It's been a long twelve months, with some massive highs and some massive lows (read breakdowns aplenty on the Isle of Wight) but I can honestly say this past 12 months has been some of the most rewarding of my life. Not only have friends and family helped me smash my fundraising target for the Alzheimers Society, but I've taken on some things I never thought I would be able to do and have learnt so much about myself. Upsettingly, I think my career as an Olympic distance runner is doomed as I'm still struggling through races towards the back of the pack, but running has created alot of joy and happiness over the last year and is something I'm really glad I started. It seemed apt, therefore, to finish this Challenge Twelve with a last 5km with some giant inflatable obstacles added in along the way to make it even more fun. The best thing also happened at this event for two reasons.
I love swimming. When I swim I get that feeling that people who love running talk about all the time, that feeling of freedom and ease and more importantly enjoyment! The only part I don't love so much is following that black line up and down followed by the sudden confusion after drifting off in thought as to whether this is lap 64 or 66... did you already swim lap 65 or was that your next lap?!? Open water swimming solves all that.
I'd never actually swum open water until this event, having been away with work for 6 weeks in the summer in a location where swimming open water would have probably resulted in a visit to the doctor, but for once I wasn't nervous at the beginning of a challenge. I feel at home in the water, able to submerge into my own little bubble and swim my own race, without worrying I'm going to be the last person out there (in hindsight, after 10 challenges and this not being the case once I think i probably need to get over this!). The biggest concern was whether to wear my wetsuit or not. Having just spent a small fortune on a brand new open water wetsuit and feeling like chrismas had come early when it arrived I felt that I should, but it was uncharitalistically warm and the water temperature allowed swimmers to enter not wearing one. I watched a few waves exit the water and decided more people were wearing wetsuits than not, and if I didn't wear it I was required to spend money on a tow float to be allowed to swim... decision made, wetsuit was going on!
"Done much training?" a lady asked me in the start pen, whilst others around us jumped up and down attempting to follow the warm up.
"Well I just did the Isle of Wight Ultra a few weeks back" I replied, attempting to skirt round the question.
She dived into conversation telling me all about her training walks, the distances she had been walking, and how this was her first ultra. I wondered if I should come clean. The truth is I had done little to no training the last few weeks. 8 weeks ago I stumbled over the Isle of Wight finish line and 4 weeks ago I had similarly stumbled over the half marathon finish line. My body was in pieces. One foot was completely missing a big toe nail, the other had tape holding down the big toe nail that was doing its best to say attached on one side (trust me, this is much more painful than it sounds!) and my legs looked like someone had created modern art with tape on them. It's fair to say I probably wasn't best prepared for the next 100km.
I've been wanting to run a half marathon for ages. I had grand plans to be a seasoned runner by now, but 6 months of injuries, crutches, and a 106km challenge less than 4 weeks ago has resulted in me not being in the best physical state. I had even umm'd and ahh'd about whether to pull out and find a new half marathon in a few months, but the good will of everyone who had donated money towards my challenges convinced me to run it. Last week I went on a do or die training run with the intention of running 15km alone. I knew if I could do that and not be in too much pain I could make it round the 21km in Edinburgh. I had come up with an even better plan of paying for Gareths entry fee last minute so he could run with me and help pace, but last minute turned out to be the downfall of that sneaky little plan as Edinburgh Marathon closed the entries...
I learnt a lot this past weekend, but 2 things really stood out. Number one; 106km is a really long way when travelling by foot. Number two; Organisation and pre-planning are not my strong points in life. I'll try and keep the 106km concise below...
The weekend started on the ferry from Southampton to Cowes, with the sun setting over the sea bathing the Isle of Wight in a beautiful glow. Although providing the perfect backdrop for some pre challenge photos, by the time we had disembarked the ferry and driven to the campsite complete darkness had taken over. Armed with two grumpy dogs, limited light, and an awareness that come morning I probably wouldn't sleep for the next 30 hours, the tent was pitched in record time with personal reminders written that next time we would arrive well in advance.
The challenge itself started on the picturesque south coast of the Isle of Wight high on the cliffs and set off west, heading towards the first major rest stop approx 25km away at the needles. I'd been pretty nervous prior to starting as I was a 'lone walker', but Gareth followed my progress in the car and came to walk parts with me, and I ended up talking to and walking with a number of other people who were alone as well. It wasn't until I started walking that I realised quite how hilly the Isle of Wight coastal path was, and at 22km I have never been more happy to see Gareth's parents faces appear at the top of a very long hill that had been started to diminish my good mood particularly quickly.
The last few months haven't gone quite to plan... my ankle had been hurting for a while but the pain didnt stop me from doing anything so it had kind of become the norm. However, turns out all this running hasn't helped and as the pain got worse I found myself on crutches in December with a suspected stress fracture in my foot. Not one to be underterred, a few sessions of physio, a few sessions of accupuncture and a potential different diagnosis gave me belief that I could at least carry on with ChallengeTwelve as along as I was sensible and looked after my foot. The only solution if I was to continue and complete the ultra challenges later in the year was to do three smaller challenges over the winter that my foot could cope with to give it time to heel. Winter is the worst time to find a range of challenges and I was limited therefore to picking running (not great for unlaoding the ankle!) and therefore sticking to a short distance, hence the last 3 months have consisted of three 5km races. Not being able to load my ankle properly has resulted in frustrating training periods and a lack of progression in my running which has really frustrated me. However, my ankle has been getting stronger each week and I had a realisation the other day that I now class a 5km run as a short distance. If thats not a success then I don't know what is!!
Swimming the channel is an incredible feat. 22 miles of rough sea, shipping lanes and jellyfish separate the English coastline from the French coastline. Currents, wind, and speed of swimmer can all dramatically effect the route each swimmer takes, and realistically, few swimmers will swim 22 miles. Most will swim more, as currents push them away from their desired path and add on many extra hours to their swim. Only a small group of people get to call themselves a channel swimmer, and apparently more people have climbed Mount Everest than have swum the channel.
I am really not a runner. I'm sporty, I like the outdoors, and therefore everyone thinks I should be a good runner. I'm not. Me and running go as well together as alcohol and text messaging. Ok, I used to be an alright sprinter, but the furthest I ever ran back then was 200m. Its that other 4.8km that kills me.
I'm not really a huge fan of heights. Infact, the last time I did something like this was in New Zealand on my gap year where I got caught up in the adventure hype, decided to tick everything off my bucket list in one trip and signed up to bungy jump and sky dive the same week. I was probably the most willing person they've ever had to jump out of the plane on a tandem skydive, but that was based purely on a hatred of planes, and the thought of jumping out of it was better than the thought of staying in it. I try and claim the bungy jump was pretty epic, but if you fish out the dvd hidden safely in a drawer then it becomes quite clear that after the 5th time of being told to jump the guy just loses patience and pushes me off. So loud was my scream, it was picked up perfectly clearly by the cameras positioned across the gorge about 100m away.
So... what a better way to start off Challenge Twelve than a 127m (that's 418ft for you old schoolers) abseil down Northampton Lift Tower. Have I mentioned it also just happens to be the tallest permanent abseil structure IN THE WORLD?!?
A few weeks ago I had what can only be described as a mid twenties crisis. I'd got all inspired reading blogs from people who had quit the rat race and taken on some amazing challenges, creating world records, breaking world records and visiting some amazing places in the process. I wasn't quite prepared to just quit my job and take off, but it started the cogs turning.