So... I was looking for a challenge, and I decided I'd found one when I heard about this event in which participants aim to walk 100 miles in one go. Including all through one night, and probably most of the way through the next. Without stopping to sleep or anything. It sounded like fun, although I'm not sure whether I'll still be thinking that when I actually come to do it. The event is the Games 100, starting at the Olympic stadium, passing several other Games venues and finishing in Windsor. It's part of the Olympic Committee's Inspire scheme, and as such is the closest I'm ever likely to get to participating in the Olympics.

Obviously I can't just go out and walk 100 miles without training a bit first, so I've arranged myself a few practice events and set up this blog to keep you all up to date on how I'm getting on. My schedule at the moment (other events may be added later) is thus:

15/01: Winter Tanners (Surrey, 30 miles - finished in 10h 5m)

29/01: Stonehenge Stomp (Wiltshire, 20 miles - finished in 5h 33m)

25-26/02: Winter Poppyline (Norfolk, 53 miles - finished in 18h 31m)

02-03/03: Bogle Stroll (Manchester, 55 miles - dropped out at 34)

11/03: New Forest Marathon (Hampshire, 26 miles - definitely walked more than the specified distance, but didn't end up at the finish; listed on the official results as 'mislaid'!)

25/03: Sevenoaks Circular (Kent, 30 miles - finished in 10h 26m)

15/04: Coventry Way Challenge (Warwickshire, 40 miles - finished in 13h 45m)

28-29/04: The Woldsman (Yorkshire, 50 miles - finished in 19h 14m)

05/05: Oxon 40 (kind of self-explanatory - finished in 13h 01m)

12/05: Ridgeway Walk (Wiltshire/Oxfordshire/Berkshire, 40 miles - finished in 11h 25m)

02-04/06: GAMES 100 (London/Kent/Surrey/Berkshire, 100 miles - dropped out at 68 miles after 34 hours!)

Along the way I'll be raising money for Pratham, an educational charity in India. Please visit my sponsorship page here:

Friday, 24 May 2013

Games 100

The big one. This was what the previous six months of walking had been leading up to. With the Woldsman, Oxon and Ridgeway I'd done 50, 40 and 40 miles in consecutive weekends which I was pretty sure was as much training as was either possible or necessary; if I failed to finish, it certainly wouldn't be due to lack of preparation. I skipped doing any more walks in the remaining two weekends before the main event, to make sure I was rested and ready to go on the big day.

A later start and a shorter journey than for most walks meant a (relative) lie-in, before the Overground to Hackney Wick and the school which formed the 'base': not the actual starting point, but where we had to register, drop off bags to be delivered to the breakfast checkpoint, and grab a bit of food before we got going.

This event was slightly more complicated than most Hundreds - for a start, the route planners had decided to try to fit three themes into it: the London Olympics, hence the start within sight of the stadium and passing other venues en route; the LDWA's own 40th anniversary, in recognition of which the Surrey stretch of the route would include several of the sites associated with its founding; and the Diamond Jubilee, which determined Windsor as the finishing point.

A further complication was due to the route diverging in the last few miles; the Crown Estate had granted permission for walkers to pass through Windsor Great Park - but only during daylight hours. Anyone arriving at the Sunningdale checkpoint by Sunday evening or after dawn on Monday would be allowed to traverse the park; those arriving during the night would be directed to take an alternative route - which involved several miles on a main road and was thus preferably to be avoided. In order to enable as many entrants as possible to take the Great Park route (or so they told us), we were offered a choice of three start times: 10am, noon or 2pm. I'm sure the choice was very useful to anyone sufficiently confident of their ability to maintain a constant pace that they could predict exactly how long they'd take to reach Sunningdale, but it wasn't much help to me: never having walked more than 53 miles, I had no way of telling how long it might take me to reach the 90 mile point. Would I be more likely to get there during daylight hours if I started at 10, 12 or 2? I had no idea, so I opted for the earliest start solely on the grounds that if there were 48 hours available in which to complete the event and there was a distinct possibility that I might require almost all of them, it didn't make much sense to restrict myself to 46 or 44. Thus I turned up for the 10am start with, it seemed, the majority of the other entrants. At the marshals' behest we all made our way from the school to the starting point at White Post Lane...

... where I met up with Becky and Tuuli. Martin told me he'd also chosen the earliest start time, although I didn't see him there.

We had to listen to a few announcements from the marshals before the start, most of which had also been printed as amendments to the route description. Notifications of where there would be street parties for the Jubilee; a warning of heavy traffic likely in Chilworth because there was some event on at the manor; another warning that a tree had fallen across the path, although it was still possible to get past; a request from a farmer to refrain from using torches in his field at night in order to avoid frightening the horses - which I found slightly odd, thinking it far more likely that if I had to cross a field containing horses in the middle of the night, they'd be the ones frightening me. Some of the warnings mentioned in the notes at the start of the route description, and the hazards pointed out in various sections of it, seemed plain silly: everyone participating had been required to complete a 50 mile event to qualify, and were therefore probably already aware that in the middle of the countryside, the ground can sometimes be uneven; that tree roots can stick out of the ground, presenting the possibility of tripping over them; that surfaces are likely to become slippery when wet; and that it's entirely plausible that roads may have traffic on them.

After the practical bit, Barbara Blatchford - the only one of the three founders surviving - said a bit about how the first 100 came to be organised (including the interesting fact that they'd expected the majority of the retirements to come in the second half, but that had not been so - more had dropped out before halfway, with most of the entrants who reached the breakfast checkpoint going on to finish), then the mayor of Tower Hamlets said a few platitudes about how pleased he was that the event was starting in his borough, and we were finally off - with the marshals guiding us for the first couple of hundred yards over the road bridge and into Victoria Park:

Out the other side of the park, and it was onto the Regents Canal towpath:

... which gave a view of the city, including the newly completed Shard:

The canal ends at Limehouse Basin, from where the route followed the riverside to Canary Wharf. A quirk of the route took us through a cafe (goodness knows what the customers thought of 500 people in walking gear passing through), out the other side and past Canada Square:

This view looks like it's way out in the countryside, miles from anywhere; to anyone unfamiliar with the locale, it may be quite difficult to believe that it's actually in the middle of London. Mudchute Park has been preserved as an oasis of greenery right next to the business district, and should hopefully have been an indication to those who'd doubted the wisdom of starting a 100 in the capital that its numerous parks would actually make for a rather agreeable walk.

Immediately after the park was the first checkpoint at Millwall Rugby Club; it was labelled on the list of checkpoints as "splash and dash", which more or less meant that while the organisers wished to have a record of what time each walker reached that point, they weren't expecting that anyone would need either a lengthy rest or a great deal of sustenance after only six miles, so we'd just grab a drink then get going again. I managed to lose Tuuli and Becky at this point; when I came out of the loo they'd gone, probably assuming that I was ahead of them. A phone call established that I wasn't, but not to worry - I was fairly sure I could sort myself out. Just after the checkpoint we went through the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, which someone with an eye for trivia had noted was probably the first time the route of a 100 had gone below sea level. We'd been warned of the possibility that the tunnel might be closed, in which case we'd have to take the DLR across the river, but that seemed to go against the spirit of the event somewhat (even though backtracking to the station would probably have made up the distance cut off by using the train); fortunately it wasn't, so we were through, up the other end and out right next to the Cutty Sark:

... and the Royal Naval College, which was Olympic connection number two - the venue for the equestrian events.

Shortly after the college I took a wrong turn, probably due to not paying sufficient attention to the route description, but it was nothing major and only cost me a few minutes.

Olympic connection number three was the structure originally known as the Millennium Dome, subsequently rebranded the O2 and now given the new label of "North Greenwich Arena" due to the commercialism-obsessed organisers' drive to ensure that no company which was not an official sponsor of the Games could gain any sort of publicity from them (for the same reason, the sporting venue which all the locals call the Ricoh Arena was to be renamed the "City of Coventry Stadium" for the duration of the event). Whatever you call it, the building is certainly conspicuous, if not particularly pretty...

There was what was described as a self-clip outside the dome to stop anyone lopping a few hundred yards off the distance by short-cutting across the peninsula, but they apparently hadn't found anywhere to put it, because instead of the clipper being left there for us to use ourselves, there were marshals on hand to clip the cards for us.

The route continued to follow the river as far as the Thames Barrier, at which point it turned away to reach Maryon Park. Mum was waiting for me at the entrance to the park as planned: she'd suggested walking part of the route with me, and we'd decided on the stretch from Charlton to Petts Wood as the most easily accessible. I'd kept a fairly steady pace thus far, and arrived at the park at more or less the time I'd expected.

The official event photographer had popped up at various points on the route, and he clearly managed to catch us at some point when I wasn't looking! Mum even managed something approaching a smile...

After the park we came to checkpoint 2 - Meridian Sports Club, at 12 miles. Some walkers looked like they were booking in for bed and breakfast here, but I preferred just to grab some food and move on; I knew I'd have to stop for longer at the later checkpoints, but wanted to get the first 20-30 miles out of the way without too much of a break.

Just after the checkpoint was Eltham Park, with Severndroog Castle tucked away in the woods:

The Green Chain Walk is a route connecting the parks of south London, which surprised me, and I suspect a lot of other walkers, with how many there are. We crossed Woolwich Common - another Olympic connection, as the venue of the shooting events.

After the park, this curious structure is the old conduit of Eltham Palace:

... and soon after we passed the palace itself:

Immediately after the palace is King John's Walk, which has views back to Canary Wharf, where I'd been only a few hours earlier...

... and some donkeys, one of which was being rather over-optimistic in hoping I'd brought some food.

Thus we came to Mottingham, the third checkpoint at 18 miles. Things were a bit crowded here as the only building they'd managed to hire was a rather small scout hut, which necessitated the rule - strictly enforced - of participants and marshals only inside the building; any hangers-on had to wait outside. I happened to catch up with the other three here, the first time I'd seen Martin since the start - they were ready to leave only a couple of minutes after I'd arrived, but I preferred to be sociable and go with them rather than hang around. The girls soon sped ahead anyway, but Martin, Mum and I were happy to keep to the same pace. From Mottingham the course continued through Elmstead Wood and into Chislehurst, with the Church of the Annunciation on the high street:

... then across Chislehurst Common and through Hawkwood:

Across the railway line and out to Petts Wood, the point at which we had agreed that Mum's participation in the walk would end; I directed her to the station, and Martin and I continued on our own way. Across Bromley Common to Farnborough, and checkpoint 4 (25 miles). This was the first one serving hot food - a good excuse to stop for longer than I had at the previous ones! Farnborough was also the dividing line between the city and country parts of the route: having done the first quarter of the distance within London - albeit still mostly in green areas - the remainder was all countryside, save for a few diversions through towns because they needed somewhere with cooking facilities to put the checkpoints.

Off we went again, through more woods to Downe, passing the home of Charles Darwin - who, I'm reliably informed, did a lot of his thinking while walking in the area. Perhaps walking this section of the route would inspire me to come up with a groundbreaking scientific theory - but if it did, I'd probably forget it by the end. On past Downe to Biggin Hill, site of a WWII aerodrome - and, more relevantly to me, the fifth checkpoint. Another hot meal gave me time to reflect on 30 miles completed in good time, although a notice in the hall reminded me just how far I still had to go...

I think I'd have declined any offer of ale whatever the distance! I could be satisfied with my progress thus far, keeping up almost 3mph, but as the evening wore on, we hit the first major hills of the route and it started to rain, I got the feeling it was going to be a tough night. The rain started to get heavier in the last couple of miles before the next checkpoint, and the invention of waterproof paper was all that preserved our clock cards when we had to get them out for the self clip at Warlingham golf course. Thus we came to checkpoint 6 at Woldingham (37 miles): 13 hours in, still good progress, but the weather and the elevation of the next section both indicated that things were about to get worse.

The Woldingham checkpoint was another scout hut: not the sturdiest of structures ever built, it enabled the intensity of the rain to be gauged directly by the noise of it hitting the roof; when it started coming down harder than ever we took that as an excuse to stay put for a while, but eventually it eased off and we decided we'd better get going again. I lost Martin soon after the checkpoint, and though I briefly joined a couple of other walkers an hour or so later, for most of the remaining time I was on my own. A mile or so out of Woldingham was the field with the horses we'd been given strict instructions not to scare; they were on the opposite side of the field to the footpath and didn't seem in the least bothered by the presence of walkers.

I fell over three times in the next few miles - managing to avoid getting too much mud on myself this time, but landing the second time in a patch of nettles instead, which wasn't any improvement. The worst, however, was yet to come: a mile or so before Merstham there was a field leading downhill to the M23 subway. To describe the field as 'muddy' would have done it an injustice. This wasn't just mud, it was a bog; the moment you put your foot down it sank into the ground, and you had to wrench it out in order to take the next step. I'd managed to make it about halfway down the field, one step at a time, before one such wrench turned my ankle to an angle which I was pretty certain it hadn't been designed for - a verdict which my body seemed to agree with. I had a nasty feeling that in one step I'd just wrecked my chances of finishing the event, but I made it to the bottom of the field and hobbled the remaining mile or so through the subway, over the M25 bridge, then through Merstham station (fortunately not too busy at 3am) as the only point at which it was possible to cross the railway line, and finally to the checkpoint, having taken an hour to cover the last mile.

At Merstham I sat with my ankle up on a chair for a while, wondering whether to continue. I already suspected that my chances of finishing were remote - I couldn't tell whether I'd done any lasting damage to the ankle, or would do if I tried to go much further on it - but it seemed a shame to drop out this early; I was still less than half way. I asked one of the marshals if she knew what time sunrise was, hoping that might give me the motivation to get going again; I'd got through the hard slog of the night, after which it would have been somewhat perverse to drop out as soon as dawn broke. She didn't know, but came over to me a while later to tell me it was just starting to get light; at least holding the event close to the summer solstice gave almost the maximum possible amount of daylight. I tested the ankle; it felt fine. I decided to take it one checkpoint at a time; even if I didn't finish, I'd at least get as far as I could. Taking dawn as my cue, off I went again.

It may have been daylight, but it was still rather misty on the North Downs Way...

The next few miles were fairly straightforward - across Reigate golf course (at least at this time of the morning there was no risk from flying golf balls), through the woods to Betchworth - somewhere in which lay the halfway point of the route - and out past the old lime works to join the Olympic road cycling route and reach the next checkpoint in Box Hill village. I admitted to one of the helpers there that I didn't think I was going to finish, for which I was chided: "If you don't believe in yourself, who else is going to?". Self-belief is all very well, but it has to be tempered by acceptance of one's limitations - and I was pretty sure mine were going to make themselves clear well before I'd done another 48 miles.

After the checkpoint, things stopped being quite so easy: next was the ascent of Box Hill itself. The Olympic cyclists would have to do several circuits of the hill, but they weren't going to have to go all the way to the top...

... or take the footpath back down again, entailing (so I was told - I wasn't counting) more than 250 steps, and some considerable jarring of my knees. If the day hadn't been quite so misty, there might have been a good view from the top!

Back at the bottom, there was a self-clip at Burford Meadow, while my knees started to recover.

... after which came the subway under the A24, in which the surrounding scenery was depicted as rather brighter than it actually was in the mist!

Immediately after the subway I reached the point from which I'd started the recce a few weeks earlier, which at least meant I'd be on (reasonably) familiar territory for the next sixteen miles or so - given how badly I was flagging by this point, not having to think too much was a welcome bonus. At least for the first few miles the recce paid off to perfection, as I made it through Ashcombe and Bagden woods without getting lost, then when I came to the field in which I clearly remembered taking a wrong turn last time...

... I made sure I was spot on this time (I found, incidentally, that the wrong turn had been due to me misunderstanding which gate a line of the route description referred to, rather than it actually being wrong), and made it straight to checkpoint 9 - Tanners Hatch Youth Hostel, at 57 miles. I was slowing down significantly - from leaving Merstham at dawn, I'd been mid-morning at Box Hill and almost lunchtime at Tanners Hatch: seven hours for 14 miles. At least I'd passed the previous furthest I'd walked - the 53 miles of the Winter Poppyline - albeit at a considerably slower pace. I met a couple of other walkers there - the first I'd seen for hours, and once they left the checkpoint before I did, the last I'd see for the rest of the event, as I took up my usual position in the order again.

Leaving the hostel, I at least had the incentive that the next checkpoint was the breakfast stop: another six miles before I could sit down for a bit, get a decent meal and hopefully at least partially recharge my batteries. The route deviated from the North Downs Way at this point to take in the sites associated with the LDWA's founders, starting with the Alan Blatchford memorial bench, before going through Greatlee Wood down to Ranmore Common, passing Steer's Field and Blatchford Down.

Having done this bit before at least enabled me to tick off each landmark as I passed it, reassuring myself that I was on the right track: under the railway line, past the famous Empty Box Company, then along the stream and past the watermill to join the Greensand Way into the woods. By this stage - well into the afternoon - I was dragging myself along, counting down the miles and then the yards until I reached Belmont School.

The 'breakfast stop' on a 100 is so called because that's about the time an 'average' walker reaches it on the second morning, although there will always be outliers: the fastest walkers/runners will get their 'breakfast' by the first evening, while the likes of me plod in late on the second afternoon. Usually about halfway round the course - this time slightly further (63 miles) because that was where there happened to be a suitable venue for it - it's the one place (other than the finish) where you can have a bag delivered: the chance to pack a change of clothes, extra food, spare maps or whatever else you think might come in handy for the last bit. Clean socks were certainly welcome after walking for 30 hours in the same pair!

Over my late afternoon 'breakfast', I mulled over whether to continue. "One checkpoint at a time" had been my approach since Merstham, and I'd managed to make it to three further checkpoints since then. Although my legs still felt OK, the lack of sleep was taking its toll and my head was swimming. Sitting in a nice warm school building, chatting to the friendly marshals and recovering my senses a bit seemed a far more attractive proposition than stumbling on through the woods... I decided to try for one more checkpoint.

That was probably a mistake. I was barely conscious, and had to sit down every few hundred yards to gather my senses before moving on. The short stretch from the school down to Holmbury St Mary wasn't too bad, but after that came the slog uphill and back into the woods. I remembered Martin cheerily regaling us with tales of how last year (when he'd finished last, 30 seconds within the time limit) he'd been hallucinating towards the end, and I was going the same way now. Of all the places I could possibly have been walking through in such a condition, woodland probably gave the most scope for it; when you've been walking for 30+ hours, a clump of bushes or an overhanging branch can come to resemble just about anything. I didn't spot the Russian tanks which Martin had mentioned, but did see a dinosaur, a couple of gorillas and miscellaneous other creatures lurking in the shady depths.

Once I'd made it out of the first section of Hurtwood, it was down to Peaslake, halfway between the two checkpoints. We'd been warned at the start that there would be a street party in progress there on Sunday, but they'd all packed up and gone home long before I got that far. There was a self-clip at the old post office (the 'birthplace' of the LDWA, as the route description called it - where the notice advertising the Tanners Marathon had first put the founders in contact); I could just about still manage to clip my card without making a hole in my finger in the process. As I trudged along the path past the church and back into the woods, more or less the only thing that I was well aware of was the realisation that there was probably no other human being within a mile's radius of me - all the other participants were miles ahead, and there was no sign of any sweepers. If I collapsed out here, it was going to be a while before anyone found me.

I continued with the same pattern as before: walk for as long as I could manage before feeling too dizzy (which by this stage might be 200 yards if I was lucky), then sit down for a few minutes until my head stopped spinning, before pressing on again. Fortunately there was a mile or so after Peaslake for which the route followed the same track, which at least saved me having to do too much navigating. Unfortunately, after that came Pitch Hill - just what I needed after 67 miles. The only small mercy was that the climb, although longer than Box Hill, wasn't as steep..

I passed the viewpoint, with its memorial to the LDWA founders...

... although, with the mist remaining throughout the day, there still wasn't much of a view to be had.

The trig point at the top of Pitch Hill, at 257m, marked the highest point of the route...

... but it was pretty clear that, for me, it was going to be close to the last point. Barely able to see straight enough to read the route description, I made it back down Pitch Hill in one piece, up the next (thankfully much smaller) hill, past Ewhurst Windmill again, and staggered down to the car park where checkpoint 11 (68 miles) had been set up. I dropped my clock card onto the desk, slumped into a chair and informed the marshals of my intention to retire; they could only agree with my own assessment that I wasn't fit to continue. Coincidentally, my participation in the event itself had come to an end at exactly the same point as my attempted recce, albeit not for the same reason: this time all my equipment was present and correct - the only thing missing was my mind. Much as I disliked having to give up, it was only my usual bloody-mindedness which had got me through the last stretch from the school to Winterfold Wood, and to attempt to continue would have been sheer lunacy. Apart from anything else, due to my stop-start progress I'd taken three and a half hours to cover the 4.5 miles from the breakfast stop; I certainly wasn't going to get any faster, so with 32 miles still between me and the finish at Windsor and 14 hours remaining until the cut-off time, there was no way I was going to make it within the limit even if I didn't drop dead before then.

Keeping walking had evidently been keeping me warm; I'd only been sitting at the checkpoint a few minutes when I started shivering. Most people who'd been unable to continue much beyond 60 miles had chosen to retire in the nice cosy surroundings of the school; in pressing on for a few more miles I'd raised myself 26 places in the results list by moving above anyone who'd retired at 63 - but I'd also put myself in a car park instead. One of the marshals took me to the next indoor checkpoint at Chilworth before I got much worse, then when someone there was free I was transferred to Windsor, but by the time I was dropped off at the finish, the paramedic there had a full-blown case of hypothermia on her hands. Peeling the layers off, I discovered why: my coat was evidently less waterproof than I'd thought it was, so my jumper was soaked through - which I had apparently managed to walk 30 miles without noticing. Swathed in blankets and shovelling hot food down myself, I had her come back and stick a thermometer in me every so often until she was satisfied I wasn't at death's door. The next thing I needed was some sleep; one of the helpers lent me a spare sleeping bag and I staked a claim to one of the few bits of floor space not already occupied. When the official DVD of the event was compiled, I found that this was my only appearance on it; no sign of me actually walking - presumably the cameraman had concentrated on the front and middle of the pack, and not bothered with me at the back - but in the scene at the finish I could spot myself in the corner, oblivious to the world.

Tuuli found me in the morning; she and Becky had finished in the middle of the night, meaning they'd had to take the bypass route rather than the Great Park. Despite having walked 32 miles further, they both looked in a considerably better state than I did. Martin had had to retire at Staple Hill (90 miles); so near and yet so far, but like me, he was forced to acknowledge that it wasn't safe to continue. I shared a taxi with a couple of other participants to Windsor station; although it wasn't that far, for some reason none of us felt much like walking. It clearly wasn't the first such request they'd had that morning, as the woman who answered the phone asked "Is there some kind of event on at the school?". Yes, you could say that... at the school and around a 100 mile arc passing through four counties. I got home, collapsed into bed, and after sleeping for most of the next two days, felt something close to fully recovered.

So... what went wrong? I could point to the obvious factors of the heavy rain on Saturday night, and catching my ankle in the mud at Merstham, but other people had finished despite the rain, and I'd managed another 25 miles beyond Merstham so the ankle can't have been that bad. I'd been fine physically by the time I dropped out, but completely shot mentally. For one reason or another, my mind had gone after 36 hours when other people had preserved theirs for 48. Was it solely that I wasn't used to keeping going for a longer time, or was there something in particular I should have been doing that I wasn't - or shouldn't have been that I was? I cast my mind back over the other walks I'd done: the Winter Poppyline, where I'd met Tuuli, Becky and Martin at 30 miles and we'd kept each other going through the remainder; the Coventry Way, where I'd coaxed Scooby and Baloo through the last few miles when they looked ready to drop; the Woldsman, where John and Murray had guided me round the latter half; and of course the Oxon 40, where Rima and I had spurred each other on to gallop around the last few miles. A pretty obvious common theme was emerging: very long walks become easier - and more enjoyable - with company. Not only does it have the directly practical benefits of being able to keep a check on each other's map reading (or one person leading the way if he/she knows the course better), and the other(s) being able to call for help if one of you does get injured - each of you benefits psychologically from the encouragement of the other(s) (and, during the night sections, having someone to talk to helps you keep awake!); I remembered the driver who picked me up from the point I'd retired on the Bogle Stroll commenting that he was surprised I'd managed to get through the night alone. There were exceptions - I'd finished the Winter Tanners, Sevenoaks Circular and Ridgeway unaccompanied - but those were two 30 milers and a fairly easy 40; I'd never finished a 50 solo. When the results of the 100 were published, I skimmed down the list of times: a few had finished individually, but the majority in twos, threes or sometimes larger groups - point proven. The original idea had been for the four of us to stick together, but that doesn't work if you don't feel comfortable going at the same pace: Becky and Tuuli outstripped me after Mottingham, and eventually Martin did too. I'd reached the boggy field near Merstham at 2.30am, sixteen and a half hours into the event - having done 43 miles in that time. From there to Winterfold Wood had taken me a further seventeen and a half, for 25 miles: a drop from 2.6mph to 1.4, barely half my previous speed. General tiredness would have had something to do with it, but it probably wasn't a coincidence that shortly before Merstham was also the last time I'd been walking with anyone. Of course, it was a vicious circle: once I fell behind everyone else, I got slower, fell further behind, and by the time I reached the car park checkpoint it was the small matter of two hours since the marshals had seen the penultimate walker pass through. So, maybe next time I should be looking for someone who's daft enough to want to try to walk 100 miles, and slow enough to do it at the same pace as me...

Friday, 10 May 2013

Ridgeway Walk

This one definitely wasn't doable from Croydon in a day: I'd booked myself in Streatley YHA (the finishing point), from which a bus would take us all to the start in the morning. Despite having put myself on the list for dinner on Friday, thanks to the joys of the great British public transport network I didn't get there until after they'd stopped serving; the obliging receptionist still managed to find a jacket potato for me.

The Ridgeway isn't a LDWA event, and is one of the few annual walking events older than the association: it was celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and unlike most events whose badges just have a logo or a picture of a landmark on the walk, this one had a picture of a long range missile, and an outline map of Cuba - representing the events which had been dominating the world news on the day the walk was first held!

On the Saturday morning someone had stuck some words of encouragement on a noticeboard at the hostel...

This was to be the sixth time this year that I'd walked 40 miles in a day, but I wasn't so sure about needing very little refreshment in the process! The bus to the start at Overton Hill took an hour or so, and it was 7.45 when we got going.

Like many cross-country walking events, this one is definitely not suitable for hay fever sufferers:

Plenty of sheep around, as usual...

 I reached the first checkpoint at Barbury Castle in good time, but was slightly irritated by the lack of any food there; I'd declined the option of breakfast at the hostel on the expectation that there would be food at the checkpoints, but maybe they were taking the itinerant preacher a bit too literally.

I'd brought the maps which covered the route, more as a precaution than a necessity, since it didn't look like a whole lot of navigation was going to be required. There was only one section where the route left the Ridgeway itself, and that was sufficiently clearly outlined in the instructions not to cause any problems.

I kept up a good speed through the next couple of checkpoints, and my mood was improved somewhat by the slightly better provision at them. Apart from the occasional animal sighting, though...

... the walk wasn't really all that interesting. I was beginning to wish I'd taken the short detour which would have been necessary to see the Uffington White Horse, because the route itself had nothing to break the monotony of following the same track for mile after mile.

I was certainly making faster progress than usual - from struggling to touch 3mph on most walks I was up to a comfortable 3.5 - but I wasn't actually enjoying it much. Usually map-reading, chatting to fellow walkers and/or just admiring the scenery are more than sufficient to keep my mind occupied during an event, but this time I actually resorted to getting my iPod out, the first time I'd done so on a walk since the Bogle Stroll - the only other event I'd done with even less interesting a backdrop than this.

I passed 30 miles in just under 9 hours; I'd never completed a 30 mile event in under 10. For most of the last 10 miles the main feature of the view is Didcot power station, which isn't the most cheering and only spurred me to get a move on and finish the thing.

In a reversal of the usual pattern of things, I overtook a number of people in the last few miles and cantered back to the hostel. A month ago my best time for a 40 mile event had been just under 15 hours; on the Coventry Way I'd reduced that to under 14, on the Oxon 40 last week a minute over 13. This time I was done in 11:25. Usually when I finish a long walk, I feel satisfied that I've achieved something; now I just felt deflated. I never thought I'd say this about walking 40 miles, but it was easy.

What did the Ridgeway have going for it? The history of the path itself - a trading route used since the Bronze Age - was interesting, as was that of the walk as an event. But as to actually doing it - there was just no semblance of a challenge. A list displayed at the hostel detailed those who had completed the walk most times - 30+ in some cases. They must be great lovers of straight tracks and power stations; I wasn't going to be competing to join their ranks. Most of the long distance walks I've done, I'd certainly do again if I got the chance (whether I will or not is an entirely different question), but this one? Don't think I'll bother, thanks.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Oxon 40

This was another of those events which, while it was theoretically possible for someone based in Croydon to participate, the logistics of doing so were such that only a complete lunatic and/or a person in training for a 100 mile walk would contemplate it. Of course, I did. The main start of the event was at 7.00, but the first train of the day didn't arrive in Henley until 7.09; add on the time to walk from the station to the event start and register myself, and I'd be starting 20 minutes or so behind everyone else. The time limit for the 40 mile route was 13 hours, which I anticipated would be pushing it anyway since my previous best for the distance was 13:45 on the Coventry Way - a problem exacerbated by having to get there by train, which would reduce my limit to 12:40.

Even getting to Henley just after 7 involved leaving the house at 3.30am; marking the route on the map beforehand had taken longer than I'd expected, which left me with about two hours' sleep. I then had half an hour's walk to the station (again taking advantage of the night trains from Gatwick to Victoria via Croydon, which had also enabled me to get back after the dismally failed recce a fortnight earlier), a bus ride across London because the Tube doesn't run that early, then another train out from Paddington. Needing to change at Twyford to get to Henley, the inevitable happened: I fell asleep on the train, and woke up to see it just pulling out of Twyford. A change at Reading took me back there, fortunately still in time to catch the connection to Henley, and thus I managed to make it to the start at the time planned.

One of the marshals at the start checked whether I'd heard about the diversion; I hadn't - apparently a section of the Thames path was flooded (despite the country supposedly being in a state of drought). He explained the route to be taken instead, which I promptly forgot and decided I could figure out when I got there.

The first part of the walk heads west out of Henley towards the apparently oxymoronically named Greys Green, with plenty of sheep...

... and even more rape.

A few miles in I encountered another potentially dangerous local:

Some of the bolder walkers were going straight past him, but after my previous run-ins with cattle I kept a very wide berth!

Near Highmoor the route passes through woodland, with plenty of bluebells out:

Thus to Stoke Row - at about seven miles in, the site of the first checkpoint, and where the route met that of a group walk I'd done a few months ago. The church is an interesting one:

Immediately after the checkpoint I managed to go wrong, failing to measure accurately the distance after which I was supposed to turn left. Still, it only cost me a few minutes, and at least I saw some more sheep

The scenery in the Chilterns is quite picturesque:

... especially as the Thames comes into view on the approach to Goring...

... with some cows on the other side:

I was saved having to figure out the diversion for myself by having someone stationed at the relevant path junction telling us all where to go: in short, carry straight on to the (relocated) checkpoint, then ask again when you get there. The instructions at the checkpoint (16 miles) weren't too much more complicated: carry straight on until you get to the bridge, turn right and pick up the route description from there. Simple - and it even knocked a bit off the distance, rather than adding some on as diversions more often do.

Onwards to the third checkpoint at Woodcote, at my usual plod. As expected, it was a race against the clock, and the clock appeared to be winning. The instructions advised that anyone arriving at Stoke Row (for the second time - the route looped back on itself to use the same checkpoint twice) later than the specified time would be given directions for a shortcut back to Henley, which would give a total walk of about 35 miles and earn a certificate for that distance. I decided I'd consider doing that if I had to, but given that the event was called the Oxon 40 rather than the Oxon 35, I'd prefer to do the full 40, and pressed on with that in mind. Last to arrive at the Woodcote checkpoint, an apologetic marshal had to tell me that they'd run out of food - apparently some of the earlier walkers had been taking rather more than their fair share. Slightly irritated, I kept going, assuming that the later checkpoints would have some.

I made it to Stoke Row (26 miles) with a few minutes to spare; the marshal there offered me the option of switching to the 35 mile route anyway, but I said I'd prefer to stick to the original. Fortunately they did have some food there!

A mile or so later, I was surprised to hear someone behind me; I'd thought I was last by some distance. Turning round, I wondered for a moment if I'd started hallucinating again - but no, the walker behind me really did have a cuddly toy chameleon wrapped around her, and really was carrying a tyre - painted orange.  Rima introduced herself and Red (the tyre, not the chameleon). I didn't bother asking why she had a tyre with her in the first place, or why she named it after a colour which it wasn't; as far as I was concerned if she wanted to bring a tyre on a walk that was up to her, and she could call it whatever she liked. Over the last few years I've had sufficiently many people ask me blindingly obvious questions to refrain from doing likewise myself! Red did have a collecting bucket attached, but I presumed Rima was aware that she wasn't likely to get many donations in the middle of the countryside.

We fell in together, but it was pretty clear time was against us and we were going to arrive at Russell's Water Common (CP5, 31 miles) well after the scheduled closing time; we were already past the point where the shortcut split from the main route, so that option was out - it was 40 miles or nothing. Having successfully talked my way out of being disqualified for tardiness on the Sevenoaks Circular, I was hopeful of managing to do likewise this time, but when we arrived at the checkpoint 40 minutes late the marshal was having none of it. A couple who'd arrived there a few minutes before us were happy to drop out and accept the lift offered back to Henley, but I had a better idea: why couldn't we continue by ourselves? At the rate we were going, we were on course to finish an hour or so after the cut-off, by which time everyone else would have packed up and gone home - so we wouldn't be listed on the official results and we wouldn't get certificates, but at least we'd have the satisfaction of knowing we'd completed the course. The marshal warned us that once we were no longer officially part of the event, they wouldn't be responsible if we broke a leg, the last checkpoint would have packed up by the time we got there so we'd have to do the last nine miles unsupported etc. I wasn't bothered about that - I'd walked much further than that unsupported before, and I had enough cereal bars to keep me going, so I just turned to Rima and asked if she had enough food. Before she could reply, the marshal said "Food? That's no problem - we've got loads!"; it seemed that earlier walkers who might have helped themselves to a little too much at the previous checkpoints had decided they didn't need to stock up again here, so where others had run out they still had a plentiful supply. Having loaded up with as much food as we could possibly need for nine miles and then some to spare, we bade a fond farewell to the marshals, leaving them scratching their heads as to why anyone would bother finishing the course when it wouldn't count.

A while after leaving the checkpoint, Rima and I looked at our watches, looked at the route description then looked at each other. If the description was accurate, we had just walked a mile from the checkpoint in ten minutes. Perhaps they'd been a bit generous in estimating the distance... admittedly it had all been in a straight line so it wasn't the toughest mile either of us had ever walked, but I can't walk a mile in ten minutes at the best of times - and 31 miles into an event with only two hours' sleep preceding it is definitely not the best of times. Whatever the exact distance, though, it was pretty clear that we were motivating each other, and going much faster than before we'd met. I'd initially approached downhill stretches with the same caution as always, but under encouragement from Rima I began to unwind. The hills here were nowhere near as steep as the Yorkshire Wolds so my chances of breaking a leg were minimal, and I was soon following her lead in running down them. There was still a bit of mud...

... but after Wharram Percy last week any 'normal' stretch of mud was going to look tame in comparison. As we approached Bix Common we spotted a knot of people on the far side - word had spread of these two nutters, one of them pulling a tyre, who were determined to finish the event at all costs, and the checkpoint marshals had waited for us; we'd covered the four miles from the last checkpoint in under an hour. They were looking to offload their remaining food; I accepted the tin of fruit but politely declined the rice pudding. Once again we said our goodbyes, with the marshals promising to do their best to get us reinstated. Five miles to go, and after one more hill it was all more or less flat. 

We briefly attracted some attention from a few sheep who appeared to think that Red's bucket contained food, but they soon concluded that it didn't and left us alone. The light was just beginning to fade as we approached Henley, with its rather quaint shops...

... and some boats on the Thames.

Turning away from the riverside path and across the railway bridge, it was only a few hundred yards back to the rugby club, where we walked in only twenty minutes or so after the stipulated cut-off time. From the time we'd officially been retired, we'd estimated three hours for the remaining nine miles - but completed them in 2:20. The organisers were happy to reinstate us - I went down in the results list with a time of 13:01, Rima (with her certificate made out to "Rima and Tyre") in 13:23; when the full results were published I found that I'd even been elevated a place, above another walker who'd started earlier than me and finished in 13:02. It would have been more fitting for us to be next to each other, as we had been for the last twelve miles.

Once again, the organisers were trying to offload the leftover food; I accepted as many sandwiches as I could fit in my bag. When I got home I counted them: twenty. It saved me having to make my own lunch for the next week!

This is what I love about long distance walking. It is partly about enjoying the great British countryside, partly about getting some exercise, partly about challenging yourself to walk further or over a more difficult course than you've ever walked before - but most of all it's about the people. The organisers who give up their time to plan routes, take entries, hire venues and keep things running smoothly on the day; the other walkers who remember you from previous events and cheerily enquire as to how you got on then; the checkpoint marshals who are ready with food and encouragement when you're in urgent need of both; the sweepers who guide the stragglers round the latter part of longer events; and the kindred spirits whom you meet two thirds of the way around, fall in step with, keep each other going over the last few miles, and when you get to the finishing line, hug each other as if you're old friends. Rima, it was a pleasure walking with you.

Rima keeps her own blog, The Tyre Girl Runneth, and unlike me she actually updates it within a few days of the event, rather than almost a year later. It features not only details of the many and varied adventures she's had with her tyres (her target is 100 marathons with a tyre by 2020), but also for the charity for which she raises money and awareness, EarthWatch. Highly recommended reading!