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Something happened on the way to Cowes…

I spent last weekend on the Isle of Wight taking part in the Action Challenge Ultra event, which raised a chunky £844 (so far) for the excellent charity Room to Read. Six writers set out at 8am on Saturday morning, lead by Joanna Penn who had invited her podcast listeners to join her on the hike. Some of us (like me) had no experience of endurance events, others had several under their belts already. We had agreed that we would go at our own paces, and not try to stay together over the course. The event allows many forms of participation, walking, jogging, or running the Quarter Island challenge (25km), Half Island (52km), or Full Island (106km). The latter could be done in one go, or spread over two days. I signed up to walk the full island it two days. As this was my first time doing anything like this, I prepared carefully, but without the benefit of experience. The most contentious of my decisions were a) to use barefoot style shoes, and b) to establish a state of ketosis before the walk and do the whole thing running entirely on fat. At the end of January, I managed to sprain my back, which did not bode well.

So how did it go?

We set off in fine style, and I spent the first 10km (to the first established break stop) mostly chatting to the Vancouver historian Donna MacKinnon, which passed the two hours delightfully. The walk itself was pleasant, with lovely views, and not too hot. At the rest stop I wasn’t the slightest bit tired or hungry, but there was a slight hot-spot on my right heel, so I spent five minutes on foot care before setting off again. The second stage was about 12km to the lunch stop, and included the glorious Tennyson Down. I had a short rest at the top of the hill, because I hadn’t realised how close I was to the rest stop, and then trundled in to lunch at about 1pm.

Most of that time was spent listening to podcasts, including Tim Ferriss’s fascinating interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I spent another five minutes airing my feet (there were no issues), and scoffed my prepared ketogenic lunch concoction (streaky bacon fried in butter with some cabbage and kale, a dash of MCT oil and a squeeze of lime juice), stocked up on water (I was carrying only one 500ml bottle), and set off at 1.10. One of my team-mates was at the rest stop, but she was taking a longer break. A couple of hundred metres in, there was a moment’s doubt about the route, which triggered a conversation with the woman charging up the hill behind me, and we started walking together. Her pace was a fraction faster than mine, so by keeping up with her I was making excellent time. We chatted all the way to the next stop, 14km later. There I drank 750ml of water in ten minutes, because my 500ml was not enough, and there were no opportunities to fill up en-route. That was the hottest part of the day over though, so I wasn’t worried about drying out on the final 17km stage of the day. I aired my feet and changed my socks. Debbie and I set off together, and soon found ourselves in some pretty deep mud, slipping and sliding, which slowed us down quite a lot. There were several stretches of quagmire over the course of the 17km to Cowes, which presented the biggest route difficulty of the day. 

With about 40km behind me, my thighs were feeling it a bit (not so bad as after a serious footwork training session), my back was fine (I could feel where the sprain was, but it wasn’t serious), and my feet were a little tired but not painful and with no blisters or hot spots. When I sprained my back it was because while doing a deadlift, my right leg suddenly stopped supporting the load, which then crashed onto my lower back. I was unable to figure out why my leg had checked out on me, and had worked my deadlift gently back up from zero to 90% of bodyweight (it was at 147% of bodyweight when the accident happened) with no trouble. But as my legs got tired on the walk, I could feel the attachment points of my hamstrings at the back of the knee wake up and start complaining, and it was really clear that this was the problem that had triggered the collapse. It started out as a nagging local pain, and got gradually worse over the course of the next 10k. This gave me plenty of time to think about what to do. Should I a) ignore it ? B) keep on to the day’s finish, and then withdraw from the second day? C) withdraw immediately to prevent further damage?

It wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t finish the final few kilometres, that was clear. Long experience of this kind of injury lead me to believe that I could finish the challenge the next day, but it would cost me perhaps a couple of months or more of knee problems. This was annoying, because I was feeling otherwise fine- not mentally tired, nor seriously fatigued physically, and my feet were in fine shape (90+% of withdrawals come from blister-related problems). Just sore thighs, like any other training day.

In the end, I had to imagine what I would advise if I were my own student. Then the answer was obvious. Pain in the big muscles, ignore it and carry on. Pain in the joints, stop. It turns out that no part of my ego is tied up with meeting external (and quite arbitrary) targets. (On the subject of when to quit and when to stick, the best book ever is Seth Godin’s The Dip. If you haven’t read it, you must!) So when I arrived at the Half-Island rest stop 52km, 12 hours and 9 minutes after setting out , I went left through the Finishers’ entry, took my t-shirt, medal, and cup of very not-ketogenic sparkling wine, and went over to the Info desk to let them know I was done. I was very glad that my fundraising efforts were not dependent on completing the trek; that would have been a much harder decision, and I'd probably be badly injured at this point.

I should mention that the organisation of the event by Action Challenge was superb. The lady behind the desk made sure I was all right, didn’t need medical attention, and was being collected by my wife, before she would let me go. In fact, at every stage of the event, the organisation was simply excellent- from abundant free foot care resources, paramedics in attendance, free food (which I chose not to indulge in because I was being so careful about keto), and a very encouraging and supportive attitude towards all participants. I wouldn’t hesitate to sign up to any of their events in the future.

The data they provide is excellent too: here’s a sample. My speed was best in the first section because it had the easiest terrain.

As to my contentious choices: my footwear was amazing. I was wearing my Primus Trek Men’s Leather from Vivobarefoot. I originally started training with their Scott boot, but after four months of use, the sole on one foot wore out. I sent them back, and was sad to hear that they didn’t make the Scott’s any more- but the shoe I chose was actually much better for this expedition. My feet were dry all day, despite a lot of sweat and a lot of mud, and I could feel the terrain the whole way. Also, I found the fault with the boots on a Wednesday, and had my new shoes that Saturday. Great shoes, and great service. But yes, they cost a lot. Perhaps not the best choice for road walking, but for this kind of multi-terrain hike, perfect.

The ketosis plan worked splendidly too. I was never low on energy, or hungry, the whole time. I didn’t even need the lunch I took, I just ate it to free up pocket space. The only symptom of fatigue was sore thighs, and of course the injury rearing its ugly head.

My goals when signing up to this event were to meet Joanna Penn in person (she’s been hugely helpful in my writing career) and to try something completely different, ideally without injuring myself. Two out of three ain’t bad 🙂

Given the state of my knee on the Sunday, I’ve no doubt that withdrawing was the correct decision, and given how it’s responding to treatment and coming back online quickly, it was a very good idea to not cause any further damage. 

I need to thank Joanna for instigating this, my team mates for their encouragement and support (and a special shout out to Nicole Burnham and Ali Ingleby who both finished the full 106km), Debbie for keeping me company over 30+km, and especially the kind souls who have contributed so generously to my fund-raising campaign. It was a great experience!

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