Understanding endurance – Feeling it in my bones.

Every time I commence a challenging journey, I am beset with concerns – not all of which direct to the aged nature of the vehicles at my disposal. I’m talking about really long journeys, the kind that you can’t see the end of, that take on unfamiliar roads and unforecasted weather. This last weekend, I found just this happening – except there was no car involved.
It was called the Saltmarsh 75, a two-day organised trek around one of the most meandering sections of British coastline, that just happens to be within my home county. My wife and I had attempted it back in 2015 – we got 54 miles through it before our mechanical makeup flaked out on us. This time, this wouldn’t happen. This time, we would properly assess our endurance, just like all those times I had taken a frail car on a trip that could end up killing it.

I always like to start a journey with a full tank of fuel, so we woke well before the dawn chorus and breakfasted on hot bacon sandwiches followed by pecan pastries when we arrived at the start line. Suited in the most sensible, least-chafing, lightest apparel we possessed, we left South Woodham Ferrers in the company of 154 others at the stroke of 08:00 on Saturday morning.
We knew a few things about the journey that lay ahead. We had 75 miles to cover,  just over 38 of which would be dispatched today. There were six checkpoints on each day, and strict times that we had to reach them by. We needed to average 3mph overall to ensure we reached the overnight stop before cut-off.

One of my cars has a fuel computer, but owing to the unique way that Audi B5 DIS screens bleed after a certain period of time, I’ve not been able to read it for years. As a result, I monitor my fuel consumption the old fashioned way, by zeroing the trip and recording how much petrol I pump at the filling station. A good range, I tell myself, is about 400 miles on a full tank – the Audi manages about 36mpg, the Rover comes in around 33. I have all this information to hand at the beginning of a car journey.
It’s easy to treat the first section of a journey as a throw-away. You hit the road with a certain degree of enthusiasm, flushed with the excitement of being on your way and not really considering the miles ahead. We did on Saturday. We attacked the first five miles with great zeal, scanning in at the first checkpoint a fair way ahead of schedule. Just like when we blitzed down to Cornwall in the Audi this summer. It was a late-night cruise, I wanted to cover the miles just as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to burn excess fuel, though – and when the fuel gauge needle started to edge its way around the dial by the time we’d reached Chelmsford, I realised I’d been throwing money away.

That wasn’t the risk we faced this weekend, though. Fuel was in plentiful supply – the difficulty we faced was pacing ourselves. In 2014 we had finished the first day, but only made it half way through the second before the pain was just too much to bear. We started out way too hot, hitting 4mph, and that probably contributed to our early bath. This time, we didn’t allow ourselves to suffer from the red mist that can descend – both in a walking race and on the road – when other people are passing at great speed. We allowed those who thought they were faster, to go faster.
It was just before the fifth checkpoint that the rains came, and thoroughly dampened our enthusiasm. We hoped that lightning wouldn’t strike twice – in 2014 a squall passed through as we took on the third stage, a featureless 13.2-mile stretch where there’s no shelter from sun, wind or rain, and it penetrated every slither of fabric we were wearing or carrying. The rain was so severe it made its way into our rucksacks, where it saturated the clean, dry clothes we had for contingency, so we had nothing to change into when the next checkpoint hove into view. This didn’t just make life uncomfortable, but really put a hammer to our morale, so when the same thing happened in the final stage of our first day in 2017, we were crushed.
In torrential, sideways rain, and in failing light we muddled though, not helped by our paper waypoint instructions turning to papier mache, but we eventually made it to our overnight stop at around 19:30. This was a full hour and a half faster than we had achieved the last time. The question was, would that – allied with the menace of damp clothing – cost us on tomorrow’s leg?

It certainly had last time, and on Sunday we awoke with aches and pains that we didn’t have back in 2014, while our walking boots hadn’t even come close to drying overnight. We also had two stages ahead of us that I vividly remembered from last time for their unbelievable tedium. We’d be following the sea wall from Steeple to Maldon, and the course it takes is anything but direct, instead it meanders in an impossibly vague way, and you see your goal several hours before it actually grows any closer.
Long, dull sections of road can be troublesome when driving in a car without cruise control. I might allow my speed to drift upwards a little for a bit of urgency in reeling the horizon in, and this costs me in fuel and the risk of falling foul of speed cameras. The other problem comes with the mental torment that boredom presents.
Stuck here on the Dengie peninsular, with nothing to do other than march oh-so-gradually to our destination, there’s precious little to do than think. While the excitement of a checkpoint punctuates the morass, but before long you begin to get a little introspective. You start to analyse how you feel. Your aches and pains. Twinges. You might feel some painful sensation that you’ve not noticed before, and begin to focus on it. Just as you might believe you felt a misfire during a long, quiet section of road, you begin to pay heed to everything you feel, and develop disproportionate concern for what could turn out to be piffling, trivial matters. Twice I stopped to remove stones – which weren’t there – from my shoes. I applied Elastoplast to my ankles to alleviate a rubbing that hadn’t mattered yesterday but was now the most important thing in the world.
These little warning beacons of pain were all the more concerning when you’re walking and aware that there’s another 28 miles ahead of you. Just like when your oil-level light flicks on when you’re 70% through a road trip. You become obsessed by what it means – is the oil level registering low because of the persistent leak that you’ve been ignoring for years, or because the alloy sump has been holed and you’ve lost all your 5w30 in one horrible sticky puddle. Every rattle, every vibration – you wonder if it was there at the beginning of the journey, and whether it’ll develop into something serious before you reach your destination.

This was the worry that beset us by the time we reached Maldon – the 50-mile point. It was here, in 2014, that we made the decision to retire at the next checkpoint, both nursing multiple strains and shin splints, while I was loosing blood where my shorts had chafed through the skin on both my thighs. Fortunately, we had trained well and were clothed wisely this year and 2017 saw us in a far stronger position at this part of the walk. We marched straight through the checkpoints of Mill Beach and Osea, but Goldhanger was pivotal. After this we had a 10.8-mile stage – with a reputation for breaking people.
We soon embarked on a seemingly endless run of constant, unchanging scenery combined with rough, uneven footings that meant you have no way of keeping a constant length of pace. Walking with any rhythm was impossible, and, like a car on a dubious road surface, any niggles or loose components could rapidly cause a problem. And so it was to prove.
It was our hips that caused problems first. The major suspension linkages that kept everything lined up properly were being given extraordinarily harsh treatment, operating on axis that we wouldn’t usually encounter. They simply weren’t used to such unpredictable movements, and rapidly began to ache. Our ankles and feet followed suit, both sets of parts suffering from uneven ground contours. The tufted grass would obscure the earth from which it sprouted, and a foot would think it was about to hit the deck square, only for the ankle to suddenly face an altogether trickier angle. We truthfully didn’t know how much more of this we could take.

And then there was the torture of being able to see our next checkpoint – Tollesbury marina – with out it ever seeming to get any closer. Such is the lie of the land around there that the sea wall effectively spirals around the town, so you approach it from all sides. When all you want to do is get there, being teased like this is the worst thing. Imagine your ruined car having a defective sat nav that insisted you had already arrived, only to be constantly disappointed. Not only that, but the huge, looming Bradwell nuclear power station, which we passed yesterday, was still dominating most views.
When we eventually made it to Tollesbury, we had reached 67 miles. There were eight left, and we had to make a decision. Mechanically, we were broken. The pain we were suffering was immense. To continue would be madness. But, then, where were we? We were nowhere. To pull out now wouldn’t achieve anything. We had to reach our destination. We lied to the crew at the checkpoint, who would do everything possible to discourage entrants from continuing if there was the slightest chance of not finishing.
The reason for this is that the final six miles of sea wall are flanked by water on both sides. While not especially remote, geographically, the route is sufficiently divorced from dry land to make rescue a serious challenge without a hovercraft. Once past the final turn away from the sea wall, we were effectively cut off from humanity. Our logic, though, was that we had reached the very extremes of the pain envelope. Never before had we felt anything like this – but since it couldn’t get any worse, all we had to do was hope and pray we could endure it to the end without something breaking.
Think of the dying car, firing on three out of eight cylinders, just about maintaining momentum, with four howling bearings and suspension mountings held on by a thread. All it needs to do is cover that final six miles – enough to get you home. We trudged on, well into darkness, looking behind at distant specks of light in the gloom that told of others following in the same circumstances. Ahead of us, torchlight glanced off the ground and, at length, disappeared as corners were turned. It was agony – but it didn’t get any worse and after two horrific hours we finally approached the high-viz jacketed officials who would marshall us in the direction of the finish line. The final 400 meters were picked out with glowsticks, and then we saw the inflatable end marker.

With a final death or glory flourish, we let out a war cry, buried the throttle and sprinted the last 20 yards or so. It certainly felt like a sprint after so much trudging, but probably resembled a chaotic stagger to those assembled. Still, at around half past eight on Sunday evening, we passed the 75 mile marker, allowed medals to be hung around our filthy necks, and shut our engines down having averaged just over 3mph for almost 24 hrs. Amazingly, we finished just over an hour ahead of schedule.
Whatever loose strategy we had decided on had paid off. Against all the odds, we had completed our journey. Now the essential repairs can commence.
(All images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2017)

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8 responses to “Understanding endurance – Feeling it in my bones.”

  1. Smaglik Avatar

    Congrats! I run a marathon every year, slog through at about 4 hours, so it’s great to hear about other adventures like this. Way to go!

  2. mdharrell Avatar

    Congratulations on completing your endurance run entirely under British power! That’s more than I could do…

    1. jeepjeff Avatar

      Hey, British cars with American power plants do have their own cache in the automotive collectors’ world.

  3. nanoop Avatar

    Just awe. Now you can plan on beating your own time, right?

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      You know, looking at the condition of my feet a week later, I’m OK to let the time stand for a while.

  4. SlowJoeCrow Avatar

    This reminds me of doing a century ride on bicycle, The first 75 are OK but the last 25 ten to be pure stubbornness. Sometimes the end is powered by anger. The time we did Seattle to Portland (2 days of 100 miles) I got a flat on the outskirts of Portland because some unspeakable vermin dumped tacks on the road so I had to do a flat repair in the rain and then climb the hill from highway 30 to the Broadway bridge and finish.

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      Wow. Vermin is the word. That’s the equivalent of somebody laying bear traps on our walking route.