MALIN HEAD to MIZEN HEAD

MALIN HEAD to MIZEN HEAD

12th September -22nd September 2012
344.49 miles (or in “new money”, 574k…a long way!) – plus extra for road works and getting lost!

For those who are geographically challenged, Malin Head is the most northerly point in Northern Ireland and Mizen Head is the most southerly point in Eire. I only knew myself through reading Jen Salter’s blog in 2011 as she ran it to break the record for the run, until then it could have been anywhere on earth!

On 29th May 2012 after having followed that blog and whilst out running a 22 miler, the embryonic seed that had been planted, began to grow! As always, my most outrageous decisions seem to form somewhere between the start and end of a training run and on that Friday, during the dawn hours, I decided to undertake the “m2m” challenge!  Inevitably, as my mind allowed the thrill of the thought to grow, I realised that there were a few obstacles to overcome-most notably getting my partner ….luckily a distance runner too…and family tuned into the idea. Having to fit training around working hours the challenge after all would impinge on everyday life at home for many weeks with very early dawn training runs becoming the norm! The not so small matter of the financial side of the challenge was however quite easily balanced on the basis that this would actually be a holiday (!), a novel way of seeing Ireland in the rough! As things turned out it was…pretty rough (for me!) as those of who might have read the daily blog of the event would have gleaned.

On 7th June the anticipated e mail from the organiser, Rory Coleman, arrived, welcoming me aboard “the purple bus” that would become home for each competitor during the challenge. Somewhere between the two “m’s” purple haze was something I slipped into (more on that later!)…

Only thirteen weeks separated me from reading that mail and standing on the start line, not to mention a 100 mile run that I had already committed to and which I completed on Friday 13th July The omens sure looked to be on my side. For now.

It was clear from meeting with Rory and his partner, Jen Salter, that if I was going to succeed in completing the challenge, my training would have to step up a gear. Did I have any more gears to engage?! The advice was that every other week, in addition to relatively short runs, I would build up to three consecutive thirty mile runs followed by a week with three consecutive 20 milers. I found the gears! And two weeks before the event my mind turned to packing! This turned out to be as challenging as the training runs as the list grew bigger and bigger…and bigger! With so much to think about I was lucky to have had previous lists from other ultra runs, however, this being a multi-day event my “kit” had begun to grow into expedition like proportions! As it transpired and much to everyone’s amusement during the event, I probably took three times as many items as everybody else and the top bunk I occupied on the purple bus reflected a Girl Guide’s motto (be prepared!) on the one hand but a teenager’s room on the other!

With the training and packing done on 10th September, and fortunately living locally to the organisers, Rory and Jen and their dog Rocky(!) arrived to pick me up at 10.30pm to begin the drive to Pembroke and the ferry to Rosslare. I remember thinking to myself that I was sitting in privileged company- a guy who I had read about many times in various running books as a famed ultra-runner and a female G.B. team ultra- runner with a world record under her belt. How lucky was I! Just how long that luck would rub off on me remained to be seen!


Into Ireland, meeting the other participants Cathal, Craig, Jenni and Anneke (who was to cycle the whole route) there was an immediate feeling that we would all get along well; we gelled and became a “team” on the eve of the start of the run. We were each handed a BOOK… which, horror of horrors was a 1:50 OS map with which we were to navigate our way south! At that stage I realised that the only compass (Steve had told me to take a compass!) I had was the point of my nose and personal sense of direction!. Now how was I going to know “south”!? As it turned out the rising sun and it being autumn too, allowed me to trace the routes of migrating birds so much so (yeah yeah!!) that I only got lost three times in the whole of the three hundred odd miles. I was assisted by non-permanent spray painted signs, with smiley faces and my name, on the more difficult parts of the route. It was not until the fifth day however that I actually plucked up the courage to take the maps with me and my tracking and wayfaring skills are now second to…well…much better!

Accommodation for the duration of the event was a Galaxy Cruiser Tour Bus which had the capacity to sleep sixteen people in the upstairs quarters and with a dining area, kitchen and small toilet below deck Toilet facilities were ummm..basic but of course quite adequate! It became almost another challenge in itself to place a plastic bag in the bowl of the toilet to catch…yes, catch one’s excrement and dispose of it sensibly somewhere off the bus! The alternative, which I tended to prefer, was to do a “Bear Grills/ Ray Mears”, a skill I had honed reasonably well during the training period! Of course there was the luxury of REAL toilets at the various stop off points on route so this arrangement really added to the fun of everybody mucking in together!
Paul, the owner and driver of the bus had notched up many personalities on touring schedules to use the purple bus over the years, including Status Quo and the Stranglers, what a difference to be now enduring the daily aroma of well used running kit instead of guitar riffs and maybe, certain herbs!


Of course we had a cook- even though the kilogrammes of gels, energy bars and the like overall could have enabled us to survive for god-knows how many days in the wilds! She was a star and catered to each individual need,; anticipation of such delights as spicy chicken and jacket spuds, bolognaise...chilli… was enough to drive me on to the end of many a day’s gruelling stages. There was no way we were going to be hungry; she insisted on putting up with only a few hours sleep and to rise at 2am to make sure I had breakfast on more than one occasion.

We were off! At 09.00 hours on 12th September; we had “glory photographs” taken of us standing together on the rocks before we toed the painted start line at Malin Head, with sunshine and a chilling wind, 37 miles to Brady lay ahead of us. Was it Murphy’s Law coming into effect (?!) that we encountered a road diversion during that day’s run that added an extra three miles to the distance. The stage had gone reasonably well despite not flowing as well as I would have hoped between miles 10 and 20 when, as can often happen, the bad patch lifts and running becomes relatively easy. Having hot power showers at the local GAA Club at the end of our first day was utter luxury compared with buckets outside and on board the bus that became our washing arrangements on many other days!

Stage two, 32.9 miles to Dromore. Was my early luck running out already?! A vague pain in my right shin. Was this the beginning of anterior compartment syndrome or runner’s hypochondria?! Rory’s response was positive but still with an “oooh”…! on the second day this had me slightly worried although tucking into tuna and brioche sandwiches at the check point quickly lifted my spirits. As I finished the second stage in 6hours 28 minutes I was able to put my arms out and mimic a soaring aeroplane as I crossed the finish line of the day, feeling quite fresh!


Injury talk during the evening revealed that Craig too was showing signs of what seemed to be a similar injury; we decided that we would put ourselves under less pressure with regard to pace if we started earlier the next day together- with my thoughts too that I would be less likely to get lost with someone else running with me! Two heads are not always better than one-we did spend an inordinate amount of time faffing about on route and added an extra mile to make it 32.5 miles for stage three to Corlaugh.

The anticipated twosome failed to continue to materialise past the first checkpoint of stage four, the 31.6 miles to Ballymacormack. Craig’s injury was slowing him down and he insisted I go ahead, the separation was tough-it’s surprising how quickly you become attached to company and to add to my woe, there I was, running down a long straight road, map in hand. Way to go! As it happened and with necessity being the mother of invention (or something like that!) I discovered that I could actually read a map successfully. A really proud day! (orienteering next?!!).

S***, my injury was worsening, the end of the stages from now on would see me plunging my injured area into a bucket of cold water to reduce swelling, often sharing this intimacy with Craig, you can’t beat four blistered feet in a bucket of chilled water to bring on that special closeness! In addition, my close friends had become necessary partners! Pain killers with anti- inflammatory tablets were swilled down with electrolyte drinks and gels…all part of a healthy running lifestyle!

The next day was our so called “easy day” of 28.1 miles, something of an easy jaunt in the Irish countryside. The run to Ballinahown proved too much for Craig and he had to DNF. I was now truly going to complete this challenge on my own, I literally hobbled to the finish in a little over six hours.

Following what had become my daily foot clinic with Rory, with all toes taped to prevent further blistering, stage six, 29.6 miles to Borrisokane, my body was rebelling in unfamiliar ways. Other parts of my left leg began to hurt as I now dramatically compensated for the problem in my right leg. At check point one Rory dug his elbow firmly into my painful “glute” and accepted my thought that I “needed to get a grip”! He threw in another solution too, that “food was mood”- keep the body fuelled up and the mind can stay strong during such events. And so I tucked in! But this stage became increasingly tough to deal with in respect of the pain in my leg, so much so that five miles from the finish I telephoned to have someone come and pick me up. I was throwing in the towel. Instead of a ride back to the bus I had Rory’s support to complete the stage with me but it was even more clear now that I was no longer running but was hobbling and limping. That evening I sent a text message to Steve that “This will be my last stage”. Talking through it later with him I decided that I would sleep on it and make a decision the next morning. I also had an inspirational text from George in “Aspire” who exhorted me to simply “walk, walk, stagger, crawl then drag my carcass” to the finish! My reply was “ok, time for me to shut the f*** up and just keep going. Thanks George!” Sometimes we just need some kick ass when the going gets that uncomfortable.

And so I awoke deciding to continue and with a new strategy-I would run a mile and walk a mile to cover the rest of the whole event Day seven, stage seven was 28.7 miles to Murroe yet the running part of the strategy quickly became an obvious impossibility. My leg simply would not take it. Despite that my spirits were high, we were to be staying in the grounds of a “pitch and putt” club with Anne’s beef and mash to look forward to. There was to be no further running; my absolute goal was to run the event and I had not contemplated the idea of walking to the finish-another 140 miles but this was to be the only way that it could be done now. Even walking was painful and yes, that initial good luck and good omens had now drifted away from me. Would I get to the finish in this condition? Was this now “guts” or just “nuts”?! As the days passed, the purple haze of pain and pain killers began to blend well with the joy of getting to the purple bus at the end of each day!

A 6am start to complete the 34.9 miles to Dromina might ensure that Cathal and Jenni would not pass me too early on as they continued their running together along the route. There was a psychological element to this, now being in the position of playing “catch up” and struggling to maintain any momentum, if I was able to at least cover a larger chunk of the distance before they caught me up then I would continue to feel that anything was possible! I was relieved and amazed that I was able to reach the half- way point before they came past. This was in a small cathedral town called Killmallock; we spoke briefly before they disappeared around corners and into the distance. They would have seen the purple bus a lot sooner than I did on that day, I remember the enormous sense of relief as I turned the last corner in Dromina to see the bus calling me home! It had been a tiring, strength sapping day of almost twelve hours on my feet. My mind kept turning over how much quicker I knew I was capable of, if I was running; there was indeed a mental struggle going on now in equal proportions to the physical one.

Dark, dawn starts were now the only way to continue. It was a head-torch beginning the 34.9 miles to Macroom. The ankle and foot strapping I was having to pull on each morning was an endurance feat in itself, it seemed to help in a psychological way, yet by the end of a day’s walking my leg above it was swelling. I was under no illusion that the next three days on foot were going to require me to dig even deeper into my determination. I had been working mentally as well as physically for the challenge for a period of months and assigned myself cue words to carry me through any difficult periods “dig in” to ensure that my body responded to the rigours of the physical and “tranquillity” to keep mind and body as relaxed as possible throughout. Well…in the event the tablets worked better! What next for sports psychology?!


Even though I was well used to night running and wearing a head torch I did however talk through a strategy with Steve to pass away the dark hours on the road, we explored singing well known songs to the degree that I was eventually singing the song “If I could talk to the animals”. Here I was, in the pitch darkness of an Irish country lane, in the early hours of the morning singing at the top of my voice, not an exactly inspirational song except for the somewhat obscene lyrics I unexpectedly added! Was this because of disorientation, pain or the pain killers? Well, they are my excuse!  Surprisingly simplistically too, I found that counting my footsteps from one to a hundred and then repeating the sequence over and over got me through the thick of the night and early hours into the daylight.

By now the level of pain that I was experiencing had increased from a manageable (!) 7/10 to 8/10, I was struggling to maintain any flow to my locomotion or forward momentum. With the daylight came the mountains, spectacular to view but a bugger to travel through in the way that I was moving. Downhill was particularly painful so descents gave me opportunity to practice yet another talent, that of walking backwards! This took away the pressure from the front of my shin. So, what with walking backwards and also having loud conversations with myself I can appreciate why so many people asked me if I was alright and whether I wanted a lift anywhere! From then until the finish as many as twenty people a day offered me lifts in their cars- a hobbling, pain ravaged woman wearing a bright yellow m2m tee shirt with a camel back! Attractive huh?!


Amazingly I suppose, considering the pain, this was the only day when I shed some tears briefly as I met Rory and Jen as I walked down from the mountains. These tears of relief about three miles from the finish of the day were also tinged with my concern as to whether I could repeat the same sort of task the following day and the following day… Jen and Rocky walked in the last couple of miles with me as I completed the day at just before 9pm, it had been a helluva long day of thirteen hours on my feet.


The penultimate day was to be quite a long one of 35 miles; to add to the challenge (!) I somehow took the wrong route, ending up in a remote farm (spooky) with no-one around and having to re-trace my steps adding three miles to what was already going to be a more than arduous day. At the twelve mile point, in a world of my own, singing a ditty about needing some water to swallow my painkillers, a man from a house that I was passing came out to offer me a cup of tea! He had heard me singing while he had been in his front garden and actually heard my lyrics of water, pain killers and all! I thanked him and was touched by the generosity that seemed to abound in the country. I love Ireland!


Along the route I was uplifted to pass Jen’s road marking that we had now completed 300 miles on foot, and there in the distance I had a glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean- we had left the sea at the northernmost coast and at last, on the tenth day we were moving towards the final stretch of the challenge. The two runners Cathal and Jenni passed me with 12.4 miles to go and I realised that at my now, slow pace that I would be on my feet for another five or six hours. Towards the finish of the stage I was spurred on by Rory and then by a surprise arrival of my brother Pete who accompanied me for the final three miles. The next day he told me that his legs were killing him! I had started very early that day at 3.30am to make sure I was back at the bus to celebrate Anneke’s 60th birthday, with chocolate cake and red wine. After 38 miles and over 14 hours on my feet, mixing a little wine with the rest of what I had taken didn’t seem to matter at all!

There were times when I had not expected to be starting off on the Final Day. Day eleven from Muintir Bhaire to Mizen Head was to be a mere 20.4 miles. As a norm this would have been something of an easyish training type of run yet here I was now hoping that the final miles walking in pain would not prove to be impossible. There was an immediate pressure, I would have to complete the distance within a certain time frame in order for everyone to catch the ferry back home! It was decided that I would set out at 3am with an alarm call at 2am. Sleep deprivation coupled with continuous pain were now my companions so it was hard to really imagine anything different even though I craved a completion of it all!


For most people there would be an adrenalin rush at such moments of an event but for me, the effort was as tough as ever. Walking alone at night for hour after hour along unfamiliar country roads, with the occasional “road kill” to fire the imagination and being obviously affected by pain killers is not the best way perhaps to choose to complete a “holiday tour of Ireland”! I found myself wandering quite dangerously from one side of the road to another so I called Steve (my partner in Cardiff) for words of encouragement who, as usual, ended our conversation with the time honoured runners’ words: “dig in!”. It would not take too long now.  The only check point of the day saw me lying on a stone wall having my glutes “seen to” by Rory before being sent on what had become my messy way!


With 7 miles to go my brother Pete joined me for a few miles, I needed anything to distract me from the shooting pains that were increasing with every step I took, so much so that I was forced to stop and hold my leg tightly until the pain subsided. Now I was directing my angst at Rory (sorry Rory!) calling you scumbag and much worse for even organising the event! My phone bleeped with a text message-it was from Ben, George and Joe from “Aspire” reminding me that I had completed 339 miles and only had 4.7 miles to do, not the 5.2miles I had thought…yeah, half a mile at that stage truly meant such a lot.


Without pain killers the last 2.5 miles seemed an unlikely conclusion, so near and yet so far. Pete called Rory to ask if there were any left to take; the deal was presented! Two co-codamol or Pete’s presence! I was going to complete this challenge as I had started- on the road, on foot, under my own steam. At that point Cathell, Jenni and Anneke passed me by, cheering me on, I was overcome with emotion and cried; after still what seemed an age the purple bus (oh my friend!) came into view, Anneke rode back wheeling her bike with me I kept repeating to her with tears in my eyes “there’s the finish, it isn’t long now is is it?”.

400 metres left; over 344 miles completed, the challenge was coming to its end. Pulling off my bright yellow m2m tee shirt I held it aloft while I picked up my hobbling pace and crossed the finish line! Of course, there were tears in my eyes and I was crying while I was hugged by everyone. The waves of the southern-most point of Ireland crashed as they had in the north. I had done it!

Despite losing out on the initial luck and being unable to run the whole route, I had completed what I had set out to do. Rory and Jen handed me the Tankard presented to all those who complete the distance which we immediately filled with champagne. This had been a massive, personal life changing experience… and I have a fractured tibia to prove it too!

Vicky September 2012