Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Running on Empty – Browne

I knew there was a song titled ‘Running on Empty’ but didn’t know it was by Jackson Browne -an American singer-songwriter and musician who sold over 18 million albums in the USA mainly in the 1970s. It’s actually a great song and well worth a listen. The lyrics Browne wrote about driving his truck to the recording studio on an empty fuel tank match my thoughts of today as I’m feeling pretty destroyed post Marathon des Sables with the ‘ABP Newport Marathon’ (Marathon #1017) on Sunday looming.

‘Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels, looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields’.

It’s not the end of the world and I’m not asking for any sympathy – if you know me very well, you’ll know that’s not my style. I’m just illustrating a phase of running and recovery that we all will experience at one time or another if racing and clocking up marathons and ultras is your thing.

You see for a long time now, I’ve considered running as an investment process. A process of trying to capture as much Kinetic Energy, Confidence and Momentum as possible in training to use on Race-Day itself. It’s a tough call, as it requires a huge amount of concentration and hard work – but being incredibly patient and having myopic tunnel-vision have proved to be a real advantage I’ve found.

‘I don't know where I'm running now, I'm just running on’.

That covers off Confidence and Momentum but Kinetic Energy, well that’s not so easy to build up again, especially if you’ve just wiped out three months of hard training in a week of sand-dune bashing in Morocco. Post Guillain-BarrĂ© Syndrome, I’m fully aware that it now takes me months rather than a few days or weeks to lose the mental and physical fatigue that blights training, festers injuries and produces slower and much worse race experiences and results.

‘Running on empty, running blind, running on, running into the sun’.

It happens to everyone, me included many times over the past 24 years I’ll hasten to add and I’ve always taken time out from running whenever my legs have felt heavy and unresponsive. ‘Unresponsive’ describes the sensation of feeling drunk combined with the moment you get off a treadmill after a long run and the fluid in your ears makes you feel a bit unsteady. That and the worst Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) ever and you’ll start to get the idea hopefully.

‘Gotta do what you can just to keep your love alive. Trying not to confuse it with what you do to survive’.

Am I worried? Nah… as I know my ‘Love’ for all things running will never leave me and rather than trying hard to regain my ‘Running Mojo’, I know it will return of its own accord. The faster times at Park Runs and Road Marathons, will return. It’s a shame that I can’t run as fast as I once did, but it doesn’t matter nowadays as just being part of the ‘Running Scene’ is enough. Thinking about it, being dry 24 years’ is my most important maintained achievement as is the ability to walk and lead a relatively normal life.

Running PBs is one thing, leading a well-balanced, long and rewarding life is something that many-a-runner never achieves and one well worth searching for IMHO.

‘I don't know when that road turned, into the road I'm on’.

It’s a great line and it’s a very hard moment to try and isolate. But we’re all on a road to somewhere aren’t we? Maybe like the lyrics say not necessarily the same road that you set out on but one that hopefully you are glad you are going down right now, in a direction you are keen on taking and one where you are steering. I mean who wants to be a passenger when there’s ample opportunities so out there to get behind the wheel.

‘Everyone I know, everywhere I go, people need some reason to believe’.

And there’s the ‘Nugget in Today’s Blog’ – Running is all about ‘Belief’. In fact, Lifeis all about ‘Believing’. My word, I BELIEVE – I’ve been there and got the T-Shirt many-a-time over. You see, I know I’ll feel stronger again - soon. My quads won’t feel like they’ve had a madman with a meat mallet on them and my hip-flexors will work on-demand rather than with the slight protest that accompanies any slight hint of exertion.

‘Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels, I don't know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels’.

Now, if that sounds familiar, and you are feeling a bit buggered right now, well is ‘Nature’s Way’ of telling you to take a well-earned ‘Time-Out’. A time to re-energise, re-format and re-capture the enthusiasm and energy needed to re-love the thing that changes your outlook on life and will go on changing your life forever.

Motto - Don’t Run on Empty :-)

1,016 Marathons - 246 Ultras - 15 Marathon des Sables - 9 Guinness World Records

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Breathe - Pink Floyd

Run, rabbit, run, dig that hole, forget the sun…

You know, there’s just something magical about being in the Sahara Desert. Maybe it’s the heat, the deep blue sky or the pure sense of adventure but there’s just something that makes the Marathon des Sables just that bit more special every time I take part in ‘The World’s Toughest Footrace’.

Was 2018 the Toughest year? Well, no it wasn’t if you want the honest truth the desert was cooler this year – sure it was tough, it always is but funnily it was one of the best in my opinion as it was so relaxed and that’s why I’ve enjoyed it so much. You see we experienced all of the MDS highlights, The Jebel - Twice. The Ridge-walk, the 30km of endless sand-dunes that strip the skin from your feet plus we were blasted not only by the Sun (for a day) but also the Wind (at night). I mean, what more could anyone want on what for most might be one of the toughest weeks of their lives?

The only people that will know that for real are those that entered searching for the week of a lifetime. 

And when at last the work is done, don't sit down, it's time to dig another one…

For some it will tick a bucket-list tick-box and for others that didn’t make the finish line on the final day it will be unfinished business. Perhaps they’ll bury their nightmares and wish they’d never even entered. The dream of surviving all the desert has to throw at you is one thing, surviving it is another. In a week’s time when the blisters have disappeared, and the return of normal life has started to corrode all of the goodwill that 11 days living with seven people in an open sided Berber tent has created, it’ll soon be time for folk to seek out a new adventure to fill the gaping hole that the MdS leaves in its wake.

For long you live and high you fly, but only if you ride the tide…

Now, if you’ve ever wanted to fly, really fly, feel free, liberated, challenged I believe there’s no better place to go to find out where your limits of human endurance really are. 

That’s the draw of one small part of the Western Sahara, somewhere you can probably feel the most alone anywhere on the planet. I love the night stage where if you are feeling particularly intrepid, you can go solo and move along on your own with just your thoughts for company and really did deep down into what makes you…er you.

Call it ‘Transcendence’, ‘Meditation’ or just ‘Pure Zombieness’ in the dark hours, in the sand, feeling particularly in need of the warm arms of your loved ones and the creature comforts of our busy lives, there’s nothing quite like being stripped down literally to the bone.

Do Fifteen MdS’ and you’ll understand where I’m coming from. 

And balanced on the biggest wave, you race toward an early grave…

I love gazing up into the jet-black night sky during the race. The planets, the stars and the Milky Way are 4K crystal clear and totally breath taking. They’re the same ones we have at home but back where I live in Cardiff they’re still they’re masked out by our busy modern-day electronic world. Plus, whenever is there any time to look up to the heavens and realise that we are in fact on the ‘Biggest Wave’ God could ever have created and that the only place to escape life’s constant distraction is to go and run 250km in the Sahara Desert.

1,016 Marathons - 246 Ultras - 15 Marathon des Sables - 9 Guinness World Records

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Dance on a Volcano - Genesis

Photo - Jane Harries
'And the pack on your back is turning you around' - Banks, Collins, Hackett & Rutherford

Lots of people have been asking me why I need to go back to the MdS again this year. Rather than explain, I thought I'd let the ninth chapter of my second book (still to be published book) written just after last year's race, do the explaining for me... 

By April, the month of Marathon des Sables, I felt fantastic, as if everything I’d ever thought about my own mental strength was reinforced by my comeback. I’d never given up during a marathon, and now, with 989 marathons under my belt and feeling strong once again, I knew there was no going back – I was heading full steam ahead for the MDS. And I knew I’d complete it, no matter what.

Everyone had said up to this point how worried they’d been for me, but irrespective of how tough things had gotten for me and my recovery at various points, I knew I had it in me to rebuild myself from scratch. In my mind, you see, this what starter-completers like me pride themselves on doing. They keep going and dust themselves off when things don’t necessarily go to plan. Guillian Barre Syndrome had been arguably my toughest endurance event to date, but it also wasn’t going to be one slog where I just waved a little white flag and gave up. No way. Never.

Yes, my wheels had fallen off, but I was going to put them back on and keep rolling on to bigger and better heights. Going into the MDS again after the year I’d had was truly cathartic. As with all the previous times I’d been there, it was a chance for me to reprocess my year, reflect and then fix some of the issues in my head, and also… to get some sleep!

Back at home at this point, we had very two very young children. I’d spent the previous months experiencing very little sleep, something you need more of post GBS. The desert would provide me with an opportunity to get some more shut-eye, which I desperately needed.

Funnily enough, when it came to packing my bag for the event, it actually just felt like it did when I’d been packing on any other year. I’d be putting all my running kit in my bag, and as usual knowing exactly what was needed and what everything weighed off the top of my head.

The only difference this year was that Jenny wanted me to pack a mobile with me, just in case something happened to me, which, despite being an extra 118 grams, wasn’t actually a bad idea. In case things really went totally belly up, she wanted me to have the opportunity at least to phone home and say, ‘Beam me up, Jenny!’ and get me to safety.

That said, I knew I’d be fine out there. After all, I had all my Pink Floyd and Genesis’ back catalogue to listen to and get immersed in. The music would be my ammo.
I’d head out there, soak up the sun, and enjoy the ride, breathing in the experience remembering that only eight months earlier I’d been learning to walk. So, with that in mind, I decided that I’d give it my all and save some pride by not coming too near the back of the field.

I wanted to drink it in and although the MDS lasts a week, it goes quicker than a click of the fingers. One moment you’re riding on the coach out into the desert, and then before you know it, you’re on another coach coming back. That’s what it feels like. It just whizzes by and before you know it you’re sat at a 5-star hotel, The Berbere Palace, afterwards, lounging by the pool.

But more than anything, one thing I didn’t want to do was go there with the mind-set that I was someone who was still ill or disabled. I wasn’t disabled. I no longer needed any help. I could make my own way now. I was there to re-charge my life-battery, just like I did in 1999, and then every year since. In 1999, I fell in love with running across the desert so deeply that when I got back home to the UK from the event, I just thought, ‘Right, that’s it, I’m packing in my job in and I’m concentrating more on my running career.’ Meeting Jenny at the race there in 2009 changed my life once more. And then finally in 2016, in a cruel twist, ran the race in the early stages of GBS.

I believe running the MDS does change your life. It gives you the opportunity to put everything in perspective. Everyone in life tends to live their day-to-day existence with the view that if they just change ‘A’, then they can get to ‘B’, which will lead to ‘C’, and then their life will be perfect. They’ll be happier at home! They’ll be happier at work! It’ll all slot into place!

But that isn’t how life works.

Instead, things don’t go to plan because shit happens leading to more frustration and further breakdown. At the MDS, though, you get to the start line, they blast out AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ just as you’re about to start, and then you’re off. You’ve got to get from point A to point B, drinking enough water, eating enough food to keep you going, whilst not trying to die.
And with that level of clarity about what your objectives are, there’s plenty of time to process all of the thoughts in your mind: do you really like that job? Are you really happy at home? What would make you happy? What’s the point of your current life? And so on. It gives you a level of clarity you just wouldn’t find elsewhere.

Once the race started, with me there finally having made it from wheelchair to starting line, it was quite interesting. Day One was actually quite easy. It was a fairly short distance, and it was only 39-degrees centigrade, chilly for the Sahara. I got to the end of that day, thinking, ‘Wow, I can do this!’ I finished in 748th place with 500 or so people behind me.

Day two wasn’t too bad either - not too long or too hot. People were saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t realise it’d be this hot.’ But generally, it wasn’t a totally crazy day of suffering. Day Three though was when it started to get intense though - which was fantastic!

In came the steep sand dunes and mountains called ‘Jebels’, a thousand metres up and as steep as Mount Snowdon. Just as in the previous 13 years at the MDS, it was 50c+ degrees and roasting. As in previous years, I was carrying a huge flagpole with me, this time with The Flag of Wales hoisted - it felt like a real honour. I’d emigrated to Wales seven years ago and Jenny runs for Team Wales too. So, it feels good to represent the place where I live, and it gives me a sense of identity and national pride. 

It’s funny as well: having worked all over the world in my previous life doing office-based work from Dubai to Capetown, I now realise how important Wales is to me. Wales has been the place where I’ve become ‘Rory the Performance Coach’ and not just ‘Rory the Personal Trainer’.
As for Day 3 out at the MDS, though, that was the day when people really started dropping like flies. I heard people saying, ‘I never thought there’d be so much sand!’ Which made me smile - it’s the Sahara, I mean, what did they expect? At the top of the biggest Jebel, I bumped into Colonel Tim Collins. He’s the legendary SAS boss who sent troops into Iraq with his rousing speech before battle. Yet there he was, just sat there.

‘Chop, chop, Colonel’ I said to him. ‘The race doesn’t just get done sitting there, come on’. 

He said to me in his broad Northern Irish accent: ‘You’re as hard as fuckin’ coffin nails. Some of my guys wouldn’t even get up here!’ And this is coming from someone whose pre-Gulf-War speech is so revered it’s framed in the Oval Office in The White House – that was high praise indeed.

Collins was an energy-giver, just like everyone else I chose to camp with me in my tent at the event each night. Firstly, I chose my friend Kevin Webber to be alongside me because he’s so positive. He’s dying of terminal prostate cancer and he doesn’t know how long he has left to live. He was there to tell me the truth if I looked bad. And I knew that if the shit hit the fan, he’d be there to help me out. He’s that kind of person.
Camping on my right side meanwhile was Simon Dimmer, or ‘Dimmer’, as I call him. He’s a very generous, lovely guy. We’re roughly the same age and he’d been in a previous tent with me and he’s someone whose friendship I really value.

I was nestled between Kev and Dimmer, plus there were the two ex-Welsh Regiment in there with me for morale, and a couple of my favourite clients, whom I wanted to be there in case they needed my help with any guidance during the race and which would provide me with much needed self-worth. It balanced itself out very well - everyone got on and we enjoyed a top tent atmosphere. Nothing was a problem, so to speak, and together we just hacked through whatever the race threw at us.

What’s more - and I know that this sound ridiculous - I was just buoyed along the whole time by this amazing Take That song I discovered just before I went out to the race. And by the way, I know what I’ve just said. Yes, Take That so let me explain.

The song’s called ‘Let in the Sun’, which I’d heard first in Jenny’s car. I thought, ‘Bloody hell this song’s really good.’ And as I started listening to the lyrics back in the tent, I found myself welling up. It really hit a nerve and touched on so many of the experiences and sentiments I felt following the year-long battle with GBS. ‘Pick yourself up and search for the light/ Hungry for a new start/ It’s your chance now to stand up and fight/ Take the next step now a day at a time/ Good to see you with your feet on the track/ Waiting for a restart/ Leaving all at once what was holding you back/ Want you to see the sun rise as fast as you can/ Open up/ Open up/ Everybody’s waiting’…

And as I sat there in the car with Jenny, I just thought, ‘Yes, exactly, I can’t go out there to the MDS feeling all doom-and-gloom about things. I’ve got to let the Sun in’. I’d saved playing that track for after the long day, as a reward to myself. It really was special. That song spoke a lot of truths to me about how far I’d come. The Jebel: I never actually thought I’d see that place again. That was a stop-in-my-tracks moment for me. That moment at the top of the Jebel was the peak of my GBS recovery, the proof that I’d actually made it through - alive.

At the end of that long day of running, when everyone got back to their tents, and began complaining that their feet were in pieces, I played that Take That song and cried. A good old sob. Kev looked at me and said, ‘Are you alright?’ And I said, ‘I’m fine, thanks. Today I just saw some places I thought I’d never see again.’ He understood, as only he would.

It was a good feeling. I felt happy. That day was when I finally exorcised some of my GBS demons. I left a lot of pain I’d felt in the race; I’d shed some of the hurt, sadness, frustration and fears. It was a huge relief. 
And do you know what? My wheels certainly didn’t come off during the race, even if my breathing capacity certainly wasn’t what it used to be. I also didn’t have as much physical stability as I used to. Coming down the Jebels, I wasn’t always completely certain where my feet were landing. Going uphill, meanwhile, I found it difficult because I’d run out of air as my diaphragm had been affected by the GBS.

Actually, going up the Jebel - I felt knackered. It was a very narrow passage, single file, a bit like people going up Everest, with some people holding onto, and some going hand-over-hand on a safety rope to support them as they moved up the steep incline. I was so exhausted that at points I had to sit down, let a few people go past me, then get back up so I could do a few steps and get going again.

But I wasn’t fazed by that, and there was no shame in it. You’re out there trying to cover 54 miles in one go, you have 35 hours to complete it in, so there’s no rush. I just tried to roll with the experience. I’d gotten to Checkpoint 4 by nightfall, and bumped into one of my clients, who offered to make me a cup of tea with a few sugars. Half a litre of tea has never tasted so good or been more welcome. I just sat there and enjoyed it and then thought, ‘Okay, I’ll do another three hours slog now to cover another 10km, at which point there’d be Checkpoint 5, where the race provides you with a Moroccan mint tea around a roaring campfire, with the added bonus of being able to sit in a huge deck chairs that dwarf you like the one Ronnie Corbett used to have on the Two Ronnie’s. I mean, what could be better.
Further on at Checkpoint 6 it was about three in the morning and I really did begin to feel tired. So, I got my sleeping bag out in one of the checkpoint tents, and fell asleep, out cold. You know that feeling where you wake up and you don’t know where you are? That feeling where you think, ‘Where the bloody hell am I?’ Well, that’s what I thought when I eventually opened my eyes. It was getting light, and as I looked around, it dawned on me: ‘Oh, hold on, I know where I am, I’m doing the MDS; and it wasn’t just a dream! Oh, right… well, I better get going again.’ I did the maths: it would be another 10km to get to Checkpoint 7, and then a further 10km to the finish. 
As dawn kicked in, I powered on through the early light… and got the distance covered. 

Admittedly, covering the ground at two miles per hour is pitiful. But actually, it really didn’t matter that much to me by then. I’d covered a huge distance and made it, against the odds. I crossed the finish line by mid-morning, and then in my mind all I had to do was complete the remaining marathon day and then that would be it - I’d have done it! 

I used the rest of the day to chat with my tent-mates, swapping experiences of the long day terror. Really, I told myself, the medal was pretty much in the bag now that the long day had been completed.

I’d seen some shocking sights. One guy at a checkpoint was fine one moment, and then in the next his eyes rolled back up and collapsed. He hit the floor and was promptly swarmed upon by nine doctors giving him CPR. He was just a normal-looking guy, but his heart had had enough and luckily for him, they managed to bring him back.

And looking at this tragic event from a clinical standpoint for a second, this kind of situation is exactly what I talk to my clients about when they’re preparing for this race. I explain to them that the MDS isn’t a running race - it’s a self-sufficiency race. To get through it in one piece, you need to know how to manage yourself for the 11 days that you’re out there in the desert.

In life too, it’s about how you manage yourself, I say it to people all the time. Yes, it’s torture - but it’s torture with an end point. The pain will end and isn’t going to last forever. I say to myself, ‘Take strength from that in a few hours’ time, you’re going to be at the finish line. What are you moaning about? Just get on with it.’

But a lot of people can’t train themselves to think like that. They go out to the desert and either drink all of their allocated water allowance too quickly, waste it, or not drink enough of it. They forget the basics. They may get ill, and so on. All kinds of things can happen to your body in the physical pressure and heat of the desert. Therefore, they suffer and then they drop out of the race which is a shame and of course something that stays with them forever.

People who get a cruel awakening at the MDS: running is like anything you want to succeed at. You need to focus in on it, take it seriously, and then pursue your growth in it over many, many years. It’s like a job, you need to go through the apprenticeship stages. 

You’ve have to invest time in it.

I’m the prime example of this. Although my job as a coach involves fast-tracking people from couch-potato to MDS runner over a few short months, I went out with nothing less than my own hard-earned experience in 1999. I’d run 159 marathons before I even attempted the race.

As for the guy at the checkpoint whose heart appeared to have stopped, I took note of what happened, but it wasn’t something I was worried about happening to me. If I thought I was in any danger going to the MDS, I wouldn’t have gone. Plus, if like me, you’ve experienced two separate attacks of the Guillain-bloody-BarrĂ© Syndrome, I felt sure I could handle the MDS. The MDS is nothing compared to GBS. Nothing.

After successfully completing the race, on May 1st, 367 days after being admitted to hospital, I decided to walk to Rockwood, the hospital I’d convalesced in, just to say ‘hello’, as a kind of personal celebration. And as I had a 33-mile race lined up for the following Saturday, I thought I’d lay off the running for a week and have a well-earned rest.

It was a lovely sunny day in Cardiff and I returned to the hospital for a moment of reflection. I wanted to think deeply about the figurative distance I’d travelled from Rockwood to the MDS and back again. I wanted to give myself a mental anchor point. I always believe it’s good to have a goal, to know what you’re aiming for, and work out how to get there. At the same time, I also think it’s very important to look back to appreciate how far you’ve come.

When I got there, I reminded myself that when I’d first come through those front doors, I was in a wheelchair. Inside the building, I saw the physiotherapy room with the parallel bars that I leaned on to take my first steps. But I didn’t go near them for some reason it’s hard to explain. Instead I just stood in the doorway and stared at them. I just looked on at them. One of the physios who I’d done some recovery work with was there. 

‘It’s amazing how you’ve coped, how you’ve come on,’ he said.

And I thought, ‘Well, I suppose it is. But what else did you expect me to do? Sit in a bloody wheelchair forever or lie in a hospital bed in my own excrement?’ In the desert I’d realised that, for as much as I’d suffered in the year leading up to it, I’d now mastered my illness instead of the other way around.

The mental fog has dissipated. I’d gone out to the MDS to do a job, I’d surrounded myself with the right people, and did what I had to do. I’m felt calmer.

It’s only when you’re all alone and self-sufficient in the Sahara that you find out who you really are. That’s the magic of the desert. It clarifies your life-journey. It solidifies and makes sense of everything you’ve ever done in your life. When you come back home from that experience, especially after the year I’d had with GBS, it changes the way you look at the world and hopefully end up a better person for it.

1,014 Marathons - 245 Ultras - 14 Marathon des Sables - 9 Guinness World Records