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Experiencing The Caledonian Challenge

I’ve written this particularly long article about my experience during the 2013 Caledonian Challenge. It should give you a good insight into what it’s like and hopefully a few laughs too. Hit the like button at the end of the post if you enjoyed it.

In mid-February, I was asked if I’d like to join a team taking on the Caledonian Challenge in June. Matt had already joined and I knew two of the other teammates as well. Initially, I said no. Partly because I couldn’t afford the entry fee and partly because I was concentrated on other things.

I quickly re-considered, believing the Challenge would be a worthwhile event in helping towards my training for my Mongolian expedition in 2014. I decided to join The Rutland Panthers knowing it would be a great accomplishment if we finished it. I asked numerous times what the seemingly high entry fee was for and also why there was a mandatory goal of £400 that had to be raised by each entrant. I had always thought that you gave whatever you could to charity whether it was 50p or £500. I was slightly put off.

We were quite a late entry I believe – though there were still another 300 or so who entered after us. I made it clear to the team early on that this wouldn’t be a walk in the park. A lot of people I’ve heard from seem to think it’s ‘just walking’ and don’t understand all the fuss. But having worked out rough pace targets before even signing up, I felt not all of the team had considered the scale of the task. Thankfully, everyone was still keen after I expressed my opinions and shortly after that, training started.

I had already done a lot of hiking before-hand and so had another member of our team – Rachel. Matt had joined me on quite a few longer walks too, and had also spent a few days in the Lake District with me. From what I could gather, the others had done very little.

Our first walk was a short 12-miler to break everyone in. Hugh turned up in Wellies, Indy wore an enormous coat and Becca had very new footwear. In contrast, Rachel came with hiking poles…and a dog. I seem to remember spending most of the 12 miles throwing sticks and trying to prevent her in-season dog from being impregnated. We got lost too with all of us apparently unable to read a map.

Things gradually got a little more serious from this point. Hugh transitioned from Wellington Boots to proper footwear, Indy ditched the coat and took up wearing lycra and myself and Matt continued to walk around in sunglasses in an attempt to look cool.

In between hiking together, I completed a 23 mile walk around Rutland Water at an average pace of 4.13mph, having left Matt after 10 miles when he did some serious damage to one of his ligaments. I felt a bit concerned about this because Matt has been injured in the past and with not too long to go until the Challenge, I wondered if he’d have time for more training.

We arranged a Quiz evening in a relatively newly refurbished Church within close proximity to India’s house. We (or should I say Indy and Rachel) cooked endless amounts of Chilli and Rice along with half-a-tonne of garlic bread. We hoped for around thirty people to attend, with a ticket price firmly set at £10. We were also holding a raffle, with a number of cool prizes up for grabs. In the end, 40 people arrived, the room was packed, our Michelin Star food went down a treat and we raised over £600 in a single evening. Bingo!

Matt pushing through the blister pain.

Matt pushing through the blister pain.

Myself and Indy during a brief stop.

Myself and Indy during a brief stop.

The best bit of the night was during the prize draw where Matt called out tickets to “Belvoir Castle“, pronouncing as it’s spelt rather than how it’s actually said – “Beaver”. Everyone laughed, but in sympathy – what a ridiculous spelling.

The following day, we took a trip to the Peak District aiming to walk for 20 miles. Everyone was nicely prepared and I bought everything including the kitchen sink. My rucksack was about 11kg rather than the four it should’ve been.

Great training, I thought. But with old, flexible straps, it turned out to be a silly idea after only seven miles or so. Still, my DSLR came in handy.

My calves strangely started hitting a wall at around 16 miles and when they didn’t fully recover on any flat ground, I wondered how I would complete this walk, let alone the Caledonian Challenge. Then, we went wrong. There was a 50/50 call at a Y-fork. GPS pointed faintly in one direction, the map in another. We went left.

The next 20 minutes were, for me at least, incredibly fun. A little bit of danger is always good in my mind. We hit a pretty much impassible mountain side which was very steep. I asked everyone to make their way across diagonally to reduce the gradient and to try and maintain three points of contact. Then, we hit a tree line. There were two ways to go. One was all the way back and the other was straight down. Post walk, I worked out that this slope was 49° and immensely slippery. I loved this bit especially and when I hit the final 15ft I used the wet leaves and mud as a slide and let go. The others followed and I think they too were impressed with what they just climbed down.

Luckily, I got a second wind after this and finished the walk wondering why I’d been complaining before-hand.

A few more weeks passed, I did a few more walks with the final one being an after-work 15 miles. Matt ended up with some ridiculously bad blisters, just a short while before the walk. Seriously not good.

I couldn’t help feeling that we hadn’t trained enough. Even myself. I doubted whether we would be able to do it. I wasn’t worried about Rachel – she’d done the Three Peaks Challenge not long before, as well as other things.

This is the kind of view to expect.

This is the kind of view to expect.

Even so, we left for Scotland on Friday 14th June and after a nine hour drive, we ended up at registration. I was excited now. I weighed up the opposition and became as competitive as I had been earlier on in the buildup to the Challenge. Some people looked serious, others not so much.

The first thing I noticed was that everyone was really friendly and the ‘helpers’ there were great. Super talkative, easy to get on with and thankfully for me, they could take a joke well.

One older lady, checking my tracking wristband commented on the device and before she could finish her speech about its purpose, I interrupted with “helps show others we aren’t dead”. She had a good laugh about that one and we all went to fill in the back of our race numbers.

Then we sat and waited for the safety briefing, looking through our goodie bags. Energy bars, energy gels, a gorgeous midge-hat and biscuits were all thrown in, along with a few random bits of paper-based paraphernalia. The briefing was as boring as you’d expect; I’ve never been one for these kinds of things. But it’s necessary and it didn’t last long. Darren told us not to hope we wouldn’t get blisters, but to simply hope they didn’t come too soon. “You will get blisters,” he exclaimed. Good news.

At the hostel, we were all in one room. Team and Support crew. Eight people, four bunk beds – cozy. Kit was everywhere, slightly in chaos. Each one of us went through our stuff and prepared for the next day.

Me and Matt carb loaded with Pasta while Rachel went down the boil-in-the-bag route. Amazingly, I had full 3G coverage here and I took five minutes out to FaceTime back home with my Girlfriend. I think I spent more time showing her the scenery and precariously balancing on the edge of a wall on my tip-toes than saying all the mandatory “I miss you” lines. Oops.

I didn’t get to sleep very well at all, tossing and turning for a couple of hours. Part of the problem was that we slept in dwarf beds and my feet were either jammed against the freezing metal bars with my head un-comfortably positioned the other end or they poked through the bars. I liked neither option. Not long after we hit the sack, Becca got up and was sick. And again. Then Hugh too. Becca had delayed travel sickness. Both were fine again by the morning thankfully.

We awoke at 5am to blue skies and warmth. Dave (half of the support crew) was informed of Becca’s middle of the night vomiting, having slept right through it despite having a door open and close loudly two inches from his head. Oh how I wished that had happened to me! I was raring to go. I just wanted to be on the start line now. All of this other stuff was just time-filling that I didn’t want.

I ate a tub of porridge which didn’t taste nearly as nice as normal and flushed it down with a cup of tea. Then we set off.

With everyone smiling and hopeful of a good outcome, we were released out of the pig-pen at exactly 7am. I had set a target finish time and a target pace but I quickly realised the latter didn’t matter too much. Initially, we went with the crowd. I felt as though I was walking down the street on a busy day in London. As we watched a group of runners disappear into the distance, I realised my joke about singing “We’re Gonna Win” all the way to the end would be a little ridiculous given that they were already a mile ahead of us.

The first 10 miles are completely flat, mostly spent along the edge of the river, on a hard, gravel path. Easy. We were in a good position at this stage.

Matt checked his feet after the first sub three hour leg and the signs were frankly appalling because his pre-Challenge little toe blister was bright red and nasty. Hugh also had a few rubs and checked over his self-applied plasters. A different support crew asked their team if they’d like a sausage or bacon sandwich so I shouted over, “yes, please!”. They delivered one. Legends.

Everyone was there to help everyone else, or at least, that’s how I felt. Like a huge group of mental people looking after all the other mental people.

We left Checkpoint One for the second leg, which was a longer 12 miles. Myself and Indy set off with the team but quickly were ahead. Matt was convinced we had increased our speed and I was convinced they had slowed down. Either way, we ended up a minute or so ahead and decided to slow down. It’s easy to drop into your own rhythm and pace and zone out. We didn’t do it deliberately and Indy had turned into a machine over the last couple of training walks.

With my competitive spirit still in full flame, I was keen to overtake groups of people who were just ahead. Walking a foot behind fellow hikers for an extended period of time is quite difficult. It’s tough to judge the ground in front of you and you end up falling into their pace, which is of course slower.

Indy out-front while I chat to Rachel.

Indy out-front while I chat to Rachel.

The problem with doing this was that the rest of the team were walking a tenth of a mph slower and so they never caught these teams. The result of this was myself and Indy ending up ahead again and having to wait.

Half way through the 12 mile stint, the weather was amazing. The sun was out, blazing down on us. I remember looking back and seeing Hugh with his belly out and his base-layer formed into what was, in effect, a boob-tube. I smiled.

Little things like that cheered me up along the way but one thing that didn’t was the constant need to stop for a pee. This would become more of a problem later on as we consumed more and more water (over 10 litres by the end). I took off into the edge of the forest, beside an enormous fallen tree and instantly knew I’d stepped into a peat bog. Luckily I didn’t sink more than half a foot and even luckier than that, my feet stayed dry. I saw a team who had stayed at our hostel as I emerged and I ran to catch up with my fellow Panthers.

We had a bit of a running joke between ourselves and the previously mentioned team after we overtook them only to be re-overtaken later, on about ten separate occasions.

Rachel gets the moss treatment.

Rachel gets the moss treatment.

How's the food? Look at mine and Matt's faces...

How’s the food? Look at mine and Matt’s faces…

Becca on the climb down from the Devils Staircase.

Becca on the climb down from the Devils Staircase.

The second leg seemed to drag on quite a bit. Presumably because, for everyone but myself and Rachel, nobody had done a walk over 21 miles. Hugh found solace in wet moss, working out that if he put his face in it, he became much cooler. I liked that improvisation.

I necked another two Ibuprofens and made Indy take hers too – we were knocking them back like sweets to warn-off any potential swelling. Hugh was drugged up to the eyeballs on a number of different concoctions!

The final stage of this leg saw myself and Indy once again get gradually further and further ahead. We phoned the support crew in advance to notify them of our impending arrival but realised soon after that we’d underestimated the remaining distance; and now we had no signal to phone again. Up-front, we overtook keen runners on the rocky descent towards Checkpoint 2, hopping down and conserving energy at the same time. With the next stop in sight, we looked around for the others, deciding we should wait and we ended up seeing Matt. We were surprised he wasn’t very far behind and he’d obviously made good progress on his horrendously blistered feet.

Boil-in-the-bag meals awaited Matt and I – both choosing Pasta Carbonara which we quickly realised was utterly disgusting. All we could taste was leek and the so-called bacon was more like dried dog food. Needless to say, we ate half before we couldn’t face another spoon full.

Matt disappeared off to see the medics about his feet and returned a long time later. I had prepared his bag and we were good to go again. Checkpoint 3 awaited us another eight miles down the road. Or rather, up and down and up and down the road!

The stint was four miles shorter than the previous but it was deliberately done this way because of the much larger elevation changes. This eight miles saw nearly half of it as constant up-hill, including the infamous Devils Staircase; followed by a steep downhill and a flat four miles to finish.

At this stage, I saw the first sign of tiredness in Rachel. Matt pushed on through his foot pain and Hugh and Becca brought up the rear with now badly developing blisters. Indy marched on at the front.

I took another energy sachet, knowing that the stairway to hell was just around the corner and set off to catch Indy. It seemed to happen really quickly, but the next time we looked around, the others were literally nowhere to be seen. We had done it again. We settled into our own rhythm, began overtaking people and powered up the steep mountain side unaware that our four teammates were flagging behind us. We tried to call them as soon as we obtained phone coverage, but they were further down and couldn’t be reached. We knew Hugh was in poor shape and crossed our fingers that something bad wasn’t happening. We decided to carry on to the top and wait there, where we could maintain a signal. We also didn’t want to stop part way up.

Thankfully, the others arrived 25 minutes later. We had pulled so far ahead over just two and a half miles. We agreed to stay with the others from now on.

Hugh decided to race off, aiming for the Medics and Ambulance at the foot of the hill. He was a couple of minutes ahead when I decided to go and catch up to him – I wasn’t sure if he’d want to be on his own or not, but I took off anyway. Running again, I made easy progress bounding from rock to rock and across the small streams that littered the pathway. Hugh was limping and I was worried.

We took a brief stop at the Ambulance where the Red Cross did a fine job of removing his assortment of homemade heel protection in favour of something a little more sturdy and long-lasting. Becca had them take a look at hers too before we set off once more.

From here, it was only four miles until checkpoint three and a grand total of 34 miles completed. It started raining for the first time and we all got a bit soaked. Thankfully by this stage, the Support Team were just ten minutes or so away.

Indy and Rachel took the mick out of me when I saw a CalChall photographer ahead. I quickly removed my hood, checked my hair and walked past before replacing my hood. I sang “you’re so vain” as my theme song a few times later on to make them smile.

We were at Checkpoint 3 in relatively good time, still sitting fairly well up the order. Becca, Hugh and Matt all had their feet checked again and by the time everyone was ready to head off to Checkpoint 4, we’d spent just shy of 1hr40m there. Not what we needed, but it was essential. It was the only option and whatever could be done to improve the condition of their feet was an absolute necessity. This was the final time we would see Helen and Dave until we crossed the line later that morning. We still had time to finish just outside of our projected 4am, but from this point, we got slower.

I was happy with the state of my feet, which were currently totally un-touched by anything but worn skin. I dried my feet at every checkpoint and meticulously searched for any bits of debris in my socks and boots knowing that a tiny stone would inevitably rub my feet raw given half a chance. I set a second target in the back of my mind which was to finish without a single blister.

It wasn’t more than five minutes into this leg when Hugh’s ankle trouble flared up again and stops became even more frequent. We stayed together this time and always waited when we were more than 100m ahead. I noticed Matt struggling with his rucksack after a brief stop. He gets ‘shoulder twinges’ after a few hours of wearing a rucksack and this was happening despite me properly adjusting it to fit him.

I asked him if he’d like me to swap rucksacks for a bit, just for different pressures to be applied and hopefully a reduction in his pain. He declined and I soon realised that would have been a silly idea, given our own Platypuses were in our own bags. I then offered to carry his rucksack and I could see straight away the relief on his face as he undid the chest strap. Whatever I could do to help the team, I would.

I flung his rucksack over my head and on top of mine. I was now carrying about 11kg or so, just like I had in the Peak District. Only this time, we were already 35 miles in with a further 19 still to go. It became a bit troublesome after a few miles as his bag would slip to the right rather than staying centralised. I just put up with it.

The final portion of this eight mile stretch was pretty flat but we all had our head torches out by this stage. Darkness didn’t fall until after 12:30am and even then, you could’ve gotten by because your night vision had adjusted gradually over time. That was until Matt lit up his enormous Maglite, when any attempt to make it through without my head torch was quickly dispelled.

At this stage, I felt the need to pee roughly every five minutes and even once attempted to pee while walking – ahead of the others, obviously. This proved more difficult than my tired brain had imagined and I had to stop and empty the tank quickly before the others caught up.

Matt put a spurt on and marched off with me in tow to the final Checkpoint. We went through the marshall post to great applause and whooping. It would’ve been nice if this was the end. Inside the enormous marquee was a huge congregation of other teams along with a hot food counter serving chicken, jacket potatoes, rice, mince and more. As well as puddings and coffee and tea. We were treated like Kings by the willing ‘servants’ who offered to get you things you could’ve easily gotten yourself.

1hr40m later, we set off from Checkpoint 3.

1hr40m later, we set off from Checkpoint 3.

Matt didn’t look well. I’ve seen this before a few times and I knew he was shutting down. He’d gone pale, he felt sick and was refusing to eat. He went outside and came back virtually transparent after throwing up. I knew what he was about to say but I didn’t make eye contact and tried to avoid the moment I knew was coming.

He asked me to put his finish-line-t-shirt back in the hold all. That was it. Matt was pulling out.

Rachel tried to convince him to carry on but I knew, having had past experience of this kind of situation, that it was futile. As soon as one thing hits Matt, everything else does too and I thought he made an incredibly brave decision. I knew what he had just decided would help the rest of us. I shook his hand and we left.

Out of Checkpoint 4 was a fairly steep uphill section, not too dissimilar to the Devils Staircase. It was pitch-black and only the vague hint of light from the moon reflected off a nearby lake gave us any idea of where we were going. My head torch beam was dim despite having new batteries and that frustrated me. I felt sorry for Hugh who was limping like a 90 year old man with terrible arthritis. I’d have lent him my feet in a heartbeat and put myself in his place if I could have but unfortunately for him it was going to be another 11 miles of pain.

At this stage, 43 miles in, I still felt great. I had no blisters, I had no muscle ache and I knew I was going to finish. Only a mile or so later, at the top of this uphill section before we headed down, I was suddenly overcome by tiredness. Physically I felt fine but I began to find it harder to concentrate and to keep my eyes open. I stayed at the back of our group for the next mile.

The last 12 miles were split into quarters with drinks stations every three miles or so. I’d stopped drinking very much at this point and only took a plastic cup full of the supplied isotonic at each remaining drink stop. I did also eat a caramel Tunnocks which tasted like heaven.

Hugh set off at an electric pace and I still don’t know how he did it. He was walking at about 3.7mph, passing stragglers left, right and centre. My tiredness really became a problem at this stage as I felt my eyes closing while walking so I flicked my ears and slapped my face hard to try and stay awake.

Over the next 20 minutes or so, I fell asleep while walking quite a few times. Only for a very split second before my body would lurch awake again. It’s the oddest thing I’ve ever experienced. I asked Rachel and Indy for some Pro-Plus but they had both left theirs at the last checkpoint.

I’d sped up again and arrived at the next drinks stop alone. I laid on the rocky grass bank and fell asleep for a couple of minutes until the others arrived. I couldn’t believe I’d come this far and that the only thing holding me back was tiredness. Pathetic.

Six miles left was 10 in my head. 2 hours left felt like over a week.

Head-torches at the ready, at Checkpoint 4.

Head-torches at the ready, at Checkpoint 4.

This was the hardest part of the Challenge for me – the final six miles of a pure mental battle. When I thought we’d walked another 20 minutes, I glanced at my watch to see it was only ten. Every bend I hoped for the final drinks station, signalling just three miles to go. It never came. Every brow of a hill was un-willing to let me see the next stop. Everything seemed against me finishing.

By the time we reached the final drinks stop, the midges were out in force. Stopping for even a brief moment meant one would bite you before a swarm of their best blood sucking friends would too. Our Avon Skin So Sticky had worn off long before this point.

We passed a lady who told us the finish was just seven minutes away. I was so relieved to hear this and then the adrenaline kicked in. I didn’t feel sick or tired anymore. I felt elated. I knew that me and the rest of the team, sadly without Matt, would finish the Challenge. I donned my Rutland Panthers T-Shirt in advance.

Approaching the finish line one man down.

Approaching the finish line one man down.

The guy announcing arrivals told one team to run – I couldn’t be bothered to do that, I thought. He didn’t ask us to which was a relief. I saw Helen, and heard her screaming “Go Panthers” as we got closer and finally we did it.

Champagne spraying at the finish line.

Champagne spraying at the finish line.

Helen gave me a bottle of champagne and I duly soaked the rest of my team, F1-style, and had a swig. It was nice to be drinking something else and I never wanted to hear the word isotonic again.

Until next year, that is.

It wasn’t nice to lose one of our team members so close to the end, but Matt made the right call. His decision under immeasurably difficult circumstances meant that the rest of the team could finish. It benefitted all of us and for that, I am hugely grateful. I couldn’t have wished to take on the Challenge with any other people. I made new friends and got to know ones I’d lost touch with a few years before-hand. They got through it with sheer determination and I’m very happy to have played a part in it.

I’ve also written a guide to the Caledonian Challenge.

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