Monday, 15 September 2014

All you have to do is put one step in front of the other

Like a Victorian novel, this blog post needs a subtitle, namely: "A step by step account of the Thames Path Challenge".

'All you have to do is keep putting one step in front of the other' had been my mantra in all the planning and training for this event. Never did it become a more necessary mantra in my head than between 97k and 100k as we walked, hopped and shuffled the final few kilometres of the Thames Path 100k Challenge in order to raise funds for Brook (you can still sponsor me via this link).

The Challenge had been on the cards for a long time. I had done a few training walks. Built walking into my everyday life a bit more. Talked about it a lot. But it was only on Friday evening as I picked up the Brook support team - my Mum and Dad - that the immensity of the challenge we were about to take on really properly truly hit me. This walk was a really hard challenge. In fact it was the hardest physical test that I have ever done by a long long shot. It brought me to my knees and it brought me to tears. More than once.

Several people have asked me how it was and so before I forget (already the pain is fading away) here is a summary, 10k by 10k. (You can also have a read of this Storify which captures many of the highs and some of the lows, and this Flipagram by Sharon.)

0-10k - the sociable and energetic phase

This was a jolly, happy, easy bit. Chatting, laughing, skipping and not even noticing the markers as the sun shone and the kilometres passed by with ease.

11-20k - the neither here nor there phase

Mostly people were still smiling, laughing and enjoying it, although first questions about how feet and legs are faring started to be asked.  In a few months' time I doubt it will be remembered much.

21-30k - the "oooh I have to get up again after lunch" phase

Here I started to notice the Km markers and heard talk about feet, blisters and aches a bit more. After our first proper stop and a delicious lunch prepared by one of our walkers, Drew, some of us could happily have gone to the pub rather than started walking again.

31-40k - the "I never knew this bit of the Thames existed" phase

Beautiful part of the world. It reminded me of being a student and hiking in the Lakes in Canada which sent me on a bit of a trip down memory lane. Still this was when it starting getting dark and we all needed a bit more coaxing and encouragement.

41-50k - the split feelings phase

A number of people were finishing at 50k or making a decision about whether to finish at 50. For the 50k-ers it was rightly a 10k of complete and utter elation, achievement and pride - it was a privilege to share in that joy. It also got really dark in our physical environment and was the first point at which the scale of it all sank in. First proper hard core blisters and aches appeared. As a 100k-er, it was hard to walk to the left of the 50k finish line, knowing you were only half way through and knowing you were just about to get a glow stick to guide you through the dark and into the next 50k. We hugged, kissed and congratulated the amazing 50k finishers, topped up our Compeed blister plasters and set off into the count down phase.

51-60k - the count down phase

As we set off from 50k I convinced myself it was the home straight and from here on in it was all down hill. By the time we did 51k we only had 49k to go, 53k only 47k to go etc. etc. It was still dark. It was the count down. Yeah, honestly. It was the count down. My efforts to convince others got me the nickname "the optimistic hound".

61-70k - the stinging nettle and gates phase 

I have no memories of this phase really. There was little talking. Little to talk about. Lots of stingers to watch out for. And gates. Lots of gates to open.

71-80k - the dark times phase 

It was dark. It had been dark for more than seven hours and it was long. My shins hurt. My feet hurt. My boots got heavy. It was dark. Very dark. One of our fellow walkers got very ill - sickness and diarrhoea on a path with only stinging nettles on either side of the path is not good. He had to stop (we managed to find him a taxi). I wanted to stop. I couldn't imagine completing. We carried on.

81-90k - the silent tears phase 

80k was a great marker. We were in the final 1/5 - almost home in fact. According to fellow 100k-er Tom, "as long as we keep this pace up it will be four and a quarter hours, max!". Forgive me for my lack of generosity but four and a quarter hours doesn't feel close to home. I cried. I cursed. I sang. I soothed. I hurt. I needed the bathroom really badly. And I got marvellous texts and tweets that galvanised my resolve and made me utterly determined to finish. So I jogged a bit. And the sun came up and it was stunning, stunning, stunning.

91-100k - the home straight

Seeing the 90k marker brought more tears to my eyes. Now we were really on the home straight. 91, 92, 93, 94, 95 came quickly and then we could see Henley. I convinced myself that I didn't hurt any more now than I had at 65k. But get this - just after 97k you knew where the finish area was and were told by someone in rabbit ears handing out jelly babies when your teeth already felt eroded that 'it's just a short loop to get the distance'. Just a short loop - bad enough - but this one took you up and down a hill to the point you were at in the first place. Not cool at all. Not too much time to worry as we saw 99k. Quick photo and then off to the finish line where we ran the last 30 metres and then cheered, laughed, hugged and sobbed and waited for our fellow walkers to arrive. And as they arrived I clapped, cheered and sobbed all over again.

As we downed our 'finishers fizz' in one gulp and quickly asked for another, we all swore that it was a once in a lifetime challenge. A big challenge and one I will not do ever again: 22 hours 36 minutes. Our time. Our triumph. Because we believe in young people 's rights it was completely worth it. And I am pleased I have done it as it was a stretch for me.

The support from our teams, friends, family, fellow walkers and supporters was exceptional and extraordinary. Phone calls, messages, WhatsApp, tweets and extra sponsorship kept us going through the long dark hours. From the bottom of my heart I want to thank everyone who has helped the Challenge raise funds to help Brook promote and protect young people's health and their rights. A special thank you to all the Brook walkers - it was a privilege to walk with such a brilliant team - determined people all so passionate about young people. Thank you too to my gorgeous parents who followed us round the course to make sure we were fed, watered and had what we needed.

As you know, I said 'never again'. Jonny and I are on holiday in Cornwall this week. After just one pint I heard those fatal words: "I know we said we wouldn't do it again, but I wonder what it would be like if we did. Knowing what it feels like.Would it be easier or harder?" For now he just got 'the' look. And planted a seed.

The organisers Action Challenge were absolutely brilliant. If you are looking for an organisation to do events with, based on this experience I fully recommend checking them out.

All of our wonderful 50k and 100k walkers:
Our amazing 50k runners (this is more than a marathon!):