Redemption on the Lug

The pharmacist told me that I have a subconjunctival hemorrhage and insists on taking my blood pressure. Two days earlier, I had completed Ireland’s toughest hiking challenge, the lug challenge.

The Lug challenge is a self-navigated biennial event that spans 18 mountain tops, covers 53 km and climbs over 2300 metres. The event takes place across open mountain terrain which includes marsh and bog. A tough event made much tougher from a night of relentless rain that made the underfoot conditions the worst in at least fourteen years.

But the story begins three days before this event, on Wednesday, when I prepare my strategy to aim for a podium finish. I have chased after a top-place finish in the Lug for four years. In the last one, I finished seventh. But this year, for very personal reasons, I wanted a podium finish, to finish in the top three, a symbolic outcome, an overcoming, and it was either now or never. This time I had the appetite and the mental fortitude to push my mind and body to its limits.

I started my preparation scientifically, by switching to a very high carbohydrate diet.

This is called carbo-loading where you load your muscles and liver with a fuel called glycogen. So for three days, I ate pasta and Spaghetti for breakfast, lunch and dinner. By Friday night I had gained two kilograms in body weight. This weight isn’t all fuel, as each gram of glycogen binds to about 3 grams of water. Although this extra weight gain could be viewed as an unnecessary burden, it provided an efficient source of energy and the weight penalty could be mitigated by carrying less food and water.

On Saturday morning, a Three O’Clock alarm has me awake and on a bus by Four AM, along with another hundred participants.

Waiting for the bus that will drop us at the start

The bus drops us off on the side of a desolate road in the Dublin Mountains, in rain and heavy mist. At 5:15 AM, I commence my third lug challenge.

I have already completed two lug challenges and after each one, have said I would never do it again. But here I am, again.

It is two hours to the next control station and already my feet are soaked through. This time I am wearing non-waterproof trail shoes. The problem with waterproof shoes is that when water gets in, and it will get in, it stays in. Half an hour into the challenge, both of my feet are soaking wet.

My strategy for a good time is to reduce the weight that I carry including the clothes that I wear. But for such a strategy to work requires a sufficient exothermic reaction to produce enough heat to avoid hypothermia. In other words, I must maintain a fast pace to avoid getting too cold. Especially with wet feet accelerating the heat loss.

Some people have already made their own way to the start line and have a fifteen minute head start on me.

I start out easy, passing participants along the way, making my way through two hours of bog, white-out and rain, until I make it to the first control station at the Sally Gap. I catch up with the group of five that had started earlier. After inquiring at the control station, I learn that there are two fast runners in front of this group which puts me in eight position. Motivated now, I feel confident that I can improve on this position, so I push on though taking myself into third position. I’m concerned that I may be pushing my pace too early and burn out like I did in the 2017 challenge or make a hasty navigational decision that will cause me to lose ground.

As I traverse from the Sally Gap towards Gravala, I lose the faint track taking me onto uneven ground which severely hampers my pace. I am now moving very slowly but burning a lot of energy and fatiguing for no benefit.

Unlike a road event, such as a Marathon, where the surface is constant irrespective of weather conditions, an off-road event is determined mainly by the terrain and underfoot conditions. The difference in effort between wet boggy conditions and a dry bog can be as much as double the energy requirement and hence double the potential time to completion. Achievement in such events is normally considered in terms of finishing positions rather than comparing absolute times to previous events.

I stop to check my map and realised that I have veered too far right into very uneven and steep ground, which slows me down considerably.

I try to maintain my pace but now my heart is going into its anaerobic zone, the place where you run into oxygen debt. This would be unsustainable and quickly result in burn out. But my dilemma is that if I slow down too much and lose my position after having fought so hard for it then I will mentally throw in the towel.

Events like this are at least 80% mental and 20% physical. Any mental doubt now will feed on itself and only increase over the next eight hours. But I know that over the next hill, the gradient flattens and there is some downhill.

I gamble by pushing my body into oxygen debt to get out of this slough of despondency, with the hope that I can recover on the next downward section.

The gamble pays off. I’ve only lost about fifteen minutes, and I can now bring my heart rate back out of the red zone to a sustainable level. I think I’m still ahead. I can hear voices in the distance but can’t tell whether there are in front of me or behind. I haven’t drank any water for three hours now but I don’t want to stop and so I push on again. I reckon there must have been about a litre and a half of water in my body from carbo-loading. When I arrive at the third control station, I learn that I’m still in third position.

Encouraged, I push on quickly, but, as it turns out, a little too hastily. I quickly pick up the correct track from Mullaghcleevaun, but in my haste, I veer too far right and then over-correct by veering too far left. After stopping multiple times to check my map, I realise this navigational error has cost me another fifteen minutes.

I now hear voices parallel to me and see the group I had overtaken two hours earlier ahead of me. I’m about to enter the pain cave.

The pain Cave is the mental fatigue you feel when your already tired and realise the distance still in front of you.

I have needlessly lost half an hour in navigational errors due to too much haste. My heart sinks, I have gone from third position to eight position. I start following the group but it takes me some time to catch them. My heart rate has now gone into the anaerobic zone again, which is not sustainable.

This is my low point. I abandon the idea of finishing in third place. Another dream gone as my hopes have flown before. I am now deep in the pain Cave.

As I catch the group, I tag along at their pace and my heart rate begins to settle back down into the upper limits of my aerobic range – a range that I could sustain for the distance. Buoyed by the comfort that I can at least keep their pace and still finish in the top ten, I start assessing the group. I can see that the three people towards the end of the group are outside their comfort limits and won’t maintain this pace for the full course. I overtake them which puts me in fifth position of a very close group. I’m still not sure if my assessment is correct so I decided to test it by pushing the pace for a while. I proceed to the front of the group, where I regain third position, and then start pushing the pace.

To get someone to chase you, you need to increase the pace very subtly, almost imperceptibly. Then continue gradually increasing it very, very slowly.

My tactic works, the two leaders give chase, the last three people in the group now realise they can’t keep up and slow down considerably splitting the group. I can’t maintain this pace so I gradually drop back from third position to fifth position where I just draft behind the two leaders and get my heart rate back down to a sustainable level. From the top of Toneaglee, I realise this is my last opportunity to consolidate my position.

I need to act now and make it clear that I’m taking a decisive lead. So I push ahead again, into third place and start opening a gap, leaving no misunderstanding that I’m determined to take third position.

Events like the Lug Challenge are not just about speed, but also navigation, tactics and an overall strategy.

With equally matched participants, it can be like a chess game

I keep the pace and hit the next control station, the Wicklow Gap, in third position. This is the second control station for me to hit in third position.

I made another navigational error after Lough Ferrib, but I’m confident that I have a good chance of holding onto third position.

Even though my feet are soaked, I’m traipsing through water and bog, I feel very little pain and I’m feeling great. Actually feeling on a real high.

Runners would call this the Runner’s High.

The Runner’s High used to be credited to a brain chemical called Endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers, similar to morphine. But more recent research from the University of Heidelberg suggests that another chemical, endocannabinoids, having a similar effect to cannabis, is the main contributor to this high. The research is showing that continuous rhythmically exercise for at least two hours at moderate intensity, such as the lug challenge, produces this state.

I’m feeling good now and totally in the flow.

The last major climb is to Lugnaquilla and I now push on at a steady pace. At Lugnaquilla, I’m still in third position, but there is still another 6 km to the finish line, so I keep the pressure on. My leg muscles are pulling all the oxygen out of my blood system, leaving me lightheaded. I imagine that there are others behind me, hot on my trail. I can feel my heart pumping like it’s expanding to fill my ribcage, the blood pounding through the back of my head. As I descend from Lugnaquilla, the vision in my left eye starts to blur.

Eventually I reach the finish line.

I have now reached the finish line in 10 hours and 30 minutes, an excellent time considering the underfoot conditions, placing me clearly in third position.

This is a podium finish, finishing in the top three. The event has left me elated.

My mind has triumphed over the body and I feel a great sense of elation, like I’ve conquered something, something deep within my being.

Two days later, being concerned about by bloodshot left eye, a subconjunctival hemorrhage, I visit the local pharmacist. He takes my blood pressure which is normal and concludes that the most likely cause for this type of condition was the elevated heart rate for an extended period of time.

The event has taught me several lessons and has reaffirmed my Stoic philosophy. Not the least of which is finding strength and support from deep within one’s innate self. Working hard at what’s within your control, refusing to worry about what’s outside your control and the wisdom to know the difference.

Thru-hiking Cost

How much does it cost to walk long distances in Europe.

€26 – The daily cost of Thru-hiking in Europe

Well it depends a lot on where you walk. Doing a thru-hike through Scandinavia will cost a lot more than a similar one through Romania.
However, it is useful to have some kind of a yardstick when deciding where to hike and for how long.

Comparing Apples to Apples

To make a good comparison between different trails and to be able to adjust for the duration of the walk it is necessary to compare the on-trail costs while excluding once-off costs, such gear and the costs of travelling to the trail.

Once you have invested in hiking equipment it will serve its purpose on multiple trips so this cost can be excluded.

The next consideration is the cost of getting to and from the trailhead. This depends a lot on where you are coming from and what deals you can find.

Once-off trail costs such as these will cost the same whether you walk for two days or two months and so it doesn’t make sense to factor these costs into the daily on-trail costs for comparison purposes.

This leaves us with the magic figure which is the on-trail costs.

The On-Trail cost

I begin counting my On-Trail costs from the first morning of the walk, usually starting with breakfast, and continue counting up until I finish the hike on the last day. I include the meal of the last day but not accommodation.

The costs of getting to and from the trailhead with possible accommodation at the start and end are not included in the On-Trail costs, but are included in the transport costs.

The On-Trail costs includes all trail costs while walking the trail such as accommodation, food, drink, medical supplies, tours, etc.
A good ballpark figure for a fit and reasonably frugal individual thru-hiking in Southern or Eastern Europe would be around € 26 per day. Assuming an average distance of 30 km per day, this works out at €0.87 per km.

€26 / day or € 0.87 / km to Thru-hike Europe

I have extrapolated these figures from the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), which seem to fit in with my experiences of walking in Southern and Eastern Europe.

Pacific Crest Trail Costs

According to the PCTA, the average PCT thru-hiker will take between 4.5 and 5.5 months to walk the 2,659 mile PCT, while spending between $4000-$8000+. Applying these stats to the average fit and thrifty hiker, the PCT could be a be walked in 4.5 months for a cost of $4000. So on a daily basis, this thru-hiker would walk an average of 19 miles per day while spending $29 per day.

Spain and the Frugal Dutch Man

Based on my long-distance hikes in Spain, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, I think this cost could be much improved on. I have hiked a month-long section of the GR7 in Valencia, Spain, at a cost of  €19.67 / day.

While walking the Camino Norte, in 2015, I met a Dutch man who had been walking for three months, from his home in Utrecht, Holland to Santander, Spain for about €17 / day. The Dutch have a reputation for being very wise with their money. But this man’s frugality was quite impressive considering that he had spent two months walking through France, which is much more expensive than Spain.

What does Hypothermia feel like

It’s a warm day, not a cloud in the sky. It’s the month of March on a isolated mountain in Ireland and the weather has been uncharacteristically warm for this time of the year. There is so much heat from the sun that you leave you warm clothes behind and don’t bring any food with you. It’s a warm day you’ll be up and down in no time.
After a four hour trek up to one of the summits, you spot a rocky outcrop that you decide will be a fun scramble. The is a beautiful scramble, just one little crux that you need to get across. A quick jump on to protruding foothold and you extend your hand to grab a very obvious handhold. As you switch balance and reach, the foothold snaps. The next thing you realise is that you are falling. You manage to land on your feet when you hear a snap. You try to stand up but pain shoots through your right ankle.
You are now immobilised alone on the top of a mountain. You sit on a rock berating yourself for being so stupid.
Sitting there you notice that it’s actually quite cold when you’re not moving. Searching through your small backpack for anything, you find nothing but your phone and a small bottle of Rum.
Hypothermia occurs when the body is unable to maintain normal temperatures because of exposure to cold. The body’s normal core temperature is between 36.5°C and 37.5°C.
Hyperthermia affects Hikers and armies alike.
The classical piece by Tchaikovsky, the 1812 Overture, commemorates the successful Russian defence against Napoleon’s invading army.

Hypothermia aided the destruction of the invading army by causing confusion, lost of consciousness and death. Others just fell to their knees and eventually died where they knelt.
As hikers, we may not be braving the severe Russian winters, but we are equally at risk of hypothermia. We are particularly at risk when temperatures are around freezing. Even in warmer temperature we can still be at risk. Simply being immobile on a mountain ridge at 10 °C in a storm can kill you. Windchill makes it worse by moving the warm air next to your skin away. Wet makes it worse. Water evaporates and cools. It also reduces the effectiveness of insulation. The combination is deadly. Skinny people are more susceptible than overweight people.
Not sure what to do, feeling the pain of the broken ankle, hoping someone will pass by, you decide to warm up by taking a couple swigs of rum. You now feel much warmer and more relaxed.
However, alcohol consumption increases the risk of hypothermia by increasing blood flow to the skin, resulting in heat being lost to the environment. This produces the effect of you feeling warm, when you are actually losing heat. Alcohol can also decrease the body’s ability to shiver and use energy that would normally aid the body in generating heat. The overall effects of alcohol leads to a decrease in body temperature and a decreased ability to generate body heat in response to cold environments.
The earliest stages, called mild hypothermia, are characterized by such things as a loss of coordination and changes in personality.
As the sun drops behind a far away peak, the temperatures plummets to around 7°C. You are feeling very cold and you’re core body temperature now drops below 34 °C, you now start to shiver. At this point, you still have the presence of mind to do things like make a phone call. You can temporarily stop the shivering to retrieve the phone and dial a number. But there is no reception, there are no network antennas in close proximity to even allow an emergency call.
As your temperature continues to fall below 34 °C, the shivering becomes uncontrollable.
The evening progress and you feel the cold. As you core body temperature falls to 32 °C, you are now having irrational thoughts, sluggish thinking, amnesia, and difficulty speaking. You know you are in a perilous situation, but you are feeling surprisingly calm. You have no real dread or any real pain or distress. Without that fear of death, the drive to take care of oneself is lost. At this point you know you should be doing something to save yourself but you can’t really be bothered.
As your body temperature drops below 32 °C,  you stop shivering. Now you feel really confused and start behaving more irrationally.
Once  shivering ceases you are in a life threatening situation and will very likely die if you do not get help.
Parts of your body will start to shut down, sending messages to the brain telling it that these areas are fine. Your brain doesn’t care anymore or simply doesn’t know that it’s cold.
You start to experience a behaviour called paradoxical undressing. You become disoriented, confused, and combative. You feel like your skin is too hot and burning and so start discarding your clothing, which, in turn, increases your rate of heat loss.
In severe hypothermia you can be quite serene, not frightened, or not even really alarmed. You know you are in trouble, but you have resigned yourself to it and are pretty calm.
You have been sitting here immobilised for several hours now while staring at a clear dark sky and the ambient temperature has now fallen to freezing.
Suddenly you hear a voice. Yes, it’s your friend, he’s calling. At last, and unbelievably, his hut is just 50 metres away hidden behind a boulder. Your friend helps you up and you now see his house, which is fully lit up. Opening the door, you are welcomed by a blazing open fire, your friend lays you down on a thick soft rug in front of the open fire. You begin to warm up and feel a great sense of relief and gratitude that the ordeal is over. The hut is beautifully decorated inside. Your friend is preparing a pasta dish and there is an opened bottle of red wine on the table. This was some ordeal but you sure will have some story to tell tomorrow. In the meantime you will need to get your ankle seen to and will have to make you way from your friends hut to your home. But those things can be taken care of tomorrow. Tonight, you are getting heat back into your body and are about to feast on a meal with wine.
The flames from the fire dance around the wood and then start changing form, the flames darken and get smaller, the interior of the hut starts to vanish. You call to your friend to ask what’s happening, suddenly you are alone staring at an empty sky.
With restricted blood flow to the brain, you have started to hallucinate. Your friend, the hut, the meal, the wine were only a illusions. You now become consumed with a sense of despondency of dying alone on the side of a mountain. Tears roll down your cheeks.
The despondency lasts for a while and then is replaced with a calm acceptance of your fate.
With your core body temperature below 29 °C,  you become unconscious. As the brain cools down, you experience a gradual decrease in your level of consciousness until you slip into a coma. After that, all of your metabolic processes start to slow down. As your body temperature drops below 26 °C, your heartbeat will become irregular and eventually stop. The moment of death will likely be silent and relatively painless.
A person dying from hypothermia will get into sort of a dreamlike state, drifting in and out of consciousness, and they may have visions of random things, possibly in a state of bliss. Dying from hypothermia is often perceived as a slow and painful death. It may be slow but by all accounts it’s not as painful as people believe.
The next day a walker finds your dead body and your death becomes another lesson and another statistic on how to dress for the outdoors.

This hypothetical account of hypothermia is based on my own experiences of mild hypothermia together with the research that I have done into the matter.