This is my first guest blog and I am hugely proud that my friend, Kevin Webber - Kev - is the person writing it. Kev was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer about five and a half years ago. Since then he has undertaken many long distance running and walking challenges including the Marathon de Sable and the Arctic Ultra (multiple times), plus other, in my view, crazy events! He is a great advocate and fundraiser for Prostate Cancer UK.
I've selected this blog about his latest challenge in São Tomé because it not only gives the reader an insight into how Kev approaches life, living with cancer, but it also hugely entertaining. Beware of the black cobra!
I am frequently asked about what its like to be in the races I do, so for this blog rather than go on about anything else I thought I would exclusively write about my latest race I finished a few days ago in the tiny country Island of São Tomé off the West coast of Africa. I will also keep most of it just for the race days in an attempt to shorten the story (it’s still a bit long – sorry).
Day 1 16th Feb. After 4 days of travelling it was great to actually start the race. Before starting from steps of a derelict hospital that looks like it had not been replaced in a big town, we had the São Tomé national anthem sung by 8 year olds school kids followed by a speech from the president. It’s a big thing for the country, an international race putting them sort of on the map - although not as big as they probably hope - but it is the first ever ultra-marathon that has taken place there.
The race started at 7-00am, it was already hot and sticky. The locals look quizzically at us as we jog down the Main Street, it’s a mixture of old run down Portuguese colonial grandeur and shacks.
Some of the locals are laughing at us, not sure if it’s because we are running in stupid humidity or because most of us don’t look like we should be! The 58 runners include two local boys who can run sub 2-30 marathons, so very fast. Needless to say I don’t see them again after the first 100 yards! It’s a generally downhill jog to the first checkpoint after 10k, badly made roads if sometimes stone, very occasionally tarmac, but mainly dirt and some water and mud thrown in to boot.
We run a couple of k along the beach, the humidity and heat has already soaked all my clothes with sweat that i know won’t be drying out anytime soon! There are memorials to those who died in the struggle for independence and democracy, a reminder that the country has not had it easy. After the cp we are running in the jungle and I start to overtake many who perhaps went off too quick. It’s a plod that slows as we start 14k of continuous uphill but I am in the groove marching with my poles. I can’t extend them fully as my hands are too sweaty and they slip on the carbon fibre , a bit frustrating but I manage to keep going with them despite them being 20cm too short for me. I overtook a few more at cp2 and carried on marching up a relentless dusty jungle track. I slowed a lot after I caught up with Lynn from Turks and Caicaos, lovely conversation about her jobs: dog rescue helper, boat crew, freelance diver and most amusingly occasional mermaid! I enjoyed that 20 minutes but at the top of the hill I was ready to jog so left her.
10 minutes later something black fell in front of me. I jumped to the side of the path in time to realise it was a black cobra , a deadly snake who, after the shock of falling, was rearing up at me. Needless to say I kept going but then had a guilt trip about the Lynn behind . I went back and stood on the bend about 5 metres away and as the she appeared told her to walk on the other side otherwise Lynn would have walked straight into it!
After that I ran on again but paranoid about every sound and rustle of a bush. I was caught up by another runner and we ran downhill together to cp 3. Then it was very narrow single track through the jungle , lower legs rubbing the undergrowth on both sides, scared me every step and I tried to make as much noise as I could to scare any other snakes off! We had to go calf deep through a slippery river the other guy fell over but we were through and then a steep climb in the single track finally leading to a wider flattish path to the finish.
Pretty happy to get day one under my belt and have some food and rest. It took me 5-55, the winner, one of the local lads 3-30 and the last person, Soren, 12 hours and he then decided to drop out. Soren is from Denmark and I met him in Cambodia, he dropped out there and I understand he also dropped out of the other races in the series too in Albania and Bhutan. You have to give the guy 10 out of 10 for trying and he is so nice with it too. He is a shining example of my belief that you just have to be brave enough to put your foot on a start line no matter what.
Staying under a kindergarten building in a village like most of São Tomé that had seen better days architecturally made me think of what it may have once been like but of course with it came the oppression in those times that was clearly wrong . Found a bar with my tent mate Simon and had a well earned local beer, the place was full of runners, we definitely gave a boost to that part of the local economy that night!
Toilet facilities are rarely great on these races and here is no exception, wet, unhygienic, basic but needs must! Dinner was, as is always the case for me, dehydrated food, they are not as bad as they used to be but the lack of fresh vegetables and fruit is always depressing. Music started from bar in the town but so tired and with the help of a sleeping pill, I zonked out.
Day 2 Alarm at 4-30am but already awake, found a 3rd loo in another building so no queue but still grim. Beef shepherd’s pie for breakfast, strange maybe but easy to digest and get down first thing , also 800 calories.
2 hours seems a long time to get ready but I always end up rushing at the last minute. As we were getting to the start, I saw Soren by the start line, he had decided to go home, he didn’t feel following the race around for 5 more days would be much fun and there was the chance to go now . A real shame as a good guy who is fun to be around.
Day 2's race was "only" 30k but the first 10k of that was single track jungle, mainly up, crawling under fallen trees or round massive roots at the same time as having head high plants brushing both sides, I hoped there were no more snakes!
Just before cp 1 there was an argument going on with the locals. I had heard a few already and they get very loud and aggressive. What makes them more scary than what happens at home is the way that everyone seems to carry massive machetes around. Add those to an argument and a few beers and I imagine Saturday nights can be a bit hairy in a bar! Fortunately on this occasion two huge guys walked away swinging their machetes and shouting but vacating the scene although one was next to me a while cursing (I imagine) loudly.
The run to cp2 was mainly downhill and runnable as opposed to the bushwhacking uphill feel on the first section. Running through tiny villages with local adults just staring but the kids running with me briefly and wanting to be in photos. The downhill didn’t last forever though and a final 3k up to cp2 but at least it was on a reasonable track.
After cp2 I ran past old dilapidated plantation houses, big verandas with high windows, historically essential, I guess, to keep cool. The run constantly has me thinking how cruel “civilised” cultures were in the 18th century and the fact that São Tomé was only given independence in 1975 indicates that many here will have living memory of harsher times. Whilst I was thinking that it started raining. It was cooling and glorious as whilst it was not quite so humid it was still 30c and sticky. The thunderous noise of thousands of raindrops hitting the forest canopy was deafening. Added to that, the canopy of trees and low cloud had me running in near dark at mid day! The trail quickly became muddy and more than ankle deep in water. I saw another snake only this time a non poisonous thin dark green one slipping along a gulley enjoying the rain like me I think.
The final run to the finish on a path underwater required a last surge of effort splashing along to end in front of tonight’s camp, inside an old plantation house/ converted to guest house. It was similar to what I had run past earlier, leaking roof, no power , empty rooms, sleeping on the floor in our mosquito nets. Quite eerie, hints of days gone by splendour but a cooler sleep at least.
Day 3 The rain has stopped but it’s super boggy. I met Mark, he has leukemia, he is effectively operating on half of one lung. You would not know it by looking at him. He said he is doing today but then not doing the long day. He knows himself, brave guy, an epitome of having a go. He used to run loads of these types of races before getting ill and now wanted to just have a go and be there one more time for the feeling that these races bring – amazing man.
The race started with the expectation of more rain later, sleeping in tents tonight so that is something not to look forward to. Wet me in a wet tent means wet sleeping bag and wet kit with no way of drying out. Race started at 7-00 again, my worst start as downhill in single track jungle, slippery, rocky, lots of tree roots to trip on. Ran past a beautiful waterfall, wet feet crossing a river but my shoes and socks and everything else for that matter were wet still from yesterday so it didn’t really matter.
Eventually after 6k we got to another tin hut village, locals with no jobs or anything it appears just staring at me as I run/walk past. Cp1 was a welcome site at the end of another village but the crew had got loads of local kids to cheer me in. Then it was 10k pretty much downhill and whilst it should have been ok to run the road was strewn with big rocks to try to trip you up or just too steep for my knees to take. Cp2 was in what can only be described as an old cocoa/coffee processing town. As everything here, grand buildings but this also had old railway tracks. After the cp the course followed the mainly pulled up tracks past shanty town and back into the jungle. The sun was suddenly out and it felt really hot and humid again after the cool of the mountain yesterday. A sharp single track down to a ‘wet feet and leg’ river crossing and then a cruel steep climb that had me stopping twice to let my heart slow as it was beating so fast and loud I could feel my ears throbbing. After the climb it was a rolling downward trail but more rocks. I ran a bit but was feeling shattered so decided to save myself a bit for the long day tomorrow or maybe that was just an excuse for my tiredness. Passed a main road and then onto a peninsula with dramatic waves crashing on the black rocks made in a similar way to the giants causeway in Ireland.
Finally into another shanty village and an ending that was, as ever, welcome. Tonight we are in tents in a square with locals in huts around us; it must look strange for them. I found my bag and Simon’s who has been slower than me all week. Today he has tummy issues so I managed to bag a tent in the shade. Next was just jumping into the sea with all my running gear on. The local kids were joining in with not a care in the world. I went back up the trail after drying off to meet Simon. I finished in under 4.5 hours, Simon took over 7 – respect to him, considering his guts. A few more drop-outs after today as people know that 58k tomorrow with 3 mountains will take it out of all of us.
The camp is in a visually idyllic space with beautiful sea, palm trees and old buildings everywhere, run down and being reclaimed by the jungle.
Day 4 – the long day – 58k. Early start at 5-30am as the dawn broke meant getting up at 3-30am to take my cancer drugs (they have to be taken an hour before I eat), I started off walking, as it was uphill,l and did the usual cat and mouse act of overtaking runners up hills where I can walk fast and being overtaken downhill where others run faster than I do. All the wider paths through the jungle seem to be made up of uneven blocks so uncomfortable to run or walk on , passed through more plantations with smiling locals still quizzically watching us run by whilst they either are doing backbreaking work or resting. Their life is simple but tough. More old plantation houses all run down. It’s so sad as you can’t help think how many slaves were used to build the roads, plantation houses and splendour around yet now it’s all dilapidated and falling down.
Cp 2 was narrower jungle trail more downhill but still uneven rocks everywhere. Then a brutal 12k on paved road. Although it was still only 9-30, it was already hot and humid. I found myself with Christine from Toronto and we had a similar pace running a bit and walking at the same speed. The sun was now bouncing off the tarmac and it felt like I was being fried from every angle. The hilly switchback road was seemingly endless. Passing a small village there was a shack of a shop selling a handful of goods and cold fizzy orange for 30p, I downed two cans in a minute as I was so thirsty and it was cold unlike my warm water in the bottles I was carrying.
I was feeling worn out but was only half way as we arrived at cp3 another plantation building but unlike all the rest this was well maintained and was now a hotel. There was a can of coke to buy at £1-80 outrageously expensive but it didn’t matter. So welcome I would probably have paid £10!
The next 11k was generally up through dense single track jungle, often on slippery ledges with a steep drop or climbing over many downed trees at precarious angles. My legs were getting lacerated by the bushes and a multitude of tiny insects landing on me. Suddenly, with no visible warning, the path mercifully joined a wider track and at an old village was cp4. At the cp there was the village tap. No one has any kind of plumbing or sanitation in their own houses and I doused my head in the cool water whilst the locals stopped washing their clothes to stare at this strange guy pouring water over every part of his body.
It was now a blend of road, trail and single track coming down from the high point. We passed an awesome volcanic plug 100s of feet high with its top occasionally in clouds. Then through another village to cross a wide river. Crew were there to help us across as it was quite fast with a small waterfall just after to fall down if we slipped. Then as seemingly ever, back into the jungle for another 2k of single track coming out on a beach road to cp5. Loads of kids here and they walked with us. Unlike all the others I had met these were asking for money and clearly hoped to get something from us. We had been specifically told not to give anything as it would start frenzy but instead give to local charities. I had already brought with me pens, pencils, paper as the country is so poor, most of the population cannot read or write. I am sure the Brits are equally guilty of leaving old colonised countries with problems but you can’t help thinking how wrong the Portuguese were when they left. After 2k we were back on the main road, it’s crumbling away and was hard to run in before turning off for a 1k run ending on the beach for the finish. Tough day, pleased with my 10-15 time, came joint 27th having run with Christine for the last 45k. 6 more drop outs today, 10 in total, the heat, humidity and terrain too much for them.
Day 5: 20th Feb . Today is my birthday, 55, an age I didn’t dare dream of 5 years ago. As ever, a sweaty broken night’s sleep and woke to open the birthday card my wife had hidden in my bag. Brought everything home and how much I miss my family. This race has unusually been more spiritual than others: the runners, the country, the people have all made me think more about what’s important in life . I love these races and at my demise I won’t say I wish I ran in that race or the other now as I have done so many but I realised my kids, particularly Ollie may say I wish Dad had been around more so when I get hone I will be making more time for them as far as they will want me to! Anyway, back to the race. Not such a long day started at 7-00 being sung happy birthday by all the runners and crew. Quite emotional, most of them have no idea about my health (which is what I want as I want to be just another runner as far as they are concerned) so they won’t understand why every birthday is such an emotional time.
Off we all went on another day similar to most, hills, jungle and tarmac. It was only 29k so having done twice that the day before I knew it should be more straightforward. I was a bit weaker. However, still amazingly no blisters, even though most people had them from constant wet shoes, socks and therefore feet. Christine, who I had run with the day before, had her feet in pieces and she was so much slower and unable to make any real speed as she was walking on the sides of her feet to relieve the pain. Simon had bad blisters to go with his bad tummy, I just don’t know how he is carrying on. From a humid start to the day, suddenly, we had rain from nowhere for half an hour, refreshing but not great for later in a tent. With about 3 miles to go, suddenly, I was on the edge of a beach, a real paradise view with 100s of sticks in the sand indicating turtle egg nests. I ran along the side and then off onto a huge cocoa plantation. Mercifully flat for a change but no shade from the sun which had replaced the rain and then the finish on what was the best beach I had seen that week. I was given by Mark a fresh huge coconut – strange, but I have never had one before cut in front of me by a skilled Sao Toméan hand who cut it down to size, nipped off the top so I could drink the sweet juice. Then back to the artisan again to cut it up so I could eat the flesh, a first for me on my 55th birthday.
The tents were right on the edge of the golden beach. A quick change and I was into the sea with a beer from a local entrepreneur who had set up shop by the camp with beer and coke. Not a bad way to spend my birthday; all I was missing was my family to make it a day of perfect paradise.
When the last runner came in I was given 2 massive cakes that were shared around everyone – so humbled that people bothered. That night was probably the most humid and one where I was bitten almost to death by tiny insects. It’s not great lying still on your mat and feeling sweat pour off you. If you lie on you back, sitting up means that the pool of water accumulated in your belly button runs everywhere. Yuk, eh?
The tents were too small for me, being 6ft 3in, so my head was pushing against one side and my feet the other. A restless sleep but the sound of the waves crashing nearby on the beach not unpleasant symphony to listen to as I sweated!
Day 6 – the last day I always have mixed emotions at the end of a race. I am glad that I won’t have another sticky night or more dehydrated food but I know I will miss the camaraderie, simplicity and spirituality that these races bring. They are not real life. They are escapism in the extreme: wake, eat, run, eat, sleep, repeat x 6.
To get everyone finishing in a shorter window they start people at different times. The slowest set off at 5-45 am, the next at 6-00, then the biggest group, with me, at 6-45. Finally the 10 elite runners start at 7-15. The course was slightly up and down for the first 7k and then 3k along the beach for my first real experience of running on constant mounds of coconuts. Eventually, running along a steep cambered sandy beach, I reached cp1.
Today was a different day though as the clock stopped then. I was the 4th runner there of that group and waited for 20 of us to accumulate so we could get wet feet (again) and jump into 2 basic boats and scoot across the sea for 20 minutes to a small mile square island where the final 6k of the race would take place. We got off the boats, the clock started again and we ran round the island passing through a shanty village and then a constant coconut forest. Someone said it’s like where the coconuts come to die, they were everywhere, three of four deep at times, really hard to run on but eventually I followed
the markers uphill to the centre of the island to finish on the equator on a giant ma of the world. I was shattered as I had run pretty much the whole day.
Gradually the others came in although somehow 5 people got lost on the island and did 2 laps!!! It started raining shortly after the finish which again was a welcome cool down as we all walked down the hill to our final nights stay in a fabulous beach resort greeted with another coconut each. An afternoon by the massive pool ended with an awards ceremony. Amazingly I came 26th out of 58. I usually end up about 70% down the field but to be in the top 50% was satisfying, not because i am competitive but because it means I can still get fitter despite being a year older and a year more into my cancer journey.
So that’s my race. Sorry it went on a bit (as ever you say) but hope it gave you a flavour of what it’s all about and why I do it. I can also use the experience for future food for thought charitable presentations and hopefully encourage others to have a go at something whether you finish like me (this time) or just do your best like Soren and Mark. Remember: when I started this race all I could predict accurately was that I would start!
If you want to support Prostate Cancer UK, like I do, then please do visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/kevin-webber8 or www.sponsorme.co.uk/kevinwebber/my-6th-running-year-with-incureable-prostate-cancer.aspx
Have a great March. Next blog early April.
Kevin Webber is living with inoperable & effectively terminal prostate cancer but he tries to MAKE THE MOST OF IT every day. To read more about Kev’s exploits and, particularly, his remarkable attitude to living life to the full, please check out his own website: