May 26 2012

Walk 50: Trailtrekker 2012 – The Flying Stick

Sunset over Whernside

route: skipton to skipton via gargrave, malham, horton in ribblesdale, buckden, kettlewell, conistone & hetton
date: 26th & 27th may 2012
distance: 63.6 miles (graham, roger & simon) 24.9 miles (dave)
ascent: 7,015 ft (graham, roger & simon) 3,132 ft (dave)
time: 28 hrs 47 mins (graham, roger & simon) 11 hrs 40 mins (dave)
walkers: dave, graham, roger & simon


The story of…. the flying stick

As I threw my rucksack into the boot and climbed aboard the transit van on Friday night I realised this was going to be a major test, and it was with trepidation that I arrived at the travel lodge in Skipton. I still remembered how hard I found the 40 mile section we did a month before. I had only just made it to the end totally exhausted. Could I do another 25 miles feeling like that? Plus I didn’t think I would sleep a wink that night. My fears were justified when I found to my horror that there was only one double bed in a room booked for two! Graham and I would have to share. This was going to be cosy! But as soon as I entered the Oxfam HQ nerves turned to excitement as we got registered, collected our T-shirts, and tucked into our pasta. Suddenly it felt like the large event it was, with safety talks and nutrition advice. Now it was real and I couldn’t wait to start.

After a restless night’s sleep (due to the heat I might add), Graham and I put on our appropriate “Epic” t-shirts and struggled pinning our numbers on without impaling ourselves. Everyone in the team seemed a bit subdued to me as we ate breakfast, but I put it down to the 5.30 wake up as much as nerves.

There was a sense though that all the fundraising, organising and practice walks over the last 6 months had built up to this one moment. It was a beautiful morning and we had everything sorted. All we had to do now was walk 64 miles!

The first 5 miles to Gargrave were along the canal which meant we were single file, but as we had expected it kept us from charging off and burning up energy we would need later… much later!

So the pace was leisurely to start, but we were in it for the long haul, we weren’t breaking any records, so this was good. Although I got the feeling Beaky wanted to get on with it, so he went on ahead at his own pace for a bit. I just took in the atmosphere and we chatted and joked. At Gargrave we spotted Tony on the bridge waiting for us all fresh faced and raring to go. From Gargrave it climbed gently through country lanes and over open fields and we began to get into our stride, and the walk became more picturesque.

The weather was gorgeous and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky as we passed Airton and arrived at Malham for our first support stop.

The marshals gave us a great welcome and it was so good to stop and change socks. One thing the training walks taught me was to take my boots off and change socks at every major stop. It made you feel like new. I hadn’t planned to put anything on my feet, but after hearing so many horror stories I opted to try Vaseline. It felt kinda wrong and squishy at first, but I decided it was better than nothing. It was interesting to see how each of us had a different answer to the foot problem. Dave had blister pads and talc, Beaky had gone for the taped up feet & toe option, and Graham two pairs of socks; so we all had a different approach. Whatever felt right. All maintenance done and camel-back topped up we waved our support crew goodbye and set off for Malham Cove.

I loved this bit perversely, with the climb up the steps and the scramble through the limestone gorge. Tony kept us laughing and soon we were at the Tarn. I started to feel the enormity of this walk as we left the forest and entered the barren valley towards Fountains Fell. You could see nothing for miles, but the empty countryside that we were going to cross. But like a mirage out of the sunshine we came across a surprise water stop at the base of Fountains Fell with a cheese board of all things! The others laughed at how excited I was getting because of free Stilton. I was so glad of something new to eat that I don’t think stilton has ever tasted that good.

I knew Dave was a bit worried about Fountains fell because he had mentioned it several times that day, and had found it hard last time we did it in the heat. I wanted to stick together as a team and go up it as a group for support, but I also knew it isn’t very nice if you are struggling to have an audience who are all fine. So I just went up at Tony’s pace and tried not to leave too big a gap between everyone. There were plenty of groups taking a breather halfway up as we passed by. I hoped Dave would see them and realise that it wasn’t just him. It got really windy as we approached the summit so we got our heads down, by which time G and Dave were a long way behind, which wasn’t what I’d hoped would happen… but it is so easy to do.

When Tony, Beaky and I got to the top there was an amazing view of Pen y Ghent, and we lay down out of the wind next to the Trig and Tony took some pictures. Another team arrived and asked if I’d take their picture. The last man tried to run to get in the frame and did the funniest face plant you’ve ever seen. It was class, and I don’t know how we managed not to laugh until they’d gone. It was quite some time before we saw Dave’s white sun hat on the horizon, and I started to worry if he was okay, but when Dave and G arrived they were in good spirits. The descent down Fountains fell is one of my favourite bits of the walk, it’s all craggy and there’s a huge drop off to the right with Pen y Ghent looming in the background.

I was really enjoying myself, and I felt good, though I was starting to get a bit bored of my food, as the heat made it feel hard to swallow. I must have already had 4 raw bars, 3 bananas, 3 tuna sandwiches and more nuts than I ever want to see again! I dreamed of juicy oranges and grapes. But it seemed to be working, I was still moving. As we neared Pen y Ghent I knew we had nearly done the first big section and the most climbing in the whole walk, and we had done really well.

We had been going nearly ten hours, but the shadows were getting longer as the sun dropped, and it would be getting cooler soon, so Dave would have a better time of it. As I got to the gate at the base of Pen y Ghent I looked back and I could see all the way back the way we had come and there was no sign of Dave and Graham. I knew straight away that Dave must be suffering. Ten minutes later when I still couldn’t see them I knew he must have nothing left in the tank, and he just wouldn’t be able to make it past Horton and my heart sank. I knew how much this meant to him. When they reached us his body language said everything. We walked down to Horton in silence with Dave totally exhausted, finding every footstep an effort. When we got to the Checkpoint we were all gutted for Dave, and we knew even if he tried to go on he would be in an ambulance if he wasn’t careful. So it felt odd as we said goodbye to Dave and Tony and set off out of Horton with our new set of volunteer walkers, Marc and Jane.

The atmosphere among the team was no longer light hearted and we were a bit quiet for the first hour. As the sun set I started to look forward to the night section, as I had been walking for 12 hours plus in searing sunshine, it would be a nice change to be in the dark! It was great to see Marc and Jane and like Tony before them it really helped to keep the morale up and have fresh faces with us. If we’d been on our own the whole way round it would have been a lot tougher. As it went dark we arrived at the forest and it was surreal as hell climbing through the branches in the dark with loads head torches floating through the trees. We were all laughing at the bizarre things we were all doing for fun. As we approached Cam End Farm all you could see were head torches bobbing away down the valley. As we entered Cam End Farm you could suddenly hear loads of voices echoing in the barn, and bright lights. After walking in the dark for a while in the quiet, it actually freaked us out and Jane and I had to leave and sit outside in the darkness. There were a lot of exhausted people there, and I realised we were doing really well. From there we had to trudge through a tricky boggy section to a track which was quite hard to do in the dark, but it kept you concentrated, so I didn’t have time to notice if I was tired or not. Some girls up ahead started to sing songs like ‘Brown girl in the ring’ in the dark and it felt good to be there, sharing this. When we hit the track we met the badger mobile again, so Jane could stop and Stuart joined us for the next big section. I couldn’t tell you what time it was as it was just dark. My sense of time had gone completely out the window.

Marc decided to carry on to Buckden and I remember thinking he was mad. I know this section of the Dales Way well so it was easy to know where we were even though it was dark, and Oughtershaw still looked pretty. Further up there were at least two ambulances with lights flashing along the road up the valley to our last water stop which made us think of the teams we had just left. My feet were really starting to burn as we approached Buckden and I had to leave everyone and just set off at a pace that was comfortable to me. So I charged into Buckden like a man possessed just to get my boots off. I could feel my body was running on adrenaline more than anything else now and my legs were really beginning to ache.

When we set off again I started to struggle to keep up with the rest of the team. My body just wanted to sit down and it took me a lot of effort to keep it moving. Beaky and Graham seemed fine as they stormed ahead. As the sun rose I turned off my head torch for the first time in 6 hours, and I started getting this flickering effect in my eyes, which wasn’t good at all. I also started hearing people talking behind me, but when I turned there was no-one there! I thought uh-oh, this is it, I’m not going to make it if I feel like this already. I just ate as much as I could take and by the time we left Kettlewell I was feeling okay again. The new daylight made us come alive again and gave us all a boost. I got chatting to a few teams as we headed down the valley and I felt better than I dared imagine I would. When we reached Conistone at 6.30am I was ready for a full slap up breakfast with all the trimmings, but by the time my addled head had sorted changing socks etc I only had time to eat half a tub of porridge before we had to go.

The next bit to Hetton was going to be hard as I remembered it from last time; but we turned up the pace and overtook loads of teams. Stuart said he couldn’t believe how fast we were going at this stage of the walk (though he may have just been motivating us), but it felt good and we stormed into Hetton. At Hetton there was quite a crowd waiting for us. Everyone’s family was there looking so clean and fresh and awake, and I started to wish I’d got Ryan
to come. I changed my socks for the last time, and we set off again.

Graham’s daughters joined us for the final 6 miles, and I started to see the end in sight, this 64 mile walk might actually be do-able. The wind had dropped and the temperature soared. It was like a furnace out of the breeze and G started to suffer as we got to Flasby Fell. I knew he’d make it if we just let him cool down a bit so we stopped in the shade for a couple of minutes. By this time my legs and feet were just constant pain, but I could shut it out most of the time, but it came back in waves so you felt good for ten minutes then awful for 5, then good. Beaky seemed to be fine. As we got to the outskirts of Skipton I suddenly started to well up. We were going to do it. I hadn’t let myself believe that until now, and it was really emotional. I could hardly breathe. I started to speed up as I had at Buckden, because I couldn’t take the pain and I wanted it to stop as soon as possible. So I left the others behind, which made me feel bad, but I was ready to drop and it was hard enough just driving forward. I looked for anything soft to step on. Just before the Park I met a marshal, I knew I’d get to the end from there, so I chatted to her until the other caught up and we entered the school together. It was great when Dave joined us and we crossed the line as a complete team. It was the finishing touch to a great day.

I had already had my moment on the outskirts of Skipton, but it was still very emotional. The sense of relief at being able to stop walking was amazing. I went and had a massage for the first time. The school hall was like a field hospital with people on drips and icepacks on joints. I heard stories of people having fits, or collapsing of heat exhaustion and I realised how lucky I’d been and the team as a whole.

Before I knew it I was back on the bus and we were on our way home. It felt like some bizarre dream, though I had enjoyed it, (probably more than the others I think), I was glad it was over and I wouldn’t be doing it again in a hurry.

The Flying Stick

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