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To celebrate his sixtieth birthday, Andrew Townsend ran from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea: 525 miles across the Spanish Pyrenees climbing a total of 104,000 ft (4 Everests!) in 27 days. If that wasn’t enough, in 2015 he ran 8 marathons in 8 countries… in only 8 days!
Surprisingly, he spent most of his life behind a desk and didn’t start running until he was well into his 50’s—proving once more that it’s never too late to get started.
Here’s a day in his life:
It was day eleven. I had already run 227 miles and climbed 49,000 feet, but I still wasn’t even halfway there. It was just after 5:00am, but I was already up despite not having an alarm set as my aches and pains provided the necessary wake up call I needed. After a quick shower and with teeth brushed, I was ready for the next onerous task of the day—trying to find some clean running gear or perhaps I should say the least dirty!
Next up was the rucksack ritual: working out what I could discard to reduce the weight, followed by deciding I needed everything and re-packing it. Each day it felt like I had accumulate more things although I knew this wasn’t possible. After all, there were no shops.
There wasn’t any breakfast, as I hadn’t managed to forage anything from the restaurant the night before. Never mind, I told myself—I was used to Spanish hours by now. Get up late and eat late, which is not great for the early rising endurance runner.
A couple of quick stretches, and I was off!
A lifetime ago
I love this part of the day, the stillness, just the sound of the odd restless dog barking and the cockerel greeting the dawn. It’s the perfect time to let the mind wander. This particular morning I was thinking back to what seems like a different lifetime. Just five years ago I was 70 pounds overweight, suffering from arthritis, eating and drinking too much and working long hours in a job I didn’t particularly like.
That lifestyle had finally caught up with me, and I reached a crisis point. After deciding I couldn’t live like that anymore, I set out to change every aspect of my life. I joined a gym, started walking every day, then slowly running, and within 18 months of that life-changing decision, I had lost a third of my body weight and was on the start line of the Barcelona Marathon.
Facing fears in the snow
Back in the Pyrenees, my wandering mind had betrayed me. I had faced many fears already on this trip, from unruly cows, rabid farm dogs, snakes, wild boars, getting lost, to running out of water—but what I feared most was a big fall. I was negotiating a particularly rocky part of the path crossing over a fallen tree when my foot caught on a root, and I ended in a heap on the ground after a less than graceful face plant.
My worst fear had just happened on a completely deserted trail. I didn’t get up straight away but took stock of my facilities. Luckily everything still worked, just a few scratches and a dented pride.
I picked myself up and continued on as the snow became more and more evident. My heart sank when I saw two people coming towards me in full mountain gear, jackets, coats, crampons and ice axes attached to their rucksacks. They asked where I was going and when I replied “Andorra” they looked at me in my skimpy running shorts, running shoes, t-shirt and lightweight running jacket and said, “Perhaps you ought to turn back. There is snow up to your waist in some parts, and you just don’t have the right gear.”
I knew it was decision time. The thought of heading five hours back to where I started from was absolutely soul crushing. Somehow, despite all the warnings, I knew that I would be safe. I thanked them and set off without looking back.
As I climbed, the temperature dropped dramatically and the patches of snow became larger and impossible to skirt around. So I followed the footsteps in the snow, ominously, they were all pointing downwards and not upwards. Trainers and socks soaking wet by now, I skirted round a lake before ascending a very steep path. This led to a snow field up the side of the mountain, followed by what looked like an almost sheer scree and boulder face to the summit.
From the base of the snow wall I looked up several hundred meters to the summit. It looked impossible but it was now or never. I knew from previous mountain experience that it was just a case of going slowly and always trying to have three limbs on the mountain. I kicked into the snow to create a step and gradually started up the slope.
As I got to a pausing point, I sank into the snow up to my waist before I managed to haul myself up onto the rocks. I looked at the course ahead. There were maybe 4 more “rock stops,” and I’d be at the foot of the scree slope.
30 minutes later, I was at the foot of the scree slope and the final ascent. I decided to go as fast as I could—forget taking it easy! I wanted to get this part over as fast as possible in case the rocks started to slide. I scrambled on all fours as fast as I could, sweat pouring of me despite the cold and wind. I edged towards the side of the slope for a breather before the last scramble to the top.
I tore off my rucksack, gave a scream for joy and did a little victory dance. I had done it! I had climbed over 8,800 feet in running gear in one day with Andorra twinkling before me. My well-earned reward.
Always up for a race
I took a few pictures, changed socks and tee shirt and started the descent to Andorra where a bath, food, and a warm bed awaited me. Here I came across two young hikers who looked suitably amazed when I ran past them. I stopped for a rest on a boulder further down where they caught me up and a little competition ensued!
I really should know better at my age but these twenty-year-olds, with all their gear, didn’t like been overtaken by an old timer in running shorts! Off we went haring down the slope. They were just in front but took a wrong turn, and I regained the lead. Down, down hurtling along the narrow path, all tiredness and hunger forgotten in the push for victory.
Then the inevitable happened. My ego and the young hikers caught me at the same time as I tripped on a stone while leaping across a narrow stream. I went flying and landed in a crumpled heap on the path, sunglasses and hat jettisoned in the fall. They passed me without a glance, let alone a word to find out if I was okay. The race wasn’t over!
I picked myself up and hurried after them. We reached the tarmac path as one and I knew I had them—they were tiring and nothing was going to stop me now. I pulled away and before long, just as the last rays of the day were disappearing behind the mountains, I arrived in Encamp… I had made it.