Congratulations on the success with Challenge 66. What are your initial thoughts looking back?
Thank you very much. The first words that come to mind are ‘madness’ and ‘tiring’ but ‘extremely rewarding’ and ‘life-changing!’ The term ‘Groundhog Day’ was frequently used, however no two days were ever the same for me; there was always a list of obstacles to tackle.
How did the opportunity to take part in Challenge 66 come about? What was your reaction when you found out you had been chosen to support Andy? Did you have much time to plan before the trip?
Challenge 66 came about via a company called Athletes’ Angels. I applied for the Sports Therapy position and was fortunate enough to be appointed to the role; but it all happened extremely quickly.
After securing the position, I found myself in Yorkshire only three weeks later and had already developed a ‘love/hate’ relationship with our 36-foot American RV Motorhome, nicknamed ‘The Beast’. It was to become the Office, Kitchen, Bathroom and Bedroom for the next 66 days for the five core people involved in Challenge 66.
The team consisted of the RV driver Ray Birch, Project Director Barry Groves, Admin Assistant Nikki Groves, myself the Sports Therapist and, of course, the Ultra Marathon runner Andy McMenemy.
The Challenge 66 team pictured at the Start of the Horseguards Parade (From L to R: Barry Groves, Nikki Groves, Andy McMenemy, Sophie Vowden, Ray Birch)
You were keen to secure some funding for the expedition. I understand you managed to acquire some free equipment from the University of Hertfordshire. Did the equipment come in useful for the trip?
Yes, when I was appointed the Sports Therapist’s role I soon realised there was minimal funding for Sports Therapy equipment. Thus I approached the University of Hertfordshire and they very kindly loaned me a portable massage couch, cryocuff, ultrasound and TENS machine.
The massage couch was fantastic as it definitely prevented me from suffering with back problems when treating Andy. Both the cryocuff and the ultrasound machine played vital roles during the trip.
A huge thank you to the University of Hertfordshire, more specifically Naomi Hewitt, Senior Lecturer in Sports Therapy.
Can you tell me more about your role as Sports Therapist for Andy? What were you required to do and what was your daily routine?
Being Andy’s Sports Therapist I made it key from day 1 that I was onboard Challenge 66 to look after Andy in as many ways as possible. As well as his Sports Therapist, I made it my duty to sort out his nutrition and hydration as part of my role as his Sports Therapist. Other peripheral roles I took on included laundry and chauffeuring.
A usual day would consist of:
5.30–6.00am: Wake up and get ready.
7.30am: Drive Andy to start location of race.
8.00–9.00am: Treatments and massage, nutrition and hydration for Andy.
9.00am–5.00pm: During this time Andy would usually be running and I would organise treatments and massage, nutrition and hydration. I would also write up treatment notes; see to the laundry, packing and cleaning, check emails and admin, and run with Andy.
After 5pm: The Ultra Marathon would now usually be finished so I would drive Andy to the next city location. This could be anything from 10 miles to 150 miles. When we arrived at the location, Andy would usually have an ice bath followed by up to two hours’ therapy and treatment.
10.00–11.00pm: Write up treatment notes, bed.
Sophie working on Andy at the Marathon in Peterborough
This was the basic outline of the day. Depending on the location of the next city, some journeys would take 30 minutes and others would take four hours. I can confidently report I have now experienced driving around the whole of the UK (with an Ultra Marathoner snoring in the back seat!)!
What were the stand-out moments from the 66-day expedition?
Obviously the highlight was Andy crossing the finish line on the final day at York racecourse on the 20th May 2011 with all the Press there. It was an extremely emotional day; especially when at times we were unsure if Andy would overcome some of his niggling injuries. A personal highlight for me was completing my first marathon with Andy at Ripon Army Barracks.
How did the fundraising go for ABF The Soldiers’ Charity?
The fundraising for the ABF The Soldiers’ Charity went very well. Challenge 66 raised huge awareness of the Charity and the vital role it has to soldiers and their families. We were fortunate enough to meet some of the deserving Soldiers who have benefited from the Charity’s work. Many of the Soldiers I met had survived horrific incidents, resulting in the loss of limbs.
Did Andy establish a new world record?
We are currently awaiting news from Guinness to ratify Challenge 66 New Guinness World Record … watch this space!
Were there any low points during your trip? If so, how did you cope with these?
The most negative moment was in the City of Wells on Day 27 when it took Andy 10 hours 57 minutes to complete the Ultra Marathon. He was suffering from extreme pain in his left leg which turned out to be a problem with his Tibialis Anterior. To give you an idea, it usually took Andy 6–6:40 hours to complete each Ultra Marathon. In his words, if there ever was a day for him to quit, it would have been that day.
I needed to rule out a stress fracture and infection, so after the Ultra Marathon in Wells, I drove Andy to the next city, Bath, and we went to A&E. Fortunately the medical team found no signs of either a stress fracture or infection and agreed with my findings. Treatment then followed at the hotel until 12.40am; that was an incredibly worrying and tiring day.
Andy also suffered from Achilles Tendinopathy from Day 2. It took approximately two weeks for this injury to subside, with daily treatment. To establish a new Guinness World Record, Andy was not allowed to have a rest day; so to run/walk an Ultra Marathon everyday carrying an Achilles tendon injury followed by a severe Tibialis Anterior problem is a great achievement!
We also coped with these low points by asking each other three questions every day:
1. What was positive about today?
2. What worked well today?
3. What can we do tomorrow to overcome this and make it more positive?
I had a great rapport with Andy and learnt a lot about his positive mental attitude. When not running marathons Andy is a professional speaker and I have never met anyone as positive, caring and dedicated as him: ‘I didn’t start to fail, I started to finish’ (McMenemy, 2011).
Describe what happened on the final day of the trip. What was the mood in the camp like? How did you celebrate?
Day 66, the final day at York Race Course, was very surreal. The morning’s antics consisted of lots of Press, Andy had a live interview on Sky News and 200 soldiers of 2 Signal Regiment performed their physical training programme prior to running with Andy. This consisted of circuit training i.e. press ups, sit ups etc. It was a unique sight to experience!
The last day marked Andy’s 50th birthday where he was presented with a beautiful Challenge 66/50th birthday cake. He also had the privilege to run with the Baton for the whole Ultra Marathon. The Baton used to be a handle from a stretcher used in battle to carry the wounded in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. It is now used across the World in events to symbolise national conscience; a great honour for Challenge 66 to be involved.
The mood in the camp was electric all day: many tears of joy, amazement and an overwhelming achievement that Challenge 66 had been a success. As Andy crossed the finish line in 6:15:12, his wife was present to pass him a pint of lager shandy – Andy’s first taste of alcohol in over 15 months. The first man to run 66 Ultra Marathons consecutively in the official 66 cities of the UK: outstanding!
The post-run proceedings included a second round of press and recognition to everyone involved. Then the ‘tidy-up’ operation was put into action.
How did I celebrate? By spending three hours unloading ‘The Beast’, then flaking out in a hotel room for the night! The celebrations were to come the following evening with a birthday gathering for Andy.
On 10th June 2011, we had the Challenge 66 official Gala Dinner at Leeds FC to mark the achievements of the expedition.
How did this experience develop your skills and knowledge as a Sports Therapist?
I gained an invaluable and unforgettable experience during Challenge 66. As well as a life experience, I have learnt to adapt my sports therapy skills in a way where they wouldn’t have been tested if I had been in a clinical environment.
Andy was not permitted to have a rest day; otherwise this would have ended the world record attempt, so relative rest was not an option. For both the Achilles and Tibialis Anterior injuries, I had to modify the normal protocols and treatment to see how severe the injuries were at the time.
I felt very fortunate enough to be able to experience, witness and treat these injuries on a constant daily basis.
When you weren’t working alongside Andy, did you get a chance to take in any of the sights? What landmarks did you get to see?
As a society, we live in the UK and often decide to go on holiday abroad but we forget just how beautiful parts of the UK are; for me in particular the West Country and Wales were beautiful.
We were fortunate enough to begin Day 16 in the City of Westminster at Horse Guard’s Parade; ‘The Beast’ stood out like a sore thumb!
I was fortunate enough to run alongside Andy in Belfast where we passed the area where the Titanic was built and in Stirling, we were lucky enough to meet Steve Cram.
Sophie Pictured alongside Steve Cram and Andy
What are your future plans now that you have returned from Challenge 66?
Since returning from Challenge 66, I have definitely found a passion and interest to work on future events. I am providing Sports Therapy for a London to Edinburgh cycling event in July and also the Oxfam Trailwalker UK. Andy also has the passion to do future events and I hope to support him along the way in the not too distant future.
I would like to take this opportunity to say a huge thank you to Challenge 66, especially Andy McMenemy for having me on board. I feel truly privileged, not only to have met him and be inspired by him, but to work with him and help him as best I could through this unforgettable journey. Thank you also to The Society of Sports Therapists and the University of Hertfordshire for their support.
Andy speaking about Sophie said:
What can I say about Sophie? Sophie has many admirable qualities. She integrated herself fully into the team from Day 1, which in itself is credit to her as she was about to spend 66 days with complete strangers on an extremely testing endurance event.
Sophie engaged fully in all aspects of Challenge 66 demonstrating that she was not only a dedicated, meticulous and focused professional in her own right, but also a total team player, with a great sense of humour.
Sophie was a pivotal part of the success of Challenge 66 and her Sports Therapist Skills were thoroughly tested by my determination to continue running 31 miles a day on top of painful injuries.
I trusted her implicitly as we evolved the daily management plans for each of the injuries and situations that presented themselves during Challenge 66. She also accepted me challenging the conventional wisdom.
I will have no hesitation engaging Sophie in any future events and have already enthusiastically endorsed her to other endurance athletes who are planning extreme events.
Sophie is a professional therapist with great potential and I sincerely hope the opportunities and challenges present themselves for her to shine in her profession. She is an absolute credit to her own brand and The Society of Sports Therapists.
I can’t thank her enough for her dedication to ensuring the odds of success were stacked in our favour during an extremely tough Challenge 66.
Sophie and Andy pictured at the Challenge 66 Gala Dinner
A few stats to sum up Challenge 66
Andy McMenemy – Ultra Marathon Runner:
1. Total distance run: 3.300kms or 2050 miles
2. Approximately 3,300,000 (3.3 million) strides taken
3. Calorie intake approximately 400,000 calories
4. Approximately 462 litres of fluids consumed … 7 litres of fluids each day, 1 litre before the start, 3 litres during the run (500mls every hour or 700mls on hot days) plus minimum 2 litres during recovery
5. Andy lost 10lbs in weight between the start and finish of Challenge 66.
Comment from the Chairman
On behalf of The Society of Sports Therapists, I would like to congratulate Andy McMenemy on his amazing achievement both in completing 66 marathons and raising so much for the ABF Soldiers’ Charity. I would also like to congratulate Sophie on representing both the profession of Sports Therapy and the Society so admirably.
Her article clearly illustrates the intensity that such an event evokes and how important it is, for everyone concerned, to realise they are part of a team and integral to the success of that group. It also shows that however good you are clinically, you are still going to need other attributes such as patience, personality and a willingness and ability to be resourceful.
Sophie has not only demonstrated her therapy skills in managing two injuries that could have easily ended Andy’s quest to set this record, but she also showed her commitment and motivation to be such a vital part of the support team. These attributes have been reinforced in the excellent reflection on Sophie by Andy himself. Therefore on behalf of The Society of Sports Therapists, well done Sophie and thank you.