Being an Athletes Angel

During the summer months I massage at endurance events. This takes me around Scotland and provides me with a wealth of experience, which I would not otherwise get from working in a pleasant environment, knowing in advance what to expect.

You may not all know what an endurance event is. Some appear to me at least, to be reasonable events to take part in. What they all have in common is that they involve taking part in a walk, cycle, run, for example, as a way of raising money for charity. Most of us would recognise that a marathon requires endurance to a lesser or greater extent, depending on our level of fitness, and can therefore be labelled as such.

As I said, many of them appear to be reasonable ventures to take part in, which many of us would be able to take in our stride, albeit with a lot of effort and some training beforehand. Others appear to me to be completely insane and well beyond the reach of lesser mortals (that includes me).

Let me give you a couple of examples. As part of the Hearts and Heroes event, you walk 29 miles, on part of the Southern Upland Way. There is some hill-walking but much of it is through beautiful rolling borders countryside. It is done during daylight hours. Then there is the Caledonian Challenge, 54 miles in 24 hours and lots of people take 24 hours which means walking through the night. It is part of the West Highland Way with some very hilly bits as part of the challenge. This was the first endurance event that I ever worked at. It was almost my last!

Let me tell you about it. I was scheduled to arrive at 7pm on the Saturday night at Tyndurm, the second last checkpoint. Participants had walked/run 42 miles at that point and still had 12 to go to get to Ardlui. I found the checkpoint, down a dirt track which led me to a big field with a huge tent and a couple of smaller ones. Approximately 15 or so of us were lined up along one end of the tent, with just enough space for us to place our massage plinth and ourselves. At one end the participants entered and left by an exit at the other. As they came into the marquee, there was a table to their left where they could get some food and hot drinks, rows of chairs where they could rest and meet up with their support teams. Then there was the exit and on the other side of the exit in the bottom corner was a first aid post and an area which could be turned into a field hospital. We took up the opposite side, in a line and, at the top, near the entrance, a supervisor managed the queue which would eventually form, directing people for massage, physio or first aid. I was near the bottom of the line, more of less opposite the exit.

We were briefed, given our Caledonian Challenge t-shirts and set to work. As we waited, some of the first people were coming through, stopping barely long enough to put on some dry clothes, grab some food and head off again. I was amazed what they had achieved so far. Then a few more people began to trickle in and some stopped for a massage. The rule is that, if it is busy, five minutes per person, usually legs. If someone is struggling and thinking about giving up, we can spend a bit longer if they/we think it might help them get to the end. As part of the briefing we had also been told what to do if anyone became hypothermic. I have to admit that at that point, I began to wonder what I had let myself in for. I make a reluctant first aider but was reassured by the fact that I was opposite the first aid post and we were told to ask for help immediately.

At about 1am the onslaught began. The day had not been too bad but rain came with the darkness. Not good, not for the participants and not for us. The midges began to bite. We had been given baseball caps which helped keep them out of our hair but they bit my neck and arms. Lesson one: always have some insect repellent with you at endurance events. We old hands, now share with first-timers, who learn quickly. We were overwhelmed by wet, tired people who needed us to perform miracles. Lesson two: don’t do endurance events if you want to keep your hands and nails clean and don’t like mud. After a short time, I stopped trying to get the muck off the back of legs with baby wipes. I massaged onto the muck doing what I could. Some participants fell asleep and I, cruelly, had to shake them gently awake, only to see the horror in their eyes as they remembered where they were and what they still had to do!

Inevitably some got onto the plinth, knowing full well that it was highly unlikely that they were going to be able to do the last twelve miles. Sometimes they would be almost imploring you to say that they had a good chance of making it and all you can do is tell them that, in the end, the decision has to be theirs. Meanwhile, the first aid post had been busy. Once in a while, moving from one side of the bed to another, I could see people whose feet had been shredded and were having them bandaged. Again it was obvious that some of them were never going to be able to finish, in fact it was probable that they would not be walking normally for some time.

The rain got worse as it got later and people were arriving, falling onto the plinth in soaked clothes and then became hypothermic very quickly. People were fainting and one woman was so bad that she had to be linked up to a drip. It felt like bedlam at one point. This in spite of the fact that the event is very well organised but even so it was being stretched to the limits by the call on the services available.

We had also been told that if we got tired we had to take a rest and get some food. I finally had to give into my aching limbs and need for food.

Finally about 3.30am it started to ease off and we were getting a chance to have a rest in between massages but in a way this was worse, as you felt the tiredness more. I finished at about 5am and stumbled to my car wondering if I would be able to make the one hour journey home without stopping for a rest. I did, just, and then slept until lunchtime. It took a couple of days to recover fully. The daft thing is that, that is how long it took me to recover; some of the participants had only arranged to take one day off to recover, but they were the ones who had never done the event before. Some of them were back for their second and third time. I thought that this beggared belief; why would anyone want to put themselves through this more than once.

Did I go back for more? Well that was four years ago and I am looking forward to doing it all again this month. That was one of the worst years. Good weather makes such a huge difference.

Many people come from England and abroad to do some of the events that I work at. We have listened to many people eulogise about Scotland and its beauty. We hear them say that they cannot wait to come back with family. Those of us who live in Scotland tell each other that it would be better for them to keep their fantastic memories and never come back again! We have also heard our beautiful, but very rainy country, cursed. Often we have to agree with them.

The main thing for me is that these events are wonderful opportunities to work with like-minded people, in beautiful parts of the country, to support generous-spirited people who want to challenge themselves and in so doing, raise money for people in less fortunate circumstances than themselves. Why wouldn’t you want to do it? Do you know that many of them when they have had their massage, thank you and say that it is hard work that we are doing. I always laugh and tell them that it is they who are doing a great thing.

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