Well, that’s an achievement ticked off the bucket list: being cheered across the winning post in front of packed stands at the end of a race. Only we were going the wrong way up Brighton’s helter-skelter track. And there were no horses in sight. The race was an internal competition with my ailing body and not with my fellow participants.
Crossing the line was an emotional moment. More so than I had anticipated. Mrs A had spotted us traversing the track from some way out and was waving furiously. It was wonderful to have someone there to welcome us home. We had walked from London to Brighton completing 102.9km in 27 hours and it was bloody hard work!
The adventure had begun early the previous morning at 5.30am when my phone alarm vibrated its digital jangle. The bags had been packed the previous evening and all that remained was to don the walking gear bought in a job lot from a discount internet store. Today, Gok, I would be wearing Mountain Warehouse.
The training was in the can. At least as much as it ever could be. Avid readers will recall the earlier preparations and the good idea from team leader Bryn that now seemed like insanity.
Mrs A, support crew for the duration, whisked me down to Ben’s where we arrived at about the same time as Ad and Bryn. There was time for a nervous cup of tea and conversations about kit and medications that just served to spook us more. Ad and I compared notes on the underwhelming support from our offspring. “It’s just walking”, had said Daughter No2, “you’re always walking!”
The registration hall at Kempton raceourse was buzzing. Good humoured BHF staff kitted us out with maps, t-shirts, head torches and first aid packs. Mrs A then departed home in order to rest up before meeting us that evening for some intensive moral and practical support.
We learned later that about 500 had left in three waves from Kempton. The initial procession through suburbia along narrow pavements soon gave way to an exceedingly pleasant stroll by the river. Ad met his new girlfriend somewhere near Twickenham and she joined us for a few miles.
The only incident I can recall from those innocent early steps is when Ben lobbed a spent apple to feed a horse in a field and accidently hit its hindquarters. The steed quivered from the tail right up to the mane. This moment was duly milked for the rest of the trip with laboured humour. Every time we saw a horse, the cry went up, “Run, horsey. Ben’s packing fruit and he’s not afraid to use it”. Or some such.
At about 10.30am, we were overtaken by some determined trekkers whom we realised were the lead posse of the 9.00am starters. We had left half an hour before them, so they were beasting the course. But not as much as some others. Much, much later, as we were struggling over the first real inclines of the walk in deepest Sussex, a steward told us that the first people to complete the course had run most of it to finish at about 11.30pm.
There were some vaguely amusing scenes at Check Point 1, the Anchor pub in Pyrford. Saturday lunchtime diners found their beer garden festooned with hundreds of red-shirted walkers bearing foot spray, sun cream and lucozade.
I have to say that the support and advice from stewards, staff and paramedics was absolutely wonderful throughout the event. Whether this was logistical information, motivational words or medical intervention. Brilliant.
In the next phase, Ben broke out his stonking eight-round quiz with jokers, wildcards and additional rules made up on the hoof. Fantastic. It sustained us through a lot of miles.
I knew Bryn would win. I just knew. Many years ago he secured a pub quiz victory for us by unearthing obscure facts about the personal habits of Homer Simpson. He has quality form.
I let myself down by confusing Derby winner Ruler Of The World with Master Of The Universe (I was in the right ball park!) and describing everything about the ownership, trainer, colours, price and form (including a Catterick prep victory) of Grand National winner Ballabrigs, without actually recalling his name! I blame muscle fatigue.
I think Ad’s concentration slipped when he was responding to the stream of text messages from his new girlfriend.
The trek began to feel real after Checkpoint 2 at 32km (20 miles or so). We’d all walked further in training, but not in such hot weather. The distance from the first to the second checkpoint was more than 15km and we had probably made a mistake by not stopping in between. No damage done, but we were more tired than expected at that point.
Thoughts turned to sustaining our physical durability. I’d nicked a clear plastic Ted Baker medicine bag from Daughter No 2 and considered it to be the finest example in our group. She had used it to house her collection of 20-odd lip balms assembled over many years. Ironically this was the one thing I forgot to pack and I suffered chapped lips deep into the trek.
Hardly a medical emergency I’ll grant you. The aching joints were more of a priority. It was checkpoint 5 before I resorted to a paracetomol/ibuprofen cocktail. Combined with a strong coffee that Mrs A was queuing for before we even emerged into the dark car park of the industrial estate, it provided a temporary boost. I felt much stronger on the subsequent 11km stretch. That checkpoint, 56km in, was the first where we saw real casualties. People obviously packing sweaty kit and broken frames into support vehicles for an early escape.
Apparently the boiler in the solitary drinks van had been on the blink for much of the evening. It had only just started working again before our arrival. The absence of hot drinks may well have been the final straw for many. Apart from the loos and the paramedics, there was nothing else here.
On leaving, the stewards asked if a lone female walker could join us. And so four became five as Cherry accompanied us through the night and early morning stages. Cherry’s opening remark was “You won’t murder me will you?” I do like a woman with realistic benchmarks! Apparently Cherry had been determined to walk alone, but the stewards intervened when she said she didn’t really like the dark! Just another example of how sensibly and responsibly this event was run. No one was put at any unnecessary risk.
One walker from Yorkshire put this to the test when he got smashed by a branch after only 7km. He was avoiding a bike coming the other way and simultaneously unsighted by the sun. The paramedics said the cut needed to be glued and he should end the walk there. We saw him at about the 25km marker when he was telling us this story. “I’m not stopping” he said. “I’m from Donny!” He was allowed to continue as long as he got the all clear from the paramedics at every checkpont. He finished before us.
There was a foot spa on offer at one of the checkpoints. Tempted, but I didn’t partake. My feet would probably have benefitted immeasurably from such a treat, but I felt I couldn’t inflict them on a paramedic who, though having solid training under their belt, would have not have been equipped for such an ordeal. In fact I was happy with my foot regime: airing and glide blister barrier application at every stop, together with four sock changes. I survived largely contusion and friction free for the duration.
Ad took a different approach. He had a look and a poke at his plates at stop 4 and was so appalled by what he discovered that he kept them wrapped up for the rest of the trip tighter than a Chinese foot-binding ritual.
Talking to Cherry later, she said that the foot spa was actually a bit of an exaggeration. It was actually a washing up bowl of warm water. There was still an extensive queue for it though!
At about that point, Ben’s partner rang to say that she’d had a great time at a 40th birthday party, had danced all night and that “her feet were killing her”. “Oh really?” seemed to be the collective response.
We lived by checkpoints. Time spent resting and recuperating there grew at the same rate as the kilometres seemed to stretch out exponentially when we were closing in on one. This was a mental battle as much as a physical one. We all seemed to go through good and bad stretches. My worst moments were in three of the four middle sections.
Meeting Mrs A for the first rendezvous at checkpoint 4 was uplifting, but I was in a poor state then. She said that she had seen people coming in crying and limping. This was not a competitive event in a race sense, but there is no doubting that those little nuggets provide a personal boost.
Tired and emotional, I was concerned that my aching knee would become a massive burden with still a logic-defying 57km to go. However, Ben’s diversion to M&S for sausage rolls and iced buns was a spirit lifter. The tomato soup that Mrs A queued for was a life saver. The elasticated knee brace that I resorted to was a joint restorer. We cruised through the 50km marker on that next stretch much restored and invigorated.
My worst moment, however was at dawn. Feeling limp and pathetic outside the Cat and Canary pub checkpoint, my head was spinning and I thought I would pass out. I had a lay down and soon felt recovered.
This wobble may or may not have been the result of the significant toilet stop I had just made. Anyone of a nervous disposition, please avert your eyes from the following graphic description. I feel I need to share this. The porta-cubicles would remind you of Glastonbury – happening on the same weekend – but you don’t get freshly talc-ed loo seats on Worthy Farm. The evacuation I performed here was colossal. It was coiled in the pan like a giant Cumberland sausage and as thick as your wrist. Is there any wonder I felt faint afterwards? That’s what you get if you eat a dozen protein enhanced oat bars in 24 hours. If I never see a flapjack again it will be too soon.
Conversely, others had dodgy moments at other spots. Ad had a woozy spell at our third checkpoint on the disused railway station of Bramley that forms part of the Downs Link walk. The afternoon had been stiflingly hot with little breeze and we had been exposed for a lot of it next to the River Wey. A strong coffee and a huge chocolate muffin seemed to sort him out though. Bryn and I went for the banana muffin option and were rewarded with a calorific sticky toffee gloop in the middle. We both felt enervated after that. Sometimes it’s the simple things.
Bryn struggled with aches a bit later on and developed an amusing rolling gait that John Wayne would have been happy to claim as his own. Ben, like the rest of us, was up and down. Despite having a bag of medicines and treatments that put my plastic envelope to shame, he still begged and borrowed from others. Soothing foot spray from Bryn, slow-release Ibuprofen from me and - after a literal, pretty scary, sleep-walking moment up on the Downs - a caffeine tablet from Cherry. “It’s legal!” she said.
The night time sections were surreal. Walking though the beautiful Sussex countryside but unable to see any of it, guided only by shifting pools of light about three feet across. It was quiet, except for the shuffle of feet, some murmured conversations and the bing of Ad’s phone bearing more texts from his new girlfriend.
Cherry had no qualms about undertaking this trip alone. I wasn’t sure if she was just a little bit bonkers or stark-staring insane. She said she had practised a bit on her bike. I couldn’t quite see the immediate logic.
“Six hours into London!” she declared.
“That’s excellent. Brighton to London?”
“No, not Brighton!” Even in the dark I could tell she was looking at me like I was from Planet Zog. “I live in Ealing. I got a bit lost along the river…”
Before the walk I had felt sure that I could have done the walk solo, if needed. However, during that long morning, I became far from certain. Team work had been a huge part of our effort. I was even more full of admiration for Cherry and the other solo trekkers like her who had smashed up the course in a blazing show of self-determination.
I was deeply impressed with our own performance though. The drop out rate for this event is approaching 50%. It’s hard to explain the unrelenting assault on the body by strains, twists and aches in places you didn’t know existed, compounded by mental and physical fatigue. We were so far out of our comfort zones we needed sat navs.
By checkpoint 8 at 86km, we knew we would do this. We had the South Downs peaks to negotiate, which were tough so late in the walk. But the coast was on the other side and we dared to think about the finish line. Meeting Andy and Sam for breakfast at Checkpoint 9 in Hove was another lift. And then it was just the walk along the seafront and a totally unnecessary, vindictively cruel 1-in-3 gradient ascent up to the racecourse.
After much hugging and back slapping, we went for refreshment in the restaurant. Mrs A, who had been amazing throughout the expedition said “Pints all round then?”
“Sounds good” I replied.
“Not for me.” said Bryn.
“No thanks.” said Ben.
“I’m ok.” said Ad.
“Oh, OK, I’ll just have a coke thanks.” Didn’t want to spoil the team ethic at that late stage.
We all looked reasonably fresh in the team photo taken just before we departed for home. That’s Ad on the left, taking a phone call from his new girlfriend.
Between us, we’ve raised over £2.5k for the British Heat Foundation. If anyone would like to donate, my Just Giving page is here. Bryn’s thoughts had already turned to next year’s challenge. A sleepathon would be good…