"It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop". - Confucius
A Challenge With An End
This is a thing that I did this summer – The London to Cambridge 100km Action Challenge
I completed it, thanks to the unwavering support of my team mates. How I finished, and what happened to me, and what I learned from that event will form the majority of this post; but first, this is what the organisers shared about the event afterwards:
Congratulations to all who took on the 2016 Challenge. We have a new record for the fastest time, seen blisters like never before, and loved sharing this special event with you. We know how tough it is, so for everyone who pushed themselves further than before, and raised fantastic sums for charity, we want to thank you for making 2016 the best yet.
Over the first weekend of July 1,000 adventurers will Walk, Jog, or Run from the capital to this historic city. Now in its 2nd year – the London 2 Cambridge Challenge is set to raise nearly £750k for the fantastic charity partners. See how the event unfolds here, track the progress of Challengers, or make your plans to actually join us on course and cheer them along.
And this is how they sold it at the beginning:
With some training & commitment this Ultra Challenge is an achievable goal for anyone who really wants to push themselves in 2016. A 100km of footpaths and trails joins these two illustrious Cities – but with our full support & hospitality every step of the way, through day & night – alongside your determination, stamina, and resolve – this could be one of the most rewarding weekends you’ve ever had!
All very reasonable and well said. The chance to take a long walk with friends while enjoying a pleasant chat, some pretty countryside and a few cups of tea. A way to raise £1000 or so for charity. Something I know I can do.
So, I entered.
I Thought It Would Be Easy
You have probably read my earlier posts on ultra-distance events. Easy to find them from the index. You will know that I have completed a few events at over 80km, and at least one 100km over challenging terrain in the last 3 years. Like me, you probably thought that London to Cambridge is mostly flat, and mostly open country, and a pretty easy stroll. Right?
Well, mostly right. The terrain is – indeed – pretty flat. It leaves the Olympic Park area and follows the Lee Valley Navigation paths out of London until it is out past Stanstead Abbots, then turns into the countryside until it picks up trails and minor roads from Broad Green, from where it follows the paths and roads into Central Cambridge.
The detailed maps are on a click through on the map below
There is not a lot of hill climbing to do across this part of England. Cambridge is only 25ft (8m) above the start point, and the highest hill on the route a mere 490ft tall. The total change in height is +1901ft / -1875ft. (about +/- 500m).
Compare that the Trailwalker, which has more than 7,500ft / 2,500m of climbs if you get it all right and don’t wander.
So far, so good. Which made me far happier to sign up for this event than any other. Indeed, I may even have described it as a “doddle”.
I was wrong
The first section went ok. The three of us rolled along the Lee Valley at about 6km/h on hard, fast footpaths. we bagged the first 40km in about 7 hours. Well on track for a 22 hour finish, or so we thought. The weather wasn’t too hot, the rain stayed off the first half of the event, and the breeze was nice.
At about 45km, I suffered a nagging cramp in my left calf, and my pulse rate seemed a little high. Normally, in a distance event, I’d run at 110-120 bpm. I’m not slim and certainly not an athlete, but I am walking fit. So, when we checked in at that 45km base and I was gasping for air with a pulse at about 180bpm, I probably should have thought it unusual. However, a cup of tea, some more water, 5 minutes lying down and a drop in pace to 5.5km/h seemed to sort it all out nicely, so we headed off.
That, if I had been sensible, and / or prescient, is where I should have pulled out.
However, it was a nice day, easy walking, and on we went to clip through 50km in 9 hours. That 22hr finish was tantalisingly close. There is a certain level of challenge to cover 100km in under 24 hours, and this felt like the right year.
Then things started to go badly.
71km Done But This Hurts
From 50km to 71km a few small things happened. It rained, even hailed. Little squalls that were gone before we could get our coats on. The paths had become tractor rutted footways across fields, but the ruts were covered in grass and the risk of falling into them and hurting a joint meant slowing down and being far more cautious. The light was failing, and it was dark and cloudy night, so head-torches and hand-torches were needed. We were going a little slower now; maybe 5km/h.
That little nagging cramp had now set in. A dull-edged but powerful ache. Like a big fat marble stuck inside the muscle. That was making my stride stiff, and threatening to cause blisters. At this point, I had no blisters.
At 71km, it was dark, a teammate dropped out as his feet were torn, blistered and bleeding. That left two of us. And I really didn’t want to go on.
I hesitated for about 30 minutes. Waiting for increasingly strong painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs to kick in. Waiting for the massage to take the tension and stiffness out of my legs. Waiting for food to settle and caffeine to start working. Hoping that soup and sports drinks would settle my electrolytes and I would stop feeling cramp and nausea.
After a little soul searching, I picked up my walking sticks, put on some clean socks, and stood up. Very slowly. “Let’s go to the next checkpoint and see how I feel then”, I said.
71km to 84km, or About 100,000 miles in my Head
Every damn step hurt. My left calf muscle was visibly swelling and reddened. My ankle was stiff, because I couldn’t flex my Achilles tendon. The back of my left knee was in fire. I’d stopped feeling sick, but just couldn’t think through the pain.
I know we found some other slow and broken walkers. We chatted and laughed. We went though silent, sleeping villages in the wee small hours. The stars started to come out as the clouds lifted. We climbed up the last hill and could see Cambridge as a glittering pool of light.
I clicked along on my walking poles. Slowly. Down to 4km/h. Click, click click, click. Then 3.5km/h click … click .. click … click. It was not just painful, but the muscle in one leg really was not working properly, and it just made things worse compensating with other muscles.
Having a team mate there made it possible to go on. Knowing that I could always ask for rescue or to drop out (and that I wouldn’t). Knowing I was going the right way. It made up for all the people whom we had strolled past in the first 50km walking past me as I limped along. Not being alone mattered.
84km, the Reviving Power of a Cup of Tea
The checkpoint at 84km was a school playing field, or something. None of that mattered as it had two things:
- cups of tea
- bags of ice
Now, I’m a coffee drinker. A few pints of black coffee a day, and I’m happy. I don’t drink tea. Unless I am ill. Or in pain. Tea is not on my list, so I have no idea why I asked for one.
Having gingerly sat into the chair outside, I was determined to give up and get the bus to the finish. It was breakfast time, and there was still 10 miles to go. I could barely walk at all, and was utterly demoralised by the slow pace and the last 12 or so hours. Half a day of hurting. Definitely time to give up, so I limped over to the First Aid guy and asked him for some ice while I waited for a bus. Strapped the ice behind my knees and all over my calf muscles. Sat back down. Chugged down some paracetamol and lots of sports drink.
Mark, my team mate, bought me a cup of tea. I looked at it. It tasted amazing. “I’m not giving up”, I said.
And I genuinely don’t know where that came from.
When the ice melted, I got up.
84km to 100km, a Game of Five Halfs
The ice and paracetamol had taken out taken out the swelling. The tea had worked with the rising sun to make for a bright and happy morning. We fair belted out of the checkpoint at 2km/h. Then 3. Then 4. Then 5km/h. My muscles and joints loosened and my leg appeared to work, albeit painfully. Someone shouted “go on, you can do it” out of a car window. We covered about 6km in about an hour, then it all went to heck over the width of one road. One stride I was walking, two strides later I could barely stand. Left leg locked up and seized. I could see the start of the Genetics Path leading to Addenbrookes, and knew we still had 10km to go. That seemed like an impossible task. 2km/h at best. 5 hours to go? Impossible.
The sun was up. It was hot. The route seemed to be perversely looped around itself. I was walking over the pattern of the gene for a lethal cancer, which seemed surreal. I’d look up and nothing had moved. It was like being in slow time.
Then we crossed over a road and were back in shade, and trees and meadows. Still limping, but I had a broken, Frankenstein’s monster limping gait that was moving me along. Surrounded by trees and flowers, progress was being made. Not 5 hours to the end, maybe only 3?
Over the Cam, into the colleges, out the other side, through the meadows, and up one e.n.d.l.e.s.s road.
There is a Finish Line.
I stumbled over it.
And crashed down to lie on the grass.
The next hour was all first aiders, massages, ice, and painkillers.
For about a week, I was immobile with my leg in ice buckets or flat on my back with my leg lifted over my head. My left leg looked like a chorizo.
It is now over a six weeks later. My leg is down to normal size (actually, quite a bit of muscle is
missing now). It still hurts, and the furthest I can walk is about 5km. I managed that today.
The doctor is still at head scratching stage, but opinions include some or all of:
None of those are really fun or trivial. They all take a while off work with Rest – Ice – Compression – Elevation treatment. I consult by the day, so this has had a material cost to me, being unable to work for days on end. It has kept me at home, and made even small tasks very challenging.
On the good side, I have an excuse to get regular massages with Emu Oil from a very talented masseuse. Its not all bad news. (I know, junk science …)
So, when should I have quit? It is clear there were good medical and financial reasons to have done so. I would still have raised a lot of money for Cancer Research. My friends would have thought no more or less of me. I didn’t need to prove anything. So, should I have quit:
- At 45km, when the first symptoms appeared?
- At 71km, when it was clearly serious?
- At 84km, when it was so painful I knew I really should?
- Some other time?
The answer, I think is “never”. All that moaning and special pleading doesn’t matter. I took this on as an adult. I didn’t quit. I got hurt. I learned something. I raised some money to do a microscopic bit of good for people in genuine, life threatening suffering. I found one of my limits.
It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop. That’s the truth I found.