May 22, 2021
Back into the darkness
It’s annual and it’s way more than Rob Jones and I ever thought it may be, as in 2017 as we were driving to Jebel Hafeet to run up it (many times) we threw around the idea of cycling then running then cycling the 50Km loop of Al Qudra through the night, completing the 150km challenge during the hours of darkness.
On Tom Walkers first day working at InnerFight in 2018 on the longest day of the year along with Rob we proved that it was possible to complete this challenge in complete darkness. “Into the darkness” was born!
2019 was somewhat of an illusive year as only Rob and Zoe Van Mill were able to complete the challenge!
2020 with all its curve balls had to be different as we went “Into the daylight” in the height of summer…..go here for more on that. 2020 also saw a number of InnerFight Endurance clients take on this seemingly simple challenge for the first time, some of them with great success and some of them left wanting and somehow leaving unfinished business for 2021.
I was excited to go back into the darkness this year for a number of reasons. Firstly because I love this stuff, its what I train for, what I live for, what I think about pretty much everyday. Secondly because as our team of InnerFight coaches has grown so has our ability to be strong as a team by challenging each other and essentially trying to rip each others legs off at any opportunity. Thirdly and finally and perhaps most importantly I felt like this would be our fastest effort through the night and in being so give us a perfect opportunity to “test our shit out and prove it works.”
When you bring together highly driven human beings only good things happen and as a dozen of us rolled out of the parking lot on our bikes a few minutes before sunset it was not even 60 seconds before all hell broke loose. Most bike races have an unwritten rule that the first few KM’s will be easy before the fireworks go off, not this one. Attack attack attack. I was having the time of my life and am happy to report that 90% of the pictures taken confirm this in my face. Just 1 hour 10 minutes later we had completed the bike leg. I was still laughing, partially at the fun I had just had but partially because I knew I may have overcooked my legs.
Its not right to judge how your legs feel in the first 500m of the run, if they do not feel smashed you should have gone harder on the bike. The issue is if they are still smoked after 2-3km. Nutrition and knowing what you are doing can bring you back into the game so long as you have not emptied the tank too hard. I had some strange cramps in my legs I had never had before which were only accentuated as I stopped at 5km for a shit, squatting was not happening, so with my run shorts off for the first time in my life I took a shit standing pretty much vertical by the side of the support car. No real issue until 2 other support cars decided to leave the 5km check point at which point I and probably they realized that their headlights were shining directly into my bathroom. The ultra life is beautiful isn’t it.
With a lighter load and Rob, Steph and Tom slightly up the road from me now I opened up the legs and started to feel epic. Note from above….at 500m legs are smoked, at 5km legs are perfect. By 10km I was back with the gang with the exception of Rob Foster who I would soon learn was running in bib shorts and shoes that were too big for him and not his own due to some intense admin issues! (I’ll leave it at that) This obviously gave him what he needed as he completed the run in a blistering 3:54!
We are a team but we hate average and we love competition. There is little waiting around for each other. Rob and I pretty much arranged to run together and we cat and moused from check point to check point with Steph and Tom. This was Stephs first 50km and I was excited for her. She is a good human and talented runner….but, did she like the distance, did she like the darkness?
From 15km you are in darkness, your only light is the moon and the road is flat and straight, this is what I live for, this is where I have seen people lose the will to live, this is why we are here. With intermittent support car lights Rob and I sat 40-50m behind Tom and Steph occasionally dishing up some trash talk, them knowing we were chasing them, us relaxed that we would get them. 10km later we realised Tom had dropped back a little way & Rob and I quickly made a decision to wait for him, he was clearly having admin issues. We have done this stuff together before, it’s like you can feel something is up without words being spoken. Words are pretty useless sometimes, at least an excess of them certainly is. I walked over to Tom as he got some nutrition on and just quietly said “come on mate lets move from here.” I could tell by his face he was not comfortable and the sound of his foot drop in his running confirmed things were not great. 2km down the road we were walking, still not words spoken until he confidently told us to go. It’s like losing someone close to you, very hard to do as we know that we do not give up easily but if they ask you to leave you have to leave, more unwritten rules of this beautiful game of endurance.
Rob and I talk a lot when we are talking but most of the time when we are running we are silent, it’s not awkward it’s somehow where we are happiest. I don’t want to annoy him with idle banter and I don’t want him to try and disturb me as I seek to float off into a flow state and almost run subconsciously. I listen though and by some weird natural force our foot drops fall into time with each other. Do we become one unit? Are we joining all energy together to propel us forward? Who knows but it’s almost magical. I don’t really have much else to say about the next few KM as I was almost not there. Wild.
At 35km we are both fresh and start asking where Steph is as we both know we want to run her down! We receive bad news that she has run 10-15 minutes into us but that doesn’t deter us, we keep pushing and as Rob says “this is ultra, anything can happen.” She ran beautifully and held the same pace pretty much the whole way round, the time we lost around 25km we couldn’t make up and she completed the run leg just under 15 minutes ahead of us. Welcome to the Ultra Life Steph, it looks quite good on you!
4:42 for the run in addition to our 1:10 first bike leg means we are both on for our best time on this challenge and excited to get back on the bikes. Whats more exciting is that as we transition Matt pulls into the car park on his bike and as we roll out he simply says “lets get this job done.” The second bike like is always interesting as you have been in the game for around 6 hours so naturally have a decent amount of fatigue in the legs and still have 50km to get through. As I sat on Matt’s wheel I asked myself if this was the right thing to be doing, was I suffering enough, what was left in my legs. I am not sure if I spoke that out loud or if he was in my head as less than 75 seconds later I had to ask him to back off slightly or Rob and I may both be in the ditch.
Flash flash flash. The cameras never stopped. I thought to myself they must have taken over 1,000 shots of us but they kept going. Ben had been driving the car (and shooting) the whole night for us, making sure we had water at each check point and essentially giving us 5 star service. All the while Macho and Carlin were risking their lives making sure they got some great shots of us. It still blows my mind how selfless these people are that they give up so much of their time to make these things possible for us and then even capture the moments on film so we have stories to tell (and blog posts to write) in the aftermath. The 3 of you were legendary all night long. Couple this with the new IFE “sponge lady” Andrea (who multiple times popped up out of nowhere with iced sponges), Jamie & Tara who took on the desert in a 3 series BMW just to support us and then the insane number of people that were at Zads to cheer us through transition.
We know it but we should never take it for granted the power of community, of suffering and of endurance challenges, truly amazing.
2:22am just under 7 hours 30 minutes before the firework show started and the final 50km rolled over for the completion of our 2021 Into the darkness. My immediate reactions were mixed and a number of questions. I was being a human, question as to if I had gone hard enough, did I suffer enough, was there more in the tank? We coach people not to do this but it’s human nature and that’s why I always ask athletes to make notes on how they feel in the immediate aftermath of a challenge, then 1 day later and then 1 week later. It’s now one day….am I satisfied? Yes, we went faster than ever before and had a great time. Was there more in the tank? This is the hardest question as we did not end up in a total hole in the run thus making the bike impossible so part of me says yes but the logical part says no! The fact that a few KM into the final bike I had to ask Matt to ease the gas is probably a good sign that we gave it our best shot! The endurance mindset uses pain and suffering as a gauge too often in my opinion, pain is not always the goal, performance is the goal and sometimes pain is the by product, this year the performance was good and the pain was low, maybe I am in some decent shape. Let’s see.
I want to close on what I think is the most important take away from this challenge. I stood up in our coaches team meeting on Monday and invited all the coaches of InnerFight to come and take part in some capacity. I do not believe in forcing people, we must invite and let people make their own decisions but we must always create the framework to be successful. Aside from the endurance coaches who seem to live for this kind of stuff (compared to 150 burpee pull ups) the performances from the other coaches was literally mind blowing and deserve a mention. Alex casually ran 40km in CrossFit shoes, Ivana completed 100km of the 150km absolutely solo and in a blistering time, Bonnie, Boz & Jess casually dominated 50km on the bike! Player of the day tho has to be handed to Milos who until this point had run a maximum of 15km in one hit. He completed the 50/50/50 and if I could only explain the energy I could feel from him as I found him 5km to go on the final bike, 10 hours in with the sun rising, it was simply another universe. His achievement will be synonymous with this challenge for many years to come. Thank you for showing us what’s possible my friend.
Days like these build you as a human being and as a coach, thank you all for what you did, for our community and for me but more than that for yourselves.