101km Grand Union Canal walking challenge
Many people are already aware of this walk experience from the ongoing and possibly slightly dramatic online commentary, but for those of you who don’t know, here goes…..
The entire walk was along the Grand Union Canal towpath, from Paddington to Bletchley Park, just south of Milton Keynes, 101km in total. It’s a daunting distance by anyone’s standards but I had felt that my passion for walking, along with hundreds of miles covered in training, would get me through at least some of it.
I had the best walking partner in the world in the form of my dad, aka Pops. He has spent a large part of his life taking off on long walks and hill adventures, including, on his 60th birthday, completing the 14 peaks challenge (or Welsh 3,000), which covers all 14 mountains over 3,000 feet in Snowdonia in a single day. If anyone could do this walk and drag me with them, it was Pops.
A tendon injury six weeks before the date of the walk had threatened my chances of starting, let alone completing the distance and my dad had been discharged from hospital two days before the event, with a breathing problem. However, having seen my husband smash his hill marathon and the kids do an amazing job with their 10 mile bike ride, we knew we had to make the start line and give it a decent shot.
We set off with a hopeful attitude and began at a slow but steady pace. The challenge is very meticulously organised and has rest and snack stops every 12km or so, providing at times a stunning array of food.
Each 25km stop provides a hot meal and from 50km onwards there are blister bays, ambulances & paramedics to ferry those who needed it to hospital, and doctors to assess and treat the ailing on site.
We comfortably made it to the first rest stop at 14km and I felt confident that we could continue on to the 25km mark before my injury was likely to cause me significant concern. In fact, my first true flicker of doubt didn’t hit until 50km, which we reached by dusk. It was a point I thought I wouldn’t make and I felt proud to have come that far. By now, my hip was making itself known and the pain was causing me to walk at a ridiculously slow pace, but I wasn’t completely debilitated, so stopping was not an option.
The rain, which had fallen for much of the first ten hours of walking, had abated by this, the halfway point and we were very happy to have a surprise welcome from my husband, daughter, sister and niece, who had arrived ready for their 25km leg the following morning, and had come to applaud our efforts. I headed almost immediately for the blister bay where I took off my boots and socks to have my feet strapped and have a welcome sit down and food.
By ten thirty, with socks changed, feet bound, food and coffee consumed and another layer or two donned for night walking, it was time to go once again. Having been convinced that we wouldn’t make it to sunset, neither my dad nor I had brought a head-torch with us! Doh! This made the dark hours of the night walk instantly more dodgy. For much of the journey the towpath was reasonably easy to navigate with just one small handheld torch between us, but in sections it was uneven, muddy and unreliable at the canal edge. It took patience and care to walk without taking an unintentional dip in the canal, an event that would certainly have ended our walk! The hedgerow and bushes bordering the other side of the path were overgrown in parts and with little light available, staying away from the canal side brought with it a regular and yet unexpected assault from branches and nettles. By the time we had cautiously navigated several kilometres under these conditions, I was feeling a significant degree of pain in my injured hip and was concerned about potentially developing lasting damage. The 61km rest area provided a welcome pitstop at 1am and we both tried to keep our sense of humour while we spent half an hour warming ourselves up with coffee.
It’s worth a salute here to three men on the route, who have taken on the most phenomenal challenges in aid of a local children’s cancer charity this year. To date in 2014 they have undertaken the national 3 peaks 24 hour challenge, a crazy 13 hour running race, a long distance bike race, a tough mudder course and all of this to be followed by Kilimanjaro next week, a triathlon two weeks later and another 4 events thereafter. They were impressive and dedicated men, who are completing tasks that I could only dream of. But surprisingly, they declared this walk to be the hardest challenge they had experienced. I didn’t see them beyond the 1am rest stop and I truly, truly hope they finished. They certainly deserved to.
As we walked on and the sun rose, we reached a long and drawn-out area that was flooded, muddy and incredibly slippery. Our energy levels were low, having taken a long time to cover the 15km that lay between the last rest stop and the next and I was coming to the tearful conclusion that I might not be able to go much further.
Having been going for more than 21 hours since leaving the start line, we finally reached the 76km mark at 6am on Sunday morning. I can safely say I have never, on any physical challenge, felt worse in my life. I was intractably cold, shivering uncontrollably, in what I could only describe as severe pain and my body was fatigued with the relentless request to perform the same repetitive movement for, by then, almost 17 hours of active walking. I immediately lay down on the ground, feeling unlikely to get back up, let alone return to the task in hand. I had my injured hip treated and my legs massaged by one of the available practitioners. I was given a foil blanket and I sat, in tears, feeling slightly pathetic and truly and utterly broken. I posted my thoughts on facebook, which had been a source of such support the previous day and felt resigned to retiring from the challenge. Glancing around, the scene resembled nothing short of a disaster zone! There were people lying on the ground, a couple of walkers who had been treated by medics having collapsed, a lady who’s face was bruised down the whole of one side, presumably from a fall, and foil blankets were, by now, commonplace. Word was also rife about a walker who had been rescued having fallen into the canal overnight!
My husband Matt, my sister Manda and my daughter and niece, Maddy & Tilly, arrived just before 7am, excited, energetic and ready to begin their 25km challenge. I couldn’t help but notice their reaction when we met. I clearly wasn’t looking any better than I felt!
At this pivotal point, I picked up my phone to let everyone know of my decision to retire and was greeted with the most encouraging and motivating messages. Several friends had gone to bed wishing me luck and were apparently amazed to hear that we were still walking when they woke. I read the messages twice and, with feelings of true dread, I decided I had just one kilometre left in me.
With a very brief explanation, I left dad behind, yet to eat his meal and I limped off, in such a daze that I wasn’t entirely certain of which way to turn (which, when you are walking along a canal towpath, isn’t hugely varied in terms of options)! From here onwards it was truly the ongoing love and good wishes of all my friends and family that carried me forwards.
At the 90km rest stop I waited for the others to arrive and walked the rest of the way with my family, things feeling a whole lot lighter than 14km earlier.
My dad, at this point, was still looking relatively fresh (his tongue-in-cheek concern being the appalling state of his hair)! Throughout this challenge I came to regard him as slightly superhuman. Not at any point did he appear to suffer any pain; he didn’t need any treatment to his feet, and didn’t even take his boots off from start to finish (which makes me doubly glad that I wasn’t with him when he finally did). He took no pain killers, didn’t make use of the massage practitioners and, certainly from the halfway mark onwards, had no doubt that he could finish the task in hand. He is one tough cookie!
The guys doing the final 25km with us were totally dedicated in their approach to covering their distance and to supporting me and Pops. There was not a single moan from the girls, for whom this represented a significant distance and my sister made light work of a walk that would challenge anyone with no structured training. They were all superb and I am forever grateful to them for their participation and support.
Our mums, meanwhile, were at home in Leicestershire, holding the fort, looking after the boys and preparing for our return. They flooded us with messages of support and sent texts and photographs from Gabriel & Nate to keep us smiling.
28 hours after setting off and with a very real sense of achievement, we crossed the finish line.
We had some very good friends waiting moored at the end point, who provided us with celebration drinks, congratulations and laughs, before we wearily made our way home again.
This experience was one of the most incredible of my life. Throughout the miles we made fleeting acquaintance with other participants, each with a story to tell about why they were there. As the kilometres passed, we shared our struggles and offered each other words of encouragement. There were some amazing and brave folks on that path. Shortly after we arrived at the end, I had the opportunity to greet a tearful lady who we had passed and encountered several times during the 100km. She had completed the entire walk alone. About the same age as I am, she was suffering from terrible foot pain and had resorted to walking with her bare feet laced onto the top of her walking boots. She was typical of the type of determined and stoical participant that we met over and over again during the 28 hours of our amazing journey.
And now to my husband. What can I say? He is the strongest and most fabulous man I have ever met and he has been an absolute star throughout this adventure. Although kept secret from me, he never had any intention of letting us set off on our mammoth walk alone. He and Maddy always planned to surprise us at the start line and during the first day, they continually jumped out onto the towpath at bridges and exits (sometimes when they had misjudged our timing and we were several km ahead), to liven up our spirits and encourage us along.
Matt had always allowed for the fact that we may not finish this route. However, he managed to instill a sense of calm about potential retirement, whilst also supporting me with perfect words and fighting talk when I decided I could continue. He is awesome.
I have to end with a final thank you to all my incredible friends and family. Not ever in my life have I experienced such an outpouring of support from so many. Truly, if it is possible to be literally carried by love and goodwill, I floated the last 10km and that is an amazing tribute to all those out there who took the time to urge me forwards, whether by text, facebook or on the towpath itself. It was a show of incredible human generosity and kindness. The fact that I finished this 101km, the fact that I walked day, night and a good part of another day and the fact that I walked through an injury that I had to start with is 100% a team result. I am absolutely convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the level of support, encouragement and sheer emotion made it possible for me to continue when I felt I had nothing left to give. The words everyone sent me will ring in my ears and continue to draw a tear to my eye for a long time to come. Thank you.
Walk stats for those who are still reading!
21.5 hours of active walking
6.5 hours combined rest stops
4,400 calories burned (Seriously?! It felt like more..!)
8L electrolyte / water mix
1 ham & tomato sandwich & 2 packs of snack-a-jacks
4 chocolate tiffen slices & 1 chocolate strawberry
4 sausages & ½ baked potato
Bacon, egg & bean breakfast
1 x ongoing injured hip
157 inspirational facebook messages and texts