This write-up is a little late, but the time that has passed since Gabe completed this challenge hasn’t diluted my sense of pride one little bit.
Gabe chose to do the Ridgeway hike to help us raise money for Duchenne UK. He is only a couple of years older than Tom and he feels how unjust it is that Tom’s fate is so very different from his own. He wanted to do the walk to show how much he cares about trying to secure a future for his friend.
From the outset he had felt extremely nervous about covering such a long distance. He had trained in the weeks up to starting the trail, but because of the unusually hot weather, hadn’t managed more than 9 miles a day during that time. Little did we know, temperatures would soar yet higher by the time we were to set off.
The trail is 87 miles long, but that too was to increase once we factored in walking to campsites or places to stay over the week-long hike. I was tagging along as a packhorse to carry our kit. But this was definitely Gabe’s challenge and he carried his own food, water and additional clothing layers each day.
Gabe’s siblings (Maddy & Nate) and his dad accompanied the two of us for the first few miles of day one and there was a real sense of excitement that it was finally time to set off. By the time we had driven to the start of the trail it was already almost lunchtime. Gabe had been impatient to get there and begin his adventure. He felt confident and determined and he walked with a happy, strong stride; however, there’s no doubt he was really feeling the strain by the end of the 10-mile day. After a tasty pub supper with the rest of the family, we waved them off and crawled into our tent.
Once the others had left, Gabe’s sense of nerves became all too apparent as he settled down into his sleeping bag in our cosy tent at the edge of a horse field and tried his best to sleep amidst anxious thoughts about what the trail would throw our way. But sleep he eventually did.
The next day, he woke refreshed and, after a hearty bowl of porridge and hot chocolate, was raring to go. It was foggy as we set off and it wasn’t until mid morning that we realised just how hot the day (and the majority of the week) was going to be.
The hours wore on and we began to struggle as the temperature rose and potential areas of shade became less and less frequent. Many miles of the Ridgeway are formed by long straight sections of track, bordered by low hedges and fields that provide little escape from direct sunlight. For most of the day there was no cloud cover and by the early afternoon, temperatures were hitting 32 degrees in the shade. We took breaks when we spotted patches of shade and doused ourselves in water when we passed taps (there are a few along the trail itself).
We managed the planned 13 miles for the day, but both of us were suffering a little from heat exhaustion by the end of it and there was no way we could walk the additional mile or so to the place we had planned to eat supper. I honestly didn’t know if we actually could continue with the walk, let alone whether or not we should. We had already passed several people during the day, who we later found out had to give up on their attempt because of blisters or the effects of the heat. That second evening was incredibly difficult but it was made so much easier owing to the generous and warm-hearted help of a new-found friend staying in a caravan at the campsite, who provided us with cold drinks from his fridge and some food from the local supermarket meaning we could save our meal rations.
But true to form, however bad we had felt when we fell into our tent, the next day we woke bright and early and refreshed enough to give it all another go. And so it continued. And not for the first time, I learned just how miraculous a night’s sleep can be!
We were lucky enough to have the most wonderful boost halfway through when Gabe’s Nanna joined us for a day and a half of walking.
Our overnight stay together was in a bunkbarn near Wantage, which had the most wonderful grounds. It was a the brainchild of a local doctor, who begged and borrowed most of the materials to build it, including many reclaimed and recycled bricks and tiles from right across Europe. It provides a lovely setting for school groups and walkers alike. We were treated to some time with the warden, Keith, who taught Gabe all about snails. And as there was no-one else staying the night we were there, we made the most of a fabulous sunset from a peaceful area of woodland alongside the barn.
I left Gabe in charge of our timings each day. We discussed the major things he needed to take into account, such as the weather and number of miles we needed to cover, and he determined when the alarm went off and broadly when we had our breaks. He made some sensible decisions and had us up at 4.45am at one point to avoid the day’s hottest times. The shortest day he walked was 7 miles (deliberately a half day) when we arrived at our destination by 9am because of an insanely early start. The longest day was a meaty 18-miles. At times Gabe moved slowly and had to muster all of his effort to keep plodding forwards. At other, often unexpected times, he ran ahead with leaps and boundless enthusiasm.
But whatever his mood, he rarely passed a tree without climbing it and never passed a dog without greeting it, giving everyone around him a demonstration on how to enjoy the simple things in life.
Gabe showed a level of resilience on this walk that was impressive. There were many times when he wanted to give up. He frequently felt tired and achy and he occasionally talked about what his friends at home might be doing. It wasn’t just the length of each day and the heat that provided a challenge, but the relentless regime of a repeating pattern day after day after day. We played guessing games almost hourly, made sure we spent a decent amount of time resting at lunchtime and most importantly for Gabe, we ate our body weight in snacks and meals each day!
On more days than not, there would come a point when he felt fully unable to go on. Each time I would tell him there was no pressure and he could stop any time he wanted. I trod a fine line in this respect. The last thing I wanted to do was to force him to continue when he was struggling, but not making it to the end of the trail would have left him with a pain of an entirely different sort. It was a tough call to know how much encouragement was the right amount and there were a couple of times when I thought we had come to the end of what he could manage.
Each time he faltered we would sit down, rest and refuel and talk about why we were doing what we were doing. And every single time he would get back up to his feet and say ‘Mum, I’m finishing this for Tom’. And he put one foot in front of the other for the full 87 miles, sometimes marching, other times moving so slowly it was painful to watch. And he made it to the end. And my word, what a moment it was at that finish line. Flanked by me, his dad, siblings and another couple of my wonderful friends, Gabe threw his arm over the trig at Ivinghoe Beacon with his face full of both relief and euphoria. And he raised a phenomenal £3,500 in the process.
But this trail wasn’t entirely altruistic. Yes, the original and most important part of it was to raise money for a charity that is becoming ever closer to our hearts and yes, every step we took we did for Tom and thousands of boys like him. But we also gained more than I could ever have hoped for on a personal level. Gabe is at times relatively shy and, like many boys of his age, he frequently struggles to believe in himself. There are times when he just doesn’t think he has what it takes. And as a lucky parent of healthy children, I find that tricky. I want him to know that the world is his oyster; that he can do anything he wants if he really sets his mind to it. And succeeding at this challenge gave him a taste of that feeling. It has shown him just what he is capable of. There were many people who expressed doubt about his chances of success with this trail but he had nailed it with bells on. And for the first time Gabe became a real ‘can-do’ boy.
And if that were not enough, I got to know my wonderful son a hundred times better than I had done before. We spent twenty-four hours a day in close proximity for more than a week. Prolonged one-on-one time like that is rare in a family of five. Over that week, I saw Gabe when he was intensely happy and I saw him at his lowest points. And he likewise witnessed me both upbeat and when I struggled. And we supported each other equally through the whole of that week. He told stories that had me in stitches, he showed his cheeky side without restraint, his humour was utterly infectious and he showed me a whole loving world of care when I faltered. I’m so grateful to everyone who supported him and donated and I’m proud that he raised so much for Duchenne UK. But I am equally grateful for the time it gave us together and for the things I learned about my son.
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