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A Touch of Hypothermia
The ground was swaying and my arms and legs no longer belonged to me. The wind and rain were pounding my body at over 30 miles per hour; I was doing about a tenth of that. My entire body was numb and my mind was only a short step behind. I wasn't sure if I'd make it to the next checkpoint or whether I'd awaken in a hospital bed. What was I doing? Enjoying a run in the 1998 Seven Sisters' Marathon, of course. How did I get into that state? To this day I'm not completely sure, for I'd run in much worse conditions and had not suffered from hypothermia before.
My training over the previous eight weeks was spartan: only 3 runs, a total of 20 miles, and an average of less than 90 miles cycling per week. So, perhaps, you might think I was asking for trouble by attempting such a tough marathon on this level of training. But, even though my cycling mileage was down, I was not bothered. I was used to tackling ultra trail races on a base of mostly cycle training and no running, and this includes the South Downs Way 80 mile ultra race in just over 13 hours.
When I arrived at the start in Eastbourne with my brother Mark my only concerns were, 'where are the toilets?' and 'which shoes should I wear?'. I had no inkling of the excitement that lay ahead. The only clue was the foul weather conditions -- steady rain and very strong winds. As usual, the race was full to capacity. I sheltered from the rain as long as I could before mingling with the masses at the start. All the usual suspects were there; Mick Anglim commented that my cross-country shoes were likely to prove uncomfortable on the hard stones of the South Downs. And so they did, but that was to be the least of my worries...
Soon we were off, walking and jogging up the steep slope which led away from the start. I quickly warmed up and chatted casually with my brother Mark, who was running with me. I could see Linda and Ray just ahead. I felt fine. Less than two miles into the run it sounded as if someone was already in trouble. But no, it was just the sound of bagpipes from a liveried Scots piper! Standing on top of a hill, oblivious to the wind and the rain, the piper lent an eccentric and festive atmosphere to this popular event.
I was wearing shorts, T-shirt, a triathlon top (for the rear pockets), cyclist's arm-warmers and a wind-proof. The wind-proof was, unfortunately, not a water-proof. I could see Mark creeping slowly ahead of me, sometimes he was in sight and sometimes not. This was the normal order of things and I would catch him later, or so I thought. I passed the halfway point in about 2:09. I was surprised at the time; I had thought I was doing much better than that. Never mind, I still felt fine and would obviously finish in under four and a half hours. I did not recognise it at the time but this misjudgement of pace was perhaps the first hint of trouble.
At the sixteen mile checkpoint I was soaked to the skin and somewhat drained. But there was only ten miles to go and so I did not anticipate any problems. At the checkpoint I asked for a cup of soup. It was unbelievably hot. In fact, so hot that it was impossible to drink. Not wanting to throw it away, I was forced to wait until it had cooled down. Unfortunately, I cooled down too. Mark was also at the checkpoint. He offered to wait for me but I told him to go ahead as I could see he was looking good and I didn't want to spoil his run. I did not see him again until the finish.
When I left the checkpoint I was considerably colder than when I had arrived. Soon, I passed Linda, on a short, sharp incline. I tried to increase my pace in an effort to warm up; it did not work.
The return leg of the marathon heads back towards Eastbourne, which puts the sea on the right of the runners. The wind was gusting off it and into our faces at gale force. The driving rain stung my legs and turned them red raw. I passed a weary runner who was wrapped in a space-blanket and shuffling very slowly. He looked dreadful. I asked him if he was okay. I think he said 'yes,' but I can't be sure; at this point I was starting to become confused. A minute later, I glanced back over my shoulder and saw a St. John's Ambulance man lead the weary runner away. His race was over; I struggled on.
My body was cooling and by now my hands had become frozen claws. A more rational person would have given up, but I am not a rational person. I was locked into that 'must carry on at all costs' mode. Even death must not be allowed to interfere.
By now I had only three miles to go. Somehow I had reached the penultimate checkpoint and, upon arrival, got some extremely worried looks from the people who were manning it. I was quickly ushered into a tent, sat down, wrapped in a blanket and handed a cup of tea. But my hands shook so wildly that the tea sloshed everywhere. Another cup was offered, but this time it was placed to my lips as if I were a baby. I'd got so cold that my normal shiver reaction was impaired. But, as I warmed up, I started to shake and shiver quite violently. I could vaguely hear a St. John's Ambulance man telling me to pull out of the race but my attention was focused elsewhere -- on the tent pegs. Ropes were straining the pegs as gale force winds ripped at the tent. I watched the pegs slowly ease their way out of the ground. Suddenly, the entire tent lifted at least ten feet into the air and was carried away on the wind like a twisted umbrella in a hurricane. After a moments hesitation, the stunned helpers who manned the checkpoint chased after their tent. There was total chaos, drinks and food were blown everywhere. However, though the scene was dramatic, I think this diversion helped keep me in the race.
A man sheltering in the cab of a nearby St. John's ambulance witnessed the comical incident. He saw me sitting alone, wrapped in a blanket, shivering and being hammered by the elements. It was obvious that I need help; I too was in danger of being blown away. The man helped me into the back of the ambulance where, over the next twenty minutes, I gradually returned to the world of the warm-blooded. He recommended that I give up; I insisted that I carry on. After some discussion and against his better judgement, I'm sure, he agreed that I could carry on as long as I checked-in with the St. John's Ambulance crew at the finish.
I was furnished with a bin-liner (one hole for my head, none for my arms) and a space-blanket. The weather brightened, a touch, and I waddled to the finish in a time of 5:02 -- just outside the five hour cut-off, the minimum time needed to be recorded in the results! I duly informed the St. John's Ambulance people that I was still alive.
It was the first time I had experienced hypothermia (and hopefully the last!). Upon reflection, the most worrying aspect of the whole incident was the insidious way in which it overcame me: I believed I was okay right up to the moment when it was clear to everyone else that I was not. So, when you say goodbye to another suspect summer and hello to another long winter, don't get caught out as I did.
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