Sunday, 22 September 2013

Lessons from the River

It has been two weeks since I finished my walk along the Thames, and so I wanted to write a final blog just to wrap up the whole thing.

As always coming back to work and the normal London life makes any break from the daily grind seem a lifetime ago all too quickly. There are still reminders though. My body is almost back to normal but I am still putting ice on my right shin, and the toenail on my second toe (the little Piggy who was supposed to stay home...ironically) came off in the shower this morning, which really was revolting. Despite that I’ve been walking back into work from Thursday last week, and even made it to the gym on Friday, so all promising signs.

I almost certainly won’t be running the Royal Parks Half Marathon on October 6th however. I saw a physio last weekend and he told me I’d be insane to do so. Shooting Stars have said they’ll defer my place for a year, so I’ll most likely take that up. They have also confirmed my place in the London Marathon for 2014, so that’s another reason not to push myself too hard and risk further injury. I'll be keeping the same sponsorship page open.

So how do I feel about the walk itself? I’m really happy with it. I’m pleased that I managed to plan a route, choose my stops and reach every single target. I even exceeded one on day five when I pushed an extra two miles on from where I planned to stop. I didn’t really know how I’d hold up when I began, and while physically I was pretty wrecked by the end (and would never have made it without my good friends nurofen and co-codamol) I was amazed at how well I held up mentally.

I’d expected the mental side to be really tough. The fact it wasn't speaks volumes for all the support I had along the way, especially from those who joined me, giving me distractions at times when it would have been easy to slide into negativity. 

One of the things I learned about myself was on day three when, after the horrors of arriving in the dark the night before and setting out on my own for the first time in an extraordinary amount of pain, I realised after an hour that I was really enjoying myself. It occurred to me then that actually I am generally quite a positive person. Funnily enough Sharpey would say the same thing to me a few days later when I stayed at his place. I’d never really thought of myself as a positive person before, especially given how shitty things were the week or two before the walk began, so now I know that I can take a step back when things are tough and remember it’s not as bad as it might seem.

When I saw the physio and explained what I’d done and the injuries I had, he asked me why I didn’t just stop and I must have given him the blankest look in history. Quitting never seriously occurred to me, and that is a surprise looking back. I’m a bit annoyed that I hopped in a car twice at the end of a day and had to be returned to the same spot the following morning, but I knew it was necessary at that stage. We all have limits and I think the ability to recognise those and react accordingly is pretty important.

What am I going to take from all this? That anything is possible with the right attitude. So often in the past I’ve come up with reasons not to do things – largely doubting my ability to actually do whatever it might be. Sure life can be scary, but I’m always amazed at what we’re capable of and I will continue to look for ways to challenge myself and finding the fulfilment that comes with “daring greatly” - regardless of whether or not I succeed in whatever the endeavour may be. If anyone else feels suitably inspired to do the same, then good for you.

To conclude I’ve decided to write up a few things that stick out from the experience, messages that for one reason or another stood out along the way, highlights, low points, amusing texts – that sort of thing. I hope you enjoy:

1.       Sponsorship from random dude on day two and random woman on day four
2.       Checking my messages at the end of each day
3.       Finishing

Low points
1.       Being lost on the way into Abingdon in the dark
2.       Realising day 4 was five miles longer than I though and that I wouldn’t reach camp in time.
3.       Shepperton Lock in the rain.

Best Day:
Day three: Abingdon – Pangbourne. Great weather and just a very satisfying day.

Worst Day:
Day six: Chertsey – Putney. Rain, wrong turn, not mentally ready. Apologies to Zoe and Katie for being so miserable that day!

Most amusing episode:

Best Challenge:
Craig Short: "I will donate a further 10 great British pounds if you post a photo of you doing a forward roll."

Favourite quotes sent through:
T.S. Eliot: “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go”
Friedrich Nietzsche: “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”
Steven Wright: “Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time”

Most amusing / offensive sponsorship messages (there were so many to choose from, I picked out a Top 5 – in no particular order - but could easily have picked about 50).
1.     Nat Morris: “Your mobility looks hindered - did you really walk all that way or were you gang banged by Russian Sailors?” 
2.     Miles & Kate Nathan: “Well done, I thought I'd wait to the very end before committing to donating. Hedging my bets! In all seriousness mate well done, you're an inspiration to us all."
3.     The Proclaimers: “Me & my twin walked 500 miles. And then we walked 500 more. Good effort for this training jolly - let us know if you want to step up to elite status.”
4.     Blade: “Good luck mate, great cause as well. I am not buying 5 copies of this book though!!"
5.     Gandhi: “I love Alan Curr so put another dime in the jukebox, baby.”

Most amusing / offensive text messages* (again, many to choose from but these stood out):
1.     Dave Kirtley: “No evidence to suggest an ice bath has any more benefit than just a cold bath. That’s from the Head of sport science at Liverpool FC. Compression socks help though.”
2.     G-Man: “You’ll get more satisfaction when you look back on this challenge for the fact it’s been a killer. Enjoy the pain and the fact it’s you on your own pushing it to the edge. That’s what it’s all about and not everyone gets there, or gets it.”
3.     General: “Push on through fella, don’t think about the Bum chafe/Gooch rub/Sting ring...Your legs may be saying kill us now!! You must say – Shut up legs. Do what I tell you!! It’s epic mental efforts like this that are the measure of legends. You’re inside the ring! Push hard and drove it to the bridge...Massive Kudos!”
4.     Hills: “Perspective mon frère. Abi says shoulder on. I think she means soldier. She also says fuck you but I think she is talking to me. So fuck me, which is unlikely as I’m texting you. Good point.”
5.     Emily Carter: “Stay positive. Five miles is nothing to you, you can eat five miles for breakfast, fuck it, you can sweat five miles when you’re taking a shit!!”
*messages from Abi Hill and Rhonda Williams (among others) were not deemed suitable for publication due to extreme profanity (yes, even worse than what's above), but were definitely up there with the best. 

Finally - thank you one more time to everyone for all your support. You are amazing. 
At time of writing I've raised a little more than £2800 plus Gift Aid of around £600, which has blown me away.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Day 7 - Putney to Thames Barrier (19 miles, 7.5 hours)

I awoke at 05:30am again in order to get myself all sorted as packing was taking an age by now. Breakfast came in the shape of another gigantic bacon sandwich which was suitably amazing, and Sarah had also made several baguettes which would come in very handy later in the afternoon.

Trying as hard as I can to push down the fence
I was met in Wandsworth Park by a small group of people including my friends Lucy Brooks, John Richards along with his newborn son and my sister Rachael and her husband Tim. Sharpey and Sarah also came along for the first part and despite the showers coming and going most of the guys stuck it out for the first hour or so.

By Pimlico it was just myself and Lucy but we enjoyed crossing Westminster Bridge, as I always do, and moving down the South Bank, even if I did start getting back into London mode and experiencing a bit of tourist rage.  

Houses of Parliament
I had decided I wouldn’t break for lunch as I just wanted to get the day finished as quickly as possible, and I was having a snack and stretch just before Tower Bridge when I was met by Emily and Jay, along with young Charlie Chops (who spent most of the time dozing in his pram). We were about nine miles down by then and nearly halfway.
Reaching Tower Bridge was one of many mini-targets I had in mind
The team grew from there. My sister Helen joined and Rachael and Tim were back by the time we reached North Greenwich. I also had Matty Sharp join on his bike for a little while, Milly Baker bringing me more mango, Jonathan Hill come all the way from Bristol for the afternoon and Richard Kirtley for the last half a mile with his dog Spider.

We went through what was by far and away the least attractive part of the entire week shortly after Greenwich and the Cutty Sark before the Thames Barrier finally came into view. It still looked a way off though and the last four miles did seem to take an age.

A particularly attractive area around Deptford
I couldn’t speed up or slow down. I knew if I stopped it’d be really hard to get going. Even stretching was too painful now, as it added pressure to my feet – or if I sat then it gave a chance for the blood to come back for them only to be freshly bruised once I began walking again. I had plasters on every toe on my right foot, plus three other big ones, while my left foot was holding up slightly better with just two toes plastered and two others on the ball of my foot.

Looking back past the Isle of Dogs - felt like the widest bit of the river
Eventually, the barriers drew up alongside me. I’d love to say I had a huge feeling of euphoria, or an epic sense of achievement, but I really didn’t feel anything at all. Not even relief. Obviously I was glad it was over, and I was pleased I’d made it, but I was very aware that the achievement itself hadn’t sunk in yet, and might not for a while.

You can pass underneath one of the barriers and there is a map of the entire river. I really enjoyed talking a few of the guys through my journey and being able to bring it to life again. I remembered some slightly random stories as place names jogged my memory and it made the whole thing seem a bit more real.

At the finish line
We went up to the café and park nearby for a couple of soft drinks (it was unlicensed) before eventually deciding that a train was probably faster than a taxi, and so we walked another mile to Charlton station nefore taking a train to London Bridge, changing for Waterloo East, walking across to Waterloo and then moving across to Clapham Junction. It was just myself and Hillsy now, but after I’d had a shower Lucy and Milly joined for drinks and food on the terrace along with my friends Alex, Shaun and Mike.

Sitting up there, talking through the week and just being surrounded by good friends was brilliant. I didn’t have much to say unfortunately, but my overriding emotion was how lucky I am to have such a fantastic group of friends and family. The sponsorship total had leapt up to nearly £1700 by the time I finished, and I received so many texts during the week, so many comments on Facebook and twitter and several answer-phone messages all giving encouragement and just saying really nice things that I felt quite humbled. And I think I will for some time.

Facebook Status: “I've been walking for 83 hours and 186 miles. I'm kinda tired. I think I'm gonna go home now.”

My brilliant supporters with me at the end

Friday, 13 September 2013

Day 6 - Chertsey to Putney (25 miles, 11.5 hours)

Friday was the penultimate day and I had 25 miles in store. The forecast wasn’t good but I had tried to stay optimistic and when I looked outside things looked promising. One thing I knew for sure was that had the weather been bad during the first few days then I would never have made it, but I was close enough now, and the path was well enough maintained that I’d cope OK.

I was back at the Kingfisher pub by 06:30am and began the slow trudge onwards. The first mile was now taking me close to 30 minutes and this was the part of the day that I really dreaded, this and the last hour which mostly just dragged.

I hit a nasty setback very early. At Shepperton the river splits. On one side the path continues straight on, but if you’re stuck on the wrong side of the lock you need to get a ferry across. Turns out my map pointed this out (see below) but I was there at 07:30am and it had just begun to rain. I had a choice between a hefty detour of around 2.5 miles, or sitting in the rain for half an hour. I took the hit and began walking.

I was cheered up by a call from my old friend Rhonda out in New Zealand, and made it into Walton by 09:30am when I met my friend Zoe. Bless her, she’d come all the way out to walk in the rain for several hours and got me when I was perhaps at my grumpiest, although the bacon sandwich she brought cheered me up a little. 

The pain was bad today, and the rain made everything heavier and I was not particularly enjoying myself. I’d let myself relax the previous night and now I wasn’t mentally prepared for 25 miles in the rain.

At Hampton Court and looking just like Henry VIII
We did however, pass some really lovely areas again, Hampton Court being the main one, and it was still nice to see these places which I’d never been to and I promised myself I’d go back there one day when I was walking normally and the sun will be shining.

We reached Richmond by 1pm and had lunch at the Pitcher and Piano with an old colleague Ben Fryer and my friend Katie Owen who was going to replace Zoe for the afternoon. We were 15 miles down with ten to go.
Looking sharp in the Pitcher & Piano in Richmond
The afternoon was a real struggle and I began to feel really queasy. Thankfully the rain eased off but I was still not in the best of moods and it seemed to take forever to reach Putney Bridge. The friendliness and general interest of strangers had totally disappeared as well. For the previous five days I’d been regularly asked what I was doing and why, but once into London the interest disappeared. Nobody said hello as we passed anymore and, the staff in the pub aside, nobody gave a damn. It was slightly depressing and began to get me down as my legs throbbed and I longed for Putney to come into view.

It did eventually and I reached the house of Sharpey and Sarah at 6:30pm, who again looked after me brilliantly with an almighty portion of lasagne and Sarah giving my shin another painful massage. I spoke to a few people about the final day and was due to meet everyone at 07:15am at Putney Bridge, but having come past the bridge to get to their house we agreed that Sharpey would go and meet everyone as I could swing around the corner to the river to avoid backtracking.

Craven Cottage...Putney can't be far now can it?
There were now just 19 miles to go, I was excited but still incredibly tired and yet again I struggled for sleep as every time I rolled over everything from the waist down hurt. Since Tuesday I’d been having to physically lift my legs up with my hands to actually move them once I’d stopped walking and the painkillers had worn off, so sleeping on an airbed made things interesting! I actually wish someone had filmed me trying to stand up and turn off the lights, it took me about five minutes to stand up and take three paces! But the end was actually in sight this time – and I was quietly satisfied.

Facebook Status: “This morning was unadulterated misery. Shepperton Lock caused a massive detour, rain made pack heavier and my excitement of being nearly finished was tempered very quickly. Huge thanks to Zoe Farquhar for braving the rain, and Peter Sharpe & Sarah Cummins for sorting me out tonight. 7:15 tomorrow at Putney Bridge folks, I'll probably be sending a representative! 168 miles successfully trodden.”

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Day 5 - Cookham to Chertsey (22 miles, 10.5 hours)

Ted dropped me back into Cookham at 7am and once again the first mile was incredibly slow. It was going to be another very hot day. I passed Boulters Lock and Bray Lock which were in stunning settings, and moved on towards Eton and Windsor.

I saw a cool plaque by the river at Boulters Lock which read as follows:

“Old Father Thames goes gliding by
As ripples run he winks his eye
At Cotswold cows and Oxford dons,
Nodding to Windsor’s royal swans,
He bears our nation’s liquid crown
By lock and weir to London town.
May all that know and love his banks
Pause here awhile to offer thanks.”

Poem by Ian Miles at Boulters Lock - I paused, and offered thanks
It was around this point when I saw a duck waddling along quietly minding its own business. All his mates had already gone into the water so I gave him a little "quack" and off he went to join them. At that moment I realised that in the last few days I had mooed at a cow, baaed at a sheep and now quacked at a duck. Clearly, I was going a bit nuts; but I did spend the rest of the afternoon hoping I might find a pig to snort at. 

As I approached Windsor I was met by my friend Phil Burdekin who is himself in training for a 100km walk -all in one go - on the 14th of September. Phil stayed with me for most of the day and was a real bonus bit of company as he only decided to come at short notice and I’d had a couple of cancellations. Although this would turn out to be the shortest day of my journey so far, I was worried at how slow I was getting so having someone set the pace a little really helped. 

Arriving in Windsor
As soon as I had accepted the offer from Mrs Ted to stay in Bray the previous day, I decided I would also take up another offer from my old buddy Ian to stay with him tonight, so I opted to walk a little further than I’d actually planned and go on to Chertsey, rather than Laleham which was the original stopping point.I guess that the extra five miles the previous day had actually helped me out a little.

We passed through Windsor and took lunch in a Harvester in Old Windsor at 1:30pm which was about 15 miles in, and then went under the M25 and I began to feel that home was not all that far away.It was however, absurdly hot. Pushing 30 degrees and my pack felt horribly heavy. Thank God Phil had turned up with a BLT to help me along as I went, and to give me something to help absorb the painkilelrs.

At the M25 I began to feel like I was approaching home
We came into Staines at about 4pm and Phil left to catch the train. As he turned to go I told him that the connection was pretty good and he’d be back to Clapham Junction in about 45 minutes. We joked about how I live in Clapham Junction and so could also be home in less than an hour…and then that was all I could think about for the remaining 90 minutes of my day.

I also passed the house of my old Tristan where I had spent many a summer when I was younger and quietly wished his parents still lived there. Much as I was looking forward to seeing my mate Ian later, there is something comforting about returning to a place from your childhood where there was always a ton of food and comfy chairs and sofas. I remember the beds in that house as the most comfortable I've ever slept in.

A former hang out just outside Stanes
I passed Laleham and arrived at the Kingfisher pub in Chertsey at 5:20pm. Here I was greeted by a bar girl who, when I said I was walking the Thames, said: “You’re nuts Rather you than me…oh…and you’re going to get soaked tomorrow.” That was particularly nice I thought, she might as well have kicked me in the bollocks. 

Ian picked me up and we went back to where he and his wife Ange live. I didn’t last long and was in bed by 8:45pm, but was hugely grateful for yet more hospitality. I knew I was coming towards London now and that things would begin to change from here. I was in considerable pain and was actually scaring Ian a little I think. My feet and toes were swelling up, particularly on my right foot, and putting any pressure on my right shin was agony, while my left knee was really very swollen and I struggled to bend or straighten my leg so I spent most of the evening with ice packs on both legs. 

Despite that though, for the first time I could see the end and started to think about finishing. I was in a great mood, and after a question about mango from Ian I couldn’t get that stupid advert out of my head about mangoes, which amused me considerably. I didn’t realise at the time, but I was actually lullng myself into a false sense of security, I had 44 miles to go, and that is still quite a long way in the grand scheme of things, but for the most part, I felt pretty pleased with myself.

Facebook Status: 22 miles in 10.5 hours today (total now 144). Slow going but Holy Lord it was hot! Huge thanks to Phil Burdekin for joining for most of the day-would've been much tougher without you pal. Right now, for the first time, I feel like Buck Rogers...I think I'm gonna make it.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Day 4 - Pangbourne to Cookham (30 miles, 13.5 hours)

Day four was set to be another 25 miles so given how good the previous day had been I was confident I would be done by 6pm, especially as I wouldn’t be taking such a long lunch break. Even so, the alarm was set for 05:15am once again and I was out the door by 06:25am.

The day did not get off to a good start however, as I’d washed virtually all my clothes the night before and none of them had even remotely dried, so I was now carrying a plastic bag full of wet, heavy clothes. Gareth had left some food so I smashed down some pasta for breakfast, took a double dose of nurofen and co-codamol and, unable to put much weight on my right leg at all, limped out the door and down the stairs with my pack on my shoulders.

I had given myself 11.5 hours to do this walk because on my way down to Kemble the previous Saturday I had received a call from Cookham Campsite, where I planned to stay this evening, to advise me that they would be locking the site at 7pm. Now, at most campsites this just means the office is closing and you can usually still wander in, but it sounded like that wasn’t the case here so I needed to get a shift on.

Morning mist around Mapledurham
I began the day slowly once again as I waited for the painkillers to kick in, but walking through Mapledurham was seriously nice before hitting another A-road that would take me through Tilehurst. Here I was meeting my friend Ted, a Reading University Alumni, and it seemed appropriate that we’d move passed our old stomping ground together. I left Ted at Caversham Bridge (and offloaded a bag of wet clothes to him!), which also marked the 100 mile spot, and the day continued to warm up as I pushed on towards Henley.

Approaching 100 miles
Just outside Shiplake, when I was 15 miles to the good, I got chatting to a bloke on his way back to his narrow boat with his groceries. He told me about how he had once walked the circumference of Wales which I thought mighty impressive and he made me feel great when he said: “It gives me real pleasure to see there are people like you out there still doing things like this.”

It was another really nice moment…but I wasn’t allowed to hold into it for long as he then said it was more like 15 miles to Cookham rather than the 10 I thought it was, and I went from wanting to hug him to wanting to punch him in the face.

After a very brief catch up with Jonty Clarke, another old Reading boy, I arrived at the Angel in Henley and after doing some more research and discovered that it was indeed five miles further than I thought to Cookham. This was a nightmare on many levels and plunged me into a serious trough. I was never going to make it there by 6pm, so I called the site and the chap there just said: “You can always camp at Marlow” – which is several miles closer and would have just made Thursday a longer day.

I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I had to make a decision quickly. At that point my phone rang, and it was Ted’s wife Laura (Mrs Ted to avoid confusion with the other Laura), who was due to join me in the afternoon. The conversation went like this:

Mrs Ted (cheerily): “Hiya. I hope your morning has gone well and that Ted brought you the food I sent? How are you?”
Me: “OK”
Mrs Ted (still cheerily): “Great, you’re having great weather for it. So where are you now and how are you holding up?”
Me: “Henley”
Mrs Ted (still clinging to the cheeriness): “OK, good. I think I can be with you by around 3pm, where do you think you’ll be then?”
Me: “Don’t know.”
Mrs Ted (sceptical): “Are you sure you’re OK?”
Me: “Yeah. Terrific”
Mrs Ted (sales voice): “OK, well, I just want to put this out there, I know you don’t want to do this, but there is a bed and a BBQ waiting for you in Bray if you like, and we can pick you up in Cookham and drop you back there the next day…”
Very nearly vommed seconds after this was taken...true story.
My one stipulation at the start was to walk all the way and not get in a vehicle at any point, so this was something of a crisis point. I had a decision to make...and I did not hesitate, not for a second, to take that offer up.

As my father always said, rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men.

I felt much better afterwards. Gareth had warned me that I might need to compromise at some point, even suggesting I take up the fact that I was due to finish on a Saturday so I could add an extra day if I needed. I knew I couldn’t do that, people had made plans to meet me for the final day and I couldn’t mess them around like that. This was a simple option, I’d still be walking every step and, as we got in the car that evening Mrs Ted made the excellent point that this way the second half of my trip would be that much happier – there wasn’t much point in being miserable just out of stubbornness.

Coming into Marlow
The afternoon was really good. Shortly after lunch I spent a good 40 minutes chatting to a random chap called Geoff who was out walking his dog and took a real interest in what I was doing and gave some pretty useful advice. Mrs Ted met me around 3:30pm and we pushed on through some really nice spots again. It gradually got darker and I started to feel pretty sick around Marlow and also got the 6pm shakes again. These had started on day one and had become a regular feature. It was quite odd, and had nothing to do with being cold, and it would happen bang on 6pm every single day. Most unusual.

We reached Cookham and indeed the whole campsite was locked up, which in fact blocked the path altogether. We had a 20 minute wait while Ted went back for the Car and Mrs Ted decided to massage my shin splint, which I now thought was a muscle knot and goodness me did she make me scream. However, before she started I couldn’t even put weight on my right leg or wriggle my foot at all, but I felt infinitely better afterwards.
The wrong side of Cookham Bridge, where the massage from Hell took place
I arrived at the house of Rob and Annie just before 9pm, which was a simply incredible piece of hospitality as they fed me, let me use their house like it was my own and also did all my laundry. It was another example of outstanding warmth and generosity from people I had never previously met. That night Mrs Ted dosed me up with Tamazepam which helped me get at least fours hours of sleep straight off ,which was amazing, but my internal thermostat was still all over the place so sleep was still patchy for much of the night.

Facebook Status: “Much longer day than planned, another 13.5hrs and 30miles. That's 122 total. Big thanks to Jonty Clarke for his cameo appearance, and to Martin Ted Teodorczyk and Laura Teodorczyk for just being amazing today. You guys are great.”

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Day 3 - Abingdon to Pangbourne (25 miles, 11.5 hours)

I knew day three was a really important one. After the training walk in the Lea Valley I hadn’t been able to walk properly for several days, and that was only 57 miles. I’d done ten more now and it was time to start on the proper pain killers if I was going to get through the day.

The Pavilion at Abingdon Vale Cricket Club
During day two my groin strain had still been managed pretty well with stretches, but my left knee has started to swell up and I’d developed what felt like a shin splint on the bottom of my right leg. This meant that in the morning I could not put proper weight on either leg, so moving around the clubhouse was very tricky and it took me a full 90 minutes to dress and pack my bag. As such I began taking one co-codamol with the two nurofen I had already been taking every four hours since the day before.

Didcot power station
I set off at 06:45 and the first mile took me 25 minutes, a full seven minutes slower than Gareth and I had averaged on day one, and this was also the first time I was alone. However, once I got my rhythm going I actually discovered, to my surprise, that I was fine. Quite early on I could see the Didcot power station in the distance, which made for quite a strange sight among such a nice area.

The walk was beautiful, my favourite so far as the river ran through some really picturesque areas where people quite clearly weren’t short of a few quid. There were loads of spider webs and the sky was perfectly clear once again. I’d loved having Gareth and Laura with me on the first two days, but it seemed right to have at least one day walking alone and have time to put the world to rights.

I had to be careful not to get stuck in a web
I made it to my lunch spot in Benson by 11:30am, which was about 13 miles and left me just 12 to do in the afternoon. My friends Kiwi and Sugar (real names hidden to protect their identity…you’d think) were in the country for just a few days and made a big effort to come and join me for lunch, which was really good of them so my break turned into two hours before I set off again just after 1pm.

Kiwi, Sugar and baby Annabel
Lunch spot at the Waterfront Cafe in Benson
I called the Weir View Bed and Breakfast to see if they had any rooms available, and after explaining what they were doing they dropped their rate from £90 per night to £40 before I even asked for a discount, which was amazing of them. Later they would upgrade my room and offer me a free breakfast as well. This was the second episode of random kindness that really stuck out to me.

Arriving at Wallingford I took a wrong turn and crossed the river by mistake. This led me to a farmhouse that I had to skirt around, and then a golf course which I also had to go around. I was surprised at how quickly I got irritated by being away from the river. The water was my constant companion, not least my guide, and I was sure I was heading in the opposite direction. Suddenly I was passing through towns like North & South Stoke, which although beautiful were some way off the Thames Path, but then the river turned and joined me again, and all was right with the world once more. 

I arrived into Goring and Streatley a little after 4pm and was blown away by it, there were a number of dream houses there, as there had been the previous day in truth, but this place is seriously nice, and definitely somewhere I need to come back to. My GPS was about to die but I knew I could follow the A329 into town which, while not quite the Thames Path, would at least mean I could be in by 6pm and keep the distance to the 25 miles it should have been after my earlier detour.

Dream House...

...Dream House Dream View
Gareth had met me at lunch and saw I was doing OK, he admitted he’d been genuinely worried the night before but seemed pleased at my recovery, but still insisted on coming along that night and forcing me to have an ice bath…so a a little after 7pm, I tipped four bags of ice into the bath, and lowered myself in for a full ten minutes. I can only apologise for this video (parental advisory - contains bad language and body hair):

Gareth was amazing that night, going out to get dinner and leaving me with loads of spare food for the next day (real food like sandwiches and pasta rather than the high calorie bars which just rot your stomach). He had also hung out my sleeping bag and tent to dry and even plugged in my phone and GPS before embarking on his two-hour drive home. It really was an amazing display of friendship, and made me more gutted that he and Laura are moving to Australia in just a few weeks. As it turns out it was the last time I would see him before he left - as he said: "we left it as it should be left; walking, chatting, laughing and eating pizza." Damn right mate - I'm going to miss you.

I climbed into bed and hit the lights shortly after 9pm. Sleep was pretty fitful again, one minute I felt 90 degrees and the next I was freezing. I can’t have slept more than two hours at a time, but it had been a good day and now I was infinitely more confident of making it through.

Facebook Status: “After a shaky start today turned into a good one. Met good friends for a 2hr lunch and still reached Pangbourne by 6pm. That's 92 miles down now, so halfway. A genuine thank you for all the messages, especially from folks I've not seen or spoken to for ages. I read every one but don't have much energy for replies, but keep them coming! Sponsorship is of course still open: 94 miles to go.”

Monday, 9 September 2013

Day 2 - Tadpole Bridge to Abingdon (32 miles, 14 hours)

The alarm went off at 05:30am on Monday morning and I lay in my tent not wanting to move. I could hear Laura moving around outside and getting breakfast ready and I also realised that the inside of the tent was full of condensation and that the sleeping bag was wet because of it, which was a pain in the arse as I would have to carry it all day and it wouldn’t be dry by the evening.

Ignoring that issue I packed up and stuffed my face with porridge. Gareth eventually showed his face but he had to be at work by midday so needed to head off. Laura and I got on the trail at 07:30am and were aiming for lunch at Wolvercote which was a good 20 miles away so we had to crack on.
If in doubt...LUNGE!
The day was another great one of walking which was very similar to day one with lots of fields and pretty constant access to the river. We passed through plenty of locks as we went and avoided main roads completely. The chat was also particularly good, my favourite bit going as follows:

Laura: "Where is the US Open this year?"
Me: "It's always in New York."
Laura: "Are you sure it's not in Melbourne in January?"
Me: "That'd be the Australian Open."

"US Open, in the US? That can't be right?!"
As lunch approached my favourite episode of the day took place. We were asking for directions to the pub and a passing driver got out of his car and walked with us for a couple of minutes to ask what we were up to. At the end of the pathway he handed over £20 as sponsorship. This wasn’t a £20 note because that’s all he had in his wallet, but a £10 and two £5s, so he really wanted to give that much, which struck me as an incredible act of generosity and gave me an enormous boost that what I am doing is really worthwhile.

We didn’t get underway after lunch until about 3:15pm and the day began to drag a little as Abingdon seemed to not come any closer. We passed through Oxford while the sun was still out, and saw a few pubs which I remembered visiting back when Gareth and Laura were living in the area, and chatted to a few more people at Sandford.

The sun was setting and we still had a distance to go
By the time we reached Radley it was really quite dark and my legs were beginning to hurt. Gareth and I had talked about a great quote from Jens Voigt, a cyclist who just shouts "Shut Up Legs" when the going gets tough, and I started going down that road.

The GPS had long since died so we were not sure how much further it was to Abingdon, where I was due to camp in the grounds of Abingdon Vale Cricket Club, and we spoke to some more kindly passing people (who were staring at a Kingfisher) and told it was about four miles. It was 7:30pm by now and the sun had almost set but without any choice we pushed on.

The path got darker and darker, as well as very narrow. Even Laura, the chattiest person in the world, was beginning to go quiet. Earlier we had passed several hours playing firstly the name game and then Mallets Mallet, but now our conversation didn’t get much beyond: “how much further do you think it is?”

By 8:45pm it was fully dark and Laura had to get her head torch out. I tried to gee myself up by blasting out ‘Jump’ by Van Halen on my phone, but once we hit a small bridge and couldn’t tell if we’d actually gone over the river or just an estuary off it, and started heading back the way we had come, my sense of humour began to fail badly.

Looking at the map later that night I realised that this was the right way to go, but at the time I had a bit of a meltdown. There was another path off to the right and I could see street lights so decided to take that route. It was too dark now to keep going in the same direction, we were often stumbling; our legs and feet were in considerable pain (SHUT UP LEGS!) and I figured at least in some proper light we would find our way.

We bumped into some kids on bikes who gave us directions and I called the groundsman at the Cricket Club and asked if he could come and let us in. He did more than that, he came down and opened the club and had tea waiting for us when we arrived at 9:30pm and found towels and extra blankets for me. A huge thank you to Dave for that.

Feeling pretty good upon arrival at Abingdon Vale Cricket Club
Laura had gone white as a sheet, but she recovered a little after some food. G-Man came to collect her at around 11:30pm and looked pretty worried about me and said as much – admitting that while he’d been able to manage at work he would never have been able to spend another 14 hours on his feet after what we’d done on day one. My feet were a mess and, unpleasant as this is to tell, the chafe had kicked in badly and the pants I’d worn looked like they had taken a shotgun blast. 

This hole was not created by flatulence. I wish it was.
I was supposed to be camping wild in Pangbourne the following night but honestly did not think I could face that. Day three was always a concern as I’d not gone beyond two days in training and had now done 67 miles in that time. I looked up a few B&Bs and swore to come back to that in the morning. My sleeping bag was still damp and I spent the night with my temperature going up and down uncontrollably. I hoped that this was just my body showing the effects of exertion and not that I was getting ill.

Facebook Status: “14 hours to do 32ish miles. Getting slower and more painful. 9:30 finish in the dark was pretty tough. Laura Bridges a true Trojan today. Equally happy about the random chap who gave me £20 sponsorship after a 2min chat. Genuinely heart warming.”