“There’s no need for you to do this.”
“You have nothing to prove.”
“If you withdraw the pain will stop.”
“Don’t push yourself. You’re too fat, too slow and too unfit.”
“If you carry on you’ll injure yourself.”
Demons. Some people endure these internal voices all day every day. Some people only some of the time. Very few of us never experience any demons. But during an ultra marathon they are virtually ever present. Sometimes the demons are not just internal, however. Sometimes they arise from other people. Sometimes I feel just like Alice with her Diabetes, and the phrase that just about has her popping out of her skin with apoplexy “Are you sure you should be eating that?” as she has a slice of cake, a bite of chocolate, or a lick of an ice cream, with the rest of her friends and family. Of course she can! She can eat anything she wants, as long as she injects the right number of insulin units in at the same time.
So let me get one thing straight: endurance running does not trigger Atrial Fibrillation. In fact there are studies that suggest endurance running or high intensity exercise can actually help people back into normal sinus rhythm. I have had AF twice that I know of – once towards the end of a particularly grueling business trip across 3 time zones with meetings all day every day and dinners at night functioning on coffee and four hours sleep a night, and once after a period of very high mental stress at work and home, and generally living a very unhealthy lifestyle – I had had a knee injury from December to May and had done virtually no running at all, restricting myself to gym and cycling (I thought that this actually contributed to my stress levels, as I was unable to metabolize stress through running as normal). I had to be cardio verted both times as the drugs merely slowed my heart rate to a halt – causing a little stress amongst the nursing staff on the ward one evening. My cardiologist is very supportive of my endurance running. Since my AF I have had an ablation which, fingers crossed, will prevent further bouts of AF until I am lot older, or perhaps not at all. My father suffers from AF, his sister had a stroke related to AF a couple of years ago, and my father’s brother has a pacemaker. My cardiologist is 100% sure my AF is genetic. AF triggers can be the normal stress, Cocaine, caffeine, to the ridiculous – including one person I know that has AF triggered after eating ice cream or drinking cold drinks.
In July 2015 I tried to run the Cro Magnon – 115km from Limone to Menton. It was about 6 weeks after my first bout of AF from which I was subsequently cardio verted (a sort of mild defibrillation). It was a very warm day. I did not take water from an aid station when I should have, and then inadvertently missed another water stop later on as the signs had been moved. I was very nervous about my heart rate (a very common side effect of AF is anxiety – about it happening again - and depression, as those suffering from it are unsure about their own triggers and cannot live life as they used to as a result). I arrived at the Breil sur Roya aid station after 80km with about 40 minutes to spare before the aid station closed and I would have been timed out. I was however very dehydrated having gone off course to a river to try and rehydrate and then getting lost in the dark woods an hour or so earlier. I tried to rehydrate in Breil but it took so long and I did not have the mental strength to argue with the aid station director when she took my number away from me. It remains my only DNF.
Was my DNF related to AF? Yes and no. Yes: because I was unsure and anxious about my heart during the race, and it sapped my mental strength and slowed me down so much during the race that I was effectively timed out. No, because I had no signs of AF at all, and didn’t for another year after the event, when it came after a period of high stress and 5 months of no exercise.
I mentioned my cardiologist was supportive of my running – the things I have been told to do in order to reduce the likelihood of AF in the future are as follows:
*Reduce stress (it’s really not that easy to do – try it)
*No drugs (not a problem)
*Cut out caffeine (more than 2 years in and strangely I don’t miss it at all)
*When on business trips try and set aside some time to unwind rather than pack in meetings from breakfast and then finish with a dinner / night out
*Watch what I drink
With all that in mind, I took the start line of the 2017 Cro Trail, 115km and 7000m of positive altitude change, 7900m of negative. I had one goal – to finish. Not even to enjoy it, just to finish it. This was about unfinished business and exorcising demons. I had finished the MdS in April with Number One Daughter, but that was more about getting her across the line than me. This Cro was about me. About not giving in to the mental side effects common to AF.
I had trained – not as much as for my previous Cro in 2014 when I ran to the start and back! I had cut back on the long runs when I was on business trips, and so forth. I was a little heavier than I was comfortable with. I took the sticks that Em had used with such success the whole way through the MdS, as I thought that if I had a small injury the sticks would help. How right I was!
I hadn’t banked on the heat. We set off at 5pm on Friday 7th July and I was sweating buckets before I had gone the first kilometer as we climbed out of Limone. As we gained altitude the heat became tolerable, reaching 2400m in the evening sun, passing late hikers heading down to Limone or trying to reach the Don Barbera refuge before they stopped serving their delicious mountain fayre. I took advantage of the stunning cloudless views over the mountains, taking in that I was towards the back of the pack although there were still a few stragglers behind me as we crossed over a bubbling brook wending it’s way down a sharp couloir.
Slowly the pack spread out, as we played a game of tag almost – some people faster on the brief downhills, some faster on the plentiful uphills, and some people stopped to take photos, the click clack of walking poles ever present on the rocks. The first checkpoint came and went – refuge Garelli, where a surprisingly large number of hikers were leaning over the balcony to stare at us, their day over and their weary limbs resting, whereas our day was only just beginning, despite the fact it was 9pm at night. I filled up with 2.5L of water as I had promised myself and took a rare photo.
Demons came and went.
Onwards and upwards on a particularly steep section – I used the poles as my hands, to jab in to the path and then heave myself up. The poles were a real help, despite the fact I hadn’t ever really practiced with them. Years of snow shoing, and upper body sessions in the gym must have helped. As the sun disappeared for the night I took out my headlamp and put away my sunnies, in readiness. Before it got completely dark a few little patches of snow were visible despite the searing heat. The next checkpoint, Don Barbera twinkled into view, not yet 25km into the race, but with a time cut of midnight, a full 7 hours after we had set off. I was pleased to see that I had over an hour in hand. I stopped again to refill my water supplies, and took a cup of hot tea as well. It wasn’t exactly cold when I was moving, but stopping for any length of time and the sweat soaked clothing was chilling. The aid station staff were warmly wrapped up.
Demons came and went.
I moved on and up, the mountains floodlit by a massive full moon in the cloudless sky. I had a bit of a chat to Paolo, wearing a WAA MdS pack. He was Italian but spoke some English (the only English speaker I encountered in the whole race). He was a serial ultra runner, and the 2016 MdS was the highlight of his experiences. However, in the mountain ultras he tended to suffer from gastro issues although was feeling pretty strong. He stopped to chat to some buddies who were first aiders or mountain paramedics, part of the sizeable team that were dotted in pairs or threes throughout the course through the whole race. I went, although he passed me an hour or so later. Ticking off the checkpoints, I arrived at Baisse de Sanson an hour and a half ahead of the 5.30am cut off, and didn’t lollygaggle (as Mad Dog Mike used to say), although they had run out of water and had sent out for more. I got worried and cross as it was dusk and already getting hot and I was getting low on water. They said there was a fountain the near future where I could get more water, but with no real Italian I struggled to converse and didn’t know how far it was. I made it a kilometer or so, and had to sit down for a ponder. A runner passed me and asked me if I was ok. I wasn’t sure I was, but said I was and he carried on. It took a few mouthfuls of trail mix and swigs of my water for me to feel good enough to carry on again, and literally 500m further on was the fountain, and the aid station Land Rover filling up huge tanks with water. I replenished my supply and dunked my cap and carried on.
This marked the long and technical 1200m descent towards Saorge back down at 400m. The sun rose, headlamps were put away and at Saorge I got the news that Mrs R and the kids, as well as our house guests the McGee family would be coming to see me at Sospel. Any thoughts I had of stopping at Breil, like the last time, were banished for good. I was making good time, a couple of hours ahead of the cut offs, and still moving at a decent clip. The route from Saorge to Breil tested my resolve to the limit, though. There were two climbs, very steep and tiring albeit sheltered from the sun’s heat in the woods. Each climb was like a vertical kilometer in about 5km, followed by the brutal descents. Every step brought me closer to Breil.
As I emerged from the woods a kilometer or so from Breil, the sun’s heat was unbearable, and I took my t shirt off. It had been a wicking t shirt but after accidentally been through the ironing pile it no longer wicked effectively, and was working more like a wet suit – retaining the sweat and keeping it close to my body to keep me even warmer. It wasn’t exactly bliss taking it off, the chafing from the pack adding to my discomfort, but it helped ease the heat. The humidity meant that the sweat didn’t dry but a light breeze helped a little.
I pulled into Breil, changed the batteries on my headlamp, ate a Go Bar, availed myself of some Iced Tea in my drop bag, and replenished all my electrolyte powders and trail mix. I also changed my socks as mine were soaked through with sweat and also the toes had come through the ends from all the pressure of the downhills. I also discarded my precautionary knee brace which had worn away a large patch of skin due to being constantly wet from sweat. Applying Vaseline everywhere, and suntan lotion everywhere else, I set off again within 20 minutes, around 1hr 45 before the checkpoint closed. The participants for the Riviera Trail were lining up for their race (which I had done last year), and as I pulled out they all clapped and cheered me, which was a massive boost.
The section from Breil to Peine Haut not only climbed incessantly, it was unsheltered from the midday sun and was roasting. Within minutes sweat was pouring off me, so I once again took the t shirt off, and concentrated on drinking water. I chivvied along an Italian who had stopped within site of the summit at Peine – a small mountain village perched on the top. Having been through there before on multiple trail runs I knew there was a nice cold fountain where we could cool down and replenish our water supplies. Dragging him to the top with me, we both sat down in the shade, dunked our caps in the water, and took long drinks from the fountain. We were joined by some others, grizzled Italians, and before long I left them to it and braved the sun to head off. Next stop Sospel and my crew!
The heat was taking its toll though. I passed plenty of swimming holes which had been full in previous years and previous runs, but this time they were empty. Eventually, about 2km out from Sospel, I was more or less spent and collapsed onto a verge on the cinder trail and tried to get some shade. I called up Mrs R and said I was done in, but she encouraged me to get moving as Sharni and some of the kids were trekking out to meet me. I heaved myself to my feet, and sure enough after a kilometer or so there they were. It was a true sight for sore eyes.
They walked with me and I reached Sospel almost 2.5 hours before the cut off, and collapsed into a chair, whereupon I was set upon by my crew like a Formula One mechanical team swarming around an F1 car changing tyres, filling it with fuel, wiping visors and the like. They emptied my shoes of stones, rubbed suntan lotion into everywhere, fed me copious amounts of trail mix and poured iced tea into me. My water supply was replenished, Vaseline applied to places I didn’t even knew existed, ice put into my cap and shorts, and my morale well and truly boosted. Other runners looked on in envy and the aid station staff, some of whom I knew, commented they had never seen such a big and efficient crew – five kids, two adults and two dogs! I was spoilt.
As I left Sospel I felt like I had just started the race, not travelled the 95km or so to that point. I knew there were two more climbs, and this next one the main one. I kept telling myself that, as I headed up the vertical 800m or so to the summit. There were so many false summits that runners were losing the will to continue. One chap seemed to give up and turned around to head back towards Sospel. Once again I passed Paolo who had had gastro issues, and he asked me when the summit was. I mentioned it was only 1 or 2km to go before we reached it. In reality I began to struggle again, but gritted my teeth and got on with it. The summit would be when the summit was, and not before.
And then of course we reached it, and headed down the cinder trail which I knew would take me to the last aid station – in reality just a trestle table nestling in a little valley, with water and a few deck chairs. I made it, replenished my waters and then headed up the last steep climb, thunder echoing the other side of the valley, the humidity finally looking like it would break into a big storm. I found it helped to say to myself that every switchback would be the last, and gradually a small chain of us formed and headed up together. I overtook a farmer type chap with a huge backpack on and we both sat down at the summit, him wittering away in Italian and me just recovering my breath, eating and drinking. I rang Mrs R to let her know where I was and she said Brad was in Castellar waiting. I then wrapped up my headlamps, phone etc in case the storm caught me up, and headed down the hill, overtaking a couple of hikers, one who had slipped on the loose rocks, but said she was ok as I passed. In fact most people fell on the descent, myself included.
I could hear Brad before I could see him, yelling “Bunsy” as I approached. He was waiting with his bike, having cycled up and been mistaken for a runner or official with his neon yellow cycling top. I hobbled down the road to the village with him, stopping at a water source to dunk my t shirt and rinse myself off. I was struggling to cool down, particularly as we lost altitude. Brad chatted to me boosting my morale and before long he could go no further as the course went back on to the old footpath. The markers became more and more scarce through the woods, and eventually I had collected a posse of five lost Italians, as I was pretty familiar with where we were going. I led them down through the woods, eventually falling over and twisting and cutting my knee on a sharp right turn with loose stones, and was a little galled that the Italians just headed off without me! However they were lost within 500m again and I caught them up and shepherded them through a tunnel underneath the A8 autoroute. It was dark in the tunnel, covered in graffiti and some pretty unpleasant looking paraphernalia in there. Noone had a headlamp handy, not quite night time yet, and so I bravely offered to bring up the rear letting the rest of the guys go ahead of me!
All that was required now was a long hobble into the old town of Menton. Despite being on our feet for over 28 hours, people were able to put in a burst of pace and would overtake me, but that was fine as job number one was to finish before the cut offs, and that was definitely happening. One chap took pity on me and suggested we approach the line together. I saw Clara which was a bit of a shock, just before the steps down to the beach, and then as we passed the restaurants before the finish I could hear Brad, Olive and Graham cheering me along.
I crossed the line in 28hrs 43 minutes and 26 seconds, over an hour ahead of the 30 hour cut, and in 93rd place out of some 260 entrants. Only 108 people finished. It was a brutal course, made harder by the heat and humidity but it was amazing to have finished.