“Another great lap,” the cry rang out across Brands Hatch.
No, I wasn’t driving; I was cycling. It was the third discipline of what they were calling the Toughest Race in the World – the 1983 Foster’s Quadrathon. We had started in Brighton with a 2-mile sea swim, before race walking 50km up to Tunbridge Wells. We had cycled from there to the famed motor racing venue where the prescribed 100 miles of pedal power would be completed with 50 laps of the club circuit. Then there was just the small matter of the final marathon to Gravesend, of all place names.
The event attracted the usual nutters – long-distance cyclists, extreme triathletes, a few race-walkers, a bloke who held the world record for running a marathon whilst carrying a hundredweight of coal, Boy George’s brother, and Richard and Adrian Crane who had just run the length of the Himalayas in 101 days.
Cycling was the discipline I feared the most, its taking the most time of the four and my having the least pedigree in that sport. Nevertheless, after something like 10 hours, I was still going, suffering up Druids every time, and, it being the middle of the night now, one of my support team had stayed awake to shout me on.
“Another great lap.”
They didn’t feel that great and they weren’t slipping by that quickly, but they were going and I had trained for extreme challenges. A typical day involved running 10-20 miles to work, then a combination of race walking and swimming at lunchtime, with a long cycle home in the evening. The logistics sometimes went wrong, and I would arrive at work to find I had no shirt and only yesterday’s pants to change into. My co-workers pretended not to notice.
The race had started eventfully at 5pm: during the swim, about a third of the 100-strong field were pulled out of the sea with hypothermia. One rather glamorous ultra-distance-running lady had attracted a lot of media attention in the build-up to the race, but she lasted less than half an hour.
“Serves her right for having 0% body fat,” said a competitor.
The walk was my strongest discipline and that passed smoothly enough, before the dreaded cycle. It was the laps at Brands I was fearing most, but there were also some unlit roadworks on the way there, which I managed to plough into.
Luckily, a doctor arrived on the scene within minutes. Luckily, I was OK. Luckily – and more importantly – so was the bike. The doctor told me later that when he first reached me, my pulse was so fast that he couldn’t actually count it.
Anyway, on to Brands Hatch – “Another great lap!” Great friends, Mick and Rod, were supporting me, and Mick was supplying food and drink – and vocal encouragement – while Rod slept in the car. We later learned that he had fallen asleep with the radio on, draining the battery and necessitating a bump-start the next morning, when I finally left the circuit to start the marathon!
One of my competitors, John Hills, a bit of a pin-up with the girls, was so traumatised by Brands, that he had to have a cuddle with his girlfriend at the end of each lap.
“Pathetic,” said Rod.
Eventually, the bike leg was over – a compulsory 15-minute medical (“you’ve lost a lot of weight, Steve”) – and then off on the marathon. One competitor told me later that he was jogging down the hill from Brands to start the run when he saw someone cycling up to begin their 50 laps.
“You poor sod,” was all he could say.
The marathon was naturally quite hard and, by that time, we were so spread out that I didn’t see another competitor for the entire 26 miles, so I finished in 17 hours and 23 minutes, still in 6th place.
My friends took me off to a pub to celebrate, and asked me what I wanted to drink. My mind was a bit frazzled by this point, but Foster’s had sponsored the event so I asked for a pint of their amber nectar. It seemed like a good idea until the third sip when I fell sideways off my seat, and my friends picked me up, carried me to the car and drove me home.
The wonder is I came back to do it all again the next year.