As I’ve seen over the course of the project, not everything quite works to plan. When originally looking at dates for the big finale back in December 2010, everything else was planned backwards from there. So you can imagine my distress to find out Charity Challenge decided to move the dates of the volcano climb from September to October. However, given the other hiccups I’ve had on route, my problem wasn’t that I was being delayed a month, but more – I can’t do 21 challenges in 22 months. What to do……what to do?
The momentum of events had really built, from running the Torch Relay & the Marine Commando course in June, to the penultimate adventure in the Lake District in August, and so it was just too much to have a whole month off. Therefore in true why do things by half style, I signed up to two challenges on consecutive weekends in September.
Why wouldn’t you!?
Challenge 20.5 (1) The Para 10
Following on from the Commando Challenge, I was very much excited by the concept of completing one of the entry tests for the Paras: 10 miles across their Catterick training ground, in full combats & army boots, carrying a 35lb Bergen……forget momentum, this was going to epic!
Given the last minute arrangements, my training was, to say the least, inadequate and far from ideal. But you know what, I was 20 challenges in, surely that would be enough training? NO, NO and NO!! This should have been the response my inner self shouted, but alas, I soldiered on (all puns intended). So after a cheeky and VERY tiresome tab down the Mersey one late summer’s evening with Daniel & Leanne (two people I’d just randomly messaged from BMF, and invited myself to their training session with), I was ready to go. Sort off.
With Mum & Dad as supporters this time, we headed up to the Catterick Garrison, to meet with lots of crazed folk dressed in greens and laden with at least 35 lbs on their backs. Looking back at it now, I should have been more scared, more nervous and much more apprehensive than I was. To tell you the truth, as I was getting prepped at the start with Mum & Dad, I was really excited. The thought of being involved in something like this brought back memories from the Commando Challenge. I’m seriously not comparing my one off challenge to that of the entry to the Paras, but there was a definite sense of pride to be at least taking a few steps in their shoes (or boots as the case should be).
The claxon went, and off we went. I’d heard the faithful claxon more times than I cared to remember over the past 2 years, but running down the supporter lined corridor at the start was really uplifting – especially knowing my Mum & Dad were in the crowd cheering me on at the start, and knowing they’d be there to cheer me back in.
To say that I was running would be a lie. I followed the advice from my brother in terms of yomping (tabbing in the Army, but given him being a Royal Marine, I wasn’t allowed to call it that): run on the downs, speed march on the flat, and then slow it down for the hills. As I was yomping round the course there were people overtaking me, and I was overtaking others. But this was not one of those races. I’d never really run this distance (majority on concrete) with such weight on my back – this wasn’t a race, but a personal challenge.
The hills were bastards, the sun was a killer, and my boots were most definitely out to cause me as much pain as they could. Actually, the hills weren’t too bad – I just pushed myself one step at a time. The sun provided some much needed vitamin D, and my boots had seen me up Kilimanjaro, and along the Inca trail, so were much comfier than expected.
Before you think I’m about to say that this wasn’t painful, that I wasn’t hurting, that I didn’t want to give up and that I wasn’t sweating so much I looked like I’d fallen in a river, I’m not. It was hard. Really HARD!! But I think the mental training I’d done over the last 2 years had gotten me to a place where 10 miles, regardless of terrain, conditions and surrounds, was achieveable with the right mindset.
A little after 2 hours (1hr 50 being the cut off for the Para entry test), I started the last 200 metre incline back up to the start. My usual competitive nature kicked in, as it tends to do towards the finish line.
I picked up the pace, and sprint finished in boots, with my 35lbs across the finish line. I panted and sweated and nearly collapsed, as I picked up my much deserved medal and even more deserved bottle of water. As I checked in with the stand-by Para who weighed all Bergens back across the line to ensure you’d not cheated, I could see my parents coming across.
As I collapsed to the ground, still panting, wheezing and looking like I’d nearly died, the sensation of happiness was not, I have to admit, from it’s usual source; supporting my brother, honouring Gill or raising money & awareness for Help for Heroes. My happiness at that very moment, was borne out of the looks of pride in both my parents’ faces. They’d both supported me so indescribably much throughout the project, and to have them both here to see him compete, complete and conquer, meant more than I can put into words.
Funny that the blood, sweat and tears from the Para 10 were all washed away in that one single moment.
Challenge 20.5 (2)
The mud had yet to fully dry on my boots, when 7 days later I was donning my trainers to take part in another mini race………..the Great North Run. The amazing running team at Help for Heroes had a spare place which I stupidly decided to grab – not fully realising the date on which it fell. But what the hell I thought. Let’s give it go.
Much to my excitement, my super supportive housemate had also signed up to the GNR, to complete her first half marathon. I was excited that 1) we’d be heading up together, but that she’d made the impressive leap from 10k to 13.1 miles.
We headed up to Newcastle, got delayed in traffic, missed the metro and got to the start line with seconds to spare. Luckily, so many people take part that we were still able to squeeze into the crowd, before our section had even started moving forwards. We both ran separately, so as I crossed the start line I pressed play on my iPod and off I went.
The rain started very soon after I started, but was nothing like the Manchester marathon, so wasn’t about to complain at a light shower. Being the largest, or at least the most iconic of half marathons in the country, it was unsurprising to see most of the streets lined with supporters – both local Geordies and friends or family of those running. As I pounded the pavements listening to the cheers from the supporting crowds and charity stations along the route, I was really motivated to push harder.
While there were thousands and thousands of runners, I bizarrely remember feeling quite alone on the race. I’d crossed the start line before Vicky (she’d not been as sneaky as me to jump a fence to get into the line up earlier), so knew there would be no-one at the finish line. No-one I knew alone the route. No-one else, other than Vicky, that I knew running in the race. I was surrounded by people, yet felt so incredibly isolated.
My thoughts collected at varying points along the route, to the last 21 months, everything that I’d set out to do, and everything that I’d achieved. Proud to have gotten this far, but sad that it would soon be coming to an end. Excited to have the final challenge a month away, but petrified about ice climbing, glacier crossing and heading higher than I’d ever gone before.
Then before I knew it, I could see the sign saying MILE 12…………just over a mile to go.
The mile to go was in fact, up a bloody annoying incline that seemed to go on and on and on. With more speedy runners overtaking me, my competitive spirit was starting to drive me mad. I soon pushed the sharp pain in my calves, and blisters on my big right toe, to the back of my mind, and pushed myself on.
Harder and faster.
Down the last hill, and onto the water front, along the final straight and I ploughed across the finish line. Whilst it was not official chip time (which was a tad quicker) my watch read 2 hours, 1 minute and 21 seconds. I could not have asked for a better finish time – 2:1:21
After re-gaining my breath and drinking some fluids, I headed to the charity village, where I bumped into H4H running manager Stewart, and his Mum (both of whom ran faster than me!!), before getting to the H4H tent, to be met with open arms by Hero Bear and H4H Marathon guru, Jacks. Both a very welcome sight.
Unsure when Vicky would finish, the onset of convulsive shivering meant I couldn’t hold out any longer, and reverted to plan B: meet her at the car. When we both reunited after the walk to the metro station, metro ride to outer Newcastle and final walk to the car, a celebratory hug preceded the long journey back to Manchester. Being very British as we are, we over analysed the route and our performance, with a slight tap on the back for a job well done – although, this was a massive underestimate on both sides – Vicky battered, but mega chuffed at her first half marathon / me aching, but mega excited to have finished the penultimate hurdle before Ecuador.
Time to regroup. Time to recuperate. Time to rest.
An Avenue of Volcanoes was calling, and the summit of Cotopaxi was finally in my sights. I’d come so far, travelled even further, and was eventually at the final start line.
Help for Heroes [21:21] Challenge