On Sunday 8th December 2019 at Goodwood Motor Circuit, Team Phil – Phil, David, Guy, Nick and I prepared ourselves to take on the Guinness World Record for the fastest push of a wheelchair over 26.2 miles. The record stood at 3 hours 1 minute and 24 seconds. In the days leading up to attempt, we had defiantly told the media that we were confident. But now was the time to show it!
Our aim? To beat the record and dip under the 3 hour time barrier. This would require us to travel at over 14kmh for 11.5 laps of the famous old racing circuit.
Having run the Frankfurt Marathon only 6 weeks earlier, I was in much better shape than for the half-marathon wheelchair push back in February 2019 where we set the record of 1 hour 29 minute 38 seconds. I wouldn’t have been capable of doubling the distance back then. Logistically we had to make sure that Phil had a spare breathing ventilator nearby in case the battery on the primary one ran out. And so stepped in David Mills and Guy James – two very able Winchester endurance athletes – who would push the spare ventilator in a running buggy alongside. We couldn’t ask Nick to do the whole distance on his own like last time!
We had a lot to do before setting off but Han and Brenda kept us organised. We had GoPros to set up on the wheelchair and me, involving plenty of gaffa tape! We needed to get Phil comfortable for the ride of a lifetime. Although I’m not implying that it was comfortable! Phil? We also had to set up the ventilators, making sure that we had a signalling system with Phil in case there were any issues with the equipment. In the half-marathon attempt, Phil’s arm fell off the arm rest and his hand dropped onto the spinning tyre – thankfully not for long and he let us know pretty quickly! This time we came prepared with plenty of bungee cords to strap him and his arms in.
The marathon race started and Phil, David and I had the historic motor circuit all to ourselves. The key was to keep calm during the first few laps and conserve as much energy as possible. It wasn’t long before the leading marathon runners overtook us and were keen to wish us luck as they went past. We engaged in a fair amount of conversation and David then quite sensibly suggested that he’d do all the talking. Keeping a lid on the early excitement was tricky as we reached the end of the first lap and were received by the incredibly supportive crowds at the pit stop!
The first changeover of the running buggy was slick – think Kipchoge’s sub 2 hour marathon pacers. I looked to the left and there was Guy without me even noticing that David had gone. A lap or so later and Nick joined us, having started in the 20 miler that went off a bit after the marathon.
A few more laps down and we were really getting into our stride. Our average pace was nicely on target at 4’08min/km on halfway. There were very few hiccups; I dropped a gel and we almost ran over one of the marathoners who cut across us because she couldn’t hear with her headphones in! But all in all, things were going very smoothly. Phil communicated that he was doing OK. And having three accomplished runners alongside me meant that everything remained calm.
However, things started to get a little dicey from here onwards as the half-marathon, 10km and 5km races had begun. This meant that we went from having about 100 runners on the circuit to 1,000! We were lapping runners and the traffic started to get really heavy. There were points where we were slaloming in between groups of runners (and walkers!) – if it wasn’t for a trusty horn we had to signal that we were coming through, we may have had a few runners under Phil’s wheels! Thankfully after a few laps, it calmed down a bit as the 5km and 10km runners finished their races.
The latter third of the attempt was the hardest, no doubt about it. It was having family and friends out on the course that really helped. Each lap had three small hills. Not the biggest individually but it equated to 33 hills in total! Having these friendly faces shouting words of encouragement each time meant a lot. And the urge not to worry them by looking like I was struggling at any point was a good distraction. I managed to keep up that illusion until the last two laps.
After 2 hours and 27 minutes of pushing, we had just two laps to go and 33 minutes to do it in if we were to break the 3 hour barrier and set the record. That’s an average of 16 minutes 30 seconds a lap. We’d averaged just under 16 minutes for the previous nine laps so at this point, the record was ours to lose. The marathon can be a cruel mistress and despite how favourable our situation looked, we still had 8km to go – this is where many say the marathon really begins.
The distance started to take its toll from this point. Although we bashed out another 16 minute lap, my heart rate was up to 167bpm. It had been between 160-162bpm for most of the attempt so this was clearly squeaky bum time! With the increase in heart rate, my face started to turn the colour of our t-shirts! And with that the faith from a few watching that we might be able to keep the pace for the final lap may have started to wane.
My heart rate went up to 172bpm for the last lap but cheered on one last time by the crowds at the pit stop, we finished the last lap in 15 minutes and 32 seconds – our best lap – and crossed the finish line in 2 hours 58 minutes and 40 seconds. A Guinness World Record!
I never really believed we could do it until that final bend before the home straight. But the sense of relief and joy crossing the finish line made it all worth it.
Phil had endured almost three hours of twists and turns in an uncomfortable wheelchair – and near whiplash as we crossed the ramp at the finish! There is no doubt who the real hero is. Who on earth would sign up to this and trust someone to hurtle them around a racing track for that amount of time? Phil.
Of course it didn’t take long for him to say to me, “well we know who crossed the finish line first!”
Phil has continued to focus on what he can do and not on what he can’t. His attitude to living with motor neurone disease is remarkable and he is an inspiration to so many. If you haven’t already, I would highly recommend reading his book – https://www.amazon.co.uk/MOTOR-NEURONE-DISEASE-FUN-BITS/dp/1652115919 – all the royalties go to the Motor Neurone Disease Association. It is a refreshing look at life with limits yet still lived to the full – and of course with Phil’s contagious sense of humour.
If there’s one positive to the global lockdown, it’s that there can’t be too many people trying to having a pop at our new world record! Let’s hope it stands for a while yet.
I’m not sure what’s next for Team Phil but I can tell you, Phil always has something brewing so watch this space!
In the meantime, I’d like to thank the Goodwood Group for being so accommodating and allowing us practice at the track and give the team what they needed. Also thanks to Running Through who were great racing organisers and again helped facilitate the attempt. And a massive thank you to our independent witness (a Guinness World Record requirement) Sarah who gave her time for nothing and performed her role admirably, taking some fantastic photos that were used as evidence.