Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Trailwalker 2012 - 100km in 30hours

Its Tuesday 17th July and now 48 hours since Trailwalker finished. How am I feeling? Thrilled that we all did it, but still struggling to walk properly. The blisters on my heels and toes makes it feel like I'm walking on small, sharp pebbles in bare feet, my knees ache and my muscles complain when I walk upstairs. Pathetic? Probably, but I don't care, it was brilliant being part of a truly great event, part of a great team who bonded together so well and great to have such a superb support team.

So who were we all and how did it all come together? Well the main driving force was Steve MacDonald and myself. Steve mentioned it to me in 2011, but for several reasons we were unable to do it, so I mentioned it to Steve again earlier this year and he got us enrolled and bullied Ash Chury and Paul Johnson into it. Apparently, Steve first asked Ash if he would like a free curry (The Gurkha's, who organise it, provide a curry at the end of the walk). Yes, said Ash and didn't seem too concerned when Steve told him there would be a bit of a walk to get to it. Little did he realise!

Steve used to work for me, for about 8 years, but left to join Ash Chury at Thomson Linear in 2007. My old company, Andantex, were a main distributor for Thomson Linear and Ash used to come in regularly to see us and Steve and Ash became good mates, eventually working together. On joining Thomson, Steve became a salesman, of which Andantex were one of his accounts, so he still came in to see us, almost as though nothing had changed! Ash has since changed jobs to another company in the group and Steve has moved up to be 'Key Account Manager' at Thomson and, by all accounts, one of their best performing sales people - well done Steve! Our fourth member was Steve's brother in law, Paul Johnson, an RAF man. A hell of a nice guy, impossible not to like and, as a result, we all got on really well and bonded as a team.

As its such a long walk with 10 check points, its necessary to have a support team and ours comprised of four people, two for the 'day shift' and two for the 'night shift'. Jackie with Jo Goodson formed the day shift and Andrea (Ash's wife) and Brutus (Andrea's brother, who happens to live in Brighton, very close by), were the night shift.

If you want to see what Trailwalker is all about, have a look at this link:  http://www.oxfam.org.uk/Trailwalker   its got a full description of the event, a gallery of photos and a results section. We were team 324, called 'Bugger this, I'm taking the bus'. The statistics show that we finished in places 1351, 1352, 1353 and 1354, out of 1469 finishers. 2500 people originally entered, but only 1902 started (probably looked at the weather forecast and decided not to bother!), so 41% of people who originally entered didn't finish and on the day, 22.7% of people who started didn't finish.

Jackie and I, Steve and Jo all met at Ash's house in Coventry on Friday afternoon at about 1.00pm and the first task was to get all our gear into Steve's car as all 5 of us were traveling down in that, leaving Ash's car for Andrea to drive down in on Saturday.

Packing was the first problem and it quickly became apparent that Jo is an expert in this field, so we all left it to her. Well she did it, but at the expense of any view out of the rear view mirror!
We were no good, so left it to Jo....
Perfect! Ready to go!

The drive down was uneventful and we arrived at The Rising Sun in Clanfield at 4:45pm in time for a pint (Guinness of course) and to meet Paul who had travelled down to Havant on the train, collected a gazebo from Argos and then caught the bus up to Clanfield. We all arrived virtually together and saw Paul getting off the bus with his kit bag, the gazebo and - a guitar! Had he not seen how little space there was in the car? We found out why he'd brought it at the end....

The Rising Sun is a great inn, 3 really nice en-suite rooms, a very welcoming bar with several hand pulled ales and what looked like a great menu (although we didn't try it).

After a pint and a bit of time to get sorted in the rooms, we went off to register at the start, in the Queen Elizabeth Country Park, just over 2 miles away. 6 of us piled into Steve's car and we arrived for a 'Pasta Fest' meal and great entertainment from the Queens Gurkha Signal regiment. The organisation and food were superb, the rain mercifully stayed away and we were treated to several speeches from the Gurkhas and Oxfam, followed by a display from the Gurkhas, including a brass band (very good) and a display of knife fighting (don't ever cross a Gurkha!). Afterwards we went back to The Rising Sun for a couple more pints of Guinness and a relatively early night!

Our day started just after 5:00am, so we could be at the start by 6:00am to have the breakfast they provide, ready for our start time of 7:00am. Parking was interesting following the heavy rain we had had on Friday night and Steve's rear wheel drive BMW probably not the best choice for driving over muddy fields! Still, that's Jackie and Jo's problem!

The huge queue for breakfast was not what we expected, so we had to push in at the front in order to be ready for 7:00am. The bacon, eggs, sausage, beans, cereals, fruit, was superb and we all had our fill and moved to the start line. I was feeling very nervous at this time and wondered if the training was sufficient, whether I had forgotten anything, whether we'd get lost and all sorts of other things, but our time came and off we went.

The first leg was 9.6km, had 300m of ascent and 210m of descent, starting off in trees and then opening up into really nice countryside with rolling hills. Really great views and, at that time, no rain. We made a good time and arrived at the first checkpoint well ahead of our ETA and feeling pretty pleased with ourselves. Jackie and Jo were there with everything set out, plenty to drink, a good variety of food and fussing round us with smiles on their faces and loads of encouragement. Paul decided the time was right to pull out his 4 foam microphones and we all sang 'You've Lost That Loving Feeling' to the delight of everyone around (well at least I think so - they must have been impressed because I heard someone say they'd never heard anything like it!). He also distributed his 'Pee' chart, showing colour of pee as a check to hydration. Clear pee was 'gay pee' and I'm pleased to say that on virtually all pee breaks we could announce we had gay pee!
Checkpoint 1 - Harting Down
After about 15 minutes we were off again and found ourselves in a huge knot of people. We managed to get past lots of people, but found going slow where huge puddles covered the track, needing people to pass in single file. Eventually the path opened out as we gained height, but then the rain started! Not too bad at first and just a short shower, but we arrived at checkpoint 2 just as it started again. Jackie and Jo had parked on a road outside the field (sensible decision, it was very very muddy), so it was too tight to erect the gazebo, so we sat with brollies over us. Lots more food, drink, attention and encouragement from Jackie and Jo. Ash had had some problems with his boots slipping on the mud, so opted to change to his other pair that had better grip, but were not waterproof.

We set off, armed with fresh goody bags of snacks, in the rain, which eased relatively soon and as we went up hill, I had the first sign a blister may be on the way, so stopped to sort it out. Zinc oxide tape, I have found out, is not the best approach. It didn't stay stuck and soon rubbed up, making the small blister much worse! Note for future: use Compeed, not Zinc Oxide Tape! Anyway, off we went again and as the path leveled out the rain started. We put on the waterproofs just in time as the rain came down in a massive downpour that lasted at least an hour! It was miserable and the saturated ground just ran with water. I was OK in my boots, as was Paul, but Steve and Ash had boots that weren't really waterproof, their feet were getting wet and blisters were starting. At checkpoint 3 there was no support crew as the field had been closed to all traffic other than the Gurkha's as it was waterlogged. We got a great welcome from them as we arrived, had some water and squash and a sandwich provided by the girls at the previous checkpoint, a brief rest for 10 minutes or so before continuing. We were all OK, but the heavy rain had taken its toll and we were hoping it might now improve. It didn't!

More heavy rain came down and, on arrival at Checkpoint 4 it was still raining quite heavily. The girls had parked the car on a road just outside the checkpoint as the field car park was very wet and muddy. Jackie came running up asking if we wanted to join them in their den! They had got a waterproof sheet from the open tailgate of the car, across to the chairs. It was cosy and just out of the rain, but our spirits were low and blisters were apparent in us all, except Paul. Steve was in a particularly bad way with saturated boots and lots of problems with his feet. We were here for an hour and a half as we tried to get sorted. I got my boots off, applied Compeed and Zinc Oxide Tape, as did Ash. Steve sat inside the car and Jackie helped him attend to his feet. At this stage things didn't look too good, Ash's boots were wet and Steve was in a bad way. I didn't feel too bad and Paul was fine. We tried to make decisions on what to do to help Steve, he just had to have dry feet to be in with a chance and his boots just weren't up to it. I had a spare of old leather boots I had bought, but I'm size 8 and Steve is size 9 or 10. They are quite big, so I gave them to him to try. They fitted, albeit a bit tight. we weren't sure if this was a sensible choice, but at least his feet were dry. He decided to give it a go, not being a person to give up, so off we went again, with teeth gritted! So far, only 37.6km covered!

The boggy ground and the rain just continued and the going was pretty tough. During stage 5 the rain did ease a bit and we were hopeful that might be the end of it. We trudged on and reached checkpoint 5 in an exceptionally muddy field. Andrea and Brutus were now on support and parked 600m further along the track in another car park, as they were running a bit late and couldn't get to the checkpoint in time. Ash and Steve decided to have a massage in one of the tents at the checkpoint, but Paul and I walked on to find Andrea and Brutus. On the way Paul went into a panic thinking he'd lost his phone! He hadn't backed it up, would have lost all his contact numbers and all ability to communicate with people. He got everything out of his pockets and was absolutely certain it had gone, so I got my phone out and rang his number. We could hear it ringing inside his coat, so he searched again, finding it in a pocket he didn't know he had! Panic over! Paul: back up your phone!!

We arrived at the car park and Brutus and Andrea in a Toyota pick up truck had the gazebo arranged partly over the back and partly over the bench they had set up. Excellent tuna and pasta had been prepared by Laura, Brutus' wife and we had plenty of food and drink, plus a good stretching out area in the back of the truck to deal with our feet. Unfortunately the rain decided to make another appearance and we had another huge downpour. We were under the (new) gazebo when we found out it leaked! Ah well, at least we could avoid the drips and keep relatively dry. Paul decided to lift our spirits by getting the foam microphones out and we had another rendition of 'You've Lost That Loving Feeling'! Steve unfortunately found at this point that water had got into his phone and it was no longer working. It would ring, but he couldn't answer it. Brutus took it away with him to see if he could fix it.

As we left the rain was easing and the last remnant of daylight were fading fast. We now had 10km to do in the dark with no support crew available at checkpoint 6 due to a waterlogged field. This seemed like the longest section (it wasn't) and just seemed to go on forever. All that could be seen was a long line of headtorches stretching out behind us, a surreal sight!
Not a particularly good picture, but I'm sure you get the impression
We got to checkpoint 6 just after midnight and were provided with hot soup. I decided to visit the First Aid post to ask advice on my blisters, but on arrival I saw two people being carried out to ambulances, one person on oxygen and at least half a dozen people totally spaced out. The medic I spoke to showed me to a seat but said he probably won't be able to spend much time with me. Seeing all these people made me realise that, by comparison, I was fine. I redid my feet and left. Later I found out this was the checkpoint where most people dropped out.

After a few more minutes we set off again in total darkness and I wished I'd changed the batteries in my headtorch. All I had was a dim glow, so I stayed close to Paul who had a good light. We were in amongst a huge group of people and it just felt so weird to be outdoors walking through the night. My body was telling me it's the middle of the night and what on earth was I thinking about! I decided to take a photo of us in the dark and another walker offered to take a photo of the four of us. The picture is below, but immediately after taking it the guy gave me my camera back and I walked chatting to him for a while before realising I had become completely separated from my team. The same happened to Steve, who found himself on his own. At that point the path divided and we were to go off the main track and onto a smaller one. There was confusion with some people going in the correct direction but others staying on the main path. I wondered which way my team members would choose so started shouting out their names, with other walkers repeating my shouts to help me. Eventually I found Steve on the correct path and then phoned Ash to find he and Paul had carried on on the wrong path and were retracing their steps. Thank heavens for mobile phones!
The photo before being separated
Finally we arrived at Checkpoint 7, Devils Dyke, to be greeted by Andrea and Brutus. A good hot Gurkha meal awaited us and although eating at 3 in the morning wasn't appealing, I quite enjoyed it and tucked in. We went to the truck and Andrea made us hot chocolate with chocolate muffins, Brutus handing round the whisky! Paul added a good slug to his hot chocolate, the rest of us adding a more modest amount.
Not now daring to take off our boots to look at our feet we set off for Checkpoint 8, a mere 6.9km away. 6.9km! It felt more like 6.9miles! It just seemed to go on forever. However, this was the start of daylight and it gradually got lighter as we went. The most surreal thing was walking through a small village at the dead of night to see support teams had set up meeting points. There on the roadside in a small town were cars parked, boots were open, people had chairs set out with candles on tables. Weird!

It got lighter and lighter and, on arrival at checkpoint 8, by a nice windmill the sun had just risen and we could see it through the clouds. It seemed a better day and we were hopeful the rain had passed. Lots of cheering from the Gurkha's and Oxfam greeted us and Andrea and Brutus were again on hand to give us everything we needed. It was cold, but not raining and we were all optimistic of finishing.

I pulled out the next map and stage details to find it was 13.8km, the longest leg. My heart sank, as did everyone elses. It was becoming increasingly difficult to put weight on feet now for all but Paul and we knew then that to finish it was really going to have to be mind over matter! Ignore the pain and just walk, things can't get any worse can they?

It was just the longest walk, but we tried singing, telling jokes and just keeping each other going. Still we were passing people as, once the mind had filtered out the pain, we could actually walk quite fast. As we walked, guess what, it started to rain! Unbelievable, but fortunately not for long.

It was Jackie and Jo's turn to take over support again and we had text messages from them asking how long we would be. We had estimated 9:00am, but realised it would be at least 9:30. We actually got there about 9:50am, feeling really close to the end. That section was hard, but to see Jackie running down the road to greet us, taking Steve's and my rucksack was a joy. She and Jo were bouncy and enthusiastic and it really gave us a lift. On arrival at the car the sun was shining and they had cooked bacon, sausage, beans, eggs, the whole works. It was an absolute delight and we all tucked in. It almost felt like the end, but we still had two stages to do. Checkpoint 10 had no support crew, but was only 4km away, followed by the final leg, a distance of 5.8km. It was achievable, but it was going to hurt!

We set off, after too long a break, with Jo. She decided she'd like to walk the final 2 legs with us and her enthusiasm certainly helped. It left Jackie on her own to clear up and drive to the finish at Brighton Racecourse and she suddenly felt quite lonely!

Off we went up the hill at speed and Jo said how impressed she was with our speed. There followed a steep downhill and this really took its toll on us, my knees really suffering. The pain didn't go away for me, so I knew I'd really have to zone out if I were to keep going. We got to Checkpoint 10 to rapturous applause from the Gurkha's, had a quick drink of water and carried on.

We had a final hill to climb and then a gradual descent into Brighton. It seemed to go on forever and I just zoned out and kept walking. I was ahead of the others, but I just kept walking, forcing every step. On reaching the main road I stopped to let the others catch up and it was at this point we put on our 'T' shirts, provided by Trailwalker, for the final arrival at the racecourse. Steve and Paul had donned wigs and we practised the 'Monkees Walk' ready for our arrival at the finish line.

We had to walk a long distance down the main road and, on arrival at the race course, it became apparent that we had to walk round the course itself. We could see the finish line and it looked miles away - unbelievable! 4 furlongs, 3 furlongs, how slow they went. Teeth gritted and smiles on our faces we got to the cheering crowds and could see Jackie, Andrea, Brutus, Laura and Dani (Steve's girlfriend) and all her family cheering us along. Over the public address system we could hear the announcer saying 'here comes team 324 and they have the team name, cover small children's ears please: Bugger this, I'm taking the bus'. Lots of photographs, opening of bubbly and lots of emotion! What a fantastic end!

Finally after podium photographs, we went inside for the Gurkha Curry promised to Ash by Steve all those months ago! Jackie ran to the car and came back with Paul's guitar. He passed round some song sheets and we sang his own words to The Proclaimers - I'm Gonna Be (500 miles) at the tops of our voices. Brilliant wording by Paul and one of the verses read:

When I'm walking yes I know I'm gonna be
I'm gonna be the man who's sweating hard for you
And when my feet stink oh I know I'm gonna get
I'm gonna get fresh socks off our s'pport crew
When I end this oh I know I'm gonna be
I'm gonna be the man who ends all this with you
And if I suffer well I know I'm gonna be
I'm gonna be the man that's sufferin' wi' you

But I would walk one hundred clicks
And I would walk one hundred more
Just to be the man who walked some Oxfam miles
On the South Downs Trailwalker

A great end to a fantastic weekend. My thanks to my team members, Jackie, Jo, Andrea, Brutus, Laura and those amazing Gurkha's!

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