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.
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.