Most people have no idea what covering 230 miles on foot requires. Whether you are walking, running, jogging or crawling. That distance is going to hurt.
The view as I approached Snowdonia National Park in North Wales.
Looking back, I left Henley somewhat naive. Even with the experience I have, I entered into The Longest Ascent, a 230 mile, 5 day adventure, in a state of blissful ignorance. I've cycled tens of thousands of miles, climbed big mountains, gone from trip to trip, group to group, country to country for months on end with no stress. What I had never done before is cover 50 miles in a day on foot and then repeat it for 5 days.
I left Henley eager, keen to set my average pace somewhere between 4-4.5mph from the beginning. I knew a good start was key (psychologically) to a successful trip. It isn't hard hitting that pace, even with a 14kg rucksack on your back and fairly short legs. It's the pace I can maintain without breaking into a run and that's what I was aiming for. I wanted to be able to travel as fast as possible without the risk of running related injuries or unsustainable fatigue.
But I was only a matter of hours into the journey when I could feel my feet starting to develop the dreaded hotspots; the telltale signs of blister development. I knew there were only a couple of things that would prevent me from making it to Snowdon and blisters were one of them. I felt frustrated. I had great footwear. I had the most overpriced socks on earth. I had taped my feet. "So why am I getting blisters?" I kept asking myself.
I didn't have the luxury of time to really try and figure it out so I quickly checked my socks and tape and kept going.
By mid-afternoon I was in bits. My feet were agony and my mind was being consumed with feelings of overwhelm and pain. I was somewhere on the other side of Oxford making my way through recently ploughed fields, unable to put any pressure on my heels. My mind was doing all the wrong things. I was thinking about the next 4 days. I was thinking about the damage I was doing with every step. I was thinking about how it would be impossible to continue if it is this bad on day 1.
As the light was beginning to fade and I creeped over the 50mile mark, I searched for a place to pitch my tent. I found a thorny patch of land tucked behind a row of hedges. It was a terrible spot for camping. It was close to a road. There was no water. The ground was very uneven and covered in thorny plants. But I had nothing left in the tank. I needed to stop.
Inside my tent I slowly pulled off my boots, wincing in pain as my heels scraped along the inside of the ankle support. I peeled my socks off and revealed two fairly large, very painful blisters. Using my penknife and a bottle of alcohol hand gel, I drained and cleaned the blisters. I lay down and immediately fell asleep.
Every morning and evening would look like this.
Each time I moved in the night my heels would hit the floor and I'd wake suddenly as a sharp pain was sent straight up the backs of my legs. My quads and calves were so fatigued that I could barely bend my legs or get into any sort of a comfy position. At 1:30am I woke feeling nauseous, so much so that I had to unzip the tent and lie with my head outside just in case I threw up. Looking back, I was clearly dehydrated, hungry and in a lot of pain.
When I woke in the morning, I reframed my thinking. I could've focussed on the day before and everything that went wrong. I could've thought about the days ahead and the inevitable pain I was going to be in. Instead, I thought about packing my tent up. Once packed, I thought about food. Once I'd eaten, I thought about moving. I didn't allow myself to imagine scenarios that hadn't happened yet and I forced myself to make progress in any way I could.
The first steps of the day were the worst. For about an hour I couldn't put any weight on my heels. I basically tip-toed my way across the country. What I found was that after about an hour of constantly hurting with every step, the pain stopped being an issue. Yes, it was sore. Yes I was aware of it. But I didn't allow it to be a problem. It just became part of the experience of moving and once I accepted that, things got better.
Aside from the pain, the second biggest challenge was navigation. I have never attempted such a long distance using public footpaths and on the whole. it was a joyous experience. We are so lucky to have this network of footpaths allowing us to easily enjoy the countryside. Unfortunately though there are a huge number of paths that are not maintained, overgrown and even totally ignored by the landowners. I battled my way through 100m of nettles, stepped over styles that, once under pressure, collapsed and I fell to the ground. On a few occasions I even found myself following a path straight into an industrial building or through someone's garden because they had just built on top of it. This became incredibly frustrating at times when, after committing a couple of miles to a path, I was forced to do a u-turn and retrace my steps. It was the last thing I needed.
I'd walk for miles down paths like this just to have to double back on myself.
Over the next 180 miles, my mind carried my body. I was limping. I was waddling. Moving with any real finesse was no longer an option. My footsteps were heavy and clumsy, slapping the ground with every step. My knees ached, my ankles hurt, my feet were incredibly painful and I developed excruciating tendonitis down my right leg (I've since found out I have a stress fracture in my ankle). Each morning would start with an hour of intense pain. Each evening would end with blister drainage and a fairly poor night's sleep. But each step was a step closer to Snowdon and that was everything I needed to continue.
Entering Wales on Thursday was a highlight. I felt so close (even though I still had dozens and dozens of miles to go) to the end. The landscape changed and suddenly those arid fields were changing into rolling hills. The tops of hills greeted me with a cool breeze which was a huge boost for my mental health. Eventually, in the distance, I could see the hazy tops of mountains beginning to come into view. From that point there was nothing that would stop me.
I hit one final dead-end about 7km east of Snowdon as I cut my way through a bracken covered hillside. By that stage I was totally over the need to avoid the roads and so I abandoned the search for the path and completed the final 7,000m to the base of the mountain on an A road. As I powered my way along the tarmac, I imagined the view and the thoughts of the drivers passing me; a limping, waddling, less-than-fresh faced human dragging himself down a fairly busy road. We've all seen those people. People who seem to be in unusual places doing unusual things and trying to piece together their story and what led them to that place. I laughed to myself as I considered the reaction I'd get if I tried to explain myself to anyone at that point in time. "Why would you do that?" they would ask. I had no response for the fictitious character other than "Why not?".
The last 7km to Snowdon was on this stretch of road.
The final push to the top of Snowdon was actually the most enjoyable part of the experience. Not because it was ultimately the end but because the terrain was so different, I was able to use other parts of my feet and other muscles in my legs. The climb felt effortless and I found myself summiting in less than 1hr45mins. I was blessed with a completely cloud covered Snowdon and visibility of about 10m. I didn't care. I have been there enough times to know what it looks like. I was just happy to know that other than the descent, the whole thing was over.
5 days later, this was my view from the summit.
A week has now passed since I stood on the mountain. I'm 90% back to normal with only a stress fracture in my ankle to manage. I have been asked over and over again how I feel about the trip. It's not an easy one to answer.
It wasn't the most exciting of adventures. It wasn't the most spectacular of routes. It isn't something that most people can relate to or get a sense of what was involved. But it is something that I will remember for a very long time because in the space of just 5 days, I left my house and powered my way to Snowdon unassisted. It broke me mentally and physically, metaphorically and literally. I wasn't hunting for a sense of achievement or a sense of pride or a pat on the back. I've never been interested in those things. All I was hoping to achieve last week was settling a few of the demons inside of me that have come with age, fatherhood and life; those feelings of whether or not I am still capable of the things I once was.
The Longest Ascent was so much more than a long distance endurance event. Yes, I settled my demons and have regained a sense of who I am. More than all of that however, it acted as a reminder to me of the power of adventure and the importance of putting yourself out there, opening yourself up to discomfort and forcing yourself to just survive for a while.
Humans are literally designed to survive. It's in all of us. But we've removed a lot of the challenges and risks from our lives and so survival, for many of us, has become a bit of a given, a right we were born with. However, that doesn't change that somewhere in you is a little bit of DNA that is designed to survive and sometimes it is good to give it a chance to do its job. Remove the safety net, the backup plan, the support network and local knowledge. Leave your house with a bag and see where you end up. When you run into trouble, see how you cope. When you fall over, see how many times you stand back up.
I promise you, it will be a lot more than you think.
Ps. My donation page is still open if you'd like to give something to the wonderful Chiltern Centre - the charity I was supporting during this mini-expedition.