Sunday, 24 May 2015

Injury and preparation

Over the past weeks, discussions in the Mapp household have turned increasingly to the support driving effort. After much deliberation and debate, a target-time of sixteen hours has been agreed upon, and a list of checkpoints with timings drawn up. A print-out, distributed to everyone involved, includes my expected arrival time at various crucial axis points along with the phone-numbers of everyone in the team - from the Onchan Silver Band, to drivers, to back-up drivers, to emergency back-up drivers who don't even know they're involved. There are some challenging logistics around Andreas, where I am scheduled (hoping...) to arrive after ten hours and twenty-six minutes, at 6.26pm. At this point, or nearby, my mum and John will liaise with my fellow sourdough baker Matt Shepherd, to hand over the crates of food and equipment before they head home to give Emma Mapp the car. This is because she will be sat in a dark room completing the elaborate cycle of rituals that culminate in the fabled 'sleeping of the baby'. Rituals fulfilled, she will leave the care of baby Rosa to Mum and John, and drive out to meet me and Matt Shepherd at Lezayre at approximately 7.35pm. What could go wrong?

Mum and John are well primed on the task at hand. John and I spent a while over the map last time they were over - although John was mostly figuring out where he was going to get his breakfast from. Also, the three of us have already worked together over the thirty-nine miles of the End to End, and a fine team we made. I have great memories of John shouting me up the hill, whilst my mum could be overheard asking, 'doesn't he need a rest?'

Whilst everything from Peel to the Round Table was certainly hot and challenging, we all really enjoyed the 2014 End to End. My only experience of racing having been the Parish, there was something luxurious about being finished in the afternoon, having lunch with the support team and family and then driving home. 'So you'd only be at about Ballaugh now,' commented Emma as we ate soup in the sun - it was a sobering thought. Near the other end of the distance race-walking spectrum however, the Northern 10 last Sunday felt like a tiny Parish in itself.

I had searched on-line for the course details and the sort of times racers finished in - when I saw that Alex Eaton had last year set the record at 1hr 20mins my jaw needed pushing back into its socket. I did the maths - exactly a 7.5mph average. After dwelling on that for a few days, I got into my trainers, joined the Northern 10 course at the end of my drive and hit go on the stopwatch.

Nowhere near. Fair enough, it was a bit windy. Fair enough I was carrying a rucksack full of water. Fair enough, there will be a bit more adrenaline on the day. But still - nowhere near. That evening I looked up the times again, and there it was. One hour and twenty minutes. In fact, all the walkers last year, up and down the results list, had put in seriously impressive times. I showed Emma the website and described the uncompromisingly flat course - maybe ten mile races aren't for me.

On the day of the race I turned up early and eager. I had eaten and drunk really well all week, and gone to the length of not playing football in the back garden with my little brother the night before. I pestered as many walkers and judges as possible for some advice, and after parading my walk around, was told to push my elbows further back, and to work my legs with my arms. On the starting line I noticed that no-one else was carrying water around their waist, and so hurriedly ditched my hydration belt. A moment later, events sweeping me along despite my better judgement, I was panting past Skyhill Plantation in third place with a stitch. Richard Gerrard was just ahead, Adam Cowin working on an ever-growing lead further up the road. And as we passed Ellan Bane Farm I thought it had all gone wrong: 'what are you doing!' I could have yelled, 'you know you can't go this fast!' And as we approached the Ginger Hall I was gasping for water - 'just ahead,' shouted Richard Wild, 'by Sulby bridge'. There I swallowed half a bottle of water at once and threw the rest over my head - ten miles! This is impossible! On the distance I could see the long-legged Richard Gerrard maintaining the same effortless speed with minimal movement. I pushed my elbows further back. And I powered my failing legs with my arms.

On Jurby road, not far from where we live, Emma and John appeared to cheer me along, and we fought off the sun with lovely big swigs of tap water that had never tasted so good. Their presence was instantly effective, as I suddenly got the sense of being on the home straight. The road ahead and behind me emptied, and a fantastic wind began to push me along - I focused on the sea-blue sky, and remembered a little mantra I had used in the End to End to keep my attention on driving the body forward.  I swallowed water, loved the wind, and landed in Mooragh Park before I noticed it. I found difficulty in stopping a body that no longer felt like mine and found my way to the stopwatch. One hour, twenty-five minutes. I smiled.

And am still smiling. My body on the other hand has taken a good week to recover, and I'm still nursing an ache on the inside of my left knee. I've been forced to take the week off training, and this evening I've been stood in the living room staring forlornly at the training record. I made a point of shading the week in and writing on the word INJURED in heavy black lettering. So after work this afternoon, instead of going training, we got Rosa to sleep in the back of the car and went for a pleasure cruise down the course from Bride to Ramsey. I was explaining my previous blog entry to Emma, and she was full of ideas for lifting the spirits in any and all eventualities. As we past The Grosvenor, we remembered the Onchan Silver Band huddled under the porch during the very wet late afternoon in 2013. I remembered the harmonies dispersing as I continued along the pavement alone, leaving just the trombone on an inner part, strangely de-contextualised and fading into silence until eventually it couldn't be told apart from the sound of rain upon the tarmac. The fields were black-green and wringing wet - they smelled extremely fresh and alive. Every time I looked at my watch I was excited - I really was in fifth place - I really was an hour ahead of my time - this was really the race and there really were only twenty-nine miles left


A giant gate flanked by two black stone towers barred the road - I was ushered by a marshal through a rustic wooden door into one of the towers. Once inside I could see that a number of the walkers had been diverted here, through a series of labyrinthine transparent corridors ascending towards a glass flyover that appeared to connect the two towers. Vinny Lynch was kneeling on the ground in front of me - there was some trouble with the safety pins on his race number and he was swearing. Trying to get round him, I ended up taking a wrong turn, and wound up stooped in a dusty sarcophagus with a couple of comedic animated skeletons wearing trendy clothes.

With great relief I reached the kitchen, where I sat down and began to eat and drink. Some friends I haven't seen for years were there, and we were all smoking like we used to in the old days. We were in the middle of a long conversation about the music of Charles Ives when Jock Waddington walked quickly past the window - for a second he turned back to look over his shoulder, highly anxious, even panicked. I leapt to my feet - what the hell am I doing?! We're in the middle of the race! Where are my trainers?! Has anyone heard from Emma?!

Inches away, in a simultaneous and parallel dream, Emma stands in the middle of a road with no pavement, holding the sleeping baby in both arms, anxiously glancing between the two grey vanishing points, waiting for John to show up in the support car. He's already late, she has no idea where I am and the clouds are getting darker and darker.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Surprising ourselves.

This Parish Walk, some of us will surprise ourselves. We may triumph over some physical or emotional difficulty. We may get further and faster than we could have hoped. We may earn the praise and respect of those around us.

We may not.

To those who haven't tried it, it will probably seem melodramatic to say so, but I have found the walk to be an adventure into the pit of the soul.

We find ourselves to be decent people. We care about our health, about community events - we are good sports. But judgements such as these will encounter some severe stress testing over the summer solstice. The calm, the meek, the softly spoken will be heard swearing at their support drivers. The community volunteer will not notice himself  throwing another plastic wrapper into a hedge. The failed tactician, exhausted and crestfallen, bitten with anger and embarrassment, will begin to invent excuses, feign injuries, develop conspiracy theories... even cheat. Rare though I'm sure it is, I believe I have witnessed it with my own eyes.

Last summer, the feelings were complex. On the one hand I was overcome by love for my baby daughter - constantly nagged to get home and hold her, to put her to bed and put a stop to this irrational and obsessive race! On the other hand, a demon was inventing ways out of having to face an embarrassing performance. I'm not proud of the train of thought, but I'm sure it's crossed the minds of one or two other sportspeople facing apparent defeat, and in retrospect, I find something very unsporting in the act of retiring from the race after being overtaken. There is an element of resentment, of not wanting to give the better performer the clean victory they have won, of trying to take away from their achievement. But these now are the reflections of the self I was familiar with, of the good self who, under the conditions of a hot and under-trained Parish Walk attempt, proved to be fragmentary, illusory - even fictitious.

And I would not call the unsporting, disappointing self real either - in the nebula of this experience somewhere, as in all of us, there is a Mike George of the 2012 Parish Walk who, vomiting, collapsing, hallucinating, overcame the inevitable waves of depression and frustration that followed Richard and Vinny's overtaking of him, to fall half-dead over the finish line in surely the most incredible 3rd place performance any of us will ever see.

In a way, we train in utter darkness. Of all the eventualities I prepared for last year, stopping before the end hadn't even crossed my mind. Over the years we build strength, over the months we build speed, and in the final weeks we load our bodies with fuel and water - but with the psychological challenge of up to twenty-four hours of unbroken concentration, and with the core of our personalities turning out to be dreamt, how can we possibly prepare for the encounter with ourselves?

I was walking up to the Manx Harriers clubhouse before the End to End. ''What's the story then,'' asked the infamously straight-up Robbie Callister, ''was it really blisters?'' Honestly, I didn't know. The blister in question circumnavigated the leading toe of my right foot and was the size of a toe itself. The nail could be seen bobbing about in the plasma. Placing it onto the ground produced a sensation like a long, red hot needle being sunk into my foot. But I have asked myself over the course of the year - didn't that sort of thing happen before? Haven't I carried on under those conditions before? Wouldn't I carry that same blister over the finish line this year, and in good time?

The answer to that question, as to the question of how we will all fare under the gruelling conditions of this unique endurance race, will, and must, for another five weeks remain a surprise.