When the sound of my alarm rang at 4:15am, I was already awake and staring out of my bedroom window, witnessing the darkness of night lifting as the bird song began to increase. I was in bed by 9pm the night before, but the combination of excitement and nerves meant it took an age to fall asleep, only managing three perhaps four hours kip. The phone’s vibration continued aggressively with each passing second; the alarm getting louder and louder, drowning out the dawn chorus, finally triggering me to slide my finger across the screen, muting the alarm and with that, accepting that after 170 training sessions totalling 318 hours, covering a combined distance of 6,159km (3,827 miles) across swimming, cycling and running, spanning 145 days, the day had finally arrived. The Smileathlon 2018 Challenge was about to begin.
The week prior to the start of The Smileathlon Challenge, had seen me pressing the keys of my laptop and formulating my nutrition strategy into an Excel spread sheet. Porridge here, avocado sandwiches there, I was engulfed in food, trying desperately to formulate a plan that would help me consume around 10,000 calories per day. This plan would prove rather fruitless, not literally I may add, over the course of the next four days, but as the clock approached 4:30am, I was in the kitchen trying to follow my breakfast plan; the same one I had tested the previous day. Porridge with chia seeds and all sorts of other toppings, jam laden crumpets, and a pint or so of orange juice. Granted, I had felt like Adam Richman from Man Vs. Food on Sunday morning, as I scoffed my way through the 1,800 calories, but in all honesty, it had felt pretty easy.
Fast forward to Monday morning and I could barely lift the spoon to my mouth without feeling sick. My stomach in knots, I had zero appetite. With two hours until the swim was due to start, I knew it was a race against time to ensure that there was adequate time to allow the intended food to digest. This only added to my angst. I even resorted to playing the aeroplane game, as a means to somehow add a little humour to a humourless situation. “Here comes the aeroplane.” Nom Nom Nom… yuck! I hadn’t even started day one, and I was showing signs of quite frankly losing my mind. Somehow the childlike nature of the game allowed me to detach from my woes and treat the consumption of breakfast as my first major challenge of a week that would be filled with them. Humming the theme tune of Oliver Twist, I managed to eat around seventy-per cent, without at any moment even considering whispering the words ‘Please sir, can I have some more.’ Don’t even get me started on the crumpets. I blankly stared at them and accepted then and there that I wouldn’t even be attempting to take a bite.
The Friday before, I had received an email and voicemail from BBC Sussex radio, with an enthusiastic man named Will expressing a real interest in the challenge. The breakfast radio show had hoped I’d be able to call in on Monday morning at around 7:25am to have a chat about the challenge and the reasons why I was embarking on such a monstrous task. I politely noted that I’d be in the swimming pool battling through the first 3.8km (2.4mile) swim, so we settled on a pre-recorded interview at 5:30am on Monday, to be aired at the originally planned time.
It’s safe to say the radio interview had certainly added to my nerves and loss of appetite. But I was really grateful to have a platform and opportunity to discuss The Smileathlon Challenge. I had packed all of my nutrition and various costume changes the night before; so I was left twiddling my thumbs and nervously staring at my phone waiting for Neil Pringle’s call. The chat went swimmingly and having later listened to the five-minute piece, I was really proud with how it sounded. So with breakfast and the radio interview completed, it was time to drive the short distance to Crowborough Leisure Centre to begin the swim.
As I waited patiently for the doors of the leisure centre to open, I looked out over the running track with the morning sun warming its surface. I caught myself lost in thought, almost visualising arriving back at the leisure centre later that day to tackle the marathon. I knew what the importance of staying present would be during the week, not allowing myself to get lost in the magnitude of what each day would require. Just to stay moment to moment and to allow each passing second to follow on from the last.
There was now a queue forming of eager gym-goers. I smiled at each whilst trying to figure out whether they’d be heading upstairs to the gym, or joining me in the pool. I had this irrational fear of the pool being absolutely chocker-block, with the lanes congested and me stuck treading water and taking an age to complete my required distance. All these fears were quashed within minutes as I quickly got changed and made my way pool side to see a virtually empty pool with every lane free. I muttered thank you under my breath and made my way to the fast lane, where I hoped my pace wouldn’t frustrate any fellow swimmers who were sure to join later that morning.
As I plunged into the pool and submerged my body, I let out a deep breath and instantly felt centred. My nerves began to ease and I reminded myself it’s no different to any one of the thirty-five plus training swims leading up to the event. I pushed off and slowly immersed myself in the experience, staying present and keeping attention on the black line at the bottom of the pool floor. It’s customary for me to check my Garmin Fenix 5 after 100m to assess pace and rate of perceived exertion. Seeing a sub 2-minute 100m pace, I decided to slow things down just a little, and within a few strokes had re-established my groove.
Twenty-minutes had passed when the pool began to fill with people. The local swim squad had arrived, and with that, my sense of belonging was disrupted. I’m fairly new to triathlon, my first triathlon taking place in Nha Trang, Vietnam at Challenge Vietnam on 11th September 2016. Therefore I still battle confidence issues particularly around swimming. There are few worse feelings than the sense of someone swimming on your toes, perhaps a shark swimming on your toes would be a little worse, but it’s that same sense of fight or flight. For a few laps I became preoccupied, taking my attention from my own swim, to double-checking I wasn’t holding up the next 100m sprint. Fortunately this assessment allowed me to resume at my slow and steady pace without disrupting other swimmers session.
At the 3,000m mark, I turned my head to breathe and noticed my Dad sporting his yellow Smilinggg running t-shirt stood up in the gantry where spectators can sit and observe the swimming below. I felt an overwhelming sense of pride seeing my Dad. It took me back to years gone-by when he’d be on the touchline supporting and cheering me on whilst playing for Jarvis Brook FC, and Crowborough Town FC. This reflective moment bought a tear or two to my eyes and a momentary misting of my goggles. I put my thumb up to acknowledge his presence before recomposing myself and splashing my way to the final 800m.
Having exited the water, I signalled to Dad that I was finished, and an animated glance at his watch indicated that I was finished ahead of his anticipated schedule. 1 hour and 21 minutes with an average pace of 2:07 / 100m and most importantly with a very low rate of perceived exertion gave me a small but meaningful boost as I made my way to the changing rooms to get suited and booted ready for the bike leg.
I felt my nerves return as I walked with Dad to the Smilinggg wagon, which was to house my bike for the week. I sipped on some electrolytes and tried to force down a couple of bananas. It was at this very moment that I became a little concerned with my apparent lack of appetite. I supressed these thoughts, uploaded the swim to Strava, recorded an Instagram story to update those following the event, and took ten minutes to lower my angst and try to reclaim my restful mind by chatting peacefully with Dad and finalising our next checkpoint to refuel and rehydrate.
Loaded with four peanut butter and jam sandwiches, Trek bars and a couple litres of water housed in bottles and attached to the bikes frame, I mounted the bike, pressed start on the Garmin watch and freewheeled the first couple of kilometres.
As the route levelled out and with Dad acting as a convoy for the first 5km, I quickly realised there was an issue with my bikes chain. The gears were slipping making it virtually impossible to pedal smoothly and build momentum. Only days prior, I had the bike serviced, and this chain slippage was only adding to my already highly-strung and reactive mind. Climbing hills was the most challenging, dropping the chain to its smaller ring, the slipping meant I had to dismount the bike and walk it over an initial hill. My frustration growing further, I played around with the mechanics and gradually figured out what triggered further chain slips and did my best to avoid this situation from occurring too frequently; this proved only partially successful.
Finding a flat bike route in East Sussex is virtually impossible. Instead of one big loop, I thought my best bet would be to cycle from Crowborough Leisure Centre and head to Five Ashes and complete out and backs to Cross In Hand before returning to the Leisure Centre to complete the ride. This meant each out and back would be around 12km in total distance and allowed my Dad to never be too far away in the event of a mechanical breakdown.
I was soon in the groove, the nerves diminishing and being replaced by a sense of joy, knowing with each kilometre that passed was a kilometre closer to the finish. I was now fully aware of potholes, and the parts of the course with elevation, and those other areas where I could freewheel and enjoy the warm sunshine on my face, remembering not to close my eyes as I breathed in deeply and let out an exaggerated and freeing “ahhhhhhhh”.
There remained one problem… my appetite, or rather lack of. As the halfway point approached, I tried desperately to swallow a peanut butter and jam sandwich, removing the crust as a mother would for her fussy child. Whatever I tried, I just couldn’t muster the ability to chew and swallow. I had managed to eat a couple of Trek bars, but as Dad and my sister Nicola greeted me at the petrol station, I took out two unopened sandwiches and stuffed my next four sandwiches into my cycling jerseys rear pouch, hoping the tide would turn and I’d miraculously find my appetite again.
Chatting with Nicola and Dad gave me resurgence in energy, their enthusiasm was infectious, and whilst my energy wasn’t being generated through food, I felt strong and positive for the second half of the ride. They were praising me for the interview that had been aired earlier in the morning, and this further added to my good mood, as I had wondered how listeners would perceive it.
Aside from the odd chain slip, everything continued to go smoothly. As the afternoon advanced, there were times when traffic would be sparse, this allowed me a freedom on the roads to avoid parts of roads which caused the bike to shake and the bars to vibrate violently into my shock absorbing wrists. When cars did pass they’d more often than not give a wide birth. I found myself thanking each car that passed and smiling to myself. It was incredible how this extension of a gratitude practice lowered my perceived exertion and heightened my overall mood. Every now and then a car would toot its horn and I’d glimpse a friend on their commute, this further added to my feel-good factor.
I was never too far away from frustration though. As I was fast approaching the conclusion of the out and back loops, I had one or two further run-ins with the chain. Occasional dismounts and pushing the bike over hills had me swearing out loud in agitation. One of the benefits of meditation and mindfulness is being able to recognise when your actions and/or thoughts aren’t serving you. After my third or fourth swear word, I found myself laughing under my breath. ‘You’re wearing a cycling jersey with a massive smiley face on the back. This isn’t a good look for Mr so-called Smilinggg’ I thought.
With 20km remaining of the 180km ride, I texted my Dad to say I was finishing the Five Ashes to Cross In Hand loop and making my way to ‘base camp’. I took a few final bites of a half-eaten sandwich and tossed the rest in the bush, hoping the wildlife would appreciate the gesture. This was the first time I noticed my right wrist wasn’t feeling too good. I surveyed the wrist and noticed a bruise under where my watch was sat. The bike route had meant a lot of gear shifting with my right hand, and this repetitive action had left my wrist sore. I tried to forget about this discomfort and focus on the rest of my body, which for the most part felt good.
As I went through Rotherfield high street and down the hill towards Jarvis Brook, I quickly realised my sense of distance was completely out. I still had around 11km to make up before the ride was complete. So I took a left along Western Road and tried to navigate as flat a route as possible before returning to the Leisure Centre. If you’re familiar with Crowborough, you’ll know this is a particularly difficult task. The toughest part of any ride is when you’re nearly but not quite finished. Kilometres tick over slower, and the sense of striving increases, which serves only to frustrate you more. My simmering annoyance was quickly dissolved when a group of school children shouted, “Ah there’s the Smilinggg man, James Cooper!” I let out a surprised “hey” and turned to see if I could recognise any of the youngsters, which I couldn’t.
Still a few metres short of the intended distance, I ended up circling the leisure centre’s car park, much to the amusement of Dad and Nicola who had been patiently awaiting my return. Once complete I said my ‘thank yous’, dismounted the bike and stretched out my legs. ‘Two down, one to go’ I thought.
The bike had taken 7:38:20 with an elevation gain of 2,023m.
The distance of 42.2km was what separated me from finishing day one of The Smileathlon 2018 Challenge. I knew the battle was just beginning. Out of the three disciplines, running was my first love. I had first fallen in love with running at the back-end of 2014. I participated in my first marathon in August of 2015 at Da Nang International Marathon in Vietnam. It was during training for this event that I founded The Smilinggg Mile. Since my first marathon, I’ve completed two further marathons, participated in a 16-hour ultra marathon in Malaysia, where injury to my left shin meant I hobbled to an 80km finish, plus a handful of half-marathons and a further 12-hour ultra last October for The Smileathon Challenge in association with World Mental Health Day. You’d think with this resume, I’d be most confident about the running leg of each day, but this just wasn’t the case.
In 2012, I suffered a double leg break to my left ankle whilst playing football just a stone`s throw from the running track I’d be completing each marathon. Therefore, although running had been my favourite, I also appreciated the likely impact and compounded effect of step after step after step. This had me immediately nervous as I took my first few steps with Dad and Nicola joining me, with their own personal mission to hit 10,000 steps.
Just having them both with me lightened my mood and allowed me to navigate the initial nerves and find my rhythm. Gentle and small steps was the order of the day, trying as closely as possible to hit the magic 180-steps per minute to avoid over-striding and excessive force on the knees. Another key component to successfully complete each run would be a completely aerobically run marathon. It quickly became a meditative practice as I took deep inhalations and exhalations through my nose. Feeling the contact of each step and how my body felt in the process. Every now and then I would find my mind distracted, estimating possible finishing times. Having started the marathon at 4:31pm, I was getting lost in fantasising about finishing. This strategy might serve occasionally, but I knew it wasn’t best practice, and I quickly returned to following the track line and staying present moment-to-moment.
My initial plan had been to run 4-miles and then walk 1-mile, but having conversed with Dad, and feeling fresh, I decided to get to 10km before taking my first walking break. Still with little appetite, I enjoyed sipping coconut water, eating slices of watermelon, a few bananas and the occasional Trek Bar, I felt as though I had enough energy to keep going, but there was gnawing doubt at the back of mind that unless I could stomach and digest more calories, it would only be a matter of time until I hit a major wall and ran out of fuel.
My recollection of the run on day one is all a bit of a blur, particularly with regards to timings. I was firstly joined by my good friend Sam Carrington who himself is currently training for his own charity event. Sam and I went at a comfortable pace and his company was greatly appreciated. It broke up the moments of solitude, and served to provide energy both physically and mentally. I first fully appreciated the impact small gestures can have on an individual during times of adversity at the 16-hour ultra-marathon I had previously mentioned. A smile, a thumb up, a word of encouragement, all these relatively small gestures have such a grand impact. This has stayed with me since, and I go about my days with every intention to sprinkle these small acts of kindness whenever I possibly can. Today it was my turn to be the recipient of so much love, support and kindness.
One of my best friends, Joe and his fiancé Cara came to the track around 6pm. Joe joined Sam and I for a Smilinggg Mile. The strength I felt from this short but meaningful exchange further lowered my perceived exertion as I recall clocking some quicker paced kilometres. Just before Joe had finished his last lap, I spotted my mum conversing with Cara. Mum had come down to the track straight from work, and her job for the week was the evening meal. I didn’t dare let on that I had no appetite. I still remained hopeful that once the run was over, I’d suddenly feel ravenous and I’d devour the lentil pasta bake Mum would be serving.
My recollection of the remaining time on my feet is hazy at best. I do recall being joined by friends Luke, Samantha, Sally, Paul, and Ian, which gave me a boost with each and every interaction. At around the 30km mark and as the sun began to set, I felt a dull but prominent ache in my feet, enough to walk momentarily. The next 10km were stop-start and solitary. It was during these moments where I first thought about why I was taking on this challenge. Thoughts came and went. I thought about my Uncle, this journey, my own adversities, and these reflective moments gave me strength within. The sadness I felt as I processed these moments, and the hurt, numbed the discomfort I was temporarily feeling in my feet.
Towards the end of the marathon, my good friend Amanda Scott joined me. She had informed me that she had just enjoyed a rather indulgent meal with her brother in law; this did little to resurrect any hunger pangs within myself. Instead I was thinking, ‘how on earth are you able to jog with all that food in your stomach!’ Amanda’s fleeting visit on this occasion would prove her only fleeting visit of the challenge, choosing to spend many hours at the track in support of my challenge attempt.
As I approached the final five laps, I noticed three silhouettes, stood at the steps that connect the leisure centre with the track. My sister and Dad had returned, having been to Tesco to buy supplies and prepare for tomorrow, joined by Thomas Burgess who I recognised even in the darkness that had fallen. I gestured to them that I had five laps to go and I’d likely walk most of these, claiming it to be an active recovery in preparation for Tuesday, but really because of the ache in my left foot.
As I stepped rather tentatively the final 400m, I took a moment to reflect on the day. What had gone well? What had been challenging? Where could I improve? How was I truly feeling? As I took my final few steps, I stopped my watch and was greeted by Dad, Nicola and Tom. It was at this moment that I joked, “Forget James Cooper, you are an IronMan! I’d rather say James Cooper, you are a SmilingggMan!”
The time of 4:56:42 would prove my fastest marathon of the challenge, and with an average pace of 7:00 per kilometre, it was exactly as planned.
Once I concluded the formalities of taking a post-Iron Triathlon photo, uploading to Strava and reflecting briefly with Nicola and Dad, I drove back to Rotherfield, sipping on coconut water to begin the rehydrating process.
Right on cue was Mum to open the door and greet me, not quite sure knowing how I’d look or feel. “The bath is drawn and the pasta is on the hob.” As if music to my ears, I grinned, slipped off my shoes and compression socks, assessed the feet, which didn’t even show a mark, and trudged my heavy legs up the stairs and into the bath where I closed my eyes and let out a long and slow exhalation.
Remember how the day began? Pushing porridge around my bowl. Unfortunately, my appetite hadn’t reappeared, and with Mum overlooking dinner-gate, I forcefully ingested as much lentil pasta as I possibly could, albeit not an awful lot. I didn’t let on quite how much this was concerning me. I did however manage to wolf down an Alpro Chocolate dessert before downing a glass of water before retiring to bed. Almost as soon as my head hit the pillow I was fast asleep, I just had enough time to smile, clench my fist and let out a muted ‘GET IN!’ Day one had been successfully navigated.
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