This weekend saw the start of the inaugural Grand Union Challenge and it was time for me to stage another attempt at a 100km hike.
Vicky and I set off in glorious sunshine, from Paddington just before 10am. We were down on the canal in no time and began watching the looming storm clouds with interest. When it did eventually start raining it seemed to stay with us for hours. It wasn’t too troublesome though, we both had waterproofs and the constant drizzle prevented it from getting too darn hot.
Despite the impressive nature of the Grand Union Canal, which cuts an entirely green and remarkably remote corridor from London to Birmingham, it is probably best not consumed in one continuous trog. There is a limit on how many ducklings you can coo at and how many locks you can admire and I certainly had complaints from back home as the instagram updates were getting a bit samey.
Lynn joined us at 35k and I think we were still in high spirits, the pick n mix helped with a bit of a sugar rush and we’d caught up with the stand up paddle boarders who were joining us on their own crazy version of the 100k Grand Union Challenge.
On the approach to the 50k rest stop I was ravenous and picked up the pace while dreaming of fish, chips and Stella. The chicken noodles and cold diet coke actually on offer came a close second and filled a big hole. My calf had cramped up at this point so I got myself in the long queue for a massage. This added an hour to our rest stop and although it enabled me to continue in relative comfort, it did add to the pressure at each future stage as we were clearly bringing up the rear.
It was gone midnight now so the lights came out and we got to experience the canalside at its gloomiest. This is not a walk I would consider doing alone. It’s not a huge event like London2Brighton and you can spend hours walking alone. The canal feels completely isolated even when it is cutting swathes through cities and towns and it is probably home to more than its fair share of odd balls. Even with Vicky alongside me, there were times when I thought we might have to start running very soon.
This was a bad stretch for me, my legs felt like they were blowing up with water retention. Coming up to the next stop we were both disappointed to see it come early. The length of each stretch was a bit erratic and if one rest stop arrived early it meant the next would be painfully long and tagging an extra 1 or 2 kms on at this stage just felt punishing.
Sitting with my head in my hands at this stop, I just talked myself out of the walk. I hurt but mostly I felt sick and tired. I wanted to sleep more than I wanted to finish. I was also pretty convinced that I could not finish, that I did not have another 39 km in me, and accepting that, it seemed fairly pointless to add any extra miles to my tally.
Vicky on the other hand could not quit. We left the 61k rest stop after a brief break with the intention of walking into the daylight. When the sun rose Vicky would carry on alone and I would abandon the event.
The sun came up at about 4am and Vicky released me from my torment. At 68k I veered off the canal and waited for Lynn to drive by and rescue me. People had tried to persuade me, saying there would be no medal or t-shirt if I didn’t finish but at that point, those things that seemed so powerful at the start of the event meant nothing to me now.
6 hours later, after bed, bath and breakfast I felt more human, but I also felt like a complete heel for leaving a teammate out on the course. Lynn drove me back out to the canal and I walked back to meet up with Vicky to pace her through the final 7km to the finish line.
She’d had an emotional time and was suffering with her feet and knees and overwhelming tiredness. I felt incredibly proud of her and all the other walkers still out on the canal. It was slow going but she was going to get there.
Lynn dropped down on to the canal at various points bringing supplies and then nipping to the finish line to wait for us. She rang me at the 98k marker to tell me that the finish wasn’t actually at 100k, presumably for logistical reasons the finish gantry was sitting in a field at 101k. I didn’t feel this was the right time to tell Vicky. She practically counted every step from 99k and knew full well that the 100k had been swiped.
Lynn and one of the marshalls came out to join us, to see the final walkers cross the line and broke the news of the extra kilometre.
I don’t think she was rewarded with a euphoric state of achievement at the end, more the sheer relief that all the suffering was over. As she said the next day
I am just so pleased not to be on that sodding towpath!!!
I imagine the pride of such an achievement is a slow burn affair. The sort of inner confidence that stays with you. You’ve done something pretty damn amazing, you’ve suffered, endured and finished what you’ve started.
I on the other hand, thought big, started something amazing, walked a long way and then quit. I’m not sure what I’ve learned but have confirmed that I am indeed a “Starter Leaver”
**Other Grand Union Challengers**
- Stacey at StaceyLovesSUP, blogs about the 100km Stand Up Paddle Boarding challenge.