Sunday, June 9, 2019

Manxie(s) abroad (part two)

In the late 90s I used to have a No Fear t-shirt that had blazoned on the back a slogan "the older I get, the better I was". Now that could certainly be used for my football playing days, but if I twist it slightly to "the older I get, the better it was" I can easily use it for the most awe-inspiring walk I have ever been involved in.

In October 2016, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Robben Island, Cape Town was chosen as the inaugural South African Centurion walk. It was an incredible and ambitious project invested in by Parish Walk (PW) finisher Nour Addine Ayyoub with his company ZaiLab hosting the event.

The symbolic value of Robben Island lies in its sombre history, as a prison and a hospital for unfortunates who were sequestered as being socially undesirable. This came to an end in the 1990s when the inhuman Apartheid regime was rejected by the South African people and the political prisoners who had been incarcerated on the Island received their freedom after many years. To date, three former inmates of Robben Island have gone on to become President of South Africa: Nelson Mandela, Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma. 

I was presented with the opportunity to go to see the office of my employer at the time, Capital International Group, which coincided with my 10 year anniversary with the company. I travelled the 6,000 miles down by myself and met up with Group Chairman Anthony and Helen Long who would be supporting me on Robben Island. Anthony wasn't exactly thrilled "at watching you walk around for 24 hours" but how things changed quickly once we got onto the island.

Up early on Saturday, 22nd October 2016 and the journey to the island began in the pouring rain. Once down at the V&A Waterfront, the now familiar home and abroad faces from Castletown & Schiedam all started to arrive. Added to this was the excitable South Africans. It made for a great atmosphere. With us all packed onto the ferry, we got out of the harbour and made our way across to Robben Island which was 8 miles away. It usually takes around 40 minutes but it took a little longer as the sea was pretty choppy and the ferry had to zig-zag its way through it. The majority of Manxies were ok as most have been at one time or another on the Ben heading to Liverpool in less than calm waters. One South African was whooping with laughter as the ferry rocked and rolled which I doubt was helping the ones turning green. 
Robbie Callister arrives in style on Robben Island

Once we got to the island the clouds had lifted and the sun started to beam down. Thankfully, the organisers had thought of staging this event at a time of year which wasn't going to be blistering hot, just hot.... As our kit and supplies were transported down to the support area we were given a tour of the prison by an ex-inmate giving us a personal and emotional reflection on what life was like living there. As we headed over to the start, I had a quiet thought to myself "if you start moaning that your sore later, just look over at that building".

The walk started in the midday heat under the sign in the picture above. We were on a 10km loop to begin with which took us over the now disused landing strip and around the majority of the 2.1 mile long by 1.2 mile wide island. Then after that first lap we had a 4.4 mile loop x21 to do. It was a varied course with a couple of inclines, a coastal road, through the residential area and of course past the prison.

My plan was as always to get the finish and to fulfil Hannah's last words to me before leaving the IOM - "just make sure you bring that pin back!". I was going to try to hit an average of 5mph as long as I could and then hold on to get me in hopefully faster than in Schiedam for a pb.

I started the walk with Suzanne and on our first lap, when heading down the coast, a couple of guys were setting up a camera drone. As it took to the air it proceeded to crash into the only tree within 200 yards. We both started laughing and it broke any pre-walk nerves we had.

As the race progressed, I found myself walking by myself but it certainly wasn't a lonely walk away from the vibrant and music pumping support area. As Robben Island is a nature conservation area the amount of wildlife was impressive. Heading across the island and down onto the coast there was a powerful smell of fish from the colony of sea birds and I instantly thought "oh my god, I've got that every lap!" but then I thought I needed to turn the negative into a positive. I decided to rename this part of the course after the 'motherland' - Peel! As I do a lot of my training walks down south around Cringle, I've seen plenty of wildlife up there over the years from rabbits & hares, sheep, cows, bulls to pole cats and yes, joeys/longies/R.A.T.s. So what was on Robben Island apart from the birds? Springboks, ostriches, lizards, snakes, spiders (big ones) and in the morning I had to wait for these guys to cross the path in front of me........

As twilight was coming upon us, the temperature suddenly dropped. At this time, the Manx walkers were looking strong and a while later Dave Walker passed me he asked if I was doing ok and he was a bit surprised when I said  "brilliant, I've made 50 miles at 5mph average for the first time!". He later told me he was taken aback at my reaction as "a lot of people are starting to have a mental dip by then".  Now to just hang on and push through to the morning. What helped was the view back to Cape Town. That vision will never leave me. At one stage in the middle of the night I was coming down past 'Peel' and onto the coast drinking my Yorkshire tea in my drinks bottle when PW winner Richard Gerrard was overtaking me. I just thought, we're here 6,000 miles away from home, walking around this island, looking at Cape Town all lit up like it was jewel encrusted. Crazy. I'm thankful of being one of the privileged few to experience this I thought.

Meanwhile, my support Anthony and Helen were doing a brilliant job. The course was great as you walked past your support (so you could let them know what you needed) before heading down to  where the start was and looped back around past the prison and then over to the lap finish where the support was. It worked extremely well as it wasn't a rush to ask for something. Anthony was getting into it and I could see his competitive spirit coming out. He was checking my times and giving me updates each lap. He mentioned I was up to 9th place and closing on 8th. This was unusual for me, I had never thought of positions before, it was all about "surviving" these ultras and finishing. This race consisted of 54 solo walkers from South Africa, Isle of Man, Netherlands, Australia, USA, UK, Belgium + 20 teams of 4 in the relay race. As the night wore on I came up to one of the Manx walkers who was firmly in a dip and was talking of calling it a day. I walked with him a bit and was trying to get him to change his mind. I left him to it after a mile or so as we neared the home straight for the support and wondered if he was going to continue. A couple of hours later, the next thing I knew he was back on it and overtaking me. Nice one I thought, that will be another high Manx finisher. I had overtaken a couple of walkers by then and found myself in 6th place. It was also getting tough and with around 25 miles left to go I turned to Anthony and Helen to say this is where the pin is won or lost and just need to get through this next phase. I think to be honest it was the chimp talking on my behalf. He must of been as inspired given the sense of occasion! As Helen started to thaw out after a bitterly cold evening supporting me, as Anthony got some sleep in the converted barracks(!), the end was coming into sight and the heat was coming back. Helen later told me "a South African was asking me if it was true that there were no cars on the Isle of Man?!". I smiled as I remembered talking to a guy when he said to me "all you Isle of Man and Isle of Woman (pointing at Janette Morgan) are really good walkers!". Yeah, that was me trying to convince him we walked everywhere on the island, as we didn't have transport. Helen was also relaying messages from back home as they were waking up, which was great to keep pushing me on. It was as good as having them there at your side knowing people were looking out for you from afar.
Daybreak over Cape Town taken by Anthony Long

During the course of the race I was able to recognise a few more (non Manx) faces from the walks I had done in the past; the Aussie John Kilmartin, Dutch walker Frans Leijtens, serial 100 mile walker Sandra Brown were amongst others. There was also another guy in the walk who was on a "simple" mission to complete all the Centurion walks around the globe, the American Rob Robertson. I had been fascinated reading his blog and he was an inspiration. I was pleased I had the honour of walking with him in one of his races.  He has now gone on to achieve his ultimate goal to claim all 6 Centurion status around the world. I've told him in the past it must be heavy carrying all those pins around on his chest! His astonishing story is documented here in his blog walk100miles24hours. He just needs the PW under his belt for the cherry on top! 😉

The walk had gone way better than I had originally thought (after the problems I had in Schiedam) and although tough through the dark hours, once that daybreak hits the mind starts to switch back on and you gear up for the finish. Helen handed me the Manx flag so I could walk with it for the last mile around the harbour & past the prison. Coming into the last few hundred metres and lifting the flag high, with a fist pump to the encouraging South Africans, it was my best performance to date. The finishing time was 21:44:29, which was an hour and a half quicker than in Schiedam 5 months previously.

It was a long night but we got there Helen!

The Manx walkers had certainly veni, vidi, vici with the top 7 looking like this:

1 Richard Gerrard (Manx) 19:42:01
2 David Walker (Manx) 20:31:29
3 Kerstin Mosig (SA) 20:37:46
4 Janette Morgan (Manx) 20:56:47
5 James Quirk (Manx) 21:36:33
6 Pete Miller (Manx) 21:44:29
7 Chris Cale (Manx) 22:11:01

Full list of finishers SA 2016
Video footage African Centurion 2016
Robben Island info

The trip back to Cape Town on the ferry was thankfully calmer than the trip to the island and was a lot quieter due to everyone being exhausted. But there was one last special gift that South Africa was going to give us. A pair of whales surfaced behind us to perfectly draw the curtains to what was an extraordinary event I was honoured to be a part of.

I travelled back to the UK a couple of days later. I was grateful I was on the overnight direct flight from Cape Town (instead of going to Dubai first) and for the record, no, I wasn't in business class! With the flight taking 12 hours and I rarely sleep on flights, I had plenty of time to reflect and decide what the next challenge would be. It didn't take long, I needed to do the Parish again. One thing I had noticed on Robben Island that I hadn't seen before in walks was the guys at the "sharper" end were hurting just as much as everyone else. With you having to come back on yourself over the finish line you could see the faces of the other walkers coming towards you. Normally on a looped course the quick ones would just fly past. Now you could see their faces and the obvious discomfort they were in. They were in fact human! At the end in SA as we (Manx) were all in the barracks behind the finish area resting up in the bunk beds looking broken. Robbie Callister walks in and says "bloody hell, it looks like Nobles in here!". But the realisation was these walkers had developed technique to go quicker and get it over faster. I was going to have to go and learn some technique throughout the winter down at the NSC. Another thing dawned on me. If I was looking to get quicker, I was going to have to become more competitive and that didn't take long to kick in. I arrived at a cold Heathrow at around 5am and I found myself shuffling along what felt like a mile from the terminal to the baggage carousel. As the majority of other passengers disappeared I found I was in a foot race with an 80 year old woman. I have to admit I was disappointed in coming off second best but I did run her close to finish a few seconds behind her!

It feels only right to leave the chapter with a quote from the great man.

“There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living”. 
Nelson Mandela