When I am not running South Woolley Livery & Coaching or playing at being a construction worker, I sometimes coach RDA (Riding for the Disabled Association) sessions.
Our group, North Cornwall RDA, is run from a fantastic facility, Lakefield Equestrian Centre, by a fabulous, highly dedicated and hard-working team of volunteers. The group caters for a huge range of disabled riders, from tiny tots just starting out, through to national championship riders. One of our North Cornwall riders has recently gone on to represent Great Britain in para-dressage at international level.
North Cornwall RDA riders are taught by my two good friends, coaches and mentors, owner of Lakefield, Becky Monk and her husband, Mark Cunliffe. Both are BHSIs and RDACs, so the standard of coaching is excellent (other than on the days that I am coaching, in which case the standard is mediocre, at best). And I really hope that if I keep writing nice things about Mark and Becky, they might let me ride Mark’s grand prix-trained Hanoverian again one day.
All RDA groups rely heavily on donations and year-round fundraising. So it seems to be a forming annual tradition that Mark and I tackle some sort of ridiculously unachievable athletic feat in order to raise money for North Cornwall, alongside all of their regular fundraising events.
This year Mark told me in April that we were running a full 26 mile marathon. I was keen. A marathon had always been on my bucket list and six months to prepare for it seemed reasonable. However, being pretty busy people, both Mark and I found it difficult to fit in an appropriate amount of training beforehand. To fully communicate the extent of our lack of preparation, let me tell you that ‘Jedward’ quickly became our athletic idols, upon discovering that they had allegedly run a marathon in 2012 with no training whatsoever.
One week before the marathon, with terrible timing, I developed a really nasty bout of gastric flu. While I fantasised about the slaughter of the person who’d given it to me, I also know that you really shouldn’t have thoughts like that about small children. So I turned my attention to forming a plan of how to get through the marathon alive and reasonably well as I didn’t want to let our sponsors, myself or Mark down.
In the week preceding the marathon, I managed a total food intake of 700 calories. I was still running the livery yard and was surviving solely on water, Lucozade and the odd handful of salt and vinegar crisps. I looked absolutely terrible. A complete wreck. I felt even worse.
Previous to the gastric flu my fears for the marathon, in order of importance, were:
1. Cardiac arrest on course
2. Losing control of bodily functions
3. Tendon rupturing
Having contracted gastric flu, my fears for the marathon simply became a list of bodily functions that I did not want to lose control of, on a scale of embarrassment, ranging from the horrifically mortifying to the generally humiliating.
I was determined to take part, despite family and friends’ concerns that I might collapse and die (their words, not mine). I didn’t feel under pressure to achieve any sort of respectable time, I simply wanted to finish. So I shaved my legs for the ambulance crew (it’s a ritual when faced with perceived impending doom, similar to wearing matching underwear in case you get run over by a car), purchased a multi-pack of Lucozade, every over-the-counter drug and remedy that might help me and met Mark at the start line of The Eden Project marathon, which is ridiculously hilly, I might add!
It took me a good five miles to settle into the running. It took that long to trust my body that it wasn’t going to vomit, or worse! Mark did not help by informing me that he could not deal with vomit.
At the halfway point I was feeling confident, if a little weak. Instead of counting up the miles ahead, you are beginning to count down to the finish. I started walking up the hills as part of my survival tactic.
Mark was unbelievable. He was determined to run as far as he could, jogging on the spot at regular intervals to wait for me to catch up and stubbornly running up a huge Tor that all the professional runners and anyone with sense had walked up. At mile 17, a lady tripped and fell, dislocating her shoulder. We assisted her until the medical team arrived. Even then, Mark kept bouncing from one foot to the other, while I took the opportunity to collapse in some grass, pretending to be medically useful.
We hit ‘the wall’ at mile 19. Mark broke into a walk for the first time and I found a bank to lie horizontally on for one minute while he made a phone call to his wife, Becky. God, it was hell to get off that bank and keep going. I was dizzy, tired and malnourished and I just wanted to curl up in a ball and go to sleep.
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Somehow, we slogged on. Powered in part by the array of sugary jelly sweets that the support team had laid out en-route and, equally, by a lot of silliness and delirious nonsense talk. The best bit for me was the final 100m to the finish line. My daughter, Ellie, came out of nowhere and ran the final stretch with me. Magic.
It wasn’t the best of marathon times, but considering our lack of preparation and my health status, I think we should both be very proud of ourselves. It was a huge achievement just to finish.
Hopefully we have raised a good amount of money for the RDA and I look forward to next year’s challenge. Apparently I’ll be needing goggles and a swimsuit!
If you have any hours to spare, I urge you to get in touch with your local RDA group. They will be so grateful for even the smallest bit of your time and you don’t necessarily need any horse skills to take part. If you are in North Cornwall or Devon, and have any time free on a Monday, Wednesday or Saturday, come and find us! I can guarantee you a lot of fun and laughter, a chance to meet new friends and develop new skills.