September 28, 2013
Early 2013 and I decided to take on a challenge, to participate in a charity walk. This was no ordinary walk it was a non-stop 24 hour undertaking. The walk would start in Richmond deer park in London and finishing 62 miles (100 kilometers) later at Brighton race course on England’s south coast.
I was looking for something that would test my mettle, not against fierce creatures of the wild or insurmountable mountain peaks (well some parts of London’s urban areas can be considered wild) but my ability to push on for 24 hours or more with no sleep and only taking short rest breaks. I considered myself to be relatively fit, having run two marathons, hiked up mountains and visiting my gym at least three times a week, plus all the walking I did would put me in good stead.
However, this did not mean I could get away without training for the event. I did train, pounding the treadmills at the gym and increasingly walking a lot along the streets of my neighborhood. A good section of the early part of the walk would be along concrete pavements within the boroughs of South London, so road walking was an important part of my training.
I chose to walk and raise money for The Hospices, mainly because St. Joseph’s Hospice in London gave me the opportunity to run the London Marathon in 2004. I asked a couple of friends if they would like to join me in the endeavor but I got no takers, so without looking for others I ploughed on ahead getting ready for the big day.
The big day was on Saturday 25th May with the start time at 08:30 am. I awoke early and got ready putting on my waterproof walking pants, my quick drying base layer, and a fleece completed with a waterproof jacket. On my feet I wore thick walking socks and my ankle high hiking boots. In my rucksack I had water, energy gels, protein and energy bars, some bananas and a couple of packs of blister kits.
I took the district line train to Richmond underground station, where I saw other walkers with their badges and identity tags on them. A ten minute walk brought me to Richmond’s Old Deer Park, where effervescent helpers were directing people to the registration tent. I had arrived a good hour early as suggested, got myself booked in and was raring to go.
At 8 am my group of walkers were called up to the warm-up area. Mr. Motivator of TV-AM fame was on call to raise the energy levels and get people excited and warmed up. He went through his routine that hadn’t changed in the last two decades, but I love his zest and enthusiasm. Just before 08:30 am I managed to get a picture with him as we were herded through a turnstile where our ID tags were scanned to confirm start time. At the start line there was nobody to cheer me on or say any encouraging words. I just did what I had to do and when the whistle blew I began my walk.
The route crossed Richmond Park and then south along the River Thames, the weather was beautiful with clear skies, the sun out with no hint of rain. I made good progress reaching the first rest stop just before 9:30 am. I took a comfort break, grabbed some snacks, a hot drink and carried on.
The route continued on in urban areas, my ankles and feet were not taking kindly to the hiking boots I had on. My rationale for wearing them was that I would be walking at night and probably through woodland, therefore I did not want to risk twisting my ankle or getting wet feet. However, I saw many people with trainers, which would have been kinder on my feet.
Regardless I carried on and reached the second rest stop at 11:54 am. This time I had to take a longer break and take the boots off for some comfort. I looked at my feet and I saw signs of blisters developing. Taking precautionary action I stuck blister packs and wrapped the toes, heels and other pinch points with tape, in the hope of providing a cushion between the abrasive boot and skin.
Prior to getting to the third rest stop I was hurting, my feet were in pain and my right toenail felt as if it had been dislodged. All of the pinch points were stinging badly and I cursed myself for not wearing my Asics trainers. I did not grumble but carried on at my own slower pace. Several people joined and went on as their feet seemed okay enough to walk at a decent speed. Going into the third rest area I was joined by a man and his girlfriend, she was handling it well but his feet were hurting too. I took my boots off again and let my feet breath, what a joyful feeling, but I could not rest too long. So after some isotonic drinks and replenishing my supplies I bid farewell to my brief companions and marched on.
Again I was joined by other walkers, most left me behind, which did not bother me as this walk was my walk and I had to complete it at my own pace. I had to overcome my own fatigue and my own mental battles to carry on and finish. I was walking with a limp but I grit my teeth, put my head down and plodded on like a work horse.
I arrived at the halfway point of 33 miles at 7:22 pm, however being British Summertime the sun was still up. I was the lone walker at that time approaching the midway point. There was an MC who greeted me calling out my name and asking me how I felt. Total strangers patted me on my back and cheered me on as I entered the tent to rest. Hot food was laid on, water bottles and lots of fruit and energy bars. I wolfed down some pasta, grabbed some fruit and water and after a brief chat with an elderly lady I had met throughout the day I carried on. I knew the tough part lay ahead, night was falling and the route was now entering the countryside between East Grinstead and Haywards Heath.
At 9 pm the sun had set, the terrain got muddy and rough. It took the walkers through open fields, bridle paths, over stiles, through ploughed fields and woodlands. I got my head torch on as well as my handheld torch to light the way ahead. I was minding my own thoughts and trying to put one step in front of another through a wooded part of the route, when several walkers overtook me. However, I could feel someone behind me who wasn’t walking past.
“Hello, Mr. Alam how are you?” said a voice.
I turned around, “I am well and you?” realising my tag on the back of my rucksack had given my name away.
“Good, may I join you?” asked a Sikh fellow.
“Sure, I am Shah, by the way,” I offered my hands.
“I am Rocky, nice to meet you,” Rocky offered his hand.
Rocky walked beside me and we got acquainted. He told me that he was walking with some good friends of his, who had left him as they were seasoned long distance walkers. This was Rocky’s first time on such a trek. He was slightly taller than me, with a fair complexion and the obligatory beard of Sikh men. He did not have his turban on and his hair was under a baseball cap. He wore jogging pants, a hoodie and trainers. He also sported two walking sticks to aid his stride, which I noticed was as bad as mine. Rocky confessed to his feet killing him.
“Shah I like your pace, can we walk together?” asked Rocky.
“Of course, we will egg each other on,” I replied.
I found out Rocky was married with two children and he ran a mortgage business as well as a couple of restaurants near Southall. As we chatted and kept each other going we became saviors for one another. We bonded like brothers in arms and we vowed that we would not let each other down. So we marched on into the night, we got stuck in mud, hung onto branches to haul ourselves out of ditches. We waited for each other along the route as one caught his breath.
At rest stop five Rocky went to see his friends who had powered on ahead. I left Rocky at the rest stop with his friends as they were taking a longer break. From rest stop six we stayed together as his friends decided to sleep for a few hours. Rocky and I said no to sleep and carried on. We would walk in silence, deep in our thoughts but knew each one was there for the other. The biggest obstacles were the damn stiles. Lifting our legs over these gates between fields was a killer. Sometimes I would hold Rocky’s walking sticks so he could get over them. Other times I would shine a torch so that he could see his path ahead.
Somewhere between stops six and seven we were walking up a slightly sloping hill. It was pitch black bar the low light offered by the near full moon. We walked past a huge oak tree and entered another field. Ahead we could see a couple of men and ahead of them a group of young women. As we approached the edge of this field which we skirted along the hedgerow on our left, we could see a couple of horses at the gate in the corner of the field. Before the horses one of the women was frozen to the spot looking at the animals. In between her and us were the two men. As we approached everyone stopped and watched fearful of the horses. The two horses turned around looked at us and started to trot in our direction. Like sheep and I guess being city dwellers we all panicked. The woman ran towards to the gate somehow avoiding the horses and carried on. The two men ahead of us jumped into the hedgerow, Rocky and I decided to do the same and got into the prickly hedge. I pulled some branches in front of me to prevent the horses getting near.
Here we were four grown men scared of a couple of horses, it was amazing what fatigue, lack of sleep and pain had made us fearful of. As the two horses nudged nearer to the four of us, one of the men escaped and ran towards the gate. Rocky and I called out to each other to ensure we were okay; the other fellow was fine by what I could make out with my torch light. By now I was getting angry. So I yelled out,”Yeehaah,” just like the cowboys in the High Chaparral and Rawhide. I didn’t feel brave, but annoyed. Upon my first yell the horses pricked up their ears, and I continued yelling causing them to bolt into the field and disappearing into the darkness.
The man ahead of us scarpered towards the gate joined by Rocky and me, adrenaline eliminating any sensations of pain. Rocky and the man bumped into each other in the slim gap between the gate and the stump. I decided to slide underneath the gate and in the process grazed my right cheek and glasses. Rocky and I checked we were both okay, before laughing at ourselves, shaking our heads and carrying on.
We arrived into rest area seven as the first glimmer of sunrise was coming over to our left. The time was approximately 4am and we decided to take an extended break. There was massage being offered which both Rocky and I took advantage of. Even though at the previous rest stops there were casualties with missing toenails, cramps, bleeding blisters and vomiting, this stop was inundated. People were queuing to see the St. John’s Ambulance paramedics. Some were being taken away friends and family and others by ambulance. I dared not take my boots off in case the situation was worse than I imagined.
As we left the rest stop we could see daylight slowly lighting our path allowing us to switch our torches off. We now had one more stop before the finishing line. The going was easier with paved walkways and flat ground. However this did not diminish the pain, the tiredness, the sleep deprivation and yet we carried on. Pushing each other and ensuring neither of us faltered.
We got to the penultimate stop at around 6am where we rested by which time Rocky’s friends had caught up with us having slept for an hour. We heard horror stories of people losing five, six and more toenails. Others were backing out and leaving the walk altogether, we did not let this deter us. Rocky briefly chatted with his friends before we got back on with the last leg of our journey. The route from here took us across a busy main road and up a steep escarpment. Walking up the rise was tough and Rocky took many a stop to get up it. I waited and encouraged him all the way.
Once atop the rise we walked along the edge of fields and country lanes, even though the scenery was amazing and quintessentially English, we had no urge or desire to stand and admire the view. The last two hours of the walk I struggled immensely as Rocky found a new level of energy. He would walk ahead and wait and I just plodded on and on.
At around 11 am we had Brighton Race course in our view as the two of us continued step-by-step to the finish line. About one hundred meters from the finish line we could see Rocky’s friends waiting. As we crossed the line the MC called out Rocky’s as his friends asked him to and a young lady handed each of us a medal for completing the arduous trek.
Rocky and I briefly spoke and exchanged details to stay in touch. I said farewell as he walked off with his friends. I headed towards the St. John’s Ambulance tent to get my feet looked at and bandaged. They were an absolute mess with multiple blisters, a missing toenail and chaffing around my ankle.
Even though it was one of the hardest physical endeavors I have undertaken and accomplished, it was made more worthwhile and enjoyable by Rocky. I know I would have finished either way but the camaraderie, the companionship, the desire to finish as a team and never to leave each other behind was uplifting and adrenaline pumping. My journey with Rocky highlighted and reinforced to me the power of partnership.