In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death, taxes and the fact that Caralyn and I will never again walk 100km from London to Brighton. Last Saturday we set off from Richmond for a third and final time. Unlike our 2015 attempt, we both got to the end of the course, but it was hard work.
We met up at Euston the day before, on an uncomfortably hot, muggy afternoon, and proceeded to check in to our hotel and then register at Richmond Old Deer Park, where we bumped into Pam and Julie, two fellow-walkers with whom we often cross paths (literally). Last time we met them, it had been the middle of the night, somewhere near Winchester, and we were all soaked, bedraggled and filthy after the Race-to-the-King-stream-encounter. Now we were relatively clean, dry and ready for a new challenge!Knowing that nutrition would be key to getting through the event, Caralyn and I consumed a LARGE amount of food that evening, beginning with the pinnacle of haute cuisine: a McDonalds crunchie McFlurry. This was followed by crisps, fruit, rump steak and chips, vegetables, a rather warm babybel, a Bounty bar and numerous cups of camomile tea. No alcohol though: we would be dehydrated enough as the weekend continued and didn’t want to make things worse. Stomachs full, we tried to have an early night as we had a 5.15 start the next morning.
Saturday! It was already sunny and hot, and we felt apprehensive at the start line. We were setting off with the first group, who were mainly runners and looked intimidatingly fit and powerful. We made a plan to drink something at every 1km sign, so that we would keep well-hydrated.
Before long it was 6.30: time to go. This first quarter was relatively flat, taking us along the Thames, and then through miles and miles of suburban London streets, to Croydon where we stopped for “lunch”, even though it wasn’t anywhere near lunchtime. The highlight of this section, without a doubt, was the walk through picturesque Nonsuch Park. Our arrival there coincided with a 5km Park Run in the opposite direction. It was rather humbling that as we walked against the tide of runners, they spontaneously clapped and cheered us as they ran past in the sweltering heat. For just a moment we felt like heroes!
Near the 25km rest stop, we were completely baffled to see a woman running in wedge heels! So baffled that I had to take a photo to prove it.
The next quarter was more challenging, not least because it was bigger than a quarter, taking us from 25km to 56km. Also, it involved quite a lot of upping and downing, especially as we reached Coulsden and the start of the “Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”. Our favourite parts were the aptly named “Happy Valley” – full of buttercups and wildflowers – and, much further on, the gradual descent down through the welcome shade of woodlands towards the fields around the M25. It was amazing how the noise of the motorway was almost silenced when walking through the tunnel beneath it. Leaving the M25 behind, we could really feel as though we were on our way to the coast.
It was really exciting to see the 50km sign. This was important to me because I remembered feeling absolutely dreadful at this point last time, whereas now I had a bit more oomph in me, probably due to all the food I was cramming down my throat while walking.
Around this point, we came across a runner, sunburnt and sweating, sitting on the side of the road, having decided to abandon the race. We checked if he was OK and he half-grinned, half-scowled at us, muttering “There’s no pleasure to be had in this!”, which kind of summed up how we were feeling. Still, on we plodded. We were extremely glad to finally reach the “halfway” 56km point at Tulley’s Farm, near Crawley. We stopped for a whole hour so that we could refuel, rest and attend to blisters. My Dad turned up with his partner and we had a lovely time chatting with them and with Caralyn’s friend Mark (our dedicated soigneur for this event).
The third section, stretching to the 80km point at Wivelsfield, involved some spectacular views, sleepy villages and lots of country lanes and woodland paths. On the approach to the midpoint rest stop at Ardingly, some children had built a little stall outside their house offering “Free Sweets” (“You can have as many as you want!”). It was a small gesture, but when feeling utterly exhausted and in pain after 67 kms of walking, the smallest acts of human kindness are so overwhelming that they can (and did) reduce us to grateful tears. Yet another delight was in store for us at the Ardingly rest stop: Mark-the-soigneur was there with a large tub of ice-cold Onken plain yoghurt with 2 spoons! If you have never walked 67kms on a scorching hot day, you possibly won’t be able to imagine the utter wonder of cold, creamy, fresh, slightly-sour yoghurt. Heaven. Leaving Ardingly behind, we had another emotional moment between 73 and 74kms: we found the exact clearing where I had collapsed last time and we did a little victory dance there to celebrate being alive and well!
By this time, the sun was sinking lower in the sky and as twilight fell, fairy lights went up at the rest points and out came the head torches and glowsticks. Although the darkness made off-road walking much harder and slower, we were very glad that there was virtually no mud this year. Eventually, we arrived at Wivelsfield. More yoghurt was consumed, along with a baked potato. We stretched. We grumbled. Mark was kind and encouraging. We set off once more into the night: just 20kms more to do.I have no coherent story for those last 20kms. The combination of exhaustion, pain and sleep deprivation led to episodic and fragmented memories: A white path gleaming beneath black skies and a sliver of moon. The sound of footsteps crunching rhythmically on gravel. Shooting pains from a blister under my toenail. The singing and squawking of invisible night-birds. Solitude. An incongruous, dazzlingly-lit sports hall at 88kms. More yoghurt. A portaloo – and the delight of sitting down for a few minutes, taking the weight off my feet. More night. More blackness. The step-by-step, painstakingly slow ascent of Ditchling Beacon. Sea-fog enveloping us, sending the beam from our torches into dancing scattered pinpricks. Roads. Cars. Party-goers squabbling over a taxi. More fog. Then, at last, 99kms and the entrance to Brighton Racecourse. Thick, soft, lush grass like a cushion underfoot. Lights. People. The Finish!
It was 3.15 am. We had walked 100kms in 20 hours, 45 minutes. We were so exhausted that we didn’t think to take a photo at the finish line. So, instead, I will end with a photograph of Caralyn, having a stretch at 88kms. Astonishing to think that she only stopped radiotherapy several months ago: an incredible achievement!