Andy H reports…
I am not sure if running is a hobby or a disease. It certainly hurts. The memory of the pain fades but sense of achievement it gives stays with you for life.
In the early part of 1998, I had been running on and off for twelve years. I’d done four or five marathons but felt I was ready for a bigger challenge. I had also taken new role at work; I worked in the sea of life assurance salesman. I was their bean counter but I needed to influence better than that. It seemed the main topic of conversations were their money, their bling and football. I could not compete with the money and was not interested in football. I have to admit that one of the main reasons I started ultra-distance running was to get myself noticed and talked about. It worked and helped me do my job! Frankly, I actually think I was just bored and felt the need to really challenge myself!
The Himalayan 100 Miles
In April 1998 I entered the Himalayan 100 stage race which would take place in November of that year. We had been walking in Nepal before and loved it. It was a series of races over five days totalling 100 miles at altitudes between 5,000 to 12,000 feet. It was held just inside India but with the spectacular scene of Everest and other Himalayan mountains as the background.
My strategy to deal with the altitude was to get as fit as I possibly could. That wasn’t just about running; I certainly did my fair share of circuit training and a bit of swimming. I did virtually all the training myself but the chap at the gym said I needed to do interval training on the treadmill. That comprised 3 x 1 mile with 1½ minutes rest and then 3 x 1½ minutes as fast as possible. I also did a long run each week and wherever I could, did some sort of event, preferably with a few hills.
In the June, a group of us decided to do the three-peaks in twenty-four hours. I found a fellow nutter who was prepared to do it twice in forty-eight hours! We climbed Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis. Everyone else arrived to their first climb as we reached the bottom of Ben Nevis and so we turned straight around and did it again. That was definitely good training.
Maybe I should have paid more attention to my diet but I never really have. The job I had involved lots of entertaining; we all drank too much too often and back then most people seemed to smoke so it seemed rude not to join them. Poor excuse but there it is!
I knew I was getting fitter and so the month before the Himalayan race I did the Robin Hood marathon and Gloucester marathon on back-to-back weekends. I arrived late at the Robin Hood and joined the end of the field as the gun went off. I think that helped slow me down during the first half which I did in 1hr 29m. The second half was 1hr 30m. 2hrs 59m – hallelujah! The following week at Gloucester was a bit slower at 3hrs 5mins. Three weeks later we were on the plane to the Himalayas.
Sal came with me to the Himalayas as apart from anything else it was a holiday. We had a couple of days to acclimatise. The other competitors (about 80) were all great, from a huge mix of backgrounds; some very experienced ultra-runners and some novices. There was great banter with the Americans.
The serious stuff started. Day 1 was 19 miles starting at 6,000ft and finishing at 12,000ft over mostly rough terrain. A wise old fell runner once told me that when you know you have long steep climbs, walk. I heeded his advice and finished day 1 in third place. We stayed the night at a lodge at 12,000ft. The air was thin and it was extremely cold. No one was acclimatised to sleep much but also no one felt like partying.
Day 2 was 20 miles up and down some hills but mostly between 10-12,000ft so again altitude was a real challenge. You could see Everest for the entire stage. I won that stage and was 2nd overall. Others seemed to be feeling the altitude.
Day 3 was marathon day. The first half was between 10-12,000ft and then dropped down to 7,000ft. I was leading both the stage and the event. I have a picture on my wall at home taken at a point I was leading and it has me in the foreground and the Himalayas behind – a real lifetime high. However, at 17 miles I turned my ankle. I did it again a mile later and this time had to stop. I managed to hobble to the end and finish the stage 2nd, and still in 2nd place overall. The Indian doctor gave me some special pain killers and they worked wonder with a couple of beers!
Day 4 was 13 miles mainly on tracks and rough road so with tight binding my ankle held together. I finished 4th in that stage. With one stage to go I was still 2nd. I think the leader was about 20 minutes ahead and third about 20 minutes behind. We were all friends by then but I made sure I bought the guy in 3rd a beer or two so that I hadn’t had more than him!
Day 5 was 10 miles uphill followed by 10 mainly downhill. The leader, third placer and an American were in front. As we started to go downhill I asked a local how far ahead they were. My Nepalese was not good enough and so we didn’t get past “Namaste”. Anyway, I ended up 3rd in the stage just a few minutes behind the guy who was in 3rd place overall. Therefore I finished 2nd overall. I may have cried!
On the flight home, the pilot announced what we had done. The passenger in the row behind asked for my autograph – that made me smile. I got back to the office and to hero status amongst the sales guys. They no longer though of me as just a bean counter. Job done!
I dined off the back of the Himalayan run for a while but early in 1999 we started looking at holidays. We had not been to South Africa. What a coincidence. The Two Ocean’s marathon is in April. It’s just 35 miles so not too much training required. As a warm-up I did the Bramley 20 mile race in 2hrs 8m. Happy days – I was getting quicker! Two Oceans is a road event but has two very large hills. I went off too quickly and boy did I suffer after about 23 miles. 4hrs 35m was a respectable time and we had a good holiday!
We got back and two weeks later I ran the London marathon; I thought I was invincible. I allowed a friend who I met at the Himalayan 100 to convince me to stand at the front just behind the Elite runners. I even copied him when he had a wee in a plastic bottle. I went through 10k in 37m and halfway in 1hr 23m. I then hit an almighty wall at 15 miles, leading to 2hrs 6m for the 2nd half – oh dear. My friend had finished nearly an hour before me; that’ll teach me. A few weeks later I did the Marlborough Downs ultra which comprises 30-ish miles off-road. I think I did about 5 hours and finished 3rd.
I had met a couple of people in the Himalayas who had done the Marathon de Sable. It didn’t sound fun; heat, sand, carrying kit and, worst of all, camping. I decided it most certainly was not for me. At the end of the summer I put my entry in!
The Marathon de Sable
I decided to kick start the training by running the London to Brighton race of 55 miles on-road. It is mostly flat except for a nasty hill a few miles short of Brighton. I started very steadily and got to 30 miles in less than four hours. It got tough after that and I eventually finished in just over 8½ hours. My abiding memory was a sprint finish that neither myself nor my fellow competitor wanted or needed. We were waddling at the end and as we dashed for the line we must have looked like a pair of drunken penguins running for the bus after a heavy night out.
I bought a rucksack, filled it with 10kg of stuff and set off across the Marlborough Downs. I did some of my treadmill intervals but that got difficult when they demolished the gym I used to go to. Nevertheless I seemed to be quite quick and broke 1hr 20mins for the half marathon distance.
As the event approached, I felt fit enough but not sure how I would cope with the sand and heat. I knew that my feet would get a bit blistered so I had wiped surgical spirit on them each night for a couple of months before hand. In the last few weeks before the event, I began to gather my kit; a light sleeping bag, roll mat, six pairs of socks, loo roll, one pair of pants and food. The rules of the event stated that you had to carry at least 2,000 calories of sustenance each day. The powdered camping meals were usually less than 500 calories. A couple of those a day and energy bars weren’t enough. Shortbread biscuits and nuts got me to the required level but the volume and weight was more than I anticipated. At the last minute I had to buy a new bigger rucksack. When packed it weighed 13kg and still I would need to add the safety flares that the organisers gave us to run with. I had trained with only 10kg.
The day finally arrived and I flew to Morocco with no spectators. This time I was on my own with 680 other competitors. On the first night we were lulled into a false sense of comfort as were put up in a hotel where we sorted out all the administration. We signed various disclaimers and picked up our safety kit and water ration card. We were allowed around six litres a day and every time we collected our water at a check point or at the end of the day, the card was punched so we couldn’t get more.
On the next day, the misery began. We were loaded into trucks and taken out into the Sahara. The “tents” were already erected. They looked like they were made of sacks and had open sides. There were eight competitors to a tent; it was cosy and we got to know each other very well. On that first night we were treated to a meal cooked by the organisers and of course, obligatory red wine. That should have helped us to sleep but nerves kept us awake. We also began to find out just how little protection our sack tent would offer us from the sand.
Day 1 was a warm up with 18 miles across fairly firm terrain with just a couple of sand dunes at the end to introduce us to what was to come. It quickly became apparent that running with 14kg on my back in 40+°C was not going to be easy. The intense heat makes it feel like you are running with your head in an oven. My water bladder sprung a leak so I took to drinking plenty at check points but just carrying a 500ml plastic bottle in between. I got through the first day without blisters or dehydration and I think I was in the top-100. I cooked myself a powdered meal and prepared for the days to come. Others were not so lucky and were starting to get blisters or dehydrated. There was a medical tent but judging by the screams somehow you knew that was best avoided. At night the wind picked up and I had sand in all my kit and man’s bits!!
Day 2 was similar terrain but just over 20 miles. Looking back at it my little plastic bottle wasn’t enough and in any case it was still half-full when I reached a check point – silly boy!! I became dehydrated. We were told that if the medical staff treated us for dehydration and it wasn’t too bad they would allow us to continue but if it happened a second time we would be put on a drip and pulled out of the race. I arrived at the last checkpoint feeling very light headed and sick. One of the medical staff came up to me, steadied me and asked if I was ok. I stood up straight, threw up into my mouth, swallowed and moved on.
It was all getting rather unpleasant and people were beginning to pull out. One guy in our tent got dehydrated and put on a drip so had to go. There was great camaraderie in our sack tent. It was sad to see him go but we were rather envious that he was going to have a proper meal. We had our powdered food but simply could not consume 2,000 calories a day. Just as well because the toilets were whatever rock you could find that was not too close to the tent. As the week progressed, the acceptable distance reduced dramatically. I still avoided the medical tent but more people visited it and the screams got louder.
Day 3 made the two previous seems like a stroll around Cheddar reservoir. I think it was about 22 miles, 13 of which were across sand dunes. As luck would have it, it was the hottest day to-date and the water ration was tighter than it should have been. It started off nice and flat and firm under foot. In the distance you could see these huge hills and when you got close you could see they were massive sand dunes. We were going to have run over them somehow. There was a check point just before the dunes. They gave us three litres of water. There would be no more until the dunes finished in 13 miles. I nursed the bottles like new-born twins and entered the dunes. The sand was fine and very hot. I had some homemade gators but they didn’t work. I ended up emptying my shoes every mile or two. I kept moving up, down and around the dunes. I’d managed to conserve the water and had just a little bit left when I saw a tent. “At last, a check point”, so I finished the last of my water. However, it was actually the tent of some nomadic tradesman with their camels. I still had a couple of miles to go to get to the checkpoint and water. I made it and then the last bit to the finish was fairly flat. The hot sand had given me a very sore blister which I knew needed some attention.
Throughout the day, I heard flares going off and helicopters collecting competitors. 60 or so dropped out that day. That it was such a very hot day over 13 miles of the biggest sand-dunes had taken its toll; so much so that the organisers took pity on us and gave us an extra bottle of water.
I was hobbling so knew I had to visit the medical tent. My injury was minor by comparison to many others but soon I found out what the screaming was about. Blisters are sore and I find it is usually best to burst them if they don’t burst themselves. The problem was the sand that got inside them. I can’t be sure but suspected that the treatment handed out by French medical staff on their English patients was a bit harsh. They simply pulled back the skin and scraped out all of the sand with whatever implement was to hand. That hurt but I have to admit it seemed to work. I think I was still in about 100th position but that was irrelevant.
Day 4 started with a breakfast of mainly ibuprofen. It was difficult to move at first but when the tablets kicked in you could just about get going. Today involved 46 miles! At least the following day was a rest day for those who finished the stage in one day, which was my aim. A sandstorm delayed the start but I got to the first checkpoint without real problems. However, there I just stopped, sat down and watched competitors go by. I don’t know why I did that nor whether I would still be sat there if it wasn’t for two guys from my tent who convinced me to run with them. It was a long day; at times I felt completely spent – both mentally and physically. I wanted it to be over, to see my family and have a good curry and a few beers. We struggled on and finished around midnight.
Another guy from the tent who had already finished came to help us get back to the tent. The last I remember was him putting a few ibuprofens in my mouth and pouring in some water to wash them down. I woke the next morning knowing that it was a rest day and that I had broken the back of the Marathon de Sable. Throughout the day we watched as other competitors staggered in and in many cases, collapse across the line.
Day 6 was marathon day, mostly on hard surfaces. I struggled but at least the rucksack was getting lighter and I did not need to go to the medical tent. Like most competitors, the seven of us in our tent looked gaunt, filthy and exhausted. We were excited that we just had a half marathon to do the next day. We were almost there.
Day 7 dawned and all things considered, we were fairly spritely. Today was just a short dash to the finish and most of us ran at a decent pace. There were tears of joy and much hugging at the end but disappointingly, no bar! There was a bit of food but not much. We were left for a couple of hours in the baking sun before a coach came and picked us up. The coach stopped at a village to drop off a local who competed. We realised he was one of the top 2 or 3 finishers. He jumped off the coach and ran off, leaving us feeling rather inferior! We arrived at our motel (the English were put in the cheap rooms out back!) and cleaned up as best we could. We ate the hotel out of all their stock and headed into town to the bars. Of course, there were none. We found another hotel with expensive, weak beer but we did what we could with what we had!!
When I got home my understanding wife had gone to fetch two prawn vindaloos. I ate them both and half of her dhansak. Home sweet home! I couldn’t get my work shoes on for a few days. Sandals don’t go well with a suit but so what. I had a Board meeting on the second day back and first on the agenda was my experience of the MdS. I obviously managed to make it sound horrific because they voted to pay for my trip – result! I also managed to raise over £10,000 for charity. I finished about 180th overall. I thought I should have done better so there was still some unfinished business.
Afterwards, I ran a couple more marathons and my wife and I decided we needed a holiday so we went to Tanzania and climbed Kilimanjaro. We camped but at least the tents had sides. When I got back I was ready for my next adventure!
The Badwater Ultra
It’s difficult to know which is tougher. The MdS is hard because it is six days in rough conditions whereas by contrast the Badwater crams a lot of hardship into a couple of days. It is not as well-known but it is brutal.
It takes place in Death Valley in Nevada. It starts below sea level and you run up the road finishing at 8,000ft. The thing is that the road is 135 miles long and the temperatures get close to 50°C. The race was also non-stop. You need to take support crew to feed you, supply water and look after all your needs. Great! It would be another family holiday; as well as Sally, her sister and brother-in-law were drafted in to help.
The race took place in July 2001 and I started training in the January. Time to get back to intervals; this time on the track with lots and lots of 400m reps plus a few long runs. I did a warm-up marathon and the Doncaster Doddle. The Doddle is a 42-miler, mostly off road. I went off a bit quick as usual but had no real problems. At this point I regularly ran over 70 miles a week.
In May, I popped across to Nevada to take part in the training weekend. That seemed a bit extreme but I was so glad I did. On the first day they organised a 40-mile run of the route. I got to 18 miles and collapsed. The heat was just too much and I did not do enough to keep cool or rehydrate. Sally was with me and we adjusted our tactics for the next day. I needed to go slower, drink more cold water and keep cool with lots of ice. It worked. As well as the heat of the air, the roads get so hot that they can melt your shoes and feet. Blistered feet are the main reason for dropping out so I was already treating mine with surgical spirit.
When I got home, I trained even harder. To prepare for the heat I drove with a coat and the heating on full blast in my car. I even did spinning sessions with a coat and fleece. This was so serious I even gave up alcohol for 6 weeks!
The big day came close. Sal’s brother-in-law and I flew out first and Sal and her sister flew out a couple of days later. We had two vehicles so that they could take it in turns to be my support and also to get ice and other supplies. My surname and number had to appear on the side of the cars (luckily the stickers came off afterwards). We had all manner of blister repair kit, ice boxes, energy gels and salt tablets.
It was cold when I started off at 6am but it quickly heated up. My plan was a steady pace and then “beware the chair” i.e. don’t stop. The road was long, very long. All you could see was a long straight road ahead with mirages and desert on either side. I can honestly say I absolutely loved it there – infinitely better than being in an office in Swindon. The field soon spread out. There were a couple of settlements en-route such as Furnace Creek and Stove Pipe Wells but these were little more than a motel with a shop.
The first 40 miles were quite flat. I covered the distance in 8 hours which was actually quite quick considering the temperature was 47°C. It is difficult to describe what it is like running in those temperatures particularly as the heat seems to come up even hotter from the road than it does directly from the sun. My support crew sprayed me with water every two miles; I was drinking ice water and taking a salt tablet every hour. My feet were hot and a bit sore but there was no need for treatment yet.
At one point a coach full of Japanese tourists stopped just ahead of me. They all got out to take photos of this madman running in Death Valley. They didn’t stay out of their coach for long…it was far too hot for them!
I did not stop at the checkpoint and the next phase was uphill for 15 miles followed by a downhill section. The light was fading and my feet began to hurt. I had a quick stop to dry my feet and apply some gel plasters. It was then flat for a while up to the next checkpoint. Beware the chair! I kept going. There was another long hill but the night sky was amazing; very clear and lit up by shooting stars. I stopped at about 75 miles. I had only eaten a few energy bars and gels up to that point so I tucked into a pastrami sandwich. I led down for a while whilst my crew attempted to mend my feet. During this time with the car lights on, the car battery went flat. The rules of the race are that the support crew have to be with me so I could not go on until we could start the car. Luckily after about an hour another competitor and car came along with jump leads to get us going again. I didn’t want to stop again.
I just kept moving and was passing a few competitors who had stopped for a rest. I was aware I was climbing up the field. The last checkpoint was at 123 miles. My feet were now quite badly blistered but I did not want to stop. I passed another competitor and discovered that took me into 7th place. The last 12 miles were uphill; about 3,000ft of ascent. I was keen that no-one overtook me so tried to put on a bit of a spurt. My legs were giving up and my feet were in agony. As I climbed the hill I could feel my feet slipping backward on burst blisters so I stopped briefly for some blister repairs. The finish was near and I was determined to retain my position. At last the finish line came into site. I crossed the line in just over 37 hours an in 7th place (of the 80 or so starters) and 1st European. I could not have done any better. It was a team effort and we were all very proud. At the end someone came up and asked for my autograph – I felt like a celebrity! We had also raised over £25,000 for charity.
My feet were in bad way. Gel plasters are difficult to get off but when fixed on top of raw feet they need a few soaks before they eventually come off with some skin. My foot was also so sore that I thought I had a stress fracture and I had to go to hospital when I got home. They told me it was gout caused by dehydration, not helped by consuming forty salt tablets over a day and a half. I also had a bad back for a couple of months but luckily that proved to be nothing too serious although I still have to take tablets for gout.
The Badwater was the pinnacle of my running. I had plenty of time to think whilst running in Death Valley and reflect on what is important in life. I knew at that point that I needed to leave the big corporate world. It took me a couple of years but I did do that.
I swore I wouldn’t do anymore ultras but I did feel that I needed to do the Comrades before I retired. Comrades comprises 56 miles around Durban in South Africa. The course alternates between an ‘uppy’ and a ‘downy route each year’. If it’s an uppy it starts in Durban climbing to Pietermaritzburg and a downy is the reverse. I did it in 2002 which was an uppy year. I managed it in something like 9½ hours. I finished and then got really bad cramp; two or three folk had to massage my legs for almost two hours. It was probably the worse pain I have had in my life (I tell Sal it was worse than childbirth!) and they think this was caused by too many salt tablets again. I haven’t had one since.