I stood on the start line for the 2013 edition of the Great North Walk 100 miler full of confidence. I had trained well and had two good lead up races – finishing 8th at the Yurrebilla 56k race then winning the 46km Freedom Trail Race. A week later I managed a 9 hour training run after which my legs felt they could easily go out and do it again the next day. I was well prepared physically and mentally and had high expectations.
I had a number of goals for the day. First of all was enjoy the day – whatever challenges were thrown at me, I have chosen to do this so I wanted to accept whatever happens it and enjoy it as all part of the race. Secondly I wanted to stay positive throughout the whole race and a big part of that is staying present. It’s easy to get negative when you are contemplating running another 70k on trashed legs but if you focus on the present then you never have to look at more than the next step.
Little did I know how challenging these two goals would be.
Thirdly I wanted to make sure my support crew enjoyed their day and the best way I can do that is to be positive and thankful at all times.
For the first time I had a pacer lined up for the last 70k so the aim was to get to the 104k checkpoint in a position to run the next 70k rather than walk it like last year.
Finishing is obviously a major goal for anyone doing a race like this and I was no different but to be honest I never go into a race with any other thought that I will finish. There is never any consideration of will I finish. It’s a given in my mind, its only a matter of how I will achieve that.
I also had some time goals of 24-26 hours depending on conditions but I knew that if I achieved all the other goals and not my time goal I would still be very happy. Rating the experience by a set of numbers vastly over simplifies what happens in a race this long. For me the success of a race is what happens in my head not what the clock says. But I’d be lying if said I wasn’t motivated by a fast time.
Ten hours later almost of all those goals lay in tatters .. but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The start is a subdued affair and we all set off at a gentle pace. I want to find my own pace from the start and not be drawn into anyone else’s race so I move away from the pack and run by myself. It’s a long day and I need time alone to settle into a speed that feels best for me.
The initial road kilometres pass easily and I settle into a good rhythm. I notice that I am easily running uphills that others are walking but I’m letting people run past me on the downhills. I want to preserve my legs for the running to come at the end of the race. Running uphill does little damage to the legs but running downhill does.
The first leg of the race is a mixture of everything, some road, fire trail, single track, rainforest trails that are barely discernable with the thick foliage and leaf cover and some steep climbs and descents. It’s a joy to be running along trails like this and I try and appreciate it as much as possible.
I find the kilometres ticking by easily and the legs feel good. All the signs are pointing towards having a great race. I have no idea of the carnage that is to come.
Checkpoint 1 comes into view and I check my watch to discover that I’m 10 minutes slower than last year. That’s fine, I’m feeling very comfortable and I know the weather will heat up soon so best not to push the pace too early. The plan is to start easy and try and maintain that to the finish rather than go out too hard and blow up.
My support crew of Nat, Sonia , Andrew and Catherine meet me , refill my water and get me back on the road in less than 3 minutes. Nice work guys! I set off feeling confident that this is going to be my day. Not long after the sun makes an appearance and within minutes the sky transforms itself from menacing rainclouds to blue sky and the temperature starts rising.
Ten kilometres of very runnable fire trail follows and I cruise along with Paul Cuthbert (who went on to finish 2nd). Just before the descent to Congewai road there is a sign that says drinking water 150m ahead , I’m feeling warm at this stage and decide that getting some extra water into me before the hot road run into checkpoint 2 would be a good idea. So I make the small detour off the track to fill up my water bottle and pour some water over me.
Feeling renewed from the cooling effects of the water I descend to Congewai road for the 8k run along the road to checkpoint 2. Along this stretch I start to notice an echoing of my breathing in my ears which I have only ever noticed after very intense efforts in training and even then only very occasionally. It is a sign of things to come but I have no idea at this stage what it means.
My legs aren’t sore at all, unlike at the same stage in last years race when they were already feeling the effects of running 45km. But they are reluctant to run uphill at all and as soon as the road turns even slightly uphill I switch to a walk.
Why was I was now walking up hills that 2 hours ago I would have barely even have registered as an incline. The very hot and strong headwind probably didn’t make things that easy but I feel I should still be running them. I tried to be rational about it – everyone in sight was also walking the uphill’s so I wasn’t alone and in ultras you always have good and bad patches, this was just a bad patch and a good patch would be just around the corner. Stay positive I tell myself.
Checking my water bottle I realise I still have a little bit left and with the checkpoint approaching I can afford to pour it over my body to try and cool myself down. I pour a small amount over my head and neck and for a few minutes it feels fantastic but the hot wind dries it and any cooling affect is quickly lost.
Whether it was this slight cooling effect , or the mental acceptance that I was going through a tough patch and it will pass, I don’t know, but not long after this my legs come good and I run towards the checkpoint with renewed confidence.
At the checkpoint I am weighed and discover I have lost 2.8kg (almost 5% of my bodyweight) – the officials don’t seem to concerned but some alarm bells are going off in my head. Its around 12.30 and I’ve lost almost 3kg in 6 hours with the hottest part of the day to come, I cant afford to lose another 3kg. This wasn’t a sustainable rate of loss and I need to get some more fluids in me.
I sit down for a minute whilst my crew swarm over me and restock my water supplies, which are very close to empty. I have drunk over 3litres in under 3 hours since the last checkpoint. Sitting isn’t comfortable as my legs start cramping in a number of different places so I stand up before it gets worse. Another warning sign of what is to come as I rarely cramp in races or training. Coke, watermelon, and water were all consumed gratefully and I could feel my body relishing the cool liquids. Pouring water over my head feels instantly energising.
The next leg is the longest leg of the race at approx 30k but with the challenging terrain I was anticipating it would take around 4.5 hours. The organisers had placed an unmanned water stop 17km from checkpoint 2 so I loaded up with 2.5 litres of water, which should be more than enough get me to that point and then I could grab another 2litres for the remaining 13k to checkpoint 4.
With supplies restocked there is no point hanging around so it was time to move on. A quick kiss from Catherine as I depart the checkpoint, combined with the support of my crew had me in good spirits as I ran strongly down the road. I can do this.
The echoing that I had in my ears had disappeared and the legs felt keen to run. Little did I know how quickly things would change. I could see two runners ahead turn onto the climb up to the Communications tower and set my sights on slowly reeling them in. The climb is long and steep and before long the echoing in my ears has returned and is getting louder. Its puzzling me. Why is it happening? I also notice I am starting to breath heavier than I would expect for the pace I am going.
I can still see the two runners ahead but am no longer making any ground on them. The climb goes on and on and gets steeper and steeper. Occasionally I stop and put my hands on my knees and with my head down low the echoing in my ears stops. For the next few minutes there is no echoing and I feel normal again but it soon returns.
As the climb continues my pace is becoming slower and slower. I am having to stop more and more often to catch my breath. I need to do something to turn this around. I’m already sipping water every 5 minutes, I’ve been taking calories every 15 minutes but decide to take a gel instead of my normal perp ( special ultra sports drink) to try and boost my energy levels. Some water poured over my head provides temporary relief from the heat and I smile, a big stupid grin.
This has an instant affect. I chose to do this race, I love the challenge it provides and if it was easy I wouldn’t be here. I was getting exactly what I wanted. Its through challenges that we grow and learn both as a runner and as a person so why should I be anything but happy being in the situation I was in.
I continue on and everything feels a little easier – I still have to stop frequently to get my breathing under control and put my head below my heart to stop the echoing in my ears but I have accepted that at this time this is how it is. How it will be in an hours time or 100km time who knew. All I could do was live in this moment and enjoy it for what it is.
Eventually I reach the top where I sit down for a minute, head down low and enjoy the respite from the echoing in my ears whilst catching my breath.
If I knew then what was to come, I would have turned around and headed back to checkpoint 2 as a number of other runners did. But I was blissfully unaware. I was still positive I could turn this around. I’ve turned it around before so I had full confidence I could do it again.
Despite the long and steep climb the legs feel fine – they aren’t being challenged at all. This is a good sign and argues well for later on if I can just get the rest of me feeling ok.
Sitting there whilst nice, isn’t going to get me anywhere ,so it is time to move on. The track heads slightly downhill so I brake into a run. It is a relief to notice that the legs feel good and are happy to run. I keep the pace slow still trying to preserve the quads for the later stages when the temperatures will be cooler.
However as soon as the trail turns uphill on any kind of slope the legs rebel and say no. They aren’t sore but it feels like there is a gatekeeper in my brain that refuses to pass the message to my legs that they are supposed to be running up gentle hills. I know the feeling when your legs are so sore that every step is agony – I’m comfortable with that but this is different, my legs aren’t sore they just don’t want to run.
I walk the uphills slowly, run the downhills, walk/ run the flats and set my sights on reaching the unmanned water drop. I still have complete confidence that this is just a phase I am going through and I’ll be able to recover from and finish the race. This was about to change.
I notice a tingling sensation in my face, almost like pins and needles. If I stop and put hands on knees and head down it stops but returns not long after I stand up again.
I hear a runner coming behind me and he asks if I am ok to which I reply – yes fine thanks , we chat briefly but I am finding it hard to hear him over the deafening sound of breathing in my ears. I wish him well and he continues on.
Running downhill is still possible but I am reduced to walking both uphill’s and flats. The brain simply refuses to make the legs run. I need to get to this water stop, rest, pour some water over me, cool down and then I can think about getting to the next checkpoint.
Thankfully the trail is a well graded fire trail which makes for easy walking but it goes on forever. Another runner comes past and we chat. I ask how far to the unmanned water stop? Approx 8km comes the reply as he continues on ahead. 8km! At this pace that’s going to take 90 minutes or more. Blocking that thought out, I bring my thoughts back to the present, just put one foot in front of the other and repeat, you’ll come good eventually. Stay positive.
The next thing I notice is my hands are starting to have the same tingling feeling that my face has. This is not good. I don’t know what it means but I know it cant be good. I’ve never felt like this before and don’t recognise any of the symptoms I am having.
I’m stopping very frequently to put my head between my knees to stop the echoing in my ears and tingling in my face. Continuing on for what seems like hours hoping that with every turn in the path I’ll see the unmanned water stop I realise I’m getting worse. My thoughts are turning from getting to the water stop to recover to getting there and getting help. It is a profound change in thinking. I’ve crossed the line from thinking finishing is possible to one of pure survival. I realise I’m in trouble – now it’s a case of what can I do about it.
I remember at race briefing being told there was 2 litres of water for everyone at the water stop. If there is over 200litres of water there they must be able to get a car there. If they can get a car there then I can get help.
I push on focussed on getting myself to a point where I can get help. My race is over, its about survival now. Even if I have to stop every 100 metres I have to get to the water stop. I got myself into this mess I have to do all I can to get myself out.
Someone else runs past and asks how I am , I lie and say ok despite the fact I can barely hear a word they say unless my head is between my knees. I reason to myself that if I can just get to the water stop it will be much easier to get help from rather than from where I am now.
I notice I am beginning to sway a bit as I walk , not all the time but I’m definitely starting to lose it. I don’t know how much further I can go on by myself but I have to get to the water stop. I don’t know how much further it is and I haven’t got the energy or mental alertness to get out the map to see. Must keep going.
I’m no longer running the downhill’s and on uphills I’m stopping every 20 metres or so. The tingling is worse, my jaw is starting to both tingle and cramp, I cant hear anything apart from the sound of my breath and my breathing rate is like I am doing hill sprints not walking slowly. I’m starting to sway again so stop to put my hands on knees. Focus. Must get to water stop. I continue
Ten metres further I stop again, just as someone runs past, she asks if I’m ok and I can’t lie anymore. I say no as I half fall, half lower myself to the ground and lie down no longer able to stand. My legs are cramping and twitching all over and it takes a while to find a position that doesn’t send them into a spasm.
I am conscious and can hear her as she gets my details and tries to ring the race organiser. Alas no phone signal. Someone else arrives and I hear map co-ordinates being read out and from what I can gather they will go on and let someone know where I am as soon as they can get a phone signal.
Before they leave some more runners arrive and a discussion unfolds, the result is that one of the runners decides to pull out and stay with me. He isn’t having a good day anyway apparently. His support crew car is waiting at a road junction around 3km away so the plan is for him to stay with me until I am well enough to walk the 3ks to the car and I can then get a lift to checkpoint 3.
The runner talks to me, giving me water and making sure I am ok. I am still conscious and can hear and communicate the basics. Something about him sounds familiar and when I open my eyes I realise it is Dave Eadie whom I have never met but know through facebook . I’m still not sure if Dave would have pulled out if he hadn’t come across me but I am very thankful of his decision to stay with me.
He moves me into the shade and gives me water and sugar. After 10-15 minutes I try to sit up but immediately am forced back down by the spinning in my head. Another 10 minutes or so passes before I try again and finally I can sit up without fear of blacking out. Dave tells me of the carnage that is unfolding with many other competitors also dropping out– it seems I am not alone.
We see a runner approaching not looking great and decide to wait for him and then try moving again. It is Dave Waugh, a previous winner of this race. The three of us have a wealth of ultra experience and numerous 100mile wins so I am in good company. It gives me some consolation that runners of this calibre are struggling also.
I try and stand and find that the tingling has stopped as has the deafening sound of breathing in my ears. Dave lends me his walking poles and we begin the 3km descent to the road. Initially I feel good and for a few minutes I consider not pulling out and continuing on. A fall makes me reconsider as my legs are not as co-ordinated as they should be. They still don’t feel that bad I try and convince myself. Maybe I can go on? Eventually we reach the bottom of the descent and there is a short ascent to the road. Immediately the symptoms return and I am once again reduced to bending forward getting my head down to stop myself passing out. No, I am done.
Dave Waugh is behind me and when we approach a gate which I cant figure out how to open he moves ahead and opens the next few gates for me. Finally I can see the road and a car and know that I am safe. Dave Waugh decides to continue on but I learn later he pulled out at the next checkpoint
I get to the car which has a chair out waiting for me to collapse into, ice is poured over me and I am given a half litre bottle of sports drink. After 10 minutes or so I am feeling well enough to get into the car for the drive to checkpoint 3.
It’s a long drive and Dave Eadie is quite talkative as is his driver Arty. I try and be polite but conversation is a struggle. The biggest consolation for me is that I will arrive at checkpoint 3 before I am scheduled to so Catherine wont be concerned.
Arriving at the checkpoint, I hop out of the car, well stagger out is probably a better description and look for my crew, I see Catherine and she walks towards me with a worried look on her face and I tell her I’m done. She’s a bit shocked I think and concerned. I sit down and a doctor comes over to check if I am ok.
She diagnoses heat stroke with mild dehydration. My blood pressure was so low that my brain couldn’t get enough oxygen, hence the increased breathing rate and tingly sensation in my face and hands.
Within 10 minutes I am starting to shiver and am wrapped up in thermals, a space blanket and beanie – my thermoregulatory system is not working properly – the prolonged exposure to heat has convinced it that hot was normal so now temperatures are back to normal it thinks I’m cold. A cup of tea goes down like nectar from the gods and 15 minutes later I am feeling much more normal. We pack up and head home and that’s my race done.
Many people have said I did the smart thing to pull out and not risk further injury or illness but there was no decision to pull out. I simply continued until I could no longer stand up. When I realised I was going to have to pull out my focus was on getting as close to somewhere that I could get help from as I possibly could to make it easier for anyone trying to help me.
So how do I feel now? Without doubt disappointed. I love the heat, I love exercising in the heat and pride myself on thriving in challenging conditions. However I didn’t thrive at all, I wilted, big time. It is something of a consolation that over 70% of the field didn’t finish in the most challenging of conditions the race has ever had but I still feel that I should have been up to the challenge.
For the first time since my first ultra I had a support crew who had given up their weekend to help me and I hadn’t even made it to checkpoint 3. I feel like I let them down.
The biggest comfort I can take from the race is that my mind stayed strong, it was the body giving up before the mind.
I felt a huge wave of disappointment well up inside me the day after the race but upon reflection I realise that my race results don’t define who I am as a person. I am more than just a runner. Whilst I spend a lot of time running it isn’t my life.
As I type this I feel empty but know that this will pass. Its just a running race. Plenty worse happens to other people.
The positives to take from this race were hard to find initially but upon reflection there were many.
I got to meet and get to know my support crew; Sonia and Andrew whom I had never met before and Nat who I hadn’t seen for more than 3 years. It was a privilege having them on board and I am so thankful they gave up their weekend to help me out.
The race confirmed what a great bunch of people ultrarunners are. The runners that stopped to look after me did so knowing it could mean the end of their race and for Dave it was. I’m still not sure if he would have pulled out if it wasn’t for me but I am so grateful he did.
The post race comments about all those who had to retire were nothing but positive – there was no question of anybody being soft – the conditions were extreme and it affected some people worse than others.
From a personal point of view I know I stayed 100% focussed right till the end, there was never a question of not finishing until it became blatantly obvious that there was no chance of doing so. I stayed positive until the end and did all I could to minimise the disruption to other runners and race organisers to assist me.
Racing for me is the culmination of a big block of training and is the icing on the cake. I enjoy the whole lead up period; the long training runs, the hill repeats, the speed sessions and everything else that goes into training for an event of this nature. So although I wasn’t able to finish and get to taste the icing I still managed to eat the cake which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Finally racing is an emotional experience for me as I am sure it is for many others. To be able to share that raw emotion with Catherine, whether it’s the joy of finishing or sadness of pulling out, is something that I am always grateful for. She of all people knows what it truly means to me and her love and support is unconditional. To have her support in all that I do is something I never take for granted and am always thankful for.
Since the race I have got some wonderful comments from clients including this gem “whilst it is crappy for you to have a bad time, it is good to know you are human not a robot”. Thanks to all of you for your support.
So what went wrong? Well I’ll leave that discussion for the next post where I’ll look into what the research says about behind heat stroke, EAPH (exercise associated postural hypotension ), dehydration and exercising in extreme environments.