The road to self discovery

Sunday, 26th March 2023. I set off from our campsite in Highbridge, not too far from Bristol. The weather was, well as you can probably guess, wet. It was just as wet as when I finished my first LEJOG attempt there back in September.

Simon Graham, my nutritionist, was joining me on the bike for the first couple of sections that day. I ran on the pavement where I could, whilst he rode alongside on the road, in an attempt to divert cars from driving through puddles and drenching me. A real gent! He did however, suggest that my next challenge should be somewhere dry and hot!

Me and Simon as we parted on day 1

I finished that day with not much voice left. You see, I’d woken a couple of days earlier with a hacking cough and sore throat. Unfortunately, my GP surgery couldn’t fit me in and so that morning, Kerry, my support/driver had stopped off to stock me up with throat sweets and paracetamol. I felt awful. It didn’t do much for my appetite.

Had it been an ordinary race day, I wouldn’t have got out of bed, happily accepting the DNS (Did Not Start) on the result sheet. Yet here I was with over 620 miles still to go and feeling a bit on the hot side with a raging sore throat. In the previous couple of months, I’d also had a number of concerning niggles, which were still concerning.

It was a few days before I noticed any improvement in the cough/throat situation, by which point I was starting to pick up a few injury concerns.

My quads were somewhat battered after the first couple of days due to the amount of downhill. You’d think downhill running would be easier right? Wrong! Downhill movement requires eccentric muscle contractions as you brake with each stride. Momentum forces your quads and calves to lengthen, as you’re trying to contract them in order to brake. This caused an awful lot of soreness. Squatting down was excruciating… not great if you needed to take a roadside nature break I can assure you! After about 3 days of this agony, my quads just stopped aching. It was like, “Ok, well she’s not stopping so we might as well just get on with it!”

Then it was the turn of my right achilles tendon. A tight ache that meant I couldn’t press off into my stride without considerable pain. It was iced, taped, stuck in front of the infrared lamp at the end of each day, but it persisted. The pain crept up into my calf and my legs began to swell quite considerably. I had flashbacks to my first attempt and having to stop. This time, there was no way I was going to quit. I would find a way to keep going, whatever the cost, because I had invested so much physically, emotionally and not to mention financially in order to complete the challenge. Not finishing was not an option.

My achilles tendon throbbed and felt crunchy as I tried to put on my shoes each morning. The swelling was so bad that as Kerry drove me to the start point, I had to lie on the floor with my feet raised on the seat in the hope that the fluid would move enough for me to get my shoes on. I would just about be able to tie my laces, with the short length that was left by the time I had loosened them off enough to get my feet in. Those first few miles of the day were horrendous.

The swelling (and a few torrential downpours that weren’t forecast) caused blister issues. None of this was helped by the additional mileage caused by a few wrong turns due to outdated maps. It was miserable.

Having people join me on the journey, even if just for a few miles, made such a huge difference to me though – and obviously you’re not going to quit when you’re in company!

Weather was mixed throughout. We were fortunate that it seemed most of the rain was overnight, but that meant running on very wet roads and verges during the day.

This constant up and down on and off the road, started to play havoc with my knees, and by the time I’d reached the border with Scotland, I was in considerable pain. Bizarrely, going uphill felt much easier than going down, and my poles became my constant companion.

During the times I was running on my own, I would stick my headphones on and turn the volume up, to drown out not only the road noise, which sent my tinnitus off the scale, but also to distract me from all the thoughts that were going through my mind. My head was intent on telling me I could just call Kerry, tell her I’d had enough, she could come and pick me up and all the pain would be over. In a matter of minutes I could be sat in the van with a hot Costa coffee. But that was never going to happen.

To quote Sia, and the song I would have on repeat through those challenging times, “I put my armour on and show you that I am unstoppable”.

My theory was if I played it enough, I’d begin to believe it!

At some point during the final week we reached the Cairngorms. It was there that it all started to go very wrong. I’m not sure anyone I was with realised just how exhausted I was or the pain I was in, but I reached a point on one particular day when I just couldn’t keep putting one foot in from of the other. So, plan B came into play.

I had learnt a considerable amount about myself during my first LEJOG attempt, even though I was only on the road for 4 and a bit days. I am extremely grateful that I had Jon Fearne, my coach, with me on that occasion because a lot of that knowledge came from him.

I was beginning to notice patterns in how my body was responding to certain situations, whether it was dizziness, physical and mental fatigue, or general aches and pains. There was a definite plummet by around 2:30 in the afternoon. This thankfully coincided with the time I would meet Kerry at the van. Despite my best efforts, my brain and body would just reach a point where I would just shut down. There was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

Having to get back out on the road feeling like I was sleepwalking was nothing short of terrifying. I was falling behind on my mileage and there were a few campsite owners who, despite knowing what I was doing and why I was doing it, were adamant that if we didn’t get there by the stipulated time, we wouldn’t be given access to the site.

That is why plan B, my bike, came into play. To put it mildly, I was really annoyed with myself that I couldn’t do it on foot.

One particularly cold day in the Cairngorms, I’d taken to the bike. It was showery, and I was riding against and horrendous headwind. The weather gods were certainly not on my side that day.

My back brake had been sticking on, which meant that having slogged my way up a hill, I couldn’t even freewheel down to recover, because the back wheel needed me to pedal in order to move against the force of the sticking brake. Add to this, I was totally exhausted and my lack of balance on 2 wheels was not ideal. Some might even say hazardous.

I was prepared to ditch the bike at my next stop and continue on foot because I really couldn’t carry on. I was just spent – and hurting. Having to pedal hard was aggravating my achilles more than running, and now my left one had started to hurt too.

I was meeting Kerry every 5 miles, or so I thought. I had been cycling for what felt like eternity, so pulled over to check where I was. My phone had died on me, so I couldn’t check my route and where she would be. I couldn’t even call her to arrange a new meeting point.

I was so angry. With everything. This time, I really began to lose it.

When you reach that level of exhaustion, your brain goes into survival mode. I was totally spent, but in fight mode with some unseen enemy. I tried to think logically, but was struggling. I took a moment to try to control my breathing, whilst figuring out how to message Kerry using my Garmin inReach tracker. I started typing my message, but it was tedious as it was like an old mobile phone, where you have to scroll through the entire alphabet to find each letter, space, full stop.

Just as I was about to completely lose the plot, I heard a car pulling up behind me. “Are you going somewhere? Are you lost?” Now, remembering I was in fight mode, I was ready to tell this person to do one, when I realised it was my coach Jon, his wife Lily and their two beautiful dogs, Lhotse and Oakley! Impeccable timing for sure and the second time that day where I was convinced there are powers at work far greater than anything we can comprehend.

I blurted it all out to Jon, who remained totally calm, as he always does. I explained what had happened. He asked when I last met Kerry to work out where she might be, but I just couldn’t do the maths! I was reduced to just turning the pedals. I could barely string a sentence together.

Jon reassured me that there are some who might have quit as soon as things started to go wrong, but I was still here and still going despite all of that, and I wasn’t broken yet. John O’Groats was still there for me and I was going to go get it. All I had to do was keep turning the pedal, or putting one foot in front of the other.

The power that having positive people around you really cannot be underestimated.

Jon and Lily drove on another couple of miles, where the A9 next joined with with the cycle path I was on to check in with me. Again, there was no sign of Kerry. So, we planned that they would continue another 2.5 miles – and there was the van!

Poor Kerry had overshot the checkpoint and not been able to turn around as it was a fast road, so she thought she would just continue to the next planned stop. Paul and Aimee had also arrived, so I ditched the bike and continued run/walking with Aimee before meeting up with Paul further on, and together with lots of laughing and joking in the strong wind and heavy rain, we made it to our finish point in Dalwhinnie, or Darjeeling, Paul joked.

This journey had very much become about the people I met along the way.

The next few days we were blessed with good weather. It was still windy, but sunny and dry, and once we were back on the coast, the scenery was stunning.

Kerry’s sister Karin, and our friend and fellow brain tumour survivor Andrew had joined us for the last few days, which made a huge difference.

The pain in my left achilles tendon had now superseded any previous discomfort I had felt, in fact it was considerably worse than the tendon injury I picked up last time. There were times on the road with Andrew, where I just put my headphones on, and my glasses so I could cry without anyone seeing me, and I would take myself off into the pain cave and go to war with my dark thoughts.

During those times I was thinking of all the reasons why I was doing this. Fundraising was important to me, and that wasn’t going so well. More important than that though, was the people I was doing it for. Those who were looking for a glimmer of hope that they too might get their life back after a brain tumour diagnosis, and also those who had a less favourable prognosis.

I spent an awful lot of time thinking of Laura Nuttall, and how her life had changed after completing the Great North Run last year, and Liam Bergin, a keen cyclist and previously a runner. Both of whom had beat the odds and were now exceeding their initial life expectancy with a glioblastoma, but were now nearing the end of their brain tumour journey. Laura, Liam and others in the brain tumour community were such an inspiration to me. How could I possibly stop?

Three days before the finish, I was doing my best to run uphill with Andrew when I felt the most excruciating pain in the back of my left lower calf. I can honestly say, for a split second I think it was the worst pain I’d ever felt. It stopped me dead in my tracks. I took a deep breath and tried to continue. It happened again. I couldn’t go any further. Andrew realised it was serious and called Kerry who drove back to meet us in a lay by.

I took painkillers, covered it with freeze spray, stuck the ice pack to it. We were only a couple of miles from the finish for that day, so Kerry decided that was it. I wasn’t going any further. We would head to the campsite and I could rest it up.

I was in so much pain I barely slept that night. The next day, I decided I would cycle the whole day. The brake issue was now fixed, thanks to Paul, which made a huge difference. I hoped that it would provide some form of active recovery, as my foot wouldn’t really be load-bearing and there was no impact from pounding the tarmac.

I was still in pain, but it was bearable, so I kept going, ticking off the miles…

Waking up on the final day was such a relief, yet I knew I still had 37 miles to go. John o’Groats was within touching distance, but I knew so much could still go very wrong. I walked around the campsite at 6am, trying to see how my leg was feeling. The first couple of steps were ok, but then the pain was back. I decided I would cycle and then walk the last few miles. I had started this journey on foot, and I would finish it on foot. With that I set off, my foot and lower calf taped up to restrict any movement.

Again, the weather gods weren’t on my side. The forecast was for sunshine, what we got was showers, hail and strong winds, which increased considerably as the day went on.

As we left Wick, I left the bike behind to finish on foot. Andrew, Kerry and Karin had gone on ahead, leaving me to have to ‘savour’ the last few moments alone. Savour probably isn’t the best word to describe those last few miles. I was in horrendous pain. Each time my foot hit the ground, a hot, searing pain radiated through the back of my leg, as if someone was sticking a hot knife in there and twisting it.

The others were sad to see our journey coming to an end. Not me. I couldn’t wait.

I grimaced with each step, tears running down my cheek as bunch of cyclists overtook me. Eventually, I could see the pole, and Kerry and Andrew who had dressed up for the occasion!

It certainly wasn’t the sprint finish I’d hoped for. As I touched the signpost, with a group of strangers applauding, including the cyclists who’d passed me, the relief was immense.

Would I take on another challenge, absolutely!

Would I do LEJOG again, no thanks. That box is well and truly ticked.

Published by Sara C

It's hugely important to raise more awareness of brain tumours and the implications they can have on patients' lives. I aim to help to create wider understanding of the effects brain surgery and a diagnosis can have on an individual and their families on a emotive level through my own experience.

One thought on “The road to self discovery

  1. Wonderful account of an amazing achievement. The pain and the obstacles make you the tenacious person you are Sarah and you bring the sunshine with you. Congratulations is not a good enough accolade for you.
    Hope to see you soon.
    Joan xx

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: