Refuge

07/11/2015

Although I’ve mentioned the charity Refuge briefly on this blog before, this charity does such much needed work that I think it should be highlighted again, and also because the Charity covers the same subject matter that I work with as a volunteer counsellor at a local charity… that of domestic violence and abuse.

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Deliberately hurting, harming and damaging another person shouldn’t happen, but it does. Most people don’t want to acknowledge the existence of such abuse, but it affects so many that every single human being is likely to know at least one person who has experienced a form of it. I mentioned some personal thoughts here when I spoke about choosing this charity to fundraise for with my Triple Continent Challenge.

When people talk to me about domestic abuse, they often have the misguided and wrong belief that it only occurs when a person physically hurts another, such as punching and kicking, black eyes, broken limbs or, a bit further down the scale, torture or murder.

No.

Yes the physical abuse happens. Way too often. But domestic abuse isn’t just this.  Yes, it often does include physical violence, but what about sexual abuse… the partner who has been “conditioned” to never say no to sex? Who is shared with that partner’s friends… pimped? Or worse?

What about financial abuse? All money taken away, no financial support given, not allowed to get a job which could gain the victim some financial freedom?

What about emotional abuse?

Psychological abuse?

Where the victim ends up not knowing what to think, believe?

Where they are repetitively told… conditioned… to believe that they are worth less… worth nothing… that they deserve the treatment they get, that they create it because if it wasn’t for them not doing some thing “right” (such as dinner not on the table at a set time, the cat or dog making too much noise, towels not in a straight line, the children not being quiet, the weather… raining outside… the list is endless!) the abuse wouldn’t happen. It’s not about what someone isn’t doing…

Manipulation, fear and intimidation that is created to maintain control and power.

And this happens across all cultures, all societies, genders, sexuality, income levels, types of relationship, ages.

Just because there are no bruises, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. In the UK the stats are around 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men who experience domestic abuse and/or violence. Horrifying numbers. And people don’t speak up, don’t speak out. It’s seen as shameful and weak to have somehow gotten into such a situation in the first place, let alone put up with it for whatever reason (threats of death, children being snatched, taken into care, pets being hurt, being stalked, hunted, not able to survive, no money, no help, no support, no friends, no family, no home, no job)…

Two women a week are murdered by their partner or ex partner, three women a week will kill themselves because they feel they have no other way out from the hell that they are living.

There is help, but it takes a huge amount of courage to take that step forward… a leap of faith… because to everyone else that abuser may be a charmer, wonderful, kind even… because no-one else knows what goes on behind closed doors… because you might not be believed…

and this is where Refuge (in the UK) can help.  They have a helpline which is available 24/7, 7 days a week. They have refuges so someone daring to reach out and escape will not be homeless on the street.

If you or someone you know is experiencing any form of domestic abuse and/or violence, please get in touch with them.  The Helpline number is: 0808 2000 247.

If you want to know more about domestic abuse, the work that Refuge do, fundraise for them, volunteer with them, or if you need help from them, then please visit their website by clicking here.

Have a great Friday and weekend folks, and perhaps give a hug to someone who needs one!
Michelle

© 2015 Michelle Payne

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

30/10/2015

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

The Charity

harp

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

From their website, the services they offer:

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

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

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

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

The Running

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

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

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

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

Christmas Meals!

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

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

Wishing you all a wonderful Friday and week ahead 🙂
Michelle


From 0 to 100 – North Downs Way 100

16/08/2015

Centurion
It’s been a long way. Over 4000 miles… 4,002 in fact. And 2.5 years, well almost… 6 days short.

Not that either of those facts really matter, but they have brought comfort and reassurance. To go from zero mileage logged on my Runkeeper app to the day I stood at the start line of my first 100 mile race – the North Downs Way 100. What a journey it has been. Some of it blogged about on here, most of it not.

I signed up for this race last year as soon as entries opened. Many have asked why, runners and non-runners alike. Why so much, so soon, especially when I’ve been carrying niggling injuries for most of that time. But why not…

We only get one life… and for the most part, we fill it with the things we choose. Every one of us. Our choices create our life and thus our memories and our legacy… because what we do is who we are, which leads to the experiences in the world we have created. We each have the opportunity to lead by example, to inspire and to demonstrate what is possible… that sounds rather altruistic reading it back, and I am far from that, but if we take it to a smaller level, think about how you feel when you’re having a bad day and someone opens a door for you, smiles at you, helps you… it’s pretty much the same thing really… walking our talk. I take the view that most people can do what I do… if they choose too… and how wonderful life can be, if we but look at all the possibilities we have to experience it… and choose to act on them.

Last year I completed the three main challenges I set out to achieve… to run the London Marathon (my second marathon and the first race I have trained for properly) non-stop and to go from zero to double stage runner in only 18 months with Racing the Planet’s roving race in Madagascar and 15 days after hitting that finish line, to be on the start line of the Grand to Grand Ultra stage race in the USA – 515 km in total. What an absolute amazing experience and one that can never be replicated. It’s still unbelievable to me that I’m the only person in the world to have done those two races together, unless or until RTP hold another one in Madagascar.

So for 2015 I wanted to do another three main challenges. The first was Marathon des Sables, that iconic race across lots of sand which petrifies most people after they’ve signed up and reduces them to weighing every single little thing in their lives… and yes, jelly babies are worth their weight in gold, and you will keep a stack of ziplock bags in your kitchen drawer forever after. Plenty already written about that race on this blog for anyone who’s interested.

The second was 8 marathons in 8 days at the Great Barrow Challenge: they have 10 marathons (or ultras) in 10 days as a yearly event and as I had a wedding to attend, could commit to only 8 of them. I figured it would be good training for a 100 miler, but as it was only 5 weeks before said 100 miler and only 10 weeks after MdS which I hadn’t fully recovered from, every day brought new issues to be resolved: from a dodgy hip flexor that locked up after Day 1 so I started Day 2 literally dragging my leg, to almost going to the local hospital by the end of Day 6 because I thought I had ripped my diaphragm or had a hernia. Plus the ever complaining Achilles… but you know runners… they’ll wait to see how they feel the next morning and hit the start line if they can… 214 miles in total, the majority of it run (I thought Suffolk was flat… there where hills… not North Downs Way type hills thank God, but hilly nonetheless)… with Day 8 being the fastest of the lot and only 25 minutes slower than my PB. New friends made, a fantastic time enjoyed… and a hell of a lot of inspiring people there… from runners who have run 100, 200, 600+ marathons and at all ages, to others who were told they would never run again due to illness and those who were competing in between cancer treatments. If you’ve never heard of the event before, go take a look at it here… oh and it’s not marked… you get printed instructions each day, unless you’re lucky enough to download the course onto your garmin. If you have a garmin that works and is not a 310xt which has a mind of it’s own, that is! So 2 out of 2 challenges achieved, which gave me more confidence for what was looming.

Challenge number 3
My first 100 miler and the North Downs Way 100.

There comes a time when you have to step outside of the comfort zone if you really want to challenge yourself. Now, everything I’d done to date truly had challenged me, but for all that they have been hard, I had considered the practicalities in a very logical manner. Comfortable cut-offs, what I’ve achieved to date, opinions of my coach and sports therapist… logging the training miles… managing the achilles and the knock-on effects of it’s temper tantrums… it’s all been “do-able”. Until now. Not only is 100 miles a bloody long way… but I chose a hilly one to start with. And I don’t do hills. My training has focused on building my endurance for the ever increasing distance and speed to meet the cut-offs (especially a 45 miler at the beginning of the year). On paper, 30 hours for 100 miles seems generous, even if you take into account time for aid stations. The realisation of how tough those hills could be, struck when I had the bright idea to trot along and do the North Downs Marathon on 19 July as a recce of some of the route. My quads have not been felt so trashed for a long time, and that was from only 13 miles along the out and back course! One of the lovely volunteers there also said I’d chosen the hardest one to start with from Centurion Running’s selection, and let’s not forget it’s a qualifier for the Western States. I wondered what I had let myself in for… maybe I should have waited and started with the Thames Path 100 next year with it’s lovely path along the canal, much flatter although not without its own challenges… but a challenge is a challenge… and this was what I had signed up for!

I met up with fellow Striders Dean and Sam who hadn’t done the race before, and Colin who had. Colin’s wife Elisabet had also signed up last year but her plans have gone into overdrive recently so she was not racing. Registration was very easy and only a few minutes walk from the train station and it was there we bumped into Mark, who was also from our local area and runs with Southend Flyers. We had a pretty chilled out evening fuelling up for the task ahead and everyone seemed relaxed. I tried to get some sleep, which wasn’t very successful due to the heat and amount of food consumed (no, it’s not greedy, it’s fuelling 😉 ). Not the best start and the alarm call at 0415 seemed way too early. Get up, get ready and get to the race briefing which was absolutely full. The nerves started. Everyone there looked like a “proper” “serious” runner. I felt totally out of my depth: only a couple of years running, I’m not fast, I don’t do hills… the guys gave me verbal kick and Colin reminded me that it was just a long picnic through the countryside… food… that will work 🙂

We walked to the start line, just down the road… 0600 hours… we were off… just a long picnic… Mark said he didn’t want to go off too quick so would stay with me to the first checkpoint to hold himself back… we trotted along at an easy pace and I was very very conscious I needed to hold back to my own pace and not try to keep up with others as they streamed past, we had all day and half of the next… my idea for running as long as possible to bank time for later seemed sound. The scenery was like something out a film… misty low lying fog covering the fields, the sun climbing through to give an ethereal air, the crunch of footsteps over gravel and trail, houses not yet waking, birds calling across the fields… it felt as if the first aid station and accompanying photographer appeared very quickly… just over an hour… some climbing, some downhills and then I recognised part of the course from the marathon… Mark had run the half marathon route the same day that I had done the full, so got to see the bit he’d missed here… onwards and through part of the Denbies Wine Estate with a lot of downhills, no tourist carts this time… I remembered the trashed quads and prayed that if that kicked in because of this race, it wouldn’t hit until after I’d finished! From there it was on to the infamous Box Hill… we reached Aid Station 3 in just under 5 hours, which was what I had hoped for. Mark decided to stay with me to the halfway point and then when my first pacer met me, would go off and put in some faster miles.

NDW100 - 25m

Next up was the lovely Stepping Stones which looked so peaceful and cool… by now the sun had risen a lot more and the temperature had increased accordingly which made for an added “tough” factor and I’ve heard reports that it was between 28 and 30 degrees: it felt hotter in parts (the car thermometer the next day going home showed 36 degrees outside)… time to take the hat off and swirl it in the water! It was rather tempting to stop and have a dip but given that I knew what was coming, and how slow I’d be, it wouldn’t have been a wise move. We started the climb. Lots of steps. And more steps. And more. Lots of walkers around, looking at you as if you’re completely mad when you answer their question of how long with “only about 75 miles left”. Finish one climb… little jog, little downhill bit… another climb… Stop, breathe, climb, stop, breathe climb. You wouldn’t want to fall down these. Amazing how quickly your energy trickles away… and yet when you reach the top and trot along to where the trees give way to open space, and that vista just opens up… the scenery is simply superb and it feels like you are on top of the world.

No time to rest, onward to Reigate Hill… and it was there that we saw Sam, who had a problem with his knee and had therefore decided to drop. We took a good 10 minute break here, chatting with him, checking he was ok, and refuelling with lots of goodies from yet another awesome array of food. It was a sobering few minutes to see how quickly and easily participation in a race can end! We pushed on through the next two checkpoints at Caterham and Botley Hill and as the hours passed, it seems that some points may have merged into others in my memory… there was a point where Mark jinxed himself… talking about how if he didn’t end up going to hospital this year, it would be the first time in 5 years he hadn’t made a yearly visit, immediately tripping and planting his whole body and face on the trail… I’m sorry to say I laughed, but did make sure he was ok.  He got his own back when a gorgeous friendly tail wagging dog with loads of energy decided as I approached and went to stroke him, to turn from said happy friendly dog to a vicious rabid scramble of biting fury! I’ve never seen a dog change so quickly in my life and was very glad it was on a lead. The owner’s words of “he’s just excited” did not match her sheepish look as she tugged him back! Needless to say I avoided all dogs from that point on just to be on the safe side… and wondered if my rabies shot was still valid! Mark laughed at that one. I think he was also with me when we went past a house that looked as if it had some European “heavies” standing guard… it was like something out of a film… guys standing round smoking cigarettes, in the middle of nowhere.  We did wonder if perhaps someone was “casing the joint” but it looked like there was a lot of activity going on around the house with lots of lights, so we assumed they were private security guards. Rather glad I wasn’t on my own at that point! I also specifically remember a happy volunteer with pom poms dancing about at the top of one of the hills… probably a later Box Hill area but it may have been Botley Hill… I remember they were bright pink or may be red… because Mark and I checked that we hadn’t been going long enough to have hallucinations yet 😀 … definitely too early in the event for that! I’m also pretty sure the Botley Hill aid station was at the top of a lovely climb, in a small car parking area just off a main road… which I had run a little bit of last year as part of the Gatliff50 course… and one of those two checkpoints (probably Caterham) also had a new race favourite… roast potatoes! Whoever brought those… thank you, thank you, thank you… a total energy boost… they tasted amazing! This was a good point in the race for me because I’d also been tracking how long I’d been going and between those two checkpoints I hit the time that I’d completed the Country2Capital race back in January. According to my Garmin (which, alas, has been known to lie to me on occasion), I was only 2.5 miles off my time, which may not mean much to most, but was a great confidence booster because it meant my overall pace was pretty much the same but for a race at over double the distance. I thought I was banking a lot of time for the end…

Anyway, onto the halfway point… Knockhoult Pound… and it was here Mark and I parted company… he to run a lot faster, and me to meet my crew and use the facilities there and basically get a bit of pampering! I must admit it was an emotional moment seeing my friends there… and the volunteers, as with every aid station, could not have been more helpful: directing you to a seat… I admit it, I sat in a Seat of Doom… plying you with hot pasta, getting you extra cheese to put on top, getting you hot drinks… checking you were ok. I decided to change a top, one of my buffs, stock up on tissues and saltsticks… and since a stinking headache by this point was thumping away, take my hairband out. Getting coherent sentences out however was a little harder. Maybe I had pushed too hard? I reckon I took about 40, maybe 45 minutes here. It was worth it.

Super Crew - NDW100Super Crew: Andrew, Dave, Loren & John – 72 miles down

So another new experience… my amazing crew and pacers… John ran with me to the next crew point even though he had a damaged knee himself… I felt more awake and was, I think, able to chat away quite coherently. Then a friend from Southend Flyers took over: Andrew had been at work all day, had just got back from holiday and his wife (the lovely Sam) was taking care of their move to a new home that day so he could come and run with me in the evening! He was down for around 18 miles… I think I was stilll chatting coherently most of the time by this point… and I remember coming up onto the bridge and him making me run across it when I had got to a point I just wanted to walk… and managing to hit a 9.30 minute mile for a wee while… well it felt like ages but may only have been minutes… but it cheered me up a lot. Again, it might not sound much, but I was in totally new territory: my longest race distance to date had been 100k the year before (although MdS was 91.7km for the long stage) and although it was hurting by now, wasn’t as bad as the finish of that 100k, so a definite improvement! It was at that 72 mile point that Andrew then left for the drive home, fellow Strider Dave took over, and the point I was rocking the Forrest Gump look in earnest… not the sharp tidy hair sprinting version, but the long sticking out hair from under a baseball cap, wild-eyed, look shuffling version… not sure it’s a look I should replicate again, and thankfully no photos… I double checked that the following day!

Dave had recced the route a fair bit and had even gone over and re-checked his “section” a couple of days beforehand, which was fantastic because I reckon from this point on, if I’d been on my own, not only would I have been a bit scared by all the rustling in the woods… not just the cars which looked deserted (I bet they weren’t!) but from creatures in the undergrowth… I don’t think they were the car inhabitants either… my awareness levels really dropped in the early hours of the morning and I would have got lost very easily! Instead, I was able to just put my head down and push through, although there were a few bad moments with yet more hills and some very vocal language. I know, hilly course, but the elevation profile really doesn’t do justice to just how many little rocks, steep little inclines that take your breath away and by no means least, the amount of tree roots that you will catch your feet on and stumble over… until all you feel is a bloody swollen tender pulp of a large toe nail that screams with every footstep… all other toes and soles of the feet having been tenderised and then numbed into submission many hours previously!  We went through the night and into the next day… whereupon there was a scary moment… town dwellers indeed… there was a bull… it looked like a bull… it had horns which curved into spikes on each side… and it was stood sideways completely blocking our way forward. It saw us… and didn’t move. We debated the cow/bull thing, assuming it was a bull due to the huge horns that looked like they could impale you very painfully. We backtracked and looked around to find an alternative way forward… barbed wire to one side… impassable area on the other…. I was all for trying to get through the barbed wire, especially when said cow started following us… and then thankfully another competitor came round the corner! He asked us if we lived in the town or country… obviously town, oh the shame… he was so calm and just walked us through… I stayed to his right hand side, away from the horned beast… only to find as we rounded the corner that there were many more… apparently they were cows of a special breed… although he did say that one may have been a bull… so a huge thank you to that competitor… I ran as soon as I could after that bit!

Dave left at Hollingbourne and Loren took over. Only just over 15 miles to go… although according to my lying Garmin it was much less. And the plan of banking time so I could death march all of the end bit if necessary… didn’t work. 30 hours seems a lot… but you take into account how much time you spend at aid stations, even if they are not a lot, they still add up… especially a long stop at the mid way point… and possibly a good 30 minutes Detling, not sure on that one but I do remember joking with Joe there about his “tough love”, and then he kicked me out… thanks Joe, much appreciated… plus there’s the time it takes to get up the never ending amount of “hills”, I’m pretty sure my Garmin said I was on a 20 min mile pace up one steep section… so by this point it was shuffling and stumbling and walking… no tears surprisingly… until the crew point at Charing. John met us there to make sure I had everything I needed… the time was ticking by… and Loren told me just after that point that we couldn’t have another mile at “that” pace… my ego absolutely petrified at the possibility of a DNF (how the hell was this was possible after running parts at a 9.30 min mile at mile 70 I do not know – oh yes, the hills!)… I managed to go from walk to shuffle… swearing all the time that I was never going to do another 100 miler ever again. Yes, I’m sure this has happened to pretty much every runner at some stage… but I honestly meant it! There were still hilly bits so I had to walk those… I had absolutely nothing left to push up them any faster… but on the down, Loren strode ahead to force me to try and keep up… we even hit an 8:11 min mile on one downward stretch which I thought was pretty amazing, my legs were shaky when I got to the bottom… we got into a pattern for those last 7ish miles… “gotta walk”…. “ok run”… “gotta walk”… whinge… “ok run”… “keep me running”… dashed into the last checkpoint, told John to not bother going to the last crew point, just go to the end… and pushed on through the fields until eventually we reached the road… where is it? Round a corner, cross the train line, wait for traffic… dash over the road… the volunteers appearing, just round another corner, c’mon… and there it was… the inflatable finish line… bouncing away… such an amazing emotional sight… I don’t often get tears at the end of a race but I did on this one…

I’ve done it… I’ve run a 100 miler…

NDW100 - Finish

What an absolutely amazing emotional heartfelt incredible moment in my life…

I got my buckle… tried to breathe…

NDW100 - Finish2

Once again the volunteers, amazing… you get your buckle, the photographer takes your photo… you’re helped into the hall and found a seat. Each arrival announced to those already there… a round of applause for every finisher as they step into the hall. The first aid person comes over to check you’re ok while another volunteer is getting you a bacon sandwich… another hands you a cup of tea. You sit and it suddenly seems very surreal… you try to take it all in…

29 hours, 01 minute, 24 seconds – 102.6 miles

So while my Garmin may have lied about distance and time (106 miles and sub 29), and my friend exaggerated a little to get me running and motivated 😉 … and while I may have said never again at the time… I’m left with memories of an amazing day and night of a new adventure, been amazed at the kindness and generosity of spirit of the Centurion Running volunteers and am actually considering doing another… a huge huge thank you to my crew, my coach and sports therapist for getting me to the start line and then the finish line… and a huge thank you to all those at Centurion Running, who have a very well deserved positive reputation for the organisation, helpfulness, kindness and volunteers of their races. I look forward to another, maybe next year 🙂

And for those who think a 100 miler is not possible… or who dream of doing one, one day, but don’t believe it could happen… remember each and every step you take builds the foundation which will get you there, if you choose to take those steps, one at a time.

And for those of who visit my blog who aren’t runners… the same principles apply to all parts of our lives. We ALL have the potential to achieve and encompass more in our lives… to challenge ourselves, to hopefully to open our minds, our beliefs and our hearts… to choose to bring more happiness, laughter, light and of course… new adventures… into our lives.

I’m off to dust my buckle again… and to ponder what new adventure to create next!

Many thanks for taking the time to read and visit here!
Michelle – A Centurion 🙂


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?

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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


Grand2Grand Ultra – Rest, Regret and the last half of the race

01/04/2015

The best bit after the Long Stage? You’d think it would be sleep… after all, if you’ve been going over 24 hours without any, most people think sleep would be easy. Not so… not when it’s daylight, the camp is awake and runners are still coming in, especially when it’s your tent mates… and it’s the only day you’re actually back in time to hit the comms tent!

There were also treats… I thought it a rumour but no… lo and behold a treasure… not something I usually drink but after days in the middle of nowhere, it’s like nectar…

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and we were even treated to some live music… right there in the middle of nowhere… there were a lot of happy campers as you can imagine!

There had been more drop outs by this time and unfortunately this included one of our tent 😦 … Steve had got soaked in the torrential rain and hail storm on Day 1… including his trainers which, I believe, did not dry out properly before the start of the next day… what I hadn’t realised was just how much pain he had been in on the Long Stage… his feet were totally and utterly shredded.  How he managed to push through is unbelievable… because of this…

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Blistered, macerated, bleeding, infected… by now he could barely hobble… so after returning from a trip to the medics, he gave out his food to be divided amongst those of us who wanted it and made the choice to go back to Kanab, when he would eventually meet up with us in Vegas at the after party. A sombre mood descended.

Feet. They make or break your race…

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And so the next day dawned, not much sleep gained… you think you’d be so tired that not even the devil would be able to rouse you.  This just doesn’t happen… not for me anyway. A couple of hours, a bit of catnapping… and before you knew it, the music started up… and the question… what time is it? a tent would yell… 3 songs past 6, another would reply!

Memories…

Yuri dashed by… stuck his head in the tent and reminded me to pop by the medic tent again to check my hip… angel in disguise! My leg felt somewhat better, I wasn’t limping as much and the piriformis hadn’t cramped… that little bit of rest had helped tremendously, aided hugely by Yuri’s help and I actually felt ok… I knew I was deterioriating… you don’t do this kind of event without getting drained… lack of energy, speed, hydration, calories… you’re pushing through a deficit each and every day… but today there were more downhills… much better for me… I could run… well, there was still huffing and puffing up the hills, but more downs = more running or shuffling 😉 … and I took advantage of that… no matter how tired or aching I was… I took the choice to tell myself I would run the downs…

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The scenery was amazing… huge cliffs, trees so high they looked tiny… huge boulders to navigate down, rocks carved out by the weather over many years, by rains and floods… and in some parts it looks like we were running on a moonscape… it was also baking hot. So much so that as I ran I kept a very watchful eye out for any water, desperate to try and lower my temperature… the riverbeds crossed were dry… a few muddy puddles, a couple that had a little bit of water in… but how to get at it? Balance very carefully, put your cap on the end of your trekking pole and dangle it just enough to wet it slightly. It was that hot I certainly wasn’t worried about whether the water was clean, it was wet and that was enough. And then there appeared a mirage… a properly flowing river… stream may be a better description but at that point it felt like a full blown river!

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And this is my only other real regret from the whole race…

As I was shuffling along the road I noticed some other runners ahead rejoining the road… I’d seen the river but figured it was too far off course… as I reached the point I had seen them at… I decided to take a few minutes and see how near I could get. It was so hot and my head felt like it was on fire… heaven… you could go right up to it. So that’s what I did.  Took off my arm sleeves and hat and soaked them in the water… I turned around and noticed another runner go past so hurried up to get back on track.  Only a few minutes ahead was the next checkpoint. I could have left my pack there and gone in the water. I wish I had. Later that night, when everyone had returned, some of my tent mates told us what they’d done… they’d stopped, taken their packs and shoes off, and had actually laid down in it… how I wish I had done that. Laughter, fun, friends… surely that’s worth losing a bit of time for in a race instead of pushing through?

Anyway, that was not the choice I had made at the time… instead I pushed on through the rest of the course encountering some pretty evil inclines: looking back at some of the photos, it looks like we were crawling up.  I hit a few low points especially when hitting some long stretches until I caught up to Danny and we leapfrogged each other until we got to camp. I probably wouldn’t have run as much of the last leg if it hadn’t been for him. We hadn’t had much chance to chat up to that point as he was always well ahead of me but while we had this opportunity to talk, he shared how he found the race, the highs and lows to date and that he had been aching a lot and, like a lot of us, had found it hard to get out of a warm sleeping bag that morning, was tired and missing home but since he knew I had just completed a similar type of event in Madagascar, he thought if I could get up each day and do this, then so could he. A truly humbling moment and I don’t think he is aware of how much that meant to me. It kept my spirits up, helped me keep running and we eventually reached camp at the same time. I felt very happy with how I’d done overall that day; top half, position 37  or thereabouts… just a shame about the river…

Stage 4 survived: 7 hours, 21 minutes, 16 seconds

Stage 5

As so the last full day dawned… today was slot canyon day. I think everyone was looking forward to this… we’d seen all the photos from previous years and I naively assumed it would mean a lot of flat.

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There was, but to get to it you had to go down… and part of that meant, for me, holding onto tree branches as I slithered down scarily high inclines… yelps included! I also knew there would be climbing down over rocks a bit in those canyons but what I hadn’t expected was a very high ladder… the choice, just go for it and pray I wouldn’t fall or use a harness that had been provided. Sod the time, go for the harness… it just looked too damn high. Afterwards I heard a snake had been relocated not long beforehand so I definitely made the right choice… what if I’d got there and seen a snake… you’d have heard the screams for miles!

And of course, given we are generally getting higher each day, for all those wonderful downs, there is going to be a lot of ups. Again. Crazy painful ups… I doubt I will ever view local hills in the same way!

Eventually we reached flatter ground, although that did still have an incline to it… it just wasn’t as obvious. There were also rain clouds gathering and I have to say, at that point because it was so hot and the air so still, as I saw some dark clouds approaching, I prayed it would cover me with rain. It didn’t… it stayed tantalisingly just out of reach… and I couldn’t catch it! I passed a field of cows… my poles tip tapping the ground as I walked this part… and then I realised I was being watched! There were a lot of cows. There were bulls too. It was a bull that watched me. I averted my gaze and then snuck a sideways glance… it was still watching me… I held my poles off the ground and still it watched me, it’s tail flicking from side to side and then it moved… a few steps toward the road, no fence in sight… I tried to walk with a lighter footstep, holding my breath… and eventually, thankfully, I was sufficiently past that it turned back to its herd, and I could breathe again!

What I wasn’t aware of was that this was the area that my tent mate Lee had had a close encounter on. Not with a bull but a moose. Apparently a moose had mown him down into a hedge. I kid you not… read his write-up in GQ Magazine!  Killer moose, watchful bulls, sneaky snakes… what is this? Next there would be zombies… oh and don’t forget the tarantulas and scorpion holes…

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I continued up the winding road… on and on, just where was the camp? It seemed to take forever and much longer than the previous day until eventually it came into sight… with pools on the other side of the fence… pools of water which looked so inviting… however given the previous cow incident, yours truly was not taking any chances… I didn’t want to be potentially ambushed and trampled so near to the finish of the race! Wise choice indeed as I found out that those were probably pasture water for the horses and cows… and given experiences to date, it would be just my luck that the horses were not that friendly despite outward appearances!

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Another stage finished and surprisingly only 4 and a half minutes slower than the previous day, around position 33 or something, so top half again and a very happy bunny 🙂

Stage 5 survived: 7 hours, 25 minutes, 56 seconds

Stage 6

The weather had been getting cooler, natural I thought given the ascension of course profile. However that night another storm hit, bad enough to keep us awake all night long with only little catnaps until one of the poles collapsed due to the strength of the wind and we thought the whole tent was going to come down. Those amazing sturdy volunteers came once again to the rescue  and were out in that weather checking everyone was ok and hammering down tent pegs, poles and anything else that could potentially go flying off into the night! I’m not a fan of being cold and the thought at that time of even getting out of my sleeping bag, let alone run in winds which sounded like something from the Wizard of Oz… well…

And at 5am Race Director Colin made his rounds – they were checking in to see how much worse it would get, how safe it would be up to get up to the Grand Staircase. Around 6ish, he made another round… they’d been informed it was just too dangerous and they couldn’t risk flooding especially due to parts being single track (if I’m remembering correctly). Safety is paramount and in those conditions there was a real possibility of people being swept away or falling… so while there was obvious disappointment in not reaching the full 273km, there was also a lot of very happy people staying in their sleeping bags just that little bit longer.  To ensure we had a Stage 6 and to fit in with the expected torrents, the organisers arranged for an “out and back” couple of miles, and everyone would get the same time recorded. A very fitting end for the team spirit and camaraderie that had built up over the past week. Our surviving tent:

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I’d made it and got my buckle!

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It was then time to grab some pizza… do you think they had ordered enough? There was another full table out of view of this 🙂

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The race organisers had timed it perfectly.  Just as the buses arrived and we headed off, the heavens opened. By the time we got to Kanab for a lunch they had also organised for us… just stepping off the bus and walking 5 steps to cover had us drenched. The highway to Vegas had been closed due to landslides and the torrential rain, but thankfully had opened up by the time we left.

And then it was Vegas bound… to meet loved ones, to celebrate, to sleep in a proper bed and eat non-rehydrated food.

And of course to Party! I’m not sure how many people stayed up all night but some did…

What an experience, what memories… what friendships made… it was tough without a doubt. My legs were completely shredded, more than I realised at the time, my achilles was bad and a huge swollen lump had grown by this time, walking was painful (and that wasn’t just because I’d insisted on wearing heels at the after party 😉 )

But…

Was it possible
to go from zero to a double-stage runner in only 18 months?

* Yes it was *

Go sign up… you know you want to 😉
http://www.g2gultra.com

Now what shall I do next…

© April 2015 Michelle Payne


Grand2Grand Ultra – Stages 2 & 3

31/03/2015

Stage 2

And so the second day dawned… music blaring in the darkness and the camp stirring to life.  I huddled down into my sleeping bag a little deeper and wondered if I would ever be able to move without pain again… but I’d finished Stage 1 so I wasn’t going to miss being on the start line for Stage 2.  I figured if I wasn’t going to finish then it wouldn’t be of my choosing, I’d have to be pulled out by the medical team!

The tactic: start walking.  Try and shuffle if possible.  Walk it all if need be. As the saying goes, you don’t eat an elephant in one go. Where did that saying come from? Who would want to eat an elephant 😦 … magnificent creatures… anyway, make it into bitesize chunks aka checkpoint to checkpoint survival.  Head down and churn those steps out… I had wanted a challenge and I’d certainly got one!

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And so the day passed and, as for the first day, the racers eventually drifted apart the longer we were out there. Eventually I happened across an American racer called Arthur and we stuck together from Checkpoint 4, keeping each other entertained with stories about what was going on in our lives… he was pretty excited due to planning his proposal to his girlfriend and every time he spoke about the ideas he had, his face lit up and a huge smile beamed across his face, his energy infectious and the chatting meant the time passed a lot easier than had I been on my own, added to which we had expected the temperature to turn the notch down a tad… even going from full on “oven baked” to a little “fan assisted” might have helped but no… no respite until we hit the finish line where waiting for us was a momentary piece of heaven… Lisa, one of the volunteers, was ready with a bottle of cold water to spray over us! Absolute bliss. A moment to savour… you certainly appreciate the small things on adventures like this!

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Stage 2 survived: 10 hours, 8 minutes, 34 seconds

Stage 3

The Long Stage… dum dum dum!

It started well… what a sunrise to wake up to…

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Now you can dress things up however you like in your mind… you can practice positive mindfulness until the cows come home, you can meditate all night long… there are many many things you can do to bring the happy stuff into your life, change your perspectives and become a happier and more contented person. But I doubt you will ever eradicate fear in all its totality from your brain nor the accompanying negative thoughts that pop up from time to time. We are human beings and fear is actually a great tool at our disposal which alerts us to keep ourselves safe and to survive as a species. You know, back in the old days of sabre tooth tigers wanting to eat us. Or bears. Someone kept joking about bears. There were lots of trees on this race… what if a bear was hiding behind one. I kid you not… someone actually joked about this as they hotfooted it up a very steep incline while I shuffled behind them… a long way behind them… was that a tactic, was I being left as bear food while they dashed to safety? The trees rustled as I pondered this… I tried to shuffle a little quicker…

Anyway, the long stage… the hip was still hurting although Yuri had been an absolute hero the previous evening and helped release more of the pain that had accumulated throughout the second day, so how to tackle this? Go it alone and try to push myself, risking further injury or worse, not finishing… or stay with friends who were planning on sticking together as a group due to the length and technical difficulty of the day and walk it all? I wanted to push, I was frustrated at having mainly walked the previous day, but at the same time how great would it be for the Group to stick together and cheer each other on.

So that’s what I chose.

Plus I was slower than everyone else hobbling away at the back.

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We started off in almost a party mood, and as we ventured along the way, locals came out and cheered us on: such support from the local community was heart-warming and at that time it felt as if we were just going out for a day’s adventure! Until we reached the end of the flat track and it was time to cross a main road and head towards the elevation.  It was at the end of the road in the picture above that we came across Mo Foustok.  Mo had withdrawn from the race but had come out to encourage everyone else along. Another wonderful example of the camaraderie and kindness I have witnessed within the ultrarunning and racing community.

And then it was up, up, up… with minimal downs to compensate. The pace: slow, very slow. Did I mention I don’t like hills. I like heights even less. I really don’t like sides of mountains where I could slither down, fall off and die. Now I know the organisers are very careful and you’re not going to be somewhere that you have to get crampons and picks out to haul yourself up, but this felt like that to me.  This wasn’t FEAR (false evidence appearing real) but aarrrgghhh FEAR (dear God it’s real and that’s bloody high).

Sometimes naivete is a good thing… it certainly was for me in this event.  I knew there was a little climb.  I’d seen the pictures of a rope and people hauling themselves up it.  I had been reassured on reading the road book we’d been given that it wasn’t as long as I’d thought.  What hadn’t been mentioned was what I actually encountered. I scaled the first bit thanks to one of my amazing tent mates, Lee, helping me up and the amazing Yvonne keeping me going with encouragement behind me.

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I heaved a huge sigh of relief only to realise after going round a corner and along a little flat that there was another one! One felt so bad that after slithering my way up (thank god for my poles is all I can say) with shale and rocks sliding away under my feet, I was so relieved and happy it was over, that three of us jumped for joy. Literally. Until I saw the next one.

130131But what a view… no matter that it’s a race, that you are being timed… at points you just have to stop and take some photos, of the views and of the people who are there supporting you each step of the way…

Can we say tough?  I can honestly say that reaching Checkpoint 2 on that day was a highlight of sheer relief. Oh yes, that was all before CP2, many more to go.

And so the day continued… our main group breaking off into twos and threes, chatting away at times, being silent at others… pushing through the terrain, the elevation… minutes and then hours passing and catching up at the checkpoints: where we took the time to fill up on water, salt tablets and see to the feet… and have a laugh… (fab photobomb!)

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…before the night started to draw down just as we were heading towards the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary… bit eerie going through with animals howling… and seeing some fantastic colours in the sky as the sun set:

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Darkness arrived and we hadn’t even reached the checkpoint before the dunes.  Debate ensued – do we push on through the night, do we stop and sleep… we were all getting exhausted and still had so far to go. Would we have enough energy to tackle the dunes without rest? We’ve all heard the saying: when the going gets tough, the tough get going… well this was a pure example of that.  On the road to the checkpoint which never seemed to appear, nerve endings in the feet being bashed with every step, tiredness, general aches and pains, sandy tracks, darkness and plenty of “are we there yet”… we were accompanied by none other than the now infamous Mr Jerky: a tough, funny, very kind copper (policeman) and race director who hails from New York.  He was injured and in a lot of pain, yet on he pushed, worrying about everyone else instead of himself, whether he was holding anyone back (he wasn’t), staying cheerful and helping to keep everyone’s spirits up. Amazing guy… and if you want to check out some great trail races he organises, go visit his facebook page here!

We eventually reached CP6 which I have to say was one of the hardest parts to a checkpoint I have ever done. We stopped, got hot water and refueled, huddled around a fire that the volunteers had going and tried to warm up.  The temperature had dropped considerably.  Unfortunately Matt (Mr Jerky) decided against pushing through the dunes as his leg was so bad.  Once we had all got ourselves sorted out and had had about an hour’s rest, we decided to push on.

Dune time.

Looking back it’s hard to recall every moment… it was certainly memorable… having never encountered dunes before there was a certain amount of trepidation.  Thankfully due to the sheer amount of elevation and climbing during the day, my piriformis had been well and truly stretched out so I wasn’t in too much pain or getting much cramping… but still, dunes! Added to which we had heard that the race director(s) had set out to make this section as hard as possible. It proved to be true.

As we traipsed down the road towards the entrance, one of the gang suggested we all turn out lights off… standing in darkness by the side of a now silent highway… looking up at the stars… hearts pounding, silence surrounded… a memory to treasure… headlights back on and quietly we walked in…

Oh My **** God! I stood at the bottom and stared upwards at what appeared to be a pure vertical line… little lights blinking somewhere god knows where in the heavens… were they stars or were they the reflective bits on the pink flags… how high was it… would I fall… how the hell was I going to get up THERE! No other option for it but to run up at it… or rather try… get the poles, stick them in the sand and shuffle through as it flowed downwards with every step… using other’s imprints as a guide. Heart in mouth, breath out of control… just get up there.

Do not try to stand up mid way through!

You will feel as if you are about to fall backwards. The pack lending itself to that too…

Reach the crest and roll yourself over… pant for breath, look up at the stars and thank god you made it…

stand up… everyone gathers… trot off trying to spot little flags in the darkness…

get to the bottom of another… try not to cry as it looks even steeper (how is this possible?)…

ignore your tent mate when he tells you that these are nothing height wise compared to another race…

try not to quake in fear when you realise he’s talking about a race you may just have signed up for already…

ignore another tent mate when he agrees with first tent mate, because they’ve both done that race…

thank your trekking poles for not breaking…

get to the next…

and the next…

and the next…

I believe it was 5.5km… it felt like more than a marathon in distance…

…and I couldn’t wait to get it done. Tired, aching, swearing… I swore I would never do anything with sand ever ever again.

Yet even then there was beauty… we came to the end and took a breather just as the sun rose…

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Time to push on, get the head down… the sun rose quickly, which meant the heat did too, on dusty trails, through shrubby areas… and most of this part is a blur… I would probably have fared much better had I taken some time to sleep, but I hadn’t… over 24 hours by this point… just wanting to get to the finish line. Which appeared in the distance… up another bloody hill. Feet, legs, hands… all swollen… hip aching, brain fuzzy… step by step to where other tent mates were waiting along with Tess and Colin…

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I told Tess when she hugged me I was never doing another race like it, I was cancelling everything else I had planned… no more.  She hugged me tighter, told me that most of these events have dunes and I would feel better after some sleep… still, it was done. I’d reached another finish line… I was still there…

Stage 3 survived: 27 hours, 38 minutes, 18 seconds

© March 2015 Michelle Payne


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