6am Saturday morning and with my three team mates – Dean, Dave and Barbara, I’m on the starting line in Skipton. Along with 220 other teams, we’re all set for a 100 kilometre, non-stop hike around the Yorkshire Dales. We are ready. All our preparations have gone to plan. We are excited and feeling positive. Little do we know what lies in store…
The first twelve miles had gone well. The weather was extremely humid and punctuated with short showers. By the time we arrived in Malham, we had slipped behind out schedule. After stocking up on nutrition and change of socks and tee-shirts, we set off for Horton in Ribblesdale. This had some of the steepest climbs on the whole course; up Malham Cove, over Fountains Fell and around Pen Y Gent, before dropping down into Horton. Again we were beset by showers, which made the descents in particular hazardous. At this
point I was in good spirits, but Barbara was beginning to struggle. she was finding it difficult to walk downhill and her energy levels were dropping.
We spent more time than we had planned in Horton, with me and Dean getting attention for blisters and Barbara seeking medical advise for her knee. Our support crew were immense and served up some piping hot chilli and got everyone organised for the night walk to Buckden. In our training, I had found this the hardest section, partly because of the terrain and the seemingly never ending incline. The route took us over Syke Moor to Cam Farm and then through Oughtershaw Moss eventually arriving in Buckden, 65 kliks into the challenge.
This is where all our plans started to unravel.
Rain was smashing into my face blurring my vision and sounded like a crazed
drummer, blocking out any other sounds. The light from my head torch reflected back the rain, it was like a dense fog and made it impossible to see the path. The only time any of us could see clearly was when sheet lightening lit up the sky. I saw Barbara wandering off the path and stumbling in the undergrowth. Shortly after I veered into a fence, bounced off and back into Dean, sending him careering down the path, which by now looked more like a river. We saw the lights of a 4×4 driving towards us and I thought we were going to be picked up. No chance. The car stopped and we were instructed to fold up our walking poles and hold them low down to reduce the risk of being struck by lightening.
After 5 kilometres of walking through the storm, we made it to Cam Farm to find the event had been suspended due to the weather. Everyone was held in a barn while the storm raged on. We were all drenched. My waterproofs had given up. That or the sweat – I lost almost ½ stone over the course of the walk. Dean was displaying early symptoms of hypothermia and Barbara had damaged a knee ligament in the descent to Cam Farm and was also suffering from what turned out to be gastroenteritis. They weren’t in any fit state to continue and had to retire.
An hour later the event was allowed to continue. By this time is was 1.30am. Me, Dave and two new team-mates, Dave and Andy ventured out into the treacherous route towards Buckden. The storm had caused the river to burst its banks in places and a bridge crossing the river had been washed away. Oxfam had quickly changed the route to avoid the most dangerous points. but I was slipping and sliding in the mud with a torrent of white water boiling below. I can’t remember the number of times my walking poles saved me from a nasty fall. Crossing the mudslide that was once a path were fast flowing rivulets that we had to jump over. One slip or misplaced foot and you’d be down, this whole section was high risk. In the daylight it would have been difficult in pitch back after 18 hours of non-stop walking, it was dangerous. In contrast the post-storm night sky was beautiful. In other circumstances I would have taken more of it in, but at this point all I wanted to do was get out unscathed.
At around 4.30am we finally hit Buckden. The last 3 kilometres had been the hardest thing I think I’ve ever done. I literally dragged myself towards the checkpoint. I saw our support team and nearly cried. but there was still 200 metes to go to the check-in point. Jane John and Callum rushed over to take my backpack and talked me over the line. Apparently I looked awful. I sat down in the rest area completely numb. I found both Dean and Barbara in the medical tent receiving attenton with Dave by her side. This is when I decided that it was time to call it a day. Seeing what the storm had done to the others and the thought of more of the same storm-damaged terrain to cover, drained the last of my reserves.
I wasn’t alone. Dozens of people made the same decision, or were being stopped by doctors on medical grounds. Many had not left Horton to avoid being caught in the storm. The teams that did make to the finish line deserve more than a gold medal and I’m sure they are very proud of their achievement, especially in the circumstances. I’m very proud of my silver medal too, but its tinged with disappointment. Could I have carried on? If only’ I’d put waterproof socks with my change of clothes. If only I’d talked things through at Buckden and reviewed the final stretch more logically.
This is what I learnt about myself. There are lots of lessons about leadership, teamwork, communication, the list goes on. All of that is for the future. What I discovered is that I can push myself beyond what I think is possible. I found that under the severest pressure people do amazing things and that following my heart is good, but allowing it to take over brings limitations. Emotional decisions aren’t always the best ones.
The biggest lesson of all (written with a tear in my eye) – there is no such thing as failure. It’s one more step to success. See you on the start line next year,