Adventurer Tom Whittle: Why I Ran Through Hell
Always wanted to climb a mountain, run a marathon or take on an ultra but not sure whether you’ve got it in you? We’re handing over to adventurer, Tom Whittle, to share his journey through hell as he broke the record for the fastest crossing of Iceland on foot – proving just how much you can gain from pushing yourself to your limits…
Last October I ran 704 kilometres, climbing 6,500 metres over 10 days, 13 hours and 5 minutes. A new world-record for the fastest crossing of Iceland on foot had been set and it was undoubtedly one of the best moments of my life. The below is a brief account of how I got there and why on earth I did it.
“If not now, when?” - Eckhart Tolle
Stepping onto the start line, I could not blame someone for doubting this was possible. Why?
- With 17 marathons to complete, I had run only two; one five years before and one two weeks before, in the world’s toughest Ironman. I went in struggling to sleep with knee pain and was heavily fatigued.
- The longest training run I had achieved in the last year was 20 kilometres due to injury.
- Due to diary constraints, we’d been forced to choose the month with some of Iceland’s heaviest rainfall, fewest hours of daylight and coldest temperatures (sub-zero).
- We flipped the route 24 hours before the run due to a bridge collapsing in a winter storm. We were now heading wind-against.
- I’d slept for two hours in a toilet cubicle the night before as the current storm of 60kph winds and heavy rain was too much for my tent.
What I had to accept is that none of these circumstances could be changed. A challenge like this will always throw up problems and if I did not start now, then when? Around 50% sure that what I was about to take on was achievable, I went out into the storm.
“It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop” - Confucius
Heavy rain and freezing conditions persisted throughout day one and after just two hours, I was starting to feel the ache in my knees and Achilles tendons. At around 6pm, I had to stop 10km short of the initial target due to the pain becoming too much. I told myself it could be worse and the next day I was proven right.
Around 20km in on day two, I took a short break but found it impossible to get moving again. My heels had seized up so much I was stuck on the side of the road with no idea what to do. I could only think about all the help given by our sponsors, the fact my support team had flown in from the UK and US, plus the thousands of pounds raised for charity from an amazing community of friends. If I was unable to move on day two, what type of repayment was this?
These thoughts put me into tears but very quickly into action - I didn’t run, I didn’t walk, but managed a slow and painful hobble forward. I learnt that after half an hour of limping I was able to walk, and after two hours of walking, I was able to run. The key lesson here? Don’t stop - stopping is really painful and makes you cry. Confucius, speaking 2,500 years ago, was onto something. For the next ten days, sleeping breaks excluded, the longest break I took was ten minutes (due to having to pop and drain several blisters). To get going after sleep breaks, all I needed was two tramadol’s and some grit.
Losing my mind
The positive from the third day was that my tears had stopped and I was making progress. However, I couldn’t go more than an hour or so without taking a short break to lie down and stare into the sky - I just couldn’t focus enough to keep moving and when I restarted I’d lost all of my rhythm. The day ended with me attempting a 600 metre mountain ascent in the dark, losing my radio, shivering cold and slipping on rocks at 40% gradients. It was time to call it a day but yet again way short of the target.
Before arriving in Iceland, we’d put together a slick looking eleven day plan to beat the record by a full day. It was time to hold a team meeting to address the fact that we were nowhere near the targets. I’d given it everything and depressingly, we were scheduled to finish in 15 days, three days behind the world record time. Something had to change now or we were looking at a failed mission.
Learning to live in agony
The next morning I gave myself a big team talk - physical effort simply wasn’t good enough - it needed to be matched mentally. I stuck to a pace all day and if I ever dropped off I didn’t listen to the natural urges of my body to stop - I screamed at it to keep going. I moved from sunrise to sunset with 3 x 2 minute breaks and nothing else. I’d fallen just short of a double marathon, felt good and the race was back on.
By day eight, using the technique of not stopping and forcing myself not to drop pace, I’d fought back to be on target for a world record… now I wanted to smash it. The problem was that I now had to break for longer than two minutes as every couple of hours I would need to treat and pop blisters - I can now count 15 blisters on my feet - some were infected, some filled with clear fluid, some filled with blood. Popping them and then moving again was pure agony, but I was now close to the target and had never been more motivated.
The biggest reason for doing this run was my late nephew, Sonny, who died due to a rare form of cancer aged 1. Everything was in memory of him but also inspired by him. Although we never spoke properly and he may never know it, he kick started a big change in attitude in my life. I now take more risks and give everything to achieve big goals whilst I can - you never know when life may be taken from you. He was constantly on my mind for the last few days of this challenge and I’m grateful to him for seeing me through.
"If you do not push the boundaries, you will never know where they are” - T.S. Eliot
By the tenth day, no amount of painkillers could keep me from screaming out in pain during sleepless nights - every muscle in my legs was in sharp pain and my feet were swollen two or three sizes above my normal size. My walking sticks were now being used mostly as crutches but I was still moving forward. Wanting to finish the challenge knowing I’d given absolutely everything and a bit more, I attempted to run a 127km leg into the finish line, beating the record by a full two days.
One of my oldest and best friends, Lewis, and I have always discussed what our limits might be. It’s very difficult to explain, but there is huge satisfaction in knowing you’ve pushed to your limit and done the very most you can. But if you really think hard, it’s tough to say you’ve found your limit. I’d never had to pull out of a race because I’ve had nothing left, I’ve never been stuck on a training run because I had nothing left. I’ve always been able to, albeit very slowly, keep going. I wanted to discover the true limit. Just before midnight and about 70km into that day, I called from the side of the road in Iceland to Sydney to tell Lewis I’d finally found it.
I don’t see getting nowhere near the targeted 127km leg as a total failure but one of my biggest successes - a few years ago I’d never have imagined having such an ambition and I’m proud to have pushed my boundaries. If you never ‘fail’, you’re not working hard enough on your problems.
Just for the record…
The next night I set a new world record for the fastest crossing of Iceland on foot with 35 hours to spare. This can certainly go down as a success and we celebrated with maybe the most well-earned beer of my life. The record was a nice thing to have gained but really it is the least important thing I’ve taken home.
I was a total running novice one month ago after running just a couple of marathons but I’ve now run 19 and have a 700km ultra to my name. I want people to realise that ‘over-ambitious’ goals are much more achievable than they think. Provided we get in the right state of mind, I honestly think we can do whatever we like. I’d love for the record to get beaten soon - it just takes someone to decide that they can.