Monday, 4 June 2018

South Downs Way Walk

I've just finished a pretty extraordinary journey, both physically and mentally, here's the story...

The Short Version - 100 Miles, 4 Days, 2 Charities

This bit of the blog post is a summary for the TL;DR brigade...
  • Starting in Eastbourne on 31st May
  • More or less 4 marathons in 4 days
  • Finishing in Winchester on 3rd June
  • Raising funds for:
    • The National Eczema Society
    • Parkinson's UK
  • You can still donate (please do):
  • We raised over £4500 (more than £5500 including gift aid)

I have made all the pictures available on Flickr in my South Downs Way Walk Album.


The Longer Version

My best mate decided he wanted to challenge himself as a consequence of coming to terms with his 40th birthday.  He called a few of us to the pub a few months back.  We settled on the idea of walking the South Downs Way in 4 days for 2 charities.  I was nuts enough to go along with this idea and I'm writing the morning after successfully finishing the entire route with him.

All done and in the restaurant at the finish
In the car on the way to get started...
The people you need to know about in this story are:
  • Matt Wettone - team leader
  • Me (obviously)
  • Andy McGrath - team super hero
  • Pete and Phil - team members
  • Stephen Warwick - honorary team member
  • Tim - Matt's dad, team logistics
  • Linda - Matt's mum, team chef

All done and in the restaurant at the finish
...all done and in the restaurant at the finish

The reason for doing this has already been much better explained by Matt than I'll manage to come up with so if you're interested in that then head over to our donation page or I've saved a copy of his text at the bottom of this post.  My personal reasons are fairly simple in as much as I'd find it hard to turn Matt down, doing something for charity is always worthwhile and challenging yourself every now and then has to be worth something as well.

It turns out that it certainly was a challenge both physically and mentally.  I'll try to be brief below with a summary of each day...

Day 1 - Eastbourne to Housedene Farm

Vital statistics: 27.4 miles in 8 hours 26 minutes moving time (3.25 MPH, moving average), about 58,000 steps and 3968 feet of elevation gain.


We planned Day 1 to be 24 miles long but ended up doing 27.4 miles.  This was due to starting further back than the documented start of the South Downs Way, we started at Eastbourne Pier, another 1.5 miles along the coast.  Also, the distance charts for the Eastern half of the walk seem to be about 10% out in terms of accuracy so we picked up another couple of miles we weren't expecting.

Matt, Andy and I left Eastbourne in heavy rain.  I think we were all excited and apprehensive but keen to get started.  After the first couple of miles, we climbed up onto the Seven Sisters and for the next 10 miles or so found ourselves repeatedly going up and down each of the 7 cliffs.  That was really hard work, especially in poor weather, and set the tone for the rest of the day as being a really tough day.

We pretty much dodged a bullet with the weather though, the rain cleared up by around 11am and it became overcast and warm for the remainder of the day, perfect walking weather.  The rest of the country seemingly got drowned in thundery showers that day so we were really lucky.

We finished the day in good spirits but with Andy starting to struggle a bit with a knee problem and having picked up a blister along the route somewhere.

Day 2 - Housedene Farm Camp Site to Amberley

Vital statistics: 29.7 miles in 9 hours 5 minutes moving time (3.23 MPH, moving average), about 62,000 steps and 3186 feet of elevation gain.



This route was also longer than the planned 26.5 miles we had in mind for day 2.  We picked up the trail where we left off the previous evening at Housedene Farm and walked to Amberley.  Pete joined us, meeting at the start point in the morning and intending to walk the next 2 days.

Andy put in a heroic effort just to be ready for the start.  From the previous day, all of us thought there was a real danger he may have to pull out for at least day 2, but somehow he managed to be ready and start walking with us again.

The weather was decent enough for walking in as much as it wasn't sunny and the temperature was probably mid teens.  However, we basically spent the entire day walking through cloud.  The most we saw all day was dew drops forming in our hair from all the moisture in the air.  The dampness did make it a little tougher but we found the biggest drawback of this weather was the lack of reward for climbing some enormous hills.  For example, we walked the length of the south rim of Devil's Dyke and none of us have the foggiest (pun intended) idea what it looks like.  Visibility was between 20 and 100 yards all day!

At about 18 miles Pete wasn't able to continue, having aggravated an old knee injury.  We decided it was best for him to leave the trail and get picked up early so he headed to a nearby road for rescue.  At that point, Andy took the tactical decision to accompany Pete on the journey home to give himself more time and a better chance of recovery to finish the route, leaving just Matt and I.  This was definitely one of the low points for all of us in the team that day.

Matt and I soldiered on through the cloud for another 11-12 miles after that.  We were due to be picked up at the agreed point but due to a traffic accident and resulting traffic chaos, Tim was unable to meet us until 40 minutes or so after our agreed meet time.  Matt and I decided to add some more miles to make day 3 a bit shorter and easier.


Day 3 - Amberley to Queen Elizabeth Country Park

Vital statistics: 25.2 miles in 8 hours 3 minutes moving time (3.13 MPH, moving average), about 54,000 steps and 3287 feet of elevation gain.


Day 3 was a huge mental struggle for me.  We had lost Pete the day before, Andy was with us again and struggling through.  But the main problem was having eaten fish and chips for dinner the night before and not slept a wink resulting from the indigestion that followed, I was both extremely tired and feeling rather nauseous as well.  I kept going, putting faith in my physical ability (physically I felt fine), force fed myself as many calories as I could (I really didn't want to eat) and by around 2pm was starting to feel a little better.

There were a huge number of highlights on Day 3 that really helped:

  • We were joined in a fairly last minute addition to the plan by Stephen Warwick.  It was lovely to have someone new in the team with fresh legs and a different dynamic.  Stephen's used to lengthy exercise having walked some trails in the Himalayas and also ridden from Lands End to John O'Groats.  He really helped me get my head in the right place to soldier on with some good team talks and deliberately poor maths.  "We're half way" he said at 11 miles.  "No we're not, go back and re-sit your GCSE" I replied knowing full well that we'd be the wrong side of 25 miles by the time we'd finished the day.
  • The weather was much, much better.  We could see.  It was warm, not hot.  That was lovely.
  • We'd previously walked from Buriton to Didling during training, about the last third of Day 3.  So there was a point when we reached the part of the trail we knew.  That was a huge moment for all of us.  We stopped there and celebrated with a banana each (we know how to live).  Matt and I had now walked to the point where we knew we'd walked the entire length of the remaining trail into Winchester during training and most of that done in a day.  We started to believe this might actually be possible.
  • Amy, Matt's sister, joined us at Harting Down and walked the last 8 miles or so with us.  That was another huge boost to us - thank you, Amy!
  • Linda also joined us for the last 2 miles into Queen Elizabeth Country Park.  Since she's suffering with Parkinson's, I thought that it was particularly poignant for her to join us.  I'm really glad she did. 
  • Donations were still coming in, we'd had a particularly good donation day on Day 2, and for those people who decided to wait until we started walking - many thanks - you helped keep us going and our spirits up.
The last few miles were really tough for Andy.  Carrying his injury, he hobbled along to the finish, doubtful about whether he could complete Day 4.  Testament to Andy though, he sat down in a disabled parking space in the car park, causing much hilarity.  Other than in quite a lot of pain, I'm not sure exactly how he was feeling, but I imagine very proud of getting this far but also worried about the potential disappointment of not being able to finish the whole thing on Day 4.


Day 4 - Queen Elizabeth Country Park to Winchester

Vital statistics: 24.1 miles in 7 hours 12 minutes moving time (3.35 MPH, moving average), about 51,000 steps and 1972 feet of elevation gain.


The start of day 4 was met with mixed feelings.  We had all stayed at home the previous night, our first night home for the previous 3 nights.  Seeing family and sleeping in your own bed was great.  However, Andy was unable to recover from the previous day in time and we had a message saying that he wasn't going to be able to join us for the final day.  That must have been a very hard decision to take but you'd never know it, having been delivered with the sense of humour and good grace Andy had shown throughout the walk.  We'd miss him but we did have Phil joining me and Matt with his fresh legs for the final day.

Matt and I were buoyed by the fact we'd walked the entire length of this day during training and done so in a single day.  That feeling of confidence and the fact we knew where we were going and exactly what lay ahead at each stage of the walk certainly helped.  It made things a lot easier when we were getting tired during the day.  It's probably due to a mixture of factors but we walked a little faster on day 4 too.

Andy parked in Winchester and walked backwards along our route to meet us and walk into town the last few miles.  Still struggling, that must have been a hard walk for him too but it was great to cross the line with the main team of 3 of us and Phil who joined for the final day.

We arrived in Winchester a bit earlier than any of us might have expected.  But with due warning, friends and family were dotted throughout the last couple of miles to meet and greet us.  That felt amazing, picking up more people as we got closer to the end point.  We were clearly going to make it, feeling extremely tired, but unstoppable at the same time.

We went for food and drink.  Left the building to be driven, a long way home but a shorter distance than we'd walked each day, that felt weird.

We're done.  This is now history.  But please consider a donation, if you haven't already.


Matt's Original Text

"Thank you so much for visiting my page. My name is Matt and this year I will be turning the grand age of 40. I was inspired to take on a challenge to mark the occasion and hopefully do some good while I'm at it. 
On 31st May I will be walking the South Downs Way. This is a walk that is 100 miles long and I will be attempting to cover it in 4 days. This means covering something close to a marathon each day. To help me do this I have put together a team of close friends. They will be joining me for either all (Graham & Andy) or part (Phil and Pete) of the walk. 
Together we are raising money for The National Eczema Society and Parkinsons UK. Here's why... 
I was diagnosed with atopic eczema aged just 3 months and I still struggle with the disease to this day. With the help of my parents, my family, close friends, some incredible doctors and some equally astounding nurses, my skin is in a far better condition that it ever was as a child. In July of 2017 my wife and I welcomed our second child into the world. Sadly he too has been suffering with eczema. 
The work that the National Eczema Society do is vitally important in the development of new treatments, drugs and support for sufferers of this condition. I am passionate to find something that not only helps my life but helps the generations to come (including my son). 
In September 2017 my Mum was diagnosed with Parkinson's. Prior to the diagnosis as a family we had seen her deteriorating. She was walking much slower than normal, she dragged her feet, her right arm developed a tremor, her speech was much quieter and she wasn't herself. 
My sister got married in early September and while helping to setup the day before Mum tripped on a kerb and broke her arm. Having recognised she wasn’t herself, Mum had been having various tests. A cardiologist she’d been sent to contacted the GP to say he thought Mum should be referred to a neurologist because he thought she had Parkinson’s disease. It is very likely that not picking her feet up (due to Parkinson's) caused her to trip and fall. 
Since then she has been given a medication, seen a Parkinsons nurse and a physiotherapist. This has meant a significant improvement and she is now standing much taller (quite a significant given how 'tall' she is), she is speaking more freely, she is interacting with all her grandchildren with a vibrancy that was missing. 
The work that Parkinsons UK do is vital for people with this disease. They provide invaluable support and research that could not be possible without the support of donors. 
I would be so grateful if you would like to sponsor my team and I as we embark on this challenge and help raise some money for some fabulous charities. 
Don’t forget to gift aid your donation so we can get even more from the Taxman."

Last, but very much not least, a great debt of thanks to everyone who has supported us.  Those of you donating your hard-earned cash to our two fantastic causes, thank you.  To our wives and families who we've abandoned to fulfil our own personal challenge, you're tired too from holding the fort while we've been gone, thank you.  Finally, particular thanks to Linda and Tim for the logistical support, you were a part of the team as well and we wouldn't have completed the journey without you.