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.


livii said...

Hey there - I've been following this through an LJ syndication feed, so I've never left comments. But I felt awful about your cat, and so I wanted to send my condolences.

Good job on the race.

Anonymous said...

I'm completely and utterly in awe.

In 5 hours you completed the distance I'm doing in a sponsored walk in 3 weeks time. We've been training for 2 months now - one long walk and a couple of shorter, faster ones every week. We did our longest walk to date on Saturday and only managed to shuffle (yes,despite the training I'm still getting blisters) the distance of 20 miles in 15 minutes shy of your time!

Anyway - Mr SwissToni directed me to your blog - it's very impressive, and I'll be pledging some sponsorship money for the Triathlon (when I wander round to his desk with my own sponsorship form...!)


(RIP Boo)

OLS said...

Very sorry to hear about Boo. That's just horrible.


Will said...

Congratulations to all who completed the walk, especially for doing it in such an impressive time.

And John, sorry to hear about your cat. Having lost my cat a couple of weeks ago I wanted to post a message here. I know how upsetting it is. Like you said, lets hope she wasn't in any pain - I'm sure she knew nothing of it.

NoRockets said...

This is one of my most favourite blogs, and you are my most favourite Olympian. Well done, JJ - I'm so sorry about Boo - I need to just have a wee cry on behalf of your broken heart.

Lord Bargain said...

was it "proper" walking (that bum-wiggling mincey type thing) or a more socially acceptable saunter?

and sorry to hear about the poor cat. dear oh dear.

John said...

It was proper enough! Full racing technique was discouraged to avoid embarrassment and hip replacements (in that order), but everyone pretty much broke into a race walk at some point for as long as their pride would let them.