‘What if I hadn’t carried on?’

Stark silhouetted forest

My blog is really a collection of stories, each post its own small paragraph or chapter, detailing the inspirational things that have happened to me along life’s path, or some of the amazing stories that I’ve encountered through friends or books. An email conversation with a great friend this week has made me look at one of my ‘chapters’ in a slightly different way, and so I’m using this opportunity, at the half-way point of my mini-series on ‘How do you run 100 miles?!’, to add this piece of fiction into the pot…

I wrote about one of my most important personal life stories for my first two blog posts onforgedbygeorges, recounting the path I took on the South Downs in 2015. This was definitely a ‘before and after’ moment in my life, my way of thinking having altered so much as a result of what happened. Writing this blog has added an extra level of clarity to those events which I’m only just beginning to fully unravel through the writing, and so I want to use this post to explore the idea of ‘what if…What if I hadn’t carried on? The italic text in the following story is extracted from the blog posts of what actually happened, the plain text is how it so easily could have panned out…

The SDW100 2015 – The Alternative Ending

Pressing my weight onto the borrowed walking poles, I slowly sank into the seat. My race is over. I even think I just said this out loud. I lift my head. I did say it out loud. A bearded face set in concern is looking at me, asking me what’s wrong. I tell him that my groin popped a couple of miles ago, and that it’s taken me 40 minutes to get down off the trail. I can hardly move up or downhill, and the flats are only marginally better. 91 miles in. My race is over.

The man tries to encourage me, saying something about ‘time’, but I don’t really hear his words. All I can think of is the pain in my groin and how long it took me to get down that bastard hill.

More runners come into the church hall checkpoint, most just giving their number, grabbing a quick bite and some water, before they head on, back out of the door… all offering me words of encouragement. I’m too upset to respond. I retreat into my own head to try to find something to mentally lean on and support the rest of me which is crumbling rapidly from within. There’s nothing in there to lean on, and I feel myself slipping inside myself.

I’d pinned so much on to this race. I needed to finish it to prove to myself that I am the person I desperately want to be – the person who succeeds against the odds, who grits the tough times out and comes out on top with a smile on my face and a story to tell! I wanted to be like, in some small way, the heroes I read so much about! But now this has happened and I can’t even walk, I doubt I could even stand up. My mind was… struggling to think of anything but the cold, gristly pain in my groin.

A tea was passed over, some crisps and cake. Part of me wants to slam the plate into the floor in a fit of rage, and cry my anger and frustration out all over the church hall. I’m so close to the finish, and now all I can do is sit on this chair and watch with envy those runners coming in and out! They have a few short miles to the next checkpoint and then about the same again to the finish. I take the plate, picking without looking at what’s on it, not really hungry but hoping that some real food may balance out the overload on gels which, along with the pain, was making me feel sick. Tears begin to smart my eyes and I blink them back angrily. I’ve nothing left now, I’m mentally and physically empty, a ruin waiting to be haunted by the demons.

I can’t face the pain of trying to stand, and am now becoming aware that after 24 hours on the move, my body is seizing up. It hurts just to move on the seat. I close my eyes to try to block everything out, but that forces me internally, and there’s nothing there to help, it makes it worse. There’s no solace to be found in me, no safe corner to hide in. Better the superficiality of watching life around me, than the dark tunnels of my inner mind.

I take a few more teas over the next hour, utterly despondent and withdrawn. Despite the best efforts of the crew to cheer me up and tell me I’d done well to get this far, I don’t want to talk, don’t want to listen, don’t want to do anything. I don’t want to be this me.

The last runner comes through after another hour or so, and the crew begin to close the checkpoint down. I sit there feeling useless, a piece of flotsom after a bitter storm. A car arrives to take some of the crew and myself to the finish. I struggle to stand, needing the help of two people to get me into the car. I hate this. My great mate Ian, who I’d shared 89 miles with, will have finished hours ago. He knew I was dropping at this checkpoint, so could probably guess my mood. I hoped that the car journey to the finish would give me the time to find my grace and be rightly happy for him. I know I should be, but the pain of my failure is too great right now.

The car pulls into the finish stadium in Eastbourne, and I can see a lot of smiling faces. The car parks up near to where the ambulance is, and someone gets out to see if the paramedics can take a look at me. My mate Ian walks gingerly over to the car. I’m relieved that I can feel happy for him – I’m not emotionally dead after all! Perhaps the first sign of life beginning to emerge after the fire. We share a big hug and the tears roll out of me. I offer my heartfelt congratulations, but we can’t really talk about it. I’m too upset. He feels sorry for me, no doubt thinking how he’d be feeling in my shoes. I should have more grace, but I cannot muster it. He must want to talk of his amazing achievement, but I can’t hear it. Not yet.

The paramedics take me to the ambulance and recommend I go to the hospital as soon as I can, to get a detailed assessment. They kindly drive the ambulance round to where the return bus to Winchester is waiting.

I’m helped on and slowly sink into the seat. We begin to move away and I drift into a painful, haunted sleep.

A fine line

Writing this story has genuinely shaken me. I’ve honestly made myself feel queasy writing it. This alternative feels so real, and it could so, so easily have played out exactly like this. It was such a fine line between what actually happened, and this path I’ve just described becoming the reality instead. If this version of events had come true, I know that I would have really struggled to pull myself up from a point of absolute zero confidence. I’d have started to ask, ‘who did I think I was anyway, trying to run 100 miles?! That’s for people far better than me, I’ve proved it by trying. I was a fool. I’ve learned my limits and know now to back off.

The day before the SDW100 2015, a good pal of mine shared a message with me on facebook – Your body won’t go where your mind won’t push it. Thanks, Pete. Exactly that. The real truth is this – there are no limits.

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