“If you don’t write it down, it can vanish utterly – not just you, but your whole world”
Richard Askwith, author of Feet in the Clouds
This blog was never just about running. People have told me more times than I can count that I'm crazy for doing this challenge but I've never felt saner than when writing these posts. As I have found my feet again in this world I've found an honest voice.
I hit my personal rock bottom in 2008. I tried to live a controlled, safe life, hiding from any strong feelings which threatened to upset the applecart. The world was frankly too big, too scary to take in and handle. Somehow I got the mindset I must either control the world or escape from it. I switched from side to side, achieving academic success when I tried to control the world, and escaping to fantasy lands when I realised I couldn't. I found a way to be as teenagers do, and by twenty had settled into patterns.
But I discovered the way I'd found had a hairline crack, which developed into a fissure through which it felt like my life was going to fall. Those feelings I had bottled up lead to the depression and relationship problems I've written about previously, and eventually hurt my lovely ex almost more than I could bear. I learnt that repressing dreams, passion and anger was sure to lead to unhappiness, and that I couldn’t live like that.
Changing a lifetime’s habits is tough. In the last two years my biggest challenges haven't been on the fells and trails. They've been in a small room in North London where together with my skilled therapist I've delved deep into my inner world. We've changed things in my character that I thought were fixed. This consumerist, competitive society that has forgotten community makes even those of us who have stable, loving upbringings develop mental health problems. Many of us share them and I believe need to learn how to talk, as we feel so alone even whilst we are surrounded by people feeling the same feelings.
More than ever in this time of crisis, it is time to talk to one another.
Springy Panthers in the sunset
All that remained was one large climb up Dale Head and then a ridge of two further peaks. This was the section I'd expected to be doing as dark fell but we had so much time there was no risk of that; which was lucky as we forgot our headtorches.
I'd had two visions of what stage 5 would be like, either a dreadful war of attrition or a desperate scramble to wring every last bit of energy to reach that 24 hour schedule. What I hadn't expected was a gorgeous evening ramble through the setting sun whilst laughing our heads off. But if you take Jany and her fellow awesome Springy Panther Mariana with you then you can't help but laugh. We scaled the final big climb, Dale Head, slowly but surely, and took a moment to admire the view.
I was feeling very dehydrated but otherwise fine, though running was still exceptionally difficult. As we ambled our way across the Newlands horseshoe we could see Alan and his crew on the next peak each time. Harold had rejoined, which has to be the most awesome support job any BG support runner has done without running the whole thing, and Wes was back to get the thing done and look after my broken body, with liquids and gels on demand.
Before long we faced the very last climb up to Robinson. All I can remember about this is Jany and Mariana's master plan to get my mind off the exhaustion so that worked wonders! Before I knew it we were standing smiling on my forty-second peak of the day. On the schedule we needed 97 minutes to get back from here; we had 162.
As we made our way down I got my first sight of the finish line, Keswick in the far distance. After a brief jog I started to walk again, partly out of exhaustion but also due to emotion. I felt with certainty for the first time that the two year journey was going to end here, today. And in such a perfect way, with a day I will never forget too. I welled up but fought down the tears as I still had a job to do. I chatted to Mariana about the inspiration for all this, and my disbelief at the perfect day. I understood all the meaning of this challenge and could feel it inside, almost but not quite overwhelming me. I didn't want this to end.
I had flirted with despair, isolation, alcohol. But the excitement and sheer life force of running and Serpentine RC reignited my spirit. Perhaps it overdid the reigniting a little, but my god, what an adventure. Through the Bob Graham I have found a way to tell enough of the story of my own battle. The physical challenge focused the mind, and the learning of new skills and capabilities has helped me believe I can change myself given time and support. A quote from Mark Hartell (holder of the current 24 hour record for the number of fells climbed) about Fred Rogerson (founder of the Bob Graham club) sums this up.
“Some may say that Fred has a lot to answer for; in one view of the world he encouraged selfish devotion to an arguably futile cause. But that would be to miss the point. Fred instinctively understood how a passion, a desire and a lot of hard work could bring special things from people and he cultivated that in hundreds or thousands of us - quietly and non-judgementally. He also saw how those skills - that self-belief, reliance and confidence - transfer into our daily lives and makes us, we hope, slightly better people.”
My life has been about dreaming big and running to catch up. I’ve often dreamt too big in the past and overwhelmed myself with fear at being unable to measure up. Slowly my dreams and capabilities have been converging and the BG is where they've come together - a big idea that I've been able to measure up to. But it’s not an idea I’ve been able to measure up to by being independent. I’ve been able to do this because I’ve learnt that it is far stronger to be interdependent with those around you – building a group, a team, a community. There is no better feeling than being part of a whole as you work to overcome a challenge.
After 22 long hours we finally started the final few hundred feet of descent to leave the mountains behind and start the jog along the valley to Keswick. A last surprise waited in store as a gorgeous young horse joined us on the last of the fellside, displaying rather good downhill technique as he trotted down with us. Then to our concern it reached the path we wanted and headed along it, fenced in by two stone walls. I had been treating finishing the BG as just a matter of time now but a kick from a horse could change things. Warily we all edged along one side of the path, hoping the foal would realise he could escape back to the fellside, but no; he went to stand in front of the stile we wanted. Damn, what now? Then he ducked his head into a bucket; he’d just been after his drink. We laughed, jumped over the stile and took a moment to admire the gorgeous animal.
I took a Gu gel in this moment of quiet – woosh! Soon we were running along the path and onto a weird substance called tarmac. The final 5 mile run to Keswick was underway and my body and head tingled with excitement. I already had my Serpie top on and Harold had changed into his new serpie vest; as we passed groups of people in the valley a few acknowledged the London club far from home. I smiled with the satisfaction of knowing the job was done – “You remember that woman who asked me if I called myself a fell-runner? Well I think I can answer yes now”.
Past Chapel Bridge where our lovely ground-crew were waiting for one last support station and together onwards to the fields below Catbells, down farm-tracks and through gates, past hamlets and down into Overside wood all the while with a broad smile inside. Finally to the Fawe Park mountain, twenty metres of rather-quickly ending climb. “Just fifteen minutes to go from the bottom of here”. Suddenly there were lights flashing on the road ahead of us. Mike, Paul and Helen had come to join us for the final run home! They’d been waiting over an hour, but what a wonderful memory for me. Eight of us ran through the dark of Portinscale, Keswick’s outlying village, together in one big group. Every step was easy and a joy; now the smile wasn’t just inside, it was all over my messy, knackered, happy face.
I felt fantastic. I could have speeded up but I wanted to finish together with everyone and I also didn’t want to keel over and die at the end. I floated on air across the final field before the turn at the pencil museum. A quiet, tranquil Keswick greeted us, until I could see the Moot Hall – then a wonderful cheer went up; all those brilliant supporters cheering in the end of our journey. I bounded down Keswick main street to touch the green door of the Moot Hall, which I did with a leap of joy. I found Alan and we embraced each other. “We did it, we did it!”. He had finished four minutes before (just as another attempt was setting off; passing the baton on to the next adventurers). We had planned and schemed so meticulously together for this day and knew that without the other we likely wouldn’t have experienced this day. I remembered then to stop my watch after just over 23 hours since we had left that same door.
Hugs, congratulations, champagne and thanks all followed, but not the tears I’d expected to come. I couldn’t believe we were here, the adventure was at an end; I was immersed in the wave of supporter’s energy and hugged them all or shook their hands with abandon.
What do you do after completing the BG with an hour to spare? Go to the pub obviously.
Darren bought me a pint of shandy and a jug of tap water and I collapsed into a chair. Someone told me James Adams, the most unexceptional exceptional person I know, had a message from Richard Askwith for me. Adams had been listening to Askwith talk as Alan and I were running the final stage and asked if he'd call us when we finished. He said yes but in the end had to leave just too early; but he'd left a message of congratulations and said “welcome to the club”. It felt perfectly right; a message from the guy who caused me to hear about this challenge, relayed by a friend who opened my eyes to what more running could be than times and PBs. I felt a deep warmth inside and a love for all my friends sat round me, and those watching and supporting from far away.
Moments later the emotions started to come, along with feeling rather ill. I survived another five minutes in the pub then, raising a glass to my wonderful support team, made my excuses and headed finally home. I saw the supporters of the attempt that had been following us gathered at the Moot Hall for their moment, but left them to it as my body finally let in the exhaustion. A text back at the B&B finally brought the tears; tears of happiness, tears of pain, tears of sheer overwhelming connection to the world. I let them flow and then, wholly content, put my head on the pillow to get some desperately needed sleep.
What's next? Well the simple answer is the New York marathon and a return to road-running; I have some unfinished business on the roads that I’ve been missing. And then there’s also supporting others on their BG attempts. There’s a wonderful tradition in the BG that competitors who complete it are honour-bound to support those who plan to tread in their footsteps. Four of my support crew are considering their own attempts and I hope to be lucky enough to support them on successful rounds in the future, and I have also ended up talking to a guy who (not known to me) has been following my plans about supporting his attempt. I love the thought of being up there doing single stages helping someone else to achieve their dream.
But there is a more complicated answer than running, which starts with why I did the BG. This was a reaction to and way out of crisis, when I had lost who I was for a while. Now I know thoroughly who I am - I know that I can stretch myself too far sometimes, but I can dream big and methodically achieve those dreams. I know being open and close to people is hard, but I know I love shared endeavours, passions and dreams; and that we are strongest when we are together. I know how much I love people and how much they love me when I include them in my dreams. I know I care passionately about those around me and believing in the good that everyone has inside them.
Dreams can change life when you want them to. They don't need to be something like the BG – endurance challenges only work for some people. If you want to touch a bit of these feelings find something which uses your talents and passions. If you love music learn to play a concerto, if you have a passion for sport let it sing through a team, if you write then write a book to share your understanding of this mad world with others, if you bring people together look around you at what your community needs and make it happen, if kids are the centre of your world put some time into sharing your passions with them, if you care about those less fortunate than you volunteer to help strengthen them. Find your passion and follow it whole-heartedly because it is then you will feel like you belong in this world. And if my small story tells us anything then it is to not be afraid to talk to others about your weaknesses; learning from them can make you stronger than you ever imagined possible.
Think I’m dreaming? That this all sounds nice but where do we get the time to do this? Understanding yourself and being mindful is what I’m talking about, and Google have realised the potential of releasing people’s passions. This is how we can achieve change and fulfilment in today’s world – the developed world isn’t about goods and production any more, it is about relationships and interdependent people. Every man can neither choose nor afford to be an island.
“Life isn’t about finding yourself. It’s about creating yourself.”
For me, the flow of this story came together with the flow of the rest of my life, as I had to re-examine my personal and work lives closely. I applied the above thoughts to my life and came to answers which have surprised me but feel dead right. I am hopeful Quakers will give me a space and understanding to be mindful of who I am, and the support to act on my beliefs in the world – where this will lead I’m not quite sure but it is time to find out. Revisiting my work goals from the perspective of what I know, what I care deeply about, who I like to work with, and what sort of life I’d like has given me a confidence and freedom in my job I’ve never experienced before. I’ve realised how much I can do, and stopped concentrating on the things I can’t. I’ve realised how much we can do, when we do it together.
Keep healthy my lovely friends, family, colleagues and readers; mind and body.
"People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel" ~ Maya Angelou