“I’m that really unsociable nodding off fella. I’ve been to parents evenings this week to talk about ‘Howfast’ and have really struggled to stay awake.”
James Thurlow is sleepily enjoying the aftermath of his incredible 190 mile foot crossing of the Coast 2 Coast walkers route, which takes in the peaks of the Yorkshire Dales, Moors and the Lakeland fells. He tackled the epic challenge in 3 days, 23 hours and 59 minutes, a squeak under his 4 day target, and by inviting people to guess his elapsed time he has so far raised over £3k for Diabetes research.
James has been Type 1 Diabetic for a few years, and with a lifetime of loving extreme adventures in the outdoors behind him, he was faced with the possibility that haywire blood sugar and regular bouts of dizziness and fatigue would scupper his ability to access the beautiful places and endurance challenges that are part of his lifeblood. “I can see why people with Type 1 avoid strenuous exercise”, he explained. “Working out how much insulin you need when you’re ultra running is very hard and there is absolutely no precedent for it.”
Despite his analytical and highly detailed brain, James certainly didn’t always get his calculations right, which were made even harder by the fact that his new continuous glucose monitor and insulin pump were only fitted three weeks before his Howfast challenge. “I didn’t have much time to get used to it, and that first day was a bit of a science experiment”. On the first day, on the leg over Wainstones, James hit a “bit of a wall”. He admits he set out too fast and was struggling to keep eating the quantities he needed. “I had to eat every half an hour to keep my blood sugar stable. On that first day we were moving very fast and it was hard to stay on top of that, so I slowed down”.
In fact, the discipline of eating small amounts regularly on a long endurance challenge isn’t something unique to Diabetics, and his ‘little and often’ strategy meant James’ legs never ran out of steam, even if his blood sugar and body temperature were playing up. “It was a good discipline, actually. I got tired but I didn’t have that bonk. You’re feeding yourself for the future. It set me in good stead”.
James was overwhelmed at the support he was shown by friends and wellwishers, and helpfully, many of them were medics. Some of the volunteers who supported him on his run included Paediatrician Ali Morris, GP Charlotte Hattersley and even Diabetic Consultant Andy Petit. (“That was like a five hour consultation!”) Even vet Sabrina Verjee was offering her advice, although James was mildly concerned that if he broke his ankle she might opt to put him down.
By day 2, James had realised that he needed to reduce his insulin intake to 10% of his normal daily amount, so moving on over the Yorkshire Dales was far smoother. The aim was to hit the high Nine Standards peak during the day, to avoid the risk of navigational error and hypothermia (something James also has to battle with far more often now). “Needless to say we hit the bottom of the hill at 11.30 at night. I had been going since 3.30am and was right on the edge so we stopped and slept there and went over the following morning at 3am. It was pretty wild up there and a few of the support crew were shaken up.”
At this point, and at a few others on his adventure, James had a serious internal dialogue about the sense of what he was taking on. Used to being self-sufficient, sensible and strong in the mountains, able to cope in tough conditions and even on numerous occasions be the person to help others less prepared off the hill, James now faced the fact that in some ways it was he who was the liability. “Suddenly I found myself very vulnerable to getting cold. I knew I wouldn’t go out there on my own and had to be babysat. In my head I thought ‘Is this the right way. Is this the way I want to do this?’” But with a trusted group of experienced friends around him, including adventure racers Ant Cooper, Joe Faulkner, Lucy Harris and Jim Rounsley, all of whom help out or take part in James’ Open Adventure races, he realised that accessing the wilderness in any (safe) way is better than looking at it from afar.
On adventure races, when competition and the thrill of the chase are thrown into the mix, it is common for teams to get as little as one hour of sleep a night. James had no such pressure, but was still determined to make his challenge as non-stop as possible. He limited his sleep to short stretches at the coldest part of the night, plus the odd power nap. “We came off Nine Standards at some ungodly hour and headed to Shap. It took forever and we decided to stop for a 10-15 minute nap. I was shocked at how much difference that made and really felt good afterwards”.
“Feeling a bit fresher meant we could then tackle Kitsey Pike, the highest point on the C2C route. We ran along Haweswater feeling good but it started raining and I was getting cold”. James had another doubt here about whether it was sensible to plough on up the climb, knowing his resilience to cold was minimal. “We went for it, but I knew Lisa [my wife] was pretty worried. It cleared a bit on the top but the temperature dropped and I was very mindful that I couldn’t afford to stop. I was very glad when we dropped down to Boredale Haws. I’m still not sure that tackling it in those conditions was the right decision”.
After a sleep at Patterdale, James headed to Grizedale Tarn, knowing the bulk of the journey was behind him, and from Honnister they were homeward bound. “My feet were in immaculate condition, which I put down to the Hoka shoes I was wearing. That said, my legs were in tatters on that final stretch and it still felt like someone had been hitting my soles with a baseball bat. It’s a long way!”
The final hop had taken James 13 hours in a recce, but he admits that he was going fast then, “chasing the train”. With tiredness and nearly 180 miles behind him, it soon became clear that finishing in his secret aim of sub 4 days was going to require some digging deep! “I need to sleep but we didn’t have time, so we ticked along fast and reached the coast. The 4 day target was slipping away”. James was so tired he was staggering dangerously on the cliff tops and his wife Lisa, (who had trekked alongside him for the past 60 miles) was concerned he was going to topple over. The team decided a two minute sleep was in order, and James slept deeply for exactly 120 seconds.
That kip made all the difference and the final few miles they picked up the pace and ran hard. “We were going flat out. I just kept asking Ant [Cooper] how far was left. We ran the last 3-4 miles and reached the end with seconds to go. I’d been up for 24 hours and was so tired. I remember seeing the support van the other side of the car park and thinking it was too far to walk!”
James’ amazing experience was a more than just a fundraising event, but a personal challenge to take revenge on the disease that has threatened to change his life into an unrecognisable and sedentary shadow of the active, outdoors lifestyle he thrives on. Despite worries about his frailty at times, James made sensible choices that ensured that within the constrains of his own reality he was able to access and enjoy a truly sensational wilderness feat. And really, we all have limitations and everyone is a liability if they don’t take precautions to ensure their day in the hills doesn’t end in disaster. James’ goalposts might have been shifted but with a large helping of tenacity, a great set of friends and a bigger-than-self purpose, he has still scored in the back of the net.
Alan Hartly, Ali Morris, Andy Petit, Ant Cooper, Charlotte Hattersley, Claire Maxted, Dave Johnson, Dave Macfarlane, Heather and Chris Heppenstall (and James), Jim Rounsley, Joe Faulkner, Lisa Thurlow, Lucy Harris, Rob Marriot, Sabrina Verjee, Sally Ozanne.
Open Gallery7 Images