(Click here for more information from the Oxfam website)
Through forty-three miles of mud we trudged to eventual sleepless failure.
Although that brief description of my ‘Trailwalker’ twenty-twelve experience is accurate, it doesn’t convey any of the enjoyment I felt during the event or the satisfaction as we made it round the first half of the course before our eventual retirement with four stages yet to complete. Nor would you expect that description to inspire someone to sign up for next year’s event but that is exactly what I and three of my team-mates have done!
When I first heard about Trailwalker I was both excited and slightly in awe of the idea of walking one-hundred kilometres in thirty hours. As a socket-using lower-limb amputee, the idea of the sort of leg-wearing endurance that would be required to complete an event like this had been beyond my wildest dreams. That was before I even began to contemplate the physical fitness needed. However, all this changed when I received my ITAP implant and was freed from the limitations of prosthetic socket use. Since before my implant rehab was complete I had realised that my prosthetic-limited life had changed, if not forever, at least for the life of the implant. What could I do to make the most of this fact? I got much fitter than I had previously been as an amputee and trekked to the top of Kilimanjaro and then climbed Mount Toubkal (the highest point in Northern Africa) in winter conditions. Each of these adventures was a challenging feat and Trailwalker provided the next challenge. It particularly appealed to me as taking part would highlight the essence of the ITAP advantage – unlimited freedom to walk. But could I do it?
Several of my companions from previous adventures thought they were also up for the challenge and were happy to let me share in the experience so we duly signed up two teams of four. Our usual walking leader, who had completed Trailwalker twice previously, drew up a training plan to prepare us for what was to come and the rest, as they say, is history.
In late February, after a personally successful trip into the Atlas Mountains, we met on Box Hill, Surrey, several hours before the sun would rise for our first training walk set for the relatively gentle distance of thirty miles! This would eclipse my own personal distance record by nearly ten miles and many of my fellow teammates were also venturing into unknown distance territory. All progressed well as we witnessed a beautiful sunrise over the South Downs and continued on to lunch. Despite me having a sore left foot and another team member suffering significant blisters, we kept the stop duration to a minimum as we had begun to slip behind schedule. Throughout the afternoon the ball of my foot got progressively more painful but I was able to maintain the pace that was being managed by my blister toting companion. As darkness fell we still had some distance left to the finish but we pushed on through our respective pain, climbed the final steep hill to the car park (not considerate route planning) and got to the end somewhat over two hours later than we had intended.
The following day my left leg was only aching slightly and my ITAP felt perfectly normal. I was relieved that the battery in my prosthetic, routinely good for two days of normal use, had not been exhausted by thirty miles of walking. I had yet to calculate whether the battery would have sufficient capacity for the full trailwalker distance. Unfortunately the large blister on the ball of my left foot was fairly serious. The source of this blister was a slight puzzle as I had never had anything more than some minor sore bits on my foot after walking. It then occurred to me that this was the first time I had walked in boots that flexed since starting training for the Atlas Mountains using rigid crampon-compatible boots. The blister was exactly where my foot flexed as it rolled forward during a stride. Once the blister had healed sufficiently I embarked upon a regime of skin toughening by going barefoot as much as possible whilst at home and made sure I built up my distances in flexible soled footwear. Fortunately, other than exacerbating this initial blister, I was not to suffer from any more foot problems as a result of this particular adventure.
My fellow Trailwalker aspirants and I had a full program of subsequent group training planned that would see our walking distance increase on a monthly basis leading up to a 48 mile circumnavigation of Jersey (insert link) in June as a full ‘dress rehearsal’ for trailwalker. We were obviously responsible for ensuring our own fitness levels were up to scratch by taking part in whatever individual activity we could manage between walks. In order to fit in as much training as possible with the least disruption to the daily lives of my pregnant wife and I, I decided to change my daily six-mile commute to include a majority of walking rather than cycling or taking the bus.
Our group training plan for Trailwalker consisted of monthly walks of increasing distance leading up to the mammoth effort in July. In between these walks we each were entrusted with the responsibility to increase our fitness to an appropriate level. Since our first training in February I have walked the ten mile round trip to work rather than cycling or taking the bus on as many occasions as I could work up sufficient motivation. Initially this aggravated the grievous blister that I had developed during our walk last month but I persevered and the blister gradually got better.
Despite the walk to work taking much longer than cycling I managed to motivate myself to walk a significant distance in the approach to our March walk. My blistered foot had recovered and I was looking forward to beating my previous best distance-in-one-go but unfortunately it was not to be. In the few days preceding the walk I experienced technical difficulties with the failsafe attachment component that were exacerbated by walking significant distances. I simply couldn’t risk the failsafe not functioning in the days following the walk so had to re-think my participation. After getting the failsafe issues resolved I continued to plough my lonely furrow on the commute to and from work.
Responsibility rears it’s ugly head….
I was supposed to be extending my personal distance walking record this month with my trailwalker team-mates but instead I sat with a group of pregnant ladies and worried fathers-to-be learning how not to drop a baby! This was the first of the ‘National Childbirth Trust’ antenatal classes that Helen and I paid a not-inconsiderable sum to attend so it was probably prudent for the future of my marriage that I decided to skip the training! On the plus side I did meet a good bunch of people that I’m sure will be a great source of support in the months to come. One of these people is a policeman who will be guarding the Olympic water-sports venue on a jet ski – cool!
Despite knowing that my wife’s pregnancy was going to be approaching the latter stages in late May we had originally committed to attending our walking group’s long weekend in North Wales, the venue for this month’s training. Since that time Helen’s pregnancy has not exactly gone without complications and we decided that being several hundred miles away from our trusted and familiar hospital would not be the greatest of plans. Another trailwalker training opportunity missed – I’m beginning to run out of chances to train with the team.
This month was supposed to see me taking part in the last of the organised Trailwalker training walks located in the UK mainland. Despite missing all but one of the previous walks I knew my attendance at this one was highly unlikely. My wife was in hospital for the last few days of May while the Obstetricians tried to cajole her into giving birth to our first child. He will more than likely be born on the day of the walk. I think that’s a pretty good excuse for missing the training, certainly better than most of the other excuses I’ve used recently!
It is with mixed feelings that I declined the opportunity to take part in the Itex-Rotary Walk that circumnavigates Jersey. It was always part of our training plan that the round Jersey event would constitute a dress-rehearsal for Trailwalker. Attempting a walk of this distance would have been reassuring for me, assuming I managed to complete it, as my training has not exactly gone according to plan! However, my first son was only three weeks old on the day of the walk and he and his mother have not had an easy time since he made his appearance. I could not possibly leave them without my reassuring presence and tea making ability for the nearly three days the trip would take.
Once again I have forgone the opportunity to increase my record distance walked. This doesn’t worry me unduly as I’m confident that my ITAP will cope admirably. My biggest concern, other than my fitness, remains the endurance of my rheo battery. I cannot really expect it to last for the full sixty-two miles of Trailwalker and I haven’t yet worked out what to do about that…
Last Ditch Effort
In a desperate attempt to get some training miles under my feet I spent the last couple of weekends completing nine-mile laps centred around where we live so that I could firstly accumulate distance and secondly never be too far away from home in case I was needed by my wife and baby son. These were possibly the most boring miles of walking I have ever undertaken but, combined with my continued walking to work, in each of the two weeks before Trailwalker training was tapered down prior to the event I completed a greater distance than Trailwalker itself. I hope that will be enough!
Having met up with half of the Tobleroner’s compliment, we had our carb-loading meal and went to bed to try and sleep (unsuccessfully). I wasn’t expecting to see Helen and Henry again until after Trailwalker is over at the finish line in Brighton Racecourse – pretty good motivation!
Contemplating tomorrow’s sixty-two mile non-stop walk was a slightly scary feeling but despite the date being Friday the 13th I was optimistic that the weekend would go well. Although I have not had the opportunity to put in as much training as I would have preferred I was confident that starting Trailwalker was not a folly and hoped that my level of fitness would be sufficient when combined with team-member encouragement and my determination…
The Big Day At Last!
As we’d decided to turn down the free camping in Queen Elizabeth Country Park we had to get up pretty early to ensure we made it to the Trailwalker start with sufficient time to register and be ready to walk. After being dropped off we met up with the other half of our two-team-combined group, got ourselves registered, then stuffed down as much Ghurka-cooked breakfast as we could. The weather, though currently dry, was looking pretty changeable and conditions underfoot were very soggy. I’d decided to forgo my lightweight walking shoes for my old faithful Kili boots (Berghaus Explorer Ridge GTX) as I have never found them to be heavy and the full-lugged soles offer really good traction. In the hours to come this was a decision I was very happy with! As our start time drew near we gathered with many other excited participants and after a short encouraging chat by one of the organisers we got underway!
To cut a ‘very’ long story short we started walking and kept walking for what felt like the next week! During the first stage the weather deteriorated and we then had to put up with rain on and off for the rest of the distance. We had aimed to stop for only a short time at each checkpoint and after arriving at checkpoint one approximately on schedule we set off five minutes behind – oops! It was a pattern that became familiar as we progressed through the course, when blisters and other minor niggles began to take their toll on the team. Unfortunately the terrible weather in the weeks leading up to trailwalker had turned any unmade-up paths into a quagmire, reducing our ability to make up for the longer than planned stops by walking at a greater pace. Even if the weather had been kind to us, it eventually became apparent that our group’s major flaw was slowing us down significantly. Our team was simply made up of persons with too wide a range of comfortable walking speeds. We had hoped that training together over increasingly long distances would narrow this gap and in the run up to Trailwalker this had seemed to be the case. Regardless of whether the conditions or another factor caused our group walking speed cohesion to unravel, we were limited to walking at the speed of our slowest companion, and this speed was slower than we had hoped. We never the less continued onward, optimistic that our speed would be maintained at just a sufficiently high rate that we would make it to the end before the deadline. Until approximately half distance it seemed like we would be okay but a much longer than planned dinner stop at checkpoint five, required to take care of some serious blisters suffered by one of our group, dropped us further behind. We were toiling near the back of the field at this point resulting in us encountering conditions that were so muddied by the passage of several thousand walkers that at times it was difficult to remain upright. I am proud of the fact that despite my lack of lower limb I managed not to join the many mud covered participants that ending up taking an impromptu wallow. On our way toward the next checkpoint we were really struggling as a group but unfortunately the weather had closed checkpoint six to support crew so we felt unable to alter the composition of our teams in order to overcome this problem. As we left checkpoint six we realised the futility of continuing at our current pace, split into our two teams and the faster team went on their way. Although it was very sad to wave off the faster group we had decided to walk as a team so stuck together with our struggling companion and could only hope that the others could make up sufficient time. I felt at that point that had I been able to walk with the faster team I would have stood a reasonable chance of making it to the finish in time but such is the nature of Trailwalker – it is a team challenge and we resigned ourselves to team failure. Our spirits were particularly low at this stage and, as a result, what proved to be our final stage of the challenge took significantly longer than it should. By the time we made it to checkpoint seven we were behind the official closure time of the checkpoint. It was nearly six in the morning and we walked toward our support crew knowing that we had failed. To make matters worse, two of the faster team had also decided to call it a day at this stage as they been unable to muster the required change of pace.
Although I was obviously very tired after the twenty-odd hours of walking, I gathered my gear, got a lift to the nearest station and caught the train home to see my wife and baby son. Seeing Helen and Henry put the disappointment into perspective and I was cheered to hear that the two members of the faster team that had continued had made it to the finish in a remarkably creditable time.
Over the next few days I mulled over the causes of our failure and determined that I would make a better attempt at Trailwalker 2013!
Reflections on Trailwalker
It has been a couple of weeks since our two ‘Tobleroner’ teams largely ill fated attempt to complete the sixty-two miles of Trailwalker within the thirty hour time limit was brought to a premature end and I have given our efforts a great deal of thought. Why did we fail and what can we do differently for next year? It should be stressed that Trailwalker is a team challenge and attempting to blame one or more persons serves no useful purpose. We entered and failed as a team.
Our problems actually stemmed from well before the event when we initially formed our team from persons with significantly different comfortable walking speeds. We had thought that training together would gradually narrow the gap between these preferred speeds but this turned out not to be the case. We ended up with an estimated completion time for Trailwalker that probably wasn’t ever going to be possible given the team’s composition and this lead to inevitable problems. Our most significant mistake however was the way we managed the teams during the complications thrown up by Trailwalker itself.
During the event and in the weeks preceding Trailwalker the conditions both overhead and underfoot were quite frankly atrocious. This led to several issues, the most obvious being that walking took more effort and we were slowed down. A further unexpected complication was that the weather closed some of the checkpoints set-up along the route to provide refreshments, a measure of progress and to allow team administration.
At around half distance the conditions underfoot and our disparate walking speeds began to cause one of our team members to slow down significantly. Had the first checkpoint we encountered been available for walker retirement when it became apparent this was going to cause significant problems we may have been able to rescue the situation. Unfortunately this was not the case and we had another three hours of scheduled walking before we were able to legitimately alter our team’s composition. By the time we managed to reach that checkpoint we had missed the official deadline for rolling checkpoint closure and thought we could no longer continue. The one saving grace to the whole situation was that early on during that last stage of walking we agreed that our two teams should go their separate ways and some members of the unencumbered team, of which I was not a member, made it to the finish.
It is obvious now that those members of my team capable of continuing should not have accepted that the checkpoint where we stopped was our ultimate destination. Had we decided to push on straight away we probably would have stood a reasonable chance of finishing before the deadline. Why we didn’t do this will remain a puzzle to me. During the previous stage we had had to walk slowly and became resigned to not being able to continue. Perhaps the twenty hours of exertion and lack of any sleep had robbed us of the ability to make the mental leap from failure to hope that would have been required to push on from the checkpoint.
Trailwalker is the first instance that I have not made it to the end of one of our adventures and contemplating this result has not been enjoyable. Thinking I had failed before completion was impossible is a mistake I will not readily repeat. For future adventures I need to be fitter and get more sleep before the event. Hopefully this will result in the right decisions being made at crucial moments during whatever endeavour is being attempted. Perhaps attempting Trailwalker in the weeks following the birth of my first child was not such a great idea but I enjoyed the event and will learn from the failure. I am confident that the Tobleroners will try again…
On a positive note, my ITAP and I suffered no ill-effects from walking forty-three miles through awful mud in twenty hours. That’s not a bad effort for a person with one leg!