REFLECTIONS : 24 Hours of Smilinggg

Hours 1 - 6

‘Surely it shouldn’t feel this hard, so soon?’

My thought concerned me as I climbed the last of the 101 steps for the first time shortly after 9:15am. I mean, I had every right to be a tad concerned, considering I’d be navigating this same hilly segment a further 175 times over the course of the next 24-Hours.

It wasn’t as though I was unaccustomed to these steps. In May I spent a week post-lockdown performing hill repeats to the tune of the equivalent of Double Mount Everest as part of a Virtual Challenge hosted by Aravaipa Running. Yet this time each uneven and somewhat displaced rock had a slippery residue that can only be attributed to the heavy rain and change in season.

The only saving grace, a flat and free-flowing downhill segment followed. I would find solace throughout the 24-hours in reminding myself of this, as I rather cumbersomely hiked the steps.

The first couple of hours were a case of finding a rhythm; navigating the course safely and effectively, sipping on Tailwind nutrition regularly, warming up the body and allowing the mind to find its calm.

The mind during the early hours of a daunting challenge requires time to settle. A snow globe shaken sends the ‘snow flakes’ into the ‘sky’. With no further disruption, the snow will soon settle on the floor once more. The same can be said for the mind. I spent the opening hours witnessing the varying thoughts and feelings arise. Without judgment, and with further time spent on the course, the fear was replaced with flow.

The opening six-hours had me clear the best part of a marathon. Joined by Theo Sardar for 2-hours at lunchtime helped, even if I did take a royal stack and fall face first, not seeing the root beneath the scattered leaves. I dusted myself down and continued. This wouldn’t be the last time I’d have to pick myself up from the floor, both literally and metaphorically speaking.

I was cautiously growing in confidence. Acknowledging that the challenge remained in its infancy, with the ‘real’ challenge yet to begin for many hours to come. Yet it felt a great sense of comfort and security to be banking as many miles as possible during the soon to be departing daylight hours.

Hours 7 - 12

“If it gets too difficult to see, there’s nothing stopping you from continuing on the road is there?”

Dusk had arrived. Not bright enough for a head-torch, yet too dark for the eyes to fully navigate the rugged terrain.

I grinned at Dad’s loving concern.

“Yeah… I mean I could. But…”

I began another circuit; it was clear that whatever the conditions, I’d be going the distance on the same loop.

There had to be stubbornness in my approach. If I began entertaining alternative options, the mind would latch to any one of these to escape the increasing monotony and fatigue.

The Marines coin the term “Improvise, Adapt and Overcome!” Mild discomfort arose in my hip navigating the gradients. The anticipation of the discomfort was worse than the momentary wince-induced step, requiring my inner-Marine to resolve the issue.

By taking wider steps and pressing on the hip flexor, I was able to relieve the pain and continue to move forward. The uphill segments were slowing down as darkness set in.

The hum of the traffic a stone’s throw from the trail reminded me we were barely into the evening. ‘Commuters leaving warm offices, driving heated cars and returning to toasty homes’. I witnessed a fleeting sense of envy before chuckling and trudging on through the sticky mud.

Enthusiasm and energy came in waves. Cautiously enjoying the brief ease of effort, but retaining adequate distance to accept the momentary nature of the experience. This saved me from despair when the energy came crashing down, which right on cue it so often would.

“Good evening James”

I could see the woodland light up ahead of me, and hear the effortless steps of a fresh runner before I heard Kieran. I could barely contain my joy.

40-miles had ticked by in around 10 hours. My energy was depleted and I was traipsing through a temporary low point. I felt resurgence. Although my trips on the same tree stump on consecutive loops probably had Kieran a tad concerned for my welfare.

The loops and conversation flowed before Kieran departed an hour or so later. I was incredibly grateful for the company, knowing full well that I’d be soon entering the darkness of the night all alone.

Hours 13 - 18

My teeth began clattering as I took a sip of water. My body trembling as I placed the bottle on the 101-Steps signpost.

I’d been managing my core temperature well these past 14-hours, covering ground at a pace that found equilibrium between input and output. Frequently patting my back and chest to ensure I wasn’t sweating, whilst remaining warm enough in my clothing.

The 10-minutes spent at the Smilinggg Van moments prior had been my undoing. A cold snap that cut right to the bones.

Appreciation for the smallest of things magnifies in the face of adversity. I felt comfort in my newly acquired fleece-lined jacket. The warmth returned as I pulled the hood up and tightened the knot. A much-needed reset and small win for mind, body and spirit.

The pace had slowed. Slight inclines previously ran, now walked. Conservation of energy was paramount as I accepted varying speeds in line with how I was feeling on a moment-to-moment basis.

A dreaded sense of ‘no-man’s land’ engulfed my mind as I foolishly counted the hours remaining.

‘Over 9-hours to go, that’s more than a day of work’

I felt my enthusiasm wane. Everything began aching as I slumped and trudged on. If I had a tail, it would have been between my legs.

“One Step. One Smile.” became my metronome, breaking up the monotony of the loop and keeping my mind anchored and the negative mental chatter at bay. The mantra’s simplicity became meditative. Hearing the leaves crunching and seeing my breath. I found a flow that flooded the resistance.

Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in my mind as a gift. “If you can't fly, then run, if you can't run, then walk, if you can't walk, then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving...”

‘Progress is progress.’ I reminded myself. ‘No matter how slow you’re going, as long as you move forward, you’ll reach where you need to get to.’

The church clock chimed 3am, ripping through the stillness of night. Like an early morning alarm, it startled me. Checking my Garmin between hobbled steps, I added the numbers and realised that even with a 2mph pace, I could still tot up a further 12-miles. This realisation filled me with hope as I shuffled on into the night.

Hours 19 - 24

I licked my lips. Bubbles erupted as solpadeine hit the water, Champagne to a weary mind. The caffeine jolted me back to life, dulling the shin pain.

I had counted down the hours since my last ‘hit’. Something to look forward to as each hour passed. A gradual increase in discomfort correlated with a slowing of each mile, until the next 4-hourly dose.

“This is the moment you’ve been waiting for!” I passionately stated. “When it gets tough, who will you become?” I asked.

I was back to 2018 when after four Iron Triathlons in four days I pulled the plug on the seven in seven Smileathlon Challenge. The reason? My shins.

“Quitting’s off the table. This is your time” I self-coached.

The mist rolled in, catching the head torches light, visibility beyond an outstretched hand impossible; a kaleidoscope dream. The miles ticked by slowly. A brisk walk the best I could do.

My body was breaking down yet my spirit breaking through.

In a moment of quiet desperation and faith I asked for help. ‘Relieve me of the pain in my shin.’

The pain remained as I hobbled up muddied steps, scraping a gorse bush. Pushing my hands onto my thighs for strength to climb the stairs, then to my amazement, the torchlight revealed my saviour… A stick.

I lifted the stick from its resting place. With renewed strength and wonder, I ploughed on leaning on the stick to ease discomfort. I found momentum and rekindled hope when it was needed most.

The night had been void of animals, besides a howling owl. Crunching and snapping of leaves and branches grabbed my attention.

‘A fox? A deer?’

No. It was my mate James, trampling through the undergrowth. We walked and talked as darkness lifted, his company a perfect distraction from aching limbs.

The heavens opened. The conditions worsened. The final hour arrived. The obstacles were definitely the way.

Dad’s arrival welcome as I told myself “One last push!”

After hours of hiking, I somehow picked up the pace and began jogging. ‘One Step, One Smile’ the metronome was back.

My mind reflected on the past 24-hours. Overwhelm. Choked. Bent over in exhaustion and relief. Pride overflowed as I clenched my fists and let out a



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