“THE PHOENIX MUST BURN TO EMERGE”
“Bad news: after 37 miles I’ve had to reluctantly call it a day. To say that I’m gutted is an understatement but to carry on would be a fools’ errand… I’m gutted beyond belief and I apologise for failing”
– Facebook Post, 21st December 2014.
My overall speed had taken a tumble; each step was accompanied by pain radiating from my lower spine and extending down both legs. My muscles felt like dead weight as I fought to keep them moving. I had to dig deep. Daylight was a distant memory with the beam from my head torch barely illuminating the road ahead. I had long said goodbye to decent pavements, streetlights and low speed limits. Vehicles came hurtling past and were worryingly close to where I was walking - it was absolutely terrifying. With each step the pain in my lower body was intensifying, my cheeks sodden with tears and I was questioning whether I could physically continue. The only motivation was getting off this road, finding a flat piece of land to pitch my tent and to bed down for the night. As I continued around another corner my prayers had seemingly been answered: standing proud through a clearing in the trees was what looked like a farmhouse illuminating the otherwise pitch-black landscape. Next to it was a small bonfire with the familiar crackle of burning logs. It felt idyllic. I released my waist and chest buckles allowing my backpack to fall heavily onto the ground; the relief was almost instantaneous. 27 miles in and I felt broken.
It was a last minute decision to take on this challenge, to forgo public transport and to walk home for Christmas in support of: Walking With The Wounded. A charity set up in 2010 to support vulnerable service personnel and to help re-integrate them back into society. I was spending the festive period with my family in the West Midlands, 95-miles away, and thought that this would be a good distance to complete. The distance wasn’t the only challenge; it was the short daylight hours, cold unpredictable weather and carrying camping gear, food and water for a journey spanning multiple days. This was the first ever long-distance style trek that I had attempted and, in retrospect, underestimated how hard it would be.
The next day revealed the state of play: my backpack unmoved from where it had been dropped, its contents scattered on the ground surrounding it. My tent - not even remotely built - was acting more like a bivvy with a sleeping bag nestled inside; it was a mess. I was in so much pain the night before that I slept in my walking gear, boots flung to one side and without a sleeping mat. I woke to an early morning frost, my face was freezing and my eyelids felt clamped shut. My teeth chattering but the pain from the night before had seemingly disappeared whilst the muscle stiffness remained and had now extended upwards and around my shoulder blades. The sun hadn’t yet fully risen but I thought it was best to get moving and not overstay my welcome. The farmhouse owners had been hosting a private event and after witnessing my poor physical condition the night before had allowed me to take refuge in the grounds. I slowly and awkwardly re-packed my backpack and was about to get on my way.
Standing over the lump that was my backpack I took a deep breath. All of its contents were necessary, well broken in and familiar. However, they weren’t particularly compact, lightweight and – in retrospect – appropriate for this type of challenge. I crouched low into a squat-like position, hooped the straps over my shoulders and slowly rose onto my feet. It felt uncomfortable, I was still aching but the pain I had experienced the night before wasn’t there. And, with that, I continued on my way hoping that as my muscles warmed up the aching would ease.
Progress was perilously slow with the first three miles taking two hours to complete. Instead of my aches slowly dissipating as my muscles warmed, they were getting worse. I found myself hunching my back more and more with each passing hour. By the time I crossed the five-mile mark the pain had returned but even more vicious and deep than the night before. The only respite was to remove my backpack and to lie flat on the ground or propped up against a wall – for every 20 minutes walked I needed at least a 10-minute break. It carried on that way for a further four-or-so miles until I was in so much pain that I couldn’t take it anymore, unclipping my backpack and letting it tumble to the ground. Laying flat on a stony weed-lined verge I looked up at the sky with tears streaming down my face; there was no way I could continue, not like this and not for another 50-odd miles. It felt like the cloud cover was thickening above me, getting deeper in colour verging on black mimicking my current mental state. I have never felt so alone as it dawned on me that I may not be able to complete what I had set out to do.
The road - more country track then main thoroughfare - was only wide enough to take the width of one family-sized car. The verges were spilling onto the concrete complete with weeds, vines and stingers. It was eerily quiet; the only audible sound was of the wind blowing the foliage and a rotten wooden fence creaking as it swayed. As I hadn’t seen a vehicle for the last few hours hitching a ride didn’t seem like a viable option. With no data coverage or phone signal I consulted my less than ideal map – a print out from the Internet - and spotted what looked like a small village/town approximately one mile away with a train station. This was now my new aim, my goal, although I knew in the back of my mind that as soon as I got there my challenge would be at an end.
For a long time after the challenge had ended I referred to the experience as a ‘failure’. I hadn’t succeeded in doing what I had set out to do: to walk home for Christmas; and, as a result I felt as though I failed the charity I was aiming to help. This weighed heavily on my shoulders until I received the following messages:
“Still a lot further than I (or most other people) have ever done. Don’t be too downbeat. Your aim was to raise awareness for the charity. I’d never heard of Walking With The Wounded before you did this (and I am sure many other people are similar) so it’s still a success”.
“You didn’t fail. I hope whatever the issue is it can be rectified (sounds like you’re hurt?), but you’ve raised awareness and your commendable intentions have been admired by us all. Rest up […] You deserve it”.
It made me re-evaluate the experience. Yes, I hadn’t completed the journey but the fact that people were now aware that the charity existed was success in itself. It also highlighted that I was capable of identifying when it was time to call an end to proceedings to avoid long-term physical damage. My injuries were caused by inappropriate kit choices for this type of challenge, which included overly bulky items, incorrect footwear and generally carrying far too much weight – the pack weighed in at 21kg. I remember the backpack feeling slightly uncomfortable at the outset but I would never have imagined that it would end up causing a severely twisted pelvis and neck over the subsequent miles. It took a number of months of physical therapy to fully recover from the injuries that thankfully led to no permanent damage.
Although the train station was only approximately one-mile away the journey took a whopping two hours to complete. Luckily I only had to wait a few minutes before the next train arrived. As I stumbled onto the train dragging the lump that was my backpack, I fell into the closest seat, leant my head against the window, shut my eyes feeling the pain pulsating from deep within my lower spine; a wave of relief swept across my body. The only audible sound was of the loud, piercing beep of the doors closing followed by a quieter yet familiar message tone emitting from my mobile phone. The message read:
“It will still be there when you are ready to have another go. Disappointing, for sure, I know exactly how it feels – because we’ve all been there at some time or another. But, hey; c’mon tomorrow is a new day and there will be a new challenge and a good reason to make good what you did not, in your own view, make good today”.
And, with that the challenge had come to an end.
Words: Marcus Samperi