We made this plan somewhere in the middle of Iran with fresh legs and time on our side. However, these two luxuries rapidly came to an end as India brought sickness and intense heat, flittering away any opportunity to run.
So it was that I arrived in Xining with 1000km of the G109 stretching before me and three training runs totaling 40km under my belt.
We talk when planning expeditions about pushing our boundaries. I had read in Alastair Humphreys blog that one of his motivations in choosing to cycle around the world was a belief that this was a challenge he probably could not complete. Finally it felt like we were in for a similar fate. Failure at the beginning of this run felt closer than it ever had before. I couldn’t even picture us getting to the half-way stage and in a strange way reveled in this realisation.
As we began Day 1, a 50km gradual climb, there weren’t any nerves nor was there excitement, just a blinkered focus to do as well as we could on this opening day and a curiosity as to what that would amount to. For me this was a 6 hour run, which slowed to a shuffle, followed by a 1 hour walk as I contemplated how humiliating it would be to fail at such an early stage. Nearly 8 hours after beginning I reached the 50 km mark having summoned enough energy to run the final 6km.
Despite the slow pace this opening day brought confidence, finally we were underway my legs were clearly weak but they had managed. That evening it was all I could to eat and lie in bed as my body began shivering. I wouldn’t allow myself to look at the run plan for day 2. The only way to keep moving was to approach this a day at a time.
This pattern continued for the first week. I would run, shuffle and walk my way through each day and shiver through each evening always doubtful that I would manage another day but never letting myself dwell on this dilemma. It was at this stage that I needed those around me the most, Aine who was supporting us by bicycle arrived with treats and water every few hours and told stories to keep my mind away from the pain. Maghnus, who had settled better, would set my pace at the start of each day and would be there at the finish line holding up fingers to indicate the number of days completed. Gavin brought a freshness to the adventure, reminding me to take in the beauty of the landscape, not letting me take for granted a way of life that I have grown so accustomed to.
It was in this manner that we reached the 250 km mark. At this stage Aine departed and was replaced by Niu who would drive alongside us for the duration of the challenge. Niu spoke no English but we immediately warmed to his relaxed demeanor. He would drive ahead each day stopping at 15km intervals awaiting us with fist pumps and a boot load of water.
As the days wore on my speed gradually increased. I could get through the runs without walking, then I could run a faster pace for the opening hour and then for the opening two hours. The mental change at this point was almost as big as the physical one. Suddenly I wasn’t thinking about just finishing I was wondering how fast I could finish. Each day I would have some new target to break and suddenly the suffering diminished and my legs grew stronger.
Ironically as I grew stronger Maghnus grew weaker and for one week every day brought a new ailment. large quantities of blood appeared in his urine, his knees started to give way coming downhill and his hip had him in a state of constant agony running uphill. Although we have both had trouble with sickness and injury over the years we have never been affected at the same time. Thus one of us has always been in a position to help out when the other is struggling. Out of necessity this person grows a little stronger. As each day looked like it could be Maghnus’s last my own problems and pains became secondary considerations.
A six day 250km desert crossing between the towns of Dulan and Golmud which we nicknamed ‘hell week’ marked the end of this long middle section and the beginning of the final stretch which would take us up to 4875 meters onto the Tibetan plateau. Again our conditions changed and it again became my turn to falter as Maghnus began to find his early running form and Gavin grew stronger with each passing day.
So, again in a mild state of suffering on the final day, I ran trying to work out just what the point of all this pain was? What had I learnt and was it of any benefit to me or anyone else ? I was quite sure that I wasn’t going to reach the finish line and erupt into some state of euphoria. My reward would be relief and a chance to stop running. I then began to think about the times over the last 27 days when I felt strong or confident whilst running. There were few. The run as a whole had been torturous and for the majority of the time I felt weak. It may seem contradictory but my strongest moments were also my weakest. It required everything I had to not give in during the periods of extreme pain or doubt and so it was when I was at my worst that I needed my best.
Yet there was another feeling a strange mixture of disbelief and tranquility. This was something I didn’t know I would finish, something I have been building towards for quite a few years, something I couldn’t have done without the support of those around me and something that will stick with me for a long time to come. It certainly beats a brief moment of euphoria.