I broke my ankle in Morocco and I still had two more races to go
Hong Kong runner David Gething won the World Marathon Challenge. The 40-year-old veterinarian was the fastest man to run seven marathons in seven days in seven continents
“You have to make a choice. You can either win it now or you can let it go. If you’re going to be tough, you’ve got to be tough now…” I was halfway through a marathon in Sydney, my fractured ankle was throbbing and my wife was giving me the pep talk that I needed.
Sydney was my final marathon. I had run seven marathons in seven days in seven continents. I had spent 59 hours in the air, travelled over 38,000km, run 274km and had just 21km more to go.
Seven days ago, I had joined 11 other runners on the start line at Union Glacier in Antarctica then for the next week I was either at an airport, on a plane trying to get some sleep, or running another marathon.
I only started running about eight years ago, when my first daughter was born. I was really unfit and overweight, and my wife wanted me to get into shape. I guess I got a little carried away. I consider myself a pro-amateur, which means I’m not good enough or young enough to be a full-time pro, but I train and compete as much as most amateurs can. I have a coach who helps me with my technique and training, and a wife who helps make sure that I keep the work-life balance right. I regularly get my work-life balance wrong, but normally my wife will let me know when it is out of order.
I train every week, but six weeks before each race I will ramp up my training. I will get up at 4am and go for a run for a couple of hours, then I’ll come home and try and spend time with the children before they go to school. In between my running sessions, I will do three bikes rides, go swimming twice and hit the gym three times in one week. I trained as hard as I could before the challenge, but when I reached the start line in Antarctica I realised I was completely unprepared.
We flew in on a Russian military plane with some Argentinian soldiers who were going down to the Belgrano II base. I have to say that this was almost as thrilling as the thought of doing the race, as it’s not the type of thing that a guy like me would usually get to do.
Antarctica was just so white, and there is nothing there. There are no birds – maybe a few penguins near the coast… no trees or grass… just snow and mountains. I had never seen it snowing before I went to Antarctica. I thought I’d packed the correct kit, but as I’d gone for waterproof shoes that held in the sweat I managed to give myself frostbite on two toes. I hadn’t had much experience running in different countries, and I’d never run seven marathons back to back before.
But it was in Antarctica on the first day that I built up most of my lead time – about half an hour. After finishing the race in -20 degrees in Antarctica, we packed our bags and flew to Punta Arenas in Chile. I managed to hold onto the lead and remained 15 minutes in front. Due to our tight schedule, the hotel in Punta Arenas ended up being the only one we slept in. We had to wait until the following morning to catch a flight to Miami. For the rest of the trip, we spent time just trying to catch a few zzzs on a plane.
By the time we had hit our third marathon in Miami, it had really started to hit us what we had taken on, so we decided to team up and take on the race together. It was quite clear that this would be about us versus the event, rather than us versus each other. This challenge was mental rather than physical.
My next race in Madrid went well, but then we took on Morocco. We landed in Marrakech at 2am. It was cold, it was 8 degrees, it was raining and it was dark. In my head, I thought of Morocco as tropical palm trees, camels and Arabian guys wandering through the desert. And it was nothing like that. We had to go to this industrial block on the outskirts of the city, that was a three kilometres loop, and we had to run round it 12 times.
We were all were pretty tired by that stage. It’s not like the finish line is within sight. You’re thinking ‘Oh God, another three more marathons to go, and I’m already smoked and I can’t do this anymore.”
Just before the race I had received a picture of my then five-year old daughter starting her first day of school. And I wasn’t there. I started thinking I was the worst dad ever. I’m here, doing this stupid race around the world for nobody’s benefit except my own, and I’m hating it. I nearly walked out and packed my bags.
Then I met one of the other guys in the waiting room, and said “I can’t do this.” We talked for a while and he said, “Yeah, me neither. But let’s get to the starting line, let’s start, and see where we end up.” So he dragged me to the starting line and we started and we ended up finishing. I did manage to break my ankle halfway round. I wasn’t paying attention, it was dark and I was tired and I landed in a pothole. When my foot disappeared into the road there was a sickening kind of crunch. It wasn’t a complete break, but a stress fracture (a thin crack in the bone), however, I still had two more marathons – Dubai and Sydney to go.
By the time I reached Sydney I had accumulated a lot of injuries, and those injuries had all been magnified with the stress I was putting on them. My ankle had already swollen to the size of an orange, and I couldn’t stand on it particularly well. Plus my knees were extremely sore, and my legs were so puffy I could stick a finger in my calves and it would leave a depression.
I had already run the Dubai marathon with a stress fracture, and now I was about to run another marathon on it. If my angle broke completely on this race, it wouldn’t be a case of whether I won it or not, but it would be a case of me being the only person that didn’t finish.
I took Ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory painkiller. You can’t take too much though as you will get an upset stomach. I did have a 45-minute cushion of time, which is a fairly significant amount of time. But, the guy in second place, Doug Wilson was running in his hometown of Sydney and he was looking as fit as a fiddle – I was just ruined and I felt so under scrutiny at that stage.
My wife flew down to Sydney to see me before the race, and she looked at me and she said, “Honey, you look great!” This extra boost got me to the start line.
Doug went off like a rocket, and he was running by my calculations about 3’15 pace, which is the fastest marathon of the whole week. I was lucky to be doing four or five hours, so there was that time gap totally gone. I could see him at the turnarounds so I knew he was going quite a lot faster than me. He had guys to pace him and he knew what he had to do as well.
Halfway around Sydney I really started to suffer. And this is when I met my wife and she gave me a pep talk. Basically she said to me, “Harden up and actually do it.”
I figured I had two options. I could walk it back to the finish line, I’d still be second which was not bad, or I could go all out. So I figured I’d go all out.
I honestly don’t remember the last half of the race at all. I do remember getting to the finish line, and I remember they gave me the trophy. The other guy and I shook hands and had photos taken, and then I collapsed. And the next thing I remember is waking up in the hotel room. Apparently I got up, and there’s video footage of it so I know vaguely what happened, but apparently the guy from Reuters asked me how I felt after winning the World Championship. And I said, “F*cked.”