I was about to hobble onto a cobbled section of pavement near the sailing school on Monaco's Port Hercule, the Principality a picture postcard of twinkling lights. The drums of the band behind me were fading, drowned out by the thumping bass of the Rascasse nightclub which was still going strong even at that unearthly hour.
I was hobbling because I had already covered 300km since the previous Saturday at the annual No Finish Line event in Monaco. The 1.37km circuit was open 24 hours a day for 8 days, and was a race - the "Race to Nowhere", a phrase coined by my sometime coach, ultra running mentor and friend, Dr Mike "Mad Dog" Schreiber. With Mike's support and encouragement the No Finish Line had become a highlight of my running calendar - an ultra marathon with a twist. I had been running it for about 10 years, but this year my team that had gradually snowballed into a 100 strong behemoth were going for a record. Local business and donors had agreed to give Euro1.15 per kilometre covered during the 8 days, and there was healthy competition for age group trophies, team ranking and overall placings. 40 people had come from all over the world to contest the elite category, napping for a few minutes at a time in hastily pitched tents, but often spending all 24 hours per day running, walking or shuffling around the circuit. My friends, family and I would nip down to the course in the morning before work, at lunchtime and after work and put in a few laps whenever we had a few minutes in between family and work commitments.
I checked my phone for the millionth time that day, staving off boredom and fatigue. It had been a long week with long hours at work and my youngest's 9th birthday party to contend with. I had slept for only 4 or 5 hours a night, putting in as many km's as I could, with the personal aim of top 50 overall, and a marathon a day over the 8 days. From 7pm the previous Friday I had been lapping almost solidly, stopping only to sip a sports drink and have a handful of nuts, or to use the "fragrant" porta potties that lined the seaward end of the port.
My phone blinked with a new post and I received the news that I was dreading. Mike's brother, Marc, posted on Facebook that his elder brother had "shaken off this mortal coil". I was stunned. Only a few days' previously I had been happily exchanging emails about the progress of the race, our team Pussy Footing Around and Adrian, another of Mike's proteges from the UK that had entered the full 8 day event and was aiming for a top 20 finish overall. Although I had never met Mike in the flesh, we exchanged daily emails about life in general, photos of my kids growing up and anecdotes about his life and running experiences. The previous Monday I had received an email commenting on the pictures of my daughter's birthday party, and the great progress I was making with my goal of a marathon per day for the entire length of No Finish Line. It was all I could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other as the fatigue and emotion got to me. I struggled to breathe and tried to continue as best I could, knowing that Mike would not want me to give up.
7pm, New Year's Eve 2008
I put down a book Mrs R had given me for Christmas a few days previously "Life on the Run: Coast to Coast". I had been running the odd trail run off and on since late 2007, and I was doing more and more marathons. Matt Beardshall, the author of the book, was a trail running fanatic and had written a diary of his experiences training for - and running - from one side of the UK to the other on the fabled Coast to Coast route. His was not an organised race, just a group of friends with a car in support, some running, some cycling, just out for an adventure. I couldn't put the book down and finished it in a few days.
I wanted to start pushing the boundaries of my running experience - I knew I wasn't going to trouble the Kenyans at the front of the big city marathons, so I needed to find new challenges. I had read about various events such as the Marathon Des Sables (MdS) - a 250km trek over 7 days in the Sahara desert where competitors carried all their kit, but I thought I needed to build up to that before tackling something so extreme and I had entered a 55km trail race. This was the Neander Trail, held at night over the mountains, and was to take place in late June 2009. I was not overly sure how to start training for such a challenging event, but Matt, in his book, mentioned a legendary ultra runner that had advised and helped him through his training to overcome injury and complete the Coast to Coast.
A simple Google search later and I had tracked down the legendary Mad Dog. To say Mike's resume was extensive would have been an understatement. As his website stated he was the former:
Editorial Consultant on Endurance Training for Weider’s “Sports Fitness,” and “Men’s Fitness” magazines.
Asst. Professor, Biomedical Communications, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
Vice-president, Super Nautilus Sports Training Centers of Houston.
Author of scores of articles on all phases of running, endurance, strength training, aerobic conditioning, and weight loss.
Author of the best selling books:
“Training to Run the Perfect Marathon”
“The Art of Running”
“Die Kunst des Laufens”
ASICS/TIGER said “From the beginner to the marathoner, the best training program any runner could have.”
He was still running and competing in all distances from 5km to ultras, and had signed up for the Kalahari desert race, similar in format to the MdS. Semi retired, he was happily answering ad hoc emailed queries from runners all over the world, and would occasionally take someone under his wing to train for a specific challenge, for a very small fee. I eagerly emailed Mike with details of my current running programme, what I had done and achieved since my first marathon in 2004, and had my fingers crossed that he would accept me as a member of his online training team.
My family had adopted a stray puppy six months earlier, and Lucera, a Spanish Water Dog, had grown into a keen runner as she grew up with us. This struck a chord with Mike. He immediately shared stories about his training runs with upwards of six dogs, years before, bounding through the snow or fields in one of the many different places he had lived.
In 2009, with Mike's guidance and support, I entered 2 marathons, beating my Personal Bests in both. I completed the Neander Trail ultra marathon in the dark, and came in the top 15% of finishers. My love of ultras had been cemented when I descended into Sospel just after midnight surrounded by fireflies, and arriving at the beach in Cap D'Ail as the sun was coming up. After a quick swim in the sea, a text to my wife, I sat down with my back to the sea wall to cheer in the rest of the finishers and to write extensively of my fabulous adventure to Mad Dog Mike. Later that year I entered my first triathlon, a half Ironman, and finished it injury free and smiling. I also participated in the No Finish Line and for the first time exceeded 100km in the 8 days, crystallizing an idea that had been forming in the back of my mind for a while at the same time. I gathered a group of 5 or 6 friends and we entered as a team, Pussy Footing Around, for the first time.
Flushed with success, and buoyed by Mad Dog Mike's enthusiasm, my confidence to enter new and increasingly challenging events continued. I found that not only did I have confidence in my own abilities as an athlete, but I also gained confidence in myself as an individual. Over the next few years I was entering 7 marathons a year, plus an endurance triathlon, and at least 3 of the marathons were ultras of various lengths. I picked up qualification points and in 2011 I completed the fabled Marathon Des Sables 157th out of around 850 entrants, my first and to date my only multi day ultra other than the No Finish Line. The pattern was always the same - after chatting to my family the next email would be to Mad Dog with a detailed review of the race, my experience, what I had found worked and where I could improve next time.
As the years passed, whilst I was still notionally on the Mad Dog Training Team, I found that my experience grew such I knew what Mike was going to say before he said it. The banter we enjoyed was terrific, and I loved hearing stories about how he and his wife had crossed the US on an old Vespa one way, and made the return journey in a VW Camper Van. Or how he never found Barbecues as enjoyable as the ones he attended when he lived in Italy. Or how he had been too young to go to Korea but too old to go to Vietnam, but that he had loved the military life and used to go out for extra runs in his Army boots when the compulsory Physical Training sessions were over. I shared his grief when Sparky, his faithful canine companion, died, and his happiness when he adopted a new pup, Molly the Rottie, followed swiftly by Susie the neglected Collie, and latterly Marcie, another underfed stray.
Mike had as diverse a professional life as he had a personal one. He had spent time as a jeweller, a trainer to the stars in Hollywood, a University teacher, a push bike racer, amongst many other things. He was an ultra running legend before Dean Karnazes was out of short trousers, sponsored by Asics and cleaning up at races over distances that made me wince. We shared many common interests outside of sport and stray dogs, including battered vintage cars and motorbikes of any description. He had built himself a country house (the Castle) in Mexico, and seen the land around him go from the plancha to a built up suburb of the nearby town of San Miguel. He enjoyed walks into town for his espresso and triannual haircuts, accompanied by one or more of his dogs and we lamented the build up of traffic on both sides of the Atlantic which necessitated having our dogs on leads. He would occasionally fly to various locales to race, but the rest of the time would sit at home directing his racing team to personal glory - whether it be the cancer survivor building up to walking to the end of the road and back, or the Ironman champion participating at Kona. Or little old me, a stockbroker from Monaco desperately trying to stave off middle aged spread and see exactly what I was capable of.
A day after the email exclaiming how big daughter #3 was growing, and how great I looked as a clown at her party, I received an email from Mike that he was going into hospital, and not to reply to the email, but that he would email back as soon as he was able. That was the last I heard from my friend and mentor, Dr Mike "Mad Dog" Schreiber.
Saturday 24th November 2014
Reading Marc's words, the only thing that persuaded me from stopping, as I fought back tears, was the thought that Mike would have wanted me to push on and exceed my goals. The fatigue and pain were made that much worse by the grief I was experiencing as the day wore on, but I "channelled my inner Mad Dog" and managed to cover 120km in the 24 hours, allowing me to hit my target of 8 marathons and more in the 7 days. I went home that evening for a cold bath (another of Mike's tricks for speedy recovery) and collapsed into bed exhausted and devastated.
The next day, I had set no alarm but #3 daughter wanted to head back to the track and push to win her age group, so I accompanied her, encouraging her and supporting her much as Mike had done me over the years. She did not make 1st place but gained 2nd, and had covered an immense 101km in the week. In the meantime I had covered 382.25km in total - just over 9 marathons in the 8 days, placing 39th overall. My team, Pussy Footing Around, almost doubled 2013's km record with 9836km, and came 5th overall out of 260. We had grown from a few buddies to about 100 or so friends with enormous shared purpose and team spirit. We had many podiums in the different age group categories. I was so proud of my own and everyone else's achievement, and I knew that Mad Dog would have been too.
I got up on Monday morning and wrote my own training schedules for the next two weeks, a recovery schedule now so ingrained I hardly have to think about it. But write it I did on my training planner despite being tinged with sadness at my loss. The loss of a very good friend, coach, mentor and confidant. I worried about his dogs, and the other members of the team that he had introduced me to over the years - how would they find out the awful news, and who would coach them in the future? Who would I write my race reports to and be filled with pride if they were deemed worthy for distribution to the rest of the team as a motivational tool? I felt a big hole, but Mike had given me the knowledge, confidence and experience to continue alone. Perhaps I'll finally be accepted into the Monaco running club, having been rejected a few times in the past few years. Or perhaps we will formalise Pussy Footing Around into some sort of endurance club. Life and running will undoubtedly go on.