In a moment of madness 6 months ago, my boyfriend and I signed up for the Thames Path Challenge on the 10th September; a 100km charity walk from Putney to Henley, that most people aim to complete within 24 hours. 10 days prior to this, my boyfriend fell off a climbing wall and badly sprained his ankle, and I was forced to accept that if I was going to be undertaking this epic challenge, I would be undertaking it alone.
Here is my 100km story.
I started walking at 7.40am on Saturday, and 22hrs and 58 minutes later, I crossed the finish line. To give this further perspective, 840 people started out on the challenge, 686 people finished it. I finished 293rd, and the course was kept open for walkers for 36 hours.
However difficult you think walking 100km would be, it was harder. And definitely something I had severely underestimated…I mean, it’s just walking…Right? WRONG. When you’re covering a distance of 100km and are up on your feet for twenty something hours non-stop, it becomes so much more than just walking. It becomes an absolutely epic endurance challenge.
It was by far the hardest thing I have ever done and it is not something I feel I can sugarcoat, or would recommend to the vast majority of people! It used up every last ounce of determination, positivity, and self-belief I had in me, and left me physically and mentally completely exhausted.
The challenge was made particularly tough due to being alone and under significant pressure to make friends en-route before nightfall; getting stung by a wasp prior to arriving at the start line (which irritated for the first 50k); almost non-stop rain throughout the day, and think fog, cold and mud, for the majority of the night. Thankfully, I found an amazing group of people to walk through the night with and had my boyfriend, Rob, meeting me at every rest stop, meaning I had the luxury of being able to travel light and having something to push on for.
So how did things pan out on the day? Well, I was walking for a charity called North London Cares, who target loneliness and isolation of the elder generation in North London, and I was lucky to be introduced to a volunteer, Emilie, for South London Cares, their sister charity, who was doing 50k of the walk for them. Consequently, Emilie and I ended up walking the majority of the first 50k together. I say the majority because whilst we were both fast walkers, there were times when I wanted to push on ahead because I was nervous, and desperate to get as far as I possibly could before nightfall.
I feel like I reached the 50k marker relatively quickly, but timings pretty much became a blur. I took a full hour break at this point to eat the hot food provided. (The catering at all rest stops was first class.) Rob’s parents had come by to see me at this half way stage too, which was also a great boost.
It was around this time that I had the good fortune to start chatting with the four people who would go on to accompany me through the night. They were considerably older than myself and I think, upon hearing my story, felt sorry for me going it alone and immediately offered, if I ran into them later (they were leaving that stop before me) the opportunity to walk with them through the hours of darkness.
I left the 50km stop sufficiently fed and watered, feeling confident and happy and ready for what was undoubtedly going to be the harder part of the challenge. It was around 8.30pm and significantly before the 62km stop that I had to concede defeat and reach for my headtorch. As I stood there, ferreting around in the bottom of my bag, night falling quickly, on a slippery, muddy, isolated pathway, unable to see another human being, I started to feel somewhat afraid, and for the first time, I started to question whether 100k was within my grasp.
Thankfully, not too long after this, I ran into the group from before and continued on with them. They were excellent company; telling jokes, playing games and advising me about which Action Challenges I should participate in next (Apparently the marathon is a doddle compared to 100km?!!)
Unfortunately, at 78k one of the members of this group came over with flu-like symptoms and was forced to drop out. 78k, for me, was where things got really tough. I arrived at the stop not feeling quite right. I sort of wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. I sort of wanted to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, but I couldn’t do that either. I was exhausted, in incredible pain, and pretty much delirious. The 22km separating me for the finish line felt on the one hand, like an eternity, but on the other, considering how far I had already come, doable. I was determined to finish.
Again, conscious not to stop for too long for fear of being unable to get started again, I headed out before the rest of the group I’d been walking with. The organisers won’t allow anyone to leave from a reststop alone during the night, and luck was not on my side when it came to my next pairing; an ultra-runner who had intended to run the full 100k but had injured her ankle early on and been forced to walk. Walk that is, at what for me was a painfully fast pace. Her regular updates on my minutes per kilometre speed and continual proclamations about having no blisters and/or pain (at this point my body felt like it had taken an absolute battering) almost pushed me over the edge. Not an enjoyable 10km!
I hung around a while at 88km, keen to reunite with the group I’d previously been walking with. I did, and was able to complete the final 12km with them. Just after 6.30am on Sunday morning, I crawled across the finish line, my entire body wracked with pain. It was something of a surreal and anticlimactic experience. The monumental nature of my achievement had yet (and in many ways still has) to sink in. All I felt really was entirely overwhelmed by exhaustion, pain, relief, and an unfightable urge to fall asleep. Which is exactly what I did.
My Mum called me several hours later and I quickly relayed to her my tale of the TPC, which I described to her as “the worst thing I’ve ever done.” To be fair, at the time of saying this, my knees were too weak for me to even be able to stand up straight and carry myself to the bathroom. With hindsight, I think I just meant the hardest. And it really really was. However, I’m a glutton for punishment, and once the aching limbs have worn off, you tend to forget about those last 22km where every step felt like utter misery, …consequently, I may or may not already be debating what will be my next 100k challenge will be!
Whatever it is, I have some top tips from the TPC that I will be taking with me:
- Drink, lots.
- Eat, eat and eat some more. As someone said to me, eat even if you’re not hungry. Afterall, you’re not fuelling your current self, but your future self.
- Pack as light as possible. The quantity and quality of refreshments available meant that you are really only required to bring the basics.
- Bring plenty of blister plasters! These are one thing not to skimp on with your packing. I recommend Compeed and at least 3 packets. I never realised that blisters the size of the ones on my heels right now were even a physically possibility!
- Download some decent music and audiobooks. Even if you’re with your favourite person in the entire universe, you’re not going to be able to keep up a steady flow of chat up for circa 24 hours. Plus you’ll undoubtedly want some downtime to reflect on the enormity of what you’re currently undertaking.
- Invest in a portable phone charger.
- Establish positive thought patterns. 100km is a long way, but you’ve got this, you absolutely have. You can do it, you totally can! Keep repeating these things to yourself. Don’t let your mind wander off into a place of negativity and self-doubt. When you reach this place, it’s hard to bring yourself back, especially when you’re exhausted and in pain – You’re going to be brilliant!
- Break things down in your mind into manageable chunks. To think of the walk as 100k or twenty something hours, for me was completely overwhelming. Instead I thought of it as individual walks of 10-15k (however far away the next rest stop was.) putting my focus entirely on reaching the next stop, was a useful tactic for me and my mind.
- Just keep putting one foot in front of the other! It’s not endless, even when it seems to be. If you just keep putting your foot forward, you’ll get there, eventually.
Support for my endeavour has been a little overwhelming, particularly given that I am always begging people for money for some event or another. But, I think people recognised that this challenge truly was epic.
If you’ve got any spare change and would like to recognise my achievement and support North London Cares, my fundraising page is still open.