I love helping people, one school report card even said so…it also said that I should spend more time on my own work instead of helping others. Maybe I was always destined to be a personal trainer.
In 2011, I put together 3 relay teams to enter the awesome, but no longer happening, First Monster Duathlon around Loch Ness, Scotland and we had an absolute whale of a time. Since then I’ve got groups to do half marathons, obstacle races and triathlons but nothing on the same scale as the First Monster Duathlon. To take a group away to a big event which involves an element of planning is something I love doing and to take 12 people to Inverness and race around Nessie’s home was certainly a highlight of my life so far. Since then two events have been on my radar for a while, one is the Thunder Run (I have a team of 8 in this year’s race) and London Cardiff 24.
I have always been a fan of relay races and as I’m someone who likes to ‘kick my ass’ and put myself under pressure with regards to goal setting, put me in a relay race and I thrive off of the pressure to do well for my team mates. London Cardiff 24 was right up my street…160 miles – Teams of 12 – 24 hours!
Once I’d spoke to race director Ross at the Running Show in Sandown, I had to put a team in but instead of selecting a team with the intention of competing for top spot, I wanted to just put it out there on social media and ask if anyone fancied joining me to see what kind of person would say yes! It didn’t take long to fill the 12 places. Within a few hours of asking I had Dafydd, Ellie and Louise. I have met these 3 before and loved the fact that they had not met each other. Not long after I had Phil and Mark interested, two lads that I had never met which excited me. These two had the balls to say yes, even though they knew no one. Rob, a guy I knew from primary school and had met again in a swimming session in Hampton Outdoor Pool asked if he could join and still on the school theme, some friends were wishing a girl called Lynn luck in her Marathon de Sables training so I asked to be Facebook friends and put it to her…YES, was her response but only if the MdS hadn’t done her in. Next was a client of mine, Conall and his brother Lochlainn and girlfriend Zahra. Final place went to another client Peter, who on recently turning 50 was up for some big challenges…”I’m in!”
I was really overjoyed to be putting together a team of like-minded individuals who didn’t really know each other as this was a challenge but one that I was confident would work.
I began to ask the group via email what times and distances they’d ran, what legs of the race they’d like to run and what jobs they’d prefer to do. On their times and ‘leg preferences’ I allocated them two legs each and dished out a few jobs. I needed to do this early as I am and have been guilty of, taking on too much and wanted to stop this from happening as soon as possible (remember this!!!).
Ellie and Mark did an awesome job designing and sorting out the vests, Rob (works for Hotels.com) and Dafydd (local to Cardiff) got us a good rate at the Hilton, Phil sorted out a 17 seater minibus, Conall and Zahra sorted out some food and water and Lynn collected the kitty leaving me to coordinate things and speak to my sponsors For Goodness Shakes about some supplies to help us along the way…and help they certainly did!
Everything sorted, the 30th May soon came around and our only real concern was the fitness of Mark, who’d just completed the Edinburgh marathon the weekend before but by his own admission, probably shouldn’t have. We decided on just 3 drivers as to get any more would’ve caused us some hassle so after collecting the minibus we went to Kneller Hall, registered at 3.30pm then picked up everyone else from Twickenham train station and then made our way to ASK for our last hot meal for a while.
Making our way back to Kneller Hall, we saw some of the earlier groups doing their ‘team’ lap of the pitches before their first leg runner darted off towards Twickenham Stadium and to checkpoint 1. The teams had been seeded on everyone’s 10km/half marathon times and despite a wee bit of protesting (protecting my team) we found ourselves as the 5th fastest despite none of us having done this event before, however I was reassured that we had a fast team and that we needed to leave 3.5 hours after the first team at 5pm. The reason I complained was that my main aim for our team was not to get ‘leapfrogged’ which means you opt or told to skip some of the later legs as you are falling behind and need to keep up. With us being the 17th team to leave we’d had our chances of this happening massively increased. Anyway, I suppose it was a complement to our team.
As it approached 8.30pm, the final 5 groups were called up to the race briefing and everything was explained. We were joined by local Team DH group who were armed with a banner and ‘toilet roll’ pom poms…no expense spared. I think we were the only team with our own cheerleaders! 😉
At 8.30pm we set of on a steady lap of the football pitches, checked in with our GPS Tracker at the team checkpoint and then I was quickly on my way…well I say quickly as it took me a few seconds to get past my cheerleaders who decided to surround me on the way out as if they were my bodyguards. A quick “Get Out Of My Way!” in true personal trainer style and I made my way past Twickenham Stadium and onto the A316 to Richmond. My route was very familiar to me as I train clients in this area so it was head down and go for it. Heading down the tow path to Kew Bridge I was faced with a few rambling groups but much worse was the swarms of flies that at times were like a blanket…a couple of coughs and splutters and I was making my way over Kew Bridge towards Brentford and to checkpoint one. My personal goal was to make sure I pushed hard on my legs and a 39 minute 10km had me satisfied. Once the GPS Tracker ‘numbers’ were identified and text in Ellie (with Peter for support) were on their way to checkpoint two (5 miles away).
I had a quick shower with a bottle of water to clear the free-loading river flies that were stuck in my sideburns, eyes and teeth and then we were making our way to the Tesco’s just north of Heathrow. Dafydd was on driving duties for the first third of the epic journey and I took the role of navigator (as we were using my dodgy SatNaG). We were on our way and we were buzzing.
At checkpoint two we heard about teams already getting lost…this seemed harder than we initially thought but it got dark very quickly. Ellie and Peter came in later than they expected as they’d had a mishap and went off course for a bit but we’d made it, cleared checkpoint two and had Louise pounding her way with a 8.6 mile run towards Slough. This was definitely night running and on a Friday night it seems that there are quite a few ‘druggies’ hanging around the underpasses of West London. A relieved Louise made it to checkpoint three in good timing to hand over to Conall who had to just follow the A4 to Taplow for 5.5 miles. Another good run under our belt and now it was over to Phil with a big 10.3 miles through Maidenhead into the wilderness and onto Henley-on-Thames.
The long leg gave us time to relax for a bit, well us not Phil, so Dafydd got his stove out and boiled up a brew. The rest of us made use of the last proper toilets for 6 checkpoints. After watching some couples worse for wear from alcohol, Phil arrived into Henley and to checkpoint six at 1.40am on Saturday morning. Leg 6 was our first off-road leg and being described by the organisers as ‘spooky’ I decided to run with Zahra to ward off the ‘Bogeymen’. Although this leg was down as 3.35 miles, the elevation gain was 311ft. We battled the muddy, wet, over grown route to Rotherfield Peppard. On the way Zahra had a tumble but battled on until we seemed to be lost. After a bit of running around we decided that we may not be on the correct road but one that would take us to checkpoint seven. We arrived with wet, muddy legs and feet and my Garmin reading 3.97 miles to find that we were on the correct route all along…my map reading skills were obviously rusty. On a plus side we had a new catchphrase which can only be put as “FML”…ask Zahra to explain! 😉
Mark took over and did the 4.65 miles to checkpoint eight in Woodcote in fine style…well apart from the crossroads where we found him disoriented. I quickly helped him from the inside of the van (my map reading seemed back on track) and he was off. Lochlainn took over from Mark and made the 5.34 miles through Goring to Goring & Streatley Golf Club look easy and handed over to our recent MdS finisher Lynn who was taking on the first part of The Ridgeway. Although Lynn had conquered the deserts of the Sahara on her own, she was nervous about her leg and didn’t want to let the team down. I helped her to break the potentially difficult route down into segments and then she was off. I felt nervous for her but as the sun was rising so was my confidence. Lynn made it in good time sticking to the off-road 7.43 mile route like glue.
Whilst waiting for Lynn at checkpoint 10, Dafyyd, Rob and I witness an absolutely gorgeous sunrise and decided to take a few photos to show you how nice it was. None of the photos did it justice so I pretended to be ET instead…”PHOOOOONE HOOOOME!”
With Lynn save and sound and checked in, Rob, who chose to take on the longest leg of the whole race, set off at great pace along the 12.5 mile hilly, off road Ridgeway route. Daf and I jumped in the van and made our way through the kamikaze birds and wildlife to Uffington and checkpoint 11. On arrival, we decided to grab a quick kip as it was about 4am and we were starting to struggle. I remember seeing Daf get out of the van but I fell quickly asleep again before being woken up to find that Rob had arrived at the checkpoint only to find Peter ready to take over but no one from #FitTeam14 to text in his ‘numbers’. Luckily another team did it for him and two minutes later Daf found him and took him back to the van. I felt responsible as team captain and instead of realising we needed to dish out the job of being at each checkpoint to the others in the team, I took it upon myself to be there and do it. At this point, Daf who was tired and next to run handed over driving duties to Phil who got us to checkpoint 12 in good time. Peter completed a solid 6.79 mile run to hand over to our final runner Daf. All Daf had to do was to run 2.65 miles to the halfway point so we could do the team leg and start the second part. It goes to show how the lack of sleep took effect as Daf’s leg is described as a ‘very simple’ route but he turned up annoyed and disappointed having taken a detour and almost got lost. This was a test and it was proving so. We quickly got round Daf, handed out some banter and all 12 of us made our way around the 1.9 miles of the Coate Water Park in Swindon.
We all made good use of our first proper toilet stop and then drove onto checkpoint 14 whilst Ellie ran the 4.44 miles to Shaw Ridge Leisure and a very welcome Starbucks! They must’ve made a killing as every group that I saw were walking out with Muffins, Bagels, Cakes as well as copious amounts of Coffee to keep the runners going. Once Ellie arrived, Louise set off on her long 7.35 mile run along paths, country lanes and off-road sections to Checkpoint 15 in Milbourne Common Wood.
Strangely Louise seemed to take quite a bit of time as groups came and went in their minibuses. She’s a very quick runner but was taking quite a bit of time so we took the opportunity to pose for a quick ‘Oscar Selfie’. It became apparent that she was lost and so it seemed were another few groups. We found out that they had got lost and worked together to find their way. When Louise did make it in, I took the GPS tracker and having fuelled up on some Nectar Fuel Cells made my way on my final leg of 7.07 miles to Malmesbury. Again, I had a target time in my head and with a runner ahead of me in the distance I went for it. After a few of us getting lost including me on Leg 6, I ran with my thumb on the map covering the route as I passed buildings and junctions. It was easy to get lost especially when tired so I couldn’t let my team down again. I made it to checkpoint 16 in just under 46 mins…I was given the opportunity to make up for my earlier error and I thankfully did.
It was hard not to feel disappointed in our performances when we got lost and although we tried to rally around anyone who did lose their way, you could see that it didn’t matter what we said we felt we had let people down. It is typical of this group to feel like that because they all came together to do this event and wanted to be part of a team even though they didn’t really know anyone. It was a team of go-getters, achievers and of individuals who set themselves high standards…how could they not be disappointed.
This was echoed when ‘injured’ Mark took over from me and even though he had expressed doubt in be fit enough to complete all of his 10.58 mile leg to Hawksbury Upton Village Hall, flew passed us halfway saying he was fine and wanted to do it all…Hero or idiot?!? His physio will probably call him one but he was certainly the other to us…especially to me and Lynn as we were both on standby to help him out if need be.
At the village hall, I grabbed the opportunity to have a shower as boy did I need it but in doing so I felt my body relax and give into injury. On my run I felt my knee hurt but ignored it and it seemed to get better. However on walking back to the minibus I felt a limp develop and quite a sharp pain low on my shin. It was my turn to take over driving duties from Phil and to decide not to run any more. Mark stormed home looking fine but feeling sore to handover to Lochlainn at checkpoint 17.
The checkpoint postcodes had gone from TW to UB to SL to RG to SN and now it became GL. I’ll let you play a game and guess what they were but it was evident that we where really getting somewhere and on foot! Prior to setting off on this race quite a few people had wished me luck on my ‘bike ride’. They had thought we were cycling to Cardiff. To have done what we had already was incredible and here we were with 20 other teams…Mad? You decide!
As I said the group were a great bunch and one of the nicest of them all was Lochlainn. A cheeky Irish lad with a heart of gold so when he and a few other runners was faced with an angry Farmer telling them to “Get Off Her LAAAAAND” the others continued on the route and ignored her but not our Lochlainn. Her tried to speak to the woman and tell her what was going on. She was having none of it and told him to go back. It’s not as if he’s a local lad…none of us were so when we started to get concerned, we rang him and heard his story. He was down to do a ‘simple’ 7.89 mile run with 95% country roads and 5% off road. It’s a pity that the 5% was being patrolled by Old MacDonald’s Wife! He arrived in Tytherington having done a massive 12.5 miles equalling Rob’s planned route length and was gutted. Morale was taking a beating. I spoke to Louise about her earlier leg and she was gutted too. It was evident that we all wanted to do our best for ourselves but more importantly for our newly formed group. We couldn’t let this get us down so I decided to play McFly’s Greatest Hits…yeah, well done Stu! 😉
Zahra got us back on track with a great 2.57 miles to checkpoint 19 in Thornbury to hand over to her boyfriend Conall. At this point I started to worry as we were about 20 hours into the event and we were tired. A good few of us had got lost and now it was over to Conall to take on a leg marked “Difficult. Good map reading. Know where you are.”
We made our way to the checkpoint at Severn Bridge Services to find that the Severn Bridge was closed to vehicles. Before we set off on this race it was evident that a lot of us wanted to run across the bridge even though it was Lynn’s actual leg but with having to divert to the Second Severn Crossing to get to Wales by road we planned to let Lynn do it with the next leg runner, Pete to accompany her as we would not be able to position him in time to take over from Lynn. My navigator Daf, being a proud Welshman wanted to do it too so it was time for a new navigator Zahra.
Whilst we were planning that we were getting regular ‘WhatsApp’ messages (we set up a #FitTeam14 group earlier) from Conall. The first was that he had been attacked by a protective Red Kite and the second was the below picture with a caption saying “You shall not pass!”
Conall made it to checkpoint 20 and the trio set off across the bridge to Wales. Zahra stepped up and got us on to the southern bridge despite the diversions and over to Wales with no problems at all. I just wished I’d asked her to help out sooner as I was really starting to flag. On getting to checkpoint 21, we found Daf and Lynn then made our way to checkpoint 22 ‘Hampton by Hilton, Magnor.
Pete likes a challenge and this leg to checkpoint 22 was 10.79 miles and the description was “Very difficult. Good map readers only.” Now Pete’s a great guy. I’ve trained him for over a year and nothing is ever a problem with him but I started to work out that with him helping Ellie on leg 2, his previous leg and the team legs that he had already covered about 14 miles. This leg was going to be tough physically but also mentally. I felt for him as we waited in a car park by the side of the M4.
It was decided to empty the bus and have a little clear up which was a great idea, firstly because it needed a clean up but also because it got us working as a team again. Once that was done I decided to get us to welcome runners from other teams into checkpoint 22 by having a funnel where we could ‘high five’ them in. I did this because I felt camaraderie between teams was pretty poor and wanted to try to pick it up a bit. It didn’t seem to work but we had a laugh.
Whilst in the funnel we noticed what appeared to be a car accident with 2 cars facing each other, both of their hazard warning lights on, with one driver lying on the pavement motionless. After a few seconds of doubt, we all ran over to him as quick as our tired legs could take us to find out that he had a stiff back and was simply “having a stretch”. Now I’m not from Wales but is this the norm?! I only ask because he looked at us as if we were strange…anyway, excitement over. Peter finally made it in and it was evident that he’d been through hell! He’d got lost, fell countless times, cramped up and ‘Hit The Wall’…pretty tough then?!
Rob took over and ran the 6.9miles into Newport like a man possessed handing over to Phil at checkpoint 23. Phil set about getting us into Cardiff with a relatively long leg of 8.71 miles but what made it hard was the countless hills that he had to encounter. As I drove the route to checkpoint 24 changing down the gears all I could think about was rather him than me. We arrived at the penultimate changeover and spirits were raised as apart from Phil and Daf, we had all done it. I started to teach the group the words to Supergran (Scunner Campbell was the baddie Mark!), we had a throw about with my 3 year old son’s American football and we chomped on Welsh Cakes given to us by Phil’s sister.
We could taste the Guinness, visualise running into the Millenium Stadium but then it happened…I got the phone call I’d been dreading. The organisers wanted us to wait for Phil but then proceed directly to the stadium by vehicle. My heart sank…I felt I’d let the team down. I decided that Daf should go and do the final leg from Eastern High School to the Home of Welsh rugby and that we would go and find Phil. I drove back along the route and Louise rang a very confused Phil. After a small conversation where he sounded lost we eventually found him beyond the final checkpoint. On picking him up it was very clear that he was annoyed and rightfully so. He’d been making good progress but was told by another team that the way the were going was correct and to follow them. Now this wasn’t sabotage as the other group were lost but believed they knew where they were going. Anyway, we drove Phil back to checkpoint 24 to check in and for him to see his family and then made our way to find Dafydd. On finding him we gave him the GPS Tracker and then we made our way to the stadium…unfortunately the worst part of the trip started now.
The vehicle had made all checkpoints in good time and was never late but now, in the centre of Cardiff on a Saturday night with a 17 seater minibus full of tired runners our SatNag had a wobbly and so did I. The SatNag took us down routes that seemed to have us back where we started and I also opted for using instinct instead of the direction my iphone was telling me which was about a 3 mile route even though we could see the stadium just up ahead. Cue lots of frustration and confusion, road blocks and a traffic light that didn’t change even though we waited there for about 4-5 minutes (honest!). It was too much, I just wanted this whole journey to end. Shouts from the back of the bus were to just leave the van by the roadside and go…tempting, so bloody tempting. Eventually we settled to pay to park in the train station car park and hobble to the stadium. On our way, we meet Daf who told us all to get back in the van and he would drive us all there. I was losing the will to live as I hobbled back to the van with a limp that became worse with every stride. We got back in the van, did the 3 mile route that my iphone had been telling me to do, parked up in the stadium and after a final bit of confusion made our way inside the stadium. Now although I was at my wit’s end, you cannot fail to be happy at the prospect of running inside one of the UK’s greatest stadiums especially right next to the proud Welshman in our group shouting “Guys, not everyone gets to do this!”.
We made our way into an empty but epic stadium and around the pre marked final leg. A highlight was to see our faces and our bodies limping on the two huge screens inside the Millennium stadium where incidentally I’d spent the Hogmanay of 1999 at the Manic Street Preachers concert with friends. We got together and slowly jogged across the line as I popped the cork of a bottle of Champagne to celebrate the massive achievement that we’d done.
It was clear that we were one of the last to cross the line but given our late start time we weren’t last, we finished 14th out of 21 teams and in a respectable time of 25 hours, 59 minutes but most importantly, we hadn’t been leapfrogged.
We proceeded to look around the home changing rooms, posing for a few photos and then drank and ate loads in the limited time we had in the hospitality bar before going back to the hotel bar and drinking loads there. We carried on the ‘debrief’ that had started in the stadium even more tired and now drunk…bad idea. As opinions started to fly around and a bad vibe was created amongst a few of the group. The less said the better but on waking the next morning if you can call it that, we all had a laugh in Jamie’s restaurant in Cardiff and then drove the opposite way back from Cardiff to London in the minibus which was restricted to 65mph…I don’t know which journey was worse as I truly missed those extra 5mph! 😉
Whilst we were in the stadium bar the night before, during the debrief and I was the only one to say I wouldn’t do this event again and I am going to take this opportunity to explain this even though I did say “but ask me the same question again tomorrow”. I’d taken on too much…simple. I did it again. I wanted everyone else to be as fit and as ready as they could be for their legs and thought I was superhuman and could do everything myself. I learned AGAIN that this is not true. When in a team you need others to help out and I need to allow that to happen too. I crossed the finish line, tired, stressed and feeling I’d let everyone down for most of the mistakes that happened hence my response to the question about doing it again.
As I said I have learned the hard way…so what have I learned? I need to delegate…it’s simple. I did it before the event and that worked so well as all the jobs were done and I never got stressed once. The first mistake I made was for me to run the first leg. Next time, I would have me as one of the last runners. Why? Because by running the first leg, the race had started and apart from the drivers no one else knew what to do or what they could’ve done apart from get ready when it was time to do their leg. In not doing the first leg, I would’ve got everyone together and sorted out a rota from the get go. The main duties were obviously to drive, navigate and to organise the checkpoints, three jobs that Daf and I were heavily involved in and that took its toll on us. On occasions I was teaching some of the runners how to map read and use a compass too. Others did help out of course but I always seemed to be there and never completely relaxing. Even when Phil was driving, I was navigating. I will always blame myself before anyone else and what I was doing wrong was that I always wanted to be involved. The only leg that I wasn’t involved in was the one after my final leg where I was at the back of the minibus and I felt myself itching to get back up the front. As soon as we got to the checkpoint I was back amongst it punching in the postcode for the next checkpoint into the SatNag. The second mistake was having Daf run the last leg, although I thought he’d be suited to run it, he’d have been much better to have driven.
“No, you’ve stopped whingeing Stuart, would you do it again?” “Hell YEAH!!!”. It was epic, a monster of an event and one for next year’s race calender but this time I want the team to do well but I’d also love for #FitTeam14 to have formed into 2 possibly 3 #FitTeam15’s…who’s in?!