I looked as though I had aged a couple of decades in the space of an hour. Staring at my almost unrecognisable reflection in the bathroom mirror, I ran both hands down my face, meeting at the bottom of my chin in a prayer position, inspecting my sunken eyes and dark shadows. It was a little after eight o-clock in the morning, a decent lay-in by normal standards, yet this situation was anything but normal. ‘One hour down, two hours to go’ I thought, as I shuffled back to bed. My ankles locked in position with severe pressure in both shins. I propped a few pillows at the bottom of the bed in an attempt to alleviate some of the pressure from my damaged lower limbs. It had been six years since breaking my left tibia and fibula playing football, yet it felt like an extension of those eight weeks back in 2012 of keeping my left leg elevated. Impatiently, I jostled the pillows into position in an attempt to find comfort within the discomfort before falling back asleep.
The sound of silence greeted me as I prized my eyes open. I fumbled around as I looked for my Garmin watch on the bedside table, almost knocking over the tall glass of water in the process. The watch read 9:38am. I had fallen short of my three hours sleep, yet I felt strangely energised, adrenaline still coursing through my veins. Mum must have heard the commotion as she called up “would you like a cup of tea?” Without hesitation and trying my luck I replied “Yes please, and a carton of orange juice, oh and a couple of bagels with peanut butter and jam…” Silence… Perhaps the luck had been pushed too far!
Lying in bed, I rested my eyes and body for a moment, however this triggered my mind into restlessness. Recalling the trip to the toilet a little earlier and the haggard complexion that greeted me, I felt my stomach drop as I rather nervously thought how bad I must look. I knew the all-nighter had taken its toll physically, yet mentally I felt ready to tackle day four. ‘Just get in the pool’ kept circulating my mind as I tried to focus on nothing beyond the swim.
I cracked open the bedroom window to let in some fresh air having opted to close it to plug out the birds morning discourse just three hours prior. The sun was shining with a few scattered clouds yet there seemed to be a real coolness in the air. I wasn’t quite sure who or what was looking down on me, but the absence of any rain was truly appreciated.
Mum’s dinner duties had extended to breakfast also, carefully balancing a tray whilst navigating the stairs and a sea of scattered clothing from day three’s crusade. “Do I look really bad and gaunt?” still haunted by my reflection. Squinting her eyes briefly before Mum gave her verdict, “No, not at all. You look fine.” I couldn’t quite believe it, but I took Mum’s word for it and thanked her for the breakfast in bed service. I immediately turned the cap of the unopened orange juice and proceeded to chug the bottle in its entirety within a matter of seconds. The instantaneous hit of sugar felt beyond satisfying, knowing full well how nourishing the 100 grams of sugar and 450 calories were in replenishing my depleted body. In full-on predator mode, I shifted my attention to the peanut butter and jam-laden bagels, licking my lips before devouring all four halves. Running the numbers in my head, I estimated the bagel breakfast bonanza had been in excess of 1,000 calories which provided a small yet meaningful psychological boost as I swivelled my torso, lowered my legs off the side of the bed and rather tentatively stood up. Snap, crackle and pop were the sounds that greeted me as I took my first few steps. Both ankles lack of mobility meant they were pretty much locked in place; a duck-like waddle ensued as I gripped the banister, gritted my teeth whilst lowering each leg with caution. “Just get in the pool” had turned from a thought into spoken words with the healing powers of yesterdays swim at the forefront of my mind. I continued to cultivate strength in mind and hope in body by tapping into the wisdom acquired from yesterdays swim of the gentle massaging qualities of the water as I gathered my swimming trunks, cap, goggles and towel. It was at this moment I recognised a sharp chill engulf my body. This cold snap rattled my bones as I began shivering. With my teeth chattering, all I could think to do was pile on as many layers of clothes as possible in a desperate attempt to attain some warmth.
A bobble hat, three jumpers, and a pair of jogging bottoms later, I was all set to depart and commence day four. It had been arranged that Dad and Nicola would pick me up at 10:40am, and we’d make the short drive to Isenhurst Health Club in Crowborough to complete the swim. I perched on the armchair, nervously awaiting their arrival, thumbing through the encouraging and supportive comments on Facebook, Instagram and Strava. The fundraising total was showing no signs of slowing down and in this moment all cold sensations were replaced by a deep sense of warmth and a heart on fire.
Looking as though I was off on an artic expedition, I slowly lowered myself into the car, pleased to see Nicola and Dad. The change in venue for the swim provided a sense of excitement and novelty to the challenge. I would be losing ten meters per length with the Isenhurst pool just 15m compared to Crowborough Leisure Centre’s 25m pool, yet to know Dad would be joining me for the swim and Nicola watching on, I couldn’t have cared less. A little over a year ago Dad and swimming wouldn’t have belonged in the same sentence. As a child, Dad had a near drowning experience that left him fearful of water, and as a result he never learnt to swim. His decision to learn and largely self-teach himself in his sixth decade has been one of the most inspiring acts I have witnessed. His courage to face a huge fear and overcome it is commendable and it shows it is never too late to write a new chapter in your life story.
“Is it cold outside or have you been on holiday or something?” a rather puzzled Craig manning reception asked as his eyes skimmed from my overdressed appearance to the sunshine beaming in through the entrance doors. I could only laugh and briefly explain why I was dressed as I was. My iced chill had thawed just enough to make the prospect of ninety plus minutes in the pool bearable. I took myself to the male changing rooms and what felt like a workout in itself began removing the clothing; knowing full well these layers would be back on my frame for the marathon later that day. My tired mind at least meant a restful mind at this point in time. The all-encompassing fatigue clouded my capability to look beyond the present moment, with the angst from earlier in the week now a distant memory. With my attention moment to moment, I felt a deep sense of calm and a depth of overwhelming appreciation and gratitude for the week thus far. I began playing ‘Que será, será’ in my mind, as I cathartically let go of outcomes and made a conscious decision to be present with each moment and simply allow it to unfold as intended. I let out a big puff of the cheeks and hobbled from the changing room to poolside, grateful once more to see just one solitary swimmer.
I closed my eyes as the warm water of the poolside shower submerged my entire body. I didn’t want to leave its comforting temperatures that continued to heat my aching body. The hot mist forming was my cue to depart, pulling myself away from its allure. As I took the first step into the pool, the contrast of temperature well and truly magnified by the showers heat. The cold waters felt instantly soothing for the feet, ankles and shins. The same could not be said for the waist and above, as I began counting down from ten to one before dropping my upper body into the water and letting out a ghastly cry. I waded through the water to further awaken my ankles whilst fiddling with the Garmin and amending the pool swim settings to tie in with the shorter pool distance. Unable to input a pool length shorter than 17m, I opted to select this option and use the first few minutes of the swim to try and work out the discrepancy of distance and add accordingly. If all else failed, I knew Nicola would be poolside shortly with her phone to help me figure out the sum 3,800 / 15 to know just how many lengths were required for day fours swim.
Pushing off the back wall rather forcefully to test my ankles, I glided through the water with arms fully extended like an arrow. I often refer to swimming as glided meditation, and although this initial glide probably lasted all of five seconds, I felt a real sense of calm and pride, momentarily thinking back to ‘just get in the pool’ earlier in the morning. I recognised just how much more relaxed I felt swimming in this pool. I could swim to the end of the pool, turn around in place, push off and resume. There were no lanes here, and no swim squads either. It felt soothing as I calmly notched up the first few hundred meters, occasionally losing my focus as I wondered when Nicola and Dad would appear. As if my questions were answered, I noticed the male changing room door swing open and Dad walk through. I continued to get a few more laps under the belt before pausing momentarily to sip from my bottle the isotonic concoction and greet Dad.
It had been a number of months since I had previously seen Dad swim. Back then his favoured swimming style had been breaststroke but as I resumed swimming, I noticed him soar past me like a shark. ‘What the…’ was all I could conjure up, mesmerised by the speed and efficiency of his front crawl technique. I found myself laughing to myself underwater thinking ‘I need lessons from you, bloody hell!’ I relay my thoughts aloud once we were side by side at one end of the pool. I wouldn’t be breaking any records during today’s swim, but it felt like a celebration, to be swimming with Dad and having Nicola supporting from the side, snapping photos and working out my required lengths. The next few minutes of swimming were spent reflecting on the positive impact The Smileathlon journey was having on people both locally and via my connections around the world. The money raised is always a great way to tangibly recognise its impact, yet the awareness surrounding mental health, Smilinggg and the seeds it may plant now or in the future for others to redefine their own possibilities gave me a big smile as I upped my pace a little, energised with my chain of thoughts or perhaps to simply try and keep up with Dad AKA Michael Phelps.
Completing another length as the distance continues to tick over
“You need to complete 254 lengths” I heard from Nicola as I took a moment to confirm I had understood correctly. Switching my attention to the Garmin, “I’ve completed 110 lengths so far” I relay, feeling pretty comfortable. Whether I react or respond is usually a good indicator as to whether I’m in a decent headspace or not, and with no thoughts or frustrations evident, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be, repositioning the goggles and resuming the task in hand.
Many more minutes passed by as the magic number of 254 lengths grew ever closer. Today’s swim had started at 10:56am, almost four and a half hours later than Days One and Two, yet as the clock approached 12:15pm, it posed no threat or concern. The time felt irrelevant to me, accepting I’d likely be concluding the last few miles of the bike in darkness, followed by an almost guaranteed all-nighter at the track. This acceptance allowed me to enjoy the swimming process and appreciate the endeavour in all its glory. 12:15pm marked the end of the swim for Dad as he gestured to me so. “I reckon another fifteen minutes or so” with water in my ears not quite realising how loud I shared the information. I noticed five or six people staring at me from the Jacuzzi that overlooked the pool. Embarrassed, I fully submerged my body and completed a length without resurfacing.
Just Keep Swimminggg...
As the Garmin rolled over to 250 lengths, my joy etched across my face, I celebrated yet another swim approaching its successful conclusion. The final four lengths were completed with an increase in power, speed, mental focus, drive and determination, almost subconsciously preparing myself for the next leg of the days events. I stopped the watch, took a few seconds to give thanks and gather my thoughts before climbing out of the pool, steadying myself and tentatively waddling my way back to the changing room to shower and change.
The swim had taken 1:35:34 with a total distance recorded as 4,318m yet knowing full well 3,800m was the correct total.
‘What a difference a couple of hours can make’ was all I could think, as I couldn’t get out of the changing rooms quickly enough. My core temperature was now soaring after the swim and the airless changing room was causing me to sweat profusely. With little choice but to hold my pre-swim multiple layers of clothing, I grabbed my fully loaded backpack and departed the ‘sauna’, not before wiping the beads of sweat from my forehead. In just a t-shirt and jogging bottoms, I passed reception and made my way to the car where Nicola and Dad were already sat. The temperature wasn’t the only thing soaring, as too my appetite. With a list of items to purchase, we made the short detour to Waitrose for Nicola to help me begin the refuelling process.
By the time I was home to change into my cycling gear, I had already devoured three Vegan Sweet Potato and Chipotle sandwiches, having washed it down with a Rebel chocolate milk drink; my lack of appetite that had threatened to derail the challenge on Monday and Tuesday now a distant memory. The turnaround at home lasted a matter of minutes before Dad and I were in the Smilinggg Wagon and on route to the cycling course. After yesterday’s successful bike ride I made the decision to make day four’s ride even more favourable by eliminating the opening two hours from day three and the hills that accompanied that segment. Dad and I would drive directly to the car park in Yalding where I’d complete nine out and back loops to complete the required 180km distance. Retracting the passenger seat to an almost parallel position, I opted to attempt a twenty-minute power nap, yet this effort proved futile, with my mind instead tuning into what other food I could scoff during this window of opportunity. I grabbed a couple bags of Walkers Sundried Tomato Sunbite crisps and a bar of dark chocolate, and with my eyes wide shut, I began crunching my way through the tangy crisps whilst savouring the smooth taste of rich chocolate. Any potential snooze was dashed as I unscrewed a carton of Rebel Iced Coffee and relished each and every sip.
Even with the anticipated 2pm start time and problematic shins and ankles, I was feeling particularly confident for the impending bike ride. Yesterday I held hope I’d start the marathon with a run, yet today I had already accepted the marathon would be nothing more than a painfully disjointed walk. I therefore wanted to throw caution to the wind and put my heart and soul into the upcoming ride. I felt particularly pumped up knowing it would be a race against the suns setting and darkness ensuing. Thumbing through the weather-app on the iPhone, a combination of adrenaline and caffeine began coursing through my veins as I relay the information to Dad, “8:26pm is sunset, so it’ll likely be dark by 9pm.” I firmly believed I could deliver a personal best ride for the week and be finished within seven and seven and a-half hours. Only time would tell, but I held high hopes as I tried to bring my energised and bouncing feet and legs under control. As Dad manoeuvred the Smilinggg Wagon into the car park, I noticed the blue skies, few floating clouds and a temperature conducive for cycling with the sun warming yet not burning, and the breeze pleasant without impeding. I was ready for what I had now coined the heaven and peace component of the day. Hell and war would arrive with time, but for now it was time to rejoice and get to work.
The customary Leeds United salute before setting out on the bike
‘This is the life!’ was all I could think as the first few laps flew by, indeed it felt heavenly as I pedalled at an increased cadence yet in a low gear that served to increase blood flow and go some way to relieve my heavy legs. I felt overjoyed to frequently read twenty-two and twenty-three minute 10km segments with each Garmin vibration. The smell of rotting carcass couldn’t disrupt my flow as I cycled past road kill in the form of squirrels, rabbits and birds, saddened yet grateful for these moments. Their untimely deaths provided a moment to reflect on my own mortality. It’s often deemed a depressive and negative thought, yet meditating on the fact I’ll one day die provides me with a gentle sense of urgency, and context of what truly matters and an appreciation for life and the beauty of this very moment. My mood high yet reflective once more as I passed a graveyard, the very same graveyard I had passed on day three, yet yesterday it came and went without conscious awareness, occupied with other thoughts. It’s not uncommon for me to get emotional during long rides, and today was no different, yet it wasn’t in sadness, rather an overwhelming sense of joy and happiness engulfed me, it was during this moment that I found myself particularly grateful for my sunglasses as I hid behind them as I acknowledged fellow cyclists with a smile and a thumbs up.
“Quarter of the way there lad” I’d bellow in the direction of Dad who was productively using the time to work from his mobile phone. Dad’s presence was gratefully received; it provided such a boost in morale knowing I’d be passing him a couple of times every hour. This once more reaffirming my appreciation of the power a smile and an encouraging word or gesture can provide during challenging times. “Orange… get in!” Not only was I experiencing a prolonged sense of flow, I was also becoming proficient at guessing which energy gel would be next out of the jersey pouch. I gave new meaning to ‘meals on wheels’ as I capitalised on the low heart rate and increased appetite by gobbling a couple more Trek cocoa bars in quick succession. I became familiar with the various road surfaces and the ever so slight cambers, which usually required a moment out of the saddle or a small shift in gear. My right wrist was feeling much better thanks largely to the redundancy for major gear shifting.
The highlight of the opening half of the bike leg on day four was cycling past a wedding procession taking place at the local church. Witnessing the newlyweds doused in confetti as the guests lined the path put a grand old smile on my face. By the time I completed another lap, I spotted the vintage wedding car pulled over in a layby surrounded by woodland with the driver acting as photographer for the bride and groom. “Woohoo, get in there! Congratulations” I couldn’t resist a cheeky celebratory shout out as I clenched my fist in their direction. Both bride and groom seemed to appreciate the gesture as their smiles and raised arms suggested. The beaming smile remained etched on my face for many more kilometres, as I reflected on one of my favourite books ‘True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart’ by the Vietnamese Buddhist Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh and it bought me great joy in thinking how perfect a day for a wedding.
I had been cycling for a little over three hours when I scrolled through my Garmin watch and felt rather disorientated reading the time as ‘5:05pm’. On days one and two I’d have been on the running track by now, even yesterday I’d be well into the second half of the ride, yet today I found myself only just approaching the half-way point. Considering we were fast approaching rush hour, the lack of traffic left me feeling a little confused, yet things couldn’t have been going any smoother, passing Dad once more and informing him of my imminent half-time breather just one lap away. As I cycled past Dad, I noticed a father and son playing football in the field that adjoined the car park; witnessing the young boy in goal attempting to save his dads shots took me on a nostalgic trip down memory lane to the many kickabouts I shared with Dad whilst growing up. This thought triggered a greater sense of present moment awareness and the remaining 10km were spent in what I can only describe as a mild state of euphoria, feeling as though I was experiencing as natural a high as one can obtain with everything appearing more vivid than before. I cautiously signalled before turning into the car park, careful to dismount before the tarmacked surface turned to gravel and with that a potential breeding ground for punctures. I looked down at my Garmin and was over the moon to clock the opening 90km at a little over three hours and forty minutes.
Dad greeted me and took the bike immediately, freeing me to remove my helmet and stretch out my lower back. The cooler conditions evident as I had only used two of the three water bottles. Spirits were high as I multitasked, both informing Dad of my joy riding whilst chomping on yet another Sweet Potato and Chipotle sandwich. I was busy obtaining another caffeine fix with help from another carton of Rebel Iced Coffee, and with one eye on the time; Dad mentioned the father and son who were still playing football just a stones throw away. Dad had briefly spoken to the father explaining why he had been loitering in a car park in a white van with Smilinggg etched across it with a Smiling face on the vehicles rear, I laughed as I fully appreciated the bewilderment for an uninformed onlooker. Just as Dad mentioned the father’s interest to speak with me, I noticed the father and son approaching.
I had been resting and refuelling for a good ten minutes, which usually signals time to remount the bike and get back to work, yet I couldn’t help but feel grateful for this opportunity to chat with them and share The Smileathlon story and learn more about them both. An additional ten minutes passed having discussed a range of topics including the challenge, football and we joked of both their and our misfortunes for supporting Ipswich Town and Leeds United respectively. I felt on cloud nine as our conversation concluded and they both wished me luck for the remainder of the challenge. Before The Smileathlon began, I set my intentions for possible outcomes this Journey might provide. At the very top of the list was to serve as a platform to start attending schools and encouraging youngsters to dream big, and to fully believe in their capabilities as humans to grow and improve in every endeavour through purposeful practice and hard work. This short, yet meaningful chat with the father and son felt truly rewarding and as I loaded more gels and snacks into my Smilinggg Cycling Jersey’s many rear pouches, I felt as though my Smilinggg Schools project had already begun.
Deciding on what else to stuff in my pouches
The elapsed cycling time was fast approaching three hours and fifty-five minutes as I bid farewell to Dad. The slightly longer break meant the time was now almost 6pm and with the best part of 90km remaining, I ran the timings in my head and was hopeful of a finishing time in the region of 9:30pm. With no lights on my bike, it would mean a rather decorative finish with Dad lighting my path in The Smilinggg Wagon. Without thinking too far ahead, Dad and I agreed, “We’d figure it out as and when…” this quickly becoming our preferred strategy with every aspect of the challenge. In the meantime Dad departed the car park and found contentment in a local pub where he could grab some dinner and somewhat relax. He’d be back at the car park in a couple of hours and most importantly before sunset.
Beautiful blue skies and quiet roads... perfect.
I was glad of my decision to add an additional layer for the second half of the ride. A long sleeved cycling jersey beneath my Smilinggg top provided just enough added warmth and protection as the suns strength faded, slowly sinking in the sky with large segments of country road shaded by the bordering trees and woodland.
I’d be lying if I said the entire ride remained upbeat and a combination of solely sunshine and rainbows. The sunshine and rainbows certainly reappeared towards the backend of the ride, but to acquire rainbows, you must first tolerate the rain. Whilst no rain fell in the literal sense, the tiredness and the unpleasant feeling of being in no-man’s-land set in; far enough from the start yet not quite close enough to the finish. The time between 105km and 140km dragged and it was simply a case of acknowledging and accepting this ‘rain cloud’ and grinding it out. This wasn’t new to me, I had mentally prepared for these moments during training with nine-hour sessions on the turbo trainer staring blankly at the wall. I had obtained enough wisdom to appreciate the ‘rain clouds’ would pass and ‘the sunshine and blue skies’ would reappear. “Nothing’s permanent” I’d mutter to myself in between energy gels. Whilst there was no chance of actual sunshine reappearing, my mood did lift and energy restored as the Garmin informed me of just 40km remaining. ‘If I’m averaging 25kph it’ll take me…” after much deliberating trying to figure out the exact timing, I just accepted “… it’ll take me less than two hours” with the intricacies not worth my mental bandwidth. Just knowing I had less than two hours to go provided enough motivation to step things up a notch and dial my focus in on the extended home straight.
Dad’s reappearance was welcome too, his attention now fully on his impending deployment. With a little over two laps to go, I provided an estimated time of forty-five minutes until the Smilinggg tank and back up would be required. The dusk sky an array of pinks and oranges, yet I could only marvel at its natural beauty for a few seconds as the natural light began fading fast. I kept calm and carried on.
Winding down the window, “Ready?” Dad asked. A nod of the head signalled the start of one final out and back before day fours ride could be ticked off. The time was now 8:40pm and 26km was all that separated us from finishing. The beams of light lit up the rode ahead perfectly as I frantically pedalled with frequent periods out of the saddle. Having spent the best part of twelve hours and 300km navigating the 12km stretch with laser-like focus these past two days, I knew exactly where potential hazards lay, even with the additional shadowing from the headlights. I felt like a professional cyclist with my very own support vehicle in tow. Dad’s involvement for this final lap felt particularly fitting and added to my drive and determination to finish strongly. As the kilometres continued to tick by, I couldn’t help but notice my attention turning towards what still lay ahead in the shape of a marathon and with that came a noticeable drop in mood and outlook. I made a conscious effort to free myself from the premature clutch of the devil and use the impending visit to hell as fuel to fire me to an even stronger finish on the bike.
There was just enough time to add an additional track to The Smilinggg Playlist as I began belting out my own rendition of Billy Ocean’s classic “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”. I wasn’t required to ‘get myself ‘cross the river’ nor ‘climb any mountain’; all I had to do was safely navigate the final couple of kilometres. It was in this moment that I truly recognised how strong I felt physically, my cycling performance fast approaching a personal best across the four days and my rate of perceived exertion at an all time low. My fitness was improving and this realisation saw me crank up the gears and thrash out the final two kilometres the quickest of the bunch, an appropriate way to conclude the bike leg. As soon as I saw a suitable layby for Dad to pull into, I signalled with a thumb up that we had arrived at the required distance. I unclipped, stopped the Garmin, arching my back to alleviate any tightness in my hip flexors and pelvis whilst giving thanks to the powers that be for keeping me safe once again.
The bike had taken 7:37:09 with an elevation gain of 290m.
My adrenaline was soaring and I sensed the crewing had been equally invigorating for Dad. The energy between us was high and Dad’s complimentary words regarding my speed, power and sporting appearance was in accordance with my own assessment of the final hour. I turned on the lights in the back of the Smilinggg Wagon, grabbed some nutritional supplies and made some space for the bike to sit. My appetite was through the roof and I had the strongest craving for a hot meal; in particular fish and chips. In 2015 I became vegetarian, and gradually made the transition to a fully plant based and vegan diet in 2016, so with my cravings out of alignment with my ethical standpoint, I dropped the fish and continued salivating over the thought of an extra-large portion of greasy chips. The only problem, the time was fast approaching 10pm and we were at least twenty minutes from Crowborough running track. In my mind I had already eaten the portion of chips as Dad piloted The Smilinggg Wagon, weaving in and out of the dark and heavily wooded country lanes. After yesterday’s early morning track debacle with mum, I had made certain to inform her I wouldn’t be back until Friday morning. We left it that she would still be responsible for preparing an evening meal and I’d just munch through it at whatever time I returned, serving more as a makeshift breakfast than dinner. Still buzzed from the ride with endorphins swimming through my body, it clicked that Mum most likely would have already prepared tonight’s meal and as we’d be passing her house, I could possibly pick it up on the way. A quick phone call confirmed my hypothesis and as I celebrated the small win, our next port of call was Mum’s house.
The pan of chickpeas, what must have been a kilogram of pasta and tomato sauce that greeted me felt like I had won the lottery. “Be careful as the pan will still be hot,” Mum caringly added. ‘Could life get any better?’ I thought before my mind quickly reminded me that yes in fact it could, if I didn’t have to spend the night walking a marathon. Pushing the thought to the back of my mind, I took a deep inhalation of the tomato and herby aromas and smiled. As I made my way from the house and back to The Smilinggg Wagon I thanked mum and reminded her once more not to expect me back until the morning. “I’ll have my phone with me…” as a parting gift to right the wrongs from yesterday and rest her mind just a little.
As we approached the running track car park, I felt a sudden drop in energy with an onset of mild agitation. It was my way to prepare my body and focus my mind on the task that was fast approaching. I was relieved to see an empty car park as we drew up; the thought of company at this stage was the last thing I wanted. I felt guilt for my thoughts, as my Smilinggg army had been so incredibly supportive, loving and caring throughout the week. Yet I couldn’t sugar coat what was to come, I would have to suffer and it would be tiresome to mask the suffering. My energy and will finite, I didn’t want to drain this precious resource any sooner than it had to be. As a power-saving strategy, I sat in the passenger seat with my eyes closed and rather haphazardly began meditating. Long deep breaths in followed by slow calming exhalations, I did very little beyond mentally relaying ‘breathing in… breathing out’. A few minutes passed before gently reopening my eyes and slowly but surely gathering my many layers of clothing, just as I had predicted would be the case twelve hours prior.
My feet and legs felt okay at this point, yet I knew full well this would be fleeting. My feet had however swollen, so I opted to wear a pair of my late Uncle’s Nike trainers that were one size bigger. It was a decision filled with emotion to attempt to complete day four’s marathon in his shoes. My Uncle (Dad’s brother) had taken his own life towards the end of 2017 and the reason why I chose to fundraise for Samaritans in addition to Mind for The Smileathlon was in light of his death. To walk in his shoes felt somewhat of a fitting tribute to a man in his early seventies who was as physically fit as they came. As I tied up my laces, Dad informed me that someone was walking towards us. I let out a sigh as I had been preparing to battle this one alone, yet the moment I saw it was Sally, my solitary mood shifted and I truly appreciated her support and generosity in making the effort to join, especially as the time just minutes before 11pm. We left Dad to tidy The Smilinggg Wagon and to put a bag together with food supplies and extra clothing as we walked to the track.
At 10:52pm on Thursday 17th May 2018 I pressed start on the Garmin Fenix 5 that sat loosely around my wrist. I was incapable of running and even a fast walk sent shooting pains within my ankles and up each shin. I tried desperately to find a technique and rhythm that eased my discomfort, yet truth be told, I was finding it a challenge to keep up with a spritely Sally for the first few laps. Dad had now joined as had Amanda, Paul, and Ian. “It’s certainly not as windy or chilly tonight,” I optimistically said aloud in an attempt to sprinkle some positivity and raise my spirits. Whilst I had accepted I was unable to run, I still had hoped to speed walk my way to some quicker kilometres, particularly in the early stages, yet relaying the frequent thirteen plus minute kilometres to those around me, and knowing from the past three days I’d only likely get slower; I tried to keep a lid on my mounting frustrations, letting out a deep and accentuated exhalation in the process.
Midnight passed, as did the first 6km and with each subsequent kilometre slower than the last, I knew it would be a ‘backs against the wall’ job from here on out. Sally and Ian had departed and I suggested to Dad it would be advantageous for him to get some rest, as although he hadn’t been participating on quite the same level, I was sure the day’s events would have been mentally and emotionally rather draining. “I daren’t give you a prediction of my finishing time yet lad, but I’ll text you when I’m approaching my final five or so kilometres.” Quietly to myself I had already predicted a finishing time in the region of nine hours; this would mean wrapping things up shortly before 8am… I couldn’t help but shudder.
“What do you think the likelihood is that I’ve developed stress fractures in my ankles?” What a way to break the silence, having previously enjoyed light hearted and jovial conversation with Paul and Amanda as I continued to traipse around the track. I can’t recall their exact words, but a general consensus of “quite possibly” was the outcome. The pressure in the shins and my complete inability to flex both feet meant I was unable to obtain any forward momentum with my stride. In an attempt to console myself in between the frequent bouts of chatter, my mind would wander to distant places, memories and past experiences; jolted back into the present whenever our next conversational topic would begin. In my fatigued state, I gladly accepted Paul’s frequent Fruit Pastille offerings, not for one second even thinking they weren’t vegan. The sweet and juicy sugar hit provided a few moments of joy, even spanning a couple of minutes when I exercised self-control and allowed the pastille to dissolve in my mouth.
“One quarter down, three quarters to go” glancing at my watch to check the time, it had just passed 12:45am and I was still one lap short of the quarter mark, but I smiled with the first significant milestone almost ticked off. Whilst reaching 10.5km signified the quarter mark in relation to distance, I knew the quarter mark for time on my feet hadn’t yet arrived, but little did it matter; my approach was simply to keep moving forward no matter what. ‘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 forward’, the famous Martin Luther King Jr. quote kept bouncing around my head as it aligned perfectly with both The Smileathlon and my life game plan.
‘Please don’t be the police’ was my first thought as the middle of night stillness was disrupted by three cars that drove to the entrance of the leisure centre; a mere stones throw from the running track and within the same grounds. “We weren’t making too loud a noise were we?” I asked Amanda and Paul. In my sleep deprived state I feared being asked to leave the track with my mind actively considering alternatives, “I’ll just have to walk the streets if so…” continued my thought pattern this time out loud, Paul and Amanda both chuckled in my direction, yet I remained deadpan. Paul both calmly and coherently reassured us that the cars were most likely security guards on a routine visit. ‘They weren’t here yesterday’ I thought but decided against voicing my diluted concerns, recalling ‘Que Será, Será’ from earlier when I had been preparing for the swim; ‘Christ, that felt days ago’ I thought as we cautiously circled the track, keeping our attention on the slow and ‘suspiciously’ moving vehicles.
There were two darkest hours during day four’s marathon, the first of which when the night sky felt at its deepest and darkest shade of blue, and the second a number of hours later around sunrise. The former coincided with Paul departing; having been correct in his logic regarding the security vehicles and with a day of work looming on the horizon he headed home to catch some well-deserved rest. Amanda now draped in a rug to keep warm and also nursing a slight hobble having agitated her knee on day two informed me that she’d be seeing the marathon through in its entirety with me. Her already angel status increased even further when she offered to drive to the local petrol station and grab me a large freshly ground cup of coffee. The time must have been around 2:30am at this point and I was beginning to flag. I was staving off exhaustion with intermittent feasting, using the prospect of another lap with my mum’s home cooked chickpea pasta laden saucepan to propel me to reach my next three-lap micro-goal before indulging once more. One lap with the saucepan, four laps without. One lap with a bottle of flat coke, five laps without.
I kissed the large cup of coffee and raised it high above my head to celebrate reaching the half-marathon in a little over four hours. I may have lost my ability to run but I was certainly not willing to lose my sense of humour just yet. Whilst I enjoyed sipping on the extra strong coffee from the half marathon trophy, Amanda was treating herself to a bottle of rosé wine – at this point I should probably mention it was a 200ml bottle. We spent the next hour mesmerised by the shapes of trees, and how they resembled animals, body parts and a number of famous faces including a tree that instantaneously morphed from Mick Jagger to James Brown and finally Gene Simmons from Kiss fame. Every fifteen minutes or so my Garmin watch would vibrate informing me of another kilometre achieved, the discomfort never left but the distractions eased the pain a little. Concerned with the speed of the last kilometre, I informed Amanda of the next goal of improving upon the time of each kilometre for three successive kilometres before allowing a fourth kilometre to be completed leisurely. I think I managed two progressive kilometres before the pain halted my hattrick. Feeling particularly subdued, I informed Amanda that I’d ‘be’ with the pain for the next few laps and wouldn’t have the capacity to communicate also. Amanda completely understood yet I couldn’t avoid feeling bad that I had to resort to this.
‘At least hell isn’t hot’ was my reasoning as I stepped further into the devil’s lair. The caffeine kick had passed and my appetite diminished, I felt like I was severely jetlagged as I staggered some more. Then the faces appeared, not only faces, entire beings. I looked away from the cluster of trees lit by the street lamp and immediately returned gaze, not having to allow time for my eyes to focus and re-establish the image. They jumped out at me and I instantly felt an overwhelming sense of emotion. I couldn’t help but keep my eyes glued to the men, women, and children all staring hopelessly my way. Pain, suffering and fear etched across their faces. Their compact assembling reminded me of pictures from the Holocaust, the images of the devastating treatment of the Jews at the hands of the Nazi’s. I knew I was in some way hallucinating, yet I couldn’t shake the deep impact within and I spent the next few minutes scrambling my thoughts in an attempt to find reason behind what I had witnessed. ‘Help us’ was all I could muster from my contemplation as I completed another lap and was fast approaching my tree acquaintances once more. There they were again, I felt my eyes moisten as the pain in my legs was compounded by the sadness in my soul. I was mesmerised by what looked like a painting that had such clarity and deep emotion yet I was left pondering whether it was my mind constructing all of this as I once again circled another lap.
The dark sky was lifting and the first sounds of the dawn chorus were echoing. We were fast approaching 5am, six hours and around 30km into the marathon. The walking speed continued to dwindle and it was becoming more and more apparent I’d not be finishing any time soon. Shortly after the hallucinations, I began feeling a little perkier, reuniting with my trusted companion Amanda as we tackled a few more laps and watched a large flock of birds take flight in the distance. The wow moment a small gift from Mother Nature.
Having appreciated the temporary rise in spirits, I was soon in familiar territory once again as my energy plummeted; I knew it was time to grind out and endure the next battle of this long lasting war. Sunken and suffering, I once again retreated and pulled both my bobble hat and hood low over my eyes; focusing a mere foot in front of my step. ‘One step at a time’ my mind kept relaying, I fell into a trance-like state as I blocked everything out except the track lines and my next step. It felt as though I was in my very own world, with the passing lines as my single focus. I intentionally had no reference of progress, my only goal to see how long I could remain in this real life version of the Nokia mobile phone game, ‘Snake’. This brought on my next hallucination, as I would vividly see a number of different objects passing me by including apples and toy cars. I told myself I wouldn’t look up until I felt my Garmin vibrate to inform me of another kilometre ticked off. Fully present with each and every step, my attention completely locked into this real-life game. The white lines of the running track gave a very distorted perception of speed, I was completing each lap at a snails pace, yet to me I felt as though I was power walking. My enthusiasm waned as I peeled back my hood and bobble hat. It took a few seconds to adjust to the broad daylight, and up ahead I saw Amanda with a mystery figure…
“Teario!” I bellowed, realising how raspy and weak I sounded. Amanda and Dan Tear turned around and as I enthusiastically hobbled towards them I joked “I’ll be with you in an hour!” Seeing Dan gave me an instant boost, shaking me from my gloom. Dan is a personal trainer and at the time was a footballer for Crowborough Athletic, who has since transferred down to Eastbourne. Dan’s a few years younger than me and like with so many of my acquaintances, I find it difficult to pinpoint a moment when we first became friends. Dan was on his way to work and thought he’d pop by to see how things were going. I couldn’t hide my fatigue and discomfort but the three of us plodded on for a few more laps. It was time for the early dog walkers, and we could only laugh at how it must look for anyone passing by. Both Amanda with her draped rug and me looking quite frankly homeless, our only saving grace being Dan who looked respectfully dressed in his tracksuit top and shorts. Once again I made sure to smile and wish them “good morning”.
Saucepan in hand, I became rather competent at eating and walking
As I pressed each letter on my phone, I realised how swollen my fingers had become. Being constantly down by my side for the past eight hours had taken its toll. My feet were also feeling the ill affects too. My Uncle’s shoes had served well in providing a little extra room for my swollen feet, but the looser fitting shoes friction had caused some really painful blisters to form. ‘Alright lad, about 5k to go… can you bring some porridge?’ I typed. The time was fast approaching 7am and with my walking pace a mere 3.5kph, I was on the home straight… kind of. Amanda knew just when to chat and when to allow me time to just grind it out. She was the ultimate support crew, picking up bottles of water, cartons of coconut water I had flung at various points to the side of the track and grabbing food supplies so I didn’t have to bend down or divert from the job at hand. She even offered to hold the saucepan loaded with the chickpeas and pasta, I had to decline this kindest of offerings, “you’re my support crew, not my slave!” I jokingly added. She epitomised the generosity in Smilinggg and I was truly grateful for her support.
Walking with the ever supportive Sally Burgess and Amanda in the distance.
On the topic of support, Sally and Dad had both returned and the four of us now had to pick a lane and stay in it to avoid the runners who were getting in their morning steps. One lady in particular was on a mission and we could sense she wasn’t particularly taken with our walking presence. I felt an underlying sense of pride to know what we had achieved this week and I cherished the anonymity I held to this fellow runner. As the completed distance reached the 40km mark, I continued to savour every mouthful of the porridge Dad had delivered in a trusted protein shaker, truly appreciating each and every spoonful.
Managing to smile as I delve into the porridge.
The final few laps were etched in discomfort, every single step nauseating, with the pressure in the shins, pain in my feet and unsettling squelch of blisters near popping. Yet I still turned my attention to day five’s swim. I joked once again asking if I had my swimming gear in The Smilinggg Wagon, but for the first time behind the jovial words and smile, I began having doubts as to whether I could physically complete another marathon. I started to relay ideas to Dad, Amanda, Sally and Ian who had since re-joined. A desperation perhaps evident, I began thinking about strategies including combining all the remaining swims into a day and then doubling up on the cycling and completing the remaining three marathon distances as an extension to the bike. “At least that’ll mean I completed the challenge in terms of distance completed” trying to justify my ideology.
Are we there yet?
I’d be lying if I said I bounced my way round the final lap, instead with the time verging on 8am, I slugged the final 400m lap out. The marathon wasn’t quite finished however, as I strategically used the walk from the track to the car park as the last few meters. That’s when I realised the extent of my injuries. Swapping the forgiving running track with the merciless concrete, I could barely walk the required distance. To say I hobbled would be a disservice to the hobble. I once again tried to mask the discomfort, but it was pretty evident for all to see. I scrambled up onto the grass verge and thanked everyone for the support, giving precedence to Amanda who was nursing a debilitating hobble herself. As the distance ticked over the required 42.2km, I warily pressed the stop button.
The walk had taken 9:11:21.
“Ready for day fours photo?” Dad asked. I had forgotten all about the customary photo. I could sense the dark clouds were on the horizon and deep fatigue was rolling in. As I posed with the four fingers up, I began feeling a hollow sensation within me. Metaphorically speaking, I was punctured and the adrenaline that had kept me going since The Smileathlon Challenge began was starting to leak out of me. I clambered into the passengers seat as Dad drove the two miles back to Rotherfield, grateful to have a driver, knowing my legs would have been unable to operate the clutch, brake and accelerator.
4-Up. Smilinggg to lessen the discomfort.
The ‘puncture’ increased in size during the drive home, and as Dad pulled into the lane, I revealed my dismay “I’m empty, I have nothing left lad. I don’t think I can go on.” Dad had expressed his concerns regarding my tiredness and the risk this posed for the cycling. He later revealed I was starting to show signs of being incoherent. As I stepped out of the vehicle, just like that, I had pulled the curtains down on The Smileathlon. I knew it within, yet I said to Dad “I’ll see how I feel after a sleep.”
Like a scene from The Walking Dead, I walked lifelessly into the house and immediately lay on the dining room floor. Updating Facebook with day four’s completion, I had composed the body of the message during the walk and a snippet of it read:
‘Right now every day is a combination of heaven and hell. The swim and the bike are many moments of pure bliss; with the run/walk/crawl unpleasant at best. I’m constantly reminding myself to enjoy the pleasant moments while they last and endure, learn and grow through the periods of pain and suffering. When I’ve mastered this, I’ll tell you how!’
‘I can’t get up’ was all I could think as I desperately tried to clamber to my feet. By elevating my legs on a chair and laying on my back to update Facebook, I had given my legs a false sense of security, my body receiving the wrongly prescribed instruction from my mind that their work was done. Even using chairs for leverage was ineffective, I just didn’t have the strength to support myself. The decision whether to continue or call time on The Challenge was no longer in my court. My seized up body meant I had no choice but to crawl up the two flights of stairs to my bedroom and climb into bed.
The time was fast approaching 9am and I couldn’t help but smile as I nodded cheerfully in reflection and acknowledgment of Martin Luther King Jr’s famous quote that had served as the bedrock of this very Smileathlon journey, which had spanned the past five months. Before closing my eyes and with a wry smile etched across my face, I proudly muttered, “I crawled Martin, that I did!”
The Smileathlon 2018 fundraising page will remain open until the end of July. All donations are gratefully received. To read and watch The Smileathlon story and to support Mind and Samaritans please click the link: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/Smileathlon2018