Exorcising the Wight ghosts

The stiffness and blisters are still there but easing after finishing the London2Brighton Challenge. I have never been one to suffer that much from blisters but the weekend has been a bit different.

Preparations weren’t perfect in the slightest with an Achilles injury about two months ago that took longer than I hoped to heal, and new boots that have taken a longer than normal time to break in. But I was determined to remain positive, though Friday did its very best to stifle optimism, firstly with a train cancellation that meant I changed twice rather than once, then a not too great B&B, which was not quite as close to the start at Old Deer Park, Richmond, as I had expected. So Saturday was going to start with something like a 2 km walk even before they started counting!

On the Friday night, back from registering for the next day, I found a nice Italian, but I turned her down in favour of a pizza. It was pleasant enough to sit at an outside table, though we have all been in those situations when you overhear conversations on the next table when you’re unsure whether to be shocked, appalled or just amused. Two chaps in their early 20s were comparing sexual exploits and, bearing in mind that these were no Johnny Depps or Brad Pitts, I had trouble preventing myself laughing as one crowed about last weekend “I had this girl, paid 80 quid, she should have been paying me, I was that good”. Well, if you were that good……

I’d taken everything that South West Trains and Richmond could throw at me and was ready for Saturday morning, 9:20 start. I had two friends also doing this challenge, Martin (starting 20 minutes ahead) and Katie (20 minutes behind) so I thought I would have a good barometer over the first half or so, since I would meet them both at the early stops. The first 25 km were largely uneventful and pleasant enough along the river mostly, part of the Thames Path Trail and I only needed a fairly short 30 minutes or so at Oaks Park (buying a steak and tuna melt baguette!). You could feel the temperature rise toward a very warm afternoon and the next half-stage of about 15 km was probably the toughest of the day with a fair number of hills and a rise to the highest point of the challenge, 208 metres above sea level. I really did need a break at the mid-point and had felt a blister burgeoning between the toes. In fact when I removed my sock, there was a second blister that was much worse. I patched them up, took an Ibuprofen (provided by Katie) which was a godsend, and got a really good stride in before halfway. At 50 km, many were stopping for photos while I stopped just to put on my head-torch – it was around 9:30 pm. Job only half done and this really the start of the challenge in earnest.

The last 6 or 7 km of that stage were harder with one extended climb on the road really testing. But after an extended stop for a bit of a rest, hot meal and three cups of tea, I set out into the night. Walking in the dark is a strange and disorienting experience, especially when you’re in the country and the only lights are coming from people’s heads. Every step was now hurting, though not badly until the mid- to late-60s. Rather than take my boots off, I decided to carry on while my head was still positive, getting some decent head music at times and talking to other walkers here and there. There were many of us walking solo, though more were in pairs or larger groups. I was happy to be walking alone since I can retain focus and can never feel awkward about being to slow or too fast for the people I might be walking with. I was hoping for pretty women with smiling and talking dogs but, nevertheless, my spirits were still high.

The quite flat looking section from 67 to 80 km actually had a few undulations and took it out of me, it has to be said, but I had some good people around me. It may sound antisocial but, as long as I could see and hear other people, I was fine, I didn’t need to talk. That said, when anyone did speak to me, I was happy to have that conversation which always starts with, “Have you done anything like this before?” I spoke with a chap who was doing his 6th Ultra Challenge and I mentioned the Wight Challenge last year. His opinion was that it was the hardest one he’d done, with the weather especially and that today’s was going to be nowhere near as hard as that. Well, 100 km is 100 km (unless it’s 106, as it was on IOW) and it’s still a distance that takes some doing. 62 miles in old money.

I had got quite emotional inside (er, as opposed to outside) a number of times, thinking what it would be like to finish and, as I neared the 80 km mark and the last major rest stop, I had the most detailed imagery of me finishing. This would exorcise the ghosts of Wight past. It is hard for anyone to understand what I went through for weeks. Yes, I still walked 80 km, and everyone said how well I’d done and I know that everyone meant well and were absoutely genuine. I couldn’t really refuse to talk to people about it, especially as many had sponsored me for either or both the Wight Challenge and the Land’s End – John O’Groats thing. I found it very hard to think about 80 km that I’d walked, rather the 26 km that I hadn’t. I was absolutely determined to make sure that my conversations this time would be much more pleasant than those.

In fact, after the next 8 km, as I barely shuffled into Plumpton College at 88 km, I had precisely that conversation with two guys who were feeling in as much physical difficulty as I was. I explained exactly how I felt, you’re not letting your sponsors down, but the sympathy just makes it even harder to get over. While I was talking, I changed my mind. If no-one had said anything after last year, it would have felt like the elephant in the room and it would absolutely have been much much worse. So thank you to all who spoke with me – it hurt but it ultimately helped.

So the last stage was the one we were all dreading. With feet having been fried and shredded, there was a climb of around 140 metres to almost the top of the South Downs, and it was hellishly steep most of the way. It was a time for gritting your teeth and just doing it. This was the worst that was going to happen. One foot in front of the other, and it felt great when I reached the top. I wasn’t in the least bit interested in the views, apparently stunning, but I did get a second wind (actually the seventh or eighth wind) and kicked on at almost normal walking pace for half an hour. Seeing the signs after each kilometre lifted the spirits and there was a small relief point at about 94.5 km with two quite memorable incidents for me.

Just before I got there, a chap and about five others were outside their house and he interrogated me in some depth about if I’d come from Richmond, what time did I start, how was I feeling and he said that it was a tremendous feat, to which I responded, “tremendous feet, you mean”, pointing at them. He laughed and the group all applauded. Everything that was happening was now emotional but there was some light relief when a group of around 10 women, all walking for breast cancer research, stopped at the relief point and were asking their partners for their bras. I understand that they wanted to finish in the team kit of purple and some of the bras had fur or tinsel, but it was hard to concentrate on a quick drink and Mars Bar (other chocolate confectionery were available) while females in various states of undress were wobbling around in front of me.

A haul up the hill into Brighton and a harsh cinder track for around 1.5 km was no reward for badly blistered feet, though nothing like what we’d all been through already. It was when I rejoined the road that I could see Brighton Racecourse and, even from a distance away, it was apparent that there were decent crowds, all waiting for their own hero or heroine. I was fairly isolated having been passed by three or four people who were in better shape than I was and I hobbled around by the rails of the racecourse. As I moved onto the main course, I still can’t believe the reception that I got (to be fair, it wasn’t just me, everyone was getting a great hand) and I crossed the line in 27 and a half hours.

Many will have done it quicker than I did, but that didn’t matter in the slightest to me.

Martin came in around an hour quicker (but he is half my age!) – what an achievement that is (not forgetting the immense sponsorship) – and Katie, who had been sick at not long after halfway, was still able to finish not that long after I had. Very very proud of both of them. Katie – you and Emily are some warriors. Nothing will ever stop you. I am not betting against you both doing the full house of all the Ultra Challenges.

But where was Pammy in all this, I hear you ask. Ok, I wasn’t going to mention it but, given that you asked, she wasn’t there when I finished. Earlier in the morning, when I was at 88 km, I spoke to her amid the dying embers of my phone battery and told her that I wouldn’t be there before 1 pm. Of course, she arrived a bit before then and went for a cup of tea in the garden centre with our friend Christine. So while I was dragging myself (at about five to one) through the last few minutes……… It was brilliant to see her, eventually. I saw Emily, Katie’s sister, and it was great to see someone who understood what I was going through and was clearly delighted for me.

One of the marshals took a couple of photos of my with my medal, but I’m afraid they didn’t come out well in the sunshine. So here’s one I took today.London2Brighton

I found it hard to walk to the car. I wasn’t as physically tired as you might think, but my feet were extremely painful. They are much much better today. I had a cool bath when I got home and a decent sleep. I haven’t treated my feet apart from removing loose plasters. Long after the blisters have healed themselves, and the pain forgotten, the sense of achievement will be there and only positives will remain.

A few weeks off from walking to recharge batteries and feet. Thank you for all your wonderful support and comments – you are simply wonderful friends.

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Friday on my mind

Just one more day at work and then off to Richmond on the Friday for registration in the early evening and the start of London2Brighton on Saturday morning from Old Deer Park. Finish at Brighton Racecourse some time on Sunday.

Spent a bit of time planning for this. I think these are all the things I need:

My bag, with three inner bags to keep different things separate.

Kit – boots, the base layer, walking trousers, socks (inc. spare), shirt (and spare), fleece (for the night or stops if I get cold), waterproof jacket, gloves, cap, woolly hat.

Headlight – mandatory – plus fresh batteries

B&B reservation print out, Challenge email (which is my proof of entry), cash (for baguette at 25km!), some emergency snacks, a bit of Kendal mint cake, drinks bottle.

Phone chargers, small battery pack, phone, tablet

Deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste, vaseline, first aid kit, medication

Most importantly: positive attitude, pride, gratefulness.

It is possible to follow me or any other competitors on http://london2brighton.livetrail.net/coureur.php

I am competitor number 2683 or you can just search by name. I have an automated message that will be posted to Facebook at the end of each stage and mid-stage stop. At each of these, competitors have to swipe in and out so that everyone can be traced and no-one gets lost in the wilds of Sussex.

I will also be following competitors 3066 – Katie Hone, who walked with me on last year’s Wight Challenge, and she succeeded where I failed, and 2532 – Martin Lander, a cricket colleague who is walking with his sister 2533 – Claire, walking for MacMillan Cancer Support in memory of their mother Debbie Lander. If I see that they are doing fine, that will in turn help my spirits.

I can’t say that I am at my fittest and I have had one troublesome blister but I will be positive and the adrenalin will be flowing. The weather forecast is good. I see that there are 2,500 taking part, 2,100 of whom are walking (400 jogging or running) and 85 per cent are doing the full 100km challenge, as opposed to the half or quarter challenge options. Shouldn’t be short of people to talk to or walk with in the night, which will be the hardest part of the challenge.

Starting to get a bit nervous now. But it will be fine.

Smiling and talking dog optional

Not for the first time I had little energy or enthusiasm today for walking – I must admit to often having to force myself to go for a walk now and I never anticipated it would be like this. With London2Brighton next weekend, I ought to have been well up for it and getting a reasonable distance in, but that wasn’t the case at all.

Of course, the weather forecast of rain holding off until 5pm encouraged me to go with waterproofs and the outcome was inevitable. The atmosphere was quite muggy and sweaty and it was hard to feel that was going to be one of my favourite walks. Off-road was a bit sloshy in places today but I made my way to Hedge End and Botley, and then up the road toward Horton Heath but turning off before the Peartree pub. It was amusing to hear the radio commentary from the Rose Bowl and the commentators apologising for the aeroplane noise, noise that I could hear ‘live’. It was nice to listen to cricket after our own washout yesterday, but soon I felt the first drops of rain and as this became heavier, I sheltered at a bus stop for about 10 minutes watching the world (well, cars, buses and bikes) go by. Though the rain did clear the air and make for a fresher feel, I was already feeling down and feeling down usually translates into fatigue and aches. At least when I restarted, I wasn’t aching but not feeling my best at all, though I did take a diversion away from the shortest route home, through Townhill Park estate, in order to build up an extra mile or two. My soles were starting to feel a bit sore, though not terribly so, and I did just want to get home.

If I am going to take a break, I tend to take it early, but today I fancied a coffee much later. That did perk me up, despite arriving just as a barista was turfing out five young lads who were throwing shortbread biscuits around. Blimey, given the cost of those I wouldn’t be wasting them like that. They must have more money than sense.

Now having the requisite energy for the final four miles or so, I trudged back onto the path home and suddenly found a burst of enthusiasm. It appeared as, from the opposite direction, came a pretty young woman walking her dog, who smiled a lovely smile and wished me “good afternoon”. I have to say that the dog should really audition for Britain’s Got Talent. 😉 I soon reached home and reflected on a total distance of 16.5 miles. Not a bad distance and enough just to keep some sort of fitness in my legs.

I am hoping that Saturday’s event will find me in a much more positive mood. I would be surprised if it doesn’t and adrenaline and anticipation will help, at least over the first half, while it is still light and before any semblance of tiredness kicks in. I know I will have a few people wishing me the best but, if you really want to help, you’ve got to get a “pretty young woman” to appear every couple of miles to wish me good morning, afternoon, evening or night. Smiling and talking dog optional.

 

It doesn’t make any sense at all

It feels very close and real now. My participant number has arrived, number 2683, nothing special about that, but it is a prime number, the 389th prime number in fact. In turn, 389 is a prime number, the 77th prime number, and 77 is, er, not a prime number. My start time is 9:20am and who knows how long it might take to do the 100 kilometres.

This is set up to have fairly short sections of walking, four sections on the “Half Challenge” (56km), the longest being 16 kilometres, and five sections in the remaining 44km, the last three being 8, 6 and 6 km. This should help those of us who are likely to be suffering a bit by then.

There is a wealth of information on this challenge on the event website http://www.london2brightonchallenge.com/ and I understand that around 2,500 are taking part, either running, jogging or walking. You know, I cannot even think how running that distance is possible. That is not a goal to which I aspire. I am in my fifties and in not much more than a month’s time I will be closer to 55 than I am to 50 – in my mind I am no older than a few years ago but the one area I have noticed becoming more difficult is the recovery after a decent walk. It is not that unusual for me to be walking slightly gingerly around the office on a Monday, and you won’t be surprised to hear that I will be taking the week off work after the completion of London2Brighton.

Weather forecasts are the thing at the moment and they currently show 19 degrees in London on the Saturday and 16 in Brighton on the Sunday, both overcast. The low overnight (near Crawley) is 8 degrees. If there are exposed areas it might be lower but not wet and not so cold. Perfect. In the middle of the night it might feel colder as sweat gets trapped but I will have a change of shirt and also a fleece or something warm to wear at the rest stops at the very least.

As was the case with the failed Wight Challenge, it will be possible to follow my progress on the event website and I have set up an alert for Facebook, with personal messages posted each time I reach a checkpoint, another when I finish and one (which I hope you’ll never see) if I were to withdraw. Right now, well not right now because it’s 11:30 at night, my priority is to ensure that I can dig out my bag and plan all the things I need, check my headlight for the night, and get some cushioned soles for my boots. I have one small blister on my sole which is currently plastered, and as a precaution I will be plastering all the normally vulnerable parts of my feet. Just makes sense. Even if, to many, walking 100 kilometres through the night doesn’t make any sense at all.

Too good, too bad

Too Good: Built up a bit more confidence with a 20 mile walk today that took in a number of steep climbs and descents. The route included the Itchen Bridge on a day when there was some football match on nearby. A few fans were milling about. All I can say is – striped shirts don’t make fat people look any thinner. That apart, it was an enjoyable and worthwhile afternoon, and I felt a lot fitter than I have done in the last few weeks. No issues with Achilles or knees and that can only be a good thing. I did feel the soles of my feet becoming sore and I will need a little cushioning to help me along. Another similar distance next Sunday, perhaps a shorter midweek evening walk too, and I will be ready.

It was breezy enough and cool enough in the shade for me to have a thin fleece, and warm enough in the sun to be, er, warm. The day was one where you didn’t want to spend too long either in the shade or the sun, but to alternate where you could. For the second time in two walks the coffee shop staff forgot my order and had to ask me again once they saw me waiting for longer than people behind me in the queue. What was the Alison Moyet song? “Invisible…… I feel like I’m invisible…..” But I can laugh at that. Gone, or hopefully gone, are the days when I worry about mistakes that others make, when there is no real harm done.

Too Bad: Come 3pm, and the start of the last day of the Premier League season and all I was interested in was Fantasy Football. My little blue radio, over 15 years old, called to me. Of course, on the big day when I really needed a big performance from my chosen ones, very little went right. I am now doomed to finish no higher than 2nd in the ONS league, out of 44 so it’s not a bad return. It is even quite possible that I could do a Spurs and be overtaken into 3rd. Frustrating that the Man Utd – Bournemouth game had to be postponed with some of my three players quite likely to be rested for the rearranged match, given the FA Cup Final, but it is hard to know what could have been done differently given other terrorist incidents. Fantasy Football should be the least of the worries, and thankfully the incident was not serious.

If you remember the BBC programme 999 from the 1990s, you might remember narrator Michael Buerk uttering the words “…and worse was to follow…”, normally after an unwitting member of the public had been trapped under a large number of bales of hay spilt by a large truck. The condition of the victim then worsened as either the paramedics had forgotten or broken a key piece of equipment, or a herd of wild and hungry horses gathered for a bonus meal, threatening to trample the poor person to an early grave. Anyway, worse was to follow, after I reached home. I don’t go to watch Portsmouth anywhere near as often as I did, since as you get older you sometimes find different priorities, but it still hurt like hell when they lost today in the last minute of their play-off match. There has been a big turnaround this season and the future is brighter if everyone can just keep calm and support the manager for next season. Still, it will take a bit of time to recover. People who don’t follow football, or sport at least, cannot understand how much some defeats can hurt.

Two Weeks: The only bright shard from that loss is that I won’t need to think about travelling back to London on the day after London2Brighton, in a fortnight’s time. But I would have much sooner had a very painful trip on the Monday if it meant seeing us (again) at Wembley. Sorry but I’m simply trying to find a positive. So let’s concentrate on this walk. Accommodation booked, waiting now for the final check-in information and attempting to get both my head and rest of my body right for this challenge.

The heat is on

The heat is on. One of the signature tunes of my young adulthood. And Glenn Frey is one of the forgotten ones of the seemingly extraordinary number of celebrity deaths in 2016. His song was in my head a lot today as I ploughed the streets, avenues and a bit off road to the tune of 15.5 miles. It was a gorgeous day but a little too hot to be that comfortable, I reckon around 23 or 24 degrees at its peak. Having started at around 12:30, I was walking during the hottest parts of the day and soon looking for the shady side of the street where I could. I don’t normally walk with water or a drink, instead waiting until shops appear, but today it was really only common sense to have a bottle with me and swig every now and again. Dehydration is not fun.

Looking forward three weeks, I only hope it’s not as hot as this, but I will deal with it as it comes. At that time of year, you can only expect it to be warm, unless it is windy and rainy, and I know which I would prefer. Being warm and dry in the night can only help on one of these ultra challenges. This is about the time when it is tempting to look at weather forecasts – three weeks is about the first time when you get something that might be a trifle reliable. Except if it is anything to do with the Daily Express, who flit between forecasting a scorcher and a nuclear winter almost by the hour. Accuweather.com is normally pretty good and that is forecasting maxima of 17 degrees (overcast) on the Saturday in London and 14 degrees (overcast with a couple of showers) on the Sunday in Brighton. None of the competitors will complain if that transpires. The later part of May will also mean a shorter night than I saw at the Wight Challenge – sunset at 21:02 and sunrise at 4:54, so it will be dark from just after half nine to just before half four, less than seven hours. The night is a big psychological part of the challenge, especially off road where is little or no light from street lamps or similar. That is the time when it is really important to have some good people around you. Mind you, I did have that last year and still……..

So thankfully, though it is very early to say, conditions might be better than when I failed the Wight Challenge. One or two have said to me that I didn’t fail it, but the fact is that I didn’t complete it and I won’t have righted that unless I complete this one. It doesn’t help to make me feel better or sorry for myself by telling me that I did really well. Turning to this year, there is a Facebook page for this event and some of the discussions are around why we do this, why we are willing to endure considerable pain. Comments have resonated with me, especially the challenge, the desire to push oneself to near the limit and to feel great pride in an achievement. I have heard many challenge finishers talk about that pride and it is not a sin to be proud of an achievement, whether it be physical, mental or academic or whatever. This is particularly the case if the achievement is outside one’s normal comfort zone, and I feel that one is often remembered for those achievements rather than ones that might otherwise be taken for granted. I am not always the easiest to engage in interesting conversation nor am I good at small talk, so people know now they can get a conversation out of me if they raise the topic of walking (rather than previously, football or cricket, subjects which many might well dread to raise).

So back to weather and daylight. Depending on these, I might well plan a strategy beyond taking a step, repeating 2,000 times for one mile, then repeating 62 times. If it is a hot day, it might be a decent strategy to target the period between my start time, 9:20, and around 1:30 to get a few miles in, taking only shortish breaks, then taking it fairly easy between 1:30 until around 5:30, making the most of what breaks there are, and then picking up again thereafter. But, for me, I think it is important to get halfway or thereabouts by the time it gets dark so I can start counting down the distance rather than counting up. That is just me and others will have their own strategy or no strategy at all beyond the 125,000 steps. Sounds a lot when I say that……..

Finally, one person last week enquired as to my next challenge after I’ve done this one. Blimey, I appreciate the thought and interest, I really really do, but let me do this one first and then I’ll think harder about it. Doubt it will be another ultra challenge like this, more likely a multi-day long distance challenge, but we’ll cross that bridge in a few weeks.

Think positive and think positively

Having been buoyed by news of the inspirational Emily Peacock wiping the floor with the Wight Challenge, I was up for a slightly greater distance today in getting back to fitness. Emily was one of the two girls I walked with on last year’s Challenge, and this weekend she knocked almost three hours off last year’s time! I really enjoyed keeping up to date with Emily’s progress on the event website, even staying up way after I should have gone to bed to learn she had reached the next checkpoint.

I was looking to walk some distance between 11 and 20 miles today, and ultimately managed 18. Pretty pleased with that though a little bit of aching near the knee was concerning enough for a second break about five miles from the end. The good news is that the Achilles appears to be fine. Whether I can manage the London2Brighton Challenge depends on a few things – particularly whether I can build up the confidence that I can do it. I would like to get somewhere near 25 miles on one of the next two weekends, which should be sufficient. I don’t feel anywhere near as fit as before last year’s ultimately failed challenge, but I feel a bit more determined this time. I reckon I was a trifle complacent last time and didn’t realise how hard it was going to be, and the weather didn’t help on the day. Once I got past 50km, around halfway, I was in unknown territory in the dark of night, and as I got wetter and colder and old injuries flared up in my back, there was only one decision I could make – but it hasn’t stopped me on many occasions wondering if I could have done it, if I had rested for an hour, got warm, stretched and eaten some breakfast.

Because that’s what I do. I beat myself up over things I have done, in every aspect of my life. I am forever replaying incidents and conversations back in my head, regretting, regretting and regretting. In the long term, that is the route to the loony bin, I’m sure.

But this time, on this challenge, there will be no regrets. I will give it everything and I will only give up if it is physically impossible, or I am advised by a medic not to continue.

Just starting to look at long range weather forecasts. I remember I did that a couple of months before my very long walk and it looked like a couple of days snow as I was going to be in Derbyshire. Ultimately it was dry and pleasant and the perfect 10-12 degrees. This year, London on Saturday 28 May is maximum 20 degrees with a chance of a shower, and Brighton on Sunday 29 May is maximum 17 degrees with a chance of a shower. I would settle for that – perhaps a bit warmer than I would have liked, but it’s not so hot that it should put completion in danger by itself. A shower, as long as it’s not too heavy, might just freshen the air and keep me cool. But this is a long range forecast, 27 days away. Won’t be snow though – that’s for sure? Surely?

So I do feel just a little more confident now than I did 24 hours ago. Have to keep on this upward trend. Think positive and think positively.