Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Tackling North America's toughest pledge walk/ultra-marathon

June 4th, at 4 a.m., we were among 140 participants gathered in darkness at the start of the The Great Walk outside Gold River B.C. on Vancouver Island. Billed as the toughest pledge walk in North America, I had come prepared - or so I thought. My training the previous two months had included 12 km runs every other day, and I had taken long blistering walks around the Comox Valley on weekends. I planned to run and walk at hourly intervals until I reached the end of this 63.5 km course. My co-worker from 19 Wing Comox, Rob Milne, planned to walk the total distance.

The starting horn sounded, and we were off. There I was dressed in my World Vision, sponsor a child, T-shirt with black nylon shorts, edging my way to the front of the pack to join the other runners. Following the dim light cast by the small headlamp strapped around my cap I ran. The racers ahead appeared as distant bobbing flashes like fireflies. The first hour spent in darkness passed quickly. Aid stations, roughly 5-7 km apart along the route, staffed with cheerful volunteers, offered me Gatorade, bananas, orange slices, water and, if you needed it, a Johnny-on-the-spot. I carried my own stash of high protein snacks in a fanny pack as well.

Dawning sunlight met me 15 km into the race. Getting into hillier terrain my strategy changed when I realized it was easier walking up some hills and running down others. At around 22 km I came upon the steepest decline I had yet encountered - 18%. I hesitated wondering how to proceed. I watched a fellow runner ahead of me running down with great zeal. It looked like so much fun I figured I’d try the same technique. Adrenaline pulsed through me. The surrounding mountains and fir-tree forests blurred past. It wasn’t until I reached the end of this snaky hill that I felt it – a pain on the outer side of my left knee. It wasn’t that bad at first. I continued running for another kilometre before stopping to try and stretch it out. At 24 kilometres I was still walking and was encouraged when I saw a sign at the side of the road, reading, ‘40 km to Tahsis’.

“You can make it,” I told myself, “just keep walking.” There were two more aid stations to go and then I'd be halfway. There a backpack, which I had sent ahead of me in one of the Great Walk support vehicles, was waiting with beef jerky, power bars, and a new change of socks and shoes. Maybe there I could stretch out my leg and then be able to run again.

As I walked along I thought about my cause, World Vision, and I remembered something I had read on their web site. It was an article about women and girls in some of the developing nations who had to wake every morning at 4 a.m. to fetch water for their households. Many of them have to travel 10 kms on foot every day and return with the water, carrying it on their heads or balanced across their shoulders. The Great Walk had me experiencing some of their pain. World Vision is offering support to some of these women and girls by providing wells for their villages and better sanitation - a just cause. I pressed onward.

At the halfway point I was able to avail myself of my goodies and fresh footwear. The First Aid attendant offered me a tensor bandage to strap around my knee and this helped for a while. I was able to get 10 km further down the road until the inflammation became too hard to bear. I didn’t want to tear a ligament so the next time a patrolling quad wheeler came by I put up my hand and asked for a lift. I was 200 meters from stage 8, the 44 km mark. The driver handed me his spare helmet and I painfully climbed onto the back. My spirit wanted to continue but my knee had given up. I was taken to the finish line in Tahsis and could barely climb out of the truck. Enthusiastic volunteers and First Aiders helped me to the finish bell. I passed under a huge black burning boot archway, specially built for this event, and made my way into the Tahsis public school gym where ice packs, chilli, and more Gatorade awaited. They even had gym mats laid out where we could rest and stretch out our tired limbs.

Several hours after I left the finish by bus to go back to Gold River my co- worker, Rob Milne, crossed the finish line, around 13 hours after our early morning departure. Aside from a short glance from the shuttle bus, I didn't see him again until Monday when he came hobbling over to my desk, favouring his blistered feet. He handed me a registration form for an upcoming 56 km endurance walk/run in September, The Great Lake Walk, saying, “Come on, let's be a team."