‘If I keep my eyes closed, I’m still asleep, right?’ was the first thought that popped into my head, lying motionless in bed. I’m sure the birds outside my window were vocalising their own rendition of The Boo Radley’s ‘Wake Up, It’s a Beautiful Morning.’ The sun was most certainly shining for my eyes, but with my eyelids firmly shut, I could sense it wasn’t close enough to the 6:15am alarm I had set just a few short hours prior. I desperately used my left forearm to block the suns rays from penetrating my eyes. With partial success, I attempted to lift my right arm to act as double the cover; rather foolishly having momentarily forgotten about my wrist, a sharp jolt of pain forced my tired eyes open.
5:32am read my phones display, and with an apparent sense of urgency, I downed the pint of water perched on the bedside table. Going someway to relieve my parched mouth. As I clambered out of bed and cautiously navigated the two sets of stairs that separated me from the kitchen, I was beginning to recognise a sensation I hadn’t felt since the Smileathlon began. I couldn’t pinpoint it immediately, but my brain and subsequent actions were already aware. Reaching into the fridge and grabbing the litre-carton of orange juice, and in no uncertain terms necking it, it dawned on me; ‘I have an appetite!’
It’s hard to pinpoint whether it was my body finally managing to process what it was being asked to do, or having completed two Iron-Triathlons in two consecutive days, it was perhaps my anxious mind letting go and finally calming down. Maybe a combination of the two, but what mattered to me in this very moment was bagels.
Conscious not to lose all discipline and turn it into a free-for-all, I capped breakfast at two toasted bagels with sunflower spread and jam. Wolfing them down, I made myself a cup of tea and took ten minutes to quietly reflect, gain insight, and focus the mind; taking stock of how my mind and body were feeling.
The powerful restorative qualities sleep and rest provides was reaffirmed during this quiet spell. Wisdom lies where knowledge and experience intersect, so whilst this realisation isn’t revolutionary, it allowed me to recognise my depleted willpower and energy from last night had been restored, as had the aches and pains been decreased. A lot of my experiences are had pursuing ultra-endurance challenges, but I always ensure I apply these lessons within the context of life. This truth gave me strength, and provided a point of reference for when the going got tough later in the day. ‘However bad I might feel, just remember, tomorrow’s a new day and with that comes renewed strength and optimism’ I relay in my head.
With my renewed strength, optimism and appetite, I text Dad to discuss the plans for the upcoming day. This was a new approach, as Day’s One and Two were pre-planned and completed accordingly. However, the prospect of another day cycling the same route was too much to endure. I live by a mantra ‘make it so easy you cannot say no’, and whilst there’s no getting away from 3.8km swimming, 180km cycling and 42.2km running, I knew a less hilly, bumpy and busy bike route would tick the mantra box and preserve willpower. Willpower that I’d most definitely need for the marathon that awaited me at the back end of the day.
‘No failure, only feedback’ is another mantra I try and live by. The biggest feedback from Day’s One and Two was quite clearly the bike nutrition. My justification for peanut butter and jam sandwiches as my bike-fuel stemmed from the many months of testing during training rides. Yet for whatever reason, this wasn’t serving me, and even with my restored appetite, the prospect of further peanut butter and jam sarnies made me gag. With Dad acting as Coach Cooper at the end of the telephone, he posed the question “Why not gels?” “It’s worth a try.” I replied.
A few additional messages back and forth and Day Three’s itinerary was set in stone. I’d head to Crowborough Leisure Centre to begin my swim at 7:45am, return home around 9:30am to refuel and take a power-nap before meeting Dad in Rotherfield High Street at 12:30pm to begin the bike leg. In the meantime, Dad would head to Boots Pharmacy to load up on energy gels, protein bars and a supportive strap for my painful right wrist. Dad would later join me in The Smilinggg Wagon at the halfway stage of the bike leg to restock empty water bottles, and gels. On completion of the ride, we’d load the bike into The Wagon and make the thirty-minute drive back to Crowborough Leisure Centre to begin the run.
Driving into the Leisure Centre car park I immediately recognised the contrast to the previous two days. Cars were parked and people were coming and going. Envy momentarily reigned at those with that post-exercise glow departing. Wayward thoughts began forming and circulating my mind with unfavourable comparisons to Monday and Tuesday. ‘I had already been an hour into the swim, how late would I finish tonight, will the pool be chocker, how’s my wrist going to feel in the water, I feel tired.’ Quickly quashing the disserving monkey mind, I gathered my backpack and collected my thoughts, slowly making my way through reception, passing go and paying the £5.2o admission fee. Swim number three was ready to roll.
Walking barefoot from the changing rooms to the edge of the pool, I took a long sip of the lemon flavoured isotonic drink, removed my Smilinggg wristband and placed it around the water bottle. I sat with my legs submerged in the cool water, the water easing the dullness and pressure I felt within the shins. I had mentioned only half jokingly in the radio interview with BBC Sussex on Monday that the swim each day would act as a recovery session; this was exactly what it had become. As I observed the swimmers approaching, I lifted my legs and hugged them close to my chest to avoid disturbing the swimmers pushing off the wall to begin another length. Almost in a trance-like state, I remained in this posture long after the swim squad had swum off. After a few further seconds, I came back to reality and recognised the resistance forming in my mind to fully submerge my body and begin. A cloud of tiredness rolled in and the negative internal chatter clattered like thunder. It’s incredible how one or two destructive thoughts can impact mood in an instant. Witnessing the swimmers fast approaching once more, I used their arrival as a trigger to override the lethargy and get to work. ‘Every metre swam is a metre closer to the finish, let’s do this!’ I closed my eyes, slid into the pool, taking a deep inhalation; I lowered my body and fully submerged myself under. Rising to the surface, I forcefully exhaled, pulled my swim cap over my head, adjusted my goggles and pressed ‘play’ on the Garmin.
Fatigue was apparent almost immediately. A tired yet busy mind kept prying for attention, what felt at times like a tennis match, constantly back and forth, back and forth. I’d refocus on the line at the bottom of the pool, only to be returning to wandering thoughts. Trusting my sense of direction and positioning within the lane, I spent much of the first few lengths resting my eyes for prolonged periods of time. Every now and then I’d be jolted back into consciousness, catching my right hand in the rope that divides the lanes. With the pool closing its doors to the general public at 9:30am, I knew I couldn’t be too lackadaisical if I wanted to complete the 3,800m. With the first 1,000m taking just short of twenty-five minutes to complete, a rather slow calculation gave me an estimated finishing time of around 9:15am. Not trusting my mathematical skills, I increased my laboured swimming strokes just a tad, and this gentle but purposeful push woke me up a little more.
The pool started to fill with more swimmers, and ever the opportunist I drafted one lady for a few lengths, staying an arms distance behind her to avoid tickling her feet. Whether the drafting was conserving energy or not at the pace I was going, I’m not so sure, but psychologically it served its purpose. Trying desperately hard to cultivate some gratitude in the moment, my attention was directed to how soothing the swim felt for my ankles and shins. Purposefully allowing the feet to find a range of dorsiflexion and plantar flexion that felt relieving was doing me the world of good. This feel good factor spread to my entire body and quicker than you can shout “SHARK”, I had established dare I say it a bit of a groove.
1,000m ticked over to 2,000m and 2,000m ticked over to 2,225m when nature called. ‘Can I hold it in?’ was my only thought as I glanced over to my Garmin. Over 1,500m still to swim, no chance! On exiting the water I realised just how dehydrated I felt, my desperate attempt to squirt the remaining isotonic solution into my mouth did little to relieve the dryness in my mouth. Turning from the urinal, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I had read that the body would likely hold onto much of its weight during the challenge before dropping it immediately after. However, as my reflection stared back at me, I noticed a far leaner version of myself. ‘Not really surprising considering I’d barely eaten for two days whilst burning the best part of 10,000 calories each day’ I thought. Goosebumps formed as a chilled sensation swept across my body. Tiptoeing back to the pool I noticed one solitary swimmer remained in the fast lane, a quick glance in the direction of the changing room gave me hope that from here on out, it would be a quiet and calm conclusion to the swim.
8:45am and with 1,575m to go, only a catastrophic swim would result in a DNF (did not finish). A smile formed as I imagined myself refusing to exit the pool and having a temper-tantrum splashing the water with my arms in the process, with all the soon to arrive school children watching on as the shenanigans unfolded.
The metres continued to fall, as did the swimmers around me. Swimming towards the shallow end, I caught my fingertips on the bottom of the pool, and in my tired state it took me longer than it really should have to realise the floor of the swimming pool had adjusted, altering the pools depth at the click of a button. Very cool technology but a little frustrating when trying to perform freestyle in a paddling pool. With what can only be described as a doggy-paddle / breaststroke cross between, I managed to avoid any further scraping of fingertips for the remainder of the swim, even opting for an open-water style run to test the lower legs, failing miserably as I fell forward and back into the awkward stroke.
I could hear the low humming of children congregating, with teachers bellowing out orders, keeping the excitement and enthusiasm in check. A quick glance at my watch provided an instant sense of relief; one last 25m length and I could tick off the third swim. It’s become rather customary to exert near-maximum effort on the final length, serving as both a mental and physical boost to finish strong. As I exited the pool I gave my thanks and waddled to shower and change.
The swim had taken 1:34:08 with an average pace 2:28 per 100m.
Passing the children all set for their swim sparked a sense of nostalgia within. I recalled a time when Mrs Twigg, the swimming teacher at Herne Junior School came into our classroom to announce the participants for the swimming gala trials. I forget whether it was year 4, 5 or 6 but when I heard my name called out for ‘backstroke’ I thought it was some kind of joke. Throughout the trial I felt undeserving of my call-up, and what proceeded was not making it onto the team. This self-constructed story stayed quietly with me throughout my youth, and it has only been in recent years that I questioned its strength and truth. Recognising the flawed storyline and changing the narrative through purposeful practice and personal growth has been the greatest discovery of my life. Without this shift and development of self-awareness, I wouldn’t be sat here reflecting on this Smileathlon journey.
It felt comforting to change into a hoody and baggy jogging bottoms rather than the cycling kit. With the hood covering my damp hair I made my way to The Smilinggg Wagon, sipping constantly from the bottle of water, in an attempt to eradicate the low-grade headache forming. As I pulled back the Wagon door, I was greeted to a plethora of food choices that had accumulated over the past two days. My eyes lit up spotting a Soreen Banana Loaf in all its glory. I ripped open the packaging and ate every last morsel of the 795-calorie snack in an instant. ‘Buddhist Zen Monk and proponent of mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh would be shaking his head with my mindless exploits’ I jokingly thought, still over the moon with my ferocious appetite. Starting my engine, I made my way home to fuel my other engine, four more bagels, a litre of coconut water and a couple of packs of crisps before blissfully falling asleep.
Plunging the cafétière, having woken from my siesta rather groggy, I took a moment to reflect on the atrocity that had been day two’s ride. Sipping on the extra strong black coffee, I felt an instantaneous jolt of wakefulness. With thanks to this caffeine hit, my reflective moments from day two shifted to the upcoming bike leg and an unexpected sense of excitement flooded my mind. I had cycled this approaching route and the specific segment dozens of times previously. Consisting of a few fairly gentle hills, plenty of flats, smooth tarmac and lush countryside had me frequently focusing outwards of the beauty surrounding me rather than inwards of the likely aching body-parts and tired mind, a tactic so important in ultra-endurance pursuits.
My excitement boarded on mania as Dad greeted me shortly after 12:30pm at the car park in Rotherfield. Conscious of the time and a little nervous handing over the keys to The Smilinggg Wagon, not that I had any qualms of Dad’s driving, he was a seasoned pro; having been the passenger for long drives up to Leeds and back in the same day every other weekend for many years to watch our beloved Leeds United play during my teenage years. His ability to concentrate and stay focused fuelled on Haribo sweets, while I dozed in the passenger seat always amazed me. My concerns were simply the size of the vehicle and… Recognising my spiralling train of thought, provided yet another opportunity to cultivate non-attachment and letting go. ‘BREATHE’.
I reminded myself of the three crashes I’d had since I started cycling back in 2016, with each of the three incidents sharing similarities. The moments preceding these rides, I had been in a similar excited/mania/mindless headspace. A focused, mindful and calm mind was needed if I wanted to avoid a fourth crash. I took a moment to perform three rounds of controlled breathing. Breathe in 1-2-3-4-5, hold 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12-13-14-15, and breathe out 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10. Dad handed me the energy gels, and a couple of additional protein bars, I didn’t say anything but I assumed these protein bars wouldn’t be vegan, I just appreciated his enthusiasm and kindness as I stuffed all supplies in my Smilinggg cycling jersey pouches. I saw a glint in Dad’s eye that suggested pride. Perhaps he was a little astonished with my resurrection. It was only yesterday coming off the bike that I was a truly broken man in mind, body and spirit. If I got nothing else out of this odyssey besides recognising the incredible strength and resilience of the human spirit, it would be okay. In this very moment, it felt enough, and reinforced my resolve to keep facing the inevitable upcoming challenges with grace, strength of spirit and a smile. My final job involved adjusting the supportive wrist strap Dad purchased to prevent chafing between my thumb and index finger. Clipped in and raring to go, I pressed start on the ever-reliable Garmin and figuratively set sail on the third Smileathlon cycling voyage.
The freedom I felt as I freewheeled the initial kilometre was evident by the beaming smile that lit up my face. I felt rejuvenated and dare I say it, excited to be on the bike tackling a new route. The weather was far kinder than Tuesday with clouds offering protection from the sun. Witnessing lambs frolicking with their mothers, expansive countryside views and quiet roads, I was in heaven. My positive outlook, a clear indication of the mind passing its initial check-up, the body passed with flying colours also, showing no signs of discomfort from yesterdays exploits. Revelling in the good spirits, I delved into one of my three pouches and pulled out an orange flavoured gel, ‘damn it, I thought it would be blackcurrant’ I laughed – this flavour guessing game would keep me in good spirits for the rides entirety. An energy gel equivalent of ‘rock, paper, scissors’ appropriately renamed ‘orange, raspberry, blackcurrant’ ensued.
“Raspberry” I bellowed following a quick scan of my surroundings to ensure no humans were in close proximity. Revealing a successive orange gel, “this game’s rigged!” I responded. My gel guessing game skills were woeful, yet I was making good time and distance on the ride. The most important consideration was always how I was feeling, regularly giving myself a score from 6-20 in line with Dr. Gunnar Borg’s Rate of Perceived Exertion scale. A score of 6 represents reading a book, and a 20 appropriate to an all out sprinting effort. I was frequently scoring myself around 13, meaning I was exactly where I wanted to be. I had turned off my inaccurate heart rate feature on my Garmin, instead opting for the RPE score as a rough estimate of my heart rate; by multiplying the RPE score by ten. I grew in confidence as my body on the bike was seemingly adapting to the task in hand.
As I contested the main hill of the day’s ride I heard a call of “COOPSIE!” coming from a little further down the hill. “Who’s that?” I asked, unable to turn around as I continued to frantically spin my legs, still with one thought on the chain and possible slippages. “IT’S WOODSIE!” ‘What are the chances’ I thought, noticing the traffic lights ahead changing favourably from green to red, allowing Matt to catch up to where I momentarily rested. I’ve known Matt Wood as long as I can remember, younger brother to one of my best friends growing up, and a keen Leeds United fan too. I most recently enjoyed a couple of pints with Matt in Hoi An, Vietnam, when he and a friend were passing through on their travels. It was great to see him, especially as we were about 40km from Crowborough.
Catching his breath after his valiant hill climb, he was keen to hear how things were going. Reflecting on our brief conversation, it reminded me of something I had forgotten until now. Hosting the real possibility that tomorrow (Thursday/Day Four) would be a rest day. Did I ever in fact believe it would be? I’m not so sure, yet at various points of each day I had to allow myself a moment to play with the idea, to help me overcome the challenges of the here and now. So frequently we talk of hope, to know that further down the line, things will get better; the light at the end of the tunnel. To toy with the prospect of a rest day on the horizon was my way of lightening an ever-increasing burden and of cultivating that sense of hope.
Yet as the lights turned to green and I clipped in and began pedalling, never an easy thing to achieve on an incline, I felt great. Granted the inevitability of changes in play and mood as the day turned to night, with the likelihood of the marathon not even starting until past day one’s finish time, I knew it was going to be in no uncertain terms; hell. With this knowledge in the back of my mind, I was damn certainly going to enjoy heaven whilst it lasted.
The varied scenery continued to invigorate me, passing through picturesque quaint villages; all places I had passed many times before but witnessing a far greater sense of appreciation and gratitude this time around. ‘Perhaps this is what attaining enlightenment feels like’ I pondered, before hitting a small yet menacing pothole sending another sharp jolt to my right wrist with a rather startled slip of the tongue. Smirking at my temporary enlightenment, I refocused and after a little over two hours commuting, I was within close proximity of the 12km flat out and back segment that would be my home until the full 180km distance was completed.
As I reached the end of the segment, before turning around, I informed Dad of the location with a timely ‘pin drop’ via WhatsApp. Spirits were high as I updated him with how I was feeling. Dad planned to arrive at around 5:30pm, the best part of three-hours away. Swapping my phone for a protein bar, I quickly scanned the ingredients list and read ‘suitable for vegans’. The impact of small acts of kindness is never ever small, and I felt huge gratitude for Dad’s considerate gift. Ripping open and devouring the apple, blackcurrant and oat protein bar took no time at all, yet I revelled in the after-taste for the next few kilometres; a far contrast from Red Bull-gate on day two.
As the kilometres continued to tick by, with the vibrations from the Garmin frequently acknowledging another 10km under the belt. I was fully immersed in each pedal stroke; always keeping my attention a few feet ahead of my front tyre to avoid any divots and potential puncture hazards. I reflected on yesterday’s ride and the stark contrast to today. Long stretches of flat meant I didn’t have to change gears, providing welcome relief to not only my right wrist but also my mind; chain slips had been the bane of my existence on day one. The comparisons continued, with one look to the skies and recognising some ominous looking clouds, ‘perhaps my luck has run out!’
I couldn’t help but laugh; this was the first time I had seen The Smilinggg Wagon being driven by anyone but me. I informed Dad and Nicola of a car park a stone throw away, suggesting they park up and that I’d be with them in about five minutes. To know I was over half way provided a huge psychological boost, and the impending chat and refuel served to strengthen my resolve even further. My fitness on the bike was improving; there was absolutely no denying that, with each successive 10km lap was showing signs of progress. Rolling into the car park, with three hours and three quarters under my belt and a little over 90km safely navigated, I was exactly where I wanted to be.
I sunk my teeth into a freshly made avocado sandwich and nibbled my way through a warm sweet potato, as I updated Nicola and Dad with how things were going. The colder temperatures were evident with one water bottle untouched, refilling the other two and scouring the Smilinggg Wagon floor for further food supplies. We had hit gold with the energy gels strategy, and I let Dad know it. Fuelling on liquid calories allowed me to truly build up an appetite for wholefoods. Well into devouring my second avocado sandwich, my attention returned to the second leg of the ride. The clouds looked less threatening, and the headwind that had greeted me on the segment had died down to an occasional waft. Refuelled, refocused and energised I bid farewell to my support crew and returned my eye and focus to those few metres in front of me.
The bike route was favourable with other cyclists, and it was always fun noticing in the distance a rider approaching, I’d wonder what their story was, why they cycled, where they were cycling, and what their life looked like. The customary nod of the head and smile was usually mirrored, but every now and then you’d get the super focused cyclist in all the gear passing with no acknowledgment. There were quiet spells during the ride when I would allow my mind to drift into thoughts, freely allowing my mind to manifest ideas, twisting and turning from moment to moment. Reflections of times gone by, morphed into ideas for the development of Smilinggg, and then all of a sudden I’d sing from the top of my lungs random lyrics that for whatever reason appeared. A big favourite was Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’… “And nowwwww, the end is neeeeaaaaaarrrr.” Glancing at the Garmin, the end wasn’t quite near, but I was in no rush for this to end. There would be plenty of difficult times ahead, so in the meantime I lapped up the laps, found solace in the cycle and gratitude in the experience.
“Free from desire, mind and senses purified...” ‘The Smilinggg Playlist’ continued to roll out classics, as I seriously began thinking about releasing an album of the tunes occupying my headspace. Where they were coming from I wasn’t quite sure, but the song choices provided a great soundtrack to day three’s ride, even if it was I who was singing a capela.
With around an hour remaining, the clouds had parted, allowing an expanse of blue to fill the early evening sky. With the sun slowly descending, the temperature dropped too. Motivated by hitting the magical 100miles (162km), and correctly guessing the latest energy gel flavour, I opted to push on the pedals that little harder, spending a large chunk of the next 10km out of the saddle. The strength I felt in my legs transferred to my mind; with this strength and confidence, I started to turn my attention ever so slightly to the marathon. Confronting the beast head on was the best strategy, so I began asking myself a series of what ifs. ‘What if I can’t run? I’ll walk.’ ‘What if I have to walk through the entire night? Then so be it. I have the clothes to keep warm.’ Every question I had an answer for. Every fear I faced. I made peace with the worse case scenario and found refuge in facing up to the ‘dragon’.
“One final lap lad!” I bellowed as I passed The Smilinggg Wagon. The final lap signalled the end was now in fact near. “What a difference a day makes…” fitting perfectly with my thoughts as I couldn’t help but compare yesterday’s brutal final 20km to todays brilliant final 20km. Everything had gone right and I felt quiet optimism creeping in. This can be a very dangerous game, as the higher you rise, the further you fall. Triathlon is of course centred around three sporting disciplines, but the whole thing can be described as a rollercoaster, usually in body but particularly in mind… and before you ask, yes, I’m pretty sure I started singing Ronan Keating’s pop hit “Life is a rollercoaster just got ride it, oh yeah!”
‘Equanimity… equanimity’… with a tired yet alert mind, I lacked the scope to remind myself of the key Buddhist teaching, this would effectively serve me up for a pretty big fall from grace a little later, but for now I was rolling into the car park as high as a kite. A brief stretch, and with Dad’s assistance to avoid an untimely back injury, we placed the bike in the back of the wagon. With day three quickly turning into a musical, I hummed under my breath to the tune ‘Food glorious food’ demolishing two or three bags of crisps with the flavour laden salty crunch hitting the spot perfectly. It was a case of what treat would roll my way next as Dad navigated the Smilinggg Wagon around the narrow country lanes, with Nicola riding shotgun and me in the back next to my beloved bike. We made the relatively short journey back towards the running track as the sun bid its final farewell.
The bike had taken 7:43:11 with an elevation gain of 788m.
Text messages littered my phone from concerned friends who had visited the running track earlier hoping to see me stepping and smiling my way to a third consecutive Iron Triathlon finish. Arriving at the track past nine o clock, I was greeted by the solitary figure of Luke with his enthusiastic and caring persona. I explained with an enthusiastic tone my predicament having not yet begun day three’s marathon. Remaining upbeat I described the likelihood of an early morning finish whilst adding layers of clothes to my frame. The night air felt crisp with the trees dancing to an ever-increasing circulation of wind. His presence, even for those few minutes was appreciated, as he headed home to warmer and less windy climes. I had high hopes that I’d be able to run the majority of the marathon, this confidence stemming from the successful bike leg.
The first few solitary laps were covered tentatively, tuning in and recognising each and every step. The steps slowed and the smile faded, with virtually no spring in my step, the shuffle abruptly turned into an unfashionable hobble. My shins felt like a couple of overinflated balloons moments before bursting. The pressure at times unbearable, with both ankles mobility and range of movement severely restricted, even the hobble resulted in discomfort in both feet. Cursing myself for not investing in better footwear, the hypothetical dark clouds were rolling in and I found myself frustrated, angry and alone.
The loneliness lifted as the Smilinggg brigade began turning up in their droves, yet the frustration and anger remained. Part of me wanted to be left alone, to wallow in my self pity and zone into past memories of overcoming personal struggle and suffering as a means to lessen the physical hurt of the present moment. Shaking myself from the darkness, I thought momentarily about how incredible it was to have such caring and loving friends, who were taking the time out of their lives to support me. I tried an occasional jog hoping the energy of my friends would propel me to greater strength of mind, yet with little success I was forced back into a walk. An addition to the usual members of the Smilinggg Tribe for tonight was one of Dad’s long-term friends Keith Macdonald. My relationship with Keith had only ever been in passing, yet during this evening we had long bouts of conversation, helping me momentarily forget my woes, engrossed in varying discussion topics. It wouldn’t be long before Keith would head off for another few laps of the track, leaving me to continue my walk. My desperation to relieve the discomfort meant many minutes spent seated on the grass verge, changing trainers, lacing them less tightly and slipping an ankle strap on, frantically hoping for a quick fix to help speed things up a little. The speed was concerning me, barely able to walk at 5kph; I was running calculations in my head and sharing with the support crew my finish time predictions. “At this rate I’ll be finished at about 5am! At least I’ll be able to watch the sun rise.” I was trying to make light of the situation but deep within I felt as though my Smileathlon hopes and dreams were slowly unravelling with each painful step.
As the time ticked on by, I bid farewell to Sally, Ian, Amanda and Dave, thanking them for their support and torch bearing skills for the evening’s procession, lighting my path to ensure I didn’t compound my problems further with any untimely trips. Dad left the track to get some rest in the car, not before swapping his coaches hat for a chefs hat; carving up two avocados to make his trademark avocado sandwiches. They went down a treat with every mouthful savoured, swilling coconut water to remove any remaining bits. Keith was quickly becoming Mr Marathon Man, he must have smashed at least a half marathon already, and I jokingly suggested perhaps it would be wise for me to attach my Garmin watch to his wrist. The time was now past 1am, and my energy was low, with my conversation skills even lower, Keith finished his ‘fourth marathon’ and headed home.
A gust of wind at one particular part of the track had me literally walking on the spot. Unable to move forward, I chose to sidestep my way through the latest obstacle, with even the sidesteps over-stretching my groin. The darkness had somewhat of a calming effect, with the white track lines illuminating the path in front of me. I lost myself to an almost hypnotic trance as I used the white lines as an anchor; thoughtless and staggering forward, only woken from the dazed state by a vibrating Garmin. I really wasn’t sure I wanted to know the latest kilometre reading, knowing in my tired state I’d most likely view the distance as how much still to do rather than how much I had already covered. Curiosity had gotten the better of me, glancing down at the watch and with every attempt to remain neutral; there it was, 19km down with 22km still to go… ‘It’s going to be a long night!’
Dad made his way back to the track as we walked a few more laps together. I was conscious of the time and even with the projected finish, I still retained belief that albeit a little later I’d be starting day four with the swim. The half-marathon milestone was Dad’s cue to depart and attempt to get some rest. This milestone meant very little to me at this stage, as although the distance had ticked over halfway, with each kilometre recorded slower than the last, I knew the time on my feet that remained would be longer than the time spent so far. Bracing myself for the next four hours, I pulled my hoody up and over my eyes, with my vision limited to the few feet in front of me, I focused my attention on the next step, ‘one step at a time, one step at a time’ I recited in my mind.
The wind remained my only companion as I became familiar with the segments of the track in relation to the gusts of wind that seemed to only arise at one particular section. For long periods I simply walked, without care or recognition of the kilometres passed or those that remained. I began inspecting the pain I felt, attempting to unbox the sensations and make sense of the discomfort. This introspective exercise occupied my mind for long periods of time and allowed a separation between the pain experienced and my thoughts, feelings and response to it. The pain hadn’t disappeared, yet I felt greater strength and control of mind to go a number of laps at an increased pace. I would trial different techniques to assess their impact; I swung my arms back and forth in a typical power-walking stance quickly finding myself laughing at how daft I felt and equally must have looked. These moments reminding me that even amongst the adversity and suffering, I still had reasons to laugh, and make light of the situation. Yes the aching in my feet, pressure in my shins and a deep all-encompassing fatigue all remained, but I was still progressing, taking steps forward. All the pain in the world could not triumph when my mind was strong and heart on fire.
There were times when fatigue almost got the better of me. This usually occurred after the sugar surge from the flat Coca-Cola would flat-line. The depth of the night’s darkness correlated with the depth of my despair, consolation found in draping myself over a couple of boxes that sat on the edge of the running track. ‘Just 30 seconds’, I would reason with myself, closing my eyes and for just one moment finding complete peace. Thoughts of being tucked up in bed only made it more challenging to will myself back up from the box. These short box-breaks felt like a sanctuary, and I’d utilise these moments rest bite four or five more times throughout day three’s marathon.
As the night progressed and the darkness began lifting, I had a real sense of being over the worst of the battle. The pain had subsided or perhaps I was now numb to it, either way, my spirits were lifting as I could hear the first few sounds of life from the early birds. They wouldn’t have to look far to find their worms, with the running track a popular meeting ground for the wiggly creatures. I had ten kilometres to go, and with my current pace I’d likely be wrapped up in a little over two hours. Having navigated the best part of six hours already, I was able to draw great strength and obtain a huge psychological boost with this realisation. Not quite the home straight yet, but I began visualising holding up those three fingers to signify day three was in the bag.
I had rather foolishly left my phone in the Smilinggg Wagon. I never wanted to be drawn to the phone as a distraction from the experience, as I thought during the dark moments it would have been too easy to load up my favourite songs, or watch YouTube videos whilst I walked. I wanted to face my discomfort head on, and use every painful experience possible to learn about myself, to obtain wisdom and with time grow as a human being. What good would distracting my mind do in this situation? Yes it would make the time pass quicker, it would take my attention from the discomfort, but what would I gain from this? It wasn’t an option in my eyes, and the barrier of my phone being away, eliminated temptation and needlessly depleting willpower. However, at around 4:45am I regretted the decision to be absent from my phone. Mum had been expecting my return around 2am, and with no replies to text messages, she drove to the track in a worried state. I felt really bad for causing her undue stress and concern, and the stress etched on her face only compounded those feelings further. I apologised, reassured her I was okay and that I’d be home in about ninety minutes. She abruptly left and I spent the next few laps feeling pretty bad about the whole situation.
It was around 5:15am when the first morning dog walker made her way around the perimeter of the running track. I felt pretty awkward, but equally appreciated she likely felt the same. It would have been okay if I were jogging around the track, but being dressed as though I was climbing Everest, and walking at a snail’s pace, it must have been a little daunting for her. I tried to ease the situation by wishing her a good morning and smiling in her direction. With around 5km to go, I just wanted to be finished. I was now using the two straights of each lap to walk with my eyes closed; each lap painfully slow. My mind had reached the point of being unable to think, with all my mental energy directed on taking the next step.
“Morning lad” waving in Dad’s direction as he approached me. “I thought you’d be done by now!” Dad replied. “Almost there chuck, 3km to go!” I croaked with a wry smile. It felt great to have Dad’s company for the final seven laps. He took great pleasure in announcing his step-count, having clocked up a decent number past midnight when he and Keith had been with me. Adding to his step tally first thing in the morning was going to give him a very healthy tally for Thursday. The morning steps allowed us to discuss day four. I only half jokingly said it would have made sense to get my swim done immediately after this. Instead we settled on an 11am swim start, followed immediately by the bike. This would mean cutting close to concluding the ride in darkness, but we’d concern ourselves with that nearer the time. For now we focused on the final few laps and getting day three wrapped up.
Relief greeted the final few steps, as Dad and I used the 200m that separated the track from the car park to officially conclude the 42.2km marathon. The tiredness by this point meant I lacked a great deal of emotion. As I pressed stop on the Garmin, I smiled and let out a deep breath. “Well that’s three down!” I called out to Dad. The customary finishing photo followed, as I reflected back to a few hours earlier when I had visualised this very moment. ‘Time’s a funny construct’ I thought, as I signalled three with my aching and swollen fingers. “Well done lad. Now go home and get some rest!” were Dad’s final words before I clambered into the Smilinggg Wagon and made the two-mile drive home.
The run / walk had taken 8:23:09.
My thirty-year-old self was in stark contrast to my twenty-year-old self when it came to what defined ‘all-nighters’. As I parked the wagon outside Mum’s home, I reflected back to my eighteenth, when I was face down on the driveway. This time was a little different but I still had that gnawing sense of disappointment, having seen the worried text messages on my phone. I felt bad for causing the undue stress, so I rather sheepishly with an added limp for good measure, made my way into the house. Fortunately Mum had gone back to bed, and was now hopefully getting some sleep. I hobbled my way into the kitchen and noticed the veggie burgers, chips and baked beans on the side. Just the ticket I thought, as I devoured last nights dinner for breakfast. The dining room door opened and Mum came through. A quick apology for my sub-par communication skills broke the ice, and we spoke briefly on day three’s swim, bike and run. “Well at least you can sleep and rest today.” I had forgotten that I had mentioned to Mum that day four might be a rest-day. Tired, yet with a determined and focused mind, I quickly corrected her, “No. I’ll get a few hours sleep and get in the pool for 11am.”
I ditched a bath in favour of sleep. Using the bannister to help me get up the two flights of stairs, I crashed onto the bed and let out a long “ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh”. I had pictured this moment in my mind during my many collapses on the boxes during the night. It felt even better in reality. I posted Day Three’s update on Facebook and Instagram before setting the alarm for 10am. Seeing 3 hours until alarm appear on my phone, I could only smirk, close my eyes and mutter “It is what it is!”
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