Friday, 27 June 2008

Tom's 110K on WHW-Race Day 2008

What went wrong for Thomas on the 21st of June 2008? After 10 months of intense preparation for the Big Day, why did it not all come together for him as it did for his running friends, Davie, Neal, Brian, Tim and John – who all had a great race and finished in remarkable times? This is my humble attempt to analyse the day and the weeks and months that led up to it.

Our support team was ready to go, everything was organized and we could not wait until the race started. We had planned a few surprises along the way for our hero, some music, flags and even a short cheerleader dance. On the day we realized that this was actually a very calm and almost unspectacular race, not like some of the city marathons where you have supporters do all sorts of crazy things. So we only used the music once. Thomas was very nervous the whole week before. He had not slept properly for at least 5 nights and was getting desperate. But of course the nearer the day was, the more difficult it got. And trying to stay up at night and sleep into the day does not really work either. Constant blogging, another round of the DVD from 2005 did not really clear his head either. He did ask me a few days before if I thought he could do it. And I said yes. I was sure if his hamstrings were o.k. (which I thought they would be) and he did not pick up any more serious injury on the way, then he would finish, even if we walked to the end. Like Debbie and Marco did. But little did I know that there is a state when even walking is not an option.

Anyway, finally the race started and we headed off to our first support stop at the Beechtree Inn. The night was perfect, cold, no midges (though they surely came out later), the moon beautiful as we waited for the first runner to arrive. It was in fact a spectacular sight when eventually you could see this snake of head-torches in the far distance, moving forward and eventually shining into your eyes so that you could not make out the individual runner. I was worried already at the Beechtree Inn and in hindsight I was right to be. At least 20 runners had passed and no sight of Thomas yet. I actually thought I had missed him in the dark though that was not possible as we were positioned at the gate and would have seen him. He was already 5min behind his schedule, but when he arrived he said he enjoyed the scenery and I felt reassured. Though of course he never mentioned anything about his running.

Just before Drymen the same thing happened. Lots of people went past, including those who I would have expected to be behind Thomas. But when he arrived with Ian and John I felt better and thought he was sticking to the experienced WHW runners and that could only be good.

Waiting for him in Rowardennan we cheered on a few runners including Marco. Leaving Rowardennan he asked me in which position he was and I said I did not know, but I thought it might be 4th, but in fact he was 1st to leave then … He also mentioned that his shins were sore… I hope you did not try to catch the runner in front of you! Sorry for the wrong info.
We also saw Ian and I briefly spoke to him after I realized he had stopped. We saw Allybea and her support friend packing up and I remember thinking how sad this must be – not knowing then that in a few hours we would have to do the same! When Thomas arrived the midges were out in full force and he was fidgeting, not wanting to stand still while I tried to restock his running belt. I broke the zip of the belt pocket and I think he wanted to kill me then. We quickly got another belt out of the car though this was one he did not like too much and I was really SORRY!

In Beinglas we realized Thomas was further behind his schedule and he admitted then that he was not feeling great. He sat down for the 1st time, but did not stay long. We packed our things and went to the A82 underpass when we realized we had accidentally packed someone else’s 2 bottles that had been placed on the bench filled with some smoothie like drink and probably water. We felt so bad that we sent the car back hoping that the runner had not arrived yet and was not looking for his drinks. While the car was turning and I stayed at the underpass I saw the same bottle type in a car boot and quickly asked the guy if he was looking for 2 missing bottles. He was and the mistake was quickly sorted. Luckily they had had spare drinks at Beinglas and the runner did not suffer. Puhh!

At Auchtertyre Thomas had gained a few minutes but was really following his schedule B by now. He expressed the wish to have porridge then and as you know there is not much time between Auchtertyre and Tyndrum. So we quickly made our way to Tyndrum, bought porridge oats and started cooking. Nancy against her Scottish nature even agreed to prepare the porridge with milk and honey much to the bemusement of some bystanders. Totally the supporter she told them, if my man wants porridge he gets porridge. So really pleased with ourselves that we had managed to get some porridge ready in this short spell of time, we awaited Tom’s arrival. When he came across and we offered him his porridge, all he said was, I don’t want it …. And ran on….

At Bridge of Orchy we positioned ourselves on the bridge and thought he could sit on the wall if he wanted to sit though he had not made much use of the chair up to now. He arrived and of course asked for the chair that was not there. If I had known how crap he was feeling I would have run back to the car to get it, but instead I said, you won’t get a chair here. How mean was I? Terrible. We met him again at the hotel where he sat in the car and then just before Victoria Bridge where we briefly thought of sending someone to run with him for company. But normally he enjoys running this section on his own anyway and as there were only 2 support runners Thomas said to “save ourselves” for later.

So off we went to Kingshouse, now excited that we were soon to start running ourselves. I ate the cold porridge to get some energy into me and got changed into my running gear. I waited for him at the checkpoint when Nancy came up and said that we had got a phone call from Thomas and he wanted us to meet him at Blackrock Cottage as he was in trouble. I got really worried then and thought if he can’t make it to Kingshouse himself, how bad must he be? So I sped off with the car after we had thrown everything that we had put out for him back into the car. I expected him to wait for us at the cottage, but instead I saw him walking down the path very slowly. So I ran up to him just when Davie Bell overtook him. At that point Thomas said his legs were on fire. He could not coordinate them any longer. We sat him in the car and told him to rest, maybe even try and get some sleep as we had enough time. But he found it really hard to just close his eyes and rest. He was very uncomfortable. He started to describe how he had struggled the whole day, how he felt his legs were completely empty and he could not even start to think about continuing. We still thought that it was a good rest that was needed. Eating and drinking wise he seemed to be o.k. He had consumed various things, energy and electrolyte providing – though he thinks maybe too much. I don’t agree there, but it was certainly not a lack of fuel that caused his problem. He did complain of diarrhoea though. We thought after a good rest we could walk to the Kingshouse checkpoint, have another rest and then walk to the bottom of the staircase where we could assess the situation again. But it was not to be. Thomas could not get his legs moving again.

I found this the most difficult support task. When do you know that it is indeed time to stop and pull out of the race and when do you need to kick your runner out of the car and tell him to walk on?? I was so glad to have had friends there to help. Three of us took it in turns to sit with Thomas in the car and assess how he was, physically and mentally. Waiting outside for a decision to be taken I was shivering and actually feeling sick. He had come so far, after all the training, was it really over? After Nancy and then Holger had spent a while with him, Holger came out of the car and said that Thomas was definitely pulling out. And he seemed to have made his peace with it. I went back to the car myself and we hugged, tears running down my face. There were a few tears in Tom’s eyes as well but he really seemed very calm and almost relieved. Tim Downie passed the car and told Thomas he could always walk back, but of course we had just established that even walking was no option.
I handed back the racetag at Kingshouse, Thomas stayed in the car and we headed to our cottage that was on the Lundavra Road where we wanted to relax after the race…

We all went to bed early and had a good night’s sleep. The next morning we asked Thomas if he really wanted to go to the prize-giving, but he was sure he did. He was keen to congratulate his friends for their finish. So we headed to FW and into the Nevis Centre. When we entered I could see Thomas wiping away tears and I quickly went into the toilet myself as again I was dwelling up.
And this is where I was even more proud of him. What strength he has shown to actually attend the ceremony, to face everyone he trained with, everyone who knew about his predicted times and maybe had mocked him, the new-comer, the 1st-timer?! But it was overwhelming to see and feel the support he got, the hugs and handshakes, the encouraging words. As much as it was important for him to face this, to help him get over this disappointment eventually , it was equally important to feel that he was still part of the gang, even though he “DNF”. To hear people say that they knew he could do better and that it must have just not been “his day”.

And this is what it comes down to I think. It was not his day. As sad as it is after months of training, as perfect as the day was for running, it was not “his day”. Right from the start he realized it, but tried to struggle on. I think the fact that he even got to 110KM under these circumstances is amazing. I am very proud of him. For trying to battle on, but even more for being so strong to pull out when he did and how he did it, with so much dignity, calm and inner peace, so little drama. He just knew he had reached a physical limit on the day. Someone said to him, maybe he would come back next year with enough mental strength to finish. I don’t think that he lacked any mental strength on the day. In fact it was his mental strength that got him to Blackrock Cottage.
But maybe next year (if he does enter the WHWRace 2009), he also will be lucky and have “his day” on actual race day. Maybe he will not struggle with a chronic hamstring injury for months, maybe he will not be as nervous as this year and sleep better, maybe his training schedule will be different so that he can peak when he should. And maybe with regards to the support crew, we will be more honest with each other. Maybe he will tell us as soon as he feels bad so we can rethink our strategy, can tell him to rest longer, walk more and start walking/running with him sooner. And even though I said I didn’t know if I wanted to go through all that training/preparation again next year, I also know that this is now “unfinished business”, a big dream that has not come true, but in fact is within his reach. A challenge that is still out there. I know how much it meant to him. So I am ready to do it all over again. I might even join some of the training runs as a runner myself…