Saturday, 31 August 2013

186 Miles To Go!

I rolled over in bed last night and my spine broke. OK, not my actual spine, but the spine of my bed went crashing to the floor at 4am and gave me quite a shock. I’d love to say it’s because of all the fun and games that’s taken place in that particular arena…but who am I trying to kid?! Thankfully, I only believe in good omens so am ignoring this one.

So in less than 24 hours I’ll be on my way. Lots of people have been asking me how I feel about it. Well in truth I’ve not had much time to think about it. This week has been utterly horrific, I can’t be bothered to go into why, but it really has been the worst. It might be a good thing, in that I don’t think next week can possibly be as bad!

Front of the shirt
and the back...which probably won't get seen that much!

Now though, it’s all quite real. I’ve done my last bits of shopping (I have no intention of ever visiting Holland & Barrett again) and the good luck texts and calls have been coming in since last night.

I need to thank a few people. Firstly Gareth and Laura; G joins me on day one and Laura on day two, which is a fantastic effort. Laura 2, or more accurately Mrs Ted, has been an incredible help with contacts and will see me along the way, as will Ted himself hopefully. Kiwi and Sugar who have come all the way from Grand Cayman just to join me for lunch; Emily and Chops, who I hope to see on Thursday, and my friend Katie who should be with me on the last section on Friday from Richmond to Putney. Great effort all – I really appreciate your making the effort.

Desperately trying to pack...unsure if the bed will hold
And packed - all I need for the next week. Blimey.
The sponsorship has blown me away. I’m halfway to my target and there’s lots of people who have said they’re still going to sponsor (you know who you are!) – which is amazing. Likewise I’ve been blown away by the people I’ve never met who have been happy to give advice and even offer me their homes to sleep in along the way – turns out the British are not as inhospitable as many people think we are.

I’ve been asked plenty about the route I’m taking – so here it is:

Sunday 1st September: Kemble – Chimney (35 miles)
Monday 2nd September: Chimney – Abingdon (31 miles)
Tuesday 3rd September: Abingdon – Pangbourne (25 miles)
Wednesday 4th September: Pangbourne – Cookham Lock (26 miles)
Thursday 5th September: Cookham Lock – Laleham (24 miles)
Friday 6th September: Laleham – Putney (26 miles)
Saturday 7th September: Putney – Thames Barrier (19 miles)

So – that’s 186 miles in seven days. Looks like I’ll be under canvas every night and I plan to have dinner in Putney on the Friday – most likely at the Queen Adelaide. I’ll have my phone on that night so drop me a line if you fancy joining.

Those who plan to walk with me on Saturday 7th – firstly a big Thank You. It will mean a lot to have people with me that day, because it’s going to be difficult (and I’m aware possibly quite emotional!). The plan is to leave Putney Bridge at 7:15am sharp. I’m afraid I really can’t wait around. Again, I’ll have my phone with me if you need to get in touch but I’d rather not spend all day giving people directions. If all goes according to plan I should be at Tower Bridge by 10:30ish and, depending on whether we take a proper lunch or just push on, I hope to reach the Thames Barrier no later than 3pm.

The Finish Line
At the barrier there is a park with a café if the weather is good 9the forecast is promising, thank the Good Lord!). Sadly the café doesn’t serve booze, and I suspect I’ll be ready for a beer by that stage so anyone who wants to bring some would get huge points! Failing that, there’s a pub very nearby which may be a bit suspect, but it’ll do. Again, the more the merrier.

Sadly I heard that Rob, Annabel and Thea won’t be able to stop in at all along the way, or be there at the finish, which is a real shame but I totally understand it. Annabel is pregnant again and getting pretty big now, while looking after Thea is obviously complicated. I’ll be thinking of you guys a lot this week and hopefully we’ll meet up again pretty soon.

So how am I feeling? Nervous as hell. Think I may have bitten off a little more than I can chew and perhaps made this unnecessarily hard for myself – but at the same time it was always supposed to be a challenge. My life has been drifting a little for the last year or so and I hope this will stir things up again and just help me to think a little clearer about what happens next.

So thanks again for reading, I doubt I’ll be able to update this on the way but I’ll do a wrap up when it’s finished. If you still want to donate then the link is on the right of this page and if you’re on Facebook then keep an eye on my page as I’ll at least try to update that each evening when I’m done. If I have the energy.

It’s gonna be a long week! 
The Park where I hope to be supping a beer in 186 miles time.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

The Countdown Begins...

Half my little toe fell off yesterday. It was pretty gross – but felt amazing afterwards. If you have read all these blogs so far then a) thank you, b) have you not got better things to be doing? And c) you will have figured out that they have been written with the benefit of hindsight. Well, now I’m all caught up (although this is still being posted two weeks after it was written!).

As I type this I’ve spent the last five days hanging out…ahem…I mean training in southern Spain with temperatures in the high 30s and a rather nice swimming pool to do my…training. It has been nearly two weeks since my overnight hike up into the Lea Valley and in that time I have had many many thoughts. 

These thoughts have mainly involved me deciding that I am a total idiot. I am deeply unprepared to take on a physical challenge as hard as this and I really should have known better. At the same time I have raised almost £1000 on my Just Giving page, which is incredibly humbling, and gives me some hope of reaching the £2.5k target I have set myself. Which of course, means there’s no backing out now.

The reason for this target is because I also want to do some running. When I last ran a marathon it took me 5hrs 43mins, or in simple terms – a bloody long time. I want to run the London Marathon, it has been an ambition since I was a child and I enter the ballot annually. I know people who do it every year and I am always full of admiration, pride and a little jealousy. I also wanted to improve on my half marathon PB and have forever wanted to run the Royal Parks Half. In order to get a place in that race I need to raise £400, and then a further £2000 for London – so there’s the figure.

The Royal Parks run in on October 6th, one month after I (hopefully!) complete the Thames Challenge. After the Lea Valley I was unable to walk into work at all the following week. Well, that’s not true, I tried it on the Thursday and realised what a horrible mistake that was. Only now, a full 11 days later, am I pain free. This means any proper training to run the time I was hoping for is impossible given the pain I am likely to be in. Annoying. I may take part anyway…but will have to wait and see. 

Back to the pain; first it was the balls of my feet and my toes along with fairly inevitable aches in my calves, hamstrings and quads along with a damn irritating groin strain. As those faded however, others arrived. It was a week before my Achilles started to get sore. Had it always been sore and I hadn’t noticed? Or was it straining more because I was walking funny due to all the other ailments? The muscle aches don’t bother me – such things can be fixed with stretching, but the pain in my feet was not going away. Worryingly it was across the top of my feet that seems to hurt the most days later…which suggests my shoes were too tight.

Which brings me back to my little toe…or what’s left of it. Such an innocuous sounding injury – it’s actually faintly embarrassing. However, the incredible amount of skin that came off yesterday has actually given me hope. Before the Lea Valley hike I’d managed to rid its opposite number on my right foot of quite a lot of hard skin, and that hadn’t given me nearly as many problems, so perhaps this will do the same – and there’s still two 17 days to go before I start (as I post it's actually more like 3.5), so it should heal OK too.

I’m also hoping that these walks have paid off. That come day three of the actual hike in September I won’t feel as horrific as I did on the Monday after Lea Valley because my body will be slightly more used to it. Of course, I am also going to stack up on a boat load of anti-inflammatory gels and some pretty punchy painkillers to get me through. I really don’t see how I am going to finish otherwise.

All that’s left now is to properly plan my route and persuade anyone foolish enough to come and join me for a stint…any takers?!

Monday, 26 August 2013

Training Walk Three - Lea Valley Path

My calendar had blocked out the weekend of August 3rd and 4th for a two day training walk. Under location it simply said “The Abyss”.

Since the walk to Reigate I was worried about my feet – and particularly my toes. In Forest Gump Lieutenant Dan tells Bubba and Gump that the most important thing to do is look after their feet. Sound advice that.

Before I took on the two day hike up the Lea Valley I managed to buy myself a tent, stove, food supplies and order the shirts that I plan to wear for the hike. Most importantly however, I had gone and got some proper walking shoes recommended by my friend Will Wintercross who has done an Ultra Marathon so I assume knows about such things. He had also lent me his rather space age looking roll mat to sleep on after inspecting mine and telling me in no uncertain terms that it was shit.

Preparation again wasn’t great as I ended up having dinner with a friend and not getting home until 10:30pm and realising I had not yet packed a single thing – or bought any breakfast for the next day. Lessons clearly not being learnt.

I packed my bag with everything I thought I would need come September 1st. Individually every item was very light, but once I slung the pack onto my shoulders I was shocked at how much it weighed. About 16 kgs…nearly three stone. By the end of the weekend one of the many things that had become very clear is that I need to lighten my load.

My friend Kirt joined me for the first nine miles or so as far as Tower Bridge, and chuckled as the roll mat which was fixed onto the top of my pack with, what turned out to be a plastic karabiner, proceeded to swing to one side and constantly hit me in the side of the head. This thing was to prove the bain of my weekend.

After Kirt left I immediately got lost going through Wapping. Of course, we’d already taken a massive detour by Battersea Park which was a bit disappointing, so this second episode was even more irritating. After that though, I found Limehouse Cut and simply had to follow the canal the whole way.

The walk itself was relatively pleasant. I had a few people texting me as I went, mainly with updates on the cricket, and I passed the Olympic Park for the first time since the games a year earlier. I stopped for lunch at a pub called the Princess of Wales just north of Hackney Wick, the first I had seen since Wapping, and was rather upset that the only carbs on the menu were pizzas. It’d have to do.

By 4pm I ran out of water. This was seriously bad news as I’d not seen another pub or shop since lunch. Then the karabiner snapped and the expensive roll mat belonging to my mate fell off and rolled towards the canal. It went under the railings and just held there…like that putt TigerWoods hit at the Masters years ago. I had time to decide it was lost only to suddenly realise it might hold long enough for me to back-heel it through the railings and to safety. This was the adrenaline rush of my day, and I am pleased to say that I do not owe Will a new roll mat.

In Enfield I found a pub and paid the princely sum of £1.90 for about 200ml of water, and by 7:45pm I collapsed into Dobbs Weir campsite…which I discovered to my amazement was in Hertfordshire. It had taken my 12.5 hours and I think I’d covered around 33 miles.

Tent up, food cooked, shower taken and feet inspected and I actually felt surprisingly OK. The midges were pretty annoying, and proceeded to bite every inch of exposed flesh going. I later counted 13 on one leg and nine on the other, not to mention a few on my arms and face.

I got some sleep and had decided that I’d call it quits at Wapping on the way back which would be about 24 miles for the day – it proved a wise decision. In the first hour I covered what had taken me 90 minutes the night before, but shortly afterwards I got such a horrendous pain in my little toe on my left foot that I genuinely couldn’t take another step. Given the choice, I’d have happily cut it off, but without a handy pair of pliers I added a second plaster and popped two more painkillers.

Passing back under the M25 was landmark one, then on to the same pub for lunch where they now not only didn’t have pasta on the menu, but they’d got rid of the pizzas too. A battered cod sandwich was the best they could muster.

By the time I approached Wapping I was pretty out of it. All sorts of negative thoughts were in my mind. What on Earth have I taken on? I was moving seriously slowly. My shoulders were sore from the pack, as was my back, and my feet…Jesus Christ my feet hurt so much it was ridiculous. I slumped onto the overland train for the 30 minute journey back to Clapham and it’s safe to say I was in a pretty dark place.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Training Walk Two - London to Reigate with an awful hangover

Training walk number two was a lot less fun than the first. Three weeks had passed since the Derwent Valley but I had not even touched my rucksack to unpack, let alone put it on my shoulders.

I had planned to go and see some friends down in Reigate on July 21st and after doing some research I discovered that the distance on foot from Clapham Junction to their house was 19 miles – so it made for a perfect opportunity. Of course, that was before my best laid plans got somewhat sabotaged.

On the Saturday I had agreed to meet an old school friend. We only see each other a few times a year and generally it’s quite civilised; dinner and drinks, that sort of thing. Meeting him at 2pm however, when there was a Test Match going on and a beautifully sunny day outside meant things were only going one way.

By 9pm we had been joined by two other friends, including Jules who now had a free weekend as he no longer needed to train for the hike and his wife had made other plans. The BBQ was in full swing and the ales were flowing. Two hours later and we were in the Grand Union on Brixton Road, and by 3am we’d piled back to mine with a load more booze and some rather hideous looking energy drinks that my flatmate later observed would probably kill him.

At some time between 3-4am I set my alarm and proceeded to write out the directions for the following day in a totally illegible scrawl. I had also failed to pick up any provisions so was grateful that my flatmate had a couple of trek bars lying around.

I roused the people in my living room from their jaeger-fuelled comas and kicked them out before slinging on my pack – without any breakfast - and embarking on my walk just after 8am. My reasoning for doing the walk after such blatantly terrible preparation was that there will surely be days in September when I will not want to get up and get moving because I’ll feel awful, but I will have to. This was the closest I could get to simulating that feeling.

You notice strange things on a Sunday morning when passing through parts of London - the amount of sick on the street being one of them. Needless to say this did not particularly help my all too fragile state. I was also reminded how horrible certain parts of Wimbledon are; the area around the dog track for example, is truly hideous. From there it was onto Sutton, a place I’d only previously heard being announced on train platforms, and eventually I would join the A217, which I think may be the longest road in the world.

Emily, who I was on my way to visit, texted me at about 10:30am asking me if I’d given in to the call of McDonalds yet…I had not, and reminding me that to get on a bus would be cheating. Meanwhile, after discovering what I was up to, my friend Hillsy sent me the following message:

“There is no diagnosis for that sort of behaviour. Your initials are WTF from now on. Sensational Sunday for you will involve sun stroke, exhaustion, dehydration, blisters, scrott rot, heat rash, scurvy, chapped lips, disorientation and potential death. But the sun will be on your face, the wind on your back and you will be a legend. Walk on my friend, walk on.”

I read that as I sat on a bench outside a cattery (inside the only noise I could hear was that of a singular barking dog…which I didn’t think boded too well for the cats) eating a now crumpled chicken sandwich that was doubling up as breakfast and lunch. I wasn’t sure to be inspired or to give up.

Despite a wrong turn somewhere on the North Downs Way which led me in a full circle back to where I started, adding at least another mile to my journey and having the more significant impact of pissing me off no end, I made it to Reigate shortly before 3pm and was rewarded with what appeared to be an engaging smile from a seriously attractive young lady as she drove passed. Of course, I imagine it was more like a screech of horror given the total state I was in – something Emily kindly pointed out to me when I arrived at her door.

I had managed around 20 miles in a fraction less than seven hours. I was pale, my feet hurt like hell and I had weird spots of heat rash above both ankles. I had a cold shower and then realised that there were quite a lot of people at the house all keen for several Sunday beers and yet another BBQ. Of course, it would be rude to say no.

I actually felt fine the next day, which was a bit of a shock. My feet were still sore and I knew I was going to have to do something about my footwear, but other that that I was in fairly optimistic mood. The next challenge was an overnight hike to try and best replicate the first two days of the journey itself. That was two weeks away and before then I needed to order an awful lot of kit.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Training Walk One - Darent Valley Path

“I formed a number of rationalisations. It would get me fit after years of waddlesome sloth. It would be useful – I wasn’t quite sure in what way, but I was sure nonetheless – to learn to fend for myself in the wilderness. When guys in camouflage pants and hunting hats sit around the Four Aces Diner talking about fearsome things done out of doors I would no longer have to feel like such a cupcake. I wanted a little of that swagger that comes with being able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff, ‘Yeah, I’ve shit in the woods.’”
- Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods.

I walk to work everyday. I have done so for three years and it is one of the great luxuries of London living. Two miles each way which takes about 30 minutes, slightly longer if it’s raining or I’m hungover. However, I have been reliably informed that four miles ambling each day, occasionally in my now defunct sandals, is not suitable training for what one person referred to as “an endurance hike.” Damn.

Thankfully I have done a few treks in the last four years. Everest Base Camp in 2009 and the Langtang circuit in Nepal later that year. If 2010 was fairly inactive then I more than made up for it in 2011 with the Wakhan Corridor Trek in Afghanistan followed almost immediately K2 Base Camp. Unfortunately 2012 did not see much activity (although I did run a sub two-hour half marathon that I was rather pleased with), but in 2013 I have done a week of hiking in the Palestinian Territories and another week in the north of Romania.

Every one of these trips has been very different, but none of them have covered the kind of mileage I am going to have to do along the Thames, and as such when I undertook my first training walk in mid-June I was somewhat unprepared for the aches and pains that were going to accompany me.

When I first committed to this walk I was keen to have a wingman. I envisaged the comradeship along the way and the high five we’d have at the end. The thing about most of the trips listed above is that they have been work trips. I’ve met some good people along the way, but I spent a lot of the time wishing I was with my buddies (of course the honourable exception is the Everest Test – it was the first of my treks and I was surrounded by 50 of my best mates…I suppose I was slightly spoilt!).

I tried to bully a couple of different people into joining me until eventually my mate Jules said he’d be very keen. Of course, later that afternoon his wife did ask the rather pertinent question of: “couldn’t you find someone else’s husband to kidnap for a week - preferably one who doesn’t also have two children under the age of two to support?” Well Vicks, I’m afraid the simple answer to that question was no!

So after some bartering with his wife, Jules was in and we swiftly planned some training weekends. The first Sunday in July was chosen – not ideal as the British Lions had beaten the Aussies on the Saturday and Andy Murray was playing in the Wimbledon final on the Sunday afternoon, so we needed to fit 20 miles in between the two, as well as a BBQ and a few celebratory beers of course on the Saturday night.

We had chosen the Darent Valley Path, which runs from Sevenoaks to Dartford. We loaded our rucksacks and stuffed down a breakfast of porridge before getting a train at 7am to start the walk. It was hot that day, but by and large it went off without a hitch. We managed not to get lost, we ate at the right times and did not run out of water. Better still, we were done in 5:15hrs and had completed roughly 18 miles. It was a solid start, the only annoying part was having to run for my train at the end of the walk only to get to the platform to find it was going to be held there for five minutes. Bastards. Still, I was home in time to see Andy Murray win Wimbledon.

There were a few aches the next day; calves, hamstrings and some nasty rubbing on my little toes, which seemed weird, but nothing major. My boots seemed to have done a good job and I was relatively confident they’d see me through come September.

Jules seemed in much the same state, but sadly that would be the only walking we would do together. Understandably his conscience got the better of him and his family and professional commitments needed to be put first. This was obviously disappointing, and it also left me with a few issues. We had planned to share the workload when if came to the organisation, kit buying and route planning – but now that was all down to me. I realised I had better get a move on.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Why on Earth? Part Two

So why am I hiking the length of a river in England? Well, to give you the full story I have to go back to the end of my last blog  from the three months I spent living in Kathmandu in 2010.

At that point I had no real idea where my life was going, I knew I was going to return home and that my experience out there had not been all that I’d hoped, so I wanted to do something big to make up for it. So I decided to walk from John O’Groats to Lands End. It was a grand idea and one I thought doable. Of course, it took about 20 minutes research to discover that it would take about three months and cost a fortune in food and accommodation. Given I’d basically not earned a penny in the previous six months the idea quickly went out the window and I focussed instead on finding a job.

A year later with the job going fairly well I began to think of the walk again. Clearly I knew that getting the time off would be impossible, so I scaled the idea own a little and came up with the River Thames. It is England’s lifeblood after all. A little research told me that the path itself is 186 miles long and that most sensible people hike it in 12-14 days. Sounded rather pleasant. Then work told me I was going to Afghanistan for a month and after that Pakistan for three weeks. The idea was shelved again.

Another 18 months passed and I went to something called the “Night of Adventure” which is hosted by a chap called Al Humphries who has made a bit of a name for himself with his idea of the “Micro Adventure”. This is the guy who walked a lap of the M25 just for the hell of it. The evening was full of people talking about the random things they’d done – many of which were within the UK, and the idea of walking the Thames returned.

Of course, I wanted it to be a challenge. I wanted it to be hard. I wanted people to say to me: “You’re bloody bonkers” and so I decided to do it in seven days – which means I will be tackling a marathon every day for a week. Careful what you wish for!

Then I decided I should make it even harder by being self-sufficient all the way; camping by the banks, carrying my tent, cooker, food and clothes. That, I have to admit, was a really dumb idea and I have since decided that while I will still carry all that gear, should there be people willing to open their doors and give me a bed and a bath at the end of a long day, I will be more than grateful to accept!

It has been funny how many people have really understood then idea and said how great it is, while others have looked at me with complete bemusement. “Why not go abroad and do something” has been a common response. To which my answer is that I have been lucky with my job to see quite a lot of the world, yet I have seen practically nothing of the UK. This is my chance.

As much as anything else I hope to inspire people. Walking is something that the vast majority of us do every day, but we take for granted. It is a simple pleasure that you do not have to be an athlete to take part in – which is why it suits me rather well! I am a pretty ordinary bloke who lives a pretty ordinary life – but I do like an adventure. I also firmly believe that adventure can be many different things to many different people, but what it all really boils down to is just the opportunity to really feel alive.

I suspect that by the end of this walk I will probably feel closer to death…but in pushing myself through it I know I’ll have something to look back on 2013 at and remember that this was a year when I did something cool, and not just another that passed me by.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Why on Earth? Part One

When I decided to take on the challenge of trekking 186 miles in just seven days I don’t think I quite realised what an enormous challenge it was going to be. Following three training weekends totalling nearly 100 miles I am now fully aware – it’s going to be bloody hard.

A number of people have poked, prodded and firmly suggested I blog about the event, so this is that blog. I guess I am writing this more as a diary for posterity than anything else, so that I can remember the lead up to the walk and of course the event itself.

So the most logical thing to do is remind me, and you my dear readers, of who I am doing this for. The why will come in my second post. Those who have been good enough to visit my Just Giving page will have already read the below, but for the sake of those who haven’t, this is written by my good buddy Rob on behalf of him, his wife Annabel, and of course their daughter Thea, about the Charity I have chosen to support:

"Shooting Stars help care for children with life limiting illnesses - ie they are unlikely to live past 18. Our daughter Thea is now 18 months old and suffers from a rare brain condition called PCH (or pontocerebellar hypoplasia for short). As far as these things go it's a real humdinger - the part of her brain that has atrophied (stopped developing) controls pretty much everything the body does as a matter of course; coordination, learning, speech, even the ability to swallow and regulate breathing. Unfortunately this means that day to day life is a real struggle for Thea and as such her life expectancy runs to only a couple of years.

“Despite all this she is the most extraordinary, determined, inspiring, energetic, stubborn little girl you are ever likely to meet and of course brings an enormous amount of joy to our lives.

“Shooting Stars support us in that one of their carers comes to the house every couple of weeks and looks after Thea while I take a break. As a parent, looking after a child with a life limiting illness can be physically and emotionally draining, and so this kind of respite care is phenomenally helpful and makes a huge difference to our lives. In addition to this we are able to use the facilities at the Shooting Stars hospice where they have an amazing range of therapies available as well as rooms where parents can stay for the weekend while their children are cared for on-site by experienced nurses and staff. Again this is just a magnificent resource and it's really only when you visit the hospice that you start to appreciate the scale of the phenomenal work this charity does.

“Thea is still very small and so much of the care we receive is aimed at us as parents. One of the things that I love about Shooting Stars is the work that they do with older kids, and particularly teenagers. They allow these young adults to LIVE - to escape their parents, play video games, hang out with their mates, all the normal stuff that is often hard for them to do due to their respective conditions and the medical necessities that come with them. Our carer told me a great story the other day about a trip they put on for a load of teenagers to Brighton. The minibus pulled up and they all got out and straight away they all took off in their wheel chairs in different directions, determined to leave the adults behind, to have some fun, to be mischievous; classic teenagers, despite all their problems. I love that spirit and I love that Shooting Stars gives kids the chance to do this kind of thing.

“Everyone who comes under the auspices of shooting stars has one thing in common - that the time we have left with our kids is short. This charity helps us and many, many other families make the most of our time with our beloved little rascals, whether it's through active therapies and the use of amazing facilities or through support and rest and practical help. And that is a beautiful thing."

Makes for quite hard reading doesn’t it? And yet is strangely uplifting at the same time. It fills me with admiration for Rob and Bells and how they cope with a situation that must be so incredibly hard – and I’m glad that there is a charity out there that helps people in their situation.

I cannot claim to be a Saint, and say that I am doing this walk purely to raise money for Shooting Stars and do my bit for Thea. I have my own, far more selfish reasons too. However, I think when I’m done and I look back on this, it’ll be the fundraising, and the knowledge that the money donated is going to a worthy cause, that will give me most satisfaction.