Having helped raise more than £200k for us since he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer in 2014, our incredible ambassador Kevin Webber has been chosen as the Charity Champion for this year's #GivingTuesday initiative. In this exclusive blog he describes his latest ultramarathon in the wilds of Iceland, and why helping a friend finish his own marathon challenge afterwards was worth a very painful leg.
What a beautiful place Iceland is. In the middle of an isolated national park, where most people are not allowed, 70 of us of all abilities and many nationalities had camped overnight below a vast glacier for the start of the Fire and Ice race.
With the mountain now shrouded in low cloud, we set off on the 250km, six-day unassisted run over through driving rain and biting cold wind. Visibility was down to just a couple of hundred metres and the volcanic ash and lava terrain was bleak, grey and awkward to run on. One runner fell over on the lava, losing a tooth and requiring stitches to his face. (Though after a 10-hour drive to the hospital and back, he still carried on the next day.)
Most of us were thinking that if we have to face this all week, perhaps hypothermia would be an easy way out!
We spent the night crammed in a tent in the crater of an old volcano. It was miserable: very cold and damp. And it only got worse in the morning, after little sleep due to the wind and rain, putting on cold, near-freezing clothes and stand around in the rain for half-an-hour waiting for the start. I think most of us were thinking that if we have to face this all week, perhaps hypothermia would be an easy way out!
By the end of day two, the rain had thankfully gone, the skies cleared and our wet clothes started to dry. That night it fell to minus-seven degrees, yet we had to sleep out of our sleeping bags so we wouldn’t render the down useless with our damp clothes.
The next day our moods were raised by sun and spectacular views. We even glimpsed the Northern Lights that night with our waterproofs stowed in our packs. This is what we came for.
The longest day was the fourth: over 40 miles on very rough terrain. We had to cross two wide rivers with freezing glacier melt water over our knees. With my pack still over 10kg, my lower legs and left shin, in particular, were starting to get very painful.
Towards the end of the day, we descended from the lava fields into the Hidden Valley. A few miles of lush grass, flowers and even insects beside a stream, and we were back up the other side into a landscape more akin to the moon. That night, as we awaited the last few runners finishing at midnight, the Northern Lights were out again – this time across the whole sky. Just amazing.
By now, my leg was swollen, red and painful – but I guess that’s why co-codamol was invented! I managed the full marathon again that day and the remaining half marathon on the last, but had to walk both as I couldn’t run. The relief on finishing was huge for me as I don’t think – even with drugs – I could have done another day.
Back home, I was immediately back into my next round of blood tests. The words of my doctor were still fresh in my ears from last month about a probable failure anytime soon. So you can imagine my relief when my scores had improved again back to my best ever levels. If nothing else, it made the black cloud over my head turn light grey for a few days.
To add to my worries, though, my leg was now very, very red and very, very swollen. A trip to A&E raised concerns about a possible stress fracture. So I had a CT scan, as they were worried that if it wasn’t a fracture, it may be an indication that cancer had spread to my bones. There was an anxious wait for the results, which fortunately confirmed I had ‘only’ ruptured my tendon along the top of my foot and up to my shin.
The bad news was the doctor said no running for six weeks. That was catastrophic as far as I was concerned, since I was already in training for my 2018 mega challenge and didn’t have the time to do nothing. All I could do was run in a swimming pool for an hour a day to keep my fitness up. I can tell you, that’s pretty dull and you get lots of weird looks!
After finishing my chemo in 2015, Rory gave me purpose, direction and belief. I felt so bad about letting him down
I also had the hard job of telling my mate, Rory, that I couldn’t run the Nottingham Marathon with him in September. It would be his 1,000th marathon and came after nearly dying in 2016 from Guillain Barre syndrome, which almost paralysed him.
After finishing my chemo in 2015, Rory gave me purpose, direction and belief that I could take on bigger challenges despite cancer. I felt so bad about letting him down. He was also my tent buddy on the Marathon De Sables race in 2016 and 2017 [pictured below] – a close bond that I felt awful about breaking.
On top of that, this race was to be the one where I completed my own personal challenge of running 1,000 ‘organised’ miles in a year, raising funds and awareness for Prostate Cancer UK. I was just 12 miles short of that target.
As always, Rory was more worried about me and my leg and told me to rest. So on Saturday night, the day before the marathon and four days after my doctor’s orders, I went for a curry with my wife. Four pints of lager and a chicken tikka masala later, I listened to my own advice.
I’d been presenting to my work colleagues earlier that week about “living for the day” and “It’s better to start and not finish than never start at all”. Now I realised that saving my leg for another future day that may not happen was both selfish and hypocritical of me.
So at 3:30am the next day, I drove 150 miles to Nottingham and met Rory at the start line. I’m not sure who was more emotional about being there, but I knew it was the right thing to do on every level (apart from the doctor’s view!).
It was a very slow marathon and a real battle for Rory covering the last few miles, which we mostly walked. My leg was painful – but so what? The occasion was what it was all about. We crossed the line in 5hrs17mins but the time didn’t matter. The enormity of what both Rory and I had achieved with our own challenges hit home, with much emotion and celebration.
I write this today with my leg raised and ice on it. And every bit of pain brings a smile to my face
So, I write this today with my leg raised and ice on it. And every bit of pain brings a smile to my face, knowing that I supported my mate in his moment of need. (I say need, but we all deserve to have the best memories and I believe I helped him have that in some small way.) I am also smiling as when I set my own challenge last November, I honestly thought that I may not even be able to do much of it, let alone be here to complete it.
To have done so will, I believe, bring hope to others with personal challenges. And in time, my children will look back at me and know that when the going gets tough, I showed them that you just pick yourself up and go for it. Never give up.
Kevin's next epic challenge for 2018 is called 100 Degrees of Separation, with two extraordinary back-to-back races in the Arctic Circle and Sahara Desert. Find out more and sponsor him at his JustGiving page.
Kevin in training for his next challenge!