On 12th June, James Thurlow will walk non-stop from one Robin Hood’s Bay to St. Bees. He’s asking people to guess how fast he’ll go (visit James’ JustGiving page to donate) so he can raise money for JDRF. But this is no ordinary story of a charity challenge. This is personal.
On one level, James Thurlow is just another outdoor-lover living in the Lake District. He adores running, mountain biking, climbing. His gorgeous four year old twins, Tom and Amy, and his wife Lisa are just as mad for the fells as him, and their weekends are a stream of adventures out in their Lakeland playground. Like a lot of adventure racers, his lifestyle and the sense of competition that pulses through James’ veins are intertwined. He’s an adventure racer and an adventurer. Same thing.
But James is different. He’s different because he has been one of the pioneering forces behind the revamped UK adventure racing scene in recent years. He and Lisa run Open Adventure, which has taken British adventure racing to a new level. Once a sport dominated by a few top teams and a lot of have-a-go heroes, his incessant series of quality races, like the Terrex series of expedition races, the shorter Open 5 series and the Coast 2 Coast 4 day stage race, has encouraged more and more people to tackle events that are faster, harder, longer. As a nation, we are getting better at adventure racing. Our kayaking is improving. Our navigation is getting slicker. Our teams are getting more competitive on an international level. James has played a big part in that.
But this article isn’t about James’ company, or even about adventure racing, it’s about a huge personal challenge that has bitten James firmly in the bum, and which he’s fighting tooth and nail. James has recently been diagnosed as having Type 1 Diabetes. That’s the kind that happens when your immune system destroys your insulin-producing pancreatic cells and which leads to glucose in your urine and blood, and a lot of fatigue, weight loss and distress. It was discovered when the event medics who work on the Open Adventure races thought to test his blood sugar because he was feeling wobbly again after another weekend running around organising an event. “I hadn’t eaten or slept much and the event medics, Steve and Charlotte, checked my blood sugar at the end of the race. I wasn’t feeling good. Right after that I spent 2 days in hospital and since then diabetes has become an integral part of my life”.
James has been injecting and testing his own blood up to 5 times a day. He’s struggled to get his blood sugar to the right level, (and to stay there), to enable long runs and bike rides. Doing the things he loves has become an ordeal. But he wasn’t put off. “There are plenty of people out there who compete in sport at a professional level with diabetes so my challenge was to carry on loving the outdoors whilst keeping on top of the diabetes”.
James refocused and set himself a goal. He’s going to walk the classic Wainright’s Coast to Coast route across England. He’s raising money for JDRF (Diabetes research), but also proving something to himself and to other people. “Sadly 90% of people with diabetes are overweight … not a great statistic and I probably sit within that 90%. Hence part of this event is not just about raising money – it’s about me – I kind of need to focus on a project that will lead to a healthier life”.
Setting off on 12th June, James will walk 175 miles and ascend 8700m. It’s the classic Coast to Coast footpath and a pilgrimage for many hill walkers. A classic right of passage that takes on a whole new meaning for James. “I’m taking on the route from East to West. Most go the other way but I kind of like the idea of heading home. It sets off from the idyllic village of Robin Hoods Bay, crossing the North York Moors, the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District. It finishes in the sea-side town of St Bees”.
Rather than just raising money through sponsorship, James has used a lot of the technical detail that makes his races so popular to come up with an interesting twist. He’s asking people to donate and guess ‘how fast’ he will go. He’s publishing his training data online for the mathematically minded and people can track him as he goes. Most people take around 12 days to walk it. The fastest recorded crossing is just over 39 hours. “Nuts eh?”, he adds. When asked how long he thinks it’ll take, his answer is suitably vague. “The honest answer is I have no idea. I will go as fast as I can but will to a large degree be ruled by a little digital meter that will tell me what my blood sugar is”. Thankfully, he has progressed now from self-testing to an electronic pump and metre. “I am already running regularly and taking on long distance walks. I’ll be in the best shape I can be”.
James’ training hasn’t gone smoothly. He’s not scared of putting the miles in, and has made the most of living in the Lakes to take in some of the region’s best long distance foot challenges in preparation. But battling with diabetes means carrying an extra load around with you on top of the already tremendous challenges of ultra running in the fells.
James’ most recent attempt was the Fellsman, the 61 mile ultra in Yorkshire. He’d learnt from previous events, like the Lakes42 and Tour de Helvellyn, and tweaked his food and kit accordingly. But a few hours in he made a critical error with his insulin. Forgetting how slow the carbs from pasta would be to hit his system, he didn’t pump in enough insulin and a few miles after his feed starting to feel wobbly. “Going up the hill, I was in that rhythm taking it easy. My heart rate was 110-120 but I was sweating buckets – like I was running with a heart rate of 170. It was dripping down my face – I was having a hypo. I needed a gel. With walking poles flying everywhere I fumbled with a gel whilst walking. That was the start of the end. I had to stop later and eat again; some bean stew, tea with sugar. But it was too late. The cold air was hitting my lungs and I was starting to shake. I looked at my running partner, Angela, and said ‘I’m sorry it’s over’. I know once hypothermia hits me it would take hours to recover. To head out on the moors in this state was not just silly, it was beyond stupid – I’d been there before on the Lakes42 – and this was more remote”.
So the last few months has been a challenge for James. He has sought advice from all sorts of endurance and medical professionals about how to tackle his C2C challenge. He knows if it’s less than 5 degrees at night he’ll get hypothermia, and knows how often to eat, how best to use his pump and how rigorously to monitor his heart rate. But anything could happen. One thing is for sure. He will finish. But How Fast? Make your guess, and your donation, here.
From the 12th June, James will be out on the trails with a tracker and here is the latest position updates from his mammoth run.
- HowFast.org: To find out more about the How Fast crossing is going.
- JustGiving: Sponsor the man and take a punt on how long it will take him- go on.
- JDRF: The type 1 diabetes charity who is the main beneficiary.