The woman doubled up and vomited on the grass next to the table - itself not out of place in an English beer garden. I was placing the bladder back into my back pack, muscling my way between the exhausted bodies. The woman retched again, a passenger in her own body. She was unable to move, speak, cry, do anything except purge her stomach of everything it contained, especially the gels she had been eating a few seconds before. Her companion weakly sat and watched, waiting for her to stop. More runners came into the make shift aid station as the two volunteers milled around chatting, about whatever people chat about at 3.30am, 21 plus hours into an ultra marathon. Noone batted an eyelid at the poor Japanese competitor chucking her guts in the middle of it all. I left as quickly as I could, knowing that to sit down would possibly be the end of my race - I only had one more marked climb up to the Col de Tricot, a full vertical kilometre from where I stood with a gradient of 1 in 3, but then it would (mostly) be downhill to the finish. I gingerly stepped around the "pavement pizza", waved "merci" to the volunteers, and put the poor girl's misery behind me.
Many many hours before I had been nervously standing in the dark on the start line, accompanied by my brother in law and eldest daughter. We had woken before 4am to catch the bus from Chamonix to Courmayeur, and the start of the Trace Des Ducs De Savoie. I had chosen this race because I was intrigued. I had fulfilled my ambition of completing the fabled and famous UTMB in 2013, and I wanted to repeat the experience, challenge myself afresh and combine the whole lot with a holiday. The TDS was listed on the UTMB website as more difficult than the UTMB, despite being shorter, because of the " Unclearly marked paths ; very long ascents and descents ; exposed passages secured with a rope ; use of hands necessary to balance oneself ; remote itinerary ; altitude 2700m ; few refreshment points". Another attraction was that it finished on a Thursday morning and I could enjoy the rest of the week and weekend having a real holiday!
Of course, since securing a place, events had overtaken me and I had something to prove. A week on the cardio ward followed by a cardio version to reboot the ticker at the end of May hadn't set me up at all well for my early summer challenges. I had just about managed to stagger round the Nice Ironman course, and then of course DNF'd in my home event the Cro Trail. I had underestimated the need to relearn mental strength, but also new skills (no caffeine, stable and low heart rate - at altitude). All summer I focussed on the TDS as redemption. I didn't think I could live with another DNF.
I started right at the back, against my routine but better to speak with my support crew, and did not really register the music that was playing at the off, although Number 1 assures me it was Ride of the Valkyries, a UTMB speciality. An easy jog through Courmayeur and before long we were power hiking up the first of many steep climbs.
We had been briefed for a very hot day, and my pack had the 2 litre bladder plus a 330ml bottle strapped to the front. My plan was to get water at every aid station, starting from the first, discipline being the key to not getting dehydrated later in the race - another lesson from the Cro. I was already 1 pee down by the first aid station, and had not used much of my water but who knew what the future held, so I topped up my bladder at the Arete de Mont Favre, before shooting onwards and upwards.
The next section was quite frustrating - very processional single track, albeit with beautiful views on the Italian side of Mont Blanc / Monte Bianci. The lycra clad queue kept stopping as further up the track someone stopped to take photos, so I ducked up the inside to overttake, arousing much consternation from other runners as I did so. Finally the track widened, and I loped along the flatish track before heading up the very steep switchbacks up to Col Chavannes. From the bottom it reminded me of an executive toy - the reds, greens and blues t shirts moving visibly to the left, whilst the line above went right, the line above that went left, a seething mass of ultra trailers.
The views were breathtaking, grass carpeted valleys in every direction. From the Col, a joggable 10km cinder track descent to Alpetta before a gradually increasing gradient up to the Col du Petit St Bernard. I was expecting to see #1 and Gavin there, and was looking out for them as I passed an achingly beautiful lake before climbing the seemingly impossible last 100m or so, using hands as well as feet for purchase. Cresting the top #1 intercepted me and we jogged together to the aid station, greeted not only by Gavin but the whole crew - sister in law, two nephews, all 3 kids and Mrs R! What a morale booster. A quick in and out for water and a handful of trail mix and I was on the long and steep 15km descent to Bourg St Maurice, the first checkpoint where assistance was allowed. I was already feeling the brutal terrain in my legs, with the downhills giving others ample opportunity to pass me. But this was my race, and my plan was to try and keep the Ups to about 15mins per km, and about 10mins per km or quicker on the downs. I knew that if I could keep that up I would be well ahead of the cut off times, and able to just enjoy the race.
I put a foot wrong on the descent, and I swear I heard something snap in my right leg, that which had given me so much grief since the Cro and all summer. The pain was intense, so I took an emergency Doliprane and focussed on putting one foot in front of the other. I had come to expect set backs in ultras, I just had to put this new development down as a set back and keep moving. Pain is temporary...
I reached Bourg in the heat of the day. It was hot. Needles were nudging 30 degrees. The family were there to greet me, and as only 1 was allowed to administer assistance #1 had demanded that it was her role. I filled up my pack and put Iced Tea (not being allowed Coke is a bit of a downer but Ice Tea performs a similar role) in my emergency front bottle. I knew that the coming climb would be massive - 1500m in a very short distance, in roasting heat. #1 replenished my powders, emergency Doliprane, Vaseline and massaged my legs with Voltarol anti inflammatory gel. Almost human again I walked out the aid station a mere 10 minutes after I'd hobbled in.
Onwards and upwards. 1149m of "up" in 5.3km to the Fort de la Platte. The climb had been brutal in the heat. There were bodies everywhere, under any shade available on the way up. That run to Cannes in 40 plus degrees a few weeks before had probably done me more good than I could have ever hoped. I hung my pack on the milking machine in the farm yard, filled up both my pack and bottle from the tap, and said a thankyou to the running gods. Both pack and bottle were completely empty, despite filling my bottle from a standpipe on the ascent.
The sun was starting to wane not lessening the staggering beauty of the whole run. I had gleaned from the blogosphere that the descent from Passeur Pralognan was very technical with ropes and mountain guides helping runners. I kept moving, finally finding a fellow English speaker to share the trail with for a while. I chatted with Rachel, a transplanted Aussie living in London until she paused to take a photo and the descent became more technical. I enjoyed the descent and hands and feet ascent (don't look down!) to the Col. Then the rope assisted descent, not as bad as advertised although you wouldn't want to lose your footing. Still in daylight I jogged the flattish cinder trail to the drop bag station at Cormet de Roselend, joining some more Brits before they jogged off ahead of me on their own timetable.
Geoffroy was already in the aid station when I arrived. I just put on some more layers and a headlamp, filled my pack, and after a few minutes said goodbye to Geoffroy leaving him in the aid station. I may not have been the fastest mover on the trail but I was very disciplined about keeping aid station time to a minimum which helped immensely. I was 3hr 45 mins ahead of the cut off as I left, and thoroughly enjoying myself.
My good humour was sorely tested by the mud as I slipped and fell several times crossing creeks in the half light, and before long it was time to light the Petzl and enjoy the stars. Occasionally I'd look up and be unable to distinguish between the a bright star and a runner's headlamp far into the distance. La Gitte was where I encountered the unfortunate Japanese runner. I have no idea whether she finished or not, but it didn't look good when I left.
"What's the landscape like?"
"It's like running on the moon. Grey/white rocks everywhere. Undulating. Difficult to get a purchase."
"It's not too bad. It's a clear night. Anyway, sorry for waking you up. I'm losing reception. Get some sleep and I'll see you in Contamines."
I had a brief, signal testing conversation with Mrs R at midnight, happy to be moving in the fresh air, well above the tree line as I had been for most of the day. I was then passed by 2 runners in full body lycra, and I fell into step behind them for a while, chatting. They were locals, from LES Contamines (emphasis on Les - NOT Contamines!). Eventually they pulled away and I was on my own again, snatches of music audible on the wind from some far off party. The trail wound it's way through the moonscaped plain, before ascending some unmarked Col and then descending, very technically - think hands and knees and steep drop offs, to La Joly aid station. A girl cheered runners into the tent with a microphone and a bit of chat - "Good evening Benjamin. How are you feeling?"
"Nickel!" I yelled in return, before filling my pack and overtaking the dozing and eating participants as I exited almost immediately.
Down to LES Contamines, the second of the assisted aid stations. Despite the almost 1km of descent between La Joly and Contamines, I was boosted by the thought that Mrs R would be there to see me, and administer, but was still struggling. Almost 2 hrs of descent passed in a blur before a long slog along the river to the village. I was past running, just shuffling as quickly as I could into town to be greeted by an effervescing Jack, a tired looking #1,2 & 3 and nephew. I was shabby, but so were they and I had been on my feet for 21 plus hours. Mrs R was a vision of cheerfulness in the aid tent, and dutifully rubbed Voltarol into my aching and bruised quads - particularly the right one, replenished my Doliprane, vaseline, nuts, powders and water. She pushed me out the aid station with a morale boosting "Only 2 more climbs - you're doing amazingly well, overtaking loads on the uphills! You're in something like 700th place now."
I was stunned. I knew I had been right at the back of the pack at the beginning, perhaps 1200th or so, but to have gained 500 places was amazing. Nothing for it but to dig in and get moving, with no further aid stations until I had traversed all the way to Les Houches. The first part of the climb was hard. But nothing like the second. Headlamps were visible snaking an almost impossible trajectory up the near vertical hillside to Col de Tricot. 1163m of Up in 7.0km. I had to stop and sit a couple of times to regain my composure but was pleased to put a gap between me and the other headlamps on the hillside. The switchbacks were scarily steep, taking the worst possible route up the hill. At times I thought it was nigh on impossible, but replayed Pain Is Temporary, Keep On Moving and other three word mantras to keep me going. Eventually the summit was breached. I yelled "Mon Dieu" to the marshals at the top scanning everyone's chip, breathed deeply, overtook a few other exhausted bodies and started down the hill, avoiding bushes, rocks, deep trenches cut into the path from the earlier rain, and a few jersey cows. I slipped a few times on cow shit, ending up face first in a bush on one occasion which thankfully broke the fall.
As the sun rose I managed to team up with another Brit, Mark, and he was happy for me to lead the descent. It felt fast and fluid despite the slippery mud and drop offs from the rocks, but eventually I bonked and had to stop to sit and dig into my pack for half a Go Bar, leaving Mark to tackle the rest of the descent on his own. A few minutes later and I'd caught him as we queued for the rickety footbridge to cross the raging torrent below. I had heard of this bridge - maximum 2 at a time to cross. The planks were 2 x 2, held by ropes hanging from ropes strung across the gorge. When my time I ran across full pelt trying to ignore the frothing milky water a few metres below me and the swinging from side to side of the bridge itself, not to mention making sure my feet struck directly in the middle of the planks. The race was nothing if not an adventure - I liked it! Petzl off as the sun was providing enough light to see by, and onwards!
Despite the fact I had climbed the last visible climb on the course profile, I was still climbing and descending almost constantly. One descent had some more ropes with a queue of exhausted runners slowly making their way down. There was a tiny path, about 6 inches wide, along the rocky cliff face but too low for the rope users to be on. I decided to risk it and shot down the path overtaking the peloton as I did so. I didn't look down and was thankful the mud held.
I had to have another seat and munch just after Bellevue losing Mark for the last time, before descending the Chavants into Les Houches. A very quick scan and top up of my back pack before shuffling the last 8km of undulations alongside the river into Chamonix. As I emerged onto the road a spectator was holding tea. What I wouldn't have given for a hot cup of sweet tea. "It's cold if it makes you feel any better! Well done! Keep going, nearly there!" I hadn't realised I was speaking out loud, but thankful for the boost she gave me with her words.
I was being regularly overtaken but hadn't seen another runner for 10 or 15 minutes when I heard footsteps behind me. I turned and saw a couple out for a jog. They saw my British flag on my dossard and spoke to me in halting English. "Keep moving, just walk for now. In 300m you'll be in Chamonix. The crowds will line the street and help you to run."
I thanked him weakly and continued my hobble into town. He had been right. A dribble of spectators gave way to a stream, then a river, then a flood, and eventually I met #1, the advance guard of my support crew. "Keep going Papa you've done amazing. Nearly there!" She was joined by Mrs R, #2 and & #3, and the 2 dogs, and I was flanked by them as I ran the last 100m to the finish, Jack nipping at my heels the whole way.
Job done. 478th out of 1813 starters and 1200 finishers. 27hrs 03 minutes. Painful and exhausting but exhilarating all the same. "Happiness has something to do with struggling and enduring and accomplishing" I saw once on Emilie Forsberg's blog. I couldn't have put it better myself.
"I'm just gutted. I'm so dehydrated. There's no way I can get to Breil by 6.30pm."
"Don't worry, we checked on the internet. They cut off is at midnight. You still have time."
In my confused and dehydrated state, I had somehow switched the key cut off times and I had had it in my head for the previous couple of hours that the cut off for Breil was at 6.30pm, only a couple of hours in the future, as opposed to midnight. I was sitting, slumped and defeated at La Brigue, one of the smaller ravitellement posts - in reality just a town fountain, and Mrs R had put a towel on my head and was pouring Perrier and iced tea into me by the gallon. I had taken to iced tea since my moratorium on high caffeine drinks such as Coke, due to my prior episode of Atrial Fibrillation.
The 2am alarm, and 4am race start seemed like eons ago. Just over 220 of us, about 175 Cro Trail (120km) racers and about 50 Margueries (80km) racers, had set off from Limone at 4am that morning. I felt physically ok but still fatigued at the start - not enough sleep in the week prior to the race and virtually none the night before the race itself. I hoped I could run it off. I had also been suffering from nerves - nagging doubts about the Atrial Fibrillation. I had my emergency blood thinner in addition to my 8kg or so of compulsory equipment.
I set off at my own pace, heading up the hill to be greeted by a spectacular sunrise over the top of Limone. I had my heart rate monitor on, and was careful to keep within my pre assigned limits. I was already sweating - a precursor to the infernal heat that was to characterise the rest of the race, a lot of it set on the upper echelons of the Parc Margueries, at times a carpet of wild flowers, at others a barren moonscape, all of it utterly stunning. But no shade.
The race was familiar territory - up and down, up and down. I had a little twinge in my left calf on the first real flat section of the race, but I managed to stretch that out and carry on. One foot in front of the other; enjoy the scenery.
I had filled my bladder at Refuge Garelli, and as we climbed out I was moving ok, despite a lot of friendly traffic as the walkers left the refuge for that day's fun. It was steep and not particularly technical, but I lost my footing on a rare rocky section, put my other foot down and it found nothing but air. I pivoted on my own axis and landed a couple of feet below where I had been, my hip and calf bearing the brunt of the fall. A quick damage assessment, and I found I could move but I had a little pain in my right calf. I stretched but after a few minutes it came back. Nothing for it but to just get on with it.
The sun rose and became relentless, no cloud cover or the shade of trees, and by the time I hit the long and technical descent to Tende I was having a complete sense of humour failure, having run out of fluids quite a bit before. My calf pain had migrated to my knee making descending very tricky, the sun was at its peak and my mouth was full of something akin to brick dust. My Garmin had decided to crash some time earlier, rendering distance and heart rate functions useless, and was now just an oversized watch. The fountain at Tende was a sight for very sore, and annoyed, eyes. I filled up my bladder and rehydrated myself before getting a medic to check my knee.
A quick cold spray later and I was off again, about an hour before the 3pm cut off time, but not moving much quicker than I had been before. I checked in with Mrs R, and for the first time texted her the words "Contemplating Abandoning". The fatigue I had at the start had made the pool of my mental capacity to deal with set backs very shallow, and I had already reached it. Mrs R rang me in a panic - she was waiting for me at Breil. I knew I didn't have it in me to reach Breil by the cut off time: in my head 6.30pm. Any remaining morale evaporated, and I just wanted to disappear into one of the many cracks in the dusty path.
It was a mere 5km between Tende and La Brigue, with a 4.30pm cut, but it took me two hours to hobble there along the sharply undulating footpath. Unexpectedly Mrs R, #1 and the two dogs were waiting for me with iced tea, a cold towel and a variety of other liquids. As well as the welcome news about the Breil cut off time. I knew if I could get there I could at least salvage some sort of return from my efforts by the ITRA points attributed to the Marguereis finish, although I would still be down as a DNF for the Cro. My crew picked me up, gave me a boost and I felt almost human as I left. Next stop Fontan and the 7pm cut.
I teamed up with another runner - he had been the last finisher of the Cro the previous year, and was struggling too, however he was moving fluidly and seemed in better shape than I was. We chatted in French as we shuffled along footpaths and tracks, but eventually he left me as we descended to Fontan, my knee preventing my descending at anything other than a hobble. I was receiving cheerful texts from Mrs R and crew to keep my morale up, but I was exhausted.
I left the aid station in Fontan, bladder replenished, with as much cheer as I could muster having overtaken several other runners, similarly disheartened by events. I had beaten the cut by about 30 mins, but the climb out was brutal. It was still roasting hot, and I could feel my heart pounding as, with my hands on my knees, I pistoned up the hill. I texted Mrs R and said I was worried about my Heart Rate but the phone reception was patchy at best I couldn't really get my point across.
I passed 4 or 5 other runners, several of whom were vomiting, before I lay prostate on some grass under a tree and tried to slow my pounding heart rate down. The blood in my ears was deafening and I was on the verge of panic. A few deep breaths, fiddling with Garmin, and I managed to get a patchy reading from my chest strap. 140, 130, 120, 99...all in quick succession. Phew. The fact it was coming down was a massive positive, I wasn't in AF and didn't feel like I was about to be. It was strange - one moment I felt terrible, and then with certainty I was cheering up and felt ok.
In the meantime, my position on the grass meant I had picked up my own personal cloud of flies. I was not sure why, but as I made forward progress I seemed to collect more and more flies, biting any exposed flesh they could see. I batted and waved them away and tried to get up the climb as quickly as I could.
On the descent down to Saorge I actually started to enjoy myself, possibly for the first time that day. The flies were still with me, the cloud as big as ever, and joined by a couple of wasps I started to imagine I was Ernie the fastest Milkman in the West and the sketch at the end of every Benny Hill show with more and more people chasing him. The flies and wasps were my conga chain. At some point I was stung by a wasp but I don't remember the exact incident as the pain all melded into one. Cheerful texts from Olive and Graham, who had put me up the night before in Limone, as well as Mrs R and the kids, all helped to keep my spirits aloft.
The temperature was dropping to something akin to bearable, and I chatted to an old lady as she descended from her house to Saorge on the dirt track. We were going at the same pace, although she must have been in her late 80's and was off to play Bingo or whatever they do on a wild Saturday night in Saorge. I was 70km into my day. There was a promised fountain in Saorge to fill up our water supplies, but I must have missed it, and did not pick up any spare. I did cross a large river at the bottom of the valley but did not fancy filling up my bladder there as there was a guy swimming naked about 10 metres from the marked crossing. Upstream. Nothing for it but to carry on. One long and steep climb, and then lots of short climbs and descents later, and I had run out of all fluids, energy and positive mental attitude! I was passing people at a rate of knots, the sound of crickets and odd rustling from nocturnal animals disturbed only by the sound of retching as several runners dry heaved at the side of the track in chorus, one after the other. I was starting to feel nauseous due to dehydration, and becoming increasingly desperate, even asking one of the vomiting runner for a sip of his water.
With night came an easing of my limbs, however, and I was moving quite well despite the nausea. Even descending a little better. I found myself next to some running water and desperately looked around for it with the light of my headlamp. Eventually I found it and used my cup to drink several gallons of the stuff. I hoped it was clean but after barely a second's pause decided I was past caring.
Once replete I looked around for the trail markers and realised I was not even on a trail at all. It was past 11pm with the cut at midnight in Breil. Firstly I needed to get there for the cut to at least get a Margueries finish, but also I needed to get there in time to leave for Sospel and the next cut at 4.30am. I power hiked back up the hill, found a trail and followed it back towards Saorge, before I saw a junction and a trail marker for the Cro. I descended as fast as I could, before encountering a medic hiking back up the other way. He asked me which way to the ill runner - my response - which one? He looked even more downcast and started a long story about how it was his 3rd rescue that evening and he had already hiked for 50 mins for the first one, 30 mins for the second one. I excused myself, pointed to my watch, and left. He had nothing on my 16 hours of shuffling!
Looking at my watch I noticed I only had 30 mins left before midnight, and I excused myself and belted down the hill. Eventually I emerged into Breil, and the aid station at 11.37pm, 23 minutes before the deadline. Paola the aid station head, and familiar from last year's Cro, sat me down and got my drop bag for me so I could do my admin. In 2 minds as to what to do I set about filling my bladder, rehydrating and changing my headlamp batteries. With 5 minutes to spare I dressed and made to leave the aid station. Paola asked me what I was doing, clearly not believing I was about to head off to Sospel. She intercepted 3 other runners that had all been in the aid station when I arrived, and without hesitation suggested it was still a tough cut off to make - 4hrs 30 and some serious climb and descent.
I had had enough. Confident of getting my Marguereis points, I gave Paola my number and officially abandoned. There was a bus waiting to take me to Menton, the logistics of abandonment anywhere else post Breil a nightmare, and the pure fact of the cut off meant I did not have enough time to either recover properly, as Paola impressed on me, nor in reality get to Sospel before the cut.
On reflection, I am truly disappointed to have clocked up my first ever DNF, even though I have salvaged a finish of sorts which was hard enough in itself. As I made my way from the Cro finish on the beach in Menton (without crossing the line), I was not overly disheartened. Disappointed yes, but I had still completed an ultra of sorts. Had I had the yellow bib of the Trail Marguereis rather than the red of the Cro, I would have been over the moon and sporting a finisher's t shirt with pride. It was not to be.
However, I have to learn from the experience - hydration is an issue in these races, and dehydration can certainly be energy and morale sapping. I should probably have spent a little longer looking for the two fountains I missed which resulted in long periods of debilitating dehydration. I used to rely greatly on Coke for a lift and to ease dehydration. That can no longer be the case, at least unless I have an ablation, but Iced Tea worked wonders and almost 70% less caffeine than Coke and 90% less than coffee (although still trace caffeine content). If a crew is an option, ever, iced tea would be a welcome addition! Sleep before the event must be focussed on too, not just because of the body but more importantly the mind. Perhaps it was too soon after the Ironman. Perhaps my training had not been right. But I know in my heart of hearts that my head was just not in the right place for this race.
Onwards and upwards.
On Friday 22nd May I checked out of the cardio ward of Monaco hospital armed with a load of drugs and uncertainties. I had had "Permanent Atrial Fibrillation" - a condition where the electrics driving the heart were misfiring, and they were not reverting back to normal. I had a cardio version - a mild defibrillator under general anaesthetic, to put me back into sinus rhythm. I was warned that in all likelihood I had had it before, and that I would have it again.
I left the hospital armed with two lots of beta blockers and some blood thinners, albeit with a heart firing on all cylinders. The blood thinners were preventative - Atrial Fibrillation is in itself nothing to worry about, it is the clots that can build up in the heart because it is not beating properly, and then when the heart restarts normal rhythm the clots move and can cause strokes. Some people's symptoms are different - their AF makes them faint, or so weak as to not get out of bed. I was able to function almost as normal despite being in AF.
I was also told that AF has various triggers including alcohol, virus, stress, and coffee. I was told not to make my heart beat go too fast - all this makes sense when you consider that all the above increase the heart rate. I was told I could continue my sporting pursuits but to not make the heart beat too fast. We agreed on 130 ish as a very conservative approximate target.
To be honest I was gutted - I was in better than reasonable shape before my hospitalisation, having run the Paris marathon sub 4 hours and also run up the Col De Vence in 1hr 7 - not far off my all time best for that hill. I had put in a nice cycling base, and was starting to step up the swimming, although was woefully light on volume.
I evaluated my options.
I was entered for the Ironman and just missed the cut off to cancel and get most of my money back. In the meantime I started training again, but slowly and with very short distances. The first time I ran with Mrs R and the dogs, just 5km, but it was a huge relief. I was able to keep my HR below the target range, and felt like I hadn't even broken a sweat. The beta blocker / blood thinner mix definitelmade me feel sluggish, but at least I was out there doing something. I gradually increased my distances, and threw in a bit of cycling and swimming as well. I was very careful about sticking to my target HR, and at times I found this incredibly frustrating. I couldn't do any speedwork to improve my timings, but I thought if I could train on the distances the Ironman might still be achievable, if I targeted the cut offs.
In the meantime the responses I received from other people were very thought provoking. People cared, but to some it was almost like I was disabled, permanently ruined - the assumption that I had had something akin to a heart attack, possibly caused by endurance sports. And the drugs definitely made me feel terrible, just on a day to day basis. I was struggling to stay awake past 3pm in the afternoon some days.
Dr Google can be a curse in that anything can be proven and presented as fact with no come back. However it can be a wonderful thing. I found some forums and blogs of endurance athletes and triathletes (including a notable cardiac specialist cyclist) with people to whom sport was so important, but also suffered from AF. One cyclist was actually a cardiac doctor and specialist in heart rhythm issues (http://www.drjohnm.org/
). Another was in permanent AF and still ran marathons (http://afibrunner.com/
Three weeks before the IM I went for a 2km swim at 5am, and my HR was fine. I was slow, having only swum about 12km in total since December. But I was comfortable. I might not be a great swimmer (in fact that is probably a flattering statement) but I love the water and am very comfortable in it. I am quite happy to stop and take a break and tread water for a bit to reduce my HR, and I did so. I hopped out the pool and got on my bike with the express intention of cycling the major climb of the IM route. I had done this before, when I did the IM in 2012, and knew that I could do approximately 90km in a look taking in the Col de L'Ecre and cut through home. I was then planning on a 20km run.
Best laid plans and all that. I crested the Col De L'Ecre, pleased that I had managed the climb with a steady HR, sub 130 in the main, and was looking forward to a nice long descent to Greolieres. After 10km the road was closed due to a classic car hill climb. I turned around and made it home after 110km. As a result I was pretty tired when I started the run, and it was very hot. I cut the run after 6km and jog/walked home as my HR was constantly going above 130. Discretion was the better part of valour, as they say, no matter how personally disappointing.
A week later I managed a 30km run and 90km cycle in succession. I was growing in confidence, and feeling better every day. I also kept my training to myself, and smiled enigmatically when people commented how healthy I was looking. Must be due to the enforced reduction in training schedules, they said.
The following week I did a half ironman - on my own. It was slow, and I had to walk parts of the run, but the triumph was that I was off the drugs and without the beta blockers suppressing my HR I was still able to complete the distance but keep my HR below 130.
The Thursday before the race I had my appointment with the Cardiologist. I was hooked up to various machines and everything was fine, my heart was healthy beating strong and regularly. We chatted for quite a long time about the period in my life prior to the AF episode and since leaving CHPG, including sport and training. The Dr seemed impressed I had realised there was an issue with my heart and sought medical attention, purely due to my HR monitor I was wearing when I trained, and similarly that I had been able to control my HR when I ran.
She explained various things. I will definitely get AF again. It may be tomorrow or it may be in 10 years. But 100% I will have it within 10 years. The triggers remain the same - stress, alcohol, caffeine, racing heart, virus. Of course, just getting out of bed in the morning might send me into AF.
She went on to explain that there are three levels of treatment.
1/ No drugs, but drugs at home in case I go into AF, in which case I have to start - particularly the blood thinners, and to call her immediately. The aim is to avoid hospitalisation.
2/ Daily beta blockers and blood thinners. I am keen to avoid these as they made me feel so bad. Not just when I ran but the general malaise. Almost depressive.
3/ Ablation - an operation to rewire the heart.
I am currently on level 1 treatment. I have a blood thinner pill with me wherever I go. I am very low risk on the stroke scale due to youth and general fitness.
I was given the go ahead to resume my normal life as before, sport etc. But to be wary of the triggers and to keep from pushing the HR up too high when I train.
I discussed with Mrs R and made the final decision to take the start line of the IM. If I finished, it would be my second and last Ironman. The multi disciplined nature of the training meant I was a more rounded athlete but with far less time on my hands. I wasn't really interested in another one. I just needed to finish.
Number 1 and 2 had their end of year dance show the night before. At 4.20am on Sunday 28th June, after 3.5 hours sleep, my alarm went off. The dance show had gone on even later than normal due to technical issues and I had got home just before 1am. Not ideal.
The big events have a special atmosphere, despite being a pain with multiple visits to register and leave bike, shoes, change of clothes, etc. Sunday morning was no different. It was amazing, the hopes, fears and dreams of 2783 participants, and all the associated supporters, barely held in check as we pumped up the tyres on our bikes, visited the portpotty for the last time and donned our wetsuits and swim hats. I had a quick chat to Ian, a friend, also a second time participant - he had beaten my 2012 time by about 5 mins when he raced in 2013 and was my main motivation to participate!
I donned my wetsuit and went to the slowest swimming "box", conscious of my lack of training and wanting to avoid the punch up that is the beginning of the big races. Nevertheless, within three strokes my goggles had been dislodged by a stray foot / arm, I had swallowed enough water to make me choke and I was seriously considering turning around and going home. A few more strokes and I thought I would get into a rhythm, but then I got a handful of jellyfish. As I ducked my head under from taking a breath I could see the shredded pink blobs go by me. I felt the sting and, thoughts of my previous visit to CHPG after a mouthful of jellyfish in 2012 I started to hyper ventilate, on the verge of panic. I was not enjoying this one bit.
I gave myself a stiff talking to, and after treading water for a few seconds I was composed enough to carry on. The break had given me enough time to relax and also for people to pass me. With clear water I was able to get into a rhythm and actually swim, the rest of it a blur of trying to avoid people who don't seem to have learnt how to "sight" as they zig zagged all over the place, getting out of the melee from the intermediate exit and entry back into the water for the final 1.4km, and eventually finding a small group to draft off.
I finished the swim a minute quicker than 2012 and actually feeling pretty relaxed. A short transition, slather with sun lotion and some energy drink and I was off on the bike. If I didn't make the bike cut at least I had had a decent Sunday swim work out.
I chatted to various Brits on the climb from Nice to Vence but occasionally had to drop back when my HR climbed too high. I did have a moment on the Condamine - more than 10% gradient for 500m, where I had to get out the saddle and push hard on the "peddling air" gear. My HR went up but it was a very brief spike and when I crested the hill and hit the flatter section from Gattieres to Vence it went straight back down again. From then on it was a long grind up to the Col de L'Ecre, chatting to various English speakers - very strong first timers full of unnecessary nerves like Joe from Leeds and Ciaran from Dublin, some more experienced and less time sensitive participants such as Kim from California. I managed to keep within my prescribed HR limits the whole time despite the rising gradient and sun. Vicky, Ian's wife was cheering at the Chateauneuf de Grasse turning which was a nice boost going into another very steep section.
The downhill I love, and from Col de L'Ecre to Greolieres was a nice way to increase my average overall speed and keep ahead of the sweeper car. I took energy drinks when offered and avoided the Coke (no caffeine) which was a change to my race strategy and another thing to be aware of, but just kept on peddling.
Once I had done the out and back look to Col De Vence it was a nice, fast descent to St Laurent. I passed some bike litter - evidence of an earlier crash, and saw two people collide in slow motion at an aid station, but nothing like the air ambulance occupying the road of 2012. I even got a compliment from another rider on my descending before I left him in my wake.
As I was coming back into the transition area I saw a female cyclist collide with a pedestrian. Both were lying prostrate in the gutter as I went past, the crowd calling for an ambulance. I was glad to have got the bike leg over - I had been standing up over the saddle for the last 5km as my tri shorts gave minimal protection from my new go faster seat and undertrained back side.
The run started slow and got slower. The searing heat and fatigue had taken their toll, and I used the showers and every aid station to walk and bring down my heart rate. Blisters formed on my feet from my water logged and squelching trainers as I ground out the marathon. Mrs R and the kids were there at the first turnaround to cheer me on, with Jack to give me a lick. I was weary but giving up was not an option - I had given myself enough of a margin to walk most of the marathon if I needed to and still finish.
The whole atmosphere of the run was terrific - supporters and tourists lining most of the route cheering me on by name, displayed on my dossard as it was. Marcus had even cycled from Monaco to come and say hi as well, all great for the morale.
As I jogged it felt slow, deliberately so, but as the sun fell and it cooled slightly I couldn't speed up at all. The wheels properly fell off on lap 3, and my moratorium on Coke meant that my options were limited. I had a sit down and a couple of salted crackers with energy drink whilst a volunteer sprayed me with a hosepipe.
It was amazing - like a new lease of life. I trotted to pick up my third and last hair band (blue) - the marker for the completion of each lap, said hi to Mrs R and the kids, and continued to shuffle round. Cyclists were still coming in, surely too late to beat the cut off. The aid stations were already folding up trestle tables, concentrating their efforts with what they had left, as over half the competitors having finished.
As I reached the finish channel Mrs R and the kids were waiting, and #1 and #2 accompanied me for a hundred metres or so. #2 went ahead waving her arms, her bag and flip flops creating a hilarious image as people cheered her. They left me as I joined the red carpet and I somehow found the energy to airplane in, high fiving the still impressive turn out of supporters 3 deep for the final 100m.
I heard the words "Benjamin, you are an Ironman" on the tannoy. Too bloody right.
I learnt something new beyond the usual "Anything is possible" cliches. Whenever I finish a race - 5k, 10k, marathon, whatever, there is always a discussion about how long it took, a sort of benchmarking about their own times or those of a friend. I have come to realise that I will never trouble the Kenyans at the front of the big city races but that in ultras or hilly village trail races I might do quite well. A lack of natural talent, family life, work and perhaps the unwillingness to sacrifice everything means that will always be the case. I now have something else to take into account in training and particpating, and I will make an extra mental note to applaud those people that try - even if they don't make the cuts. Who knows what demons they are fighting inside. They are not sitting on the couch, and that is what it is important to remember.
Two events will stick in my mind from the day, other than finishing and the pain of the saddle. Mrs R, the kids and I were discussing people we'd met - her spectating. I had chatted to a woman from California who's son was married and living in Paris, on top of the Col De L'Ecre. Mrs R spoke to her husband in the crowds! The second was that I came 1864th, and my dossard was 1863. Almost bang on from the organisers. I finished in 14hrs 03 mins and 59 seconds, over an hour slower than 2012 and Ian on the day. I'll take the finish.
"But what if there is nothing wrong with me?"
"Well, that'll be a good thing."
"I've never not completed a training run before. No matter what. Surely there must be something wrong? It can't just be the heart rate monitor."
"Maybe it's psycho somatic?"
"Yeah. I don't think so. I just feel bleugh. Awful. I don't just think it's jet lag."
Somewhat perversely my biggest fear was what if I was making a fuss over nothing, as I rode pillion on the back of Mrs R's shiny red scooter, cradling a surprisingly relaxed Jack on my lap. He stuck his tongue out, catching flies, and let it flap in the breeze as we headed back home.
I'm not sure what I had expected when I headed out early that morning. It was a glorious day, already warm at 6am, when I rose and put on my heart rate monitor, linked to my Garmin. My resting heart rate was 170 beats per minute. I turned it off and on again, and got the same result. But I felt ok. A bit tired maybe, but then I had only arrived back from New York late in the afternoon the previous day.
I had noticed a problem with the heart rate monitor in New York. A friend was there for a bike race, and I was training for the Ironman, so I rented a bike, probably made of lead, and attempted to keep up with him on his fancy carbon fibre job. My pulse had begun the day at 170 and stayed there or higher for the duration of the ride, but I hadn't felt any side effects. I was just annoyed because the heart rate monitor was new - 75 Euros worth. I assumed it was broken. Ok, I got tired later in the day, and I noticed my pulse was quicker than normal, but I put that down to a stressful lead up to a stressful business trip. I had spent just over 3 days in NYC, and had been travelling for the 10 days to two different countries before I arrived. My normal regime on a business trip is to sleep 4 or 5 hours a night, monitor the European market open (about 3am NY time, answer emails for an hour or two, go for a run or to the gym, and then have a day full of as many meetings as I could cram in, before heading out to a boozy dinner with clients or prospects. I subsisted on snatched sandwiches, coffee, adrenaline and alcohol. This trip was no different. I felt rough, but then I always do. I could recover when I got home, I thought.
Turns out that I was right, but not in the way I thought.
After dropping Jack at home, Mrs R took me to Urgences at the Princess Grace hospital. I was still in my sports kit and wearing the heart monitor. I explained in my best, breathless, French what the problem was. I had been for a run, gone a paltry distance for me, sat down, and couldn't really stand up any more. And my heart rate was still 180 bpm in the waiting room, sitting down.
Within a minute or two I was taken in to a cubicle. I explained the problem again to a paramedic, elaborating I had just flown back from a business trip. I said I wasn't sure whether it was the HR monitor, or me. I was quickly attached to an ECG machine, and as she grabbed at the paper spewing out the bottom there was an "oooh la la".
Turns out that my concerns about over reacting were misplaced - there was definitely an issue with me. Although that then gave me something else to worry about. My heart was in arrhythmia, beating erratically and fast.
A cursory once over from the Dr on duty in Urgences, with the associated questions about drug taking "Are you absolutely sure sure, Mr Rolfe?" Raised eyebrows when I shook my head for the fifth time.
I shook my head again.
"Ok, well you will have to stay with us for 24-48 hours, Mr Rolfe. In 50% of cases these things fix themselves and we never find out why it happens."
She still didn't believe me about the drugs thing.
"And don't worry, we test for drugs." She didn't say, but might as well have done. Luckily I had nothing to hide. They did check my blood. Twice.
A few minutes later I was having a drip inserted, blood taken, gown slipped on. On my right wrist they attached a plastic wristband with my name, date of birth and barcode, and was then wheeled on my stretcher up to the Cardio Ward and room 1113 / bed F (for Fenetre / Window, to distinguish from bed P, for Porte / door), which was to be my home for the next seven days. Periodically I checked my pulse and could detect a definite irregular heart beat.
8am Saturday morning. Not the best time to get admitted to hospital. It quickly became clear that the initial expected 24 hours would be more like 48 hours in hospital, until the cardiac specialists came back on duty Monday morning. In the meantime I was put on blood thinners and some anti arrhythmia drugs.
I had some visitors to break things up. Mrs R came in with a small bag of clothes. As I was hooked up to a drip and a wireless heart rate monitor the hospital gown was the most practical top half. I found Bermuda shorts the most practical bottoms. My room had a great view, but the windows did not open and it was a very hot day. It was sweltering. The electrodes kept falling off me as I perspired in my bed. Father Walter came to chat and say a prayer.
Sunday arrived. At 4am. I was woken pretty frequently either by my grumpy roomie or a nurse to check one or other of us, but at 4am I was shaken awake.
"Mr Rolfe, are you ok?"
"Not really. It's 4am and you're waking me up. Again."
"You feel ok?"
"Ok, go back to sleep." So I did. Turns out my heart had stopped due to the drugs I was on. A "pause" it was described as. I don't remember it, and apparently my heart continued after a short rest. It was not the last "pause", but fortunately they took the same form as the first - I was asleep, and blissfully unaware.
Number One's 15th birthday was the Sunday. I texted her happy birthday, and they came to visit me that afternoon with a cake. I was allowed out to the garden, drip and heart monitor still attached, with special dispensation from the Dr in charge. We lit some candles and sang happy birthday. It was fun, but also quite sad. I had two slices of cake. The meals in the hospital were hit and miss. Lunch had been a definitive miss. Some grey meat in gravy with pureed celery. Later on that day I had one of the best omlettes I have ever tasted. Go figure.
Naps, visitors, checks from nurses. Someone brought chocolate, another trail mix, and I caught up on sleep and tv series. It wasn't all bad, although I was confined to my room. Any attempt to leave it brought consternation from the nurses and a firm finger pointing me back to 1113 F. And no, I wasn't allowed a shower.
Monday. I was getting more practised at going back to sleep after the 6am blood pressure, pulse and hydration checks. Brekkie at 8. At 10am I saw a cardiac specialist. My ECG, ultrasound and consultation would all be taking place on Tuesday. I definitely had Atrial Fibrillation, but I also had tacchycardia and something else which could be related to somewhere else in the heart. And my heart continued to "pause".
More naps, visitors, text messages. A lot of text messages. I had to let the guy I work with know that unfortunately I wouldn't be in the office for his rostered day off the following day. I looked wistfully out the window at one of the hottest days of the year as I quietly waged air conditioning war with Victor Meldrew in the P bed. Every time I went to the loo I would turn it on, my actions shielded by the door. The room would cool down to a temperature just about bearable where the electrodes wouldn't fall off me. As soon as he noticed he would turn it off, surreptitiously. Electrodes would start falling off again. At least I was allowed a shower eventually - taking my drip on a stand with me. One of the wheels was broken and it kept twisting, almost pulling the drip out. The tube filled up with blood, but I wasn't allowed to just carry the bag, I had to use the recycled shopping trolley.
Tuesday. Victor Meldrew checked out. They had made sure he was ready to check out at 5am in the morning. Lights on. Blood pressure. Blood taken for tests. Dr with stethoscope. I turned over in a pool of my own sweat, cursing as the iv drip pulled causing an intense pain in my arm. I moved the the heart monitor out the way, and looked forward to breakfast.
Just as I finished my Corn Flakes I was summoned to the examination room, a short walk away. Yippee! A walk! Albeit with the drip trolley, but a walk. My ultrasound showed an underlying healthy heart but with a variety of electrical issues - Atrial Fibrillation, Taccycardia and possibly something else. ECG the same. Essentially the nice regular and uniform hills on a normal print out were not apparent on my print out. There were irregular hills of varying size and shape. But occasionally there would be a violent series of massive spikes and troughs, four or five at a time. This could be AF or something else. Back to the ward to have an additional monitor fitted for 24 hours. Two heart monitors and the drip.
As I got back to the room someone else was checking in. I tried to have a chat. He looked a bit like Einstein but more lively. He was checking in for an ablation the next day. Keyhole surgery through the groin up to the heart to rewire the heart's electrics with cauterisation. I was possibly going to have one, so tried to question him. He drew the curtain between our beds and put his ear phones in. Charming.
I tried to catch up on sleep. If this carried on I would be entirely nocturnal.
Later on the consultant came. I asked what had caused the problem, and she explained that athletes have a higher likelihood of AF than other people. But alcohol, coffee, lack of sleep and stress are also triggers.
I asked whether I should give up sport and she patiently explained that AF is a quality of life issue. It makes you feel bad, and you don't sleep as much or as well, but it does not affect longevity.
Unless you have a blood clot. These occur because the heart is not beating efficiently and the blood pools. Once the heart starts going again, and most AF's seem to settle down with no outside intervention, the clots move to the brain and there cause havoc. Hence the blood thinners. I had clearly been in AF since at least the previous Thursday and my heart was not fixing itself and nor were the drugs helping. I had also flown long haul.
I would therefore need some help fixing my AF. Depending on the results of the second heart monitor this would be cardioversion - the jump leads, essentially shocking the heart, or an ablation - cauterisation of some of the electrical synapses around the heart.
Back to the sport. A lot has been written by Dr Google about sport and AF. Possibly spending a long time at higher heart rates meant that the heart would misfire and go into AF. However, exercise brings down the resting heart rate which can help prevent AF. Sitting on the sofa and doing no sport will result in a higher resting heart rate and could bring on AF in people susceptible to AF. I was told that in all likelihood I would have got AF at some point no matter what lifestyle I was leading. The consultant mentioned age 45 to me. Only a couple of years from now, anyway.
There is also a quality of life issue. Sport helps longevity, but it also helps the mental state. Asking someone who is at least partially defined by their chosen sport is not an option. Endurance exercise has been linked to better concentration and higher intelligence. It has helped arthritis sufferers and cancer patients in clinical trials. We sat down and went through a typical week's training. And a race plan. Her conclusion was that I should carry on. Mainly because it made me healthier and happier than not doing it.
To paraphrase Dr Google, a healthy heart is a happy heart.
Wednesday. Einstein was woken up at 5.30am for tests and checks. And so was I. At least he didn't object to the air conditioning and all 12 electrodes had stayed on in the night. He was wheeled out whilst I kept my fingers crossed for some good news and tried to nap until the Dr came around.
The second heart monitor was removed, and I was allowed a shower. When I came back Einstein had been replaced by another fellow, just coming in from intensive care with arrhythmia. He was a kindly 85 year old from Roquebrune. I worried a little about Einstein - there was checking out and checking out. As my new roomie commented dryly, you always leave hospital, just not always upright.
I waded through Series 1 and 2 of Broadchurch, and munched on supplies donated by very kindly visitors, chatting occasionally to my roommate. We got along but there was a definite language barrier. Finally the consultant came around and confirmed that I would be having a cardioversion the following day. They would put me to sleep, stick a camera down my throat and check for thromboses. If everything clear, then they would shock my heart - giving it a reboot. Hopefully that would put it into normal sinus rhythm. The procedure was colloquialised as a "shock" and seemed routine. Although I didn't ask, the credentials of CHPG to deal with arrhythmia were also proffered - they are one of the leading units dealing with arrhythmia in the world, publishing more papers than anyone else and consulting to other units.
My fate sealed, I went back to my dvd and an apple after filling in several hundred disclaimers. On the plus side, they took my iv drip out and I only had to wear one heart monitor for the night.
Nil by mouth from 8pm on Wednesday evening with a procedure scheduled for some time on Thursday morning. I picked at my plate of boiled spinach and ham, drank some water and switched my lights off at 830pm. I slept until 4am when I was woken by the nurses preparing for the shift change and checking I was still alive. In turn I made sure my roomie's chest was rising and falling. Normally quite a "vociferous" sleeper, he had been unusually quiet during the night.
By the time 1130am came around my mouth was drier than the Sahara desert and I was contemplating eating the plastic sheet from my bed. Eventually they wheeled me to the operating theatre, the porter organising a five a side football match and stopping to recruit everyone he met on the way. Would be far more than 5 a side.....
The theatre staff looked like they were about to clock off when I was wheeled in. There was a scrum of people discussing something in hushed tones, by the door. It was also bring your child to work day, being a public holiday, and a couple of kids slouched against the wall looking bored. The porter reminded the people in scrubs they had one more "shock" to do before lunch. They looked as hungry as I felt.
One more blood pressure check and I was arranged into position with another iv inserted, and a brace to hold my mouth open for the camera. Pads were stuck to my chest and back for the "shock". No sooner had the anaesthetist injected something into my iv than I was asleep.
"Put me back to sleep; I was having the best dreams. You were in it..." Apparently I said as I came around, pointing at one of the nurses.
My chest felt like it was supporting a house, and I had a visible scorch mark where the patch had been stuck to my skin. Very woozy, I lay there listening to the gripes of the theatre staff, as my blood pressure and pulse recovered. An hour later I was back in my room, heart monitor on, drip attached, begging for something to eat and drink. It was about 2.30pm. I had been unconscious for the better part of an hour, and felt pretty beaten up for the rest of the day. A late night visit from the consultant told me the procedure had been a success and I could go home the following day.
It was difficult to hide my euphoria from my roomie at the thought of leaving. He was similarly keen but was going to be spending the weekend there despite his arrhythmia settling down with drug therapies.
I was to take a couple of arrhythmia drugs, and blood thinners to prevent clots, for the next 30 days, and to come back as an outpatient on 25 June. I was free to gradually ease back into sport, but not to stress the heart too much, keeping it in very low thresholds. Alcohol and caffeine are a no no until 25 June. Both are triggers for AF and should be avoided as a general rule anyway. I should try to avoid stress and get more sleep.
The likelihood is that if it happens again I'll go straight to an ablation.
There is a wealth of information on Google about Atrial Fibrillation, and it is possible to prove virtually any point of view if you search long and hard enough. Certain people have tried to tell me that my chosen sport is to blame. Is that true? It strikes me, given what I have been told by the experts, as extremely unlikely to be the sole factor. My consultant seemed very interested to hear that my father suffered from AF when he was only a couple of years older than me, and has had infrequent instances since.
However, as I have mentioned before, the thought of giving up my chosen sport would actually be counterproductive. I get so much pleasure out of it, not to mention the fact that it has almost come to define me. And when I look back at what I used to look like before I took up sport....it doesn't really even bear thinking about. Endurance sport has also been proven in medical studies to hold depression at bay. It becomes a quality of life issue. Do I want to have a long and miserable life? Or risk shortening it a little bit in return for a much happier and fulfilled life?
So, I have got myself a wrist mounted heart monitor that I wear all the time. I am nervous, not to mention a little frustrated and annoyed. I only really picked up the issue in the first place because I was wearing my Garmin for sport anyway. I went out for a little jog/walk with Mrs R and the dogs on Sunday, and enjoyed it thoroughly.
As a by product of my HR monitor, it has a pedometer and in line with popular perceptions it is targeting 10,000 steps a day for me to be healthy. I went back to work on Monday, and put my monitor on as I got out of bed and did not take it off until I went to bed that night. I covered 2900 steps during the day. The whole day.
My heart rate also fluctuated dramatically during the day. At one point it was higher than 150bpm. Sitting down. I work from 7.45am until at least 6 pm every day and don't leave the office except to pick up a sandwich. Unless I have something delivered. Which is often. So I lead a sedentary life with periods of high stress. I wonder where I would be without sport.
I hark back to my third CHPG roomie's comment about everyone leaving hospital at some stage. Either standing, or not. The crematorium was all that stood between my window (bed 1113 F) and the Stade Louis 2.
Today I ran a little longer. I kept my HR below 125 bpm the whole time. I enjoyed the view, the fresh air and my time with Jack.
Tomorrow I might go a little further still.
Getting to the start line on Sunday was most of the battle. I mainlined Vitamin C through the week to fight off the germs I was surrounded by at work and at home, but despite my best efforts had a little sniffle midweek. I also had to cram in a couple of physio sessions and loads of stretching due to a slight back spasm, eventually tracked down to overcompensating for a very tight calf muscle. No matter, I was treating the run as a long training run for the Ironman later in the year, but it would not have been good to let my nephew (his 1st marathon) or an old friend from University (his 3rd marathon but only 1 finish from 2 attempts) to beat me in what was to be my 43rd official marathon (I think 43, I confess to having lost count a while ago and have tried to build a spreadsheet from memory).
The atmosphere around Paris the whole weekend was excellent, with the marathon the main focus. My back was giving me a little grief as we sightsaw the Louvre, Tuileries, Place de la Concorde and the Champs Elysee, as well as catching up with old friends and extended family, but lying in bed the night before the race was perhaps the most comfortable I had been all week. I was very impressed with the expo - these large city marathons are always good for lots of swag, and the new bidons would come in very handy for the chuckaways at the Ironman to swap out during the long bike leg.
I caught up with a very nervous Digger and proud camera wielding Mum at brekkie, and then I was off on the Metro to the start with about 4000 other runners cramming on at my stop.
The start was amazing on the Champs Elysee, and it was not lost on me how privileged I was to run on such hallowed roads closed to traffic. The pens went on for miles, separating the different start waves and time groups. My slot was 3hr 30, a 9am start, about 15 mins after the elites. I searched in vain for a portaloo, but eventually saw them in the start pen itself. As I queued to get in, the runners were kept amused by the 3 larger than life characters clearly in their cups, larking about in front of the gate. And Fu Man Chu.
The weather was predicted to be nice and a little warmer during the run than Paris is used to for the time of year. I still took 2 jumpers and the natty plastic mac we had been given in our welcome bag, and I was pleased to have all three. The start pen was in the shade and it was still a little chilly, although nothing like New York had been. The thoughtful provision of porta-potties and urinals in the pens were also a welcome development, and very well used. I was glad not to be in the last wave of runners at 11am!
The atmosphere at the start was terrific. Everyone chatting with friends new and old; kissing loved ones good bye through the barriers, adjusting lycra, applying last minute vaseline and trying to avoid sticking one's head in too intimate a place when checking one's shoelaces for the 35th time that morning. Uptown Funk played, the warm up crew led with some familiar moves, and I showed off all that I had learnt in Val D'Isere (thanks O'Shea's!), until the disapproving looks became too much for even my impervious skin. Apparently what I lacked in rhythm, flexibility, knowledge of the moves and space to perform I made up for in self confidence.
The gun went, and we shuffled over the start line, the noise deafening with beeps from various heart rate monitors and GPS devices. I was wearing my Diabetes UK t shirt for it's fifth marathon in less than a year (the white is more of a browny yellow now) and enjoyed the support from the crowd, 10 deep in places, who cheered "Go Diabetes" much the same as the NY marathon. In the meantime I was overtaken by pretty much everyone in my start pen, and I monitored my heart rate to prevent going out too fast and also to make sure that I kept it even lower than normal due to the recent lurgy. My back was pleasingly trouble free despite the frequent cobbles.
Paris is beautiful, and the sights along the whole route were picture postcard pretty. I am always amazed by how gold some of the statues are - do they polish them or is it self cleaning! Such banal thoughts occupied my mind whilst I listened to my iPod, until someone started chatting to me in French, asking me if I was diabetic. Obviously I am not but #2 is, and Kader mentioned he too was Type 1, had been for 21 years, and was on a pump. He had attempted the marathon the previous year and finished but had not been very well due to overtreating a hypo, then a hyper and another hypo and so on for the last 10km. This year he wanted to break 4 hours, so had switched off his pump that morning. His level when he met me was 560 mgdl / 30mmol, way too high, and questionable whether he should have been exercising at all. I was very impressed that we were running at the same pace, though, and he was able to check his bgl despite being high and periodically sprayed with water from the crowd.
We chatted and Kader treated his hyper with gradual boluses, administered directly from his pump, until he got to within sight of 100, pretty much bang on. From then it would be a question of getting enough sugar in to counteract the vigorous and long lasting exercise. In the meantime we chatted about various things including work (He works with troubled youth channeling their energies into sport such as running and boxing, rather than antisocial activities and violence), family, the various sights around Paris. The first part of the marathon took in the zoo, with huge birds of prey circling massive enclosures towering above the route. We also passed the breathtaking Palace de Vincennes, reminiscent of the Chateaux in Bordeaux but on a scale you have to see to believe, with a keep sticking incongruously above the fortified walls. Mental note to visit if I get time next time I'm in Paris; I remembered seeing the station on a Metro map so it should be easy to get to.
Not long after the 3hr 30 bunch thundered past us, with another diabetic asking me about the t shirt. She was Australian (I think), and training for Comrades Ultra Marathon the following month. It was her 20th marathon and she was clearly confident and practised at treating her levels, knowing how her body would react. She did not appear to carry insulin or even a bgl monitor, but said that she stuck to a tried and tested plan. A bit of small talk later and she sprinted effortlessly to catch up with the 3hr30 bunch. Kader coined the phrase "Turbo Diabete" which amused me!
Half way came and went in 1hr 55, bang on target for both of us with my HR and Kader's BGL behaving nicely. As we headed back into Paris the Notre Dame was visible, with the Eiffel Tower in the background and a glorious blue sky. The course became slightly more challenging with a few undulations as we tracked the Seine up and down and in and out the tunnels. Both Mrs R's and the kids had arranged to meet me at around 29km, and I was keen to introduce Kader to #2 - she loves to meet a fellow pump user and it would have been great to meet a veteran marathoner too, but in the event we got separated a few hundred metres before and the wide point of the bend meant that I could not attract his attention as he ran through. No matter, we were both in good spirits, despite the heat, and it is always a huge boost to morale to see my family.
I sprinted to catch up my running buddy, and not long after, we passed the "Wall" at 30km. The organisers had actually built a wall, with "Wall" written on it in case you didn't realise, and we had to run through a doorway. This was supposed to represent the dreaded wall that marathoners hit, but actually neither Kader nor I were close to the wall. I could definitely feel that my body had travelled quite a few km's, I was mildly dehydrated due to the lack of any energy drink on offer at aid stations, and my back was starting to ache a little. Kader was more or less permanently fighting lows, and trying to put supplies into his body.
Both of us concentrating on our own demons, we became distracted and lost contact. It may sound weird, but the sheer volume of runners along the whole circuit made it difficult to see from one side of the road to the other. I stopped a couple of times to look for my buddy, but in the end gave up, put my headphones in, and hoped that he would make it to the finish in one piece, and hopefully within his target range.
The last 7 or 8km were a question of ticking off the kilometres. It may seem that a marathon would be easy after 42 of them, but they never are. The dehydration and constant road pounding were taking their toll on my body, and I was literally going from aid station to aid station to get the water. At 40km I grabbed a couple of sugar lumps to augment the water, and gritted my teeth as we covered the last section of cobbles, around the Arc de Triomphe, to cross the finish line on Avenue Foch in just over 3hr 58. I was pleased to get sub 4hrs, slightly puzzled as to why a couple of years previously I was consistently running in the region of 3hrs 40 or below, as well as feeling a little faint.
It seemed like a long time before I could get my hands on something other than water, but as soon as I had eaten an apple, orange and several handfuls of raisins I felt a lot better. I picked up my medal and natty pink finisher t shirt (Number 2 has already baggsed it!) and headed directly for the Metro station and a restorative panache and burger with the family.
I later tracked down my running buddy, and was ecstatic to see that he had finished about a minute ahead of me, and have since made contact with him on Twitter. My nephew finished his first marathon, and my Uni buddy also completed for his second finish. I was pleased to have beaten both of them, not that I am competitive!
My next job, once recovered, is to work on my speed again, as well as make sure my back is properly fixed, to make sure I am properly prepped for the Nice Ironman in June, and of course the obligatory Mountain Ultras in July and August. A summer of fun!
Man flu. I had a bad dose. Not just a cold either - proper chucking up for three days, chest infection, fever, pain in the joints - like knives. Not pleasant, or ideal Ironman / Ultra Marathon training either. Apart from the weight loss.
Everyone in the Rolfe household was sick. #2 had Tamiflu in case she caught something nasty because of her condition. But for some reason I was absolutely laid out. I still worked from home (Doctor's orders, so as not to contaminate everyone else), obviously, but could not train. I did try, once, after 3 days when I thought the usual cold was lifting. I waddled for about 3km, vomited and walked home, dry heaving the whole way. Even Jack was worried.
As a result I missed two weeks of training, almost completely. And then all I could do was ease back into it gradually. I managed a decent week and then we went on a family holiday for a week - four families in one chalet. I actually managed to, touch wood, recover from my illness during the week, despite #1 falling over ice skating necessitating a plaster cast up to her elbow (and 3 hours in casualty), checking #2's blood at approaching midnight every night, and then one of the other kids in the group being rushed to hospital in Chambery for a few days with a virus manifesting itself in incredibly unpleasant ways. I also managed four maintenance runs during the week, and a lot of moguls to help the leg strength and stamina! One hopes a solid base will see me through.
Incidentally, we noticed massive volatility in #2's BGL during the week. She regularly had hypos mid morning but was high for the evenings and night time right the way through until morning. We put this down to altitude, cold, strange exercise patterns and a lot of excitement. Including Line Dance, but then, what goes on tour stays on tour so the less said about that the better!
So as they say, time to get back on the bike! We arrived back last night and this morning I got up (before 5am) and ran a hilly 25km. Sadly no Jack as there is no hard shoulder and fast traffic on some of the route, although he'll be joining me later in the week. I had a quick tot up of totals in the first two months of the year:
9hrs 54 on the bike
443.7km of running
3150m of swimming
Clearly I need to (and intend to) up the weekly mileage with a focus on the bike as I see that as the area for the biggest potential for marginal gains in the Ironman. The running is my most consistent, but I will work on my speed. Swimming...well, if I can get out of the water within the time cut and feel as fresh as a daisy, I think that will suit me. As the weather warms up it will also help as I can get in the sea with a wetsuit and increase my weekly sessions a bit.
A thought to end on: to be at the sharp end of the pack in an Ironman is a terrific achievement, and clearly requires 100% dedication and natural talent. However these guys and gals are normally at least semi pro and have very little else to distract them as they are supported by trainers, masseurs, nutritionists. But as I was dodging traffic at 6am in the dark before returning home to prepare breakfast for the kids and then to be at my desk before 8am...surely there is an argument that the toughest Ironmen and Ironwomen are those that hold down jobs and family life and still manage to cross the line in 14, 15 and 16 hours?
The touchpaper has been lit...I shall wait to see what sort of fireworks go off!
The usual winter lurgy has descended on the Rolfe household with a vengeance. Last Sunday, two kids were on antibiotics and Mrs R and I were feeling a bit under the weather, but battling on. I had entered the Nice to Monaco Course Du Soleil as it was organised by some of the guys that organise the Cro (Cap D'Ail Macadam), and have in the past given them some help with their website, translation and so on. It also fitted in perfectly with my training - the plan was to run it and then cycle back from Monaco to the start, chucking the bike in the truck and driving home, negating waiting for a bus at any stage. On the basis that to miss a workout would be more painful than actually doing it, I went to the race. It would also be my first race of the year, as I had missed a couple more I had entered due to other things cropping up, and would be missing a couple more subsequently due to plans changing.
The usual pre race brekkie of porridge and tea was accompanied with a headache, and as a result of that and rushing out the door, I managed to forget everything including hat, gloves, ipod, and extra layers. To be honest I was not exactly banking on the temperature being just above freezing, either.
Having sheltered from the cold with the engine running and heater turned up full blast in the truck, I made my way to the start just before the start of the race, and where the sun was peeking it's head above Mont Boron it was warming the air at a rate of knots. Above the din of the other runners chatting excitedly like a flock of starlings, I could just make out the stirring music that is played at the start of the UTMB. Moved and excited, I forgot the headache and tried to remember to start my Garmin when I crossed the start line.
Whilst I was dodging the other runners (who goes to the front and then walks the first km of a half marathon?), I kept an eye on my heart rate, which was a lot higher than I would have expected at that point in the race. Reigning everything in, I brought it back to a level I thought I could maintain for the rest of the race, and promised myself I would keep it there or thereabouts.
The first climb up Mont Boron was as expected - lots of runners overtaking me but puffing and panting as they did so. Then the long 2km flat straight into the sun before bearing left down into Villefranche. I had to remind myself to push down the hill, but was getting into my stride as we left the main road into the narrow streets of Villefranche itself. The only clear bit of street was the gutter as I thundered past loads of people on the steep downhill. The only person to overtake me was a skinny guy in a blue t shirt with an "ultra beard", in ginger. The road flattened out as we skirted the port and beach at sea level, and I grabbed a half cup of water at the first ravitellement.
The beach of Villefranche gave way to a narrow staircase up to Cap Ferrat, which was expected and a nice breather for a few seconds as we queued for our turns to climb the short flight of stairs. At the top I tried to use the undulations of Cap Ferrat to my advantage, slowing uphill and speeding downhill.
We left Cap Ferrat for Beaulieu, and as I joined the main road a car shot past us, clearly annoyed at the hold up, and drove right through the peloton of runners to try and park. Fortunately noone was hurt but he was surrounded by irate runners. As I caught this up someone undertook me and then stopped in my path, causing me to run into him at full speed and we both struggled to stay upright. It took a few seconds to register who it was amongst all his swearing and gesticulating, but I recognised Ginger Ultra Beard. For some imagined slight he had pace checked me and bitten off more than he could chew. I ignored him as best I could and continued running, trying to put as much distance between us as possible.
From then on I used the old Mad Dog trick - fishing. Casting an imaginary fly into the back of someone's shirt and then rolling the imaginary reel back until I overtook that particular runner, before repeating the process. This is a great mental game as it keeps me focussed on pace without actually focussing on pace.
I lost a lot of places heading up the hill to Cap D'Ail but was able to make them back and more as I headed down the hill into Monaco. I was a little surprised and annoyed to see Ginger Ultra Beard overtake me on the downhill. We were neck and neck on the flat before heading into the Fontvielle tunnel before he took the lead by a few metres. I let him have his head as we reached the Stade - traditionally the finish of the half marathon, but there was some football match on so the course had been extended by an extra half km or so.
We crossed the border from Monaco back into France, and although I couldn't see the finish I thought it would be where they put the finish for the Tour Pedestre, so I put the hammer down as much as I could, overtaking Ginger about 100m before the line and holding him off to the finish.
I had covered the almost 22km in 1hr 44, 386/1376. My best time for the proper half was 1hr 33, so a long way from that, but I don't feel I left anything out there, I just need to work on some speed work. I grabbed a Coke and jog/walked back to the apartment before changing into my cycling stuff, emptying the dishwasher and putting on a load of washing, before mounting the trusty Bianchi and cycling back to Nice.
It had been quite a windy run which was to be expected, but it was also windy on the bike. I couldn't believe I had gone both ways into a headwind. That didn't make any sense at all. As I headed back up the hill in Cap D'Ail, I overtook a few cyclists, but was overtaken by a club ride of 3, working together as a team, taking it in turns on the front. One guy was clearly much better than the other 2, with a bike in the same colours as his kit - a KTM believe it or not, in black and orange. The guys were from St Laurent du Var, and looking strong.
Just before the tunnel at the top of the hill, the team leader was waiting for their third member, the weakest link, who they had dropped off the back. I caught them as he rejoined and we headed down the hill as a four. I was struggling to keep up until the flat at Eze when I managed to overtake them all and headed on my own.
The two top guys overtook me again on the way up the hill to Villefranche, but when I got to the bottom of the hill KTM guy was waiting and asked me if I'd seen their third wheel. He was looking a little exasperated, but unfortunately I could not help as I had not seen him at all. I carried on to Nice, up the final hill, flat, downhill and hobbled off the bike for a 48 minute 21km bike ride. Not unhappy with that performance, I had a protein bar and headed home for a
2015 is now well under way. Goals have been set; in my case every race I have entered I have got a place for. I am not sure why this is the case - perhaps it's the Monaco thing. A cynic might argue that the race organisers want to appeal to advertisers and sponsors and therefore need to have as many nationalities participating as possible. I have a good chance of being the only Monaco resident that applies, hence will have a place. Or I may just be lucky. Who knows?
Whichever is the case I have an interesting schedule. Marathon in April. Ironman in June - only my 5th ever triathlon. Cro Magnon two weeks later. Another new iteration and relaunch - now called the Cro Trail,
complete with new website and finishing on the beach in Menton (not so handy for home, but hey ho!). The IM/Cro double header will be an interesting exercise in cross training and recovery! I will also be taking the start line of the TdS in August. Billed as more difficult despite being shorter than the UTMB. I am not 100% sure how I feel about that, but it's different and therefore primarily it's interesting and exciting (the UTMB was unbelievably hard). All of this means that training is well under way, and moving in the right direction. I need it for my sanity. As Dean Karnazes said when asked of the difference between a jogger and a runner "A jogger still has control of their life." A runner, by definition does not. I missed a day of training the other day. I felt awful. With goals on the horizon I don't have an excuse to stay in bed.
I have planned out the next few months of training schedules without Mad Dog Mike, but I still ask myself what he would say. The memorial run on Boxing Day was very well subscribed, with a group of his online training team sharing photos and memories. One suspects this will be an annual event. My sporting life, if you like, has stabilized.
Which is interesting because my home life is anything but stabilized. #1 is doing her Brevet this year, the equivalent of O Levels or GCSE's. She is often up until midnight working on various projects. She seems to enjoy the work but struggles with fatigue and the usual problems with playground politics. Hopefully fitness will help with that.
For the Rolfe family summer holiday this year we will be doing the Coast to Coast (the UK C2C), on push bikes. The image I have in my head is a scene from some old film, perhaps Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, with Dick Van Dyke carefree and singing as he freewheels down a hill, legs splayed out in an inverted vee, singing a catchy ditty. The reality will probably be hours spent deflecting moaning and crying children in a service station whilst sheltering from rain coming in sideways. Whatever the reality, #1, despite not exactly being supportive of the endeavour in the planning stages, has actually started doing some training on the home spinner. One hopes the momentum keeps up and she can keep it as part of her daily routine.
"Is it stabilized?" is also a question I get asked a lot in relation to #2 and her diabetes. Her last two HBA1C's have been near enough perfect, which settled everyone down as to how we were treating her condition. Arguably, it was therefore stabilized. However, she is two months away from her 13th birthday. Her levels are now all over the place. Her level could be 2 and then 20 despite treating her in the same way for each meal. The volatility of her BGL is definitely a worry, and quite often Mrs R and I will be discussing this long into the night. Tempers have frayed, I will admit. Mostly mine! I have posited before that Diabetes is never really stable, she would have hypos and hypers but the volatility has definitely increased. It has been like the Euro/Swiss Franc exchange rate over the last week or so. All we can really do is to keep a detailed diary of what is going on, and then consult her doctor in the near future. But try telling that to someone who is two months away from being a teenager (remember when Kevin became a teenager?
), and either feeling "hungover" due to a crushing hypo, or feeling like she's got the flu due to a massive hyper. And she is also concerned about the ramifications, asking questions about whether I think she has good control or not. I am sure she is doing better than a lot of others, for sure, but she is a worrier.
She has, however, started doing a bit of running for fitness. Once or twice a week, and despite our concerns about her jogging round MC on her own, we impress on her the importance of taking all her equipment and leave her to it. One hopes the benefits must surely outweigh the risks. The lot of a parent is surely to worry but to let them get on with it.
#3 is nine. We have left ourselves five days to do the Coast to Coast, starting on the Irish Sea, cycling approximately 40-45km per day, staying in pubs and B&B's. #3 is extremely robust, and because she is the youngest, perhaps has the most determination (in certain circumstances). This will certainly be a test of her robustness!
I keep telling myself it will be fun. But I feel a bit like Chevy Chase in the National Lampoon Vacation series. I hope that the positives outweigh the negatives. At the very least it has given everyone in the house something else to yell about.
Happy New Year!
That time of year again - time to enter races and set some goals, marathon, 1/2 marathon or 10km PB. 1st Ultra etc. My schedule is already filling up....
Course du Soleil 1/2 in Feb
Paris Marathon in Apr
Nice Ironman in June
Cro Magnon (tbc) in July
TdS if I get a place in August
Marathon du Medoc (ok that's not really a 'race' but still requires some training)
Nice Marathon in Nov
I'll also be looking around at other things. I would quite like to do some more triathlons this year but have yet to locate any suitable. Any suggestions...?
Why enter stuff? The reason I started to get fit was because I entered the Monaco Marathon 2004. I found, unconsciously, it gave me a reason to get out of bed and go run, albeit with no particular plan. I had a goal - to finish the marathon, and achieved it. Then my goal was a specific time target, to beat a mate, or whatever, and because I am now addicted I can't help but look to try and push the boundaries, to test my limits physically and mentally. It keeps me in shape, well, better shape than I would be otherwise, or indeed was.
This year I received a telephone call and two emails from people looking to "start running", "get fitter", or something akin. My advice without exception is to enter something in nine months time. Something hard, for that person. If they have done a 10km before, enter a half marathon or even a full marathon. This gives you the impetus and motivation to go and train, and train smart. Specific training for a goal. It doesn't matter if it's a triathlon, Channel Swim, or whatever. Enter something, and then train for it, and achieve it. That way you start changing your habits, and retain motivation with a bit of shiny race bling at the end of it all.
I try and make it interesting by packing my schedule with a lot of different stuff. That also means I retain a lot of fitness through the year, but also means that I can actually go and enjoy myself with a night out if I want, as no one goal is THE goal.
So, what have you go
4am Saturday 24th November 2014
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.
In the meantime, in keeping with Mike's wishes, there will be no funeral or formal memorial service. However, a few of his team, his brother and I have plans to keep Mike's memory alive. On Boxing Day, 26th December 2014, at 11am GMT, we plan to have a global synchronized run. If you would like to join, please do so - it does not matter how far or how fast, just make sure you are in motion at the same time as everyone else. Take a photo and post with the hashtag #maddogmikememorialrun on social media, or email to me and I can put up on this blog.
Keep running, Mike. We will miss you.
***Photo credit to Tina Schreiber Salibello