New email: “Congratulations, you have been accepted for the Spartan Race Thailand 2020.”
New email 15 minutes later: “Sorry, the Spartan Race Thailand 2020 has been cancelled.”
For obvious reasons this year’s iconic obstacle course event, which has recently grown in popularity in Thailand since 2017 was called off until further notice. I felt disheartened to receive this information because when I commit to something; I get real obsessive about it and I had already mentally committed to this challenge.
But this (one of the many) casualty of Covid was pale in comparison compared to what some people have had to endure during this unforgettable dystopian year and before long, we had agreed to run 188km (or so we thought) for a charity in Bangkok in much need of help after a rough 2020.
If you want to read more about our thought process before this mammoth run, you can do so in my article here. Now that my ever-so-tender injuries from the event have started to heal up, I’ll try my best to paint the picture of how we ran, walked, bled (from ungodly places) and limped a total of 198 kilometres (123 miles) in one long, tiring, agonising weekend.
Gareth and Johnny arrived in my home town Chiang Mai, on the eve of our self-governing ultramarathon on Thursday night for a chat about logistics and our very own pasta party at “Why Not” Italians Restaurant.
Bereft of banter and high on nerves we agreed to meet at my apartment for a high carb/high calorie breakfast early the next morning, Friday the 13th!
After a night of staring at the ceiling and doing a lousy job of pretending to sleep, the lads showed up at 5am and we got stuck into coffee, peanut butter on toast, oats, bananas, berries, pumpkin seeds and protein shakes totalling around 1400 calories each.
A little later we got in a taxi and arrived at our starting point, Doi Suthep Temple a little after sunrise, which was a little later than we had planned but not drama – we were finally on our way… or so I thought.
Imagine how utterly devastated I was to realise at the bottom of the 309 Doi Suthep steps that the reason for the unplanned nice bit of wind in my face was because I’d left my sunhat…right at the top of the steps where we had posed for photos before starting to run.
As you can envisage; they laughed hard while I groaned away back up to the top of the steps, already wasting precious amounts of energy that I would need when the going got tough.
After rescuing the aforementioned, noggin-sheltering guardian angel that was my tragically unhip hat, we made an agreement to run the first 25 kilometres until we got to Central Festival Mall, which would be on the cusp of leaving the city centre.
That first 25 didn’t go too bad at all, but I wasn’t to be lulled into a false sense of security as this was not my first rodeo. This was always going to be tough and I prepped my mind for just that.
With that being said, the first thought that I remember being consumed with was how bloody hot it was. I know, I know. It’s Thailand and I should know better, but our “winter” had just arrived and the week before I jubilantly (and naively) text the lads saying how cool it was getting up north because I usually have a cuppa, shirtless on my roof at sunrise and this time I needed to wear a thin hoodie due to the sneaky chill!
Cool story (literally), bro.
Our first break was at 7/11 where we devoured bananas, Gatorade, cereal bars and salt tablets, which would be a common theme (every hour on the hour) and cause of one of my many concerns the day after.
We speed-walked the next 8 kilometres and we were thankful to find a local restaurant with fans, water and decent grub. The chatty Thai owner took me by surprise when he said he used to study in England in a town called Durham, which is where I’m from. It’s rare to meet a local in Thailand who has heard of the place, let alone lived there.
My surprise quickly transformed into concern as I looked over at Gareth with his head in his hands. He was grimacing in pain and verbalising multiple concerns. I’m certainly no stranger to the art of catastrophising and I know only too well how it can physically exhaust you when it takes over your main focus.
We offered kind words such as “you’re doing so well,” spoken with complete genuinity of course, however at this point me there is no way me and Johnny could have predicted how Gareth was going to, in the next 40 hours fall to the lowest of low and somehow rise from the ashes like a beautiful Irish phoenix, leaving us in pure awe of his incredible, never-say-die grit.
Gareth was in a very unfavourable position as Johnny and I had experienced previous endurance pain together in terms of digging in through the pain barrier and succeeding after being convinced for hours that you can not. Thanks to a couple of mighty mountains and most poignantly running 6 marathons in 6 days in The Sahara Desert, 2019.
He didn’t have those experiences to remind him that his body can push through that almost-paralysing misery, something that ultramarathon legend David Goggins refers to as “Dipping into the Cookie Jar.”
I polished off my double portion Pad Thai and off we trotted for the next leg.
The road to 50km was BRUTAL. The blistering sun frying us along with the road’s devious incline, which we didn’t expect and when we finally got to our rest stop – the place was closed for business! Luckily Johnny has been studying Thai full-time lately and it’s pretty impressive, even more fortuitously – The Thai lady who he spoke with, who owned the place was symbolic of every Thai we met on our way to the White Temple; kind, warm, understanding, friendly and supportive.
She got us some water from her stock and allowed us to eat our snacks at her table. What an absolute gem!
We all bemoaned the blisters that we felt on our feet and Gareth went one better – taping his up. It was not pretty.
The sun started to descend as we set off again and at first I thought that would be a good thing – less hot sun equals easier run, right? Nope. The darkness proved to be a cruel mistress and perfectly emblematic to our dying morale.
As the sun went down, so did our collective spirit. There was no more conversation other than the haunting echoes from the repetitive, pessimistic voices in our minds and they were singing a grim tune. I’ve been here before – the constant fight with your negative internal dialogue, when each bit of pain you feel is a confirmation to the enemy in your head who says you can not and will not succeed.
The mocking, dominant voice that says you should just give up already, that you can’t do it, asks what the point of going on is and every now and then just for good measure, brings up things about yourself that you are wildly insecure and sensitive about.
It’s awful. Your body is already a wreck and your energy sources are depleted, but it’s as if your mind has invited the worst guest imaginable to wreak havoc and beat you while you’re already down.
And to top it off, a “Ghost of Endurance Runs Past,” which I really didn’t want to show up paid an untimely visit…
Prudes should click off now.
Much like day 2 on Marathon Des Sables (and every day after that)…my bumhole started bleeding with intense pain. I’m prone to this affliction on this type of event and I wrongly thought that my liberal use of Vaseline around my nether regions would have spared me the harrowing pain on this occasion, but no such luck – what I’d not-so-affectionately referred to as “Arsemageddon” post-Morocco, was making a comeback and I couldn’t have felt any lower.
What a pain in the ass!
(I’m not sorry).
Not the one to leave too much up to the imagination when bemoaning worrisome anal health amongst friends, I let out a distressing war cry of; “F*CK,” hours later as a big part of the dried blood came apart from my skin when I went for a danger scratch. I told the lads the source of my dismay and to my surprise one of them responded “I think it’s starting to happen to me too.”
“Me too, mate,” said the other in a dismal tone.
It didn’t make me feel any better knowing that Arsemageddon was now technically an epidemic in our clang and off we waddled on the long road to dinner around 70 kilometres, where for the second time that night, drunken groups of local men wished us well and took a genuine interest in our cause.
Thais are famous for being friendly and polite, but if you get off the tourist trap and go north; it’s a whole new level of kindness.
“Oh they have sweet chilli sauce, nice one,” I said in a slightly exaggerated, phoney tone as my pathetic, worn-out posture hovered over the plate and spooned it over my mountain of fried rice. I think we were just looking for small mercies to keep us going and anything to take our minds of the exhaustion and pain, we ‘only’ had 30 km to go to the guest house where we would grab some much-earned rest, but after running 70 km already, with the bum situation…we started to physically fall apart.
Arse issues aside – Johnny’s right calve was tight and kept pulling in pain, my right hamstring was doing the same and any time we stopped for a needed rest, it would seize back up and we would hop the first mile or so until we got more range of motion to walk more comfortably.
Gareth…well, he was an absolute wreck. I can’t even find words to describe the state he was in and I’m not sure the dictionary has one to do it justice. I’m pretty sure I saw the Grim Reaper walking behind him at one stage, but I think even he felt too sorry for him.
The road to our guest house was a long, steep incline and most of it had no streetlights. We started drifting apart from one another, Johnny in front, me in the middle and Gareth at the back. Occasionally we’d run (in a fashion) to keep the group together (followed by excruciating pain downstairs) but ultimately fatigue kicked in and all three of us walked alone for hours at one point, with our headlights as the main guide.
Just one foot in front of the other, trying to get to that guest house in one piece.
I started to hallucinate at one point that coca-cola bottles were rolling my way and I hopped over “them,” sometimes I stopped moving as I was sure Johnny was walking towards me with his hand out to stop, and occasionally the multitude of dead snakes on the road started being, well…not so dead anymore.
We finally made it to Mae Kachan town and started seeing civilisation. Street food vendors opening up and actual human beings, it seemed like an eternity since I’d last seen one. Johnny did a phenomenal job of navigating and controlling rest stops through the whole thing, but I rarely asked “how long left until (whatever destination)” as sometimes it can kill my morale if I overshoot my estimations. I prefer to zone out and just keep going.
I had just lost sight of Johnny’s bike light on the back of his bag anyway and I figured I’d pull out my phone and check how far away the guest house was. “It can’t be far” I thought, I squinted at my phone…28 minutes walk!
Heartbroken with the news, legs feeling like they were full of lead, a Thai guy pulled up to me on a bicycle. I’ve only just started learning Thai and I REALLY didn’t want to talk to anyone, but I obliged and communicated that we had started in Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai and were looking to finish in Wat Rong Khun (The White Temple), Chiang Rai.
His reaction was priceless and thankfully he didn’t stay for too much chat, cycling off into the distance in rapturous laughter.
Out of pure desire to get my head down for a few hours, I made peace with myself that if I ran to the guest house I would be in more agony but as soon as I got there was the promise of a rest. Not a bad deal, so I gunned it and within 10 minutes I was there.
The lady at reception smiled; “Top floor, no lift. More exercise for you, sorry.”
I immediately showered, the water dripping into the problem areas was absolute hell. I got my gear ready and inspected my injuries in the mirror.
Bleeding from the inside out and so was my testicle (the one on the right, thanks for asking).
I jumped on WhatsApp to speak to Johnny to make plans for the morning. I’m still not sure if he was being magnanimous, but he said I was only 10-15 minutes behind him. He was also in agony and had a good news/bad news situation…
Good news is we were actually at 102 kilometres, not 100. Bad news is Google Maps added an extra kilometre on our final destination, so 189 kilometres instead of 188. Weird.
I fell into bed and set my alarm for 4 hours later, falling straight asleep but waking up multiple times throughout it. I guess my body was full of adrenaline and cortisol and even though it needed rest, it was still very much in “fight or flight” mode.
When we met for breakfast I was fully expecting Gareth to be waving the white flag. But he was surprisingly chipper and after double portion fried rice, we got going again. Morale was back and Johnny had dangled the carrot of a nice coffee shop where we’d stop roughly 10 kilometres later.
Gareth was clearly in pain but barely moaned considering the state he was in. With mine and Johnny’s little ultra experience, we knew the problem areas in our feet and toes and had covered them up with zinc oxide tape in anticipation of that.
We still had a couple of blisters, but I know from personal experience that when you have your debut ultra run – you find out the hard way where you get them, so my heart went out to Gareth.
However, it turned out that he was the only one at the end of the run to not have any real bum issues. So for every bit of empathy I had for him, I will be equally forever envious of his titanium anus.
At one point me and Johnny were moaning about our injuries reopening and the scorching sun started beating down on us, but there was a slightly buoyant mood in the air, which turned out to be short-lived, however I was grateful for it while it lasted.
We admittedly overstayed at the coffee shop as we welcomed the rest after a second wind of energy and none of us were overly keen on going back out into the sun. Nevertheless, when the time came and we had to set off again, the smiles disappeared pretty fast.
We had no planned stop until later that night and an hour before we had our dinner, panic struck in as some online resources reported that the next milestone 7/11 closed at 7pm…it was 7:30pm already and we were not covering much ground, so at around 135 kilometres, we ran at a pretty decent pace to the 7/11, which turned out to be open and also our last chance to get any food or water – from here on in it would be around 40 kilometres of national park, with roadworks, no streetlights and no shops or restaurants until at least 170 kilometres.
I had zero desire to eat my veggie basil pad krapow, which is usually a welcome guilty pleasure of mine on hangover days. My body was obviously craving calories after burning over 13,000 from activity alone the day before and god knows how many for this day, but I shovelled it down along with some chocolate and as we got going I heard Johnny let out a sigh as he checked his Sunto watch…Google Maps had added another 2 kilometres on the final destination, so now 191 kilometres instead of 188.
I know they say “don’t shoot the messenger,” but for roughly 5 irrational seconds; I hated Johnny’s guts.
Off we limped into the wilderness, which turned out to be the hardest chapter by far of the road to 198. I’m not sure what the road is called and I don’t care, because I’m always going to refer to it as Purgatory Road. Because before we made it to heaven (The White Temple) our souls had to temporarily suffer in order to reach our eternal salvation.
So with two days of little to no sleep (we all slept bad the day before the run and only had 3 hours in the guest house), bleeding, seizing up, blisters, aching all over and running on empty, dehydrated – navigating around winding roads with mopeds and lorries buzzing past with no streetlights we plodded along once again in the dark, not saying a word to each other.
Attacks from packs of dogs became the norm, all 3 of us in unison robotically doing the traveller trick of pretending to pick up a rock to throw at them, the squatting down making us wince in pain every time.
After a short stop for some snacks and barely any chat we came to the conclusion that we would have to ration our water. The paradox being we tend to drink less in the dark than we do during the sunlight, but the dark is absolutely soul-destroying and miserable so we weren’t sure which was worse.
Our spirits were being tested to the max and this is the point where Gareth’s warrior-esque behaviour started kicking in….he started refusing to take breaks. Worried about dropping behind too far, he’d down a gatorade and salt tablet while me and Johnny rested 5-15 minutes and would limp off into the distance to get a head-start on the pack.
As he hobbled off I knocked back two salt tablets with my water and my body immediately rejected them, throwing them back up. It’s disgusting but I fought against the reaction and swallowed hard, baulking to keep them down – this happened every time I tried to take them until the end of the run. Every hour on the hour.
We somehow regrouped on Purgatory Road and stayed together until sunlight. Me and Johnny both got our earphones out and listened to the audiobook that we had been keeping for when we needed it the most, when we felt completely spent on energy and dispossessed of any internal motivation…and that moment had certainly arrived.
I started to play the aptly named “How bad do you want it?” But I could not focus on it for more than 5 seconds. I got the general gist; most successful endurance athletes have the cutting edge in their mind because they want it more than the others bla bla…
Maybe in a different environment I’d enjoy the book, but in my decaying state I grew incredibly irritated with his nasally American accent. I considered changing to David Goggins; the man who got me through my hardest week of training, when I ran 5 half marathons back-to-back(and some more).
I respect that man so much and his tough love nature really resonates with my personal outlook on life. If anyone could galvanise me in my lowest moment it’d be him, but as silly as this may seem to anyone reading – the idea of using that energy to go in my pocket and press some buttons on my iPhone and still stay on my feet was just too much extra work to consider.
For the next 10 kilometres in the pitch black dark I started micro-sleeping as I walked. My eyes felt extremely heavy and I fought to keep them open, staggering around the narrow path we were on as vehicles beeped at me.
I looked up at Johnny about 3 metres in front of me. He was also all over the place, wobbling to the left and right, with a jaded gate. You’d think that I’d be aware of the danger we were in, but my mind was all over the place and my logic in the moment was that the tarmac must be uneven and that’s why we were wobbling so much!
I lost count of how many times I woke up from a cheeky snooze, mid-walk with no idea how long I’d been out for and at one point a huge lorry beeped at Johnny as it just missed him, as he stumbled to the right. This went on for hours and I can’t explain the relief when Johnny signalled it was 10k and time for a little rest.
We found sanctuary in a small archway behind the motorway barriers and Johnny admitted to feeling the exact same thing as me – uncontrollable micro-sleeping and pure exhaustion. We were all suffering in silence and agreed to try and have a 20 minutes nap on the archway.
It was roughly 10 degrees celsius, but it felt like Siberia. Our bodies obviously weakening, we shivered as we tried to sleep. I drifted in and out of sleep every minute or so, but woke to my teeth-chattering and body shaking every time.
Gareth went ahead and so me and Johnny followed in positive peer pressure, counting down the 90 minutes to sunrise. At this stage we opted for desiring the barbarous cruelty of the Thai sun as opposed to the blind night-time waddle into traffic as the lesser of the evils, but not before I created a DIY ass tampon out of wet wipes.
I remember the sun, but I don’t remember seeing it rise. The first time I remember it being bright was me waking up from a power snooze with my head at the side of the road (not my best decision) and we were voting whether we should rest more or crack on.
I was outvoted 2-1. Bastards. So up I got and we made a deal to rest at 5kms instead of 10 now as we were all on the barebones of our energy resources. The rests would be shorter, but more frequent and we’d eat one more time at 180 kilometres. We also checked Google Maps and instead of the initial 188 kilometres, our final destination was now displayed at 198 kilometres.
I felt a rush of fury flood around my body. Good. Anger is a misunderstood beast, in times like this it can be a saviour and it gave me a welcome bit of a kick to keep going. Google Maps was the enemy and it needed slaying.
Me and Johnny made it to the last food stop, Gareth followed and we both slumped our heads in our hands as we ordered our food. Sitting down was glorious, but we all knew that getting going again was hard work. As soon as he finished his last spoonful, G-Dog arose from his seat like a stubborn Spartan, hobbling ahead to finish this madness and stick a proverbial flag into Wat Rong Khun.
Former Northern Irish footballer Iain Dowie is the man who coined the term “Bouncebackability,” and I think Gareth’s countryman invented the perfect word to describe his performance on the road to 198 kilometres.
Inspired by Gareth’s yet another comeback from the living dead, me and Johnny got our bags back on and stumbled the final, miserable 11 kilometres in the sun where we met a brand new, smiling Gareth.
We had done it!
In just over 2 days of being constantly on the move we had clambered through the 4.7 marathons and officially had clocked up 198 kilometres (123 miles) from Chiang Mai Doi Suthep to Chiang Rai Wat Rong Khun (The White Temple).
Glorious euphoria and welcome relief.
Our moods INSTANTLY lifted as we got our celebratory photos, ordered smoothies and started making plans for a taxi back (which I slept the whole of the journey in).
I knew that the Road to 198km (formerly 188!) would be hard, but it was substantially harder than I thought it would be. After my horrific experience last time I attempted an endurance event, I felt resilient to close the door on that failure and craved to succeed in another tough challenge so that I could move on with that part of my life.
I find that some words and phrases in existence are complete misnomers, which completely fall short in their definition of what they’re trying to represent, but “Endurance Sports” is the perfect term for what it embodies. In order to triumph in them (getting from A to B is a success in itself) one has to “endure” extreme pain on a physical, mental and spiritual level and I have grown a deep and empathetic amount of respect for anyone who participates in them on a regular basis.
The cherry on the top of the cake of our achievement is of course that a lot of incredibly kind people donated to The Klong Toey Slum charity that we did this for, with the current amount being £4,080. Wow!
We will be visiting there in a few weeks and people will get to see where their donations went.
This was also a great bonding experience with friends after witnessing Johnny’s ability to formulate plans on the go, along with Gareth’s Rocky Balboa spirit. I highly recommend mates go through some sort of planned physical pain together to see how you really work as a tribe.
Never say never and all that, but I think that’s me done for endurance runs. (I have said this before, so let’s see).
I have been flirting with an idea for some time now that will be without doubt the biggest physical challenge in terms of getting out of the comfort zone, but I have a lot of work to do before that.