Part 10: Running Fire and Ice

Hi all,

Thank you for reading Part 10: Running Fire and Ice. This blog post will cover the incredible and life-changing experience of running in the ‘Fire and Ice Ultra’ 250KM ultra marathon event located in Iceland and held across the last week of August and the first week of September 2018. It will include the highest moments and the soul-crushing lows that are associated with ultra-running and the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Before I launch into my account of what is known as one of the most challenging and technical multi-stage ultramarathon courses in the world, I wanted to briefly share a fundraising update.

Together, with crowdfunding and offline donations, we raised $4,500. This has gone such a long way in helping me realise my goal of embarking on this journey as well as raising much-needed funds and support of Phoenix Australia – The Centre for Excellence in Post Traumatic Stress. Also as a side note, these ten blog entries have been read by thousands of people and have been shared with complete strangers who are quite literally located on the opposite side of the world. I never could have imagined the reach a simple blog post could have and the true power of sharing stories and connecting with others. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for reading my story and for displaying the courage to be vulnerable and share your own with me. There is tremendous strength in vulnerability and ultimately it assists in breaking down the barriers to seeking and accessing help and removes the stigma associated with mental health conditions. To those who donated and to those who followed this journey – I love and cherish each of you. Your kindness will help change the face of mental health. Thank you for your generosity, support and kind words. At times during this event, your support was one of the only things keeping me together and empowering me to continue through some pretty harsh and adverse conditions.

The Fire and Ice Ultra Marathon

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Imagine the night before a major event. You can’t sleep due to a combination of excitement, nerves, anxiety and overthinking what’s to come. You’ve lost your appetite and currently running on fumes. Now add that you are sharing a tent with 7 other complete strangers who are feeling the exact same, in a country on the other side of the world, with mountainous and volcanic terrain, in sub-zero temperates – a cold like you have never felt before. This is how I started my race on Monday the 27th of August 2018. Whilst The Fire and Ice Ultra Marathon is a race, a more appropriate description is when a spiritual experience, overwhelming physical exhaustion and a constant mental battle meet to create an ultra-endurance event. The ‘Fire and Ice Ultra’ is a 250KM ultra-marathon event that is divided into 6 stages, across constantly changing Icelandic terrain. It’s also to important to mention that it’s a self-reliant event – everything you need for the run including food, water, clothing and first aid is carried on your back as you run, with most packs coming in at approx 12KG – 15kg worth of extra weight on day 1 of the race. 80 competitors registered from across the globe registered in this event, with 63 individuals making it to the start line.

Instead of creating a lengthy blog post with detailed entries, I’m choosing to provide an overview of the experience and the challenges faced. The summary of each day is contained below. If you would like further information, please feel free to get in contact.

If you are more visually inclined, check out the video link below which documents the highlights of the 6 day event.

Fire + Ice Ultra 2018 Iceland’s Toughest footrace. 250km in 6 days from Extreme Adventure Races on Vimeo.

 

At the start line on day 1, I experienced the magnificence of the Viking Clap – Huh! (link can be found here) It was about minus 8 degrees and to my absolute shock two of Iceland’s most fierce and hardened locals ripped off their shirts, pounded on a bass drum and lead us through a stirring pre-event ritual. I kept my clothes firmly fixed to my body as I shivered through the Viking Clap, looking to the snow-capped mountains and glaciers of Vatnajökull National Park in the distance.

Shortly after, we were off. I couldn’t contain my nervous energy and completely ditched my conservative race plan. For the first 5KM, I was within the top 10 and had eyes on Taiwan’s ultra-marathon champion, Tommy Chen, in first place. On a steep descent down the side of a mountain, I fell. Hard. At exactly 5.4KM into the 250KM endurance event, I had slammed my left knee into a large volcanic rock and was in considerable pain. I couldn’t stand and decided to untether my backpack and sit on the same rock that I had embarrassingly injured myself on for the better part of 20 minutes. With a rip in my compression tights and a swollen bloody knee, I assessed the damage. My mind immediately raced to unhelpful thoughts of shame, doubt and negative self-talk. Luckily it didn’t appear there was any race-ending damage and I was able to walk gingerly down the mountain and try a gentle canter. Obviously, my pace suffered and the race plan went straight out the window and I had to think on my feet – literally. I finished the first stage of the event in a very conservative placing. It was a very painful but timely reminder to check my ego at the start line, not worry about the other competitors in the field and run my own race.

Day 2 was more trying than day 1. The winds overnight were horrendous and the temperature dropped to about minus 12 degrees celsius. I think I got about 3 or 4 hours sleep. I awoke to falling snow (which I had never seen before!) and watched the dark grey storm clouds roll in. On the start line for day 2, I experienced my first blizzard and thought that there was no possible way to run in these conditions – turns out, I was wrong! The ever strong and half-naked Icelandic Viking clap occurred once more and moments later, we trudged along a snow-covered track, battling ice, rain and high winds. At about the 25KM mark, I recall feeling sharp pains along my upper and lower back, both hips and across my abdomen. The wet weather in combination with a backpack that was more appropriate for hiking than it was for ultra running, was rubbing against my skin and creating large and painful friction burns. Each step on the undulating volcanic terrain was more painful than the last and as I ran my hand along my back to ascertain exactly what was happening, I felt the raw skin and blisters underneath my fingers. I recall running through the coldest weather I have ever experienced, with tears of agony running down my face from the friction burns. This was a very personal and an exceptionally painful moment. To make things worse, I felt a series of foot blisters developing and a torn toenail floating in my sock. At the end of the marathon distance of day 2, I visited the event medics to assess the damage. The friction burns were deep, painful and tracked along most of my back and sides. Taking off the backpack and removing wet clothing was excruciating. Thoughts of not being able to finish, with a bung knee and horrible back burns, started to enter my mind. Fortunately, the medics patched up the injuries, popped the blisters and taped down my floating toenail. They also reminded me of why I was doing this event in the first place – to shine a bright light on mental health, to help remove the associated stigma and to empower those who endure mental health difficulties to seek the support of professionals who can help them recover. With this in mind, my resolve hardened and I knew that I would finish this event, no matter what challenges were presented.

Day 3 was a welcome change. a slight change in weather, a change in scenery, a change in mindset and a change in performance. I began to focus less on injuries and adversity and focus on the picturesque surrounds of Vatnajökull National Park, remembering how lucky I was to be a part of an amazing event in the most beautiful country I have ever visited. I could write for days about how stunning the Icelandic wilderness is and it wouldn’t do it any justice. It’s just something that has to be experienced. I remember looking up at snow-capped mountains looming in both the background and foreground and thinking how amazingly fortunate I was to be running through this terrain. Although the injuries were still very present, I ran like the wind on this day. It felt amazing to be running the course, and I finished the marathon distance within the top third of all competitors. When I crossed the line I was absolutely elated. I then began to panic, as the very next day was the big one – 70KM of ultra running and my placing on day 3 would put me amongst the faster runners for day 4. Regardless, I remember crawling into the tent, setting up my blow up mattress and tucking into a bland dinner of freeze-dried pasta with a huge smile on my face. Today was a good day.

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Day 4 was brutal. Absolutely brutal. I awoke to a feeling of nausea and complete loss of appetite. The smell of my oats, peanut butter and protein shake for breakfast made me sick. As a result, I disposed of my breakfast and approximately half of my overall remaining food for the race. I couldn’t fathom the thought of eating (for those who know me well, this is completely out of character!) We set off at about 7:00am that morning and ran 70KM of the most technical, undulating and challenging terrain I have ever experienced. To say day 4 crushed my spirits was an understatement. There were freezing cold water crossings, mountain climbs that seemed never-ending and thick lantana scrub and bushes that were incredibly draining to run through. To make things worse, I ate hardly anything that day and had nothing in the tank to power me through. At the 50KM mark, I collapsed and vomited next to a large boulder on the side of a 4 wheel drive track. I sat there for a few moments, as my legs stopped working momentarily and I couldn’t stand. I was totally overcome with emotion and sobbed uncontrollably. The final hours of the 70KM day were filled with mental health triggers and their corresponding symptoms. I spent hours in isolation battling some very challenging and intrusive mental health demons. I could only focus on the slideshow of vivid imagery relating to the occupational trauma (the dead bodies, the adrenaline-filled response of pulling a firearm on an armed offender, the child abuse and sexual assault investigations etc.) and workplace culture issues that I experienced in my previous occupation as a Queensland Police Officer. As I neared the finish line I could hear a faint cheer in the distance. The problem was, I couldn’t see the finish line. I was so delirious from the calorie deprived, PTSD symptom filled 70KM run, that I actually travelled away from the finish line instead of towards it. I remember being coached towards the finish line and upon reaching the end, I fell to my knees and sobbed, again. I was guided to my tent by a fellow racer and lay on the floor of the tent in tears, forcing multiple jelly snakes into my mouth for a final burst of energy needed to roll out my sleeping mat and collapse.

On the morning of day 5, I remember feeling very fatigued. The lightweight blow up mattress wasn’t thick enough to elevate my aching body from the rocks underneath the tent floor. My knees were swollen, my back was raw and I was very hungry after having thrown out my breakfast supplies the day before. To add more complaints to the list of body ailments, I lost feeling in two toes and the arch of my left foot. I could hardly fathom running another marathon distance. After a visit to the event medics for a quick patch-up job of my back, we set off along tricky volcanic rock terrain and thick scrub like bushes. A number of highlights for this day included running past boiling volcanic mud pools, and steaming sulphur geysers. Iceland is truly a wild natural landscape. At the finish line, I recall feeling absolute relief. After this day, I knew there was only 20KM left to run on day 6. We had done the hard yards and we had completed 230KM. The journey was almost complete. The campsite for night 5 was the first location where I had phone service. I remember calling Lisa and the moment I heard her voice, I broke down into a blubbering mess of tears, homesickness and epic stories from the race.  As a special treat, we were all given a small bottle of soft drink (it doesn’t sound like much, but this dramatically improved the mood at camp!) and we were transported to a beautiful hot spring pool, to soak our battered bodies and to celebrate reaching what was almost the final stage of this 250KM ultramarathon. It was a magical day.

Day 6. The final 20KM stage. Naively, I thought this would be a short sprint to the finish line. Usually, I would easily run 20KM  in under 1.5 hours. However, when I was greeted with a massive hill climb and very technical terrain 100 metres into the run, I knew this wouldn’t be a walk in the park. I recall sliding down very steep mountains, twisting my ankle in between rocky crevices and losing the contents of my backpack on far more than one occasion. The route for the final leg of the 250KM ultramarathon was gruelling and every single kilometre felt like 10 kilometres of ankle snapping terrain. I remember thinking ‘slow and steady. You haven’t come this far just to get this far. Finishing is the only objective.’ At the 19KM mark, I remember climbing a hill, running down the other side and hearing loud cheers and the beating of a bass drum in the distance. I knew I was almost home and it was time to put the foot down and leave nothing in the tank. For the first time in days, I didn’t feel the injuries, instead, I felt a surge of adrenaline. As I rounded a corner and saw the final 100 metre straight, I was handed an Australian flag by one of the race doctors. With tears streaming down my face, and my country flag firmly held by both hands above my head, I crossed the finish line. Never before have I felt such relief, pride and elation. I was handed a medal so large that you could eat a meal on its surface, and shared many embraces the friendly faces of those who had finished before me. After a quick phone call to Lisa and a dash to the pub (the finish line was literally located on the same grounds as a local pub), we stayed for hours and celebrated the achievements each competitor, who proudly planted their flag in the ground as they crossed the finish line.

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There is so much more to document. I could write endlessly on what it was like to train for, compete in and finish this event. To some, it may seem like from reading the paragraphs above that this event was a horribly painful experience. Whilst the injuries were very much present, this wasn’t my take home or overall feelings about the event. This was an incredible experience. I was challenged beyond belief physically, emotionally and mentally. The symptoms associated with my PTSD diagnosis were prominent on many occasions and there were some moments where I was completely overwhelmed. However, this race showed me that I am far more than a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and that even though this is very much a part of my life and the way I experience the world around me, it doesn’t define who I am or what I am capable of. What better way to learn this about myself than to have this realisation in the most spectacular country I have ever visited. To those who have difficulties with their mental health or those who have a mental health diagnosis – you are not broken or weak.

There is nothing ‘wrong’ with you, and even though you sometimes face adversity with mental ill-health, it’s entirely possible to feel well in many aspects of life, thrive and excel at your passions and achieve more than you could possibly imagine.

To the Fire and Ice crew and medical team- you are all exceptional. Without your support, I’m not sure I would have found the spirit to push on. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to go another day without the care and aid of the medical team! Seriously, thank you for all you do to make this event such a success and a life-changing experience. To Race Directors Dave and Jorunn – you have created something amazing. Thank you.

This race and the advocacy work that has occurred in the lead up, has inspired me to not only passionately continue with my professional role at Beyond Blue but also to assist in changing the stigma that surrounds mental health conditions and to share with others the knowledge that it’s ok to not be ok and that there are a variety of mental health professionals who can provide the supports necessary for recovery. This is just the beginning of this journey and I’m excited to see what amazing things are to come.

Thank you all who supported my Fire and Ice journey and read the blogs detailing my training regime leading up to the race event and my journey with mental ill-health. I am forever grateful.

Seeking Help for PTSD

If your life is in danger call emergency services:

  • Australia – 000
  • New Zealand – 111

Lifeline Counselling (24 /7)

  • Australia – 13 1114
  • New Zealand – 0800 543 354

beyondblue Support Service – 1300 22 4636

Men’s Line Australia – 1300 78 99 78
Kids Help Line – 1800 55 1800
Suicide call back service – 1300 659 467

You can also: talk to someone you trust, visit a hospital emergency department, contact your GP, a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist.

Thank you for reading and for being an integral part of changing the face of mental health.

Yours in health,

James

2 Replies to “Part 10: Running Fire and Ice”

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