In running events I very quickly find myself in an enforced solitude, I start in the pack but within yards of the start the group have spread thin and my mind is free to wander. As a reformed antisocial loner I’m quite a fan of solitude. With mass participation walking events you have the same adrenaline fuelled pre-race nerves as you huddle behind the line, waiting for the call to arms, but when the gun fires the pack ambles off as an anti-climactic herd that can take miles to disperse.
As a slow walker in the first wave of the 100k London 2 Brighton Challenge, I was passed by hundreds of faster hikers many of whom were pleasant enough to offer a wave or say hi. Despite wishing to while away the hours listening to a good yarn on my iPod, it seemed too rude to just zone out and tune into my latest audiobook so I stayed unwired.
I’m ashamed to say that I had to adopt a “tying my shoelace” strategy to avoid the loudest and most irritating walker in my vicinity. I’d tried the speeding up option first but the overtaking manoeuvre was one of those painfully slow ordeals that would have seen us battling side by side for 10 minutes. In the end it was much easier to sacrifice a minute to my shoelace.
After the first rest stop at 12.5k the pack did start to disperse and I was joined by another slowish walker who had started in the same wave as me. We gelled in a fairly peaceful way and spent the next 25k in each others company. That level of companionship was really appreciated, it lifted my spirits and spurred me on. Unfortunately Ellie succumbed to the cold she had been trying to ignore and her spirit broke around the 27k mark. She decide to quit at the next rest stop which led to a fairly slow trog towards that point.
I was alone again for the 4th stage which would take me up to the 47k mark. I was seizing up and I felt terribly low. I was shuffling dejectedly across the downs and every time I saw another stile a small piece of me died inside. The downs are riddled with a series of rickety and almost insurmountable stiles, some were dug into ditches with the first step hovering some way above my waist, others had the step at a manageable height but the step over was 2 inches higher than my crotch, which led to an uncomfortable dangle. I wasn’t the only one to struggle with the stiles, the obstacles led to bottlenecks with folk offering assistance with stiff limbs and apologising for the hold ups.
Coming in to the 47k rest stop I was so emotional I had to wipe away tears before I gathered the hugely appreciated mugs of tea on offer. I sat down and finished off the peanut butter baguette that Lynn had prepared and started to feel a bit more human. I stretched, gathered my resources, took strength from the support on facebook and twitter and headed off. I started wobbly and then pulled myself together. A quick assessment of my aching body led me to believe I was moaning about nothing much. I plugged in my headphones, tuned into Amy MacDonald and focussed on the 57k stop where Lynn would be waiting.
I was overtaken by a second wind and powered my poles back and forth. I felt like a cross country skier sliding across the countryside and when I became frustrated by the lack of speed I started running. At first it was just the downhills but than I ran past 50k and felt great so I ran on. I felt free and I had bounce in my legs and I was just so damn chuffed and eager to see Lynn that I kept running. At the back of my mind I knew this second wind was going to end and the winds of depression would soon sweep in, I had the adrenaline of the finish line and the lure of hot jacket potato to spur me on.
Lynn was there to meet me and we sat down for a hot meal and another cuppa. By the time I was ready to prepare for the night stage I was in a bad way physically. It took an hour to hobble a few hundred yards to the car and to change in to dry clothing. I couldn’t squeeze my feet back into my shoes as my toes had swollen so much and the tips were covered in blisters. I could barely stand and the thought of another 4+ hours trying to cover the next 12.5k in the pitch black just seemed impossible.
It was a reluctant but probably sensible decision to retire at this point. My heroic (foolhardy) final stage felt like a satisfactory end to one hell of a challenge. I’m sad that I didn’t finish and walk across the downs and see the dawn appear but I am happy with the achievement and so grateful to everyone who supported me through the event.
And there’s always next year….