Friday, 18 February 2011

Run For Africa; A Parable. Part Two

It was in the dormitory room of a shabby hostel in Israel that The Run For Africa finally fell apart. After receiving the devastating news in Egypt, Nick and Emma had decided to turn the trip on its head. We'd relocate to Cape Town, let things die down and attempt the continental crossing from south to north. True to this plan, we'd driven across the Sinai Peninsula and entered Israel, where we camped outside of the coastal town of Eilat. The trucks and equipment would be shipped to Durban, South Africa, whilst the team flew from Tel-Aviv to Cape Town.

Various problems concerning shipping agents had necessitated a lengthy hold-up in the Israeli port and the team had fractured into two definite camps. Nick and Emma formed one. Simon, Roger, Ian, Richard and myself made up the second. Billie, doing her utmost to please everyone, pinballed between the two. Days would go by with the two camps barely speaking to each other. The atmosphere was heavy, constantly strained, ready to flare up at the slightest spark.

After two weeks, the shipping was sorted. We'd all pull together and look for a new start. Tickets were bought to fly us all to Cape Town. Or so we thought. We'd spent the previous night in a hostel - all our equipment was now on the boat. Nick gathered us all together after midday to discuss the plans for the impending flight. We were all excited. Richard had visited Cape Town in a gap year and had enthused us with his views of what a wonderful city it was. There was a new sense of optimism. And then Nick told us. Together with Emma, he'd decided that two team members would not be flying to South Africa, but would be travelling back to the UK. Their expedition would be ending today. When I think back to this moment, I can't help but think of The X Factor results shows; long, cruel, drawn-out announcements to inform us which performers are good and which are not good enough. I'm sure it wasn't as bad as that, but I remember thinking at the time that this shouldn't be the way that these decisions are handled. Surely, it would have only been decent to let the two chosen team members know their fate in private, then let the others know afterwards. But, then again, this wasn't a decent expedition.

The two team members chosen were the ones that were making the least contribution to the expedition, and those team members were...( cue dimmed lights, background music to enhance suspense)... Richard and Roger. We sat quietly in disbelief. Ages seemed to pass. Finally, Simon spoke. He tore into Nick and Emma, castigating them for the shameful way they'd handled the latest situation. He was beyond disgust and could stay no longer. 'Ok,' Nick replied without emotion. He turned to Richard and Roger. 'So Simon's going home. Decide amongst yourselves who goes with him.'

In the late afternoon, Roger, Ian and myself said our good-byes to Simon and Richard at Eilat's town-centre airport. In the evening, The Run For Africa team took a bus to Tel-Aviv before flying to Cape Town. On our arrival there, we found a hostel and booked some rooms. I ran to the summit of Table Mountain and, on returning, looked up Roger, headed to Bob's Bar on Long Street and got pissed.

The 'Cape Town Interlude' became the highlight of this whole sorry story. Arriving in early December, we were to remain there until 21st January as we awaited the arrival of the vehicles on the boat from Israel. Left to our own devices, all of us gravitated towards the type of people we'd usually hang out with. Nick met a beautiful blonde and moved into her house in the wine region for a few weeks. Billie tagged onto a group of travellers from New Zealand and joined them for a while on their adventures on the Cape. Ian struck up friendships with regulars in two local bars and did his best to get drunk for two months. Emma booked into a hostel away from the centre of the city and worked tirelessly to get the expedition back on track. And Roger and myself met Lisanne. A Dutch journalist and film-maker, Lisanne bumped into us on that first night in Bob's Bar. For the next  six weeks, we were seldom out of each other's company. Whether bridge- jumping in Knysna, hitch-hiking along the Garden Route or trekking over Table Mountain and it's surrounding hills, we stayed together, relishing each other's company and having a blast. It almost seemed an anti-climax when The Run For Africa started, for the second time, from the Cape Town InterContinental on 21st January.

We left the city short-handed; Billie had decided she no longer wanted a part of the trip. We were to embark on our journey across the most dangerous continent on earth without either a mechanic or a medic. Ian and Roger had zero experience in either discipline. With 3 team members remaining, aside from the runners, the expedition now had 4 vehicles but only 3 drivers. In desperation, Emma remained behind in Cape Town, posting notes in local hostels, hoping to attract another volunteer to join us. But word had spread amongst the community of shabby organisation and ill-feeling in the camp, and volunteers were hard to find.

Early days were ticked off without enthusiasm. The excitement and anticipation of the Alexandria start was gone. There was a job for us to do. We better do it. Eventually, Emma arrived. She'd found a volunteer  - a short, balding South African. Carlo was a god-send. He took over immediately, organising the day-to-day camp logistics, cooking the meals, holding the expedition together. He'd lark about constantly, take the piss. For the first time in a long while, the trip became fun.

Our last camp before the Botswana border was at Van Zylrus. During the rest day, while Roger, Ian and myself spent the day in the bar, Carlo kept himself to himself. As night fell, he got stoned and joined us by the picnic table. Ian had rigged up the stereo in one of the vehicles and was sure he'd packed an old Waterboy's cassette somewhere in his sack. After finding it, he sat with me for a while. It troubled him, he said, that I was being treated so badly. The whole trip was geared around Nick, whilst I was barely given a thought. 'Surely, as runners doing the same miles day-in day-out, you should be treated as equals. How come Nick gets to sleep in the comfort of the Hard Top every night while you're on the floor? I could go on Chris - you know. You should be equals - it's not fair.'

I reminded him that I was the back-up plan. I'd do my job - to be honest, it was what I'd expected. He sat for a while then got up to sit on the picnic table itself. He put the cassette - 'Room to Roam' - in the vehicle's stereo, and started to talk about what essential equipment the trip needed.

The next morning was to be a good, good day. We'd be crossing the first national border, climbing the first rung on this immense journey's ladder. We started the run late that morning. It was almost 6am when we jogged out of camp. Nick and myself ran side-by-side in silence. After a half-hour or so, the vehicles passed us, the team having packed down the camp. As the last of the trucks left us behind in the desert's dust, Nick started speaking, looking ahead. There was an anger in his voice I'd not heard before.
'I heard you talking to Ian last night.'
'Oh, right.'
'About us being equals.'
'Oh, right.'
'Listen Chris. We'll never be equals. You'll never be my equal as a runner. You'll never be my equal as a person.'
I couldn't reply.
'I've done you a favour. I've brought you along on this trip to see Africa. Do I get any thanks? Apparently not'
'Nick. I've given up my job for this. I've trained harder than I ever have to get here. And I've done well on the running so far. At least as well as you.'
'Shut the fuck up. You're nothing Chris. The way I see it, you're just another mouth to feed. That's the way it is. And if you don't like it, just fuck off home.'
With that, he picked up the pace and I let him go. I dropped to a walk; I wouldn't run another step for many months. And suddenly, I knew what I must do. A decision that was the hardest I'd ever taken - that involved giving away my dream but holding on to my dignity became, in one moment, crystal clear. I must get off the bus.

Roger and myself left The Run For Africa on February 11th 1998. Hitch-hiking as far as Upington, we slept rough by the Orange River and caught an overnight bus to Cape Town the following day. Three days later, we were back in the UK.

There are many decisions in life that are difficult to make. In fact, to an extent, this is what makes our lives so interesting. What may, at the time it is made, seem like a good decision, may, in retrospect, be a poor one. Or not. My guiding rule has always been to do what feels right. Don't analyse too deeply, just follow your gut-feeling. This was the basis of my decision in Africa. I needed to maintain my dignity. I had to go. But, back in the UK, doubts soon began to surface. I had gone to Africa with a goal in mind, and I had failed. Those were the facts. Whatever the reasons for that failure were, I began to believe, inconsequential. I would not be running into Cairo after travelling the length of the African continent on foot. It would never be my name in the record books.

A storm was approaching. There was little I could do to delay its onslaught. Grey clouds were gathering. Over the next few months, the grey clouds would become black.

On reading Graeme Obree's autobiography years later, a series of passages from his book detailed a truth that described me exactly, but which I'd never been able to fully acknowledge. He talked of his exceptional physical feats, including the world one hour cycling record, as giving him little satisfaction. Rather than being driven by the promise of glory, money or recognition, his obsession was fuelled by a feeling much more powerful - the fear of failure. In describing himself, he was also describing me. In the years leading up to The Run For Africa, I was trying, I thought at the time, to find happiness. Trying to find some sort of enlightenment that would make my life better. That would make me feel better. But with every success, all I ever felt was relief. On reading Obree's book, and with the benefit of years of more life-experience, I realised that I'd been conning myself all that time. Those trips had not been about achieving happiness, they had been about not failing. They had been about keeping my head above the water, proving to myself that I was worth something. I'd struck lucky in the sense that I'd always succeeded in what I originally set out to do. But, with The Run For Africa, my luck had finally run out.

I arrived back in the UK in the middle of February. It was July when the sky turned black. After weeks of beating myself up, drinking too much, not being able to sleep at night, I took out my trainers for the first time since that day on the road to Botswana. I'd not run one step since. Running reminded me of how worthless I was. I put the trainers on, set up my cassette walkman and left my Anderby Creek chalet. I left the keys by the sink. I didn't need to lock the door. I wouldn't be coming back.

The night was calm. I jogged down to the beach and set off in the direction of Cleethorpes. I'd run all night, keep going as long as I could and then turn back. I'd reach the track from Mablethorpe's North End car park at dawn, I'd planned, and there I would just give up.

The cassette I'd chosen for that last night was Embrace's debut LP. After a couple of hours, the walkman's batteries had gone, but one line from one song continued to wrap itself around me in the way they often do when running a long way. '...And the fireworks in me are all gone...' I was tired, really tired. But soon I could rest.

The sun was beginning to rise as I reached the pull-over. Always my favourite part of the beach, this morning it seemed especially beautiful. I sat a while, cried a little, took off my walkman and my shoes. Two figures and a dog came into view on my right, walking along the hard sand hugging the shore-break. A man, a child and a dog. I'll let them pass by, I thought, let them leave the beach, and then I'll do it. But they were in no hurry. The dog ran away from and back to the boy, scuttled into the water, retreated, shook himself. The boy chased the dog, always returning to hold the man's hand. I sat and watched as they came closer, making their way to the pull-over. A grandfather and a child enjoying the start of a new day. They stopped as they reached me.
'Smashing morning for a run, son!' said the grandfather.
'Yeah,' I replied.
'Was a runner meself y'know. No time nowadays wi' th' grandbairns. Oh, 'is sister were a bugger last night. Kept us up all bloody night!'
'Oh, right,' I murmured.
'Mind, wouldn't have it any other way!' He laughed, squeezed the lad's hand.
'Anyway, keep it up son!' he said, and off they went.

Keep it up son.
Keep it up son.
I sat for a while longer.
Keep it up son.
I put my trainers back on, picked up the walkman and started jogging back towards Anderby Creek.

In the weeks that followed the black night, I busied myself with plans for another trip. I would bike solo from Sydney to Perth, across Australia. I'd tell as few people as possible. I'd do it all myself. If I failed, I'd have no one else to blame. This wouldn't save me, but at least it'd help me tread the water.

Salvation, happiness - call it what you will - never comes in the form of physical achievement. I know that now. Salvation came to me in the form of a girl. After meeting on a sea-side record stall, I proposed six months later at a Busstleton drive-in cinema after completing the bike ride. A year after that we were husband and wife. Ten years, and two beautiful children later, I realise I've finally found what I was looking for for so long. So do the trips stop? Do the crazy schemes go on the back burner? No they don't - but I now appreciate them for what they are, rather than as a means to an end. Running a 100 mile race, attempting The Bob Graham Round are all amazing adventures, involving great days out and enabling me to meet the most inspiring people, but, in themselves, they can't come close to the feeling that my family brings me each day.

I rarely think of The Run For Africa nowadays. But the recent momentus events in Egypt caused me to reflect and put down in words, for the first time, what it all meant. I guess I see the story of The Run For Africa as a parable. And what lessons did this parable teach me?

Firstly, it taught me that 'greatness' cannot simply be earned through great achievements. We've all heard stories of how mountaineers have stepped over the bodies of dying climbers whilst trying to summit Everest. But which is a truer indication of 'greatness' - making a, perhaps futile, attempt to help another human being at the expense of an expedition's success, or leaving a fellow climber, in the most desperate need, whilst making your own bid for glory? In my book, it would be the former every time.
Maybe the do-ers of great feats of endurance need to be cold, calculating, arrogant? Maybe it's these qualities that actually enable them to achieve success? But it certainly doesn't make them great.
It's certainly also true that some of the greatest feats have been achieved by 'great' people. But for these people, it is the way in which they conduct their lives that defines their 'greatness', not just their achievements.
Great people may or may not have achieved great feats, but all of them have possessed humility, kindness and have shown the deepest respect fot their fellow men.

And secondly, it taught me that a failure can sometimes be looked back on as the greatest success. My failure in The Run For Africa set in motion a series of events that changed my life, forever, for the better. As I look over and see the smiles on my kids' faces, I can ask myself - what would I rather be? A world record holder and the first man to run across Africa, or a very proud father? I think you all know the answer.

It seems that Carlo had been right all along.


Nick Bourne ran into Cairo on 5th December 1998 to complete his epic journey. His run, one of the greatest feats of endurance, earned him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.

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