August 05, 2020
Into the daylight
2:58, the alarm rings. I am ready. Everything is ready. Today is the day. The day I have been working towards pretty much in silence for 2 months. Amongst the carnage of COVID one of the casualties was our annual night challenge “Into the Darkness”, 50km ride, 50km run, 50km ride starting at sunset in the summer here in Dubai. A wild night out in the desert no matter which way it goes. The demand for this event has risen over the last few years in our InnerFight community to 50 athletes last year. With restrictions on social gatherings there was no way we could run it this year. Quick rethink, rename and very fast Tom and I had invented “Into the daylight”. Instead of starting at sunset start just before sunrise? Why…..so that we complete the latter part of this challenge in the hottest part of the day…..our desire was to have the mercury around 50….be careful what you wish for.
Everything is ready and packed the night before so as I don my lycra all I have to do is put ice in the ice box, grab my breakfast and coffee for the drive to the start and I am out the door, the excitement is insane, it’s like race day although a race that none of us have ever done before, its all new, that adds to the excitement. On the drive to the start I listen to some music and think about the guys I am just about to take on this challenge with. Tom, Rob and I did the original Into The Darkness together, the idea was actually born during a car journey I was sharing with Rob on the way to another challenge. We have done a number of challenges together, we understand and respect each other. It’s funny as for a lot of these types of things you sit down and lay out each others expectations to make sure you are aligned. We don’t do that, we all know how to behave and things work. I would give my life for these guys. We had a welcome addition to this years challenge in Rob Foster another one of our colleagues, this was the first time for him to do an ultra event, that thought sat in the back of my mind, I felt a responsibility to ensure his enjoyment and ultimately his safety which I take very seriously. There are inherent dangers in these challenges specially when we are doing something for the first time as we do not know what to expect. I also think about our support crew: Josh, Carlin, Ben, Ash and David with his team from Secret Training. On their weekend they are also getting out of bed which I agree can literally be described as the middle of the night to make this possible for us. Supporting I think at times is harder than participating. For us all we have to do is ride and run. For them it’s different, they are constantly anticipating our needs and protecting our safety. I know I am not the easiest person to support as when things get a bit rough I am very demanding and straight forward with my requests and less jovial.
On arrival at the start the mood and energy is epic, this is what makes these events so good. Nick has come to ride with us the first leg and brings an insane amount of positive energy. He knows the rules and 15 minutes before we are supposed to start he is ready to go. Time keeping in these events like in life is key. 4:20 we are ready, 9 minutes early. Quick pre departure photos and we roll out of the car park at the cycle track Al Qudra (possibly the worlds best endurance playground) at 4:24 in pitch black. We are looking at an 8-9 hour effort here but that matters little as I head to the front and sit alongside Nick, the pace is good, I’m excited but trying to be smart, I do 10 minutes and roll off for Tom to come through. We are a team, we work for each other, we push each other, we do these things to make each other better. Endurance is by nature an individual sport but where possible we make it a team sport, it only brings out the best in us. The first lap is quick as we are back at the transition in 1:18 closing just under 37kmph average. A super fast turn around and we are out for the run.
We always keep things jovial, these things have to be fun and as we leave the transition most of the jokes are on Tom’s fishing hat that he has chosen to shield him from the sun. Speaking of sun and it is there right in front of us rising over the desert, there is a light wind which I would describe as luke warm, I don’t know the temp, I don’t care, its not important. Of course I have a time in my mind that I want to complete the run in. I started running this 50km loop in the middle of summer as an annual thing about 5 years ago, the first time it took me around 6 hours and was very ugly, the last time I did it in the day I clocked 5:40, the last time I did it in the night I clocked 4:55, I am pretty sure you can guess what my target was for today….yep sub 5. One of the keys in ultra running and life I guess is being comfortable just finding a pace and relaxing into it. My 50km pace is not my 10km pace of course but when you are excited this takes focus. I knew I could run 5:30’s for the first few hours as it would be cooler, with quick water refills every 5km this would spit out a 5:40 average for the first 25-30km. The “race” if you like would start just after 25km and the war would be from 35km on. That was my predictions based on the day heating up and the fatigue in the legs. The key in this early part of the run was keeping hydrated and the core temp down. I mean thats the key throughout but it becomes an interesting paradigm when the mercury flys.
Friday morning on the cycle track is always nice an busy with all types of people out for a ride, some share their great energy with you and say hi, others perhaps are fighting bigger issues and find it hard to carry out even the most basic pleasantries, I encourage them to stop fighting it and just try and say hi as it makes you feel amazing. Of course we wave and say hi to everyone, naturally abusing those that don’t reply once they are out of ear shot. As the cyclists thin out the distractions perhaps you could say become less, we start talking less, we get less jovial at water stops and we are naturally forced to invest more of our energy into running. I think it was about 20km in when Rob Jones started to drop off the back. Again something that is unwritten and we are all comfortable with, he is a big boy, he has a support car, he knows what he is doing, just before 30km Tom and Rob Foster put about 50m into me. Now the fun starts. I am alone and I like it. It was at the 30km water stop that I choose to put my running crop on and in doing so it feels like I have put on a coat of armor. I’m not stressed about the guys ahead of me, I am loving the moment. It’s getting hotter, perhaps around 45 now, I don’t know for sure, having my watch tell me the temp would not change it so I don’t but I know heat and I know its getting hotter. I also know I have to change my strategy a bit or this last 20km could cost me big time. I ensure I refill my bottle on the run after 2.5km so I am drinking 1L for every 5km and around 1 liter at the water stop as well as using water to cool myself. My running crop keeps me a bit cooler as I cover it in water every now and then and with its multiple holes that I have tried to cut with as much symmetry as possible the air (despite its heat) flows through it.
I arrive at 35km just as Tom and Rob are leaving and I need to take a moment to cool down. I had been preparing for this part of the run mentally in the weeks leading up to the event, I knew it was going to be key so when I stop for water at 35km I take an extra few moments to cool myself down with some ice towels and additional fluids. I then make a decision that between here and the end of the run that I will catch Tom and Rob, I know that if I try and push the pace too hard I will put myself into the red so I instead decide that any refueling I will do on the move and I will not stop at all but walk for about 200m whilst I get what I need from Ben. This is new to Ben as each water stop I have stopped at the back of his car and sorted myself out but now I am asking him to literally serve me on the go…..he delivers incredibly well. We have a laugh at 10km to go when I ask for a snickers which he brings and unwraps for me but I can not bite due to it being so hard from being in the cool box, it does not work well with my braces!!! Life hey. Not an issue. He re wraps it and puts it into my Naked running belt and shortly it’s perfect to drink! I feel like I am making time on Tom and Rob but then I see something I don’t like the look of. Tom’s running style has changed, its not as fluid as it has been, I know something is up with him. His support vehicle is stopped on the side of the track and he goes over to it, as I near all I see is him with his head in a cool box. We have 6KM to go. I want to stop but I can’t, I am dancing with the devil too as the sun is now bouncing off the tarmac and literally melting my shins and calves, quite a unique feeling. I ask myself what I can do to help him and if he is safe and quickly come to the conclusion that he has Carlin and everything in the car he may need and that aside from perhaps a few words I can not offer him anything. I make the decision to keep moving toward the end and say nothing. Rob has just refilled his bottle and he asks me about Tom, I have no answer so I just say “I don’t know” and we start to run together. He is in an amazing chipper mood, maybe he is still excited because it’s all new or maybe he is excited because we are close to the end, either way his mood lifts me but I am silently hoping he does not try and start talking to me as no more than ever thats not something that interests me.
For anyone that has cycled or run the last 10km to Zads from the mosque on the Al Qudra cycle path more than a few times you will know that it can be quite a brutal stretch, its very straight and right now very hot. I have had good and bad times on here but today was different. Today I feel more mentally prepared than ever. I have visualized it. In the weeks leading up to the event I have spent time thinking about the good times I have had on this stretch and also the bad ones, I have asked myself why they were good or bad and I have taken as much as I can from them and committed it to memory, to my mental toolkit if you like. The result? I had perhaps the best time running on there that I have ever had. I even had the energy to make one of my only 5 videos of the day! Could also be that we had a few familiar faces along the way in Nick and Kerrie there to cheer us on, when you haven’t seen anyone but your support crew and then some friends pop up it really pulls you up. And like that we are back in the carpark and into transition for the 50km bike to wrap this up. Jac who is a man you need in these times has been driving the course making sure we are safe is there on his bike ready to ride the final lap with us as is Nick. Just picture this, its 11:30am on a Friday, 50 degrees and these guys are here to ride with us. Blows my mind. Thank you. We are just about ready to go and Tom pulls in, its a no brainer, we are waiting for him. Poor guy’s has had some gut issues but we will get him around the bike, we all wear the same colours, that makes us a team, it’s simple. Rob Jones is a bit further back but Boz (who has just ridden 136km) says she will wait and ride with him. These are incredible humans we have here!
We roll onto the bike track and I make one of the biggest mistakes of the day. I ask Nick “are we waiting for your granny to join us.” Holy shit I am never saying that again! He literally takes the speed directly to 40KMPH and I am hanging on to his wheel for dear life, I do not even have time to look around to check if the guys are there or not. 3km down the track and I can not hold his wheel anymore and I pull off to join the back of the group or try to. And then bang, like nothing I had ever felt before, like a life size hairdryer surrounding you and just drying you out at an insane rate, my calves were in total cramp and my eyes were burning so hard it was like they just wanted to close on their own but somehow my subconscious decided that was not a good idea. They were having their own war. As for my heart rate……I was just glad I did not have my heart strap on, I knew I was in deep shit. I immediately deployed “the Ultra Mindset”….admit there is an issue…well there was no getting around that…..reject that this will end the challenge…I will be honest in this moment I knew I would make it to the end but I knew I needed to figure out how….relax…..are you kidding me? I ask myself….what now…..I quickly identified I needed to slow down and cool down. The guys backed off the pace and I think they could see from the way my bike was moving and my head was wobbling I was in trouble. I managed to sit on a very slow wheel until 10km where once again the true heroes our support crew were there with water, I literally had a shower on the cycle path. The next 10km was less than ideal, good in parts but awful in others, anything over 200 watts power, my calves cramped and my eyes were still having a war of their own with me, I knew closing my eyes whilst riding was still not the answer but it’s all I wanted to do. At 20km we stopped the bikes under a shelter as I took another dousing of water and got as much electrolyte into me as I could, as my core temp started to drop I started to feel better. I remember Nick saying it’s an hour max from here and that seemed to flick the switch, I was somehow ok again. I sat very tight into what I think during the run we renamed Dubais “Energy Lab” as Nick Worked hard for us on the front.
This part of the cycle track is always interesting because as you come out of it you have a small hill which over the other side is a dip, you then start a long straight 17km back to the finish. It was on the hill that something happened I had never seen before, Nick dropped down into the small chain ring on the front. Uh oh I thought. When you can see someone is in the shit the single worst thing you can do is ask them whats up, it gives them the opportunity to vocalize their suffering which is not healthy. So I make some joke about him changing gear to try and lighten the mood and we keep on pedaling. Right now I am using all my energy to keep moving forward and the bike upright but I hear Tom say something and as I turn around I can see Nick far away from us. We are a team and we take everyone to the finish line. Another stop under the shade and we repeat the cold water shower for Nick that I was served just 20km earlier, I feel his pain and I can see it in his eyes. As the core temp rockets, the heart rises and you are very afraid. I think about this a lot in the last 10km and I ask myself if we have found our limits today but then as I spray water on my handle bars to cool them down enough from burning my hands I have what I think is a true moment of clarity. There are situations that we have not been in before and hence when they arrive we do not know how to behave, the faster we figure out how to behave the more successful we are. People that do not have the motivation to ensure what it may take to work out the behaviours needed in these extreme situations immediately label the situations as their limits. For me I would rather be inquisitive and try and learn new behaviors.
We rolled easy back to the finish as a group. Today we needed each other like we have done before and we will do again and when it really mattered we were there for each other. 8 hours 30 minutes after we had kicked off in darkness we arrived back at the start point and our work was done for the day. As we rolled in I saw Holly sat there waiting and it was like my heart skipped a beat, all my suffering was over and my smile returned to my face. She is my biggest support, I hate her seeing me in pain as I know it hurts her as much but to see her at the end was truly unreal.
What a day, what a challenge, what a unique group of human beings I have the honor of sharing this life with…..until next time please just be ready to learn how to behave in new situations, it’s pretty awesome.