By Gill Stewart at
1st June 2013 – The experience of a deathtime
We’d been training for it since November 2012. It had been one of the longest winters for decades, so we’d only got two or 3 walks in that weren’t in snow and/or ice. We’d done 19 mile walks in practice. Tested numerous pairs of socks. Although aged 50, I’m a Personal Trainer, and my fellow challenger; almost two decades my junior, a policeman – both fairly fit. We met loads of people, frankly unfit, who said they’d completed it. We’ve walked 26 miles before, and run half-marathons. It’s only walking after all, what could possibly go wrong?
We got up at 2.15am, frankly feeling like we’d never been to bed. Fuelling myself for the task ahead, and only having half marathon races to base it on, I forced down two bowls of porridge. My husband was impressed with getting up to drive us to Osmotherley, having only been in bed 2 hours following his late arrival back from watching Hull FC play. We arrived in Osmotherley, relieved it wasn’t raining, had our picture taken at the stone at 4am, and strode off down the road full of excitement and enthusiasm
We were not really in the least worried about what lay ahead. We’d had practice walks that we’d had to abandon because of 5 foot snowdrifts! We’d done up to half way across the ‘boggy area’, and assumed the other half of the walk was more of the same.
The first miles were uneventful. Michael kept getting me to slow down. I’d had some really big blisters after a 19 miler three weeks before, and we reckoned it was because we walked so fast. I have a history of blisters though. Never lasted more than 6 miles without one when running. But I’d spent weeks soaking my feet in surgical spirit, £150 on socks making sure I was wearing the perfect anti-blister gear, so as long as we didn’t go too fast, all would be well.
We were right on the schedule we had planned for ourselves. We were just getting a little unsettled by the thick grey cloud that started to accumulate. We walked through checkpoint 1 (that one’s for wimps right?), our only issue being that my porridge had run out by then. We were so grateful when we reached Clay Bank car park for checkpoint 2. Not because we were tired, but because we were ravenous! Even though we arrived ahead of schedule, Michael’s wife was there with hot drinks and sausage sandwiches, plus their dogs. It sounds ridiculous, we really needed the food and drink, but I was so pleased to see their dogs. Already I felt I’d been away for ages! First sock change.
Then the rain started. Still, only a bit of drizzle, nothing that’s going to get the feet too wet (therefore blistered.) We donned the waterproof jackets and set off up that pig awful bank to begin our way to Bloworth Crossing.
More uneventful miles. Chatting away, putting those miles behind us. Nice and flat, easy on the feet. Easy to go too fast too. Made a conscious effort to slow down. We seemed to come upon Bloworth Crossing quite unexpectedly, probably because there was a bit of mist about now. Nothing serious, but text messages from well-wishers were starting to cheese us off a bit. They kept saying how nice and sunny it was where they were, what a lovely day we had for it, and how much easier that would be!
Onward. More uneventful miles. The mist was getting thicker, moisture was dripping out of our hair and from our eyelashes. I was quite surprised when we passed a cutting indicating we were pretty close to The Lion, checkpoint 3. We were in advance of schedule again. Should I text my husband, who’d be manning this checkpoint to warn him, no, he must already be on his way. We searched the misty car park, and his car was definitely not there! This was our main stop, to fill water bottles, eat, change socks again etc. Panic set in – had he slept through the alarm after his late night and early start? No mobile signals. Eventually we got through. He was on his way. Even though he’d done the trip many times before, he’d used the sat nav in his new car for the first time. That sent him the wrong way, and he couldn’t see any landmarks because of the thickening mist (warning bells should have been ringing in our ears here!) Eventually we re-stocked, re-fuelled, changed socks (not a blister in site), I explained how I hadn’t expected to feel so good at this stage, and we set off, late, for the leg we had not been looking forward to.
We had heavy rain for two days the preceding Wednesday and Thursday and we were worried what state the bog would be in. The pleasant road walk from The Lion was overshadowed by thoughts of the bog. We barely noticed that visibility was very poor, and rapidly decreasing.
In actual fact, when we started through the bog it wasn’t as bad as I’d seen it on my previous practice run. Wet and hard going at times, but nothing we couldn’t handle. I followed close on Michael’s heels, as we started to have a few problems trying to avoid the deepest parts to save our feet getting wet and the inevitable blisters. That’s when we looked up and realised we couldn’t see any marker stones. We couldn’t see pretty much anything really. After a couple of attempts to try and get back on track we realised we were lost. We didn’t have a clue where we were on the map, or what direction we should be headed in. At this point we heard a helicopter for the first time, obviously not looking for us – yet! Out came the compass. This was the only time I felt panic. We really had no idea which way to go and couldn’t see a thing, so we would be completely reliant on the compass from now on. I asked the ‘man upstairs’ to give us a break after we lost about 20 minutes trying to find our way – and a minor miracle happened! The mist cleared sufficiently for us to see a marker stone in the distance to our right side, and we made a bee line for it. More time lost, but at least now we knew where we were. I hadn’t remembered the boggy section being so long, I’d developed Tourette’s syndrome at about 19 miles, and muttering expletives was what was keeping me going. We arrived at the Hamer checkpoint as scheduled, more food and another sock change. Oh dear, a worryingly red patch on one toe, so that was strapped up with zinc oxide tape. I had a sense of foreboding now. I knew how bad my feet could blister. Michael, on the other hand had only worn his boots once before the walk and was in cheap sports socks – not a mark on his feet! Another helicopter here, and an ambulance goes by on blues – still not looking for us! Another pair of socks too!
Off we go again. The weather starts to clear up, and it gets warm all of a sudden. The feet are starting to protest now and I can feel numerous ‘hot’ areas. I’m getting fed up with more wet, boggy areas being thrown at us, and sharps stones and boulders. Not good on the feet. Tourette’s definitely getting worse! Now apparent we should have looked at the whole route in training, as this section is not what we expected. I’ve lost the enthusiasm for the pictorial record, borne out below, Michael climbs to the top for his photo, my feet can’t be bothered!
But at least the sun has come out! This leg seems to take forever!!!!! The path was so narrow in parts; I was unable to use my Nordic walking poles. These take the pressure of one knee that has no cartilage, and the blister prone feet. We covered miles where I couldn’t use them properly. The nail in the coffin for the feet. I knew I had blisters all over them, and there was still so far to go. I was starting to doubt I could make it, but didn’t want to let Michael down. At my age, I was slowing him down anyway.
You can start to see the pain on the photos now too. I limped into checkpoint 5 Ellerbeck with no-blisters Michael, three quarters of an hour behind schedule. Really suffering. Took forever to blister plaster and strap feet. Didn’t have time to eat as well, so my husband fed me whilst I strapped. Change of socks. Change from walking boots to shoes, in the hope they would rub in a different place. He was brilliant. He’d got to the checkpoint early and walked on so he could tell us where to go and what to expect. He knew I was in real pain, and packed me off with words of encouragement. Michael’s wife and dad were there too, to give hugs and support. My own dad is very ill in hospital in Spain, and I know he would have loved to have been there to support me – so it was nice to get a hug from Michael’s dad instead. A brave man, I stank by this point!
Leaving Ellerbeck it took a while to get into stride again. Michael had started with some muscular soreness and had swollen hands. Not so bad for me, I’d now taken the maximum 24 hour dose of Brufen and paracetamol. Wasn’t doing anything for blister pain, but I had no muscular soreness! Every step was painful. Seriously lost sense of humour and fed up with the whole stopping for a photo thing!
Checkpoint still feels like its ages away, so having no dignity left I decide to have a pee, and then Michael points out a man waving at us from what looks like might be a road. But no one is meeting us at the next checkpoint, we are walking through! Thankfully it turns out to be my husband again, and not some weirdo voyeur. He can see me limping and walks out to meet us. I explain I can’t stop, I won’t get going again. He’s already done a rekey of what’s ahead and brings us up to speed as we walk on. Bit of a climb, babbling brook, plenty of flat, see the Beacon, bit of a hill before we finish. The last thing we wanted – a bit of a hill. More encouragement, but I have serious concerns I’m not going to finish this. So much pain, and so many miles to go. We press on.
I remember thinking how nice it would be to be a normal person having a picnic and a glass of wine by the babbling brook, instead of trudging on. So much spectacular scenery we have missed in the blur of blister pain and the focus on completing the challenge. We see the sea for the first time. Thank goodness. Can’t be that far away (wrong!) The pain on this section is indescribable as one blister (some several inches long) after another burst underneath the strapping, and refills. We get our first sight of the Beacon, how can it be so far away after all this time! On and on. Poor Michael. All he he’s heard me say for the last 10 miles plus are swear words and complaints about my feet! And then………what the XXXX!!!!!!!! That’s not a hill! It’s a ravine with a near vertical climb on the other side isn’t it? Every step is excruciating already. At least the downhill took pressure off the heel blisters for a time, but the uphill!!! Dear God! I’m only 5 foot 3. Those steps were not made for short legs! By now I was giving the big man upstairs a really hard time, questioning why he couldn’t give us a break. I suppose the moral of the story is – if we’d seen the whole route in practice, we’d have known it was coming. (Maybe that wouldn’t have been a good thing!) We made it to the top, and start to see four young guys who had passed us earlier, in the distance. Are we gaining on them? I’m nearly in tears with the pain by this point but, yes we are gaining on them; and one of them is limping badly. This is where our competitive nature kicked in. In spite of the feet, Michaels cramping calf muscles and swollen hands we picked up the pace a bit. Blisters still re filling, but now bruising kicking in too. We’re catching them. Are they slowing down? Beacon closer. We draw level and overtake. Unbearable, all consuming pain. How can blister pain be so much worse than broken bones and even labour!!! My husband is in the distance walking towards us. Beacon so close now, we can do it! Its uphill again! We are asking where the stone is in relation to the Beacon, we can’t take one more step more than necessary. Encouragement all the way. He can see the pain, barely able to put one foot in front of the other with the limping. And we are there! I don’t think we let go of the damn stone for about 15 minutes, whilst the hugs, congratulations and photos were going on!
Amazing how Michael looks as fresh as a daisy in his twice worn boots and his no blistered feet! First thing I did was take mine off. The wave of euphoria I was expected never happened, it being masked by pain. The 2 pints of lager and the bag of crisps in The Falcon have never been so welcome.
But the ordeal was not over. The heavily strapped feet started swelling even more when I sat down, cutting off the circulation. When I got home I had to soak them and spend ages trying to cut the strapping away from the blisters, balanced precariously on the toilet seat, with my head over the basin in case I was sick with the pain!
Several times during the walk, Michael said ‘remind me why we are doing this again?’ Well he did it to raise money for Macmillan nurses, and I’ve raised just over £600 for the Brain and Spine Foundation. Grateful thanks to Derek, Fiona and John, our support crew. We could never have done it without you! My grateful thanks to Michael – I could never have done it without you, although I suspect you could have done it easily without me! (getting on your nerves with my blow by blow chronicle of my feet!)
All that remains is to ask – how the hell could you do this with a coffin?!