I stood on the hillside, my beam of light pointing onwards. All I could see through the darkness was the colourful rectangle of my GPS device directing my stumbles through the tussocks, and the flickers of other people’s beams up ahead and behind. My whole life was focused into that beam and my forward course. A tune repeated over and over in my head, creating a rhythm that kept the stumbles even, and kept me pushing on. I don’t recall the tune but it had the urgency of T. Rex or Boney M. Over and over and over it played.
Climbing a mountain you have a similar experience: stumbling, fumbling and bumbling through the first dark hours of the day, your life focused into the beam of a head torch, some boulders, snow and the clatter of ice axe or poles. And then the sun rises and reveals the scale of the peak you are climbing, and you discover there is much more to the world than just the five metres immediately in front of you. There on the Bear Bones 200, just as on the side of the peak, I clung to safety by limiting the world to my lonely beam of light and the sound of my breath as it kept time with the jukebox in my head.
I was making mistakes, distrusting the red line on my GPS as it headed across open fields, away from the security of a track. I’d strike out in the wrong direction, only to have to retrace my steps, hang my head and obediently stick with the line. I don’t understand why I rebelled against it. My rebellions are now public on Strava flyby and seem ludicrous with hindsight. Sometimes it was because I fell into a trance and progress was simply easier in the wrong direction.
Daytime had been different, right up to the euphoric hour on top of a ridge at sunset, when my life hadn’t focused into a single, narrow beam, but had consisted of endless ridges to be crossed, stretching off beyond the horizon. I had charged forward, always aware that I shouldn’t push too hard and should save a little for the end of the race, but continuing onwards in a frenzy. I had rejoiced, flying along muddy ridges, swooping down gravel paths and wooded singletrack. I hung for dear life to the rucksack straps of a group of three boys as we took turns to open gates, crissing and crossing in a Scottish jig from one fence to the next. I had reached Knighton, the halfway point, feeling comfortable but low in energy and with an aching back after seven hours in the saddle. I was happy with myself; I'd obeyed the line, but was nervous of what lay ahead and what my body would or would not do.
I carried a feed bag of trail mix, Snickers, pork pies and flapjack, but I never grew hungry, just weak. I forced food into my body only when I noticed I’d started to wilt. I’d never done an event like this before and hadn’t expected to lose my appetite. I’m well known for the amount I shovel down. This was a lesson - just eat; don’t wait for hunger.
After 21 hours my fast-fading torch led me back to the start, having taken too many wrong turns and still with a rucksack full of food. How odd that my failings were eating and navigation: two of my fortes in everyday life. At last the bundle of bedding I had carried all day could be unfurled, and the the final stumble of the night was followed by a weary wiggle into my bivvy bed.