Fast forward seven days and I was dropping a seemingly different Kev at Newry bus station, on the exact spot to the centimetre that he'd stopped his GPS trackers the previous evening. Looking stronger, more relaxed but with the same steely focus, he jogged off towards Belfast and the end of his brief Irish odyssey. This is an account of my fleeting role in one of the most remarkable athletic feats in human history, one that astounds me even more for having had a glimpse at the true magnitude of it and one that took me closer to my own personal limits than I'd ever have imagined.
I've explained my relationship with Kev and the reasons he undertook his epic World run in the previous blog. To briefly summarise, we're old school friends who lost touch for a decade and having regained contact realised that we're both lovers of running, pushing our own physical limits and both sufferers of mental health issues. I got counselling, Kev ran round the World!
The actual process of running with Kev never really occurred to me until the evening before I left for South West Cork to join him. Over the previous couple of years we'd kept in touch as he paced around the globe and I'd always intended to join him for the Irish leg without stopping to consider what that would actually entail. I'm a mountain runner and my strengths and interests lie in running up and down steep, wildly uneven ground as fast as possible. I actively eschew the road, finding that the tedium and joint pain far outweigh the available endorphins so what was I possibly thinking? The truth is that I wasn't! The romantic image of being involved in a truly inspirational challenge along with an old mate had blinded my judgement and even when I realised the immense daily mileage required I blocked out the implications. As I worked out the logistics of an epic bus journey and threw together some kit it simultaneously dawned on me that not only was I intending to run beyond double my previous maximum daily mileage but I was planning to do it for three consecutive days! The fear of realising what I'd signed up for hit me like a train and I wanted badly to back out but knew that it was by no means an option. Grabbing my least knackered pair of trail shoes I then grabbed a fitful nights sleep.
The next day began with a frantic series of phone calls that culminated in a very bemused looking taxi driver carrying a pair of Inov8 shoes around the bus station having just sped down from Belfast to Newry via a local stockist. As an Inov8 sponsored athlete Kev has had a choice of footwear that have been delivered to him throughout the run. Unfortunately, having recently changed shoe and binned the old ones, he'd suffered a torrid two days between Shannon and Kenmare struggling to adapt to an unfamiliar model. The result was a race against time that we won by a whisker thanks to a man who left me with the words 'you may have a couple of fines to pick up!'
The eight hour bus journey passed without incident as I enjoyed the rare experience of being able to stuff as much food into me as possible, safe in the knowledge that it'd all get burned the following day. The bus pulled into Clonakilty at 8pm and I strolled the quaint main street which was all prepped for the big St. Patrick's day parade the following day. I half wished that we'd be able to stay for the festivities! Then, having explained at the desk that I'm not that fella who's running around the world (they were anticipating Kev's arrival) I settled in and waited for him.
I don't really know what I was expecting. I've been in intermittent contact with him throughout the run and so I knew the difficulties he faced not just in terms of the physical aspects but also the emotional stress of continually moving, never stopping unless forced to. However, I don't think I was prepared for how utterly demanding day to day life has become for him. In terms of the hierarchy of his fundamental needs following that day's efforts, food and sleep should've been the only priorities. Unfortunately he had to precede that by updating GPS trackers, charging multiple essential bits of equipment and checking his physical state. The failure to undertake any of these tasks could critically delay departure the following morning and with an intended schedule that will incredibly see him shave just two days off the existing record there's no margin for error. He never intended to finish the run with a month of back-to-back fifty mile days but sickness, bureaucracy and horrendous luck with the weather have slowly eroded his margin for error. The result has been a gradual increase in the required daily mileage which he said wasn't too daunting with six months remaining but now requires superhuman daily efforts. We eventually got to sleep at 11:30 with a 5:30am alarm set.
The next morning I wolfed down a couple of bananas, excited at the prospect of running 50+ miles but understandably apprehensive. Above all I didn't want to be a hindrance to Kev. He's run alone for so long now and I felt that possibly my presence could upset subtle balances and routines. I remembered reading that Mark Cavendish actively avoided socialising when nearing the conclusion of his round the world cycling record attempt as he was mentally set so hard in his routine. Kev allayed my worries by saying that the company would be a good boost and so I felt a bit more comfortable as we started the tracker and jogged out into a dewy early dawn.
|Definitely a grimace|
1) There was no pace that we could comfortably share. Kev has fine tuned a perma-pace, one that is incredibly efficient and low impact and designed for travelling immense distances but it's not fast. He's also a few inches shorter than me and so whatever I did, I found myself pulling ahead. I knew that this would bite me in the arse sometime but I had to adapt and adopt a shuffling half step. It felt uncomfortable and unnatural but it kept us within talking distance.
2) Kev was suffering. I mean really suffering. He was gritting his teeth and pushing on but I'd estimate that most people wouldn't consider leaving their beds in his physical state. He'd been too sick to eat any breakfast, his digestive system was in turmoil and he repeatedly had to stop to dry heave, attempting to expel non-existent stomach contents. He explained to me that he's actually changed the shape of his bite through 19 months of gritting his teeth and muscle wastage on his legs has diminished his quad muscles to a smaller circumference than his calves! Anyone expecting to encounter a fine specimen of athleticism would be astounded. His run has been physically debilitating on a scale that I'd never anticipated. Pushing bodily limitations is something I'm familiar with but enforced suffering on this scale is definitely at the outer reaches of my comprehension. We celebrated when Kev reluctantly forced down a couple of jelly babies and marked it as a sign of improvement but he later admitted that it was the worst he'd felt in the whole challenge!
We pushed on to Bandon through quintessentially rolling Irish countryside, the early morning darkness retreating and the first tickles of warmth indicating a fine day to come. A conversation in a garage encapsulated for me how incomprehensible the scale of the world run is. The girls there raised eyebrows as we briefly explained where Kev has been but they were more impressed by the evidently more tangible fact that we'd come from Clonakilty on foot that morning.
3) We looked far from athletes! I was wearing my Ireland athletics singlet to mark Paddy's day and also I must admit, to show others that I'm an international team runner. However, at our pace we looked like a couple of lads sloping back from a heavy night out. Kev had put his donated Eircom hi-vis jacket over his backpack so with his stubble, cracked lips, yellow jacket and baggy waterproof trousers there was no indication that he wasn't an out of shape electricity worker. We managed to laugh at the fact that we probably couldn't catch the woman on the other side of the road who was out for an early morning jog/shuffle but it's a pride denter that Kev has had to learn to live with.
As we passed the 26 mile mark I rewarded myself and stretched my legs for a couple of miles. Running on ahead in the sunshine allowed me some time to pause and watch a local horse show replete with Father Ted'esque commentary on the speakers. Kev had perked up and managed to hoover down some sugar laden snacks at the next garage. Buoyed by his improving state we continued on, the comfortable temperature and easy company coupled with quiet roads and pleasant scenery making the experience pretty bearable.
4) Traffic never ceases to be terrifying. The Irish drivers were actually very conscientious, often indicating and moving well wide of us as we picked our way up a shoulder-less road that was carrying an unexpected volume of vehicles. Kev filled me in on just some of the shocking occurrences that have befallen him through the run, exacerbated by the width of the stroller that he was pushing for the majority of the route. He described crazy overtaking, being forced into walls and towards huge drops with nowhere to move to on roads that were never designed for non-motorised transport. Multiplied by his reactions being dulled by fatigue, poor visibility, terrible drivers, drunk drivers, drugged drivers and more, it's a small miracle that Kev has only been run over once. My brain was rapidly tiring and as often happens when under stress, emotion came to the fore. I was genuinely scared and thoughts of my family were prevalent. The pointlessness of my involvement in this venture coupled with the ever present danger actually made me angry at myself. At least Kev is undertaking a life changing, never before achieved, multiple record breaking challenge. What was I actually gaining? A chance to (possibly) help a mate and run some ultramarathons to simply entertain myself. Was it worth risking my life for? I longed for the openness of the mountains and realised how much my love of running is tied into nature and the surroundings.
|A fake smile in Cork|
5) Emotional tiredness is at least as debilitating as physical tiredness. Losing that 1.2km hit me hard and I cut a miserable figure amongst the thousands of revellers enjoying the bank holiday in the vibrant city centre. I asked Kev about this aspect of the challenge, the draining effects of never knowing where he'd sleep that night, not knowing if he could find sufficient food and water, the traffic and a myriad of unknown dangers. He said that the constant threat of Grizzly Bears throughout Canada was by far the most draining fear, ruining sleep patterns and leaving him on a constant state of alert that battered his Cortisol levels resulting in an unbreakable mental turmoil. I was beginning to understand the root cause of that thousand yard stare. This run has to be viewed as being akin to military combat with Kev genuinely feeling that he was under mortal threat for much of it. The aforementioned traffic and bears, gun toting locals with an aversion to campers, extreme weather (and he's faced some unbelievably shit weather), sickness, lack of safe food and enough liquids, the list goes on. All of which have conspired to generate untold levels of additional stress.
Leaving Cork we had our only stop in the whole day. Worried by the '10 year old boy' look of Kev's shrunken quads I was seeking protein and calories, lots of them! I put away some Southern fried chicken breast and a few sandwiches whilst Kev got some distance between us. Feeling fuelled for the first time since the morning I vaguely enjoyed playing catch up, overhauling Kev a couple of miles up the road. Pretty much from this point it rapidly lost any fun.
I was anticipating, and even relishing the point where my body would tell me to wise up and stop moving. This is where the mental fortitude kicks in and you just have to dig deeper and deeper to get what you want. The subsequent non-stop, mostly straight fifteen miles in fading light tested me to somewhere near my mental edge. My feet were hurting, both hips giving me abuse and the boredom was preventing any thoughts other than my current predicament forcing their way in. I longed for the end of the day as the kilometres ticked by agonisingly slowly. Eventually we reached another garage where caffeine was consumed and we limped on towards Castlemartyr, hopefully our destination for the day.
I say hopefully because we still didn't know for sure where we were sleeping that night. Someone had kindly promised to donate us a free hotel room but the hotel was about five miles further than we wanted to go that day. A tiny amount in normal terms, but at the end of that day it would equate to another hour and a half less sleep that night, not an option! Finding accommodation is another difficult facet of Kev's challenge. In many places he's camped but even this has proven extremely arduous in countries where the bears (Canada), prevalence of guns and private land (USA), overpopulation (India) and weather (everywhere) have made suitable spots hard to locate. Add to this the fact that I'm a softie these days and neither of us were in the mood for lying in a ditch that night and we needed to get something sorted. Hotel manager Milo came to the rescue, not only picking us up but feeding us and dropping us off the following morning, a true gentleman and running enthusiast himself.
We laughed at my rapid physical destruction as I barely scraped up the stairs to the two apartments we'd been given. I was delighted to be finished for the day and pleased at how my body and mind had aquitted themselves running my first ever ultramarathon. I glugged down some strawberry milk, read about one page of my book and slept through til 05:30.
The next morning I felt remarkably sprightly as we packed up and headed out. Luckily we were able to start the day without packs as we'd be running back to the hotel from our previous night's endpoint. Milo dropped us back in the Castlemartyr village and I tried to warm up in the sub-zero dawn as Kev updated his tracker messages. We walked the first mile to give our bodies a chance to get acclimatised to moving again and then broke into a jog. That's when the real problems started. I was getting a really sharp pain in the front of my left ankle coupled with one in the back of my left knee. Kev advised me to walk it off and hope that it eased and fortunately after fifteen minutes I was able to break into a relatively pain free run. We covered the 14km back to the hotel in an ambling two hours; little did I know that my average speed wouldn't hit those heights again.
Having stuffed in a few croissants and lamented the way that static minutes seemed to fly by we stepped out on to the beach and another beautiful morning. This should've been a high point but I was suffering badly, the time spent seated had done me no favours and the pains were back with a vengeance. Several times I attempted to up the pace but the pain was excruciating. It dawned on me that I'd be walking from here on in. The mental arithmetic started immediately; maximum average pace around 6km per hour and 66km still to cover, it was going to be a tough day. Leaving Youghal, Kev was kind enough to walk with me but the previous issues of pacing were immediately apparent again. Kev is too short to be able to walk at my maximum walking pace and so he had to keep running a few steps to catch up again. In covering distances like these rhythm seems to be essential and so that approach wasn't really sustainable.
|About to begin a VERY tough 6 hour speed march|
Kev had dropped back to take a phone call and so the last few km were a solo battle against a growing malaise. I'd long since decided that Dungarvan would be the end of my day. Making it that far had become an incredible struggle and the idea of another 30km was preposterous. By the time I reached the outskirts of the town I had a discernible limp and was a shadow of the athlete I'd felt just 34 hours earlier. Nagging at the back of my mind was a sense of failure and also a sense of letting Kev down but I knew I'd be a hindrance if I continued and instead found other ways to be useful. Having raided the supermarket for Kev's chosen dinner I jumped into a taxi and asked to be taken to Dawn B+B. I explained that it was nearly twenty miles away so was a bit surprised when the driver stopped after about four minutes. Having to re-explain myself about fifteen more times and then do all the navigation myself would've been comic if I wasn't so utterly f***ed and the meter wasn't spinning round at breakneck speed.
At the B+B I was able to assess the damage. Both feet had sizeable blisters in the centre, the nails on both big toes were already blackening and my right little toe was swollen, misshapen, weeping heavily and the nail was totally black. The tendonitis in my left ankle was back with a vengeance leaving me hobbling and the long strides had caused my right knee to start hyperextending worryingly. I lay on the bed and contemplated the previous two days. It had been an audacious plan to run 150 miles in three days, made all the more so by the fact that I'd never even run a marathon distance before. Looking at it in black and white reveals my utter naivety. Kev has been building up to these mileages over years of mountain marathons, ultras and the small matter of 24,000km run over near consecutive days during the last year and a half, and even he was suffering heavily. As much as I'm proud of my bullish self belief, it does sometimes set me up for a fall. I managed to stay awake long enough to see Kev in, discuss the day and let him know I wouldn't be able to attempt the third day with him. He wasn't overly surprised!
|Found the most appropriate roadside junk outside Dungarvan|
|A starstruck Rowan got up at 5am to meet Kev|
|Find the EXACT spot, press the GPS button, start running, repeat.|
I was overwhelmed by the response to my first blog. From personal messages of thanks from close friends to handshakes and comments from virtual strangers. Many people called it brave but to me sharing my experiences for my own therapeutic reasons as well as the potential to help others was just another step on a road that hopefully leads to the end of my anxiety issues. If you find yourself stressed, anxious, unable to think or breathe properly, light headed, tight chested, suffering continual stomach complaints. If you find the world occasionally goes dimmer, there is no enjoyment in life, nothing to look forward to and an unseen weight is on your shoulders. If you get manic episodes, times when you're too inspired, too buzzed up to sleep with no kind of chemical assistance. If you've experienced any of these things at any time then you may have a mental illness. Don't panic, just seek help and talk about it. From then on, things truly will start to improve.
Follow Kev's progress as he tears down through England to hopefully finish back at Haytor on Dartmoor inside the record on April 9th.
Please donate to Sane, a mental health charity that Kev is representing so well. The self-supported nature of his challenge has left Kev unable to really promote his achievements so far, limiting his fundraising potential. Give a little cash and please share this blog on your social media, his achievements deserve to be raising millions, not hundreds.