The 50 km Walk

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Don't let anyone tell you that speed walking can't be sexy.

A last minute change of venue saw the 50 km walk begin 600 metres from the gate lodge of the University Parks. The combination of a stiff breeze and some not so stiff resolve amongst some of the competitors inspired the change - I reckoned that the trees in the park would prevent the worst of the wind from hindering our progress as it might have done on the more exposed towpath.

The day began with the withdrawal of the competitor who had travelled the furthest to be in the race. Keir had suffered a terrible tourism injury the day before due to some dodgy shoes and too much strolling around Oxford with me. He had blisters. Lots of them. He couldn’t walk to the car without wincing, let alone try and walk more than 30 miles.

Amazingly, despite sending me a text message at two in the morning to let me know that “I’m in the Zodiac [nightclub]... Hooray!” Jamie arrived almost on time, albeit preparing his temple-like body for an endurance race with a large coffee.

We set off down the Banbury road towards the park. I started walking at about the pace I expected would be comfortable. No one came with me. I put my head down and ploughed on, sure someone would catch up.

We got to the park and started the first of nineteen laps. I was followed closely enough by Gareth and Deneal to be able to show them the route. On the first lap, I suffered my first injury of the day. Walking under some low-hanging branches, something caught in my cap. Without thinking, I grabbed whatever it was and ripped it off without breaking stride.

I looked down at my hand. It had several thorns sticking out of it and was bleeding a little. I spent the rest of lap one removing thorns with my teeth and trying to keep my arm elevated to stop the bleeding. Halfway into the second lap, the blood had stopped and I had opened up enough of a lead to no longer be able to see anyone behind me. I began to entertain the notion that I could lap them all.

Like a pack of slavering dogs, they set out to walk me down.

As the lap wore on, I became aware of a new problem; my bladder was full and wasn’t happy about all the jiggling around. I dived into the bushes and did what had to be done. As I stood there, desperately hoping that no one had seen me duck behind a tree, I noticed that my feet hurt. This was slightly alarming, as I’d only just passed one-tenth distance. The pain went away as soon as I started walking again, but the fear that I was damaging my delicate size twelves remained.

Lots of things ran through my mind as I walked - thoughts ranging from “I’m going to lap them all... twice!” when I was feeling good, to “I could just nip into the undergrowth and have a kip for an hour or two here and they’d never know.” when I wasn’t. But the thoughts that wouldn’t go away were the ones about my Dark Nemesis.

The regular reader, or anyone who has ever been in my house, will know her as Boo, the little black kitten who owns the place. She has never been one to stay out of the house for long, so, by Saturday morning, I was more than a little anxious that she hadn’t been seen since Thursday night.

We’ve all done it - lobbed a piece of paper at the bin having decided that if it goes in our favourite team will win the European Cup, or kicked a stone along a footpath far enough that we’re sure it will make our numbers come up on Saturday’s Lotto. As I plodded along, I kept telling myself that if I completed the distance, Boo would be sitting on the doorstep waiting for me when I got home.

The thought sustained me, perhaps like nothing else could have done, and by the time I stopped to deal with my bladder a second time during the ninth lap, I hardly noticed how much worse my feet were feeling.

Deneal (at the back) also demonstrated that you can look cool AND be a good walker.

As I rounded the corner to begin my 12th lap, I found the opposition spread out on the grass having a picnic. Lapping them hadn’t proved to be quite as much of a challenge as I’d expected. Thankfully, as we sledged each other and I marched on past, Deneal got up and came with me.

Walking alone had been fine, but having company gave me a boost and I began to feel a lot more confident that I could make it to the finish. I babbled 12 laps-worth of pent-up conversation at Deneal in the space of a kilometre.

Jamie demonstrated some impressive technique before retiring from the race.

We ploughed on, the whole thing being made somehow easier for me because Deneal was going to have to do an extra lap once I’d collapsed in a heap by the finish line. Already collapsed in a heap by the finish line was Jamie who had decided that picnics were more fun than walking (I told you he was easily distracted). I passed marathon distance in not much over 5 hours and felt greatly encouraged that when the time comes I might even be able to finish one!

With two laps left, I began to feel in real danger of falling over. My legs had turned to jelly. I could feel the blisters forming on my feet. I was trying so hard to walk without causing myself pain that I kept missing my step and almost stumbling. Into the final lap, with about 2 kilometres left to go, I told Deneal to go ahead. He was clearly feeling a lot stronger than I was, and my shambling, drunk-looking amble was slowing him down.

As soon as he was gone, I felt sorry I’d suggested it. I was all over the place without someone to try and keep up with. It seems ridiculous now, but at one point, no more than 500 metres from the finish, I had a lengthy mind battle with a park bench that looked like possibly the most comfortable seat I’d ever seen. If I hadn’t been so sure that I was only half a kilometre from getting my cat to come home, I might well have sat down.

As I rounded the final bend for the final time to rapturous applause from the gallery (Jamie, Lisa and Jules), I got down on my knees and then lay down on my face, moaning. The gallery laughed at my imitation of an exhausted man, probably because it was so convincing, given that I was exactly that.

The pain arrived very quickly. The insides of my thighs were like concrete and felt like they would cramp up at any minute. I had fantasised about taking my shoes off for at least ten laps before the end, but now I was scared by the state I might find my feet in. A new pain arrived in my left big toe. It seemed to say “Hi! I’m just going to take your toenail away, ok?”

By the time the rest of the field had finished, I felt like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz when he ran out of oil. I tried several times to stand up and stretch, but the muscles refused point blank to do as I asked. I was thrilled to have done the walk so quickly - actually, I was just thrilled to have done the thing at all - but I was worried that I might have done myself some lasting damage. Somehow, I eventually shuffled to the car and we headed home.

Thank you all so much for taking part (even you, Keir, for taking pictures and helping me with my training in the run in to the event), it was a big help to have company and get another event ticked off the list.

Result of Athletics - 50 km Walk:

1st – John McClure – 6 hrs 15 mins
2nd – Deneal Smith – 6 hrs 32 mins (including picnic)
3rd – Tim Sorrell – 6 hrs 48 mins (including picnic)
4th (and therefore winner of the women’s race) – Caitlin Bailey – 6 hrs 49 mins (including picnic)
5th (and therefore beaten by a girl) – Gareth Forber – 6 hrs 52 mins (including picnic)
Retired - Jamie Parish - 12 laps (the ultimate picnic)


When we got back, Boo still hadn’t come home. On Sunday, a woman called to say that she’d seen a black cat get hit up on the bypass on Thursday night. We found what was left of Boo later that evening. I can only suspect (and hope) from what we found that she didn’t know what was happening until it was all over. I’ll miss her very much. I feel bad now that I never let her come running with me all those times she wanted to.

So... much... pain...

Saturday, May 28, 2005

6 hours 15 minutes.

I'll write it up properly when I can move without wincing.


Thursday, May 26, 2005

To get myself in the mood for the 50 km walk, which is taking place on Saturday (still time to join the field if you feel so inclined), I’ve been reading ‘The Long Walk’ by Richard Bachman (the alter-ego of Stephen King).

The book is about a futuristic gameshow that consists of 100 young men walking south from the US - Canadian border. Armed soldiers in a vehicle that follows the field monitor the pace of each walker. If a walker’s pace falls below four miles an hour, he receives a warning. If it happens again, he receives another warning. If it happens again, he gets... another warning. But if it happens a fourth time, he gets shot.

They walk day and night without cease. There is no finish line. The winner is the last man standing.

Not surprisingly, the International Olympic Committee’s rules for ‘The Long Walk’ are slightly less stringent. Anyone falling below a pace of four miles an hour on Saturday will be laughed at and then nagged to hurry up rather than shot. Anyone wishing to quit because they have blisters, cramps, or a general lack of resolve can similarly expect no worse than a bit of light mocking, as opposed to having to stare down the business end of an AK-47.

As was the case with the 20 km walk, the adoption of strict race walking technique will be discouraged in favour of a brisk stroll in order to keep the waiting lists for hip replacement operations down where possible. The field will consist of the following athletes (for want of a more accurate description):

Me - The Ultimate Olympian - 25 to 1
Despite my usual fastidious preparation for this event, my odds have rocketed with the announcement that the field will be joined by none other than Keir Simpson. Keir couldn’t out-walk me even if there were guns involved, but he can (and will) drink me under the table from the moment he arrives on Thursday.

Keir - The Ultimate Liver - 20 to 1
He’s a tall man, but his legs are surprisingly short. He’ll fancy himself to do well, but his determination to prevent me from finishing in a respectable time may hamper his own progress too, so his odds remain like his spine... long.

Gareth - The Ultimate Horse - 12 to 1
Having displayed good form in some other events, Gareth ‘The Dark Horse’ Forber isn’t expected to live up to his nickname in this event. The bookies fancy him better over a shorter course and are concerned that his trainer may have landed him in over his head this time.

Jamie - The Ultimate Fidget - 10 to 1
A man who literally can’t sit still, Jamie’s restless nature could come in handy in an event that will require a lot of energy. His odds would be lower, but they try to take account of the fact that he could get bored and wander off in the wrong direction in search of real ale.

Deneal - The Ultimate Doctor - 5 to 1
This mathematical genius is sure to have figured out the path of least resistance from Lechlade to Oxford, and of the entire field, he is the least likely to have underestimated just how far 50 km is. The word on the street is that the Doc has been putting in the hours in training - his odds reflect this. He may even have been joint favourite at one point, with only a disparity of several inches in stride length between himself and the favourite to blame for his slip to second place in the running.

Caitlin - The Ultimatrix - 5 to 1
Fitter than the rest of the field combined, Caitlin would have been the favourite to wipe the floor with us all, but for the fact that she knows how fragile Tim's ego is and will undoubtedly let him cross the line first rather than have to deal with the tantrum that would ensue if he doesn't. As the only member of the fairer sex in the competition, she's the odds-on favourite for the women's race.

Tim - The Ultimate Triathlete - 3 to 1 favourite
Having taken the revolutionary approach to triathlon training of actually sticking to the schedule that he drew up for himself several weeks ago, Tim’s recent trip to his Korean training camp is bound to stand him in good stead for this one. He has the physique, he has the fitness, and he has the will-to-win of a true champion. Not so much a walk by the Thames for him as a walk in the park.

Non-runner: number 3, John Adams. We all wish John a speedy and full recovery from the debilitating illness that seems to render him glued to the sofa for a week every time he tries to do something more energetic than change the TV channel.

The field will remain open until the last possible minute, so if you want to come along, drop me an e-mail; we’re going to aim for a ten o’clock start from Lechlade this Saturday.