It's 2am. The steam of my breath fogs my glasses in staccato blasts, my hands on knees stance keeps a hold on the involuntary swaying motion of my body, chunks of undigested chocolate-chip cookies are lodged back at the intersection of my nasal passage and throat – a result of brutal vomiting. The sky is black, the ground pristine white with snow (save for the blotch of my vomit) I have just run 42km and as I look back at the support van following me and my running partner, Juan, I see the flashing lights of the Gendarmes (country police) talking to our crew. Is this real, the scene? Or the fact that I have just run an undulating marathon in -4 through a snow blizzard? I don't know any more, all I know is that I am supposed to continue for another 15km and all I want is to get into that van and pass out. I am done, I give up, how did I get here? For that, I have to go back to the beginning.
|Clockwise from top left - Laurent, Marie-Pierre, Francine, Moi, Juan, Thierry, Olivier, Daniel, Carole, Leslie, Ella, Maelize. Photo: L'Bagnard Kikou|
|Champagne corks fly. Photo: Herve Baete.|
|Ready to go. Photo: Herve Baete.|
It started, as most things epic do, out of the blue. My dear friend Leslie shared a friends event on facebook last Thursday saying Who wants to spend their Saturday night running? The first thing that caught me was the boldness of it. If she'd have mentioned a free entry into the Paris marathon or a Sunday morning get-together I wouldn't have given it a second look. But this was a challenge. I read on impatiently to discover that it would be a night run from Versailles to Rambouillet, a push of 55km each way. I would be aiming to get it done for two causes that I mentioned in my previous post. The details were sketchy though, some were doing it in a relay, and Juan (our captain) would do it out and back. The fact that my longest run previous to this was 19km in mid January did not perturb me, worse still, my last run was 9km three and a half weeks ago. I was dawdling in signing up for races, had no mojo and felt a lack of inspiration as to where my path was really leading. The authenticity of my running had dissolved somewhere along the way, eroded, if you will, like a cliff facing a slow but deliberate tide. The constructs of races are all well and good to force one to bring out the competitor within. But I fear it is that same pressure and anticipation of timing, distance and performance that detract from the purer essence of connecting the mind to the feet. Running should not be about compartmentalising, it should serve as an exploratory means to delve into the most primal of feelings, seamlessly uniting emotion and movement in singularity.
After many online messages and a few questions as to what exactly would happen (no one knew for sure) we agreed to meet at the Mairie de Versailles (think town hall, but epic) at 20:30 on Saturday evening. I met Juan and the rest of the team. Leslie, Carole, Francine, Thierry, Maeliz, Marie-Pierre and Ella. Olivier would drive a car in front and Laurent would drive behind with our change of clothes and water/food etc. We wrapped up to the maximum, drank champagne (well, they did) and set off at 21:00 with 55 snowy km ahead. It was a jovial start, the excitement of the unknown a welcome distraction from the knowledge that in a few hours time there wouldn’t be much talking at all. The route itself wound steadily up and down through quaint little villages and valleys, folks in the window seats of restaurants peering out over crème brulee wondering what the heck we were up to. The snow came harder and we laughed in its face. Occasionally Olivier would drive off into the distance and we would meander trough a country lane with just our head lamps to guide us. The unpredictable snow-covered trails were technically deceptive due to poor visibility. The pace was steady and at 20km another car that had been along for the ride and driven by Daniel, a friend of the group, took Marie-Pierre, Ella and Maeliz back home. Leslie and Carole jumped into the van. That left Juan, myself, Thierry and Francine to push on. Approximately 7km later I decided I needed to stop and eat, we pulled over quickly and swigged on Coke and devoured cookies, cakes and anything else caloric. We continued at a decent clip with each of the four of us taking turns up front to shield the hostile wind. The country lanes had given way to open roads and fields with no protective shelter. At 35km Francine jumped into the van, Thierry followed at 37km. Now it was just Juan and I. Quick background on Juan – when I grow up I want to be just like him. Generous and supportive beyond belief and a machine on two legs, has run the toughest races in the world (finished the Spartathlon three times in 33hrs and a list as long as my arm of other great physical feats) I knew I was in good hands. The wind howled at us like a wolf in the night trying to guard its territory, the conditions told us we were not welcome, we told the conditions to to f#*k off.
|Early days, photo opp. Photo: L'Bagnard Kikou|
|Leslie keeping me topped up. Photo: L'Bagnard Kikou|
|Flying with Juan on my right. Photo: L'Bagnard Kikou|
At 41km I started to teeter dangerously on that ledge where everything feels like it is starting to cave inwards. The very core of my stomach, the gut that keeps the engine pumping, was not digesting and I felt a rapid descent into wooziness. I wanted to puke in hope that it would purge me, but I knew an empty engine would go nowhere fast. The darkness that surrounded us now was pervasive in my mind. It mirrored my fears that it was all going to end for me soon. Juan held back to speak to the crew as I walked limply up a large hill, slipping from lack of purchase on the glistening ground. My head tilted to the right as small amounts of water dribbled down my cheeks, freezing in my beard. Then I hurled it all up, it was like an inverted Icelandic geyser with a chocolate hue. Gushing towards the virgin white powder like an explosion in a rigid pipe. By the time Juan reached me and told me that the Gendarmes were just checking out what was going on, we were ready to go. I felt good, but acutely aware that I was on borrowed time. I had no fuel in my body so I would be running on fumes from here on in. My stomach was too sensitive for anything other than the frequent sips of water that Leslie passed me through the window of the van. I told myself that I'd call it a night at 45km, who would be disappointed with that? I mean, come on, 45km in these conditions was already heroic, right? I got to 45km and decided to stop looking at my GPS watch, it was too distracting, so I gazed at the silent road ahead and put one foot in front of the other, quite simple really. Juan coaxed me and nurtured my declining state until I hit 50km and entered that zone where you are not you any more. The pain was not mine, it belonged to the guy with the burning oesophagus I'd left in the ditch an hour ago. My legs were the legs of a person who has the ability to go forward without impediment or restraint. My legs belonged to every person who would give their all to be able to walk without aid or care. My mind became free in all the ways it had never been in my lifetime, free of the guilty flashbacks of addiction, free of barriers that we place on ourselves everyday in how we judge others, free from distractions whilst balancing on a razors edge of heightened awareness. Juan and I took it home together, arm in arm, after 5:43 spent on our journey.
|A beer, and he's off again. Photo: L'Bagnard Kikou|
|Done. Photo: L'Bagnard Kikou|
Once changed and in the car I marvelled at Juan as he downed a beer, ate a sandwich and ran back through the night, Leslie, Francine, Carole and Thierry joined him for the last 15km as I watched in admiration from Olivier's car. There was no shiny medal at the finish line, there was no crowd gathered to cheer us on, no record of what we had done. In our minds rests a camaraderie that time will not distort, a shared collective of being part of something that is greater than any one of us. Stepping out into that night changed everything for me, it gave my running a purpose again and gave me back a slant that was until now a distant memory. The uniqueness of this endeavour will be the yardstick in measuring the purity of everything else that comes after.
|Taking it home. Photo: L'Bagnard Kikou|