Teddington Travel Lodge: 5.30 a.m. On opening the curtain, I was met with the dismal sight of a rain-washed London skyline. It was pouring. Pouring in a relentless, quasi-apocalyptic way. In grim determination we dressed and made our way to the taxi, asking to be taken to “Richmond, Old Deer Park” although every fibre of our bodies was willing us to say “Heathrow”.
Grim determination was certainly the prevailing mood at the Action Challenge registration site. Everyone knew that the rain was going to make 100k feel like 1000. Unlike the pre-Moonwalk buzz of hot pink tinsel and sequins, we were surrounded by a sea of primary-coloured Goretex and people brandishing walking poles. There was a lot less oestrogen in the air and a lot more testosterone. Still, the Walk the Walk support crew were in cheery and enthusiastic mood and as we had decided to wear decorated bras under all the Lycra and Goretex, we posed for a few photos. It was cold though, so outer layers were very quickly re-applied.
Around 3000 runners and walkers were taking part, although many had already left some time earlier. Departures were every twenty minutes, ours being at 8 a.m. By this point, the rain had eased slightly and so our mood lifted as we set off. We soon found ourselves striding out along the banks of the Thames from Richmond, through Teddington and on to Kingston, past rowing crews, riverside cafes and exquisite houses with gardens full of lillies and lavender. From there we continued through Malden and Stoneleigh and then into the green and leafy Nonsuch Park, a welcome break from roads and pavements. I began to feel quite cheerful. The rain had finally stopped and the sun was out, the sky was blue and all seemed possible. At this point, the walkers were bunched together and there were some interesting sights among the cagoules and leggings. For example, a man walking with solar panels strapped to his back and another man walking in BARE FEET. There were rest stops at 12k and 24k and we made the most of these, sitting on plastic chairs (we hadn’t expected such luxury), drinking tea, eating and messing around with phones.
Shortly afterwards, back on the suburban streets – possibly somewhere near Croydon – we reached a bus shelter where, in a James-Bond-like moment, we were handed a pile of contraband by a mysterious stranger. Actually it was Caralyn’s friend Matthew and the goods were Snickers bars, water and bananas. Then we were off again, bananas hanging out of our backpacks like Yoshi and Donkey Kong in a slow motion version of Mariokart. On we went, through the streets of Coulsdon and then up a steep grassy hill onto the North Downs. I really did enjoy this bit, especially a gloriously buttercup-filled valley called, appropriately “Happy Valley”.
I became a bit less happy after that, as storm clouds were gathering once more and there was an almighty and prolonged downpour as we descended towards the M25. At this point my phone protested about the number of photos I was taking in the rain and it slumped into a coma, unresponsive and filled with condensation. My body also slumped (very suddenly) into a glucose-low and Caralyn had to throw energy gels and Snickers in my direction until I began to perk up. Fortunately the skies cleared once more as we arrived at the 40k rest stop. This was an exciting one for us as it was our first chance to connect with our magnificent duo of soigneurs, Michael and Lorraine. I can’t emphasise enough how amazing these two were, joining us at every subsequent rest stop, fetching us tea, attending to blisters and dispensing hugs and sandwiches. This warm welcome was repeated at the 56k rest point (Tulley’s Farm) where we were greeted not only by Michael and Lorraine and the Walk the Walk crew, but also by my Dad and his partner. To lift our mood yet further, it was dinner time: huge vats of food and all sorts of snacks and drinks. We filled up with chicken curry and rice and spent some time in the First Aid tent with the very nice blister-people.
Meanwhile, back at home, Paul was wondering what time we would arrive in Brighton and thus what time he would have to leave his warm bed to come and meet us. Being a maths teacher, he obviously approached this in a methodical way. I will hand over to him for a brief interlude:
My previous experience of meeting Sally and Caralyn at a finish line (at the end of their 3rd Moonwalk in 2008) didn’t go too well. Sporadic texts informed me of their progress, but they were faster than anticipated and I was unable to drive to London quickly enough to see them cross the line.
This time it would be different. More texts would be sent on a regular basis. Also, the organisers had a system whereby Facebook would receive and transmit progress times and distances. However, on the day, the Facebook system did not work, and Sally’s phone became waterlogged and at times inoperable, so I had to resort to Mathematical methods. I feverishly covered 3 sides of A4 and plotted graphs on the computer, which was a useful diversion when home alone on a Saturday evening and unable to resort to alcohol.
My first attempt at using a differential equation incorporating an exponential drop in speed over time produced a pretty wild estimate of their finish time. Undeterred, I tried a second method involving linear regression which immediately produced better results. As each time check came in, I got a better picture of the finish time. However, mud/dark/blisters/extrapolation are all dangers with this sort of model and I slept lightly, keen to avoid a repetition of the 2008 Moonwalk fiasco.
Back in Sussex, unaware of Paul’s efforts, we were leaving Tulley’s Farm,and setting off towards Ardingly. Daylight was beginning to fade and we really had to start concentrating as the route plunged down through muddy woods and fields. It took us through avenues of purple rhododendrons, over stiles and across a graceful wooden bridge at Ardingly reservoir. It was almost dark when we reached the 67k rest stop and so out came the torches and on came the fairy lights:
Despite the pain and stiffness, I was just a little bit excited at this point. We were going to be walking in the dark! With head torches! The path lit by little glow sticks! What could be more adventurous? But this was where things became very difficult. As soon as we left Ardingly, we found ourselves in pitch blackness, with a fresh onslaught of rain and, worst of all, having to navigate labyrinthine “paths” through woods, the paths being nothing more than a muddy quagmire. There was no firm ground. There was only gloopy, sticky mud which, at best, would reach to the top of your shoe and at worst would be right up your calves. Add to that a nice collection of tree roots and overhanging branches and throw in a whole load of stiles and you’ve got a picture of what it was like for the next 13k. The head torches didn’t allow much depth perception and so we stumbled and tripped and stumbled and tripped, our arms flailing wildly as we just about managed not to fall head over heels or lose our shoes. We were largely alone in the darkness but at times we would come across a huddle of other walkers, squelching and sliding as they tried to find the best route forwards. There was a surreal moment where we suddenly came across a solitary man standing silently in a bog with water almost up to his knees, paralysed with indecision or, perhaps, horror. We later found out that many people had to drop out at this stage, either through exhaustion or injury. In fact, there was a record number of people having to drop out throughout the whole event, thanks to the weather and, above all, the mud.
On we lurched to the 80k stop at Wivelsfield. Our bleak mood was lifted temporarily by the very cheerful young man at the entrance who assured us that the next section would mainly be on tarmac. Still, morale was very low and we had to have a 45 minute rest before we could face starting again. He was quite correct though. The next chunk was largely tarmac and we picked up the pace once more, despite Caralyn’s tendon injury which was becoming increasingly painful. One more rest at Plumpton College and it was time for the dreaded ascent of the South Downs followed by a lot of upping and downing over a hard flinty path: not good news for blistered feet. Still, with the help of Ibuprofen and Haribo cola bottles, I quite enjoyed this section. The hill wasn’t too bad if taken in stages and any amount of flint underfoot was better than the mud. After a while we realised we could turn off the torches and allow the path to be simply lit by the dawn, the trudging of our feet accompanied by the chatter and chirrup of birdsong.
An hour or so later, the path surged upwards through fields bordered with poppies . Then, suddenly, the sea was in front of us, the sun was breaking over the hills behind us and there, not far ahead, was the racecourse, the end of our journey. It was 5.23 a.m. as we approached the finish line in an almost eerie silence, a few tears falling as the enormity of what we had done hit home. There was no crowd, no applause, no music, no other competitors to see us cross the line: the runners had long since finished and most of the other walkers had yet to arrive. So we were simply met by a woman with medals, a man with champagne and Paul with his camera, who captured the moment. It was a quiet and intimate end to an extraordinary walk.