Archive for the ‘Caledonian Challenge’ Category

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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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Five more sleeps…

June 7, 2010

The Caledonian Challenge used to be one of those things that seemed so far away it probably wouldn’t really happen.  Now it’s next weekend.  Only five more sleeps (except we’ll be getting up so early to make our 7am start time that it’s really only four and a half).  It doesn’t quite seem real.

The good thing is, I’m more excited than scared.  This is the opposite of how I felt a few months ago.  We have trained and trained and, a couple of weekends ago, completed the Longest Walk Training Weekend.  This involved two 20+ mile walks, one on the Saturday and one on the Sunday.

Saturday saw us heading to the Pentlands, climbing a few of those and then circling round and somehow (I wasn’t the one with the map) ending up coming back into Edinburgh along the water of Leith.  By the time we reached Edinburgh city centre we had, according to the sports tracker I have discovered on my mobile phone, walked 22 miles.  And I felt okay. Hot (it was that incredibly sunny weekend) and tired, but basically okay.

A big noodle stir-fry (eaten while watching the Fellowship of the Ring – perfect post-walk viewing, I plan to watch the complete trilogy next Sunday) and a good night’s sleep and off we went again.

Sunday’s walk began with a train journey to Linlithgow.  We then walked back to Edinburgh along the Union Canal.  The Union Canal website claims that this is 18 miles.  My sports tracker says 21.5.  It felt more like 21.5.  The Sunday felt even hotter than the Saturday, probably due to the lack of shade.  I don’t like heat.  At least, not when I have to walk 21.5 miles in it.  If we had spent the day sitting in park drinking Pimms I may have felt differently.  But we didn’t.  Alas.  There were some grumpy moments on the Sunday.  But we made it.  And, despite the heat, I once again felt pretty much okay.  The giant Chinese takeaway we rewarded ourselves with at the end of the walk no doubt helped.

And that was the last of our official training.  Since then I’ve just been keeping things ticking over by walking to work and taking myself to the gym a couple of times a week.  On Saturday, we met for our final planning session to make sure we have everything on the kit list… and to discuss what we’re going to eat throughout the Challenge.  It’s all about the food!  We realised that all this training has made us a little bit crazy when we found ourselves saying things like ‘the last section is only 15 miles’.  Only!  What has happened to us?  It seems that we’re well and truly ready to go.  And I honestly can’t wait.

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Night Walking

May 21, 2010

As the Caledonian Challenge lasts for 24 hours, it is inevitable that some of it will be walked in the dark.  Eeek.  The organisers recommend that you practise walking at night… so we did.

Equipped with my newly purchased 40-lumen-strong headtorch and accompanied by one of my team-mates (the other three having made their (legitimate) excuses not to join us), I left Edinburgh at 11:30pm.  This is not a normal time to be leaving the house to go walking.  It felt very odd.  An hour and 10 minutes later we set out along the Borders Abbeys Way.  We began our walk at St Boswells with the aim of reaching my team-mate’s parents’ house in Kelso (15 miles away) for an early morning post-walk cooked breakfast.

It was a cloudy night.  There was no moon.  There were no stars.  It was very very dark.  We could only see what was in the beam of our head-torches.  It was strange to have so little idea about what surrounded us but, at the same time, it was beautifully peaceful and it felt somehow special to be experiencing the world at a time when most people (sane people!) are tucked up in bed. Due to the aforementioned darkness, I can’t tell you much about what the Borders Abbeys Way looks like.  I can, however, tell you that it smells lovely.  Blossom, wild garlic, general country riverside freshness… delightful.

What was not so delightful was that it rained for most of the night.  But even this did not negate my enjoyment of the experience.  It was more drizzle that rain really, the kind you hardly notice when happily wrapped up in waterproofs. And, had it not rained, we would not have ended up sheltering in a phone box (the traditional painted red kind) at 4am eating blueberry muffins.  A surreal experience, the memory of which I will treasure.  Much as I will treasure the memory of the cooked breakfast that we made it to Kelso for. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated a cooked breakfast more.

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Never mind training – I need a packing spreadsheet…

April 4, 2010

Up until now, all of my Caledonian Challenge related fears have been to do with the actual walking.  I have worried about my fitness level, about footwear and how best to combat blisters, about managing to walk in the dark without falling over… This evening I met with my team mates and, over chai lattes, we began to worry about the logistics.  It began with a discussion about the type of vehicle we should take (minibus or people carrier and, if we go for the people carrier, will we also need a trailer…?) and then we began to talk about packing.

Now, the Challenge is split into five sections by four checkpoints.  At three of these checkpoints our support team will meet us and feed us.  They will give us clean socks and snacks and anything else we might need for the next stage of the journey (e.g. head torches for the sections walked in darkness).  And herein lies the logistical complication – how will we ensure that we can get what we need for each section easily with minimal hunting around?  The answer seems to be that we all pack multiple bags – one for the start, one for each checkpoint and one for the end.

My poor brain can’t cope with packing.  I can’t do it without a list.  But this requires more than a simple list.  When I went to Africa I had a packing spreadsheet.  It was colour coded and had sub sections.  I was mocked… but I didn’t forget anything.  I feel another packing spreadsheet is needed for the Caledonian Challenge.  This one will have a master list broken down into sub-lists for each checkpoint.  I will once again colour code, I may even use hyperlinks… It will be an organisational masterpiece.  And then I’ll get back to training…

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A little bit of writing and a whole lot of walking

March 29, 2010

Not much to report on the writing front – I have sent my synopsis and first three chapters of The Path of the Moon to the Laura Cecil Literary Agency.  Fingers crossed they ask to see the rest of it.

Thoughts on writing are currently minimal.  It’s a wait and see kind of time.  So, I thought I’d blog about something else.  And the main something else that is occupying me at present is walking.

I love walking.  I don’t do enough of it.  Last summer, I joined a walking group in Yorkshire intending to do much more.  I went a few times and never failed to enjoy myself.  When I moved to Edinburgh in December I transferred my membership to an Edinburgh based group.  Someone in the group sent out an email about the Caledonian Challenge.  I replied to that email.  Shortly afterwards I found that I was a member of a Caledonian Challenge team.

Now, the Caledonian Challenge is, essentially, a very very very long walk.  A 54 mile walk, to be exact.  The organisers are fond of telling us that it is “two full marathons in distance and more ups and downs than two ascents of Ben Nevis – all in one go”.  They claim that it’s “tough but achieveable”.  I definitely believe that it’s tough.  Right now I am alternating between being very excited… and very scared.  I need to train quite hard if I am going to manage it.

Recently, three of my team members and I went on our first official team training walk.  The aim of the day was to summit two Munros – Ben Vane and Beinn Ime.  We achieved that aim and now – with only 281 to go – I feel that I am well on my way to becoming a Munroist.  I can’t wait to get out into the hills again to continue this mission.  I have bought myself a Munro map with boxes to tick whenever one is ‘bagged’.  I have chosen my inspirational reading (Hamish’s Mountain Walk by Hamish Brown – my new hero).  I am one step away from becoming a Munro obsessive.  (That step being the creation of a Munro-bagging spreadsheet.)

Half way up Beinn Ime I would never have predicted that this would happen.  Half way up Beinn Ime my legs ached, an icy scramble awaited me, a blister was forming on my left heel… half way up Beinn Ime I was fairly sure I would never walk again.  And then I reached the top.  And saw this:

And this:

And then it all made sense.

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