September 19, 2023
I was nervous at 05:29, we were heading out of the door and about to start. I’m always nervous before an endurance event, not because I don’t think I can complete it - the nerves come from the fact I know I can’t not complete it. Once I start, I know I have to finish it no matter what happens, there is no choice or exit route and that is scary.
Before the run I told Richard (GP and friend) that I'd carry on to the finish whatever happens, no matter how long it took and no matter what was wrong - Richard was one and James was the other, the only two people I was going to listen to if they said stop - anyone else would be white noise, I would ignore. James ran the Marathon des Sables with me.... he knows how these runs can unfold. I guess this may seem strange to many reading, but it's just how I think, I'm going to finish and nothing will stop me, Richard and James were the protection against that mindset going... well, let's not go there. It's a mindset that develops over time, through the long training - the same mindset that says to go further on the days you feel weaker, it's easy to run further on the days that you feel strong - but that doesn't train the mind.
And we are off. There’s not a lot going on at 0530 on Saturday morning, we are soon ticking off the km’s, it’s still dark. We swing past Nick’s house on our route and refill our water bottles and keep pressing on out through Kingston and towards Hampton Court Palace. We make the turn over the river, it’s our furthest point west and we head around and back to the river. From here we will track the river along to South Kensington and the Royal Brompton Hospital.
The first of our supporters join us a few km’s later at Richmond, spirits are high and Cameron starts to jog with us. We are on the towpath, we've covered this route many many times in training, it's very familiar. Then we spot Kajsa (Nick's wife) with their children, cheering us along - there's only a moment, we can't stop, but it's a boost for Nick. We go past Kew Gardens and pull off the towpath by the Greyhound (in Kew) and head up towards my house where we pick up Alex, see Laura (my wife) and kids and get a photo with Allegra.
We are back on the towpath, Alex performing the role of a domestique with boundless energy and enthusiasm, the km's are dropping away and dare I say it - this seems easy. We are over a 3rd of the way through, whilst cool it's not cold, the occasional spit of rain but not enough to bother anyone.
We are running the Boat Race course in reverse, this is Nick and my race track, we know every twist and turn and it holds memories of pain and elation for us both. When we come to Hammersmith Bridge and Rach and Pricey bounce in, there's this momentum building, as each person arrives there is this injection of energy. We are chatting, Alex is telling jokes, we are laughing this is just the best day.
Banter levels are high, we are all high - Nick and I have covered a marathon in distance, but there's this energy about it all. This "train" has formed, we are all just running along, a team is forming, a common goal - to support Nick and I, but somehow the effort is shared. Time flies as we cruise along the embankment, turning up to Sloane Square and back down along the Kings Road. We round the corner and are at the hospital, we have done 50km, we are halfway. Inês is there, camera in hand to capture our arrival. There are 5 runners, many have never met and yet it's like we've known each other for years - there is something about running, it bares your soul.
After a poignant photo outside the hospital we carry on, our next milestone will be Richmond Park where the remainder of the distance will be churned out. Brad catches up to us, we were slightly ahead of schedule and he was caught in traffic.... he doesn't just bring a smile and dose of positivity... he brings tunes. I think we'll all remember running over Putney Bridge that day, dodging tourists and locals alike, nobody watching us knew what was happening - but we did... and that is what matters, this was internal.
We enter Richmond Park, 40km to go, seems close and yet it's still just shy of a marathon! This is when things can unravel, when the questions creep in... the only thing that now remains is - do we have the answers?
It's not about logic and reason, we'd have stopped long ago, logic doesn't say run for 4 more hours when you have run 8, logic doesn't compute what is happening. But it's got nothing to do with logic, this is something that breaks that mould. There is no normal, there is no average, people say I'm insane, people say it's crazy - I just don't see that, in fact I can't even comprehend that. There is a simplicity to it all, a raw and uncomplicated task - complete the journey.
We turn and can see basecamp for the first time... it's raining now... we turn the corner, right along the path, never cut the corner and I see my sister.. my parents... my brother... all there. This train is only pausing, bottles are filled, brief exchanges and "hello" and we are off... back out into the rain. The first of two consecutive laps of the park, we've picked up more runners now, there's an instant camaraderie, the train is moving... Our support crew are just exceptional, no training together, no real plan and yet there is this poetry to the motion, to how everyone meshes together. A bottle falls from a bag, it's picked up, the train never slows.
Less than 30km now... legs are tired.... hurting. Block it out, not a thought to entertain.
Another lap of the park done, it's raining pretty hard now, we round the corner and head up to base camp. Crowds have gathered now... it's time for the kids' run, the train rolls in... Delilah first.. then Basil.
They are there wearing their "I can and I will. Watch me." T-shirts, my eyes well up... the rain hides it. High fives from all the kids as we run along the path. Excitement and smiles - kids don't mind the rain, they see life for exactly what is here in the present.
Allegra is with Laura, Laura looks on, she's been worried about this moment I know, she doesn't like to see me suffer (although sometimes I think she does!). How do I explain to her? I have tried, this may be suffering by one measure, but it is what I live for - the physical pain is insignificant to what I gain. She can see that I am fine, tired but fine... I can sense her relief.
It starts, the kids blast off out of the blocks, no racing from us(!) we just carry on around... 5 laps of a 1km course. The train has gone, we are just running amongst this dispersed crowd - suddenly it's hard, our crew has gone. Nick is hurting now, I am hurting now.... we are exposed and alone even as we are surrounded by people, the protection of our support team has gone.
It was great to see the kids push themselves around the course, the rain pelted down but they smiled, they knew they were part of something and it was great to see. Young and old, they all ran... Some aiming for 2km ran for 5km... there was spirit throughout, in some it shone brightly. Helping each other, pushing each other.. they tired.. but they kept going. One boy asked me how far I had run so far, he told me how far he had run - he looked at me and said he could run as far as me one day - I know who he is, I'm sure he will and that makes me proud.
We had one more big loop to do... this was it, the final part. It may have only been 12km left, but every step is a challenge now, one by one... about 12,000 steps to be precise. 12,000 steps when each one hurts.
They cheered us off... and into the rain we trudged, we were hurting, my hands had swollen... I needed more painkillers and just couldn't pop the tablets out. It goes wrong quickly at the tail end of an ultra-marathon, tiny problems escalate rapidly and become massive obstacles. Nick was hurting badly, everyone has dips.... his was now. Nothing was said, nothing needed to be, it was sensed by the crew. The task was crystal clear and everyone played their part.
One foot in front of the other, repeat until we are done.
Counting down the km's now, we're into single digits, they don't fall away quickly now, the clock seems to be on a go-slow. Henry is on tunes: Metallica "Nothing Else Matters" blasts out, he doesn't know, but this was our 2001 crew song... "Trust I seek and I find in you..." - is there a line more fitting for the support crew runners? I tell him, he nods and smiles... we run together.
We pass the camp, just 1600m to go on my watch, "when do we turn?" there's no way I can work out the maths, my brain is scrambled now, everything is focussed on putting one foot in front of the other.
We are running in.... the clock ticks through 100km.
My hands don't work, I can't really focus on anyone, I know my sister is there, she's taken charge - helping me get dry kit on. Laura is there with Allegra, I think I should get a photo with Nick... I pick up Allegra and we get a photo - I can't hold Allegra any more, my arms are failing. Your body starts to shut down, for some reason it seems to know that it has done the task.
We have done it.
And then it's over, in the car and heading home.
What does it all mean? What have we done? Not that much, hopefully inspired a few, the battle is real but it is internal. Nobody else knows what happens in your head for 12 hours of running, you can't explain all that, I've tried a bit.
Reflecting on the day it was quite remarkable, I wasn't sure what to expect. What I was struck by was this momentum that built, it is hard to articulate, I think anyone that ran in the train will know what I mean, but there was a purpose - far more than just running. People didn't want to stop, everyone ran further than they set up out, Alex was in for 20km... he ran over 50km, Rach started and I don't think she'd have stopped had it not been for the clock and having to collect Jess for the kids' run. Everyone just ran, there was no medal, there was no prize, there was no recognition and yet they ran.
As my legs continue to ache my thoughts turn to "what next?"... well, I think we stumbled upon something here and I feel there is an event in the making, it's not a marathon, it's not 5km or 50km or necessarily 100km.... it's "your 100", maybe it's your 100%, I'm not sure yet but watch this space.
“Wow! Amazing! Well done! Thank you for your generous efforts helping our research team to improve the life of babies undergoing heart surgery!”
- Olivier Ghez
Consultant paediatric cardiac surgeon