My seemingly miraculous conversion from sloth to marathon runner has had some unintended consequences. The ability to view certain parts of my anatomy without the use of a mirror is one (not that I was ever a mirror loiterer in that regard I hasten to add). Another is the ripple impact onto the lives of others, and in particular those that have known me and my sloth like ways the longest. I appear to have caused two types of reaction – a) total denial coupled with the severing of any further contact, and b) I appear to have instigated a middle aged charge to physical worthiness, heralded by utterances of – “well if HE can bloody do it…”
And so it was that a few weeks ago I found myself traversing continents in order to join in a hastily arranged university reunion, that this time, instead of involving an abundance of alcohol, rich food, fraternisation and some type of event as a supposed central feature for us to watch, actually involved participating, and participating in extreme physical activity. 100km in 24 hours without the use of any transport other than limbs. Day and night. Up big hills. With a back pack. In summer. What were we thinking?
This particular group of chums have always had a special place in my heart – or perhaps more anatomically accurately, a little lower, in my liver. Not that I knew it, being the first to achieve such heady heights in our family, but University was indeed a time to break out of the shackles of growing up, which I had done in the staid but solid middle class environment that was my home, full of “work hard = get rewards” ethics and a “no frittering” approach to life and money. University life was the complete antithesis of this, and I was lucky to find a tight group of like minded individuals to ride this fulsome roller coaster with.
Since those heady days we have done a pretty spectacular job of keeping in touch – finally, a good use for social media – as well as actually getting together every couple of years or so, despite leading very different lives in very different places. Our get togethers have taken in the traditional life stages, big birthdays, engagements, weddings, christenings, divorces and even bigger birthdays, as well as more random catch ups, but almost always with an entertaining and unique post script to go along with each event. None of them particularly big or clever I hasten to add, but at least some of them more than mildly entertaining. These have ranged from “cow-gate”, a near disaster at a particularly extravagant 21st birthday party in the countryside, when a noisy early morning visit from the local police van was somehow expertly defused and down scaled, after a cacophony of cows were reported to be found fully exposed (the accusation was “shepherded”) onto a local highway with the predictable resultant carnivorous carnage ensuing. Then there was the stag do that started with the dubious purchase of an event mascot (group enters pet shop – “sell us your cheapest pet!” – and bizarrely they did) and the gerbil legend of Dennis from Ennis was born. The same stag do ended predictably messily with the departure hall devouring of the stags return flight ticket, meaning an unexpected delay in the return of said groom-to-be to his irate betrothed. More recently, in slightly calmer times there was the unedifying image of a shorts versus skins touch rugby match on a quaint village green with a local populous that really needed protection from the heinous sights of the shirted team, let alone the skins. I’m sure you get the general picture – this is not a group that have traditionally specialised in extreme sports and overt physical pain. It was and is a group that put most effort into low effort fun and frolics, putting them first, second and last on all joint to do lists.
But not this time. This time we were primed and ready for action. The sharing of our training regimes and practice hikes, warts n all (well, photographs of very unpleasant blisters if not warts), helped encourage and scare us, probably in equal proportions. Eight of us amassed from different corners of the world – all intent on conquering our feat and our feet – even if bravado probably did mask a fair degree of concern and trepidation, particularly when we tuned in to weather forecasts. It was turning into a very hot summer.
And then, 48 hours before the starting gun – travesty. The weather gods and the health and safety demons got together and dealt us a low blow. With no prior hint of even the faintest possibility, in the enthused and motivational event count down emails (unless you were adept at reading fine print) – cancellation. Lots of waffle about innovative new forecasting methods and safety first, but ultimately a cop out of a call thrown in at the last minute.
The shock was palpable and the keyboards were hot. Both within our group and within the wider event entrants. Angry emails to CEOs and customer service reps alike, and between us there was even talk of reverting to type and heading for the pub instead. But bizarrely and quite proudly, bravado and derring do won the day for once. Despite no official support, water stations, food, lighting or spare socks being available we decided to persevere. Well, almost. Showing a pragmatic and common sense approach that had certainly been lacking in earlier years, we halved the yomp and ditched the through the night part. 50km in less than 12 hours. Still up hills. Still with backpacks (in fact with fuller ones). And still of most concern, in the searing heat.
8am Saturday morning we amassed from various directions at the agreed compromise start point – a country train “station” in its rawest sense, and we encountered our first problem. The station did have a platform but that was about it. No ticket office, no cafe and most concerning, no toilet. Luckily there were some woods close by, and before we knew it half the posse had taken to nature by imitating what bears probably do, if the saying is to be believed.
A mere 10km and we had our first injury concern. The blistering feet of the sweatiest member of the gang started playing up, enabling him to more than perfect his impression of an orangutan walk, if only for the next few km, before to a small amount of genuine concern coupled with a large amount of mirth, he gave in, and was carted off moaning by our own special support cart.
The mythical heat that had caused the official event cancellation was indeed a more than mild irritant, but it would be stretching the boundaries of truth to see us as playing any type of homage to Lawrence of Arabia. It was a mildly hot summers day in the middle of summer – no more, no less. It certainly didn’t seem to put off a number of other official “events” we passed en route, including a youth group, a heart foundation cycling event and most gallingly a regional weekend outing of a local group of cub scouts. Cub scouts I hasten to add – not even proper scouts. Yet despite these unending distractions causing us to fume more than the heat did, we trecked onwards.
We met up with our support wagon complete with injured orangutan at halfway, dangerously, at a country pub. By some fluke of good fortune the venture did not end there, although one of the party did let the team down by imbibing. Soon after halfway however disaster struck again. And this time it was more dramatic than blisters. Admittedly we had perhaps overdosed in an over enthused way on “health” food and gels and sweets and pure sugar, but none of this surely could have accounted for the drama of the four foot long fountain of projectile vomit that spiralled and splayed it’s way mercurially across the ancient track. This particular individual was probably the single most prepared and trained of any of us, and this time, upon losing him to the magic cart, there was more than a communal gulp and a lump in the throat. Although luckily there was no further vomit I hasten to add.
The final 5km were hard. We lost the track, lost focus, lost each other and in some instances lost the will to live. Shortcuts to the finish were a foolish folly and by the time we hit the river that took us to the chosen end point – a town centre brewery – there were only 4 of us, and two were hobbling badly. Last km now and bizarrely, the two “leaders” managed to get themselves into an altercation about which direction we should be going. Very slyly the two least likely hobbling athletes moved silf-like into the lead. And got into a rhythm. And found the brewery. And hobbled quickly in tandem towards it. And won! We were obviously all victors that day, but in reality, me and my hobbling mate knew that we were really.
The aftermath was painful. Whereas we would have normally been attacking the beers with zest and gusto, the zest seemed to have been shaved off and we did not seem to have enough communal wind for a gusto – although the curry later helped redress that. It was probably the quietest and most non eventful evening we had spent together as a group, ever.
The next day was all about the pain. Pain showing itself in different ways. In fact it was a veritable pot pourri of palpable pockets of pain. Swellings. Blisterings. Headaches. Burns. Vomiting. You name it – we felt it. And it was a different pain to my previous running pain. Nearly 12 hours on your feet in the sunshine clearly takes a toll, even if you do have a hat, and our bodies were giving very clear messages about exertion and age and fools.
But as the haze cleared and the dust settled during our lazy recovery afternoon, one thing became clear. We had actually achieved something together. Something that we would have all felt was “unlikely” at best, a few months before. And that is what life should be about. Continually surprising yourself and achieving the unexpected. And if you can do it in a group, with people you genuinely care about, then even better. My guess is that this is one get together we will be reminiscing about fondly for a good few years to come.