At some point last Sunday as I was trekking over hill and dale to the top of each of the Yorkshire Three Peaks and back again, it occurred to me that in order to improve your endurance, you have to actually endure something. And indeed, the challenge I was in the middle of was a true test of my endurance, in every miniscule sense of the word. The 24-ish mile distance was formidable enough, now throw in climbing significant hills, now trudging through mud, now scrambling up rock in the wind, and the rain and the sleet. This was no ordinary Easter Sunday, but then again I am no ordinary girl called Max. So there I was off out with dozens of other likeminded folks determined to stay within that 12 hour mark and call ourselves 'finishers' of that Y3P Challenge.
My God, was that hard. In fact, I repeatedly mentioned to anyone who was listening - even to the sheep at one point - that this was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life.
But I did it guys. I only bloody went and did it! I'm amazed that I'm amazed. Maybe some part of me thought I couldn't. Maybe I buried that part of me up in those hills for good. Ashes to ashes.
I don't like running on hills, mostly because I'm crap at it. I'm working on that issue on the side, but this...this was walking, I can walk, right?
Seemed a reasonable ask during all that preparation until just before we turned right out of the meeting point and went straight up a hill, all while I was still juggling with pack straps I'd forgotten to adjust. Slightly winded by the time we got organized and as I looked up ahead at the mighty (yes, pretty freaking mighty to this flatlander) Ingleborough, standing there stoic adorned with a hat made of mist I was thinking 'ok, here we go, sure hope to hell I'm ready.' Three days on and I'm still teeter tottering between 'entirely ready' and 'why did you slack so much you lazy arse'. My quads still hurt like fire. My calves and lower shins are crying. They are used beyond oblivion. But I'm not injured and I have not fallen off a mountain. That right there is success.
Have I mentioned how hard it was for me? Phooooooooooooooooooooooo.
Up up and away, I couldn't chit chat for all the effort it was taking me to breathe, as the guys in front of me were proper machines, our leader may well have actually been a mountain goat and here's old Flatlands Max staring up and saying the HELL you will, I'm coming to get you. Up up and away, into that mist hat and there came the wind. Like out of nowhere, like the boy racers and their screaming cars flying around blind curves in the city, that wind smacked me senseless, it's friend sleet jumping in for the kill. What were we in for in this weather? And still up we went. Confident and pushing on and then a bit of vertigo when I paused to catch my breath. Perhaps sort of hyperventilating at the 'bigness' of the task. Deep breath, calm down, this is fun. Go on. Go.
A step up a scramble and my foot slipped. Good lord, panic. Ok, deeper breath, calm down, SLOW down. Go on. Go.
And up and up until suddenly there was a summit and wouldjabelieveit I had climbed a mountain. But the wind and sleet and cold and where the hell is my inhaler and puffpuffpuff let's get the hell down and as fast as we were up we were down and then the wind stopped like the boy racers passing a cop car. Cease and desist. Ten paces later, more wind, more rain.
Ok, I can see where this is going. Hood up, zipper up, go on, go.
Onward to Pen-y-Ghent but first a pit stop at a real toilet. Support crew telling me off that I hadn't drunk enough water as they top up my camelbak, taking the piss and joking that there were some 5000 feet of ascent to begin with, treating me like a neophyte. Yes I'm slow and new at this but I'm not an eejit. I asked them right, ok where is my sherpa and they backed off, smirking at me as I struggled to put the stopper back on the camelback with cold fingers. That 'here let me help you little lady' attitude grating like a fork scraping a plate. All in kindness, but right then and there I knew I'd already been pegged as a 'non-finisher'.
He don't know me very well, do he?
Red cape flailing, this bull dug in.
There I'd been thinking yes I'll have a break but having been one of the slowest back there wasn't any more time for a break, it was time to roll and off we went again, huffing and puffing and waving at more sheep. And man alive there were so many sheep. I have never seen such sheep. Just hanging out in that ridiculous weather.
I'm going as fast as I can, same again huff and puff up and down another stormy summit and then we're on an eleven mile walk to Whernside, somewhere between the fast pack and the slower walkers, my friend's partner and I navigated the way together with the help of a couple friendly locals and made it to support stop number 2. Old Captain Chuckles was there to greet us again. Tea? Coffee? Cake? 'Oh but hurry, they're going in just a minute or two.'
FFS. And here I needed a wee. No go, swill down that cuppa joe, wolf down some cake and barely time to get the water topped up, I'm told the slower group is circumnavigating the base of the mountain and only the fast group is going to top out. I'm asked which group I'm joining 'will you be summiting?'
(Really?!) 'Of course I will.' My eyebrow may have popped upwards. I know I flipped him the bird in my mind.
'Ok, we're going soon, are you ready?'
'You bet I am.'
Suck it up buttercup and away we go, into the suck of that atrocious weather, the wind taking us onward, I'm now clinging to the hope I can keep up with this group but as we start to go up I'm feeling the old right IT band stab-fest-in-the-knee problem cropping up and with it some irritation in my lower left calf from all that favoring. Still I go. I stop. I'm panting. Inhaler out, I go. Damn lungs. I go.
Guide at the back who's teetering between supporting slower walkers and almost trying to convince them to throw in the towel is paused at a stile where the faster guys have gone over and got away by now. I tell him he's going to see lots of me as I'm tailing the fast group so will be somewhere in between. He says he's got two girls going at a slower pace and I can join up with them. I ask are you summiting? He says 'nothing else we can do from here' as if I was trying to get out of it.
Ah yes...he still don't know me very well, do he?
Here we go. And we are going slow. Me struggling, the gal behind struggling. The gal in front stop and go, we are all on a bit of a molasses trail. This mountain is shaped like a dome so it's constant up up up up up there is no rest. And it's still raining. I've lost count of how many times I've wrung water out of my glove just by squeezing my hand into a fist. I don't care, I just keep moving. I'm passing time by asking the guide what the National Three Peaks is like in comparison. He's telling me about each climb, the difference in terrain, what a circus it is with all the sleep deprivation madness. And the five hour stop between mountains.
'Is it harder than this?' I ask. He tells me the weather plays a huge part. I'm thinking that's his way of saying this weather has been shite and maybe it's not harder than this if the weather isn't horrific. He's probably as fed up of the onslaught as we are, but it's the day job and he's used to it so he's not bitching about it.
Me, I bitch. Hey, it passes the time. I tell him 'it's amazing how something that can suck this bad can make me feel so alive.' He says 'I think that's a positive statement?'
Up we go. The knee is getting worse by the second. By the time we traverse across the blustery ridge to the shelter and I'm posing for that magic third summit photo my knee is now raging, my calf following closely behind. I don't so much sit down as fall onto the bench.
We stop for just a minute or two this time and off again. I groan my way to vertical and start moving. The others are way ahead before I can even consider my position and I'm now limping as the pain is building. Uneven terrain aggravates these injuries tenfold and it's taking an age to navigate the flattest tangent. I'm growl-shouting every time I twinge it but I keep moving.
Up to some downward steps and I'm wondering how the hell this is going to work. Takes a while til I get into a groove, turned to the side, walking pole dug in, right leg step down without bending, push off, step down left. Repeat repeat repeat. I pass another gal who is really having trouble with a knee. The two I climbed with are now getting away. Everyone is ahead and nearly home but the three of us.
I keep moving, pole-step right-step left, and suddenly realize I'm entirely alone. I know the guide and the girl with the knee problem are behind me. Everyone else is most probably done by now. I had seen one handful after another of people disappearing over the horizon and now there were none. I heard nothing but sheep. Those incessant sheep bleating. Maaaaaa! Maaaaaa!
I keep moving, now I'm talking to myself 'only up there, just got to get back.' And next thing I know I'm singing 'Jo jo left his home in Tucson Arizona...' and smiling. Segue into Hey Jude, hey this is working, what next? And there as he always does, comes my Heavenly Pops into my world at just the right time, whispering into my ear 'Sinatra'. And so I serenade those sheep '...each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race, that's life!'
And I'm laughing and the rain is pissing down again and I can't even get my phone to work to take a selfie for all the water on it, so back into the pocket, now singing 'My way' but it's coming out 'I did it siiiiiiiiddddewayyyyyyyys'! And now I'm guffawing and hobbling across that field feeling far less pain than just blisteringly alive and amazed at what I'd done that day. And proud. And proud. And proud.
I made it down the path and, not being able to determine which way everyone had gone, I stopped to wait for the guide and the woman behind to turn up. The prospect of that short rest was pure bliss and no sooner had I sat down then they turned up. Cursing under my breath that we were about to move again without a break, the guide beams 'we're all about to be saved! The van's coming to get us!'
I stopped dead, halted all that swearing at myself for a second and gave him my best Chicago stink-eye. 'I don't need saving.'
He's just looking at me.
'I only stopped because I don't know which way to go here, I'm perfectly able to walk the rest of the way.'
'It's only just down the road, it's just the same,' says he, dumbfounded that I declined a lift.
'No it's not, that's cheating,' says I.
He's still just looking at me, now the chin's dropped a bit, mouth slightly open, the perfect 'what the hell are you talking about' look on his face. He says nothing. Here comes the van. He heads to the van to talk with the driver and throws a curt 'I'll go with you' over his shoulder.
That's more like it. I realize in retrospect that I hadn't even greeted the other woman, maybe for fear her inability to finish would rub off on me.
I catch up to the guide stood by the van. 'Keep going,' he's a bit snippy now. The driver is smirking at me.
I keep going. I'm on flat pavement now so the limp is mostly gone and I'm doing a Chicago Marathon repeat to the finish. I'm charging down that path holding my collapsed walking pole like Thor's Hammer, striding strong like there's never been anything at all wrong with me. Guide's about 50 paces behind, probably doing the same swearing I was up to a few minutes prior.
I see the main road now. I turn to check I'm going the right way, he's still behind me. Check for traffic, cross over, few paces up and I'm into the car park where everyone - EVERYONE - else had already finished. Those who had summitted all three mountains, as well as those who hadn't made it.
But not me. I made it.
I looked at my watch - 11 hours and 28 minutes. Looked at the guys who'd chided me at the support stop. The van driver was grinning as I rocked up. 'On time and on my FEET.' I said. And those old boys, they celebrated with me.
Up comes the guide. I extend my hand and smile. 'I didn't go all that way to get on a BUS,' says I.
'I'll see you in August.' Big smile back.
Yeah, he didn't know me very well, but he sure learned what I'm all about. I'm a Sinda. I'm a Buzzer. I'm Mad Max. I'm a finisher.
Roll on August. Next stop Ben Nevis.
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