Last weekend I walked 106km around the Isle of Wight. Yup, you read it right: 106km. In the interests of full disclosure, I did the hike over two days, unlike many people who walked straight through the night.
So, why did I sign up for this crazy challenge? Well, firstly I’m blaming (in the nicest possible way) the lovely Joanna Penn who first put the idea into my head that signing up for a double ultramarathon would a) be fun, and b) help me become a healthier writer. And I did want to become a healthier writer – read more on that here.
But really, I’m just a sucker for a challenge. Plus, I figured it was a good way of getting some external accountability to MAKE me get away from my desk and out walking. If you’re familiar with The Four Tendencies framework (and if you’re not, I highly recommend Gretchen Rubin’s book), then I am a resigned Obliger. (With a dash of Rebel, particularly when it comes to including genre tropes and clichés in my books.) This means I am much more likely to do something if I feel an obligation to someone else. Not wanting to let Team Creatives down AND raising money for Mind provided the accountability I needed to get out training.
And talking about training…
I think I can safely sum up the weather in Yorkshire for the first part of this year in one word: miserable. Most of my training walks for the Isle of Wight Challenge took place in rain/hail/snow/gales or a combination of all four. I became adept at negotiating muddy coastal paths in force nine gales and jumping from tussock to tussock across moorland bogs.
Most of all, I became good at SUFFERING.
This, I do believe, is an essential skill any budding ultramarathoner should develop.
What I did not train for was walking on hard surfaces (I avoid road walking like the proverbial plague) or in blinding sunshine. And my ‘hot temperature’ training consisted of taking every opportunity I could to spend time in a sauna. (It’s good for recovery, honest…)
And this was where I fell down.
I always tend to opt on the side of pessimism when it comes to weather forecasts (I live in Yorkshire remember), so carefully packed long trousers, fleeces and full waterproofs. Fortunately, my husband loves the sun and added sunglasses and a lightweight baseball cap to my pack. On arrival into Southampton the day before the walk, I was beginning to think I’d overpacked…
Day 1: Chale to Cowes
My alarm went off at 5.20am. But it was okay, because I was already awake, checking Jo’s “WAKE UP” message on the team’s WhatsApp group. Bleary-eyed, I got dressed, shovelled some breakfast into my body and tried to remember what I’d forgotten to pack.
Most of the team were staying in Cowes, so we shared a taxi down to the start line at Chale. The sky was completely clear of cloud and even pessimistic me knew we were in for a hot day.
We registered, took a few team selfies and downed a few coffees, then hovered between the start pen and the toilets debating how late to leave the final pee. Finally, we were called to the starting line for the obligatory warmup and then we were off!
It was warm enough at 8am that I started in a t-shirt and the weather only got hotter. (All that cold-weather training went to good use then…) The first 10km passed in a flash with good company and beautiful views along the coast. At the first rest stop, I was amazed to find an array of breakfast pastries and buns on offer, along with bananas, pineapple and melon.
I took a quick break to top up water and give my feet some air while simultaneously eating my bodyweight in cinnamon buns. Feeling refreshed (and slightly heavier) I said goodbye to my fellow Creatives, for the time being at least, and headed out on the next stage of the walk.
It’s probably worth saying that with around 1,700 people taking part in the challenge, the footpaths weren’t exactly quiet. But it was a lovely walk along the coast to a final climb up Tennyson Down. The reward? Beautiful views back across the island and sight of the lunch stop!
I met up with fellow Creative, Guy Windsor at the 21km stop, but after eating his ketogenic lunch (which I’m sure tasted better than it looked *ahem*) he headed off leaving me munching my monster baguette and rubbing some life into my feet.
At this point, my feet were already feeling a little hot and sore – more so that they had done in training at this distance. But I shrugged it off, plugged in my headphones and headed off listening to The Windup Girl. This was a much-needed distraction as the next section of the walk involved a lot of road walking.
And mud. Did I mention the mud?
We’d all had a message the previous evening warning us that part of the walk was muddy and recommending that we wore hiking boots as opposed to shiny white trainers. When I go to the 30km mark, I saw what they meant. But it was okay because I had trained for mud! With the aid of my walking poles, a few handy trees and a minor detour into a neighbouring field, I managed to make it through the mud unscathed and on to the 35km checkpoint.
At which point, I discovered I had a blister.
Just one? Yes, just one (at this point). But I hadn’t prepared for blisters. I have done a lot of walking in my time, including long, multi-day walks in the boots I was wearing and had NEVER had a blister from walking. I knew the arches of my feet would be sore, I thought I might have hip pain, but I honestly didn’t think I would suffer from blisters.
But I dug some three-year-old Compeed out of my first aid kit and tried to mould it around my big toe. Then, after checking that I was past the worst of the mud, I changed into the trainers that my husband had kindly brought out to me, swallowed some painkillers and set out on the final leg of the day.
In front of me at this point was Guy and, in front of him, super-speedy Nicole Burnham, who was running and was therefore waaaay ahead of me at this point. Which was lucky, as she messaged back to say the worst of the mud was still to come.
I looked down at my nice clean trainers and sent a message to my husband asking if he’d be able to bring my boots back…
Unfortunately, he’d just cycled back to our B&B, but he agreed to turn around and come back out to meet me further along the route. (As an aside, my husband cycled 70-80km each of the two days I was walking to support me and bring me changes of footwear and socks. Yes, he is a legend. That’s why I married him.) It turned out that the boots were a life-saver. Because the mud wasn’t just mud, it was a swamp.
And there was no way around it.
I slithered along with my walking poles in the manner of a confused baby giraffe, trying my best to both stay upright and not let the mud creep over the top of my boots. Somehow, I managed to achieve both, unlike the unlucky person whose shoe was sucked down into a swampy grave. And after that, it was just a case of hobbling on toward the finish line.
Or rather, the halfway stop.
It was at this point I was VERY glad I wasn’t doing the full distance in one go. My feet were sore, I could feel more blisters developing and my hips were protesting. It was getting dark by the time I arrived at Cowes, twelve and a half hours after setting out, and I was grateful to eat a good meal of cottage pie and pasta and hobble slowly back to my B&B for the night.
Day 2: Cowes to Chale
My alarm went off at 4.30am. Despite being strongly tempted to roll over and go back to sleep, the thought of another day of pain was just too tempting to resist and I got up and hobbled down the stairs to force some breakfast down.
Some of the team had finished their intended distances the day before and a few others had to cut their walk short due to injury, so it was just Nicole and me who made our way to the Day 2 start line.
A few hours of sleep and some feet-up time meant I was feeling a lot better than the night before. My legs ached a bit and my feet were sore, but I’d taped my blisters up as well as I could and was pretty resolved to do whatever it took to keep walking.
I managed to walk fast enough over the first kilometre to make the first ferry across the Medina to East Cowes. That was the last I saw of Nicole who had her running shoes on and finished hours ahead of me. (Well done, Nicole!) I knew the first part of the day would be road walking and was prepared for it. I actually quite enjoyed this section of the walk: the fresh, early morning air, quiet road and solitude provided a nice opportunity for reflection.
What I wasn’t expecting was that almost the entire day would be spent walking on roads or hard-surfaced paths. In retrospect, this was probably a good thing, as I almost certainly wouldn’t have signed up if I’d known this before the start. There were some interesting detours down private roads and past big houses (there are some VERY nice houses on the Isle of Wight), but my feet were definitely feeling it by the time I climbed the hill up to Bembridge Down and reached the lunch rest stop.
By this point, I was hobbling despite the painkillers and just about managed to load up my plate with pizza and fajitas (yum!) before collapsing into a chair. I was hot, most of me hurt and I had more blisters. Fortunately, my husband wasn’t expecting much in the way of conversation and dutifully re-filled my water bottles and scavenged me Haribo while I ate and tried to massage life back into my feet. I thought about how nice it would be to stop walking at this point and go for a swim in the sea…
But I didn’t seriously consider stopping.
I knew I could keep going. After all, I was good at suffering.
By this point in the event, there were a handful of other walkers who I kept bumping into. Typically, I’d overtake them, then they’d get ahead of me when I stopped to rest or rub my feet, and we’d play this leapfrog game, smiling and exchanging the same comments. It went something like this:
“How you doing?”
“Oh, not too bad. You?”
“Yeah, great. Not too far now.”
“No, keep going. We’re getting there!”
Liars, the lot of us.
Or perhaps we’re just British…
It’s well known that during ultramarathons and long-distance walks, you’ll have a personal low point. Mine occurred on the next stage of the walk, along the long (concrete) path through Sandown and Shanklin. There were so many PEOPLE for one thing. And NOISE. And the smell of greasy fish and chips and public toilets.
I hobbled into the final rest stop and just wanted it to be over.
And then, I got my second wind.
I’m not sure whether it was the transition from road to winding footpath, the solitude and views, or the Fleetwood Mac album my husband had downloaded onto my phone, but I was ON FIRE!
(I actually think it was the music. The power of Go Your Own Way to keep me going was literally incredible. Please don’t judge me for my taste in music.)
I stormed along the path, apologising as I overtook fellow walkers and trying my best not to sing out loud when other people were in the vicinity. As I overtook one of my fellow leap-froggers for the final time, I heard him mutter to his friend, “that girl is on a mission!”.
And I was. I had the finish line in my sights and nothing was going to stop me. Apart from the views. I had to stop and admire the views. The organisers had definitely saved the best part of the walk to last. But as I topped the final hill and looked down on the flags fluttering by the finish tent, I knew I would make it.
The last few kilometres passed in a blur. I nearly ran up the finish funnel, but I figured that might be a bit too enthusiastic. Kudos to the finish team, who somehow managed to retain formidable levels of enthusiasm and excitement as every finisher approached the 106km mark.
And then, I was there. I stepped over the finish line, got handed my finisher’s medal and a cup of champagne (well, cava), and followed my nose to the lasagne stand.
(Well, until the next challenge comes along…)
Congratulations to all my fellow Creatives – Joanna Penn, Nicole Burnham, Guy Windsor, Jane Steen and DJ MacKinnon – on your amazing achievements. And thank you for all your support, particularly on the second day. May we meet again in less blister-filled times. Thanks especially to Jo for bringing us all together, to my husband for patiently looking after me, and to all my friends and family who sponsored me and gave me the motivation to walk on through the pain.