This is my story of how trail running brought a grown man to tears twice and how failure can be good.
My story is perhaps best summed up by my son Jake (four years old) who the day after, told our neighbor “Dad ran a long way, then he got really cold and he cried.”
The long story is…
Four years back I was a well overweight CEO leading a sedentary lifestyle who hated running, about to have a son and wondering what kind of role modeling this would set (the spark of motivation). I’m now still overweight with one marathon and one ultra-marathon distance to my name thanks to the best failure of my life. I never wanted to be a runner, I never wanted to run a marathon and I’d never heard of an ultra-marathon.
All of this changed when I met ‘Trainer Dave’ - I was convinced he would kill me one day from cardiac arrest with endless kettle-bells, stair-climbs, punching bag work and horrendous exercises I’d never head of that sometimes left you unsure if you were going to throw up or faint. I was 108kg and couldn’t run five km without walking a few times. Dave knew how to push me without destroying or injuring me and I learned that a core part of my nature is that I actually relish a bit of hardship and a challenge to keep my spirit alive. It’s refreshing in a life of ‘so called convenience’, maybe on reflection that’s why offshore yachting in the wilds waves of Cook Strait always had an appeal when I was living a comfortable city life in Wellington.
Near the end of that year of training, Dave suggested I enter a half marathon. My response was most likely “Piss off Dave. I hate running.” However, Dave has this amazing ability to get you to do things you didn’t think you wanted to and that is how my love affair with trail running began.
That first race, I looked and felt well out of place alongside people who resembled mountain goats – primarily formed out of skin, muscle and sinew. Four hours later, I crossed the finish line beyond smashed, but elated and hooked on trail running.
Some weeks on the trail running bug had me and I realized that maintaining distance trail running, a CEO’s role, some Board roles and maintaining family life and quality time with an under–5 was stretching the rubber band – so I started trail running at night. My amazing wife Helen, my number one support put up with me disturbing her sleep as I arrived home, or left home at some ungodly hour in order to get the buzz of the trail squeezed in somewhere.
There were some incredible people that came across my path. They seemed to be deliberately taking me outside my comfort zone. I would arrive at the end of these early trail runs wrecked, drenched in sweat and usually complaining of some cramp somewhere as I fell into my car, meanwhile Vicki, my running companion shepherding me into more and more distance would leave me to gleefully bounce off back onto the trail for more miles. This inspired me to push further. Weeks went by and nights and mornings running in the dark passed. I chatted to the odd possum, rat and native bird and had a spine tingling run in with a pack of pigs late one night with Vicki deep in the Waitakere Ranges. I now love night running – it opens all your senses much more so than running in daylight and you know you are alive.
Another friend Aaron hinted it was about time I knocked off a marathon and suggested I enter the T42 marathon through National Park. We crossed the line together and overwhelmed by emotion and endorphins, I snuck off behind the gear tent to shed a few tears. The first tears of trail running.
I decided I’d join Malcom Law for a couple of days on his High 50 Challenge. The intention was for him to run 50 mountain marathons, over 50 days across 50 named New Zealand peaks and together with a long list of support runners we worked our way towards raising $505050 for the Mental Health Foundation. A cause close to my heart because like 1 in 3 New Zealanders every year Mental Health impacts either someone directly or in my case indirectly through someone close to me that has suffered for years fighting the black dog.
On the drive back home I realized I wanted more and “My Personal Everest”, The Big Hairy Audacious Goal was born. The big goal now was to complete the Hillary Trail, usually a 4-day tramp in one go.
I wrote this up on the Facebook fundraising page…
“I've decided if my fundraising reaches $30k I'm going to try 'knock the buggar off' in one non stop go - 80km, more climb than Mt Cook (3700m in total) across the rugged West Coast and Waitakere's - I'm not sure I can finish this one and that's exactly why I want to start… In the words of Sir Peter Blake "if it was easy it wouldn't be worth doing".
I spent a few weeks meeting and discussing plans with people so rich in advice, encouragement and experience. There were many wonderful people out there (legends of ultra running) who were really keen to help backyard adventurers like me try something stupid. What I discovered was most people are willing to help. If you ask nicely and you are not a dick about it, you’ll find some of the legends of the sport are also some of the most salt-of-the-earth people out there who will support you and share their depth of experience willingly and openly.
My theory is, if you hang out with enough crazy runners, or people excited about any kind of activity, you will eventually become one (probably by osmosis or some other force of the Universe that draws you in). Somehow I transformed into one of them and began to believe it to be perfectly normal to find myself running for hours on end through the night wearing strange hydration packs, taped nipples, sucking on gels and addicted to the endorphins and an adventure runner’s high.
Making your big challenge public definitely helps your motivation - I told as many people as I could. Everyone I spoke to told me – “You can Do This”, Not everyone that told me that, probably believed it, but it helps if you think you can and you hear it from others. If you tell yourself this regularly, your own internal mind saboteurs can’t win and talk you out of it.
So, the day came. Having set off at 2am when we hit the top of Gibbons Track about 20km in and in the early hours of the day it felt good, I had a celebratory banana and my confidence lifted seeing we were slightly ahead of schedule. I raced down a personal favourite, Muir Track and into the awe-inspiring Paraha Valley. This is spectacular almost prehistoric looking territory into an old river valley carved out of rock. If they were to discover an ancient prehistoric monster still alive in New Zealand, there’s a good chance it would be living there, I reckon.
At the Winstone Track junction with the main road, I grabbed a quick kiss and a high five from my boy Jake and into the bush I went again. Across the top of Kitekite Falls is where I started to find it much tougher mentally than I expected. Grumpiness descended on me and I got frustrated by the small crowds of people we encountered on the tracks slowing my progress.
On reflection, I usually like bumping into people out there so this was a sure sign that I was in a dark place. Sensing the “Black Dog” was close, Graeme, an experienced ultra-runner that was with me on that stage, wisely ran on ahead to shift the support crew further up the road to keep me moving. My spirits lifted and the black dog disappeared when I saw Jake, Helen and my good friend Max, walking down the road towards me at Piha – just over a marathon underfoot at this stage.
Down Piha Beach and up the hills towards Kuataika Track (an often dreaded part of the trail by many) and it’s there I made what was a near fatal mistake for me and a fatal mistake for the mission - I ignored my pre-written support notes “Take Jacket” as I left the checkpoint I’d arranged. This mistake haunted me a few hours later when we emerged from the bush and hit Bethells stream.
Looking back now, by this stage the day had definitely cooled off but I hadn’t really noticed it. Inevitably brain fade from now over 14 hours on my feet, the earlier heat of the day and just general fatigue made me less aware of the surroundings. I had spent so much of the day blocking out my senses that were trying to tell me to stop, that my knee or head or another part was hurting, the voice that would sometimes ask “why the hell are you doing this?”
I’d spent the day trying not to pay too much attention to such signs - this made it harder to read the signs that my body was extremely tired and more importantly cooling off to a point that was, in hindsight, quite dangerous territory.
It was there making progress along a cold stream bed that the beginning of the end began. I quite suddenly felt sick and queasy – thinking I’d just had too many gels I paid it little attention. I stripped off my sweat-soaked shirt to put on my icebreaker and seconds later the proverbial hit the fan.
In what seemed like a split second, I sensed every hair on my body standing on end and in a few more seconds I went from feeling a bit cooler to shaking uncontrollably and groaning like a dying man. My mate Pete put his arm around me helping me balance and I was reduced to shuffling one foot literally just in front of the other. The cool breeze cruelly nipped away at me sucking every ounce of energy as the body yelled at me to sit down and just stop – I knew I couldn’t do that, it would have been serious to do so, and hence I willed myself on inch by inch forward towards the track end.
I stumbled on and came close to throwing up before having to clamber back into the creek to get on to the track to the Bethells Bridge carpark. As we approached in a veiled effort to preserve some of my dignity, Pete took his arm out from under me and said “I’ll let you walk the last bit on your own mate.”
I mumbled something incoherent back and I recalled that I couldn’t have cared less about my dignity at that stage. I was just shit scared that I would fall over and not make the fence less than 400m in front of me. I had almost stopped moving. That last kilometer had taken more than 20 minutes of pain staking progress.
At the end of the track, I saw my wife Helen in the carpark. I immediately burst into tears and started sobbing uncontrollably. The night was falling and I knew in my heart it was over. I sat in the car solemnly trying to contemplate it all, trying to work out how I would get out of this situation, how I could get back on track.
In hindsight, if I had kept going it would have ended badly with probably a medical evacuation on a remote piece of trail. Doing that in the dark would have put people I cared about who were supporting me at risk and would have cost a lot of money for a rescue helicopter to save a Dumb-Ass! I had hypothermia and was too dazed to understand what exactly was going on at the time.
Being such a public challenge by now meant facing the inevitable Facebook post to all the supporters telling them it was over and I had thrown in the towel, rather than the moment I had dreamed off crossing the line and celebrating a victory.
I have a whole lot of great learnings from the months and weeks beforehand and on the hours of that day.
What I learnt along the way is that mentally I’m probably as tough as a goat’s knee. I set out for an epic day on the Hilary Trail to find my limits and that is exactly what I got. I’m satisfied. I feel really good about the confidence I built and the fitness and mental strength required to get that far that I could have never imagined achieving previously.
I learned a lot about who I am and the depths of friendship and care from people around me. That was much bigger than finishing at an arbitrary point on a map I’d chosen months earlier, the rewards of “having a crack no matter what the outcome” and embracing a fear of failure were far more intrinsic, less obvious at the outset, but very clear now.
Jake, my boy, was my number one source of inspiration and reason to keep going. The odd “Don’t give up Dad” never went astray and many times in training I pictured his face at the finish line of the trail. That vision wasn’t quite how it played out. But what my boy did see was that his Dad had put his heart and soul into that day, that he was doing something that would help a lot of others and more importantly it is okay to live through a failure, to feel it and still be a cool Dad – that’s pretty awesome.
A couple of weeks after the Hilary attempt, Jake entered the Tairua Fun Run 5km with Helen. It was his idea and he finished the lot by himself. I was very proud of him and pleased that I’d inspired him to get out there too.
The one big lesson I’ve learnt is getting outdoors is so good for the soul. It fills my mental health bucket, charges my soul batteries and it’s interesting to note the Mental Health Foundation is now working on a fantastic initiative using the money raised. They are partnering with the Department of Conservation (DOC) to work together to promote good mental health and protect New Zealand’s precious environment.
A memorandum of understanding has been signed by the MHF and DOC, which will see both organisations working together on projects (based on the MHF’s Five Ways to Wellbeing) that share conservation and mental health goals. Overall my part ($33,470 raised) was a small part of a very large amount ($520,000) raised for a cause much greater than all of us.
Public failure at a big challenge isn’t as hard as I thought. What I now know is not giving something a go at all or failing at underwhelming endeavours would be far worse.
That would be a life not lived...
An exercept of Simon Wickham's true story
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