Almost three weeks later I am still wary of delving too deeply into my mental state for those 7 days. Simply imagining a single hour of running when the pain was at its worst is difficult to conjure. Imagining the 42 or so hours it actually took is impossible. Early on, when the pain was first reaching a crescendo 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, Burnsy’s girlfriend, 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. Finally, I’d like to especially thank Gavin Redmond, who flew to China to be part of this expedition. Ya did yourself proud big man. Cheers.
We had talked about attempting 40km training runs during the cycle. The plan seemed both feasible and sensible; get our legs up to speed gradually without compromising the 15 week window set aside for our cycle from Istanbul to Kathmandu. 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.
Today brought an end to the shortest but most physically demanding stage of 'Silk Roads to Shanghai. 1000 km or 25 marathons completed in 27 days from Xining to the Tibetan Plateau. It has been a challenge of proportions we have never before experienced and the finish line has brought utter relief.
Intertwined with the pain there have been moments of elation and lightheartedness, all of which we will attempt to describe in greater detail over the course of the next week.
Thanks to our support team of Niu Xiaozhun, Aine Mckevitt , Philip and Margaret Smyth who have been an invaluable help. However, the joy of finishing was dampened by the departure of Gavin Redmond who brought much more to the expedition than just his running shoes. Cheers Gav!
I’m tired. I’m more tired than I’ve ever been in my whole life. I have shin splints, sunburn, blisters, bites, exercise-induced hematuria, chapped lips and every muscle in my lower body is in a place beyond tired and just before sore. I’ve just finished my 12th day as a member of the sand2snow Adventures team and I suppose at this point, you may have some questions…
What are you doing?
Where exactly is here?
How did you end up being there?
What does it mean to be a member of the Sand2Snow Adventures Team?
What are you doing?
Trying to run 1000km in 26 days to the Tibetan Plateau along the highest highway in the world.
Where is ‘here’?
‘Here’ is the Qinghai Province of China. Precisely at this moment, ‘here’, is a small rural town called Dulan.
How did I get here?
I got here by running just shy of 400km in less than 11 days from a city of some 3 million people called Xining. (Which I flew to from Dublin – via Abu Dhabi and Shanghnai. It took 36 hours.)
If it all sounds pretty simple so far, I must confess it hasn’t been.
I’ve just run 400km in 11 days. To put that in context it’s a minimum of 30km a day. It has been mostly back-to-back marathons. Which I think in most people’s books would be hard enough but then there are a few other things to consider here as well:
• Altitude. This is the big one. It’s really why we’re here. Running at altitude is much, much harder. Scientific studies show that VO2 Max is at least 10% less than at sea level when you go to 2000mts. We’re somewhere between 3000mts and 5000mts for this entire trip. Our VO2 Max has been reduced by up to 30% at points. In other words, because we’re higher up the barometric pressure is less than at sea level, which means the oxygen molecules are farther apart, which means its harder to breath.
• Heat. It's now August. The average daily temperature has been +25 degrees.
Lets get one thing straight. Running a marathon is hard. Anyone who has ever run one will tell you it is a big ask. Running back-to-back marathons is really hard. Running back-to-back marathons for over 20 days, at altitudes of 3000mts +, in temperatures of 25 degrees +, carrying your own kit (Including water), running your own logistics, cooking your own meals, finding your own accommodation and doing first aid for your team mates and all in a foreign country where no one speaks English… Well, that answers another question - What does it mean to be a team member of Sand2Snow Adventures.
Ok but why?
Here are my reasons:
1. “Being a man or woman for others” was a cornerstone of my education. It is a Jesuit teaching that comes from St.Ignatius Loyla and it is something that my years Clongowes Wood College imprinted on me more than any academic lesson. It is also something that my parents taught me as I grew up. Do one thing everyday for someone else, especially if they don’t ask you to. This expedition/adventure is in aid of a charity called Self Help Africa.
2. “Adventure is out there…” The simple tag line from the Pixar movie ‘Up’. Having had the privilege of turning 28 years of age 12,500+ fts above sea level running a marathon looking at some of the worlds most untouched, scenically, spectacularly beautiful mountains, I can tell you for a fact that adventure is there somewhere. It doesn’t have to be in China in the mountains though. It can be in the Wicklow hills (My fellow IMRA members can testify that it is every single Wednesday and Saturday.), or a drive to a county you’ve never been to for a night out, or trying a different restaurant on a Friday. The point I’m making is that deciding that your life is an adventure, rather than a grind from Monday to Friday with the hope of 21 days respite a year, is the decision you have to make. Once you’ve made it, life is instantly more fun and every corner has the possibility of a just a little bit of craic around it or maybe even something beautiful. I guess what I’m saying is, we only have one shot at life and we owe it to ourselves to have a good story to tell beside a fireplace with a pint of Guinness in a wrinkled hand.
So why? Because I hope my efforts inspire others to do something adventurous in their own lives. Because I want my stories to justify the faith and effort that my parents have put into making me the person I am today and if not that then at very least I hope to be able to hold the attention of a pretty girl at a bar for 5 minutes with a good tale.
If our efforts are deemed above the course of duty enough that people wish to donate to the charitable cause we’ve selected in Self-Help Africa – then we are humbled by that. We know how hard it is to give away hard earned money today. Which is why we make it very clear – any donations contributed go straight to the charity. Self Help Africa save lives and builds a sustainable future for people in some of the worlds most impoverish places. Maghnus and David know this because they’ve been there. I hope some day to be as well and I hope that my efforts here – changes the life of someone that I never meet – because that in my mind, is making a difference.
Sponsors such as Kinetica and Palm, and our own savings and borrowings make our trip possible. No donation that is made to Sand2Snow Adventures goes towards our own pockets.
So what about the stuff you were moaning about at the beginning of this?
Well, I’m tired.
I have shin splints. Shin Splits – my awesome friend and “text a physio” Kevin Thornton tells me occur where the tibial an anterior muscle presses against the tibia and with repetition it becomes inflamed. To me, it means I have swollen shins and were a toddler with a liking for a swift kick to the shins to go on the rampage, I would be the first to fall. It also means that the first 3km of any run is usually painful until my body decides to ignore it and it fades into a deep throb with each stride.
I have sunburn. Boo Hoo! lots of people get burned in the sun.
The trouble with sunburn here is that the higher you go - the greater the exposure to ultraviolet radiation. In fact for every 300 meters of elevation gain, ultraviolet light exposure increases about 4%. So, at our current altitude we have exposure to 15 times the UV light we would normally face at sea level. I apply factor 30 SPF to every day twice a day. Normally it’s enough – just. Yesterday, I missed the spots behind my knees. Within two hours I had water blisters the size of €2 coins on the back of my legs. It wasn’t a pretty sight. It is not a mistake I will be making again.
Exercise-induced hematuria and chapped lips – The first of these you can look it up yourself ~ if your that way inclined. Needless to say, it’s not pleasant but thankfully, its also not a big problem. The second of these, chapped lips is a problem. But only because chapped lips in a country where spicy food is the norm makes eating a chore. I am however becoming expert at eating noodles with chop sticks without any of it touching my lips.
Shorter posts and videos will be the norm from now on – so if you made it this far… Well done and thanks for your support.