Tuesday last week:
After climbing the last set of stairs, I finally wobbled into the office.
I was exhausted. I’d only been walking 15 minutes and only come across 1 flight of stairs but wow, I was not feeling good.
“How did it go Mia?”: the eyes of my colleagues were fixed on me as I came in.
“Brutal. The hardest thing I have ever done”
“Even harder than Clipper?!”
“Yes, even harder than Clipper”
3 days earlier…
A few years ago, a friend from my rowing club forsook the Summer Rowing Season in favour of walking in an event called “Trailwalker”. This was a challenge where teams of 4 would have to walk 100km along the South Downs Way, non-stop in under 30 hours in a bid to raise funds for Oxfam & the Gurkas.
Ever since my friend completed the challenge, I’d had it my head that this was something that I’d like to. It had all the qualities of something that would appeal to me:
- It would be a journey – A 100km stretch starting in Petersfield and ending in Brighton
- It would be under my own “steam” – there’s something intensely satisfying about knowing you’ve got yourself somewhere.
- It would likely be rather hard – 30 hours of non-stop walking with no sleep would be a great challenge for someone who needs at least 9 hours of sleep a night. Oh, and who has never stayed up all night in her life.
So that’s the reason why 4 of us found ourselves waking up at 4.30am on Saturday 28th July, psyching ourselves up to walk a casual 100km. Sarah, Barr, Claire & I were a crack-team that hadn’t actually walked together (or even met before in the case of Barr & Sarah!), but we were going to smash it.
We thought waking up at 4.30am should leave us plenty of time to get to Petersfield and get to the start. We’d picked up our numbers the night before, met the film crew that would be following us (we met the “profile” they were looking for apparently) and had stuffed our bags with food & first aid essentials to get us through the walk. Claire’s parents, Lynne & Dick, having fed & watered us the night before kindly drove us to the start in Queen Elizabeth Park, Petersfield.
Turns out waking up at 4.30am wasn’t quite early enough. We didn’t realise on arrival that we’d have to walk 10 minutes to the start so we ended up starting 15 minutes late. We were supposed to have set-off with the first wave of walkers at 6.00am, but by missing the start, we missed the bagpipes & the cheering crowds that were seeing the teams leave. The upside of this is that we had a blissfully calm start to our walk. With no other walkers to jostle with, we could enjoy the woodland path at the start of the route and we began with a cracking pace. The only distraction was had was the Oxfam film crew who popped up to film us for a little while. They were looking to portray the “real and gritty” side of Trailwalker, but we definitely didn’t start off like this – it was smiles all round and fresh, bouncy feet. We were off!
We quickly gained on other groups of walkers ahead of us, and before we knew it, we saw our first “1km to the next Checkpoint” sign. Hurrah! 10km done. That was easy.
As part of this event, we had to have a “Support Crew” that would meet us at various checkpoints in the challenge to ensure that we were fed, watered and most importantly, still walking! We had a fabulous team of 6 support crew that took it in shifts to help us.
Liz & Andrew were our first Support Crew. We’d agreed not to meet them at CP1 as we were still so fresh on our feet, so the first checkpoint was just a quick loo break then on we went. Before we knew it, another 10km was done. I can’t remember much of where we walked or what we saw as it was heads-down, poles out, walk, walk, walk. We were so focused on getting through the checkpoints that the walking itself became a blur.
Meeting Liz & Andrew at CP2 was delightful. It was dry, they had chairs for us and we were still feeling great. All the same, we changed our socks and inspected our feet for damage as we couldn’t afford injuries this early on. Intel from previous Trailwalkers suggested that blisters were the main reason that people didn’t finish the event, so we agreed to change our socks regularly to prevent them.
20km down and we were off to CP3. By this point, the weather was starting to turn against us: the weather forecast was looking pretty dreadful for the afternoon onwards of the event, so in anticipation, I donned my waterproof trousers. As soon as those waterproof trousers went on, the rain would stop. If I went to take them off, it would start again. It would appear my waterproof trousers were magic and therefore would not be allowed to come off for fear or further rain.
The showers combined with rain from the day before meant that CP3 was closed to support crew so we were unable to meet Liz & Andrew. Someone hadn’t got the memo though, and as we were about to walk out, up popped Vernon who would be supporting us from CP5 onwards. Vernon came with enthusiasm & strawberries which set us in good stead to deal with the next 10km – a soggy 2 hours where the rain decided to kick in properly.
We ended up meeting Liz & Andrew at a very soggy CP4. 40km down, we were starting to feel the walk (40km being the farthest we’d ever walked before!) so we really needed the chairs L&A had for us to rest. As it was rather soggy, Liz & Andrew had put the chairs but stood with umbrellas over us to keep us dry as we stuffed our faces. We also managed to acquire another team member At CP4 – Lenni.
Lenni’s original team-mates had dropped out, her support crew had gone home, but she wanted to continue so the Gurkhas called us over and asked if she could come with us.
Now, I have to confess, we probably weren’t the most welcoming team by this point. It was raining, we were getting to our check points ahead of schedule and we wanted to maintain the pace – would Lenni be able to keep up? Would she slow us down? Our worries about Lenni quickly disappeared as she kept up with ease, but by now, the rain was really setting in and we were getting super-soggy. The route was covered in thick chalky-grey mud so we were incredibly happy to see Vernon & Andy at CP5 with a large van where we could get dry and sort our kit out. Joints were starting to get sore & blisters were starting to appear so we needed slightly longer to sort things out at the checkpoints from this point onwards. We also needed to make sure that we kept eating. Food was now becoming fuel rather than being enjoyable.
Blisters attended to, hydration packs filled and fresh socks on, it was on to the night time section of the walk as we left CP5 around 7.30pm. The next section was surreal as we found ourselves walking through thick mist in the twilight. Was this real? Or was this just the inside of my head?
We couldn’t see much more than 20 metres ahead; the teams in front disappearing and re-appearing in the mist. Had I been on my own, my mind would have made up all sorts of dreadful outcomes to walking in this mist, but we were just glad that it wasn’t raining. Eventually, our visibility was hindered further by nightfall, so on it was with the head torches. Mist + darkness was probably a good thing as it helped us concentrate on the path. Hills? Not a problem. If you can’t see them, you don’t worry about them. You just find yourself walking upwards.
CP6 was memorable for the fact that there were free massages! Volunteers had set up massage tables out of the rain, each table containing a mucky walker, caked in mud but looking happy for the relief from the massage. We were really starting to tire by this point, and after leaving at around 10.30pm (well past my bed time) our pace was slowing as we fought exhaustion and blisters. Lenni decided to call it a day at this point as she was feeling an injury she’d picked up earlier in the event. Good-byes said, we were back to a team of 4 rather than 5.
By the time we reached CP7 it was particularly grim as the rain and wind had picked up again. My legs were tired, but otherwise, I was feeling surprisingly good considering we’d just walked 70km non-stop. Barr, on the other hand, was starting to suffer with blisters – injuries not helped by the wet conditions.
Arriving at CP7, we spotted Vernon & Andy, but to accompany then, we had a surprise visit from Emily & Lucy. E&L were supposed to be taking over from V&A at the next checkpoint, but it was SO GOOD to see their faces alongside Vernon & Andy’s. Having both been on my watch during Clipper, they were two of the very few people that have seen (and know how to handle) a sleep-deprived Mia at 2am in the morning.
Our support crew ushered us into a tent to get some hot food that was available at this checkpoint, but I really did not want to eat. My stomach was not particularly happy at being made to function at this time in the morning. Emily asked me “If you could eat anything right now then, what would it be?”. Anything? The only thing I could stomach at that time would be Cheerios – my go-to early morning snack on the boat.
Emily had Cheerios.
I was so happy.
We were so lucky with our support crew. At every stage they gave us a massive lift and it was excellent to know that they’d be waiting for us. We wouldn’t have made it without them.
With food inside us, we left CP7 at around 2.30am ready for CP8.
So CP8. By this point, I was getting really tired.
As a team, we were slowing down and poor Barr’s foot was definitely not getting any better. Arriving into CP8 at around 4.30am, I had my sense of humour failure. When we walked into the checkpoint, there were people cheering with lights, loud music – everything designed to boost you. But I hated them. I hated them all.
Why were they being happy when I was just pissed off and wanted to get to the end?
STOP. BEING. SO. DAMNED. CHEERFUL.
I knew that I’d turn into a bit of a monster being tired and anger was the first of many emotions I went through as a result of the sleep deprivation. Next it was the tears -I was just so tired, and my resilience was going. I cried even more when Emily Face-timed Steve for me, he being in Germany at the time. It was OK though – finally, it was dawn. I found some coffee (my first since Friday) and for 20 minutes, I was on FIRE! So much ENERGY! LET’S DO THIS!
The effects of the coffee lasted approx. 20 minutes. The leg from CP8 to CP9 then turned into the worst leg of the whole challenge.
For some reason, this leg was longer than any other in the challenge – around 14km long vs. the 10km average distance between each check point. We were all very tired by this point, our entire bodies sore from walking but with different ailments amongst the team, we had to handle ourselves differently. Distance opened up as half the team slowed down to make their injuries bearable whilst the other half kept up a harsh (at that time of the morning) pace to prevent their muscles from seizing up. We also had the added pressure of time from this point onwards, as there now was no margin to spare if we wanted to complete the challenge within 30 hours and not be disqualified.
Somewhere near CP9, a large distance had opened up between Sarah & I and Claire & Barr. I stopped to wait for them and at that point we got the message from Claire that Barr was hurt and needed help. Her foot was causing her so much pain that she couldn’t go on. After various phone calls, we managed to get a First-Aid Ambulance to Barr to take her on to CP9, Claire & I silently storming up the final hill to make it to the check point ourselves. Barr had managed to walk an incredible 90km but had developed a mega-blister the size of a golf ball on her foot. She couldn’t continue.
Barr injured, the remaining 3 of us now had just over 2 hours left to walk the final 10km if we wanted to complete Trailwalker within the requisite 30 hours. CP9 was a very short stop as a result. I needed water but didn’t want food – I just wanted to go and get to the finish as fast as we possibly could. I now really, really wanted this thing to be over and wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep walking for.
Despite having been awake for 30 hours by this point, my determination to make it to the finish means that I can clearly remember the terrain between CP9 & CP10. To our disgrace, we discovered we had 2 acute hills to climb, but there was nothing left but to charge up them both if we were going to get to the end on time.
By the time we reached the plateau above Brighton, we were desperate to get to the racecourse. Brighton in the distance, we spotted Vernon who informed us we had around 3.5km to go. Hopes lifted, we marched on then saw a 4km sign, discovering that the building we could see far in the distance was our finish. Oh the rage at Trailwalker!
We were not happy. By this point, we were walking on tarmac (brutal for sore feet) and everything was hurting. I oscillated from crying with the fatigue to telling myself to be strong and crack on. “Come on Hartwell, you can do this!” , “Aaaaaaaah I just want this to be over!”. I was cursing Trailwalker. Why the hell did I ever sign up to do this?
Finally, we were on the grassy race track that lead to the Brighton Race Course Stadium. I think all 3 of us had tears in our eyes at this point; we’d come so far and we were so nearly there. As we approached the finish line, the film crew that had meant to follow us popped up for some “gritty” and “real” action (we hadn’t seen them since around CP3/4). We all muttered that there would be hell to pay if they came too close at this point. We were definitely gritty and real at this point, and our only aim was to get over that damned finish line.
There were crowds at the finish as we walked the final 50m. There were our support team – Lynne, Dick, Liz, Andrew, Vernon, Emily & Lucy. They were there right until the end cheering us on for those final few steps.
We clocked our time with our electronic tags, and later we discovered we’d finished with just 3 minutes to spare (it should have been more as our start time was incorrectly recorded). We were re-united with Barr and all ushered up onto a stage to receive our medals.
We’d done it.
We’d endured rain, wind, mud and sleep-deprivation. We’d experienced hunger, blisters, laughter, tears, aches and pains. We’d walked 145,009 steps and burnt 9,477 calories each. We’d raised over £3,000 for Oxfam and the Gurkhas and we’d walked 100km, non-stop.
Our wonderful support crew had prepared a spot with picnic rugs for us to collapse on. We all gathered together, celebrating with some sparkling wine courtesy of Sarah & Vernon and then the film crew appeared.
“So guys, what would you say to people considering doing Trailwalker?”
“Don’t do it!” we unanimously replied.
Not great for Oxfam’s marketing, but it was how we felt at the time. We were incredibly proud, but totally and utterly exhausted. I went to bed at 3.30pm that afternoon and slept for 16 hours straight. It then took me the whole of the rest of the next week to recover. Apart from some mysterious rashes on my legs, I was physically fine, but I seriously needed to recoup those lost hours of sleep.
What made this challenge harder than Clipper was the lack of sleep. Even though it was “only” 30 hours the long, the constant movement and lack of rest made it by far the hardest thing I have ever done. “Walking 100km – it’s just walking”: but when do you ever do a full-body activity for 30 hours non-stop? Never. The Clipper Race was hard in a completely different way, as although it was 4 months long, you were rarely more than 6 hours away from a nap. With Trailwalker, you just have to keep going. That’s what makes it hard – the relentless need to walk.
I finally understand the Oxfham hashtag that went this event: an incredible team meant that 4 crazy ladies managed to walk 100km. We now know what it is to be #TrailwalkerStrong.