I woke up feeling more nervous than yesterday and for some reason felt jittery as we paddled off from a little jetty. I say ‘for some reason’ as yesterdays fall wasn’t particularly bad and during the resulting swim I felt composed and relaxed getting out of trouble long before any rapids. I concluded that the feeling was more to do with the general uneasiness I have regarding this stretch. I have always felt that once we reach Chongqing we will be safe and so it seems the closer we get the more I think of all the possibilities for disaster that could arise before this landmark. It seems akin to the feeling one can get in Rugby or Football when trying to hold onto a narrow lead. You become so obsessed with not making mistakes that you lose your rhythm , an extremely dangerous mindset to adopt on this river.
As we paddled off I wobbled on a series of tiny whirlpools. Then I began readjusting my bags and seat trying to correct a balance issue that only existed in my head. Maghnus humored my dilemma by pointing out that jitters were only natural and that my raft looked perfectly balanced. I then exclaimed for the first and last time that ‘I needed something big to get me back in the groove’ - I certainly got my wish. Throughout that day we negotiated rapids every few kilometers, rapids which made all our efforts on this section seem like some sort of extended warm up. One in particular stands out :
The river seemed to be forking into two channels divided by a shingle bank 30 meters from the left bank and flanked by the sheer cliffs which are beginning to characterise this section. The sun was in my eyes as I strained to make a call. Peering down both channels looking for an obvious horizon line or white water jumping up in the distance. At 1km away river left seemed like the preferable option and I could make out a period of calm afterwards which would be perfect for recovering should either of of get into trouble.
I slowly began to get in position not yet committed to running this river left but certain that we could read and run whatever was ahead. As I moved out towards the centre of the river I could see fully down the bend the water took going river left and knew something was up. The noise didn’t fit with the calm scene in front of me and the water had grown extremely calm. I strained my eyes trying to see where this noise originated and saw some puffs of white water just visible behind a calm horizon which spanned this side of the river. I couldn’t see the full extent of it yet but knew it must be big. I turned to indicate my mistake to Maghnus and started paddling hard across the flow heading for the right hand passage. Maghnus was 50 meters back and in a perfect position to get across. I still felt I could make it but as I paddled and the noise increased the struggle I was in for became apparent.
Getting closer to the right hand channel the speed of the river increased. Although the right hand side was wider 75% of the water seemed to curving round and going down river left. I got to within 5 meters of the calm righthand channel before I realised for certain I wouldn’t make it. I swung the raft round and prepared to get pounded. Maghnus has enough time to get right I thought, I dearly hoped he wouldn’t follow me into this. After this I started manicly shouting at the upcoming water, all nervousness was gone and I was ready for a tussle. My aim was simple get as far as possible before falling out I had no grand illusions off making this in one piece.
Water was coming diagonally off the shingle bed on the right and seemed to be hitting boulders as it rushed across to join the main flow which followed along the cliff on the far left. There was a slight lip of calm water leading into the huge waves on the left and I used this as a target. Before I knew it I was on the lip and sinking deeper and deeper into the trough of a wave with another rising high above me. My only strategy was to hit as many as I could head on, and for the first two I managed it. The raft rising vertically on each occasion but crashing down each time. I was roaring at the water, crashing through wave after wave with adrenaline pumping. I had no chance of picking a line or trying to get out , it was purely one wave at a time. On several occasions I was sucked into a whirlpool or blindsided my some monster wave but miraculously kept upright. I began to take in my surroundings and noticed the waves were decreasing. I managed a quick look back and saw that Maghnus had followed me in and was perched on the crest of a wave someway back. I felt I would make it now but still had to work hard and keep an eye on Maghnus. He appeared every few seconds on the crest of a wave before plunging out of sight. The next corner was 1km away and getting in position was essential. As soon as Maghnus was through the worst of it we were working hard to get back across river right. Reminiscing would have to wait until we camped.
We are heading back to the river today with about two weeks of paddling remaining until we leave the mountains for good. We will attempt to put up a few more diary entries before then.
At last! After weeks of arguing with immigration officials and with huge help from everyone at the Irish Consulate we are ready to head back to the river for a final three-month push to the Shanghai. Equipment, which was once of the North Face/Berghaus/Lowe Alpine variety, has been replaced by the well-known adventure brands Primark and CCF (Cheap Chinese Fakes).
Crucially, however, thanks to Alpacka Rafts we will have the best pack-rafts money can buy.Putting this expedition back together has been a hugely difficult task made possible only with the help of a few people. We would like to thank Austin Gormley, Lucia and Peter at the Consulate, Nancy at Alpacka Rafts, Rowena Knight at Palm, Brian Crean and finally Tempa, our host in Yushu. Finally we’d just like to say how blown away we were by the support from home. When things were looking particularly bleak the messages from home encouraged us to start again. Cheers to everyone.
Maghnus walks towards our campsite on the Indian / Nepalese boarder - 2012
The last three weeks have presented the biggest threat to the completion of ‘Silk Roads to Shanghai’ since we began planning the expedition some 14 months ago. Ironically this obstacle arose the day after I noted in my diary “for the first time I truly believe we have the necessary skill levels and knowledge of the river to make it to Shanghai”. What is worse is that I still believe that quote to be accurate. Our plans were not under threat from that fateful rapid nor as a result of losing a packraft but because of the unnecessary processes and layers of red tape we had to negotiate once the raft and its contents had disappeared.
We are no strangers to obstacles both the challenges routinely encountered on the road and the beauacratic hurdles governments put in place. In every way this journey has demanded we surmount more of such obstacles than any expedition we have previously attempted . Changing our mode of transport on three occasions and crossing five borders have kept us continually on our toes both mentally as well as physically. Indeed while making it to the mouth of the Yangtze still remains far from a certainty I feel that learning from our mistakes along the way has proved the pivotal factor in any successes we have enjoyed thus far.
A wonderfully different scene greeted us on our first night in Sudan after dropping down from the Ethiopian highlands - 2009
As we return from two weeks in civilization I’ve been wondering just how transferable these skills learned in the worlds wild places will be when we eventually settle into a more conventional existence. We often joke that there is so much we learn in a day out here that will be rendered useless once we return home. Will I ever again need to be aware of the subtle differences required to set up camp in a storm as opposed to on a calm evening? Or recall which lines to take on a braided river and how they vary as the volume of water increases. Will the mental tricks I’ve learned to keep my exhausted body going forward, tricks that have proved vital over the last few months, have any home at this journeys end ?
I’m not sure whether it’s for better or worse but I imagine many of these will be redundant , remnants of a different and distant way of life. Yet I feel there are a whole host of general learnings that may pass between these two lives and prove useful in a completely different environment. Some such learnings I have attempted to describe below.
Maghnus looks longingly at a Kebab 2 minutes after beginning 'Silk Roads of Shanghai' - Istanbul 2012
The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge while an ordinary man takes everything as either a blessing or a curse
Ignoring the somewhat exaggerated label ‘warrior’ which I am not describing either of us as (well at least not Maghnus) this is a lesson we learn from again and again. Especially when events don’t go our way. The most frequent example of this occurs when facing a day of head winds. During ‘Bike Africa’ we on occasion felt sorry for ourselves in this predicament and in doing so added a mental barrier to an already significant physical one. Over the years we have learned to accept and on occasions revel in such circumstances. Shouting at the wind; ‘Is that all you’ve got’, whilst ultimately pointless, does serve to get you in the right frame of mind.
At the crux of this learning is the fact that self pity, or self praise for that matter, offer little. Until you calmly accept your circumstances as a challenge and begin to rationally plot your next move nothing of value can be achieved.
Petrol stations offered the perfect place to relax at the end of a cold days cycling across a snow covered Italy - 2010
There are days, although rare, when it feels like everything is going our way. When the rain holds off, the wind is at our back and we have an extra helping of trail mix to fuel an already energetic body. On such days it pays to get ahead of our schedule, to take shorter lunch breaks and an extra coffee, to travel an extra 30km if on the bike or plan an extra 200 km of river if working on logistics.
In the past it seemed we only constructed our itineraries to give us a broad framework and were constantly playing catch up. On this expedition however we have usually been on or ahead of schedule, and this has a lot to do with realising early we have the ability to put in a big day and using it as an opportunity to get ahead and give ourselves a buffer for days when not so fortunate.
Working at this level isn’t sustainable in the long run. However, when you do all external thoughts seem to disappear and your output far outweighs what you accomplish on a regular day.
Maghnus pushes through the pain at the midway stage of our 1000km run across the Tibetan plateau - 2012
Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.
Just as there are days when everything goes well there are occasions when things (usually our bodies) seem to be falling apart. On one recent day where we both capsised and had lengthy swims only retrieving the rafts and our composure an hour before the planned time for camping that evening. However, instead of pushing on and chasing the elusive daily kilometers we reasoned that recent events had left us mentally and physically tired on a section of river that would allow neither. In short we were in danger of making a bad day worse. There was more to be gained by camping early, lighting a fire and having an extra ration of food.
On occasions like this or even on normal days when we notice exhaustion creeping in its important to notice the signs early. Rarely has a good sleep not helped us look on the same situation in a different light.
Climbing into the Himalayas, at the same time the toughest and most enjoyable days we have ever spent on the bikes - 2012
“You can’t go there you’ll end up dead” I remember puzzling over this remark as a 17 year old boy planning a run of the mill holiday to Thailand. It was said to me by a friends mum and was the first time I remember thinking that adults could speak just as must rubbish as us kids. Since then I have received numerous such warnings about almost every country we have travelled through. Some so sincere and heart felt that we are forced to double check all our plans only to find out they have grossly exaggerated or on occasions fabricated stories to ward us off.
“60km and its nearly all down hill” We received this glowing report on the condition of a road we were about to travel at the beginning our first cycle down Africa. We had none of inbuilt skepticism gained from hundreds of such inaccurate accounts and cheerfully set about traveling down the worst road I have encounter in over 20,000km stretching from Cape Town to Kathmandu.
Its worth noting there are people who give advise and we listen having avoided Southern Sudan and parts of the Yangtze on sound authoritative recommendations. The trick is to know who to listen to , to do your own research and to then question even well intended advise of anyone not in a position to give it.
“Be careful whose advice you buy, but, be patient with those who supply it”
Camping between some horrible rapids on the Upper Yangtze - 2012
As I begin to put this list together im aware that there are so many more transferable skills or learnings I can add from the years spent on the road. Teamwork being the most glaring omission. So many indeed that I will follow up with a second half to this blog in the coming weeks. In the meantime we would be delighted to hear any comments, additions or criticisms you may have.
I estimated that the distance to the bend was somewhere in the region of 800 metres. The distance to the opposite bank was roughly 70 metres. Rapids ﬂanked both banks before giving way to a second bend the end of which I could not see. Burnsy had pulled his raft off the river onto a rocky outcrop just preceding the inside of the bend. Holding a 25 metre rescue line in waist deep water he would be able to toss the line if i could not make it across the river before the bend. If i missed the line I would be swept into the ﬁrst of the rapids. In the previous four weeks we had come within a stones throw of a bear, encountered numerous wolves, been thrown out of my raft twice in white-water and on three separate occasions I had found myself clutching a cliff-face knowing that a misstep would almost certainly be crippling if not fatal. Yet now, standing at the waters edge, my mind lost in the speed of the main ﬂow, I was more physically scared than at anytime previously in my life.
8 days after beginning our post run rest period we left Xining for a second time and headed once more toward the Yangtse source. Chinese authorities had closed the wider Tibetan Autonomous zone to foreigners without group visas (all but impossible to get) and so reaching the source of the Yangtse would demand a border hop. The topography of the land at the border crossing creates a natural gateway through which travelers are funneled. 5000 metre peaks form a 300 km natural barrier to progress broken only by a narrow pass. A river which emerges from this pass cuts a steeply walled canyon bisecting the break in the ridge, further necessitating a route through the border checkpoint. To avoid this checkpoint we would have to cross the canyon, hike east into the desert and use the cover of nightfall to sneak past the police before re-crossing the river on the Tibetan side. This was further complicated by the fact that we would have to attempt the trek with a pack containing all our equipment and three weeks supply of food for the beginning of the river. I weighed approximately 70 kg and, ﬁttingly, my pack weighed approximately 70 kg.
40 hours after leaving the road, headed east toward the canyon, we rejoined it a mere 15 km further along. Crucially, however, within those 15 km lay the border crossing, the only remaining obstacle to us reaching the source of the longest river in Asia. A day later we camped on frozen ground 5000 metres above sea level on the bank of the Yangtze River. As I climbed into my sleeping bag I clearly remember thinking; no matter what happens from now on, being here has made this past years work worthwhile. The truth or perhaps honesty of this single thought would be tested with a scrutiny I scarcely considered as I nodded off for the ﬁnal time before we began our descent of the river.
Unlike any previous expedition for the next three to four weeks we would truly be on our own. The height and inaccessibility of the ﬁrst 1000 km of the river precludes any signiﬁcant human settlement. We would be out of contact with the outside world completely dependent on our ourselves. Excitement suppressed all but a smattering of anxiety. The tiredness that had set upon us in India and which was our constant companion on the run seemed to dissipate. Our enthusiasm returned with a force that I think surprised us both. on three consecutive days I wrote in my diary that each had been the best of the expedition to date. Massive birds of prey circled overhead as herds of wild horses galloped along the river banks. Burnsy paddled obliviously as a wolf scrutinized his every movement. A bear hardly ﬂinched as we ﬂoated, rigid with fear, metres from his island perch. Landscape more breathtaking than seemed possible gave way to steeply banked cliffs as we paddled through snow covered mountain ranges even more demanding of breath. Through it all the singular constant was the absence of humanity in its various guises. What i know about nature could ﬁt comfortably in a largely spaced childrens book but I am now convinced that all it takes for nature to ﬂourish is for us to disappear.
The physicality of the run and cycle was replaced by a level of mental concentration that left us drained if not sore. Paddling for about seven hours a day, whilst tiring, lacks the intensity of running or cycling. In itʼs stead though is a requirement for constant vigilance. Our lack of experience in rafting requires that we approach every bend with caution. Every minor rapid must be examined and scouted. Constantly we reinforced this to each other, mindful to avoid even a semblance of over-conﬁdence. If we were to get through this initial and arguably most difﬁcult stage it would be through prudence, patience and self- awareness.
Rigidly sticking to this approach we found ourselves one difﬁcult continuous rapid from reaching Yushu within four weeks and ﬁnishing the ﬁrst stretch. Conscious of how close we were to success we scouted this ﬁnal rapid carefully. Identifying two difﬁcult sections in particular we made our way back to the rafts conﬁdent that we could get through it. Burnsy passed through the ﬁrst section dropping into a stopper but forcing his way through. Unable to fully see his struggle I followed him into the stopper but similarly did just enough to come through it. The second section had appeared very imposing but Burnsy reckoned if we got our angle of entry right we could slip through a break in a wave. Glancing ahead I saw that he had indeed made it through and following a similar line I slipped through the same gap. A mixture of relief and adrenalin ﬂooded through me as the main ﬂow carried my raft through the remaining whitewater. My concentration lapsed as I turned to move out of the main ﬂow to the calm waters near the bank. Turning too abruptly the front of my raft caught the static water of the eddy as the main ﬂow continued to exert force on the rear.
The raft ﬂipped in an instant and I was swimming. The water at this height is so cold that even in a dry suit it forces all air from your lungs. Struggling to swim out of the rapid with the rope attached to the raft in my mouth I swallowed water and the resulting cough saw the raft continue down river as I reached for a boulder and pulled myself from the water.
For the next three days we chased the raft. Burnsy on the river and me on the shore.Darkness fell soon-after my swim giving the raft a 10 hour start on us. It was a gap we would never bridge and a massive weir just before Yushu probably put paid to the raft, equipment and all. The reality of losing the raft and with it every piece of equipment and identiﬁcation I needed for the expedition became ever more apparent with each passing hour. Chasing a raft on the shore of a river the size of the Yangtse meant committing to a side and the obstacles it would bring. Time and again I found I had scrambled to a point where I could go no further and with each new corner-formed cliff the risks I was taking grew. On the evening of the third day I found myself at yet another cliff formed by a bend. Burnsy pulled off the river and waited to see if i could climb across. Moving horizontally along the face about 40 metres from the ground I reached an impasse. A two metre gap separated me from the next foot hold. I climbed back down slowly realising that to continue I would have to swim to the opposite bank.
Thus I stood in frigid water trying to compose myself enough to throw myself into the main ﬂow. I couldnʼt slow my heart but reasoned that the increased adrenalin might serve to keep me slightly warmer. I sank to my knees bringing the water to my neck so as to avoid being shocked. Ultimately it was a single thought that provided the push I needed to begin swimming; I had no other choice. I waded in and began a labored front crawl that took me to the other side some 100 metres upstream from Burnsy. I lay exhausted on a rock struggling to ﬁnd oxygen in air that seemed reluctant to provide it. It was only then, shivering and spent, that it ﬁnally sank in; The raft and everything on it was gone. Although
dejected this realisation ended a period of constant hope and repeated deﬂation. Accepting that if we were continue it would only be by starting anew meant facing some harsh realities but at least I would not be throwing myself into a river merely hopeful of making it to the other side.
At times during previous expeditions and in the early stages of this one I have often killed some time during difﬁcult periods trying to recite the words of Rudyard Kiplingʼs ʻIfʼ as I cycled or ran. A mistake would send me back to the start prolonging the length of time I could distract myself for. Such repetition of the early verses meant I had spoken this line more times than I could possibly count;
If you can bear to see the work you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build it up again with worn out tools.
If those words meant anything to me then here was an opportunity to give meaning to them personally. I write now stooping to see if we can put this expedition back together.
"After a month on the Yangtze and within metres of finishing the most difficult section of the river we will do Maghnus got flipped exiting a rapid. He made it ashore but the packraft continued down the river. We chased it on foot and by packraft for over 100km but having reached Yushu we have to resign ourselves to the fact that the raft and all of the equipment is gone."
Maghnus wrote the above statement last week and since then we received the incredible news that Alpacka have donated a packraft for us to complete the journey. We are incredibly grateful to both Alpacka and all the people who have got in touch with words of support over the last few days.
With the Chinese holiday week in full swing we have to wait until at least the 15th September before getting our new visas and getting back on the river. We will use this gap and the availability of internet to catch up with all the content we have missed over the last couple of months.
By the time this update is posted we will have left Xining after a week recovering from the rigors of the run and will be en route back to the Tibetan Plateau and the source of the Yangtze River. With luck we will start paddling on September 1st beginning the final and longest stage of the expedition. Our intention is to navigate the entire length of the river by raft and kayak to its mouth 6,300 km away in Shanghai. However we our aware of how difficult and potentially dangerous sections of the Yangtze will be and envision portaging around 10% of its distance which we will cover by foot or bicycle.
For the initial 700km of the river we will be cut-off from human settlement and therefore will carry over three weeks worth of food and fuel as we trek overland to the source. Our pack-weight including our rafts is approx 65 kg each.
Internet connection will not be possible for the next month and so we will instead post several update blogs together whenever possible. We will also endeavor to give brief updates over the phone which will appear on our Facebook and Twitter pages.
We would like to thank Chris Eastabrook once more for all his help both with training and planning. Really appreciated Chris. We would also like to thank our sponsor Palm who have been hugely generous and made this expedition a possibility.
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.