Sunday, 22 September 2013

A Walk in the Countryside.......

Apart from all the usual things, music, love, life and all, last weekend together with a bunch of fabulous people from Northampton Royal and Derngate Theatres and The Core Theatre, Corby, I took part in a 40 mile walk around Rutland. Till then, I didn't even know Rutland existed, I thought it was a song title or band name. But Rutland is a small, gloriously lovely English county with a huge lake and a very wealthy demographic. I know that now. I was roped in partly by the madness of the enterprise - "we'll walk 40 miles starting at midnight in the countryside, do you want to come?" Obviously I said, "yes". And I am really glad I did. Preparing for it meant digging out my walking trousers that keep you dry even walking on the Isle of Skye and cleaning my walking boots which went up Ben Nevis with me and buying blister proof socks. And they work.  "Marathon runners swear by them" the nice lady in the running shop told me and I stand by that - they kept me blister free when other people gave up. I bought nuts and seeds and plasters and foot braces of various sizes, borrowed a small rucksack from Jonathan, packed my big rucksack, and drove to Brigstock in Northamptonshire without any real idea of what was to come. 
Uppingham Village Reception - our two teams

We registered in Uppingham Village Sports Centre at 10.30 pm on a mid September friday night just as the weather changed from gorgeous summer to wet and colder autumn. There were 13 groups of 4 people - though one group had 5 - and their support drivers. More men than women. Quite alot of lycra and some very fit looking young men. We were introduced - somewhat alarmingly - to the Search and Rescue people who were significant particularly during the night part of the walk, and the St John's Ambulance people, likewise. The whole thing was clearly incredibly well organised, but....Search and Rescue? It should've been a clue. All us walkers dressed in their fluorescent jackets and attached their head torches and put on their boots and so on, took jolly photos of one another, prepared and then received a safety talk, "there's no 'I' in team", "remember to keep pace with each other" and "don't leave an injured person on their own in a field" (another clue) then we all went outside for the dramatic countdown from ten to one, and we were off. The Plod is what its called, and off we plodded. I had joked that it ought to be called The Jaunt, as that's jollier and makes you feel that the enterprise is, well, light and happy. Well, now I can tell you its called The Plod for the right reasons. The rain was driving as we headed down the lane to the open country, and the little swinging glowing markers and our maps led us across a ploughed field. The joy of walking across ploughed fields in the dark in the rain is quite hard to find, if not impossible, and my achilles was tortuously painful. Stiles may look pretty in photographs but they are a pain in the massive centrale when you have to slither over ten other peoples mud on the wooden slats and the poles wobble and you can't see and water's dropping off the edge of your hood. We were headed out over open Rutland country to the first checkpoint t where our support van and driver would be waiting to offer up whatever we might want and at every check point all members of the team had to check in with the Action for Medical Research rep, Lucy, and her  very warm and cheery people. That first checkpoint was 5 miles into the walk, and I can tell you with complete honesty that I didn't think I would make it even that far. The back of my foot was wrong and aching and I'd stupidly put a foot brace on which was making it much worse, and all I wanted to do was get the blasted thing off. We tramped through silent sleeping villages of extraordinary beauty, stone cottages and gardens, along bridleways and paths, across fields and beside quiet streams as my left calf pulsed with pain. Hills rose around us, trees dripped, we crossed more and more stiles and the occasional road. 

The Fluorescent Jackets and Lucinda
Night and Rain, a winning combo
Some teams flew along, others crept, We were medium. At the first checkpoint I managed to cram a ton of ibuprofen into my pocket and mouth, removed the ankle brace and thought I might maybe make it to the next checkpoint. That was a long 9 miles away and of course on reaching that we knew we would be over a third of our journey completed. I promised myself a sandwich at that checkpoint and we headed forth. That 9 miles was tough. It was dark and wet. Did I mention the wet? Somewhere in the middle of nowhere a cricket club lent us their toilets - which were up an unnecessarily steep hill and inside which moths fluttered and damp walls dripped and there was no loo roll. At one point near a huge illuminated bunker type thing beside the several mud filled ploughed fields we'd trekked across we  bumped into 2 other teams, torches bobbing, all of us unsure of the route and searching for the markers to link with our maps. But we found our way and made it to checkpoint 2 and our glorious support team's van which was strewn with fairy lights, and was a veritable tardis of food. The sandwiches were just the ticket and with two mouthfuls of coffee we were off again  towards the third checkpoint. This next one was just under 8 miles away and we'd be there in daylight and it also had the boon card of being the breakfast stop and bacon butties were maybe promised. But this stretch was testing because we got lost on a wrong turn in a sleeping village and added a mile to our painful legs and feet by misunderstanding our written instructions alongside the map and because it was starting to feel like a very long way indeed.  Dawn broke softly and silently as we walked, and my mind went wondering, too. To Hardy's heroines, walking across country in their long frocks and shoes, driven by lust and love, and Dickens, and all the people who walk all over the world because there's no other way of getting from here to there,  Rabbit Proof Fence and refugees.....there was something ancient and glorious in that Roman road of a bridleway we walked for over a mile, all of it uphill, and then a stretch around a massive quarry, like a scarred moonscape. I walked more slowly than the rest of my group at this point, knowing the only way I would make the distance would be by keeping a steady pace. It seemed to take an age but finally we arrived at Rutland Water, a glorious lake with a village on a peninsula in the middle, choppy grey water on which yachts bobbed and fisherman were fishing. And yes!  There were toilets with toilet roll and soap and the bacon butties were everything you wanted and there was ketchup and we stretched and congratulated ourselves on having walked 21 miles and therefore being over half way! It was around 8 in the morning.
Rutland Water 8.30 am

The next stretch - another 8 ish miles to checkpoint 4 began with a lovely path along Rutland Water's edge for quite some way, but now the team - my four - were beginning to show signs of strain. We all had moments between every checkpoint where one or other of us needed the support of the rest. Ros and I shared my earphones, I put my running disco dance music on and we made it through that wall. Then, having traversed a field of cows, we had a mile to go, and I hit another wall. it was the longest mile I ever walked in my life. I had promised myself that at checkpoint 4 I would swop my boots - which now felt like lead, loaded as they were with mud, for my lighter coastal path boots. There was also the promise of real coffee. As we rounded into the car park where the support teams had set up I jumped for joy. OK, I hobbled for joy. Ibuprofen works. Changing my boots was such a relief. I cannot tell you how wonderful the other boots felt. So light! I was like Nijinsky. I could dance in them. And when we saw that our support team had boiled water and made a cafetiere of real coffee well...we were blown away. Our support van had a little pot, frog with 'home' on its chest, a pile of chocolate, pasta and energy bars .Those tiny things, the boots change, the aroma and taste of real coffee, the banana I had as a treat, and the little pot frog with 'home' on its chest made it possible to start off again to checkpoint 5, another 8 miles away. It was 11 in the morning. We'd walked for 11 hours. 28 miles, We now knew we were absolutely bonkers.

Towards the finish line arm in arm
A group who were all from an office in Leicester walked alongside as we started this next stretch. There had already been some dropouts. One team had a man who's feet were so badly blistered he literally could no longer walk, even in dressings. "He was gutted" we were told, at having to give up. One entire team had packed it in completely. The team we hitched up with for a couple of hours had walked some of the route in sections as practice walks for The Plod so they were quite helpful on matters of route and we made rapid progress as the day brightened. We were now in hilly, rather beautiful, rolling countryside. Cottages with dovecots, designer hens and cockerels ran about, tiny wooden bridges over cute streams beside semi tended, chocolate box cover cottages. There's some lovely places there. Then another of our team had a pain meltdown, but we were saved by a tube of freeze stuff that takes all the heat out of wherever it needs to be taken out of (like my ankle and calf) and we made it to the last, 5th and final checkpoint. This one was only 4 miles from the finish, and it was around 2.30 in the afternoon. We were level-ish with three other teams, and all looked the worse for wear. But I had some of those fudge chunk things M and S make, saved for this very moment so after chomping those we had the force and as usual led by Lisa with the map and a forceful forward motion headed down the hill for the last stretch. This last testing section did everything - o'er hill and dale, up and down, more stiles, fields and forest. The last lap uphill on a very muddy, slippy track through a wood bit seemed the final challenge. We cleared the wood into a field, ahead of us a team with a man with two arthritic ankles - he was an inspiration. Its hard to moan about how tough it is when you're following a middle aged man with 2 arthritic ankles. We walked up the lane to the Uppingham Cricket Club finish red ribbon and each team was cheered by the Charity people and their friends and support teams and lord knows I don't know how we did it but my team marched arm in arm and then ran through the ribbon. There was champagne and food and boots were taken off and feet vibrated with happiness as they were aired, free again, in the sunshine. 

That evening David and our friend from Corby Community Arts, Kate, cooked my friend, team mate and co-conspirator Ros and I a superb meal, and what with that and the lovely wine I was in bed and slept through 12 hours solid. The next day I gave a voice and movement workshop and then drove to my mum's. I was a tiny bit stiff but nothing more. I learned a lot. I learned that we can do things we didn't think we could, I learned that willpower can indeed work wonders, that the human body is amazing, and that the mind can be silenced and pain can be overcome. I was dead proud of my team and together with all the other people walking we raised over 30,000 for Action for Medical Research for Children and some money for The Core Theatre too. Thank you everyone who helped us with contributions, support, love, rucksack lendings or whatever.. I loved walking with my team Chris, Ros and Lisa, and our support team were glorious angels of the highest order.

The walk was wonderful, tough and a test of endurance and will power but was above all inspiring, intense and sometimes simply beautiful. Like everyone else on the benches at the cricket club finish, I said "never again" but you know, they do one annually over the South Downs and one in the Trossachs..........

never again......but......

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