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A Guide To The Caledonian Challenge

The Caledonian Challenge is owned by Foundation Scotland, a charity that ‘awards grants which make a difference to the lives of local people’. Since its inception in 1996, the Caledonian Challenge has raised £12 million from its willing victims.

With a maximum finish time of 24 hours, participants are required to hike 54 miles south from Gairlochy to Strathfillan, taking in sights of Ben Nevis and experiencing the ever-upward Devils Staircase along the way. Teams come in varying sizes between four and six (though I did see individual runners and also groups of two) and are backed up by their incredibly important support crew.

Know what you’re letting yourself in for before you sign up

This is not ‘just walking’ as I’ve heard people say. This is no Sunday morning stroll in the park. This is a 54 mile hike with a lot of elevation change, carrying a rucksack, over potentially an entire day. Let me give you a little bit of perspective. Go and drive 54 miles in your car and after your 1hr20m journey, think about walking home. Sounds easy, right? I thought not.

Without training, the average person would struggle to walk even eight or ten miles which equates to just 14% of the target distance. If you’re able to walk that far, now imagine walking another seven times that distance. Then think about walking seven times the distance up and down mountains. Add to that an incredibly un-even, ankle twisting, stone and rock path. Plus a stint in the dark. How does that sound?

The average walking pace is 3-3.1mph and so, just to complete the challenge in the allocated time, you will have to walk at 2.3mph. And that does not include any stops.

My first piece of advice is to not underestimate it – whoever you are. I heard of people in the top ten after 30 miles (with over 1000 entrants) pull out with the most horrific blisters or other injuries. It can happen to anyone and almost everyone comes home with a collection of blisters.

Preparation

As you will learn, the feet are your number one priority over absolutely everything else. Training is critical to this challenge and I suggest you walk as much as you possibly can. Before leaving for the Challenge, I suggest doing at least five 25+ mile walks and hopefully a few thirty mile walks too. A long walk on the day following your last one is also a good idea. Stair climbing and squats with a heavy rucksack will help too. I’ve found this website to be a brilliant resource for mapped hikes – including GPS files.

With your feet being the priority, you need to be certain you have well fitting boots. If your feet rub after a few miles, you will either not complete the Challenge or you will be in so much pain by the end that you’ll wish you hadn’t bothered. I recommend boots with a wider toe-box, which will allow your toes to splay when you walk and also prevent them being tightly packed together which makes them sweatier and creates more friction; both of which are heavenly conditions for potential blisters. I have worn Vivobarefoot shoes for the past three years and now swear by them – I wear nothing else.

Unfortunately, it’s tough to find a perfect boot from a simple shop fitting, but here are a few pointers that you should take into account. Always have space at the end of your boot. Up to but-no-more-than an inch. If your toes are anywhere near the end of your boot, imagine what they’ll be like when you’re going downhill with pressure applied. Does the boot leave enough room for a pair of thin (wicking) and thick (hiking) socks? Is your little or big toe close to the side of the boot? It shouldn’t be. Your heel should be tight at the back of the boot, well fitted. If it’s too loose, your heel will slip, create friction and you’ll end up with blisters. What is the inside of the boot like? Are there rough seams or hard edges? Check everything.

Always spend more money on boots. Cheap boots are ok for the odd walk in the park, but you want your feet to be looked after. The lighter the boot, the better. Every gram on your foot will be compounded with every mile you walk. They also need to be waterproof – Scotland can have all four seasons within a very short space of time. If you get wet feet, you’ll be miserable and more prone to blisters. You’ll be looking at £100+ for a good pair.

Walk around barefoot. Don’t wear socks at home and when you can, don’t wear socks inside your shoes either. Without a sock, your feet will become harder which is exactly what you want. Harder, more rugged feet won’t blister like a soft foot will.

Finally, you should always train with a rucksack on. Make it around 4-5kg. You will travel light, but training without is a mistake. Get used to your rucksack, get used to quickly gaining access to the pockets and make it comfortable.

To scale, the route profile would be like this

To scale, the route profile would be like this

Don’t be scared by the route profile

The organisers have compiled a lot of useful documents for the event, but the route profile is slightly misleading. It serves a purpose by showing participants which climbs are the biggest, but it also makes people concerned. Do be aware that the profile isn’t to scale.

The climb to the Devils Staircase out of Checkpoint 3 is not that steep (kind of obvious). As an example, I’ve put together an ‘actual’ to-scale profile of the climb up to the top of the Devils Staircase. Of course, mine makes it look easy and it’s not – but at least it’s accurate!

Shortly after the main part of the Devils Staircase.

Shortly after the main part of the Devils Staircase.

Devils Staircase - To Scale

Devils Staircase – To Scale

2013 Kit Pile

2013 Kit Pile

What To Buy – Kit List

Every item below is linked to a product page.

To Wear

Kit

First-Aid

Food

All this kit adds up to a significant amount (nearly £700 in-fact) but presumably, if you’re signing up for a challenge such as this, you’ve already got most of it. Some things you can borrow, but be prepared to spend some money.

The Days Before

Don’t train. Let your feet rest. Having something go wrong this close to the Challenge and ending up with an injury would be a disaster. Fill up on pasta the night before. Eat as much as you can – the likelihood is that you won’t need the loo for the entire walk (aside from 500 pee stops!), which is a good thing! I took a huge tub of pasta, chicken and bacon. Get your kit packed up early and relax!

Carry what you need, but nothing more

Travel light. Your support team play an essential part in giving you what you need and bringing with them the things you’ll stock up on or replace for the next leg. Take enough energy sachets and bars to see you through and keep your rucksack weight to a minimum.

The Sock System

This is a system I’ve developed through being over-the-top and OCD about my feet through the sheer worry of blisters. Firstly, dry one foot and toes with your microfibre towel. Then, turn the wicking sock inside out and make sure there are no bits of debris in them; then put it on. Do the same for your hiking sock. Shake your boot out and then put it on. In-between all of this, make sure you don’t put your foot on the floor! Repeat for the other foot. I appreciate this sounds ridiculous, but it helped me to feel more comfortable about staying blister free.

Keep an eye on the weather

If there’s even the slightest chance of rain, make sure you take a coat and waterproof over-trousers. There is of course possibility of good weather, but if you end up with wet boots, you’re in trouble. If you’re certain of good weather and have a light-weight pair of trail shoes, I suggest wearing them – so long as they’re broken in and as well fitting as your boots. It’s refreshing to wear a different pair of shoes and of course a bonus to have something so light on your feet.

Feel a hotspot? Fix it

The moment you get a hotspot on your foot, stop immediately and put some Compeed on before it’s too late. As a side note, never put Compeed over an already formed blister – it’ll move and take the skin off. A couple of minutes lost applying Compeed to a hotspot is far better than an hour or more at the end because you pushed through it and ended up with raw skin.

Don’t worry too much about pace

If you’re not out to win the event, don’t worry about your pace. Nobody can possibly walk slow enough to finish in over 24 hours. The thing that stops people will be injuries or blisters and if you’re free of those and have the mental strength to get through a hard day of walking, you’ll make it. Trust me! However, always keep an eye on the time because this will control your speed. If you know you need to be at Checkpoint Three by 12am but are late, you’ll automatically walk quicker until you’re back on schedule. I would recommend targeting a time quicker than 24 hours so that if you encounter problems along the way, you’ll have time to play with.

Don’t forget to take photographs

Do this preferably when you’ve stopped for a rest, or even better, while you’re walking. You’ll forget bits of it, so having the ability to look back over photos will be a God-send.

Try and take some that you can locate. Self portraits are great, but unless you’re using them as a new Facebook Profile Photo, they’re of little use. Get something in the background that you can relate to. “This is me at Glen Coe,” for example. [/one_half]

Don't take portraits like this - you won't know where they're from! (Devils Staircase ;))

Don’t take portraits like this – you won’t know where they’re from!

Drink, drink, drink

Using a Platypus, it’s sometimes hard to gauge how much of the 2.5 litres you’ve consumed so you will need to work out during training roughly how long it lasts. Keeping hydrated for the entire duration is crucial. It’ll help your feet and hands not swell up and it’ll keep everything working as it should. Make sure what you’re expelling is the same colour as water! Put some energy drink into your platypus with the water, a few dispenses of orange flavoured isotonic not only makes what you’re drinking a little more interesting but it energises you too.

Prepare to feel a bit sick

I found that my whole team felt sick during the last 12 miles and we all put it down to a huge intake of sugar from energy sachets and hard-to-eat bars. You’ll burn upwards of 6000 calories during this event, but you’re replacing that mostly with sugar.

Be tough. Mentally tough.

If you’re relatively blister free and physically fit, the last stages will simply be a huge mental battle. One of those times where you think the next drink stop is just around the corner, but it never comes. One of those times where you think you’ve done three miles and you’ve actually done just half that. Think positively because negative thoughts get you down more than you can imagine.

In the latter stages, have a caffeine boost

Take Pro-Plus in the final stint otherwise you’ll have a chance of being so tired you can hardly carry on. If you’re not aiming to finish quickly, you’ll have been awake for more than a full 24 hours and sleep deprivation will hit all of a sudden. Yes, it is possible to briefly fall asleep while walking – I’ve felt it and it’s not nice.

Adrenaline is your best friend

Your body will ache, your feet will be tired (or hurting badly!), you’ll be exhausted and wanting to finish but you should get a bit of an adrenaline kick for the last mile or so. Use it to your advantage and enjoy the end of what has been a Challenge of epic proportions. Within 10 minutes they’ll be shouting your team name as you cross the finish line – brilliant.

Now all that’s out of the way….good luck!

I’ve also written an experience piece on the Caledonian Challenge, having participated in the 2013 event.


2 comments on “A Guide To The Caledonian Challenge
  1. Peter Wilson on said:

    Or do what my mate did – walk it in trainers with a £6 cagoole !! Lol and as I have done it twice – yes I think my mate is an idiot but that’s what he did!

    • Haha Peter! I wouldn’t recommend the trainer option if its pouring with rain the whole time but it’s great that it worked for him.

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