Friday, 18 April 2014

London Marathon - Failure & Perspective

“To call running ‘fun’ would be a misuse of the word. Running can be ‘enjoyable’. Running can be ‘rejuvenating.’ But in a pure sense of the word, running is not fun.” Dean Karnazares – Ultramarathon Man.

I had been looking forward to writing this post. As soon as I set the blog up I was thinking about my triumphant piece post-marathon, where I would feign humility about what I had achieved and wait for the hearty congratulations to roll in. Instead I am writing something quite different.

I did not complete the London Marathon last Sunday. I fell short, quite literally, as my temperature reached 41.5 degrees and I collapsed in a dirty, bloody heap on the side of the road. I was carted off, probably on a stretcher, to the St Johns Ambulance medical team based at Poplar. I don’t recall the finer details except that my legs very suddenly turned to lead; like a dream when you’re trying to sprint but can’t move. The grazes on my knees tell me I crumpled rather than keeled over.

This is not because I ran as a Womble – the pictures below are of me borrowing the costume from my cousin, who I bumped into before the start of the race.

I have checked my GPS and can see that I hit the deck on Ming (the Merciless) Street, which is a fraction short of 21-miles, and that I had been running for almost exactly three hours at that point. 

When I came to I couldn’t move and was covered with bags of ice. I immediately tried to sit up and nothing happened. It took at least half an hour before I could move my arms and legs, but it was 90 minutes before the medical team pulled me up into a sitting position and later hauled me upright and over to an ambulance. Up until then I had spent the entire time thinking I was paralysed. I know now that fear was unfounded, the severe pain in my back and neck should have told me that, but rational thoughts don’t really kick in at such times.

What I have since discovered was that the more realistic danger was in fact death. A bit melodramatic I know, but had the medics not found me quickly I would have been in serious trouble. I was diagnosed with severe hyperthermia (the opposite of hypothermia – which is extreme cold). The definition of the condition reads thus:

“An elevated body temperature due to failed thermoregulation that occurs when a body produces or absorbs more heat than it dissipates. Extreme temperature elevation then becomes a medical emergency requiring immediate treatment to prevent disability or death.

“Hyperthermia is defined as a temperature greater than 38.3 °C. it requires an elevation from the temperature that would otherwise be expected. Such elevations range from mild to extreme; body temperatures above 40 °C can be life threatening.”

As mentioned, I was at 41.5 °C. What freaks me out the most is that I did a training run of almost this exact distance and time. Had the same thing happened out here in Sano four weeks ago, then I would not be sat here now, of that I am certain.

When my brother and sister arrived they were a trifle horrified when I said that we still needed to get to the pub. I had people to meet and already felt like I had let them down by not finishing, and had no intention of making that worse by not showing up to my own party. The fact I was shaking, my face ash-white and my lips blue were their chief concerns, not to mention that I didn’t notice there was a bag of ice still down my pants…but we went anyway.

So how do I feel about it six days later? Devastated, obviously, but I also have a sense of perspective given to me by the sheer terror I was in for those 90 minutes. I’ve never known anything like that, and never want to again.

Last year my brother did the race, got injured just a couple of miles in and dragged himself around the entire course in more than seven hours. Like me in Berlin five years ago, his first marathon was all about finishing and I said to him at the time that, odd as it may sound, a marathon is not just about race day. It is about the six months before, the early starts and the sacrificed weekends. I had been proud of him for those efforts, so I have been trying to tell myself the same thing.

This was my second marathon however. For me it was not all about just crossing the finish line. I had no intention of walking, as I had in Berlin. I walked greater distances than 26-miles several times during my Thames Walk. I wanted to RUN a marathon, and so I went to London with a target set, a desire and belief that I could complete 26.2 miles in less than four hours. A tough target sure, but I genuinely believed I could do it. Astonishingly, I still do as I was tracking for 3:55 when I went down and felt absolutely fine right up until the seconds before I lost consciousness.

I don’t believe I did much wrong. I drank plenty, I ran in the shade when I could and through the showers when I saw them. What I would do differently is not wear a hat and ignore the pre-race paperwork which tells you not to waste water by pouring it over your head; perhaps the single worst piece of advice imaginable on a hot day. I have every intention of returning next year.

Ultimately I am taken back to a quote that I have used again and again over the years, including in my own book, and one that Dean Karnazes uses in Ultramarathon Man after his own failure (he had only managed 72 miles of a 100-mile race):

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I have been lucky these last few years. I have known the triumph of high achievement with the Cricket on Everest Expedition, and to a lesser extent my Thames Walk. Failure can be relative. I have at least failed in an attempt to push myself to my limit. My pride is definitely wounded, but it will recover I’m sure.

To everyone who was out on the day, I thank you sincerely. To those I managed to see while I was over, it was great to catch up and I am sorry there was not more time. I managed to miss my flight back on Tuesday morning so had a bonus day and caught up with a few others which was brilliant. To those I did not see, I missed you all and thank you to those who sent messages of support.

Now it’s back to cricket in Japan

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Sakura Season and Pub Crawling in Sano

Every spring a wave of flowers sweeps across Japan. It begins in Okinawa and rolls from island to island to mainland. They call it the Sakura Zensen – the “Cherry Blossom Front” – and its advance is tracked with a seriousness usually reserved for armies on the march. Progress reports are given nightly on the news and elaborate maps are prepared to show the front lines, the back lines, and the percentage of blossoms in any one area.

Nowhere on earth does spring arrive as dramatically as it does in Japan. When the cherry blossoms hit, they hit like a hurricane. Gnarled cherry trees, ignored for more of the year, burst into bloom like fountains turned suddenly on.

The coming of the Sakura marks the end of winter. And in one of those extreme shifts that seem to mark Japanese life, the nation swings from intense work to intense play. These cherry blossom parties, called hanami, are a time for looking back and looking ahead, for drowning one’s sorrows or celebrating another successful year. Toasts are made to colleagues, absent friends, distant relatives and the Sakura themselves. Then, as quickly as they arrive, the cherry blossoms scatter. They fall like confetti, and in their passing they leave the dark green shimmering heat of summer, the wet misery of the rainy season, the typhoons of late August. At their peak – at full blossom and full beauty – the Sakura last only a few days.

During their brief explosion, the cherry blossoms are said to represent the aesthetics of poignant, fleeting beauty: ephemeral, delicate in their passing. The way to celebrate this poignancy, naturally, is to drink large amounts of sake and sing raucous songs until you topple over backwards.
The Sakura Trees behind my ofice
Much as I would like to claim those words as my own, they are taken from ‘Hokkaido Highway Blues’ by a chap who hitch-hiked the length of Japan called Will Ferguson, following the Cherry Blossom. Should you ever wish to get a good insight into Japan and its people, I highly recommend it.

It is Sakura season right now, and I had my first and sadly only Hanami party a week ago at the British Embassy in Tokyo. It was a cool opportunity to go to a place steeped in history and hang out for a few hours. I suspect that by the time I return from London the season will be done and the time for getting pissed under a tree will be over. As such I decided that to honour the season and to welcome our new national coach, the marvellously named Dhugal Bedingfield, we should do a pub crawl in Sano on Friday night.  

I can’t say that there are an abundance of boozers in this town, but once two men commit to a night of solid drinking then nothing can stand in their way. As such we continued until 1am before a late visit to the 7/11 in order to by fried goodness and more beer to finish off the evening, but not before making my Japanese Karaoke debut and bemusing the small bar of about 10 people with a perfect rendition of Mr Wendal.

Admittedly this is not best marathon preparation. However, every so often, as the Sakura season demonstrates, it is necessary to forget what’s gone before, what is coming up, and simply concentrate on the present.

As I write the marathon is seven days away, I’ve just completed my last long-ish run and I’m feeling worryingly confident about where I’m at. I fly on Wednesday and along with a work conference at Lord’s, a wedding, registering for and then running the London Marathon and seeing friends and family, it should be a quiet six nights.