Burnsy talked about unacceptable levels of pain.
The concept filled every facet of my thoughts for hours at a time. I reasoned that if I could keep moving to a point where my distress was such that it became unacceptable, having experienced this level and continued moving forward through it, even for a second, it would therefore become acceptable. I passed hours believing dogmatically in the truth and sense of this blatantly illogical hypothesis.
To an extent, however, the decision as to what would constitute an unacceptable level was a secondary concern. My main difficulty was not the pain I was in but the fear of what lay ahead. Richard Askwith, a fell-runner, describes it better than I can; “Living with pain is relatively simple: you just have to learn to detach yourself from it. Dread is a more awkward co-habitee – especially that particular kind of dread that involves knowing how much physical distress you’re in and fearing how much worse it will get if you stick with your current plans.” Imaginings of future pain became far more insidious than the pain I was actually in.
This realisation, with 10km left to complete of our 16th day, marked a huge turning point. I decided that I would run each marathon as if it were my last. I would rather not complete the full run than continue running terrified of what the next day would bring. I leant forward onto the balls of my feet, lifting my heels from the road and ran like I was going for a short burst from Larkin’s Cross to the back of UL. I finished in extreme discomfort but the mental change in those last few kilometres carried on into the next day and beyond. Each new day my legs began to feel looser and the pain seemed to recede as the increased speed eased the pressure on my knees. My hip continued to wince ceaselessly but the familiarity bred acceptance and I found I could put this pain it out of my mind.
Planning the run it had occurred to us that we would be exposing ourselves to a real risk of failure. 25 marathons in 27 days climbing from 2,500 metres to 5000 metres along the highest highway in the world. We were going to run 1000 km onto the Tibetan Plateau to the source of the Yangtse River. Its easy to type, it’s easy to say, easy to put on a website. It’s all a load of bollox until you put a bag on your back and start running. It’s all words, facebook updates, blogs and bluster until you realise that after 5 hours running you still had 17 km left to finish day 1.
We were no longer saying what we were going to do; we had at least begun doing. It was hugely difficult but at least we were experiencing it rather than imagining it. The passing of the final marker at the end of each day, stopping running, and finding myself still upright began to instil a confidence. As the distance covered added up I genuinely believed I was getting stronger. I believed it was getting easier......
On the evening of the 6th day I started urinating blood. It came without warning and came 2 hours after I had stood at the apex of a 4000 metre high mountain pass having ran 50 km, physically worn but as content as I have ever been. Suddenly, the confidence seemed hollow, the strength an illusion. Phone-calls home to my doctor indicated that it was probably just heumaturia (the breaking down of red blood cells due to constant pounding; common amongst long-distance runners) assuaging my worst fears of not being unable to continue. However, it felt as if a house of cards had fallen and I began running the next morning fearful of what I was doing to my body.
Pains I had previously ignored I now scrutinised. I started second guessing myself. I started to change the way I ran in response to pain, compensating to alleviate niggles. Within four days this alteration resulted in the onset of a relentless pain in my hip. In an effort to ease this I leant back on my heels for 12 km coming down a hill placing significant pressure on my knees. The result was to aggravate an old injury and the onset of a stabbing pain in both knees with every stride. The result was those seven days.
On the 17th of August, 27 days after we left Xining we finished the 25th of 25 marathons. Much more happened within those 27 days but for the time being at least I still can’t see too far beyond those 7. Completing this stage of the expedition was made possible by a few people. We want to thank John Hogan, Self-Help’s and our voice at home. Aine McKevitt, a friend, who cycled with all our gear for the first 250 km. I want to thank my parents who came out for the last 5 days; to my mother who waited patiently every 15 km to give us food and water, and my father who ran with us for 10km everyday at over 3,600 metres on each of the 5 days.