bag, watch it thrown onto a lorry which seems to be stacked impossibly high… do not contemplate whether there will be anything going over the top of those bags to hold them in… walk away and don’t look back. Trust me on this…

Queue number 2… you will queue until you reach the desk, you will then queue behind the desk to the next point and so on… this is where they will check against the questionnaire you have completed (given on the coach along with the roadbook etc.) as to what kit you will be carrying… you will get your water card, your SOS attachment and the “bracelet” that allows you to be tracked on course… and yes, it looks like you’ve got an ASBO ankle tag on…

Helpful tip… do secure this with a safety pin! A bit tiresome but mine came off without it…

Your pack will be weighed… this weight may be wrong… don’t stress about it if so! Mine weighed 9.3kg in the tent (amazing considering how much previous packs have weighed) yet 8.7kg officially with nothing removed. If at this point your water tag and tracker are missing, try not to stress too much… you will eventually be given one. Inside the tent(s), the temperature will be hot, there will be no air… and you will be itching to get out… but still you queue…

You get to the medical bit… if you are really really really super unlucky (thankfully this was not me…) somehow, somewhere from the start of the queue to this point, you will have lost your ECG and your medical certificate. I kid you not. This will result in being told you have a time penalty of an hour (or was it two)… plus a fine of a lot of money! If you’re even more unlucky, you may have misplaced your euros too… pray your tentmates have extra on them to cover your ass! My tentmate was lucky… others in the tent had brought extra… and so was coined a phrase for Tent #117… “What will go right for Mike?”… this still makes me smile 🙂 …seriously though, he is an absolute superstar and fab tentmate!

You will then queue a bit more… before eventually the end is in sight, you drop your kit to one side and pose with your runner number against a cardboard MdS background… before being blinded by the daylight as you are released to freedom.

The rest of the day and evening is your own with all meals catered… enjoy these moments, where nothing aches, where there are no blisters… where you don’t have to struggle against the “breeze” to light a piece of fuel that burns your fingers and then goes out… each and every time!

Now, as previously mentioned… the toilet situation… there will be three “compartments/doors” with open flaps to the front (you can hold this closed with one hand)… there will be a stool shape inside. You take your biodegradable plastic bag and secure over the stool and once used, tie it up and place it in the bin just outside. These bins are emptied pretty regularly and much more hygienic than events of old.

A helpful tip… find a small pebble or rock and put it in said bag… it will stop the wind blowing it back upwards… you really really really don’t want that to happen.. thankfully I knew of this tip beforehand…

There is also a “changing room” provided for women. This is NOT A TOILET. Can I just repeat that? THIS IS NOT A TOILET!!! You will be informed about this on the coach journey to bivouac. It is noted in the roadbook. It has a sign on it… a circle with a toilet inside it and a cross going through it. It has written on it that it is NOT a toilet.

I understand that, just before it’s about to be removed, on the morning of a race/stage, when we are leaving that bivouac never to return, that it is not going to be used again and if there is a queue for the actual “toilet facilities” then it’s easier to use this, but not after the race, not during the night… not when other people are going to use it! It is the same as the toilets in that it has an open flap at the front but it has a crate inside only… this is for standing on so you can get changed without getting sand on everything! Not for pissing on!!!

By the fifth day, ours had been removed, probably because it was being used as a toilet. For those who said I had carried too many inessentials… you would have begged to borrow some of my sterilising tablets!

But to leave that day on a positive… everywhere I go, I seem to find natural hearts… this right outside our tent and in front of where my sleeping bag was… I was where I was meant to be…

MDS4Photo copyright: Michelle Payne 

STAGE 1 – THE RACE BEGINS

And so it starts… waking up, no more lazing around, no more time… it was here, it was real.

We would wake around 05.30 every day as the French tents opposite us woke at this time… I figured getting up at 6 would be sufficient time but it’s amazing how quickly the time goes… getting your breakfast ready, getting dressed, packing… going to the toilet for what seems like a million times before making your way over to the start line.  Stage 1 however was different … the taped off area on the first day which marks out the number for the edition of the race was ready for us, this year the 30th… the sound of the helicopter above, drones flying high… everyone waving their hands in the air… I saw a couple of people I recognised and said hello… and quite unwittingly ended up in the fourth row from the front! I looked to the left and saw my tentmate Elisabet who smiled reassuringly at me as she knew how nervous I was… she wasn’t looking to place this year… it was a training race for her…

Patrick started speaking… there was dust and sand and the sun starting to climb higher… Patrick carried on speaking… I figured this was taking quite some time due to it being the first day… surely not every day would take so long… let’s start already! The nerves were kicking in and the longer it took, the more I’d need another toilet break… men definitely have this aspect much easier at races!

Are we starting yet?

Eventually… the infamous track “Highway to Hell” began…

the countdown in French…

until we were released… adrenaline coursing, hearts pounding, dust and sand flying up as the runners swarmed through… so many smiles, arms waving, eyes cast upwards… the helicopter flying sideways down the long line that stretched out… I ran… or rather shuffled, as many a stage racer will call it 😉 and was overtaken by so many…

Don’t push, don’t try to match, don’t try to keep up… run your own race… the thoughts echoed through my head. It’s a long race and it’s not about one day! My coach’s words also echoed… you may not be the fastest but you are one of the toughest! Don’t go out too fast… oops. I scaled back… the soft sand making the legs work hard… how do they run so fast on this surface? My legs felt like lumps of lead whilst the leaders just glided…

Can I walk yet? No…..

2 minutes later… Can I walk yet…. no…

1 minute later… Can I walk yet? It’s an incline so Thank God YES!

This was to become a recurring theme in my head throughout the day and week as the race progressed… and a tactic of walk the ups, run the downs… however I hadn’t expected so many rocks. Elisabet’s husband Colin had warned me it was rocky (he’s finished this race twice) but I figured those were on the hills and would be smallish on sand… not so, lots and lots and lots of rocks… big enough to bash your feet time and time again. I prayed I wouldn’t get blisters…

I also hadn’t realised what a jebel was. I thought it was a term for a sand dune and had never even googled it. Note that a jebel is not a sand dune, although there will be a lot of sand… it’s a hill, or rather mountain. Most likely with steep sides. That goes up very high. That you could fall down and hurt yourself badly on. With big rocks. Fear of heights folks, fear of heights… need I say more? And very quickly on Stage 1 it was up, up and up… thankfully there were downs too, and flat bits. Not necessarily flat bits you could run fast on, especially when it was soft sand that had been churned up by a few hundred competitors already ahead, but flat was preferable to a mountain you could fall down. What I would come to appreciate during the Long Stage was how much flat I had on this first stage.

mdsstage1Photo copyright: Michelle Payne

We also were lucky in crossing a bridge where there was water… now I don’t know how clear or clean that water was but my cap was dragged along in it and dumped very unceremoniously on my head… the relief from the heat instanteous. Only two checkpoints during the day… any spare water I couldn’t carry on my front pack was poured over my head, neck, down the back and over the arms. You dry out quickly…

The heat was pretty unrelenting but not too bad (thank God for those heat chamber sessions)… but we also had a breeze. I thought this was a good thing to start with and it wouldn’t be until much later that I realised the downside.

I shuffled on…

Until eventually I crossed the finish line. Knackered, dusty, dirty… sand embedded everywhere, but what a sense of satisfaction in getting the first day done… emotional… enjoying the cup of sweet tea that awaits every runner when they finish.

No time to loiter… get your next ration of water, get back to the tent, change out of your running gear and pin it up… blow up your mattress and then put the pack on it so it doesn’t fly away… check the feet for damage, realise you already have blister… go and queue up for your first visit to the infamous Doc Trotters… get said blister sliced, hobble back… realise the queue for sending emails is massive and decide to wait until tomorrow… you need food… you have your protein drink… you then do battle with your stove… you are rescued by your tent’s very own version of Bear Grylls who lets you use his (James, you total hero)!

Email time… a main highlight of the day…

Runners keep coming in and eventually it’s time to go check positioning…

Top half… only just, but still… top half…

And we had a full tent.

I go to sleep that night exhausted but very happy.

Little did I know how differently the next day was going to be…

© April 2015 Michelle Payne

 


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