The morning after the day and night before last. Reflecting on another challenge taken on, and successfully completed. Now looking forward to a couple of days at home recovering.
The weather forecast for Saturday in London had fluctuated from day to day during the week. One moment, the outlook was for a drenching, the next it was for a completely dry weekend. Even the BBC Weather app and the BBC TV weather couldn’t agree – left hand, right hand and all that. Not to worry, whatever will be, will be, we’re going to Putney and Henley. Wemb-er-ley definitely not on the route.
Train up to Putney on Friday and the usual pizza the evening before. One might reasonably argue that pasta would be better but I do get quite nervous and edgy in the day before an event and so I eat what I can. And pizza is not the worst thing one could eat, to be fair. I am staying in Travelodge Fulham, about 1.2 km from the event start and I have registered at Bishop’s Park on the Friday, to save time on the day – I don’t find it easy to get up in the morning and I know that I need an alarm at around 6:45am to shower and do all those things, pack bags, find breakfast and get to the start in plenty of time (they recommend half an hour before) – my start time is 8:40am.
At least I can send one of my bags – containing trainers, dirty clothes, fresh clothes and anything that I don’t need for the event – to the end point at Henley-on-Thames. The walk pretty much follows the Thames with a few jaunts inland at various points, mostly later on. Yes, it is 100 km (62 miles), though the distance ‘as the crow flies’ is much shorter, in fact, less than half that and the shortest road route is about 33 miles. So it doesn’t sound as far as, say, the London to Brighton event. But believe me, it is.
There is always a warm up directed by someone encouraging zumba, running on the spot, dancing and some of the competitors love it, hoot and holler. I don’t take part – blimey – walking is warm up itself. I do have a good stretch though, that can be important. But a couple of minutes late, at 8:42, we’re all off. A number of people take great steps to be near the front of the group funnelling out; to be honest, it’s a long distance and it makes little or no difference whether you get started 20 or 30 seconds earlier. I would say at this point that I did have a primary target just to get round, and a secondary target of completing in under 24 hours. With a very flat course and mostly solid ground, on paper, it seems achievable for me.
If I do have a worry, it is the soles of my feet, and I do expect a fair amount of pain in the later stages. I am pretty fit, fit enough to do warm-up walks of 34 and 27 miles in the last few weeks. Most of the first stage of 28 km passes ok, with me able to set out at a good pace of just over 11 minute kilometres, not far short of my normal pace, but there is always the need not to over-exert in the early stages. Around me, there is a lot of chit-chatter and one woman who talked non-stop from the first mid-point stop (14 km) to the end of Stage 1. She and her two friends were walking at a good pace, but I imagine today her jaw must be almost as tired as her feet. I am walking as an individual, by myself, and I never find that a problem during the day. Most of the hazards at this early sections came from cyclists and runners, and the behaviour of a few of the cyclists left a lot to be desired, feeling that the narrow path is their right of way. At about 25 km I did feel the first pain in the sole of my right foot, and that nagged me until the stop at 28 (Hurst Park).
I had a quick inspection of this at the rest stop, and whatever it is, it is under a plaster anyway so nothing to do here. The left foot had had a niggle too and I now felt this was going to be a long event. But the goal was to get to 50 km in daylight, and then it’s a whole new ball game. The event was very well supported and marshalled, with lots of snacks and drinks at every rest stop and mid-point and many stock up with loads of sweets, flapjacks but most obviously, water and drinks. That is the most crucial thing – to keep hydrated.
I was oblivious to my position in the field throughout but I was aware that I wouldn’t keep up the pace of the first stage for the whole 100 km. However, I was pretty fresh, not hurting anywhere other than my feet and there was a shorter 9 km stage that was relatively straightforward, despite a couple of heavy showers that didn’t raise the spirits of many. I had my waterproof jacket and that served me well both then and later in one 20 minute spell of heavy rain in the next 13 km to take me to halfway, 50 km (Runnymede). I was counting down the kilometres and still moving pretty well, though my feet were causing some pain by this point. A trickle of water seeping into my walking shoes never feels good but, as long as I could keep walking, I would be fine, and I was digging deep to get some of my best head music, including, er, Blister Tambourine Man? I found that I was starting to pass people who had started at 8:00 and earlier, so I knew I was doing fine. I reached the halfway point in the light and in under 11 hours, and felt quite buoyant. But I knew I had the whole night and be up with the Byrds by the time of the finish.
I had an extended stop of almost an hour while hot food was available – quite a selection but I never feel great if I eat too much on a walk. Anyway, some tomato and basil soup with a bread roll, some beef bolognaise pasta, some tortilla chips and a nan bread. So an English-Italian-Mexican-Indian mix. This was obviously topped off with some fluid, and if I look back over the day/night, I reckon I had around 12 cups of tea and half a dozen bananas, along with four packets of salt and vinegar crisps, four chocolate bars, and plenty of orange and pineapple slices. Well, I never said that this was an event to support a great balanced diet. Incidentally, this was the only point on this walk when I checked Facebook and took great encouragement from the friends following me and commenting positively. Thank you for all of that. And, to cap that off, I discovered Pompey had won, Saints had lost, and England had won the cricket. I had been a bit scared to look…..
So, that was half down, half to go. This was a whole new event now and walking in the dark. I put my (compulsory) headlight on, having changed its batteries during preparation. I had barely spoken to anyone on the walk so far, but it is absolutely vital at night, with much greater challenges of navigation, despite the superb signage efforts of race organisers. I walked the next 13 km half-stage with three guys who, to be honest, were fairly quiet but they were a fairly reassuring presence, and absolutely vital when my headlight suddenly went out, and the ‘leader’ helped me for a minute or two to make a rather fiddly battery change. It did lead to a good conversation on motivations – his son had been treated by Sussex Air Ambulance after being hit by a car at 50mph in the middle of nowhere, and his leg (and possibly his life) was saved despite considerable blood loss. So he was raising money for them. I talked about the Rocky Appeal, my cricketing colleagues Paul and Ray, and also my previous walks for SANDS.
It was enough for me to realise, if I didn’t already, that I just had to finish. I had made up my mind that feet would heal in time, and that the only thing that could stop me was if my back really flared up with still some distance left, as on the Wight Challenge two years ago. Even then, I was filled with regret for weeks, perhaps months, after and I really didn’t want that again. These guys were keeping up a very good pace, possibly slightly quicker than I otherwise would have been comfortable with, but the leader, in particular, seemed to have a decent amount of experience in these challenges. And he confirmed that the 2015 Wight Challenge was the hardest of the ‘seven or eight’ he had completed. I let them go for the last couple of kilometres but still could see them about 100 yards in the distance as I reached the 63 km stop.
My feet were really troubling me now but I cracked on with four young ladies, as it were, and we got through a tough 15 km section in just over three hours. It might look like 3 hours 34 minutes on the live tracking, but it includes the 25 minute break at the stop after clocking in. This was a tremendous effort by all of us. All of us were in pain but we figured if we could complete this, we only had two shorter sections of 10 km and 12 km, and it would be almost getting light. It is so much more difficult walking in the dark. Psychologically, you feel disoriented, there are few if any nice great sights that lift your spirits and, after rain during the day, conditions underfoot can be very very tricky. So it was no surprise that I was falling behind any notion of the target of completing the event within 24 hours. Now it was about survival. Ok, that sounds over-dramatic, it was about getting to the end. I was doing some projections in my head and I thought that I would be doing well to get in for 9:30am, or perhaps 10am.
More hot food – effectively breakfast – is available at the 3/4 point (78 km, Cookham). I instead had some cereal with loads of milk that I knew would help me. The next half-stage felt like my slowest with my feet effectively shredded already and some occasional twinges in my ankle. Worryingly, I even felt a twinge in my back but I shut it out and it went away. I was walking with another group of three women who took me under their wing and we dragged each other through it. I led the final 3 or 4 km as I started to get a fifth or sixth wind and I started to feel really positive. Not to far to go, and I was even passing some people, but almost always asking if they were ok, and how they were getting on (as indeed everyone else was asking me). These walks do bring out the best, most caring sides of people, especially in the advanced stages.
I was determined not to stop for too long at the last mid-point, just having a couple of cups of tea, another banana, and a few odd snacks. 12 km. That’s less than 8 miles. I’ve done that loads of times. I can do that walking backwards. How hard can that be? Well, very hard, if you’ve already been going for this long. Every step was a painful one and every undulation a stab into my feet, the right one in particular. The first two or three km was barely a shuffle through quite open grassy ground but, gradually, I picked up and reconciled myself to the achievement of finishing, rather than within a 24 hour period. I can’t say that I felt fresh but I felt positive. This had been the challenge where I had so many reasons, so many excuses for not finishing. I had had the trace of a cold for a week beforehand, not helped by the rain during the day, feet that felt as bad as they ever have, and the odd back twinge. But – as in the past – I thought of the prospect of not finishing. I know that is tougher to deal with that than to go through the pain barrier for a few hours. I thought of all my sponsors but particularly of Paul Tosdevin and I chuckled as I pictured him as Mufasa looking down at me as the young Simba.
It seemed to get easier once I caught up with a group whom I could only see in the far distance a few minutes earlier. Back on the solid tow path, this was like the last lap and everyone congratulating us all as we made our way towards Henley bridge and down to the finish. I met a couple of girls whom I had only ever seen in the night and that was nice. At the finish, we were all applauded in, though not quite the grandstand ovation that many of us had at the end of London2Brighton. A 9:11am finish after 24 hours 31 minutes.
After a very enjoyable cup of tea, more cereal, and some congratulations to and from fellow competitors, I picked up my bag, found my way to a public toilet in the park and changed into some fresh clothes. I didn’t take off my socks at this juncture, though, since I felt that was best left to much later. I caught the train to Southampton Parkway, via Twyford and Reading, and was driven to cricket, where a rather windswept scene was demonstrating why the season finishes at the end of August. It was nice to see some very friendly faces, and one or two whom I hadn’t seen for some time, before shuffling off back home.
This morning, I actually feel pretty good. Yes, the feet will heal. The (eight) blisters are best left unpopped and untreated as long as possible, in my experience. I can walk about, not at top pace, I might add, but I will survive, and as I long as I know how to live, I know I’ll be all right. Yes, I know, a slight lyrical poetic licence used there, but despite the euphoria at finishing this one, I doubt I’ll do another. This had tested my resolve as much as anything ever has, and I have used the term ‘warrior’ to describe friends who have completed some of these challenges and other events. There are people to whom I cannot hold a candle, and I won’t embarrass them by mentioning them here, but they have inspired and driven me to believe. But I still won’t be doing another one………I don’t think so anyway……..
If you wish to donate to the Rocky Appeal, please follow the link https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Keith-Spicer3