This is a phrase I would soon get used to hearing, over and over again.
And I don’t recall the exact day it happened — I was probably in the bath, daydreaming of an exciting challenge somewhere overseas and remote. It did however, come in the wake of a hard decision not to do the Marathon des Sables as it would be too much on top of transitioning from the military.
It wasn’t something that immediately occurred to me. Sometime In late 2015, I decided that I would aim to to set a new world record for carrying weight in the London marathon.
I’d read about an aid worker who had just, that year, set a new world record for the fastest marathon carrying an 80-lb. backpack. Taking just under 6 hours, He’d taken 8 minutes off the world record and raised thousands for charity in the process. If he could do that; then surely I could?
So it just happened. The idea. It kept on coming back to me, over and over again. Like I could just reach out and touch it. If he could carry an 80-lb. pack for 26.2 miles — then maybe I could do it with a 100-lb. (45.36kg) pack. I was surprised no-one had ever done it — I’ve had one or two podium places in low level Taekwondo competitions, but nothing quite on this scale. Nothing that would put me the best at something in the entire world! It’s daunting when you say it out loud: The; Entire; World.
That phrase again; it started coming out from more people around me. Friends, work mates, strangers at parties.
Another line that would become synonymous with what I was telling people I would do.
It’s March 2016 and almost 3 months into training — things weren’t going as well as planned. I’m following a self-directed training programme and quickly getting bored of walking around with a 50-lb. backpack. In need of more interesting training, I made a foolish decision to go to a Brazilian Jujitsu training session thinking it would be good for my cardio and core strength. The session was exactly what I needed; good, hard competitive training combined with learning new techniques — I was in my element — back to the fun days of sparring and hard workouts.
Then it happened; the final sparring session and I’m caught in an arm lock by a more experienced grade. He has my arm in a tight lock between his knees and no matter how much I wriggle; I can’t roll out of it. So I change tack and start thinking I can just yank my arm free.
Pop! I feel the sound reverberate through my bones all the way up to my eardrums. And just like in The Matrix when Neo is dodging Agent Smith’s bullets — time slows right down to a crawl. My arm feels like it’s just been set on fire and the flames are competing in a race to my mouth.
I bang the mat as hard as I can, again and again.
But it’s too late.
I leave the dojo with a purple bruise the entire length of my arm and a suspected shoulder ligament tear. The next day, I can’t even lift my arm without it feeling like someone is stabbing it with a red-hot poker. As if I’m expecting it to somehow heal in 2 days; I gingerly pickup the backpack and am confronted with searing pain throughout my entire shoulder.
Sad and dejected; the idea of become a world record holder disappears slowly from view into a murky abyss of doctors appointments, Internet searches of physiotherapy and compression bandages (which apparently aren’t used anymore now kinesiology tape exists).
But at my lowest point, I learn that the human spirit can endure more than you’d think. After the initial feelings of foolishness and self-admonishment subside I find myself slowly renewing my determination. After all, I’d trained through injury before and got out the other side okay. Tearing my Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) in 2009; I took a risk to go through 15 and a half months of Royal Marines Commando training less than 5 months afterwards. With a highly unstable leg, there was a huge risk that it could be exacerbated, or at worse, really hammered to the point of needing permanent walking aides.
And so my determination came back — even bigger than before. In life, you need setbacks to understand how you react, and what you’re really made of. If you embrace defeat so readily, it’ll become habit and you’ll take that route whenever you hit a brick wall. Similarly, holding onto something that you’re not ready for is just as bad — it will manifest in other parts of your life; relationships will sour and life becomes ‘sans lumière’.
I had to compensate for this setback; I’d planned to move to the full weight (100-lbs.) 3 weeks out so that I didn’t overload my joints and create a stress fracture too early (as I had seen in some of my batch mates during Commando training). And now, at 7 weeks out — I put the last of the weight discs into my already straining backpack. This would be it — time to quit complaining; time to get the hell on and do it.
The doubling in weight was immediately obvious. I couldn’t even get the bag onto my back without an upturned-turtle routine that would involve 5 minutes of groaning, sweating and swearing. My first training walk (with full weight) was an eye opener; bringing with it more doubt and concern of taking on a challenge too far. During my 20 km training sessions, I was only 3 minutes under my pace time and ready to collapse at the end. With only 6 weeks to go, and struggling to even complete a half marathon with the full weight – I couldn’t help but start listening to the internal monologue.
But then something happened. Something I had never banked on, planned for, or even expected. I learnt how to control my focus. Reading a book about mindfulness; I started to apply some of the techniques to my training walks. Using breathing techniques, I could control the intensity of the pain from my blisters, shoulder and joints and solely focus on putting one foot in front of another for over 20 km. In fact, it was so powerful – I stopped listening to any music altogether, so I could focus on my breathing. Time during training sessions would disappear and I found myself becoming mentally calmer.
Now I had started to regain control of my own performance; another issue would present itself. In my early planning, I had figured I would need a small support team to meet me every 2 hours with food, water, nutrition and support equipment. Realistically, a team of 4 people could meet me with everything that I would need. Now, in walking distances of up to 30km – I realised I would need to to be met more regularly – closer to once every hour.
3 weeks out and I started to panic; asking close friends to give up an entire Sunday to race around London just to hand me some energy gels, salt tablets, Vaseline and fresh socks would be a huge ask for anyone – let alone at short notice. But again, I was surprised. When I explained what I was doing; friends rallied around me to help me reach my goal. With 1 week to go – I now had a dedicated support team of 11 incredibly capable helpers that I knew I could trust to meet me at the right place, at the right time with exactly what I needed. My success would depend on them and I knew I was in good hands.
The morning of the race and I woke up with a dry mouth having grabbed just an hour of fitful sleep – mentally rehearsing the race all night long. This was it – no chance to back out now. I had told everyone I would create a new world record and today was the day I was going to do it. I could barely eat the breakfast of porridge, yoghurt and bananas that I’d prepared the night before. My heart rate would race just standing around and I felt sick as I tried to eat. I’d surveyed some of the rendez-vous (RV) points with the 2-team leaders the day before the race and knew the plan was sound; but it did little to stop me feeling anxious.
The holding pen was a field of nervous energy. What if the team were delayed or worse; prevented from getting there altogether? What happened if I got half way through and gave up – would I be able to look people in the eye afterwards? To qualify for a world record, I would have to get an official finishing time – this meant that I had to get over the finish line in less than 8 hours (the point when the timing mat is removed). I’d trained for a 7 hour 50 pace to give me 10 minutes spare – but this would only give me a maximum of 2 minutes at each rest stop – I could only hope this would be enough time to do everything I needed to do.
It’s 10 am when the starting gun finally fires, and the crowd starts shuffling like a giant accordion. With the help of some bemused strangers, I put my bag on and after 5 minutes, begin to move towards the starting gate. Using my mental calming technique, I regain control of my racing heartbeat; this is a marathon not a sprint after all.
I reach my first RV after 50 minutes. Having done 5km in that time I’m quicker than my planned pace and - despite being over taken by around 25,000 people in the first 3 miles – feeling good.
Over the next 3 hours, I slowly pace my way around the southeast London course taking in the famous sights of the Cutty Sark, Shard and Canary Wharf, all the while getting overtaken by other competitors. After 15km, I reach the forth RV and I start to feel the familiar pain of heat blisters. At just under half way – I have to start icing my feet as they swell with the weight of carrying a 45kg backpack on top of my 110kg body. Despite being surrounded by well-wishers cheering you with all their heart; doubt is still washing through my mind like ink drops diffusing in water.
With 21.2 kilometres under my belt, the mental battle becomes a little easier.
For some reason, this phrase pops into my head and becomes my mental cooling balm.
I say it over and over again as a way to distract myself from the fact I’ve still got over 20 kilometres to walk carrying the equivalent weight of a domestic toilet; huge blisters rubbing in my trainers and only orange energy slime to eat for the next hour until I see my support team again.
The kilometres slowly disappear and I seem to become increasingly aware of the computerised female voice in my ear telling me my distance, pace and how long I’ve been going for.
It’s now that I really start to rely on my support team to keep me in high spirits and focussed on the goal. As I roll into the RV, they work together like an F1 pit crew to do everything that needs doing. I get guided to a chair, sat down and handed fresh water and food, whilst my shoes and socks are taken off and bags of frozen peas are shoved under each foot. I get shoulder and leg massages along with encouragement and banter. My hands have now swollen to double their size due to the bag restricting circulation in my shoulders. Trying to grip anything or use dexterity becomes a real challenge so I resort to opening energy gel packets with my teeth and spreading half of the sticky orange goo across my face.
With just under 13 kilometres to go, the strain is increasing. I’ve had 2 sock changes, iced my feet and waxed anything that moves in the hope I can keep the chaffing to a minimum. My friend Dave takes the initiative and starts walking with me to keep me company. He’s wearing a cotton shirt, jeans and deck shoes but walks 10 kilometres with me anyway, chatting about all sorts to keep my mind off the enormity of the task. This small but powerful gesture draws my mind away from my searing hot feet and into a familiar world of fun and piss taking. After an hour and a half of walking, we meet the remainder of my team for the last 3 kilometres and what is the hardest part of the entire challenge.
After 7 hours of near constant walking with half of my usual body weight extra, I’m now in the final furlong of the challenge. 5 months of training has got me here, and now the spirit of the people around me is what’s getting me through each step and the searing burn that is running through my shoulders and feet.
It’s now 7 hours and 46 minutes since the pistol shot signalled the start, and now, here I am looking at the finish line, not knowing what to feel. In 5 more steps I will have done something that no one has ever completed on record.
But I don’t feel like shouting or celebrating. No overwhelming sense of emotion at completing something I’ve worked at: Just a strange feeling of relief, happiness and peace. No more having to eat twice my usual intake of calories, or spend up to 5 hours every Sunday walking around Guildford with a huge bag whilst people shoot odd looks at me. It’s done. Finished. The thing I’ve spent so long prepping for and gearing towards has just ended in the same way it started – with a single step.
My journey was a microcosm of life. In striving to reach a goal you will encounter setbacks on your route: you’ll get knocked down, become dejected and sometimes – feel like you just can’t carry on. But it is the people that you surround yourself with that pick you up, dust you down and send you on your way.
Whilst I pushed myself through the physical training sessions; it was the sum total of my supporters’ actions – the encouragement to get out training, support to eat well and highlighting my cause to increase donations – that bought the start line closer to me. On the day, it was the team that got me through when I reached my perceived limits – their encouragement, motivation and moral support was the difference between stopping at the 30 km point with severe blister pain, and making it to the 42.2km finish line and into the record books.