When I began to identify that the challenge of Patagonman could be a good opportunity to share my story and help spread awareness for mental health, my thoughts were simply that it would be a tough day out, the hardship of which might interest people enough to read and resonate with my story. I hadn’t even considered the extent to which the event would become such an eye opening journey for myself beyond my own experiences with mental health. On the surface of it all, you could clearly see the resilience and the mental battles each athlete was fighting from the moment they stepped on that ferry at 4am till long after the race had finished. Yet, the long day, the harshness of the event itself, combined with its idyllic and peaceful setting turned out to be the perfect opportunity for some unprompted self-reflection. Some of these emotions are so raw, I’m still trying to make sense of them now, nearly three weeks later.
I am not ashamed to admit, that I massively underestimated Patagonman. I presumed that my previous Ironman experience lent me a certain amount of proficiency in long distance. But aside from knowing that I could complete the distance, there was very little about the event that felt familiar.
Preparation for this event began several months back when I persuaded my dear friend Shane to join me in Patagonia as my support for the race. This was a requirement of the race itself, and I had not fully appreciated just how integral he would be to even finishing. I could not have asked for anyone better to be out there with me and any mental reserves I had to call upon throughout the day, were all made easier by him.
The day began at 1.15am. My initial thought, as it always is on waking before a race was; ‘I’ve changed my mind!’ It was dark, cold and frankly, as most close friends will attest, I’m pretty terrible company in the morning as it is! Our little team of six, (three of us racing, accompanied by our amazing supports) drove the 80kms in convoy to the start at Puerto Chacabuco. We racked our bikes, on with the wetsuits, a few last-minute words of comfort, before it was time to board the ferry of doom at 4am with our fellow competitors.
I think this was my most anxious part of the day. The ferry took us out around a headland in the dark with 200 nervous athletes aboard. I consider a few nerves before any event to be a good thing. I’ve become much better at controlling them over recent years and stopping them from taking hold enough to overwhelm me. It has been a while though, since I’ve experienced nerves to the intensity I was feeling standing on that ferry, facing the jump in to some very cold water!
It’s interesting to see how everyone handles themselves under these circumstances. How people overcome their nerves is very personal and there is certainly no magic formula. Past experiences have taught me that nerves make me tired and that they tend to evaporate once the task is in motion. With this logic in mind, I tried not to dwell on what lay ahead for too long and preoccupy myself with something I considered to be useful! So, I started warming up, cracked some terrible jokes and took some boxing tips from fellow nervous comrade Barney, till it was time to ‘make the jump’. It appeared to work and to my astonishment, I felt surprisingly calm.
Jane, Pete and I held back from jumping for as long as possible so we wouldn’t be left in the water for too long before the ship’s horn sounded to signal the start of the race. Eventually we lined up and took the leap together. You could just about see the silhouette of the snow-capped mountains in the distance but other than that it was still dark. On surfacing, I found myself checking the vitals! Breathing – Check! Was Pete there? Check! And Jane too? Check again! Phew!!!! No one had drowned yet. Win win!!!
My next reaction was that it wasn’t too bad. To me, it had felt lots colder a couple of days previously. Perhaps this was the adrenaline talking. It was still impossible to keep my head under the water for more than a couple of seconds at first. But I was prepared and eased in to it, keeping it under for slightly longer at each attempt. There were a few reassurances from each of us, before the Ship’s horn went off and it all began in earnest.
My swim wasn’t particularly fast. I’m not entirely sure why this was except that it was very cold. The organizers have since told us that the water temperature was 10 degrees or marginally colder, and I found that it resulted in my arms and legs getting progressively stiffer. I am not generally a heavy kicker but I did try to do more of this in an attempt to warm up. I found this to be difficult and couldn’t keep it up for very long without gasping for air and disrupting my stroke further. By the time I reached the swim exit, I was very cold and utterly relieved to see Shane there waiting for me.
Arm around me, Shane guided me to where we had left my bike, some hot tea and lots of layers! I looked up and saw a disorientated Pete waving at me whilst Walt was attempting to get him warm enough and safely on to his bike. Jane seemed her usual upbeat self and with Sarah as her support, was the first of all of us to head out of T1.
I could tell how cold I was and that little would warm me up but getting on my bike. Shane had to help me off with my wetsuit and thermals and throw some layers on me. I threw down some hot tea and hobbled off with my numb legs and feet and out on to the bike course.
Initially I was just so relieved to have survived the swim. I reassured myself that nothing could be as bad as confronting that water! Ha-little did I know what was in store for us to come! The first fifty kilometres gently eased us in to it before our first (and shortest) climb of the day. Following that, the course became undulating and the scenery was unquestionably the best I’ve ever seen, luring us in to a false sense of security! At 118 kilometres the course took a right turn and then began to climb in to the wind with tantalising false summits tricking us and dashing hopes of reaching the top, only to be confronted by an even stronger headwind! To my horror, on one occasion, I looked down to see I was just about holding 22km/hr on a brief downhill section!
Shane was on it the whole day. Each time I stopped we exchanged my empty bottles for his pre made juice and some perfectly cut (no crusts 😉) jam sandwiches. I had been a bit non-committal with regards to race day planning and Shane had obligingly agreed to wing it, which in hindsight worked out perfectly as we were flexible and ready for anything. I recognised in the last fifty kilometres of the bike that my spirits were beginning to dwindle and he agreed to stay close to me in the car to give my morale a bit of a boost. I didn’t need to stop and chat but just having some contact was enough to raise my spirits.
Even at my lowest, the views were enough to keep everything in perspective. How often do you get to ride empty roads with such breath-taking scenery? Finally, albeit at a bit of an anti-climax (I felt there should have been a band and celebrations to mark this momentous occasion), I reached the summit and was rewarded with a beautiful sweeping descent right down in to T2 where Shane was already waiting for me. I had fun here! After what had seemed like endless amounts of climbing, I was determined to make up for it on this short descent and arrived in T2 buzzing with adrenaline and a big grin on my face 😊.
Oh the familiar feeling of relief to be off the bike!!!! Sore back and broken legs but mercifully a happy heart after that fast descent. And hey, we are nearly there-just the marathon to go and I like running!!!
In training, Pete had frequently warned me that this run would be unlike any I had done before. He had told me to accept that there would be sections I would be walking and to not beat myself up over it. Given that I was prepared for the day to be a big mental battle, I had thought I had taken this on board. But when I only managed 7 kilometres in the first hour, all that good advice went straight out the window and the mental games began!
The run course set out over a small field, and then almost immediately we hit our first climb. Within a minute or so of setting off I was walking and would continue to do so for what seemed like an eternity. I was convinced that all those behind would swarm past me, I would be out there all night, and that rescue teams would have to come searching for me! A couple of guys, who outrageously had bundles of energy, came trotting past me with relative ease. Damn them and their fresh legs! Clearly I had over biked! But how could you not on a course like that? My legs had nothing and this run was brutal and unforgiving!
It’s entertaining to think back and replay some of the thoughts that went through my head. There were two characters; the stubborn/temper tantrum child and the rational parent playing their respective roles. The parent was attempting to bring comfort and perspective to the child by pointing to the pretty scenery, reminding her how lucky she was to be there with a healthy body, lovely weather and in Patagonia – possibly the most beautiful place she had ever visited. The child wasn’t too receptive. She was complaining about tired legs, how far she had to go and how slow she was!!
Eventually, I did as Pete had instructed and let myself off the hook. I took a pause for a few moments and absorbed it all. There was not a soul around as far as I could see. Just mountains, lakes, wilderness and peace. Amazingly, I let go of the pressure I had unwittingly placed on myself and my experience of the event immediately changed. If I’m honest, I don’t find it easy to do this under ‘race conditions’. When in this mind set, my autopilot instructs me to keep pushing and not to give up. For the most part this serves me well. However, it can also mean that I will often reach the end of a race without having really taken stock of my surroundings. I’m ever so grateful, that on this occasion I simply couldn’t push myself to that extreme and was forced to look up and embrace the landscape in which I was immersed. This was after all, my main inspiration for taking on Patagonman and with this new perspective, the rest of the event became the most soulful and wonderful experience.
As if a reward for my maturity, my run legs seemed to find me again. Just a couple of kilometres from the second feed station I was able to hold a consistent trot! I only stopped briefly to fill my water bottles, and decided to keep on with the momentum. Just a few minutes later, I found myself passing those pesky men who had been so rude as to overtake me shortly after T2. But what was even better, was that I found a lovely rhythm, drifted off in to my thoughts and just enjoyed being out in nature.
Shane was waiting at kilometre 30, ready to run the final 12 with me. By the time I reached him I was feeling good and comfortable. This lasted for perhaps 5 more kilometres and then it took a lot of mental energy to reach that finish line! I wasn’t the only one struggling. Shane and I overtook perhaps five or six Patagonman warriors, whose legs had now left them, and were walking or jogging wherever they could muster the energy on that unforgiving rubble road. It didn’t turn out to be 42kms! In fact it was closer to 44. Now I know this doesn’t sound like much further, but when as little as 100 meters feels a long way, that extra 2k was not an easy ask!!!
A finish line has never looked so wonderful! It was understated and welcoming with just a few spectators, supporters and race officials present, marked by the greatly anticipated Finishers Bell. I’m ever so proud that all of us from Ful-On Tri, who embarked on this adventure together, and faced lots of adversities in the process, all finished, in a total field of 200 of which only 150 crossed the line.
Patagonman was an experience unlike any I’ve had before. It was tough yes, but also incredibly humbling. When I set about attempting to raise awareness for mental health, I had no idea just how apt Patagonman would be as a backdrop for that campaign. It’s remote and stunning location, it’s brutality and the remarkable people who are drawn to entering it, all highlight its unique and special status.
Furthermore, its symbolic resemblance to life itself really resonated with me. The long day was made so much easier from having support. There were some low psychological moments which were made manageable simply out of feeling safe with Shane casting a protective eye over me at all times. Patagonman has struck me over the parallels that I could draw between this experience and tackling daily life. I’m able to feel brave, to take risks, show resilience, and of course overcome my own mental health battles, all of which I’m immensely proud, only because I have wonderful support in my life in general.
I have been ever so moved and honoured to hear about so many experiences surrounding mental health from those of you who read my own words and took the time to get in touch. To all of you, thank you for trusting me with your story. It has made this whole Patagonman adventure all the more special to do it in aid of something I feel so passionately about.