New Horizons

apopo mines 1

(The wonderful Apopo – the guys today was all about – image Eric Nathan details of how to support them here)

I would like to say that today I rowed all of the miles. I can’t say that but I can say that I rowed 67 miles, just over 108 kilometres, in a little over 10 hours. I’m sure most people I know would have told me I’d never finish (after all, my last 6 weeks of training were curtailed variously through a pulled hamstring [that mercifully seems to be genuinely fixed now] and a week-long bout of tonsillitis that has only just worked its way through my system and has left me decidedly post viral), though I have to say I genuinely believed I would, until about the 40 mile mark when it became clear that however strong my shoulders are, even they have a breaking point, and that to compensate I was overusing my knees, which, despite my selecting squats and rowing as my exercises of choice, have always been my weakest body part (well, at least they were until I buggered my right rotator cuff trying to deliver a demon leg break over a decade ago).


Oh damn, you say, here’s the new paragraph. That means it’s time for the “here’s what I learned about myself on the journey bit.” Well, no. You’ll have to wait for the next paragraph for that. This is the “trying really hard to evaluate it objectively before it gets distorted by memory” bit. Let’s ignore the fact that right now it’ll be distorted by the fact I’ve spent the last two hours on the verge of hallucinating. This is my moment of objectivity. Honest.

OK, the next paragraph again! As I outlined last time, I want to take up running properly. I want to see what I can do – and having spent last evening preparing by watching videos on YouTube of skyrunning events on the trails around volcano craters, I REALLY want to do it properly enough to see if I can do that! I have been ogling running kit ever since I made the decision. I’ve been selecting trail shoes, the compulsory kit for official races, and hydration belts. But I made a deal with myself. I wasn’t allowed to kit myself out unless I succeeded in the row. That was the benchmark to see if I had the physical aptitude to stand any chance. More important it would be the test to see if I had the mental wherewithal to push myself over distances that would stretch out to an endless succession of invisible horizons. At mile 40, when it was clear I wouldn’t finish, I made two pacts with myself. Number one, the physical one, OK, if not 100 miles then 100 kilometres. That’s the distance of the Race to the Stones. A respectable ultra distance. And it would take me towards 9 hours. If I could do nearly 9 hours of continuous exercise, and the distance of the event I have pencilled in for next summer, then I can go running. Second, the mental one, a really simple one but such a hard one to measure objectively. When I stop, it will be because my body has completely failed. Not because my mind has failed. From everything I’ve read and everything I’ve ever learned about myself and about those who thrive at things, there’s always a single factor – their mind is always capable of more than their body. When their body says no, it is their mind that carries them through. Get those the wrong way round – if there’s fuel in the take and your mind says, nah, the sofa’s comfy and the kettle’s calling, and you listen, you’re not cut out for it.

more kit

The “finding myself” stuff came as I pushed myself to breaking point to meet those two simple targets. What did I learn from the experience? Well, let’s start with the simple. The reading up I’ve done and a naturally experimental taste palette means I’m not too shabby when it comes to food and hydration. My energy levels were pretty good, better than my fitness for sure – so the pre-race eating, concentrating on protein and complex carbs, lots of pulses and beans, had clearly worked. I didn’t cramp, and I didn’t “bonk” (seriously, US runner peeps, you *have* to come up with another term, that means something very different round here), the food-rejecting nausea that endurance athletes often experience. I think my drink mix of water and isotonic, its regularity, and the food mix of salted cashews, peanut bars, and mixed nuts and dried fruit worked well.


I learned what I’ve always known through training but have never put in force over these distances – that you can *never* thin of the total distance. The moment you do so your mind plays all kind of tricks. Every stroke has to be its own effort, its own goal. But what 10 hours taught me was that kind of mindfulness becomes close to impossible when you are so tired and your muscles hurt so much that your body is screaming to stop. The effort of overriding your body’s pain takes so large a percentage of your mind’s capacity that there is precious little left for being in the moment. The emptiness of being totally in the moment is something that actually uses a lot of your mind’s resources. And that means something very important – you need to train it. I’ve been doing mindfulness meditation since I was sent on a course after my last breakdown. It’s incredibly helpful in daily life. It’s also helpful in sport. But I’m still a beginner. I also learned that while you do, as many runners say, break through that pain to moments where everything works in harmony in a way that you never get, no matter how smooth you are working, before you hit the barrier, they get shorter and harder to reach as your body gives out on you. In the end my capacity to stretch my shoulders to the point where they’d give me another kilometre or so before screaming again shrank until it disappeared, and the moments of zen shrank with them. I tried to fight for them, and learned the obvious – you cannot fight for them with willpower. You fight to reach that state by focusing 100% on your body doing what it does the best it can do it. The mental fight is not to focus on your mental state but on what your body’s doing – which is mindfulness 101.

all me

(I did all of these 20th Sept metres)

I also learned that when your underlying fitness has a way to go, great long stretches of solitary exercise don’t give you endless opportunities to ponder the meaning of life. That comes in the first couple of hours. After that, your mind has far too many other things occupying it. Remember that next time you meet someone who suffers chronic pain. What I went through was self-inflicted and, now it’s over and I’m tapping away with a celebratory coffee, it’s receded to a dull ache that I could have barely told you my name let alone engaged in deep philosophy with you. Pain is powerful stuff. Dealing with pain occupies not just every fibre but every neuron. When someone experiences chronic pain, show them the requisite compassion and cut them every bit of the requisite slack – if they manage to function at all they’re super human.

Most of all I learned that my mind is stronger than my body. I had believed it was but had never pushed my body to the point where I had to prove it. As I closed in on 100k I noticed something very interesting. That had become the new finishing line. My brain was calculating the resources needed to get there and was going to let me do it and then collapse into a self-congratulatory heap. Which meant I had a very simple task. To say no. If my brain was recalibrating down then my body could go further (not 61k further, I knew that, but the almost physically observable recalibration of my energy supplies meant it was further than 100), and if I crossed the line and hit the shower I’d be giving in to my brain and not my body. So I carried straight on. In the end, I was rowing 1 kilometre intervals with 90 seconds rest to stretch between each and they were slowing to the point of total exhaustion. When I finally stopped after just over 108k, it was because the knee compensation was reaching the point I knew the OK pain was about to turn to bad pain. And saying no more at that point isn’t giving in to mental weakness. It’s just prudent.

So, while this is the end of a journey that began over a year ago when I etched the date in stone after getting the all clear from the doctor, it is very much also the start.

Oh, and on a purely #trival #notactuallytrivial level, those compacted foam bolster things you roll around on to get a deep tissue massage – they’re AMAZING.

Most important of all – here’s why I was doing it – for the amazing Apopo


5 thoughts on “New Horizons

  1. Brilliant stuff. I have had similar experiences with pain on endurance events. First time I did London Marathon in 2004, I naively thought it would be simple to run 26 miles, after not running for 15 and having three children and having developed back problems. I did give myself a year but it wasn’t enough. First I had back pain, then sciatica. When I’d just worked that out I got iliotibial band syndrome, which kicked in on a 12 mile run, agonising. I over trained and youngest was a year old, so we kept passing colds to each other. I ended up doing about 1/3 of the schedule, and in order to preserve my knee, had to walk a lot during training. On the day I was determined I was going to go for it, but a combination of 24 degrees and my knee bandages being too tight, meant I had a scary episode where I went all dizzy and goose pimply. So I left them by the side of the road and revised my goal as being to get round and sod the time. I ran 2/3 walked the rest, my knee swelled up and was cripplingly painful, but I got to the end (in 6 hrs 15 mins). Ever since then I’ve realised that my mind cannot overcome my body’s frailties. I’ve managed another Marathon (heat and stomach meant I ran but in the same time) & 3 1/2’s at just over 2.5 hrs. I always hope for better, but have to acknowledge, that at nearly 50, staying fit, doing the event, not ducking out, is more important than chasing an elusive PB. So you should be very proud of your achievement, 100K and 9 hrs rowing is extraordinary. Well done . (I’ve also had the same thought many times about chronic pain – thinking of friends often keeps me going – as you say it’s self-inflicted!)

    • I think reevaluating one’s goals is essential – perseverance in the face of adversity is a wonderful quality, but sometimes we have to change what we’re aiming at. The mind is incredibly powerful and can push us to do amazing things – but it can only take us so far if our body says no – and bodies do say no, and that’s not someone’s fault (which brings out the disability rights campaigner in me!)

  2. A very inspiring read. I take my hat off to you Dan, that is a long way to row – especially when it is a matter of internal will. I understand also about mindfulness over pain, though I think your situation was much harder to deal with as it was optional thus requiring a greater infliction of your willpower over your body. Bravo sir! Bravo!

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