We’d been training for this for what felt like forever. Walking everywhere, buying kit, planning food, checking routes and making notes on elevations. In our heads we knew it would be a challenge but it’s a walk right? How hard can it be? It’s just ten checkpoints, each with 10km between them, and we’ve all done that in races so many times… a walk in the park, literally! The team’s Facebook chat group has been alive with suggestions and ideas, with our incredibly experienced crew Paul and Roger (aka Dodge) giving us tips. We had our last meeting (and a kit check) a full week before, so that when it came to registration on Friday night… we felt ready.
Registration was impeccably organised and the welcome that we all received was amazing. As usual the boys made an entrance with Paul riding through the car park out of the sunroof, yelling inspiring things at the top of his voice – we never know whether to be embarrassed or proud! Registration complete, we took some photos and met the fantastic Gurkhas that would benefit from the funds we had raised, this alone made me feel that finishing was never in any doubt. We collected our t-shirts, filled out some forms, and were issued with trackers that we had to wear from that point onwards – mine drove me crackers, it got caught on everything and I saw every hour in bed that night (although that may have been in part due to nerves). My fab kiddies woke me with scrambled eggs and tea and it felt strange not having much to do as all of my kit was packed.
We all met up at QE and arranged the crates for our checkpoint food bags. It still felt like someone else was going to be doing this trek – in fact, I don’t think it processed properly until the first hill!! The Gurkha bagpipe band played us out and we were off, waving goodbye to Paul, Dodge and to Allie & Louise’s families that came to wish us well.
Stage 1… We all started well, singing random songs. The terrain was really varied but familiar – we’d trained this stage and felt pretty comfortable. The heat was already starting to be a concern as there wasn’t too much shade. Shortly after, Crusader Trevor joined us for half a mile while he was out on his training run. When he joked that QE was a hilly parkrun we all smiled knowing what we had to come!
The first checkpoint came quickly and uneventfully, although we chose to drop some kit to try to take the load off. My job of shouting ‘drink’ at regular intervals had kept us pretty well hydrated and we moved on.
Stage 2… We knew in advance that Pen Hill would be tough, and it didn’t disappoint! The heat was really ramping up and I watched as Allie and Mel make short work of the hill, whilst Lou and I did it in stages with 30 second pauses to put our hands on our hips and shake our heads. I think it was at this point that our ultra marathon team member, Mel, said that she didn’t think walking would be this hard – we all agreed that running it would’ve been so much easier on the joints. This was followed by more exposure, more sweat and a little swearing…more hills, more cattle grids and the first signs of hot spots on our feet. At the checkpoint the boys had our kit ready for us, we slapped on more suncream and heading off.
Stage 3… Spirits were high but the heat was higher, and although the terrain was reasonably flat, it was also uneven. I munched on lemon curd sandwiches whilst Allie picked though her peanut M&Ms. At this point, it was also clear that Louise’s feet would need some TLC at the next stop. The people you meet on these events are just incredible. One chap undertook it in his wheelchair and goodness only knows how! I later found out he had to stop after 79km due to a bolt being sheared off, but the effort it must have taken him is just incomprehensible. We rolled into the checkpoint nearly catching the boys off guard, and Lou had her blisters checked while we had a sock change and some more food. It was kind of a mobile buffet and I do love food!
Stage 4… This stage hurt. After 7 hours on the move we were starting to question what we’d let ourselves in for, but the views, beautiful butterflies the glow bugs were making up for it. We were heading to the limits of our walk training and into the unknown. By the end of this stage we hated hills, hated the sun, hated rocks but really loved each other, finding that our very different personalities complimented each other perfectly. The boys were on true form with cups of tea, and the promise of bacon sandwiches keeping us going to the next checkpoint.
Stage 5… This one was hard but we marched on knowing that we were halfway – HALFWAY!! I was tracking our progress on Strava and it was becoming evident that the stages and ‘1km-to-go’ markers were somewhat off against the route book. My feet were blistering and I could really feel it – so I got my head into something else by all of us singing and dancing as best we could. We agreed that what goes on trek stays on trek, so I couldn’t possibly tell you how we coped, but we did. Emotions kicked in for Louise who had really caught the sun and we worked together to support each other through. Coming in to the checkpoint we could hear the music and cheering from the 500m marker and this really lifted us. Again, the boys were amazing, bacon and cheese rolls on the go whilst Mel and I headed for a massage – after 10 hours of oppressive heat, mountainous hills and really varied terrain, the poor masseuse couldn’t work out what to fix on us first!!
Stage 6… Our backs were sore, our legs and arms were sore…everything started to protest but the sunset made up for it. The South Downs are truly beautiful and we marched on – but the heat was still a factor. As we reached the end of the stage the temperature cooled a little and that really helped – being able to keep hydrated saved us as so many people were being pulled out with injuries and severe heat stroke. We counted ourselves lucky to be a full team. Louise’s feet, however, were in agony – so we all pulled together and rotated walking with her to try to keep her with us. She perked up massively with us all singing and telling jokes (and Mel’s stories!), so we all got through to the checkpoint. After a bit of refuelling we swapped sweaty clothes for longer kit to prevent the inevitable mosquito bites and marched onwards.
Stage 7… From the off there were hills, big steep nasty hills. We put on head torches and worked our way through, picking off teams that had started two hours before us. We were sore and we were really just moving on auto pilot – I think this was when we had naturally silent miles. Louise was in agony with her legs and was still sweating, but was so cold to the touch – we knew she’d be strong enough to continue if we stopped for the hot food that we could have at the next checkpoint. We faced more hills and it was increasingly hard to stay together, so this meant adopting paces that didn’t suit us all – it was hard on the legs and hard on the mind but as we found the 1km-to-go marker, I called Paul and let him know that Louise may need a medic.
As we approached the boys stripped us of bags and ushered us into the feed station to fill up from the cauldrons of bolognaise (and cups of tea). Louise has an allergy that stopped her having that so we topped her up with pasta, but she wasn’t recovering. A medic suggested we stop for at least 30 mins and that she wasn’t allowed sugar which made her fuelling nearly impossible. With a body temp of 35 degrees she made the brave and selfless decision to withdraw. This left the remaining 3 of us shaken and questioning how we would go on but we knew that we need to finish.
Stage 8… This one was a bit of a blur. We sang, we saw sheep and cattle, and I stroked a lamb which promptly bolted off. We picked up the pace that we’d lost in the last couple of stages and actually felt OK. We thought that things would start to go really quickly from this point, like they do in a race… NOT the case! I think this was the point that I really started to worry about my feet and I knew they were in trouble when we got into the checkpoint. The girls didn’t want to stop too long which I totally understood, but we had time for some coffee and ginger cake as the sun came up. The temperature was already ramping back up. Because Louise was sleeping we left hats and glasses behind and this caught us off guard when a really long and exposed stage left us searching for shade and respite. As we reached the end I was sobbing, my feet were a mess but I didn’t want to stop – I’d come too far. I had half decided to keep my socks and shoes on and just carry on but Paul saw the pain on my face and insisted I remove them at the next checkpoint. The girls ate and drank whilst Dr Pickford taped my wounds. Louise was up and about and this was a relief to us all – she helped the crew feed us and I was so grateful to Mel and Allie for allowing me an extra 20 mins to get my feet fixed.
Stage 9… So, this was horrible. We’d all said that stage 9 would be a relief and a piece of cake…not so. It went on forever! It was reasonably flat barring two large hills right at the outset and the scariest bit was the cattle with ridiculous horns that would barely let us through one of the gates! We took a wide berth and bumped into an elderly couple that lived locally, who explained the geography and history of the area as we walked with their ‘ancient’ dog Missy – a welcome distraction! We watched weather fronts roll in and out as the kilometres ticked over, but every step felt like walking on knives to me by then – the next checkpoint was a Gurkha-manned water stop where we all used the facilities and had a quick drink. The map said 5km to the finish and we walked on knowing it was just a park run to go, messaging the boys to let them know we were 5km away according to the book. After the longest 3km ever we could see a sign in the distance – we actually thought we’d miscalculated and that it had to be the 1km-to-go marker! – it wasn’t. It was the 5km marker. The book was wrong. I cried, in fact I actually whimpered and we all felt a huge degree of despondency. We had a drink and put our big girl pants on with all three of us really driving each other on. The stage took forever and we made it into the start of civilisation with Mel spotting some familiar signs up ahead…
Allie’s boys had come to meet us and by God did we need it! Allie actually ran to them! We could barely walk but we had so many smiles, they told us we were about 3km out so we stumbled on with happier hearts. We got to the 1km marker and took stock, took more photos and took a breath – nearly done. Walking round the bend to the 500m marker was emotional and we all let the tears flow as the bag piper played us in. The tears turned to laughter when Paul and Dodge stole the megaphone and started shouting ‘Crusaders’ at the top of their voices! Tears again when Allie’s boys were handed the mic and shouted ‘We love you Mummy’. We shook hands with the Gurkhas at the finish as part of a full medal presentation,complete with sashes and photos. I was still blubbing!
The journey home showed us how tired the boys were too – we gave Paul and Dodge our sashes which seemed like a ridiculously small token based on their support but it was met with tears from them both. We can’t thank them enough.
Trailwalker isn’t ‘just a walk’ and the Strava report shows that. The elevation, the weather and the exhaustion made it a challenge worthy of the hand crafted medals and memories that we now have. I’m sure that my account will have noted different things from the others but one thing I am certain of is that we are strong, badass ladies covered in cherry flavoured awesome sauce – and we are truly #unstoppable!