One Hundred Miles In Four Days
Music sang from my phone, breaking my dream in two. 4.45am. I opened my eyes to the sight of a Jack Russell’s stumpy tail. About 12 months earlier he’d made the decision to upgrade his bed from my feet, to the empty pillow next to mine. I used to push him back to my feet but eventually surrendered. In a bed made for two, why shouldn’t he have the other pillow?
As my porridge cooked in the microwave I checked my bag for the third time. Towels, goggles, counter ring, sandwiches, nuts, seeds and chocolate.
I’d spent the last week alone, teaching every now and again, shouting ‘hi’ to colleagues or asking my folks how their day was but really I was alone.
I used the calculator on my phone again to check my maths. Eight miles. One mile is sixty four lengths, so that’s five hundred and twelve lengths.
Taking a deep breath I looked again at my arm. The previous night I’d used a permanent marker, carefully drawing hearts over the length of my arm. Inside each heart was an initial. Each initial represented a baby that had died in their mother’s womb and each heart represented love and respect from the parent who trusted me to wear it. On my hand was a star. This star was for a woman who’s love, understanding of the world, kindness and empathy would have made her a wonderful mother, but who would never physically be able to have one. Finally on the back of my wrist was four names. Jaden, Angel, Asher and Joshua. Those were my babies.
I lowered myself into the pool, feeling the cool water against my skin, while breathing in the familiar chlorine filled air.
The first two hours past smoothly, stroke after stroke, length after length. At 8.30 am, swimmers were asked to leave the pool for forty five minutes while a class took place, so I wrapped my bathers in a towel and slipped on my sweat pants. My peanut butter and banana sandwich tasted heavenly and I pondered over my one hundred and fifty length start. Three hundred and sixty two lengths left.
Back in the pool it was hard to get moving again, people kept swimming in my way and my rhythm was lost. My ancient human brain kept trying to trick me “You’ve still got nearly six miles to go, you’re never going to make it!” It was a mission to quieten those words and then replace them. “ It’s three, that’s all, yes three hundred but think three, soon it’ll be two and then one!”
After two more sandwich breaks, I finally reached my final one hundred and twelve. Suddenly my throat was full of water and a lifeguard got to his feet. “Are you OK? What are you doing? You’ve been here hours” “Nearly six hours” I replied coughing and glancing at the clock. “I’m trying to cover one hundred miles in four days. I’m raising money for my charity. Tomorrow I’m canoeing, then the next day running and walking. On Monday I’m riding a bike.” Bewildered he asked “How far are you swimming?” “Eight miles” I replied weakly.
The last stint was sickening. The chlorine hung in my lungs and washed through my stomach. My skin was wrinkled and felt like it could be wiped off with a towel.
Five hundred and ten lengths. My arms felt like lead weights, the pool like treacle, thick and holding me still as I lifted each arm in turn.
“I’ve done it” I leant my hands on the side of the pool and my head upon them, feeling sick to my stomach. “Celebrate, you must celebrate” I thought.
The challenge that I’d set myself eight months earlier seemed impossible. How could I canoe tomorrow, when I struggled to lift my arms to wash my hair?
I left the pool alone and called my mum as I drove to the supermarket. I needed fuel for my body for the next day but picking a basket instead of a trolley was a mistake and with gratitude I accepted the checkout workers help, when he grabbed my arm and basket and helped me to pay.
The alarm shattered my deep sleep. 5.30am. In an hour and a half Rhys would arrive and I’d start the two hour drive to Hereford. My shoulders felt like metal cogs, clunking and scraping without lubrication, thin threads trying to haul my weighted arms up to the steering wheel.
A young lad dragged our boat into the water. “OK, so now you know the basics, paddle up river and practice your turns, I’m here if you need me”. I sat at the back to start, trying to steer and paddle, while Rhys sat in the front looking for the best routes, with his paddle working on the opposite side to mine.
With a thumbs up we let our young teacher know that we were ready.
“Left, left, Rhys shouted” but before we were even out of sight, we hit an overhanging tree, scraping the bottom of the canoe against the bed of the river, hitting our heads with branches and nearly capsizing. Embarrassed, we managed to stay in the boat and glancing at our teacher we started to paddle again.
The water level was low and mostly the river was calm but nothing could stop my stomach flipping in knots each time we hit a hidden rock, desperately leaning into it and hoping we wouldn’t flip the boat.
The grey morning gradually turned into a sunny afternoon and we grew into a team of two, avoiding rocks and fishing linesand eventually laughing when a current caught us off guard and an overhanging tree brushed across our shoulders and faces.
At its calmest we paddled down the river talking about life and it’s highs and lows, at its hardest we were faced with long stretches of water ahead with no current helping us move. We stopped for sandwich breaks and stretched our lanky backs and I sat and watched Rhys skim stones, bouncing the full width of the river, contemplating the energy of an eighteen year old. We sang Bohemian Rhapsody, laughed at the cows wading into to the river, felt the sun scorch our arms and legs and sat in silence, trying to summon the energy to finish. With my heavy arms, we had expected the sixteen miles to take longer but seven hours later we hauled our boat out of the water, lay on the grass and slept.
My alarm blared from my phone. 4.45am. My eyes were swollen and sore as I searched for my trainers. I let two arnica pills dissolve under my tongue, loaded the car and drove to Swansea.
Grey clouds angrily spat rain as I snaked my car around the ‘park and ride’ looking for a space. I noticed a queue of people, hiding under raincoats and the sorry souls wrapped in bin bags. Two hundred people? Maybe more.
I joined the queue, shivering in my running gear, my phone and car keys safely secured in my runners bum bag. When I eventually got off the bus and had queued again for the toilets, I made my way to the back of the 8,000 people waiting to run. I was visibly shaking from the cold, miserable and even in the crowd I was alone. I looked at my phone, lots of people had made encouraging comments on Facebook. They were calling me superwoman, but alone, shivering in the rain, I felt more like a tired, lost human. “People know I exist. I’m making a difference. This is worth it” I tried to convince myself.
The energy in the crowd lifted and the race began. I jogged slowly for the first six miles, occasionally feeling faint and wishing I’d brought snacks. I found a girl jogging at my speed, pretended she was my trainer and pace maker and stuck behind her.
The sun had come out and the rain water that had soaked my face turned into sweat. As the miles past I started to feel stronger. “I can do this” I darted past the girl I’d been following, picking up speed and telling myself that I was strong.
The final mile took us away from the beautiful views of the sea and back into town. The streets were full of people yelling and clapping, guitars played, horns rang and three signs were being held up saying “Come on Katie!” And “You can do it Katie!” I tricked my mind into believing they were for me and as the crowds of people supporting their friends grew, I knew I was approaching the finish line. Endorphins shot through me. “These crowds are for me, I’m about to win gold!” And my run turned into a sprint!
Once I’d crossed the finish line the endorphins made love to feelings of relief and I joined the queue of ‘finishers’ to collect my medal.
On the drive home I considered the 13 mile walk that I needed to complete that afternoon. “I’ll just stroll, listen to an audio book and enjoy.”
Three hours into my walk I knew that enjoyment was not an option. I was exhausted and weak. I phoned my dad “Please come, please will you bring food”.
He did just that and after 4 hours I sat in the car resting, relieved to have someone I loved nearby.
My dad walked the last mile with me. We talked the whole way, or rather, he patiently put up my incoherent rambling.
Two hours and eighteen minutes running the half marathon that morning and four hours and forty eight minutes walking it that afternoon. By 7.30 pm I was home and by 8.30 I was fast asleep.
The alarm buzzed but my eyes didn’t open. They felt swollen and my body was heavy.
I lay still and imagined what it would have been like if they lived, if even one of them had lived. What would I be doing now? School run? Maybe I’d have taught them at home, like I had been as a child. Maybe we’d skive from any type of work and have a pyjama day, watching Disney films and eating popcorn.
I looked at Facebook again. “Last day, come on you can do this!” “Superwoman!!!!” “You’re super human!” The comments were incredible, people encouraged me, loved on me, boosted me and donated their money but an hour later, pedalling my bike along the cycle track, I couldn’t help but feel I’d somehow got it wrong. After all, I was on my own again.
I believed that I was a terrible cyclist but worked hard to convince my brain that I was good. I stayed away from roads and repeated a section of coastal cycle path. My ancient mountain bike wasn’t a scratch on the old men’s road bikes that I enviously watched gliding past me.
Every half an hour I needed to stop and rest my legs. My parents joined me after three hours. They sat in the car and gave me food each time I past. Mum said I’d done enough and it wasn’t failing to stop, dad said I needed to keep going.
It took me nearly seven hours to complete my fifty miles. I dropped the bike on the floor next to dad’s car and collapsed onto the concrete.
My skin was burnt from the sun and smeared with black grease from when the chain had come off the bike. My muscles ached and it seemed that I weighed as much as the car that dad was loading the bike into.
I’d done it. One hundred miles in four days. Seven hours swimming, seven hours of canoeing, over two hours running and nearly five hours walking and now my seven hour cycle was done too.
I limped across the bathroom and stripped my sweaty clothes off. Facebook was alive with comments and thrill that I had succeeded, then I saw that the total raised had hit £1800. I read every comment, eternally grateful for the support and the reminder that people cared.
I glanced up to the mirror. My sun burn glowed and my legs still black with grease. I didn’t see a superhero. I saw a girl that had grown into a woman and although her body was tired, her heart beat strong. Where did that strength come from? It came from failure, it came from hurt, it came from friends leaving her side, from losing things she loved and from the gut wrenching agony of not having her babies in her arms.
I’m not the only one though am I? You know the pain I’m talking about don’t you.
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger but I think that’s a misnomer. What doesn’t kill you can drag you through anxiety, send you into the pit of depression and leave you weak and struggling for life, but that is when you’re faced with a decision. Give up or fight. Fight with every ounce of strength and every breath in your body. Fight for change, fight to make the world a little brighter, fight for happiness, fight for love and that’s what I tried to do.
Thank you to everyone that supported my mission to raise money for Saying Goodbye, a charity which supports thousands of parents who have gone through the devastating agony of losing a baby.
Donations are still coming in but so far the incredible total is £1918.75
Originally published at www.imustnow.com on July 2, 2017.