The Mad Hatter: “Have I gone mad?”
Alice: “I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”
“The point of mythology is to point to the horizon and to point back to ourselves: This is who we are; this is where we came from; and this is where we’re going.”
– J. Michael Straczynski
(This post was written jointly by Julia – aka Girl Runs Wild – and Liz, her titan in crime in their latest running adventure.)
Last Saturday morning, Liz and I arrived on the slopes of Mount Olympus (otherwise known as Church Stretton High School in Shropshire, England) for the organiser’s briefing on the 12 Labours of Hercules event; an ultramarathon of 78 miles which included a leg scrambling 17000 feet of ascend, all of which had to be completed within 24 hours. We were on a mission to become titans. Let me assure you that this, for once, had nothing to do with evil plans of world domination. (*cough*). No, runners who had teamed up to take on the 12 Labours of Hercules together were called “Titans” by the race director. Who are we to argue with that? Over the course of the weekend, this pair of lady titans became known as “Caledonian Calamity” and by Zeus, did we live up to our name!
At around 9 in the morning, Richard the Race Director finally revealed the twelve routes we would have to cover in order to complete the event. Standing in the school assembly hall, we were hanging onto his every word. Nobody knows if our undivided attention was due to the fact that our environment had triggered a long forgotten “attentive pupil” mode, or if we were all just really damn terrified that we were going to get lost at some point… probably in countless hills of the Long Mynd… almost certainly at night… with a malfunctioning headtorch thrown in for good measure… and… oh my God… have there been any “Big Cat” sightings in Shropshire lately?!?! STOP! MIND BE MY SERVANT! JUST LISTEN TO THE MAN.
So, we listened, and it really didn’t sound all that bad while we were still standing on solid ground, surrounded by one hundred supremely rested and carb-loaded athletes who were chomping on their hydration bottles and raring to be unleashed upon the hills. Our task sounded simple enough; we had to visit 12 different checkpoints in the surrounding hills, and there we had to complete Herculean tasks such as wrestling supernatural lions, slaying ancient monsters, stealing flesh-eating equines, competing in ancient Olympic games and entering the underworld.
Did I say ‘enter the underworld’? Sorry, what I was meant to say is that we had to complete tasks like navigating to a cave or retrieving an item from a mountain top. After completion of each labour, the participants had to return to Mount Olympus with proof of their victory; solo competitors had to compete the whole caboodle by themselves, while those working in pairs or teams could decide to buddy up on tasks or complete the tasks individually and consecutively by using a kind of ‘tag team’ system.
Before setting out on her first official Herculean journey, Liz got the first calamity points of the day by warming up with an impromptu labour titled ‘mending her backpack five minutes before the flipping start’. As it turned out, her dog Alfie had chewed one of the buckles to smithereens, but a keyring and strategically positioned knot eventually prevented the pack from flailing about her back as though it was trying to escape this ultra-running madness.
Immediately after this frenzy, Liz set off on her mission to capture the Cretan Bull, as aspiring titans do just after breakfast. For this task, she had to climb up a ridiculously steep hill to the checkpoint, where she got further instructions to climb up the ridiculously steep hill’s ridiculously steep twin brother to find the labour. Thankfully, this did not involve dragging an actual cow off the mountain and into the school assembly hall. No, Liz merely had to retrieve a ring and her biggest challenge on her journey back to Olympus was to not get muddled up in her mythologies and to resist the call of Mordor.
Meanwhile, at Mount Olympus, Julia set an Olympic record in the number of times she visited the loo in the space of the 32 minutes before Liz’s return. Oh, and she also found out from Richard the Race Director that the hill Liz was climbing was in fact, the most ridiculously steep hill of them all. However, it sadly was far from being the highest…
As soon as Liz had returned the ring of Sauron… uhm, I mean the Cretan Bull, Julia zoomed off to the underworld on a mission to capture Cerberus. Did I just say underworld again? What she really did was zoom off to find a hidden cave on top of a REALLY big hill. Being really big, the hill itself was easy to find, and it wasn’t long before Julia was huffing and puffing up the ludicrously steep slopes of Caer Caradoc. Because she knew for certain that these slopes were not, in fact, ridiculously steep, she did two things; firstly, she told her bursting lungs and quads that they had nothing to complain about. Secondly, she had a very tough talk with herself about not being a pansie on the eventual descend. The location of the really very secret cave was easily exposed to her by the horde of runners who were entering it, and after a brief stint in the underworld Julia came flying down the slopes of the not-quite-ridiculously-steep-hill. Literally.
In hindsight, she could have taken crashing into a fence about half way down the hill as a reminder that slowing down was an option. But because slowing down is obviously only for pansies, she proceeded to either utilise a super fast descending technique (i.e. slithering down on her bare legs and hands), or committed the second calamity of the day. It really just depends on whether you’ve pitched your tent in the camp of half-full or half-empty glasses. In any case, her descend was fast indeed and she emerged from her battle with Cerberus bloodied and covered in dust but, more to point, vigorously triumphant. Back at Olympus, she sent a slightly worried looking Liz off to calamity number three, otherwise known as the retrieval of the Girdle of Hypolyta.
This labour saw Liz enjoy what was possibly the only flat 2 mile section of the whole day. Only at this point the temperatures had soared to something very hot indeed, all while being accompanied by humidity levels of a dripping 95%, so she didn’t exactly express her joy by skipping down the road while singing folk songs to herself (that’s what Julia did approximately 12 hours later, but it had nothing to do with enjoyment then either). She then had to follow a long and winding path up a hill which was serendipitously called “Grindle”, where she found the checkpoint and instructions to take the path to the right to find the mythical Girdle of Hypolyta. Little did she know that she was in for calamity number 3, as the instructions had sent her on the wrong right path. There was, in fact, another right path, and taking the wrong right path lost us a few minutes of time. The right right path soon dwindled to nothing, so Liz continued with a heather-bashing stomp to reach a cairn adorned with an array of multi-coloured belts. And no, she wasn’t hallucinating. Yet. Thus, she grabbed a girdle from the summit of Grindle and stomped her way back down the right right path, which now had to be the right left path, right?
(The beautiful, painful hills of the Long Mynd – photo by Richard Weremiuk)
Julia, meanwhile, was enjoying the wonderful atmosphere at Olympus. The fact that all runners frequently returned to Olympus meant that she got to cheer on the leaders as they dipped in and out, patted the backs of those who were doing well and gave hugs and encouragement to those who were struggling. All in all, there was much enjoyable banter to be had at Olympus. In fact, the only thing that was more abundant than banter was the food. Wendy, Richard’s wife, somehow managed to fathom up an ever changing buffet of food, and Richard himself was always on hand to offer tips, encouragement and advice. Thus, while stuffing her face, a cleaned up Julia learned that they were currently amongst the top four teams and were, in fact, the only female team in the whole competition. With nothing to lose, in her head, the game was on!
After checking in at Olympus, Liz went out again to quickly slay the Stymphalian Birds. For this labour, she travelled up Carding Mill Valley, navigated through an army of picnickers and children splashing around in the pretty little stream, past the ICE CREAM SHOP and up, up, up to the checkpoint. Then down, down, down (I pity the fool who still doesn’t understand the fundamental nature of this event!), past the ICE CREAM SHOP AGAIN and back to Olympus, where a fully satiated Julia was ready to go hunt for more food. The Apples of Hesperides, that is.
This eight mile run was the flattest of the lot, which really wasn’t very flat at all. Rather than going up one big hill, the roads and paths to this labour just kept on rolling along the pretty Shropshire countryside. On the plus side, navigation to the apples (found in a place called Peartree!) was easy, even if the run itself left her out of breath approximately every other minute. The difficulty was enhanced primarily because Julia had entered race mode at this point, and was seen hurling herself around the undulating paths like a dispossessed wilderbeast. Don’t worry, she didn’t fall again. However, as a testimony to her speed and in a move that is worryingly out of character for an ultramarathon runner, she returned the Apple of Hesperides to Olympus without having taken even the slightest nibble of the forbidden fruit…
Continuing her killing spree, a bloodthirsty Liz then went on her journey to slay the nine-headed Hydra. This run basically involved her going onwards and upwards, although more upwards than onwards and then even more upwards. You get the idea. After crossing some fields she embarked on a stooped staggery run/stumble down a tiny path with overhanging branches and stingy nettles to slay the Hydra. That sounded simple. It wasn’t.
When Julia set out to capture the Golden Hind of Artemis, she was painfully aware that this was the longest run of the lot, that it was the last run she’d be completing in daylight and that the complex navigation for this route had heaps of potential to lead her firmly down the path towards calamity number four. Prior to setting out, she therefore put on her racing flats, studied the route in detail and in a desperate move proceeded to write the directions all over her forearms. And you know what? It worked! The fact that she arrived at the checkpoint and labour location resembling a badly tattooed pirate is a minor detail, because she happened to complete this particular labour faster than anyone else in the whole competition! At the checkpoint, she had to compete in a Herculean version of the Olympic games, which included a scooter slalom, a round of darts and target shooting with frisbees. Regrettably, Julia was still in racing-flat-induced-tattoo-guided-speed-mode while attempting to complete these tasks, which resulted in her failing to hit a single target and it took three officials to stop her from running off with the scooter on her way back to Olympus. Oooops.
Liz then went out on bovine adventure number two, for which she had to face the monster Greyon and obtain his cattle. This required her to run past the ICE CREAM SHOP AGAIN, and up a scrambley path onto Cow Ridge. There, she briefly enjoyed the stunning views of the valley but decided that we really didn’t have time to take photos of the stunning views. And this time, Liz really did have to bring a cow down from the mountain. A small plastic one, that is. She scrambled down the mountain, and yes, you’ve guessed it… past the ICE CREAM SHOP AGAIN… and back to Olympus.
After a speedy change of out her running clothes into her best housewife attire, Liz went forth to clean the Augean stables. This labour required her to cross the whole of the Long Mynd; so more upwards and onwards, followed by downwards and onwards into Bridges and return. A the mist descended upon her and darkness fell, Liz did her best not to think about Stephen King’s book “The Fog”. She was very glad to have taken a road route rather than an alternative route across the open moorlands as she’s also a pansie and was getting a wee bit freaked out about being out in the misty mountains, in the darkness, surrounded by sheep, foxes, big cats and … what was that?!?… oh, a toad.
Upon her arrival following the victorious completion of epic domestic duties, Liz was informed by a very bouncy Julia that they were currently in second place. The bouncing was not so much a result of excitement; rather, Julia had consumed copious amounts of caffeine at this point in order to a) stay awake (it was almost midnight) and b) psych herself up to go run across the moorlands that had already terrified Liz. In the dark. In the very foggy dark. With the big cats and stuff. Her mission: to steal the flesh-eating Mares of Diomedes. Let’s just say that this is where all the skipping and singing started for real. At the top of the Long Mynd, Julia finally encountered the big cats, or rather, some wild unicorns. Ponies. I mean ponies. She briefly contemplated how Richard the Race Director would feel about her stealing an actual horse and if this would release her from the task of having to run first down, and then back up a road with a 25% gradient… She eventually opted for the version that would not earn her a criminal record and trotted down the stupidly steep road into the little village of Handless, where at one o’clock in the morning she stuck her hand into a bucket of icey goo to retrieve a severed finger… Nice.
Meanwhile, at Olympus, Liz was studying the route that would lead her to the Erymanthean Boar, which she had to capture next. Because we had deemed this to be a wee half-mile out, half-mile back tootle up and down a little hill, we had saved this particular labour for the hours of darkness. But then someone called it “the Hill of Doom”. Then came reports from other competitors who had failed to reach the summit of the wee Hill of Doom altogether. This made Liz a little twitchy, so while she waited for Julia to return from her storming run with the wild horses and associated retrieval of severed body parts, Liz fretted, repeatedly checked the map, visited the loo again and again and picked the brains of all and any available people. Rumour has it that the caretaker of the school grounds is still recovering from being shaken by the shoulders and interrogated about the summit of the “Hill of Doom” at two o’clock in the morning… But Liz bravely faced the night, found – and passed – the FOOD FACTORY, flew by the Atheneum Temple (strange juxtaposition of landmarks!), tiptoed over the cattle grid, squelched up the re-entrant, scuffled and fought through gorse and heather and schlepped on up to the top of the wee hill where she found a (non-burning) bush containing the checkpoint. TRIUMPH! From there she retrieved two modelling balloons and failed to make a balloon sword. Although this was what the task called for, at two in the morning on top of a hill that had robbed her lungs of air, she decided against nurturing her creative spirit and carried two limp balloons down the hill. As it turned out, this was entirely okay as most balloon swords had perished on the descent through the Hill of Doom’s gorse bushes of doom anyway.
Finally, we embarked on our last labour together, not because the Nemean Lion would be hard to slay, but because the hill we had to climb in order to reach the beast was a wee bit tricky to navigate in the dark, especially with tired head torches, maps that have been soaked in rain, sweat and tears for the better part of 17 hours and brains that would rather be sleeping. And although we had stopped counting calamities long ago, we didn’t want to add another one to the list at three o’clock in the morning. Our combined navigation efforts soon saw us schlepping up the slopes of Ragleth. In truth, it was a wonderfully surreal experience. At this point, we were no longer able to move quickly and took our time with the navigation. The night was so quiet, so beautiful, so peaceful. Together, side by side, we felt at ease in the darkness. Gone were the thoughts of big cats and Steven King. Instead, we both just agreed that the views from the top of this hill are sure to be amazing in the light of day. We located the checkpoint with ease, and slowly trotted back down the hill, heading for Olympus one last time. A calamity-free labour! Above all, it seemed fitting to complete our adventure together.
Back in the sanctity of Olympus, neither of us could really believe what had just happened. How could it be 3:30 in the morning already? Between us, we had covered 78 miles in 17 hours and 31 minutes, completed 12 epic labours and climbed more hills than we could shake our dying head torches at. What is more, we had held on to the second place position, which was just as good as world domination, really.
What followed was another day of competition of ultra proportions (this time in the disciplines of eating and sleeping) which saw Julia and Liz battling and giggling it out yet again. No breadstick, chocolate bar, fruit salad, jellybaby, panini, popcorn, baguette, apple, pastry or snickers ice-cream was safe. And let’s just say that this in particular contest, there were no second places.
Thus, we really were titans…
Alice: “But that is impossible!”
The Mad Hatter: “Only if you believe it is.”
We would like to say a huge thank you to Richard and Wendy for putting on such a fantastic event, and to all the fellow competitors, all of whom are heroes in their own right. Friends were made at Olympus that day and who knows where these new friendships will take us? New journeys and adventures begin every day…
“Mythology and science both extend the scope of human beings. Like science, mythology is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.”
– Karen Armstrong