I’ve been trying to write this blog since two weeks ago on Monday (and I eventually started it last Tuesday). I originally failed on two accounts – one that I was stupid busy the first week after the walk (and also tired!) and the second reason being that I don’t quite know where to start. I don’t know how to pen all the emotions before, during and after the 100km Walk for Hunger and give it due credit.
But I shall try. Here goes.
My plan had been to blog along the route as much as possible but I found that when I got to each pit stop I was limited on time even when we had a decent stop. It was essential I had a good stretch, topped up sunscreen, peed, filled up my camelback and ate. Thank goodness for pit crew I managed to get this done before we headed off again! But more on all that in a bit. The long and short of it is, it didn’t happen. So here is the story.
Trying to get some rest beforehand
This was before the walk of course but it is so relevant because it did affect how some of the walk unfolded. So, here in Sydney we’ve had a relatively mild winter and an even milder start to spring. So mild that by mid September bushfires were starting to burn in high winds and dried out conditions. And then the week before our walk it really kicked off with a huge bushfire out of control and (still burning earlier this week) in the Blue Mountains and out west in Penrith. This is my first experience of epic bushfires.
When my friend from work and I left at lunchtime to get some sleep before heading to the starting line for 11.30pm, we headed to the mall for lunch and to get some last minute bits and pieces. It was scorching. Especially for said friend as she was up from Melbourne. We headed back to mine where she was staying in our spare room, got our kit bags ready and headed off to our beds about 3pm hoping to get some much needed rest. As I drew the curtains to shut out the light I realised I could smell a bonfire smell. I lay to go to sleep but the smell kept getting stronger. I must’ve dozed off but about 5ish I woke up as the smell was very strong and there was a strange light leaking into the room. I looked out the window and there was the eeriest orange haze all around. I then picked up my phone, as one does now to find out what’s going on in the outside world, right? Sure enough everyone was posting pictures on Twitter and Facebook, of Sydney in a smog of smoke so dense that Bureau of Meteorology weather radar was showing it as rain on the satellite images. CRAZY! It occurred to me that I had the windows and balcony door open for air and the smoke though not bad might affect our cat so I got fully up (having previously just been stumbling around my room) and went to observe the scene a little better from the balcony and then to close the door. By this time, I was awake so I put on the Sky News and watched that. The end result was that when I tried to get back to sleep a little later it just wouldn’t happen. I had missed my window (an extended siesta) and now I was tired… already.
The other significance of the bushfires, other than the smoke travelling for absolute miles (at least 70km to get to us) was that if the weather didn’t do as it said it was going to, and bring a southerly and cool change, then we’d be facing the prospect of part of our walk being cut off, at least from a safety perspective even if there was no actual blaze.
At the start line
In the car on the way over I tried to get myself psyched up, get excited but I just felt… tired. And when I’m tired I’m grumpy about being tired and worrying about when I’m going to next get sleep. I had a sharp word with myself. Get over it – you’ve had plenty of sleep in recent days and you’re doing a once a lifetime thing. So you’re tired? So are the malnourished kids and their mothers in Uganda.
After a few speeches, hugs and photos… a last minute dash to the toilet (having consumed litres upon litres of water in the last 24 hours in preparation, I’d spent much of my time on the toilet in the last day!!)… we were finally off, waving goodbye to our friends and family as we greeted the 18th October and the first metres of our 100km walk.
The first 23.5
This was the longest stretch and a part I was least looking forward to as a lot of it was road/pavement – walking through Sydney airport and quite urban. However, it kind of flew by – it was a five hour stretch and we were early to the pit stop. The only downside was that when we’d set off it had still been quite warm, yet by the time I stopped walking I realised I was cold. And I’d got to the pit stop before Mr OC had made it there with spare clothes and we’d all got there before the egg and bacon sarnies were cooked by our wonderful pit crew. I just hovered around the bbq and waited for my spare clothes to arrive when I promptly put on some track pants over my tights and vest over my coat and jumper! The southerly that had come in was creating a bit of a chill.
How was everyone faring?
Some, sadly, were already complaining of blisters and sore feet from shoes that for whatever reason were just not agreeing with their feet. Never had I been so glad of my excellent find for my feet – my Salomon trail shoes and also my On Cloud runners which I used for this first part as it was all pavement. It seemed such a shame that some were already experiencing problems. Even my walking buddy who ALWAYS suffers from blisters was so far going well, although she did try the toe separating silicon tubes but they got abandoned in a later section. However, another of the girls on the walk was finding the silicon toe tube things to be her saving grace. For me, it was the addition of another pair of socks over my toe socks that created the magic. The toe socks themselves were fantastic – allowing my toes space and no rubbing. But the extra pair of normal socks on the top just gave me excellent cushioning as everything started to hurt!
Making our way to the ferry
The next section required us making it to a ferry that only ran every hour, and having over run on time at the pit stop a little we were just heading for a later one than planned. The extra time although it set us back a little on schedule actually meant that we had some lovely time on the peaceful ferry dock at Cronulla to stretch out, rest our feet and then on the ferry it was the same – in fact I think I may have even dozed off for a minute! It was, by this time, heading towards 9am and we’d soon be heading into the Royal National Park. So by the time we docked in Bundeena, a sleepy little town in the middle of the National Park, I was feeling in great spirits.
Getting into the swing of things
It was interesting that by this second stop our pit crew were definitely getting into the swing of things. Our personal helpers – Mr OC and a friend from work – were grabbing our camelbaks, filling them up and making us food as we arrived. Also, Mr OC was getting asked to help out with bandaging those whose feet (at roughly 35km) were already really sore. And I can vouch for him. He’s bandaged me up before and even if he wasn’t a first aider (which he is) he’s a dab hand with a plaster (band-aid), some dressings and a role of strapping! Bless.
At each stop you’d see foam rollers being lain on, everyone was making the most of recuperating and getting big hugs and smiles as loved ones were greeted. I think everyone, even those in pain would leave feeling replenished. Pit stops work!! Well, at this stage anyway!
Time to go wild
As I said, I was looking forward to being in the park. Having done this walk already I a) knew what to expect and how to prepare myself and b) I loved the scenery and the energy of the ocean. The sun had been up for a few hours and life was good! However, it was in this stretch we began to really split up as a group. We were 15 in number when we started and as a small group we were not going to divide into teams. We had a rule that no one should be on their own in the National Park if they do not know the route, and that we should try to stick together. The faster of us kept stopping at first but then it became clear that there was a group who seemed to enjoy a slightly slower pace and were happy to walk with those who were having trouble and that there was a group who had a need/desire to stride on together. I think too, in my opinion, if there is a group pushing ahead it keeps the momentum. The main thing is that no one is left behind.
So we were in two groups. The scenery did not disappoint, and my friend who had yet to have seen the park was enjoying it, which was great to see. We had fun taking some photos and moaned about steps downward (these seemed to cause a lot of pain for the vast majority – they weren’t comfortable for me but they weren’t terrible either. I was just lucky I guess?). We pulled up at the halfway mark in the heat of the midday sun and then things started to change a little.
Pit stop replenishment
It would be safe to say as the first person to walk into this pit stop that I was feeling good. I had three things I wanted to get done in this break – sunscreen total coverage (felt like I was beginning to burn), eat big (was super hungry and I could feel I was going to need to build up my sustenance for the second half), and cool down. There is nothing better than having someone (who you don’t mind touching you) make sure every inch of every limb, and all exposed areas of your skin are covered in sun lotion. I am not very flexible and left to do it myself I’ll always miss a patch and get burnt! Mr OC does this job excellently too! Bless him – so useful. Plus he scored more brownie points for making me the most excellent chicken wrap, which I scoffed down! Next up, having got changed into my shorts, I went and put my feet in the beautifully cold trickling waterfall that goes down to the secluded beach at Wattamolla. I can highly recommend this to anyone doing this kind of event as it just reduces swelling which causes discomfort of course, but it also just stops your feet feeling like they’re burning too.
Some fond farewells
Unfortunately, it was also at this halfway point that we lost a few of team – almost all of them to blisters/sore feet they couldn’t go on on. I think we lost three or four people. Most people, even with a few aches were still feeling good, and after another good stop (again longer than planned) we were ready to battle on for the second of three parts of the national park. However, if I could say there was a pit stop at which I remember being the last fully ‘happy’ one – it would be this one. Looking back, it was clear that like so many people who’ve done 100km walk before had warned us, that you feel pretty good up to 50km as most people have practised walking to around this distance in training. And that’s certainly true. After that, time starts ticking on… and things start to get, well, interesting…
The thing I remember most about this section is that it isn’t one I love and there are two reasons for that – the first is that there are large sections that require walking over grating – you might know what I mean by this, but if you don’t then it’s the kind of thing they put down at a raised level so that you are not walking through dense bush, or in boggy sections. It is like walking on a giant cooling rack. For some reason, and having asked around, no one else suffered from this so it was a bit weird, every time I’ve walked on it in these longer walks it sends small shocks up my shins, what I imagine shin splints must feel a little like. It is ok if there are small sections but in the places where we’d be walking on the grating for more than, say, ten minutes then I would notice it start up. And then the other bad thing about this section is there is a massive amount of steps down to get down to Garie Beach – tired legs and those who find downhill and down stairs painful suffer on this section, so a fair bit of moaning starts up. It can be hard not succumb to the negativity yourself.
Finally, when you walk almost the length of the big, barren beach you turn into the next stop and relief takes over. But then you also realise it’s getting cold and time has once again skipped on – it was at this point that I felt like we were racing the clock. Not like we had to be anywhere by a certain time, but the plan had been to be out of the park by dark (for safety reasons) but now we would be racing the darkness. But also, the longer we were walking, the longer it is since we last slept.
However, as much as I was keen to hurry on, I was also so keen to cling to the things I could do at those pit stops – on this particular one out of nowhere, our lovely friend in our pit crew gave us toothbrushes and flannels and soap! WOW – what a legend she is! Such luxuries… I kid you not, we hurried off to the beach toilets and whilst there was no time shower, it was so nice to have a clean face and mouth and spray some deodorant. At this stop, I noticed too that I sat down a lot more – in fact I barely got up out of my folding chair for the duration, thanks to our excellent two pit crew. I also put my leggings back on at this point because it was getting decidedly nippy! I think we may have lost another walker at this stop, but I’m not sure as I’m a little fuzzy.
Getting a little crazy
The next stretch was fairly long but I was able to put out of my head that which I felt was sneaking up behind me, which was ‘I’m over this and it’s getting too much’. This was the last section of the park and has a couple of big climbs in it. With the climbs behind us, it was just a case of slogging out the remaining distance and… well, turning to silliness to get us through! And so it was that we seemed to all start getting a bit giggly – once something started us off we’d be giggling for five or ten minutes. One such point stands out when myself and two other of my chums decided we needed to pee.
Now, I’ve never been one for giving a monkeys about peeing out in the open and if you walk a walk like this you can’t be too bothered. You’re keeping very well hydrated, and although the peeing slows down (due to liquid replacement kicking in) it still occurs at random, frequent moments and so you just look out for a semi-private place to drop your undies and hope you don’t get caught in a cross-wind. So, we’re walking down a wide, rugged trail and on either side is dense thick bush and tall trees. We’re completely under cover but there is no just running into the brush and undergrowth as it’s untouched and no doubt there are heaps of snakes, spiders and jumping jacks or bull ants. Trust me. The thought of you getting your privates out in front of your walking buddies is far superior to the idea of getting bitten by a red back.
So the three of us just laugh and say ‘no peeking’, and squat on the side of the trail as everyone else heads off around the bend (having been told not to look back under any circumstances) as we are all there squatting we look up and laugh at us in a little triangle (two on one side of the trail and one on the other) all having a giant wee! And, although absolutely hilarious and a once in a lifetime moment of silliness, it was somehow bonding! You may laugh… but maybe you should not until you’ve walked in our shoes! Laugh with us though – we were in absolute stitches strolling on for the next kilometre… so it definitely cheered us along our way for a while longer.
Darkness sets in
As we arrived at our next pit stop a few hours behind schedule now, all the walkers were pretty quiet – the delirium had slipped from sugar high to an ebb of very low energy. The pit crew in their awesomeness applauded us as we’ll exited the National Park at Otford Lookout and stopped to rest our weary bones. It was pretty much on darkness and the moon had been up for a little while. I was exhausted and unable to form sentences. I slumped in my seat and my honey made me an awesome cup of hot, hot, hot tea. It was fantastic. I rugged up in my vest and gloves, donned my ear warmer band and tried to psyche myself up for what was ahead – a night of darkness, and a lot of road. There was some banana bread handed around and we all filled up our packs with some sugar snacks for the last 30km. We had just one more pit stop to go and we were about to head back onto the road that would get us there.
The longest walk of my life
When we started out on this section we had to form a single file, bunched together group of walkers because we were walking along a main road that wound down hill, on a narrow road and with no foot path. We were being guarded by a truck at the front and a Ute at the back of our line of walkers, until we got back to a section with pathway. I remember we were all cold too and we set out at a really fast pace. All of a sudden having slogged it out we were at the pathway and someone said we’d hammered out 5km! Wow. I couldn’t quite believe it. So we were all in high spirits and after most had had another pee (!) we were off again. Not far to go til the next pit stop.
So we thought.
If I could describe this section in one word it would only JUST be an exaggeration to say ‘torture’. Did you know that a form of torture used (and apparently one of the best) is forcing people to stay awake? Well, it is. And it works. By this point we knew we had all been walking for what would likely be around 24 hours by the time we reached the next pit stop, and besides a nanna nap before the walk or not, this meant we’d all been awake for a good day and a half. Thus, your coping mechanisms you usually rely on are beginning to slip – tolerance is going out the window and your body is beginning to manage your physical needs over and above your mind’s trickery.
When I’m at boot camp and my arms or legs start to burn and I think I’m going to drop my mind says ‘no you’re not, you’re fine, you’ve done this before and you can do it again’ or ‘no you’re not dropping, you don’t need to drop, you can do this’. And it’s great. Isn’t the mind wonderful?! If there is one major thing this 100km walk taught me it is that your mind really can go to places it’s not been before or it can seem to disappear on you altogether so you’re just a kind of meandering, bundle of bones with some kind of vague purpose you know you set out for.
And this wasn’t the weirdest it got.
So, at this point, the problem really was that we just weren’t striking through the distance like we had been. It was taking us so much longer to reach our destination and we just couldn’t seem to get our head around it. We were walking around a giant, beautiful bridge that has been built into the cliffs and holds the road as it winds around the coastline. And it was stunning even in the dark – looking out to the water with the moonlight glimmering softly and serenely, trying to grant us some peace, while the grandeur of the majestic cliffs gave a beautiful and ominous backdrop to the scene.
But the road just seemed to keep going, and going, and going. It wasn’t a boring route – pretty townships, glimpses of the ocean… and then we’d come to a beach and because were heading for Thirroul Beach we would be thinking ‘Oh are we finally here?’ and this happened twice, three, four maybe even five times… it just felt like it was never coming. This stretch was 18km, which was quite a long stretch and at that stage of the walk with how tired we were it was a mental game just tell yourself to keep putting one foot in front of the other. No one in the group I had fallen in with was talking by the last few kms. Even when the police pulled up beside us and asked us what we were doing I just felt like ‘meh, go away, I need to just get to the next pit stop’ – normally the police pulling up would make me feel alert and slightly on edge.
Can’t go on
As I walked into the pit stop at Thirroul Beach I was looking at the pit crew and thinking to myself – I hope my body language and face convey how we’re feeling because I don’t have the words and I certainly don’t have the energy to pretend I’m feeling good right now. For the last hour of walking one of the main things that had been going round my head was how on earth was I going to get through the final 12km when I felt like I’d given everything I had to get through this one. As I sat down, my team pit crew handed me a hot soup, covered me in blankets, gave me a hand warmer and brought me more levels of comfort than I thought was possible and I tried to just focus on the moment and the feeling better, and not the task ahead.
As more people started to arrive at the pit stop I was beginning to liven up. Mr OC rubbed a bit of cramp out of my foot. Somehow the soup he’d given me had worked – it felt like I was superhero (ha!) in a video game who was running low on energy and had found a magic booster that had filled me up – I felt like I could physically feel the soup topping up my energy levels.
But while I was beginning to perk up there were other people who were not. A couple more dropped out simply from just being mentally done with it. I felt really bad for them – and tried to speak words of encouragement, but my words felt useless. I knew that the bad side of the mental game had won out as it had so nearly done with me and that if they said they were done, it wasn’t a lightly made decision so that was that.
The silent assassin
As we headed out on our last 12km I felt slightly heavyhearted that we’d lost two more of our team. But I knew I had to push on and push on as quickly as I could manage. However, the other part of me wanted to be part of the few of us who were left – we were now down to eight of us, and we’d all been through this together. We all said we were going to try and walk together and one of the girls who organised the walk, her dad was walking the last stretch with us. It was really touching and meant a lot for him to do that.
For the first 5kms I walked with everyone and then I started struggling when our first aider/safety guy pulled up and said we had 7km to go. It was meant to be a positive tip but it wasn’t. It was too far. I tried to keep stopping and holding back, but my brain was saying to me ‘you can’t do this’ and the only way it stopped saying that was when I was just pounding the ground as fast as my feet could manage. It’s a bit like when I’m running and my mind says I can’t do it, the best way for me keep going is by having people running in front of me – if there are always people to pass I will keep trying to pass them. If I stop, if I look back I don’t have the same incentive. I need to just know I’m ticking off the people, and this case I needed to know I was just scrubbing out the miles, as quickly as I could.
One of the other guys broke out and started striding off. I watched him go and after a few minutes I made the decision to go too –we were all spanning out again. If I didn’t just get it done, I didn’t honestly think I would make it. I felt broken and overwhelmed with it all. I couldn’t have a moral battle with myself on top of everything else.
So I walked, and walked and walked and walked. At the 7km to go mark we had hit a road that was a straight run all the way to the finish line: one road, fairly straight and getting more and more urbanised. It was a wide road with tree set back from the carriageway and nothing much else to look at – just road, and more road… and even more road. It was relentless, it was dark and it was quiet – it was about 2 or 3 in the morning.
I remember walking along and realising I was completely alone and that all I wanted was to be at the finish line with my baby… that all I wanted was a cuddle. I didn’t feel anything ABOUT anything if that makes sense. I just felt despair.
When I tried to explain this feeling to my colleague at work, he compared the mental drain to a silent assassin – that it sneaks up on you out of nowhere and grabs you and there is nothing you can do about it, you cannot even try to plan for it. This is such a great description and what is more, that sleep deprivation we were talking about earlier? That form of torture? Well that is at its strongest. I was walking along feeling nauseous and trying to keep my head up because if I looked down I would start falling asleep. No word of a lie, even with my head up sometimes I just lost focus and my head started to roll. So then I would jog for a minute. Then stop and walk again, afraid I would knacker myself out before I got there.
All this, and then out of nowhere I felt buckets of emotion welling up in me. Somehow I was walking along down this main road, in the early hours of this Saturday morning crying my eyes out. And I didn’t care. I felt drunk. And then I’d shake it off. And then I’d go round in a circle with it again.
One thing I had been doing on and off, every few hours, was just switching the data onto my phone and looking at Facebook, or checking my text messages. I had deliberately saved my battery for if I needed music or in an emergency, but in the end I needed neither of these and it was the words of encouragement of friends and family both on the same land as me, and in far off places, who were able to provide me what I needed through that oh-so-important little electronic device. And I was so grateful to each and every person who said something, or posted something for me, or sent me a message. It kept me going in ways they might never understand.
It got so strange, I even started seeing things a bit – just people I thought were in front of me way off that weren’t but my long sightedness is not great anyway, and when I’m tired it’s hard to focus. Eventually however, I realised I could see someone and a path coming off the footpath to the left about 200 metres away. Did I dare to think it might be there – the finish line? I did, but I tried to shove the thought out my head, I didn’t think I’d have the capacity to deal with it if it turned out not to be, or if I turned the corner and had another kilometre to walk.
What it was like to finish
But as I neared this guy, one of our lovely pit crew, he put his arms out and we turned off the road and into a park. He walked me through some trees, all the way supporting me, side by side. I couldn’t really see now because ahead at the finish line, where they’d set up a big camp there was a blinding light and my eyes weren’t managing to make anything out.
And then all of a sudden Mr OC was there! But it felt all wrong. The guy who’d gone ahead of me, I suddenly realised, was on a bench, waiting for his other half and the rest of the group to cross the finish line. So I sat down on the bench and also started waiting… and waiting. I didn’t want to cross the finish line alone but I was freezing and all I wanted to do was KNOW that I’d finished so I could just switch off. So I could just hug Mr OC and let it all wash over me.
My cousin arrived then, and one or two others. My cousin too was cold, and in need of blankets and just to finish, so we decided to go over the finish line the two of us together and then come back those last few steps and walk over with the guys when they all arrived – news had been brought that they were battling on but still about ten minutes away. At that point, ten minutes was a very long time. So she and I walked over the finish line together. I don’t remember feeling happy or elated. I remember just needing comfort so badly. I grabbed my man and felt warmth at the same time as volcano of emotion erupted from the pit of my stomach into my throat and just left me sobbing my heart out. It was the strangest kind of emotion I’ve ever experienced. I don’t know what I’d have done if I didn’t have a loved one there.
And then the coldness kicked in. We sat down, and, I think in all four blankets were wrapped around me by kind and lovely people before I stopped shivering. I had a tea and a snag (sausage sandwich) and that warmed me up a bit. But all the while I just kept weeping. I looked over at my cousin. She was the same.
After we’d all crossed the finish line a few people had a beer. This had been my original plan. But now I was done. I wanted to get to bed before the sun showed its head again. The thought of greeting the sun for a third time with no sleep in between was a bad one. It was too much.
Letting it all soak in
Normally when you accomplish something amazing or life-changing you feel the elation immediately. Well, at least that’s the case in my previous experiences. This time it took a while, it crept up on my and then burst into life unstoppably. When we got back to the hotel and went to bed that night, I felt that nice sense of contentment – I was going to rest, I had my baby by my side. I’d done it. I had phoned my mum back in England as we drove to the hotel room and her voice was full of emotion. I just felt drunk… talking to her incoherently, but her emotion still got through my exhaustion and struck a note that rings out even now. Her pride, across the oceans and many miles, started to bring it home.
In the morning (well, later in the morning) when I woke up, I wasn’t too sore, I was a little jaded and I knew later I was going to be exhausted again. But I felt great. The sun was shining – the world was fabulous and I had DONE it.
But it was still a modest sense of ‘I’d done it’ – I’d always meant to do it, and not just, that but seven other people had done it. 20 or so other people had helped us get there – without the pit crew and walkers who didn’t get the walk done supporting us we’d have never made it. Not in a million years. It would have been impossible. Or so I believe.
But as we all said see ya to everyone later that day, after lazy brunches, some of us getting amazing massages (best plan ever) and tearful goodbyes, we limped our way out of there and drove home where I couldn’t wait to see my cat! And then from, the safety of the couch with a nice celebratory glass of fizz and a chinese, the outpouring of emotion began… in all places, on Facebook. Everyone was saying how amazing they felt, how awesome the pit crew were, how incredible it was to go through such a gut-wrenching journey with 14 other companions and how fantastic the support had been from everywhere. And that was when it all started to sink in.
Mr OC told me he was proud of me when we got back to our apartment. And that meant so, so much. He doesn’t say things like that often but that makes them mean so much when he does. I felt it in his support throughout and in his comfort at the finish line, but I won’t lie, I needed to hear it. And I allowed myself briefly to think I deserved it.
Making a difference
Over the coming days I told people bits of the story and everyone congratulated me. Some were in wonder at how we’d finished. But I don’t think it’s THAT amazing. It’s amazing and it was lifetime achievement. But, in the back of my mind there is the knowledge that other people do harder things all the time, some of them every day. I’m not a hero. But two people who are, are my cousin and her best friend who will be taking that money to Uganda at the end of this week, and once there, giving it to the people in need. These are the people who struggle not just two days in their lives, to reach a 100km finish line of a walk they chose to do. These people struggle to just stay alive and keep their children alive… Every. Single. Day. They walk to get water, not because they choose to, but because they HAVE to or they will die.
All in all, nearly $55,000 has been raised by the Sth Syd 2 Sth Coast Walk for Hunger 2013, proudly supported by The Hunger Project Australia. To everyone, every single person who has supported us in some way – thank you, from the bottom of my heart.