The Peak District Challenge last weekend was epic. The rolling hills, villages and woodlands of Derbyshire are stunning to look at – which helps – but, my goodness, they go on and on! In other words, 100 km is a really long way!
Day 1 involved a lot of gradient. The morning’s rain made this worse because it was then slippery. But in the afternoon we were blessed with sunshine and spirits lifted again.
After 12 hours, I was getting tired (!) As I arrived at the last rest stop and shelter of the day, a storm broke, bringing the temperature down and making everything gloomy. I was lucky not to be out in it but I wasn’t sure I could face the last 11 km. I approached an official, expecting her to put me on a minibus, where I would feel disappointed but relieved. Instead, she pepped me up and I walked with her through pastures and woods and over streams, until we finally made it back to camp… at 2.20am!!
I had a brief but glorious massage, which prevented my legs from seizing up. After that, I got 20 minutes’ sleep before it was time to get up and do it all again.
Day 2 was easier going for the first two thirds. I moved fast and felt hopeful. But then, just as the terrain got more challenging, the heavens opened. Rain, mud and increasing fatigue slowed me down and I was forced to do kms 82-90 by minibus. No way around this: I just wasn’t going to be able to cover the ground before the cut-off time.
The last 10 km were almost entirely mud. As I trudged and slid through the darkening fields, I was anxious about not reaching the Finish line before the event closed at 10pm.
I made it with 2 minutes to spare! I arrived last, bedraggled and puffy with exhaustion, but I got there.
As I drank my celebratory plastic glass of Prosecco, I reflected on how far I’d come since my effort at Hadrian’s Wall in August 2019. So many lessons learnt in the run-up to and during this challenge (as well as £1,235 and counting raised for the Alzheimer’s Society).
Life lessons from the trek
The event was extremely well organised by Action Challenge and I made the most of it. I’ve still got a long way to go but here’s what I’ve learnt:
1) Success is not all down to natural aptitude. As someone reasonably strong and fit, I’ve always been able to climb (British) mountains and walk distances of up to about 15 miles without undue struggle. Without consciously realising it, I had assumed this was my level and I’d never be able to do more.
Maybe also it was a bit of complacency: hiking came relatively easily to me and it didn’t occur to me to work at it. As I often say to clients in public-speaking coaching, if you find this difficult and scary, you’re going to put a lot of work into your preparation and practice, which will make you a far better public speaker than the person who’s unfazed at the prospect of addressing an audience and is happy to wing it.
The training I did for this challenge made an enormous difference to my ability to keep going.
2) Success can’t be achieved by determination alone. As with fear of heights, trying to force yourself to plod on regardless is far from the most efficient way to improve. Long-distance walking has techniques to it. Learn about nutrition, stretching, optimum speeds and you’ll find it much easier to get on.
3) Invest in the right equipment. As I mention in the talk, if your feet are hurting, your chances of covering hundreds of miles become vanishingly small. You need well fitting, suitable boots – and possibly orthotic insoles.
At Hadrian’s Wall, I got very cold: at Bakewell, I’d brought enough spare (dry) and extra clothes that I wouldn’t have got cold even if the temperature had dropped another 10 degrees. Light, easy-to-pack technical garments are expensive but they last many years. This time, I took an ergonomic backpack, which shared the weight between my shoulders and my hips. And this time, I had walking poles. What a difference they made! Keeping me from slipping on muddy slopes; letting me use my arms to power progress; and taking some of my weight on the downhill roads, where my knees complained of the strain.
I used to think using special gear was cheating. Actually, it’s just good sense. Writing with a quill when you could be gliding over the pages with a top-quality modern gel pen doesn’t make you a hero, it just makes your job longer and your life harder.
4) Approach people for encouragement and help. Enlisting friends and family to cheer you on – in whatever form is suitable for the occasion – boosts morale and gives you extra incentive to keep going. Knowing my best friend, Iain, was tracking my progress on the app pushed me to do my best.
Also, getting professional input can be crucial. All the top sportspeople have coaches, so why do we consider in other fields we should be able to work things out for ourselves? Whatever it is you’re struggling with, some lessons from a pro can see you flying over a lot of hurdles that would have taken a long time to negotiate by yourself.
In my case, I needed someone with authority to tell me I could absolutely manage the last 11 km on Saturday – and that I’d find it easier if I asked a medic to bandage my knees. It would never have crossed my mind to ask for medical help but the plasters did indeed ease the way. Back at camp, I would have gone straight to my tent, but the pros insisted I get a massage. Wow, what excellent advice that was! That massage made the difference between misery, as I got going on Sunday, and actually feeling pretty normal.
5) Believe you can do it and act as if you can. Following on from the last point, if you’re surrounded by people who couldn’t do what you’re trying to do and therefore, with the best intentions (usually), encourage you not to try too hard, you need to bring some different people into your life too! We humans are capable of far more than we tend to think we are in the moment and what we need when we’re struggling is a solid belief we can overcome this obstacle.
Getting help with the practical side helps at both practical and psychological level. Getting my knees bandaged, doing stretches with a guide at the rest stops, and particularly that wonderful massage all helped me physically and also reassured me that this was all I needed to be able to continue.
Beyond the practical, it’s all psychological and, once you know that, it’s easier to push on. I’d recently read Richard Wiseman’s book Rip It Up, about the as-if principle, and used this to keep my determination high. It’s been proved by experiment after experiment that if we act as if we’re enjoying what we’re doing, we’ll get a better result. Instead of frowning and cursing and whinging, I forced myself to smile, be positive and focus on admiring the view or, when the rain made that impossible, chatting with a fellow walker or with a friend on the telephone.
Around the Bakewell Loop, I achieved more than I’ve ever done before. Not only that, I did, actually, enjoy it.