The reason for setting myself the moderately ludicrous challenge of swimming more than 2.4 miles, cycling more than 112 miles and then running further than a marathon sounds even worse when I write it down. Originally I was going to be competing in Ironman Wales this year which features those very distances, all to be completed within 17 hours. My amazing wife Sam was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia on the 29th December 2012 and our world came crashing down around us. My available training time and my focus dropped considerably. I duly cancelled my Ironman entry in a bid to save some money for the extra childcare that we would need, and we focussed on the most serious matter of fighting Sam’s cancer. You can see our full blog of proceedings here: www.theleukaemiaconclusion.co.uk
At the beginning of February Sam went into remission and our focus switched to what will happen after the chemotherapy finishes. We set up an Indiegogo project promising a book of the Leukaemia Conclusion blog and some t-shirts to supporters in return for them donating cash to help me treat Sam to a trip to Disneyland Paris. A large portion of the money would be distributed to three cancer charities. We were overwhelmed at the support that we received, with many people opting simply to donate and not even to receive a reward. The project was successful and 10 days ago we started our long weekend in Disney. We had an amazing time and you can read all about it here.
While all of this fundraising was going on I had an urge to satisfy myself that I could complete an Ironman equivalent distance in each discipline of swimming, cycling and running. The Challenge was born. I wouldn’t be quick, and I couldn’t fit them into one day. To make up for this I set about making each discipline tougher than they would be in an Ironman, whether through making them longer or more hilly. Unfortunately due to an issue at work I had to cancel the swim at the last minute as I could no longer take the time off. It was utterly unavoidable due to the big C affecting a close colleague, thereby leaving us with too much work and not enough people. The challenge ended up being a hilly 122 mile cycle ride last Saturday and a very hilly 35 mile run the day after, all in some of the hottest weather that the UK has experienced in quite some time.
We decided to make the sole benefactor of The Challenge the Plymouth and District Leukaemia Fund or PDLF. The PDLF have done a lot of work to make the haematology ward (where leukaemia patients are treated) a much nicer place to be in Plymouth’s Derriford hospital. Originally we were going to run a small fitness oriented celebration at the finish of the run on the final day, but unfortunately we knocked this idea on the head when it all became a bit too stressful with the resources that we had available to us. We decided to make it a low key affair and I invited people to join me for any or all of it. The Plymouth Triathlon Club were then generous enough to make the PDLF their charity of the year for the 2014 Plymouth Triathlon race, which should raise a few hundred pounds. It was a great gesture and much appreciated as it took the pressure off me to pester friends and relatives for yet more money for a good cause.
Anyway, I expect that you are wondering how it all went?
The Challenge – Day 1 – 122 Mile Cycle
Finally the day is here. For the last week I have found myself looking forward to simply getting on the bike and starting pedalling. I am woefully unprepared for the distance and since the Etape Caledonia in May I have only done 139 miles on the bike. Most long distance triathletes will do that in a week, let alone in two months, and I was nervous about just how uncomfortable my body would get after spending 8 to 10 hours sat on an uncompromising racing bike. A bike fit earlier in the year had made it a lot more comfortable, however a razor blade narrow saddle is still a mighty small contact point for my 75kg of body weight.
At 07.45am Stuart from the tri club arrived and the pedalling began. We followed the cycle path out of Ivybridge towards Lee Mill in a bid to simply get on our way, and were soon wending our way up to Sparkwell and down into Plympton and then Plymouth. Stuart was a great cycling partner, who I had never exercised with before, and we chatted while pedalling along easily. The pace was perfect and we found our way onto National Cycle Route 27, which took us through Cattedown and along a small tarmac coastal path with wonderful views of the Hoe and the town centre that I had never seen before.
We stopped for a picture by the Tamar Bridge in the glorious sunshine and then pedalled up through Saltash before hitting the main road to Callington. The headwind was pretty fierce and Stuart generously took the brunt of it to help save my legs for later in the day. I was extremely grateful and I ended up needing every ounce of that saved energy.
We paused briefly at Stuart’s house at Callington where he had a refrigerated bottle of strawberry flavoured SIS Rego waiting for me. It hit the spot perfectly and I got to meet his family while I drank. As we left his youngest daughter burst into tears as Daddy came along to accompany me for a few more miles.
All too soon I was pedalling by myself and after a very small stretch of the A30 I peeled off to Alturnun and found my way along the back roads to Pipers Pool and then into Launceston. From here I followed the old A30 long to Bridestowe where I took a small detour to check out the cycle path alongside the old railway, and to my relief I found that it had a nice smooth coating of tarmac. I cycled onto it and whizzed along a fairly flat and sheltered 3 miles into Okehampton. It was a lovely trail and I made a mental note to bring the kids to it one day with their bikes. Kristian in particular would enjoy cycling alongside the old railway with all of the sheds, engines and carriages that littered its length.
At Okehampton I met up with Nigel and Diane who had come over from Frome to cheer me on. I also met up with Matt who would be joining me on his bike for the next few miles. It was great to see them all and the Café in the old station was really nice. The food was reasonably priced and the jacket potato was tasty and massive. Perfect cycling fodder. They were even kind enough to top my water bottles up with some Ribena, water and ice. I can thoroughly recommend popping in there if you are passing.
A few parts of my body were beginning to protest about the activity that I was forcing it through. The back of my neck was stiffening up, as was my lower back. The lack of cycling miles in training was beginning to tell. I also had a pain in the bottom of my right foot near the base of my little toe that was alternating between stabbing and burning, which kept making me wince. I examined my foot as I sat with my shoes and socks off on the station platform, but could see no outward signs of damage or irritation. It eased off and felt fine when I put my shoes on after the meal.
The company was good, so I stayed on the platform half an hour longer than planned, and at one stage managed to tip half a plateful of food into my lap. Whups! All too soon we waived goodbye to Nigel and Diane and Matt led the way east, out of Okehampton and into the headwind. We continued pedalling for along the old A30 and for the best part it was fairly quiet. Eventually Matt turned around to head back to Chagford where he was camping at the Chagstock festival for the weekend, and I was alone once again.
I rolled down to Dunsford and headed down the Teign Valley. It was mostly downhill all the way to Chudley, but I hadn’t counted on the melting tarmac. The roads had been good so far, but any sunny patches down the Teign Valley led to melted tarmac and a horrible sucking sensation on my wheels. Fortunately the traffic was light, so I could ride in the middle of my lane where there were a few more chippings. I didn’t fancy sliding off onto hot melted tarmac!
I had been steadily eating and drinking all day, but as I rolled through Bovey Tracey I finished the last of my drink just as I was taking a wrong turn and climbing a big hill that I could have avoided. I decided to ride with empty bottles down the cycle path to Ashburton and fill up at the garage there. It was only a few miles, but by the time that I got there I was gasping and everything was aching. The stabbing/burning pain was back in my foot, and I levered myself off of the bike. I had intended to stop for a few minutes, but time was pressing on and I departed as soon as I had my bottles filled for the hilly last 12 miles or so.
I had been dreading the last bit. The hills aren’t normally that big, other than the long climb out of Buckfastleigh, but they always psych me out at the end of a long ride. When I started onto them though I was pleased that my legs still felt pretty good. I wasn’t fast, but my pace was consistent and the miles just rattled by. Finally, I rolled down into Ivybridge and I saw a familiar face outside of the Rugby Club. My Mum had been watching me on the satellite tracker and had walked out to photograph the finish. We chatted for a few minutes before I rode around the corner to my house.
It always feels a bit weird resuming normal life after you’ve done a long distance endurance event. By the end you’ve got used to your own company and are quite happy to chat to passing wildlife, plants, fenceposts, almost anything really. To be confronted with a number of family members having a barbecue in your back garden takes a minute or two to get used to. Sam’s parents were there, as were her aunt and uncle with their boisterous 4 month old Labrador. I was expecting it, but it still took me a few minutes to adjust.
First things first, I pretty much ignored everyone as I made up some recovery drink. I then caught my breath and set about sorting myself out. I can’t remember what order I did things in, but at some point I showered and stuffed my face with as much food as I could manage while trying to avoid anything with too high a fat content. Eventually I finished it all off with a couple of Ibuprofen and sat down to chat with everyone. By 10pm I was tucked up in bed feeling rehydrated, refuelled and very tired. I had no idea how my body was going to respond when I asked it to run in the morning, so I planned to leave an hour earlier at 7am, and I warned everyone that it may take a lot longer than I had previously mentioned.
The Challenge – Day 2 – 35 mile run
I was up at 6am and I felt pretty good, tired but functioning. I ate my usual massive bowel of porridge and marvelled at how much easier it is to prepare for a run than for a cycle. I filled my Camelbak with three litres of electrolyte drink, stuffed the pockets with gels, some home made rice cakes, and finally my camera and Memory-Map GPS which holds full 50k maps of the entire UK. I then popped my shoes on, put my box full of spares and extras out for Mum and Dad to collect, and I started to run.
I had resolved to walk uphill and run on the flat and downs. The first 1.5 miles were uphill onto Dartmoor, so there were only a few sections flat enough for me to run. I could feel my quads burning from the cycling, but thanks to working on my running technique I wasn’t using them too much, so they didn’t slow me down. I could quite easily hold 9 to 10 minute miling on the flat without my heart rate spiking, while my hamstrings and glutes took up the strain.
The view from the top of Western Beacon was hazy, but stunning and I could just about see the coast in the distance. I would be there soon. I took some pictures and started to descend the Two Moors Way and back into Ivybridge. I went down the steep hill very steadily as you can seriously tire your muscles out if you get carried away on a sharp descent. I had learnt this lesson the hard way before and I settled in to enjoy the view and the trails as I plodded on.
I went past the end of my road and through Filham Park before picking my way through the lanes and trails past Penquit and down to Sequers Bridge. This was the first planned point to meet with Mum and Dad. I hadn’t consumed many supplies, so we talked for a minute, Dad changed the batteries in the GPS SPOT Messenger, and then I trogged off into the privately owned Flete Estate. I had contacted Flete earlier in the year to seek permission to run through their property. After showing them my proposed route they offered a few suggestions and were kind enough to agree, for which I am very grateful.
My route crossed the Rive Erme and then followed the estuary down to Wonwell Beach. Here I turned left up a steep hill and climbed up to my next meeting with Mum and Dad at Kingston. I was running a bit late now thanks to a wrong turn in the Flete Estate and the strong headwind that slowed me down every time that I was in the open. I was still feeling pretty good though and was managing to maintain a consistent pace. Mum helped me to top up my Camelback while Dad took pictures and I chased a caffeine gel down with a tin of delicious coconut water.
I started running again and followed the stunning inland path through Ringmore, to Bigbury Village, alongside the River Avon, through the golf course and down to the beach. Originally I was going to follow the coastal path up another hill, but the beach was too alluring, and I ran along it instead. As I got nearer to the car park the beach got busier and I had that odd sensation that I didn’t belong with all of these other “normal” people. They felt quite overwhelming after spending so long with only myself for company.
I met Mum and Dad outside the Venus Café where I was planning on getting a bacon bap. I had been looking forward to it for the last couple of hours and was gutted to see that I had missed the end of the breakfast menu by 15 minutes. They refused to be flexible, so I asked for a burger but without the cheese instead. Would you believe that they couldn’t do it? They had pre-made all of their burgers and weren’t willing to be flexible. We turned around and walked away. I wont be eating there again as I feel that they have forgotten an important lesson about working in the service industry i.e. the service part was missing!
We looked up and saw a large “CAFE OPEN” sign in the houses above the car park and we headed towards it. In doing so we discovered the charming Bay View Café and Bistro, who were happy to make me a bacon bap. They were friendly, accommodating and I would strongly recommend the two minute walk to them instead of slumming it at the Venus Café. The prices were reasonable and the bacon bap really hit the spot. The also have some other, more interesting items on the menu, and don’t only do breakfasts.
Mum and Dad walked with me from the Café to the top of the hill above Challaborough. I left them and started the toughest section of the course, the few miles of coastal path back around to the Erme Estuary. The path followed the cliff and went up and down like a demented roller coaster. The hills were so steep that they were as tough up as they were down. I have done this section before and knew what to expect with the difficulty being more than compensated for by the view.
At Wonwell I ran up the estuary and finally entered the woods and back into the Flete Estate again. Here I would be retracing my steps to the outskirts of Ivybridge before detouring and heading up to the finish at McCaulays Fitness Centre. Wonwell was also where the wheels came off in a big way. My legs simply refused to work as I ran and more often walked through the forest. I felt sick and every muscle and tendon was hurting. The heat started getting to me and I looked more than a little bizarre as I repeatedly slapped the horseflies from my skin.
I made my way in such a fashion for nearly three never ending miles until I got back to Sequers Bridge. This is where Sam was meeting me and would be joining me for the last five miles. It was great to see her with Mum and Dad. I plonked my backside down on the boot of their car and stared at the floor for a bit, waiting for the nausea to pass. I needed to eat and drink, but I couldn’t get anything to go in for a good five minutes. Finally I downed another tin of coconut water and a gel, before standing up. “Let’s go.”
For the rest of the route we mostly walked, dodging from shadow to shadow in the hot afternoon sun. Dad had recommended a different route through Ivybridge and it worked out perfectly. It was a narrow lane and was nearly entirely shaded. It was a relief to eventually see McCaulays and the smattering of family outside to welcome us to the finish. We took a few pictures and then everyone started to disperse as some of them had a long way to go home back to south Wales. I mostly felt nauseous and tired, but I knew that would pass, and pushed down a bottle of recovery drink.
By the time we got home I was ready for a shower and then it was time for my now habitual post race meal. Steak and chips. YUM!!! I spent the rest of the evening on the sofa watching the last stage of the Tour de France and then the Laguna Seca round of the Moto GP.
Thank you so much to everyone that has supported us through all of our fundraising and these past few difficult months. Everything that we have done to raise money has helped to stop us from focussing on our own difficulties, while at the same time resulting in some significant donations and a wonderful holiday for Sam and the kids which we all enjoyed.
Moving on we are giving the fundraising a rest for a bit, as I am sure that you are all fed up with us asking you for money. With that said, the Virgin page is still open for donations if you have a £ or two spare. Just click on the link to the right.
Sam is now into routine monitoring and she is so strong that we have great hopes that the Leukaemia wont come back. Day to day she is back into her normal routine, looks great with short hair and is contemplating running in the Plymouth 10k in November. It’s just the quarterly bone marrow biopsies that she’s trying not to think about.
Kristian and Evie have been utterly amazing through it all and have helped so much. They have their moments, but mostly the kids are utterly inspirational, not to mention entertaining.
As for me, my next project involves running 160 miles through the Sahara in just four days this October. I’m afraid that I’m not doing it for a good cause, but I will be reporting on it and writing about it over the coming months. I have no idea at this stage how I will get on, but my body, at 36 years of age, 37 by the time of the race, continues to amaze me at just what it can do. As ever any suffering that I go through on the trip will be nothing compared to the endless hours that Sam spent enduring chemotherapy while stuck in a small isolation room in the hospital. Thoughts of her strength drive me when the going gets tough, and provides endless inspiration. Anyway, if you want to read more about that little expedition you can find it here.
Here are the rest of the pictures in no particular order.