The Day Before
Friday July 13th 2012.
There was something slightly foreboding about travelling down to the Queen Elizabeth Country Park (where the Trailwalker Challenge starts) on, of all days, Friday the 13th.
We had trained well in the preceding months, peaking at two successive 32 mile walks, including stages 5- 10 of the Trailwalker route, before tapering down to almost nothing in the last fortnight.
We had experimented endlessly with kit, and had seemingly gone through every type of sock on the market (ask us for a review any time, if it goes on your feet we will probably have tried it).
We seemed well organised in terms of team strategy, food and hydration for the epic challenge. We had more changes of kit than you could shake a stick at, more plasters than you would get in a field hospital and more than enough snacks to rival a pop-up WalMart on the South Downs. We had a medicine ‘chest’ that would flatter Lloyds Pharmacy, packed with Ibuprofen, Nurofen, Paracetemol, Imodium, Diarolyte, Hayfever tabs, Waspeze, TCP, antiseptic cream , surgical tape, zinc oxide tape, field dressings, safety pins, ice pads, heat pads, heat sprays and curiously duct tape (yes) and gutter sealant (oh yes, more about that later)
We were all like springed coils on the Friday, like a bunch of kids the night before Christmas, itching to get going and finally, after months of training, planning, tweeting and blogging, to see if we could actually complete this seriously challenging event.
So, no , it wasn’t a lack of preparation that was unnerving, more the ominous black clouds that followed us menacingly down the A34 towards Petersfield, and the slight niggle at the back of our minds that the odd dormant injury from our past might awaken itself unexpectedly somewhere out there in the winding trails of the South Downs.
The weather that week, and indeed since early April, had been atrocious. The so-called ‘summer’ of 2012 had been the wettest on record and the South Downs area had not escaped the the onslaught of repeated Atlantic storms and incessant, torrential rain. As we drove down, reports were coming in of severe flooding along parts of the South Coast - just what we needed.
The organisers of Trailwalker had also issued several emergency ‘newsflashes’ in the 2 days leading up to the event, and we knew that Checkpoints 3 and 6 would be closed to support crew vehicles due to waterlogging and there were to be alterations to checkpoint 4.
Whatever was going to happen,we knew it was going to be a very wet and boggy 100km, and just how wet and boggy would remain to be seen.
Jon, Paul, Tom and Olly traveled down in 3 separate vehicles, dropping off children at various grandparents along the route. Our Day Support Crew team traveled down with us, whilst our Night Support Crew team stayed at home with the intention of driving down the following afternoon - in time to pick up responsibilities from Checkpoint 5, the halfway point.
We all met as planned at 5.30pm at Queen Elizabeth Country Park. Its a great looking place, just off the A3 Portsmouth road, graced with a sizeable beech forest and steep-looking hills (better described as cliffs) on 3 sides.
We wandered under the bright blue ‘Start’ banner and entered the main field where we were immediately greeted by a hive of activity in amongst the various dark green Gurkha field tents which had been erected. The atmosphere was already very special and you could feel the huge sense of anticipation, and a tangible nervous energy. Contestants and support crews mingled in the huge steaming ‘Pasta Party’ tent, where you get your evening feast of carbs laid on entirely free of charge by the Gurkha field kitchen crew. The mood was convivial, helped by huge canteen style tables laid out. The food was excellent and seemingly endless.
Registration proved simple enough. We picked up our welcome pack, our all important support crew vehicle pass and our team numbers (360 A-D), signed our kit disclaimers, and made our way to a third registration tent to get tagged with our all important tracking devices.
Having pledged more than £3000 in fundraising, we were given a pass to the Express Registration lane in the tent - something which got us chuckling straight away, as there was no-one else at all actually registering in any of the other 16 ‘lanes’. None of the queues we had been warned about, and so the ‘express’ thing all seemed a bit unnecessary.
However 10 minutes later, the post-work rush made itself very evident, and the queues to register began to snake their way round the entire field - so if you are reading this is in preparation for a future Trailwalker, take our advice, and get there as early as you can to register - it makes a difference.
The tracking tags are simple enough, a ‘music festival’ style wristband with an electronic loop tag which you will need push into an electronic ‘tracking recorder’ at each checkpoint. They are not GPS tags, merely time recorders, which have your contestant number stored in them, so your stage times can be recorded accurately - and I guess alert the ever-vigilant Gurkhas if anybody has gone ‘missing’ or come acropper between checkpoints.
We were then given an informative ‘safety briefing’ by the Commanding Officer of the Gurkhas, who passed on some steady advice about hydration, footwear and the need to change socks (again!). All great until he casually dropped in that he had run the whole course the evening before - ‘RUN IT!’ we gasped ‘That’s just showing off’ we thought.
We were then treated to a cultural display by the Gurkhas, including some marching bands, bagpipes and of course the famous Khukuri ‘dance’. We also bumped into Mark from The Red Harrows - a team we had to got to know quite well, ‘virtually’ speaking, via Twitter and their excellent blog and entertaining training updates had proved to be a great extra motivator over the past few months. Do check out their blog and Twitter feed, and you will see what a lovely bunch they are.
Equipped with everything we needed for tomorrow’s 8.00am start, we headed off to find our hotel in Havant (we had declined the opportunity of camping the night at QECP) and to try and get some rest for the big venture ahead.
All bright-eyed and fresh (l-r) Tom, Olly, Jon and Paul
Jon, Paul, Tom and Olly rose at 6.00am, charged their Camelbaks, donned their kit, pinned on our competitor numbers and jumped in the Day Support Crew vehicle, wolfing down a couple of wholemeal bread sandwiches and a bottle of water each.
We arrived at QECP about an hour before our allotted Start time of 8.00am and took advantage of the fantastic cooked breakfast laid on by the ever-friendly Gurkhas.
Fuelled up, we were finally ready, and after a couple of half-hearted attempts at stretching, we descended to the Start area. Dibbing in our tracker tags for the first time, we entered the ‘mosh pit’ itself, which was teeming with walkers (and runners) of all shapes and sizes. Around 100 teams of four would be setting off at 8.00am, so it was a decent crowd and we were really chuffed to meet up with the legendary ‘Gubbs’, along with Jo, Julie and Josh who comprise Hardcore Four . You really should read their blog, its full of the some funniest training moments imaginable, and a very silly photo of a head in a rape field.
As the bagpipes and klaxons signalled the Start of Trailwalker, we set off amongst a throng of 400 or so people in the 8.00am section. It was quite an emotional experience - months of hard work, planning and preparation and suddenly we were doing it for real.
The first stage takes you through the leafy glades of the Queen Elizabeth Country Park and on a long, but definite climb up to the South Downs themselves. It is a straightforward stage and bar one or two significant muddy stretches, this went almost without incident.
When we say ‘almost’ ,there was one hilarious moment where Jon decided it was warm enough to remove a layer of clothing. Now normally this would be simple, except Jon forgot that he had a rucksack on his back, and the ensuing tangle and mess of spreading, white flesh on display drew a huge cheer and rapturous applause from the pack of walkers behind Jon. Leading this cheer was none other than the Dorset Dawdlers, a crazy team, albeit with various line-up changes, embarking on their fourth Trailwalker.
Tom and Olly bound out with confidence on relatively mud free Stage one
We dibbed in the ‘Check-in tent’ at checkpoint 1 before grabbing a couple of energy drinks and bars from our Support Crew. Jon was also treated to a surprise appearance from his family, Tilly, Ella and Amy, and after a few hugs and cheers, on we marched into Stage 2.
Stage 2 is notorious for the very sharp Beacon Hill, which even on a good day takes your breath away. Its steep enough to have steps, and is hellishly slippery. We were aware of the dangers of this, so equipped with sturdy walking poles, our training really came into play for the first time and we reached the summit (yes its steep enough to have a summit) without getting injured.
At the top of Beacon Hill, the rain started to come down heavily. After looking vaguely up at the sky, we decided that there was indeed 360 degrees of ominous storm clouds, all around us. On went the full waterproof regalia, trousers, gaiters and all. Little did we know then ,but these would pretty much stay on for the next 22 hours.
We reached checkpoint 2 a good 10 minutes ahead of schedule. The rain by this time had moved from ‘heavy’ to ‘torrential’ and the checkpoint was already calf-deep in mud, and incredibly slippery. Support crew vehicles were sliding around, many stuck in the mud having lost all traction. The whole area looked like a scene from Apocalypse Now, with vehicles stranded as far as the eye could see, and the Gurkhas doing their best to dig people out.
Our very resourceful Day Support Crew, Emma and Firoozeh, had taken advantage of a friendly farmer’s sympathy and had managed to find a space on the tarmac farm track, slightly further on from the mudbath that Checkpoint 2 had become. A quick change of socks, we replenished our packs and Camelbaks, wolfed down some delicious pasta and got ready for stages 3 and 4.
Emma, one half of our resourceful Day Support Crew
Stages 3 and 4
Just as we were leaving checkpoint 2 the rain moved on from ‘heavy’ and ‘torrential’ to pure ‘biblical’, and worse still, was accompanied by several heavy claps of thunder.
We headed off up the hill into a severe storm, leaving any semblance of terra firma behind us. The paths by this stage were instantly becoming streams and, a little later, rivers. It was as they were clambering up this hill that Paul and Olly picked up the first tell-tales signs of a knee twinge, which always preceded severe knee pain for them, an injury they had become familiar with during the latter stages of training.
Fortunately, again, this is where training comes into play, and if you have niggles and injuries you will have learned how best to cope with them. Out came the Ibuprofen, and up went the pace, in order to keep the joints moving as quickly as possible and to prevent them seizing up.
Team ‘Doctor’ Olly carries out an emergency repair to Tom’s feet
The conditions on these two stages were nothing short of horrific, treacherous mud, knee-deep puddles and on downhill stretches dangerously slippery. Just as we thought it couldn’t get any tougher, we were greeted with a sharp hailstorm as we checked in at checkpoint 3, which served only to carve up the paths yet further.
We quickly moved on from checkpoint 3, still very much on schedule, and entered a rather freaky experience of walking into the clouds on stage 4. Enveloped in fog mixed with heavy rain, the course had now taken on an eerie atmosphere, and the heavily cladded walkers all around us, hoods up and all with heads firmly pointed down, had begun to take on a ghost-like appearance.
By now, it became apparent that we were catching up with some of the walkers from the earlier 6.00am and and 7.00am starts - not because we were moving particularly fast, but more reflective of just how hard-going the conditions were.
The paths on Stage 4 also narrow significantly in parts, which led to a fair bit of congestion and your pace was being very much dictated to by those in front. Both Paul and Olly knew that they had to maintain a certain pace to stop their knee pains becoming a problem, so some Formula 1 style manoeuvering had to come into play to get round various areas where the pace was being slowed.
As the four of us descended into checkpoint 4, the mud became slurry, and like an ice-rink, and Paul earned his first nickname of Trailwalker for real - and ‘Captain Disco Legs’ was born. Paul cursed his Meindl’s grip, as he went into various inexorable slips and slides, head over tail on at least two occasions. A great morale booster for the others, and the source of much banter for the following 16 hours.
Yes, these signs deserve a design award.
Stage 5 And Halfway
With the rain continuing to hammer it down, we crossed the River on stage 5 and kicked off our first bout of singing for the day. ‘What Will You Do With The Drunken Sailor’ seemed to keep us going with much joviality as we munched up the miles.
Before we knew it, we had ‘waded’ our way through the ever deepening mudbath to Checkpoint 5. Halfway, and a good 30 minutes ahead of schedule, and remarkably, with the continuous drip-feeding of carbohydrate snacks and hydration drinks, all still with the same energy levels we had left QECP some 10 hours earlier.
Checkpoint 5 was our planned longer stop, where we would eat a pre-prepared curry, change our kit and generally get ready for the long night walk ahead. It was also the meeting point for both our Day and Night Support Crews, so there was quite a crowd gathered there.
Firoozeh, the other half of our formidable Day Support Crew
Whether it was the sociable atmosphere here, or the psychological ‘satisfaction’ of hitting halfway intact, the stop time here was more than double that planned, and it was not until a full 50 minutes had passed that we were on our way again.
The night walk beckoned, and with head torches at the ready, we were set for the proper ‘boys adventure’ that lay ahead. We also knew the lay of the land ahead, having walked the next few sections in daylight during a June training walk.
Halfway, 10 hours in , still smiling. Hang about, where’s Olly?
We knew that checkpoint 6 was closed due to flooding, so the next time we would meet with our Night Support Crew, Debbie and Roger, it would be midnight at checkpoint 7 - a checkpoint dubbed in Trailwalker circles as the ‘point of no return’. Stop there for too long, and you will not get going again. Get up from there quickly and you will finish Trailwalker.
With this in mind we scheduled in an extra mini pit stop with our Support Crew at the 24 hour garage in Upper Beeding, shortly after the official checkpoint 6.
Stage 6 started simply enough. There was the usual steep hill out of the checkpoint, before hitting relatively flat ground atop the ridge, all as expected. Our pace was good, and we soon found ourselves hitting a good stride as the light began to fade all around us.
But then everything changed suddenly.
Tom, who had literally just been marvelling at how full of energy he was, in an instant began to sweat and look very pale. He started complaining of chronic indigestion and an uncomfortable feeling in his stomach. The change was rapid, and Paul persuaded Tom to stop and relieve himself in a nearby bush.
Obliging, Tom returned claiming that everything was sorted, but there was a clear change in his demeanour from then on in. The pace slowed dramatically and it became apparent that Tom had started to feel the effects of both dehydration and perhaps his stomach was reacting to the higher than normal intake of carbohydrates.
At this stage, the team dynamics of Trailwalker became very interesting. We had one team member Tom, clearly needing to slow down, so he could get to the next checkpoint to take care of himself. And we had Paul, and to a certain extent Olly, who needed to move evermore quickly in order to prevent seizing up and inevitable agonising and almost crippling knee pain that would otherwise take over.
Somehow a balance was achieved, which we guess only comes from knowing your team mates well enough. Paul and Olly would cover about 500 metres very quickly, keeping their joints sufficiently supple, before waiting for Tom and Jon to catch up. It all worked and everyone knew why he all had to almost do our own thing for a while.
Little by little we covered Stage 6, where we stopped briefly in the Admin Tent. This was the first checkpoint where we saw people really suffering, including one poor person who had collapsed, out cold, in the first aid tent and numerous others in tears clutching knees, ankles or feet. Tom made use of the loos again, before we set off for Stage 7.
It was now pitch black and it was full beam headtorch time. We looped back on ourselves at the river crossing shortly after checkpoint 6, where we enjoyed some hilarious ‘Oggie Oggie Oggie, Oi, Oi, Oi’ banter with the string of torchlit walkers ‘returning’ on the other bank.
It was a brilliant, spontaneous moment, and one of the funniest on Trailwalker.
We stopped quickly at the 24 hour garage, where we met our Support Crew briefly. Under the light of the forecourt canopy, it became apparent that Tom was now really quite sick again. He had lost his ‘mojo’ altogether, and his eyes slumped and face puffed up, we knew we had to get fluids into him.
A blurry pit stop at the garage in Upper Beeding
This is a ‘warts and all’ blog, so for the benefit of future Trailwakers, if one of your team succumbs to ‘the squits’, irrespective of how well they have been hydrating, act quickly and make sure they take on electrolytes fast.
Tom had been hydrating sufficiently all along, but as he finally revealed a little more about the nature of his activity in the now very regular toilet stops, we knew we could have a serious problem on our hands. We climbed the exceptionally steep,dark and arduous hill out of Beeding in pairs, Olly and Tom walking together at the rear with Jon and Paul leading the way step by step.
At the top of the hill, our team ‘Doctor’, Olly examined Tom and a team decision was made to pull Tom over in the relative shelter of the Youth Hostel at the top of the Fulking Escarpment. It was the right decision, and Tom was able to take advantage of the ‘non-portaloo’ toilet at the Youth Hostel before resting and taking on board several sachets of Diarolyte, and he was able to slowly restore the lost sugars and salts.
After a good break, we moved on slowly to Checkpoint 7, remembering that this would be the ‘make or break’ point. There was no way we were going to lose a team mate, so however long it took, we were going to make it.
The arrival at checkpoint 7 was a huge relief. 43 miles in, we were getting there.
Debbie, one half of our colourful Night Support Crew
Tom quickly dived off to the loo, while the others grabbed him some plain pasta, assisted by our now ever patient support crew. We had a long sit down here, another change of socks, before heading off into the night and the ever deepening mud, waved off by our cheery support crew. Tom however had not eaten again, as he could not stomach it.
Stage 8 is relatively short and takes you up to the stunning restored windmills of Jack and Jill. Even in the darkness the scenery appeared spectacular. The rain had just started to ease at this point, and we were able to enjoy the incredible view of the seemingly endless string of lights stretching out as far as the eye could see - each light being the headtorch of another brave walker.
It was the most spectacular of sights, a once in a lifetime experience, almost like we had been sent back in time to a mass, historic pilgrimage.
The Gurkhas were amazing - always supportive, helpful and polite. We should be indebted.
As we were enjoying this view, Jon himself began to succumb to waves of tiredness and his eyes began to glaze over. He had lost all conversation, something we had not seen before from the ever-chatty chap on our training walks.
With two of the team now running on all but empty, the pace slowed further, and the mood at checkpoint 8 was more subdued than with previous stops. The stop became a long one, and with appetites waining due to sleep deprivation, we knew we had to get ourselves up and off or risk a slow and painful death at this point.
We did get ourselves up, motivated no doubt by by the string of headtorches continuing to cascade down the hills behind us, and looked on to Stage 9, the longest stage on the whole of Trailwalker.
Stage 9 more or less follows the top of the ridge of the Downs for a flat 8 miles, before you hit a steep (and rather unnecessary we think) hill just before the village of Kingston near Lewes.
It should be straightforward.
It was anything but.
With Tom still suffering and with Jon barely able to keep his eyes open, this stage became what Paul dubbed the ‘Death March’. The earlier singing bouts on Stages 4 and 6 had gone, no more ‘Drunken Sailor’ chants, no more yelling ’ I Love You Baby’ at the top of our voices with a team from Birmingham.
Whilst Paul and Olly were still relatively buoyant and lively, all the other string of disparate walkers around us were plodding along in total silence. There was literally no sound at all, no conversation, apart from the odd squelch, grunt or yelp as someone ploughed their way into an all-too deep puddle, too tired now to dodge the water properly.
Everything had slowed down to a snail’s pace and it was like everyone was just on autopilot, sleepwalking.
Zombie Jon, sleepwalking through the end of Stage 9
Slowly but surely, glimpses of light appeared in the sky, as dawn tried to break. The rain had now stopped, so we were optimistic that daybreak may actually bring a cheery sunrise which would lighten the paths ahead.
Dawn seemed to take an eternity to come, but when it did, it bathed the group of walkers around us in an amazing glowing light as the sun peeked its way up over the horizon. Jon was still non-conversant at this point, looking very jaded and eyes all but closed. The body was there, but the soul seemed to be stuck at checkpoint 6 still.
Tom, who had shown incredible spirit to battle through ‘on empty’ with severe stomach problems had begun to perk up enough to start consuming packets of Haribos. It was a great moment, and such a relief to see the colour start returning to his cheeks.
After what seemed an eternity, we hit the aforementioned unnecessary hill before Kingston Upon Lewes and were met by the smiling face of Support Crew Debbie a mile or so from the Checkpoint. It was a great boost.
Checkpoint 9 - A New Dawn
How we all hauled ourselves through Stage 9 we still don’t know. What should have taken 2.5 hours took over 4 hours due to a mixture of the stickiest mud imaginable, illness, fatigue, knee pain and Captain Disco Legs again.
We had seen many walkers in distress on that Stage, some horrible injuries, people collapsing, losing toenails, twisted ankles- and in the horrendously muddy sections you almost glimpsed a little of what life would have been like in the World War I trenches. It was very much the walking wounded, and we walked past a lot of tears, and were just so grateful we were still strong enough to lend a hand to as many people as we could as we walked. We just hope they all made it through to the Finish.
Sunrise at Checkpoint 9
But as we sat and treated ourselves to Debbie’s home made lardy cakes, freshly brewed coffee and pain au chocolats (posh eh?) at Checkpoint 9, we knew we were all going to make it as a team.
It was now broad daylight, and suddenly everything was SO much better, and not even the near vertical hill that lay ahead of us on Stage 10 seemed to phase us.
7 miles to go - this was within reach now.
We even managed a few raucous team laughs at this stage, particularly as Jon, still non-conversant, had been nicknamed ‘Zombie Jon’. Even bigger laughs ensued when he eventually revealed that his attempted repair to his 20 year old boots using, yes you got it, gutter sealant and duct tape (DON’T GO THERE!) had failed miserably.
With this in mind, Paul and Olly, who had remained annoyingly full of beans throughout the whole walk, sent Jon and Tom off ahead of them whilst they finished off more coffee and croissants.
After what seemed like twenty minutes, Support Crew Roger asked us if ‘we hadn’t better get going to catch them up’ - at which point Paul and Olly looked up to see that Jon and Tom had only made all of 30 metres up the track. So, they needn’t have worried. It was a side-splittingly funny moment when we recounted it in the pub the following day - as Jon and Tom had been desperately trying to get their legs to move faster and get away quickly enough from Paul and Olly so they could build up enough time to have a break at Checkpoint 10 - only to find they just could not get their legs working at all.
Roger, the other half of our Night Support Crew
The Last 2 Stages
Stage 10 is relatively short (2.5 miles) and is dominated by a sharp and nasty, steep hill, before you descend into a stunning valley at the foot of which is a Gurkhas tea tent and a few portaloos that make up Checkpoint 10.
Most people do not stop here - there is no access for Support Crews. But Tom availed himself of the loos yet again (sorry to the contractor who provided these) and Jon all but fell asleep in the nook of a tree conveniently positioned next to the tea tent.
Eventually we managed to rouse everyone and tackled the final hill up towards the Brighton Racecourse finish. This last section sends you teasingly a very long way round to the Racecourse, which you can clearly see very early on.
Our Day Support Crew had now resurfaced, and sprang a surprise visit about 2km from the Finish armed with cool, refreshing Frij milkshakes - the perfect tonic to get you over the last hurdle.
The final kilometre is a majestic walk up the Racecourse itself. You can see a throng of waiting people ahead of you from quite some distance, along with the bright colours of the Oxfam Trailwalker banners.
The Finish is fantastic, and for the first time in miles you can walk four abreast, and as your team name is shouted out over the tannoy, the Gurkhas play the bagpipes and the throng of people cheer and clap you on, you know you have achieved something very extraordinary and you cannot avoid feeling emotional.
One final dib in with the time trackers and we had made it! 100 km in 25 hours and 28 minutes (a good 32 minutes under our estimated time of 26 hours) - and all as a team of 4.
And then its onto the podium for photgraphs, as you are awarded your medals and certificates.
We Made It!
A truly rewarding experience -all of it, the training, the camaraderie, the event itself, the fundraising, the knowledge that you have completed a very, very tough challenge for very good causes.
We all recommend it highly!
P.S. We finished 111th out of 492 teams, in a year where 23% of participants dropped out during the challenge and 50% of teams did not make it through as a team of 4. The organisers have officially recorded that this was the ‘toughest Trailwalker in its history’ due to the horrific ground conditions - and extended the event by 4 hours to 34 hours in light of this.
If you are thinking of doing Trailwalker, do not let this put you off - with plenty of training, the best kit you can afford on your budget, good preparation, team work and some, err, gutter sealant, anyone can get through to the finish. The best thing is you don’t need to be an elite athlete to do to this, just in goodish shape and determined, and with a good team around you.
We met all types of people on this challenge, all shapes and sizes and all ages. The collective spirit was fantastic, and as you knock off the checkpoints one by one, you realise that you are indeed part of something truly ‘epic’.
Don’t hold back - give it a go, we promise you will find it incredibly rewarding.
Paul (Sometime ‘Team Leader’ but really just ‘Captain Disco Legs’)