Archive for September, 2010

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54 miles

September 6, 2010

It’s more than two months since I walked 54 miles in 23 hours and 30 minutes i.e. since I completed the Caledonian Challenge.  I’m not really sure where the time went.  I have been meaning to write about the experience for some time but never quite managed to get around to it.  So I’ll do it now.

The Challenge was, physically, the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  All my hopeful ‘it’s just a walk’ type thoughts abandoned me completely in the fourth stage when it began to get dark and the midges decided that I was the tastiest thing ever to cross Rannoch Moor.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start at the beginning.  The day began early.  We were to start walking at 7am which meant dragging ourselves out of bed at 5am.  Not fun.  A breakfast of cereal and toast and then we packed ourselves and our carefully organised (a labelled bag for each checkpoint) belongings into the team mini bus and off we went.  Shortly into the drive ‘Eye of the Tiger’ blasted through the van courtesy of one half of our support team who had made motivational playlists for every stage of the walk.  This set us up nicely for the day ahead.

And so to the start point where team photos (I’m the one in the middle) were taken and we ‘chipped in’ using electronic tags that had been fastened round our wrists the night before when we registered.

Slightly later than planned (7:10am) we started to walk.  The first stage was a mere 8 miles along the Caledonian Canal and we pretty much power walked our way through it arriving at checkpoint one after only two hours.  Here, after locating our support vehicle cunningly identified by a pink balloon, we ate a fabulous fry-up, changed into fresh socks (there is nothing more wonderful than fresh clean socks when you’re walking 54 miles, believe me), filled our water bladders (well, our support team filled them for us), stocked up on snacks for stage two and continued on our way.

Stage two was rather longer than stage one – twice as long in fact. 16 miles.  I remember stage two being absolutely beautiful… but also having the hardest, rockiest path I have ever walked on.  The soles of my feet began to hurt.  I tried to walk on the grass at the sides of the path for some relief.  It didn’t work.  We had all accepted that pain was going to be an inevitable part of the challenge and so we sodliered onwards with motivational thoughts and words mainly involving Hamish Brown, Eddie Izzard and Battlestar Galactica (what would Starbuck do?) and made it to checkpoint two.

After chilli con carne, tray bake and more clean socks we began the 10 miles that made up stage three.  We were still making good time and, as we were leaving the checkpoint, one of the organisers told us that we were the second all-female team – and the first was running it (nutters!) so they didn’t count.  This gave us the motivation needed for the 500m of continuous ascent we now faced – the longest climb of the challenge.  Poor thighs.  Up and up and up we went.  And, eventually, we reached the highest point of the challenge and the half way point.  That felt pretty good.  What didn’t feel so good was watching the elite teams, who had started up to three hours after us, run on by and disappear into the distance.  Oh well.  We consoled ourselves by discussing just how insane you would have to be to run this route.  From the highest point we climbed down the Devil’s Staircase and on we went until we reached checkpoint three.

My legs almost gave up on me as we walked into checkpoint three and we started to get a bit emotional as one of the organisers told us how lovely it was that we all chipped in together.  Our reply consisted of something along the lines of ‘That’s what you do when you’re a team. Never leave a man behind.’  Oh dear.  Do bear in mind that, at this point, we had walked 24 miles in almost 12 hours and exhaustion/hysteria was setting in.  This was the furthest we had ever walked in one go (with the exception of our team leader who had completed the challenge a few years before) and had elicited a Lord of the Rings type moment reminiscent of Samwise Gamgee taking the step that would take him further from home than he had ever been before.

Pasta, soup, more clean socks and we left checkpoint three to the strains of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’.  Oh how I love that song.  But the next stage was mentally draining and I almost did stop believing.  There is no support team access at checkpoint four and so we left knowing that we wouldn’t see them again until the end.  My mum sent me a text message telling me how proud she was of me and that she knew I could do it.  My knee started to hurt (a pre-existing injury) and for the first time I started to think that maybe I couldn’t do it.  And then we got to a water stop and there was no portaloo.  And that was when I cried.

A few tears shed and I felt better and on we went.  But, by this time, another team member had started to suffer with a leg injury she had incurred while training for a 10k run a couple of months before the challenge, it had started to get dark and the midges were out in force.  As I mentioned before, midges find me exceptionally tasty.  Despite Avon skin-so-soft and a rather attractive head net I was bitten 138 times.  Little bastards.  I wasn’t having much fun any more.

Checkpoint four involved medics and sports massages.  And, of course, food and more clean socks.  My knee was strapped up and the walking poles came out for some extra support as we began the final stage.  12 miles to go.

And what an emotional and painful 12 miles they were.  By this point it was properly dark… and it had started to rain.  We donned head torches (which are very difficult to wear when you are also wearing a midge net) and waterproofs and set off.  The final stage began with a steep climb followed by a steep descent.  The climb wasn’t so bad.  The descent was painful as my other knee began to hurt.  Progress was slow and it took an age to reach the water stop at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel.  And here my fellow injured team mate decided to retire.  It was horrible.  After training together for so long we had so wanted to finish all together.  But it was not to be and we were down to four as we left the hotel.

The pain in my knee grew steadily worse as we walked on and, by the next water stop, I was ready to call it a day.  My knee was seizing up and I couldn’t imagine being able to walk another 7 miles.  But, at the same time, it seemed ridiculous to stop after having come so far.  I couldn’t give up.  I sat in an ambulance for a while trying to decide what to do.  There was a mini bus leaving for the finish line.  I almost got on it.  But then I remembered the Caledonian Challenge hoody I had bought.  How could I wear it if I didn’t finish?  And then another thought occurred… if I didn’t finish I would have to do it all again next year.  That was it.  I decided to go on.  Even though the medics told me not to.

During the last 7 miles it gradually got light but it was still drizzling and I felt pretty miserable.  By this point I just wanted it to be over.  And then finally, at 5:40am, we crossed the finish line.  Photos were taken.  They were not flattering.  A medal was put around my neck.  And then I was taken to see another medic and a physio. Our support team brought me sweet tea, put blankets around me and offered me cake that I didn’t manage to eat.  None of it really felt real.

Once we had all had food and/or sports massages, we piled into the mini bus for the journey home.  And immediately fell asleep.

It didn’t sink in until some time later that it was all over and I had actually walked 54 miles.  Even now it all feels a bit unreal.  Straight after the event I thought I may never walk again but, now that I’ve had time to heal and the pain has faded, I remember all the good points.  The atmosphere throughout the event was amazing, the organisers were all so encouraging, the other teams were friendly, our support team were amazing, friends were very generous with their sponsorship (we raised £3735 for the Scottish Community Foundation) and, above all, in my team mates I have made some wonderful friends.

It was tough, it was painful, it was emotional.  And we’ll do it all again next year… maybe.

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