I have lived near the south west coastal path for most of my life. As a child, I spent many Sunday being dragged along the local stretch and hearing tales of my parents friends walking it with a tent on their backs and a sense of adventure I, at the time, put down to a mid-life crisis. As an adult, I am making sure my children have the same, character building experience and have walked the stretch closest to our house in short, sharp bursts over the last few years. A climb to the top of Golden Cap one Mothers Day weekend, a ramble over the clifftop to a nearby beach on a sunny summers day. Never more than 4 miles and always at toddler speed and with a pocket full of sweets as bribes. So I am not really sure what made me decide to sign up for a hike to walk 23 miles of the hardest stretch of the coastal path, in midsummer, at a time in my life when my fitness levels can, at best, be described as … in need of improvement. But, when the advert popped up in my Facebook feed to sign up for a Race for Life Hike, with the new years intentions of spending 2018 doing things for myself, including getting fitter this year still ringing in my ears, I clicked the button and within minutes, there it was, a deal made with myself that I would complete this challenge in 2018.
Fast forward a few months, and I glanced at the training plan that was sent with my pack. An hours walk twice a week and a long walk at weekends, roughly. That’s OK, manageable I thought.. in fact, on a beach in Sri Lanka, I had already promised myself I would commit to 8 weeks of running 5k three times a week when I got home. That took me nearly up to the date of The Hike – so just perfect!. So if I stuck to my running promise, I would be out 3 times a week, getting fitter, and running is even better than walking right? I decided that it would have to be, as I didn’t have time to do both and so I laced up my trainers three times a week and slowly got a bit better at running. Actually, I didn’t. I stayed hopelessly at the back of the group for 7, slow painful weeks and then in the 8th week suddenly felt like I was doing better. I was keeping up. Not fast, not pretty, but I had improved for sure. A few of the lovely ladies I was running with told me walking is different to running, and the fear started to creep in, I upped my running mileage a little but my knee started to hurt, and then I got up early one Sunday morning and set off on a walk, walking the coast path in a westerly direction, taking in 10 miles of scenery, sweeping views and tough hill climbs. It was the longest I have walked without children, and it felt great! My feet felt fine but the climbs were hard, and my knee was grumbling, especially coming downhill. A friend suggested I try poles to help with walking, so I added that to my list of things to buy, next to new socks and magnesium supplements, and told myself it would all be fine. Spurred on by feeling like my running had improved a bit, I signed up for my first park run, 5k along the seafront on a Saturday morning. I finished well at the back of the pack, as I expected, but I knew I was much quicker than when I had tried a 5K a year before. A few lovely ladies at the running club rationalised and told me how now I knew I could easily do that , I only had to do it 7 times and that was my walk. Run 3 miles, walk a bit, and repeat they said.. it sound easy enough. Sort of.
I hadn’t really thought about the date of the hike – midsummer, long balmy evenings and daylight that goes on past bedtime. But also, this year, a heatwave. Previously distracted by the sudden arrival of chicken pox in my youngest, the night before the nerves hit and I realised I hadn’t really told anyone except a few people I run with, that I was doing the hike, as I didn’t really know if I would finish it. I knew I wanted to, but I doubted my fitness, knew my long training walks had been somewhat absent, and mostly I was affected by the fact that almost anyone I did mention it to seemed stunned into silence that I was considering it. A close friend told me she didn’t think I’d manage it, which dented my confidence. My family, not used to me doubting myself, and even less used to me doing anything for myself, said it was just important that I tried, and it didn’t matter if I didn’t finish, which all sounds like the right things to say but I just needed one person to tell me I could do it. I couldn’t find that person, so I decided to tell myself I had no choice, and just as dawn broke, I slipped quietly out the house and off I went. Its an early start, and the coach taking us from the finish line to the start was a quiet mixture of nerves, and shock at being up so early . Mothers and daughters, friends and work colleagues, new walkers, experienced walkers, women from all over the country got off the coaches and a sea of pink flowed from the coast and up the hill past Corfe Castle just peeping out of the mist. Surrounded by so many women I had a moment that, as the mother of four boys, I would never be able to do this with a daughter, and then quickly realised this wasn’t the time for emotional introspection, and focused instead on just how young everyone seemed, how much Lycra there was and how smug I felt that I had walking poles with me like a proper walker.
I had made sure that I started early, on the second coach, giving me a chance to not be at the back from the start. We had been warned the first section was the easiest, mostly flat along the ridge way, over looking Poole Harbour to the right and distance glimpses of Portland to the left. We past by hidden castles, stopped for the view and waved at passing cows. The Marshals were jolly and wide awake and the walking was easy. This is ok, I thought. Watching the snakes of women walking ahead and behind me was humbling – all these people doing the challenge together. Beautiful day, beautiful views, life is good. The first check point at 5 miles seemed to arrive easily and without incident, all good I thought. A quick refuel and plenty of water, and , because I am a Proper Walker and know what I am doing, a fresh pair of socks. I put on one blister plaster, as prevention is better than cure and my little toe was beginning to look sore, a top up of sun cream as it was getting hot, and tried to wash my face off as it seemed salty, and off I went, conscious not to be the last to leave and that I couldn’t afford too much time to rest. It was another 5 miles to the lunch stop, which was midway between Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door – the hardest stretch of the walk.
As the coast path climbs up over the military ranges, the views we had been promised started to appear. Long sweeping beaches, small coves with clear, green waters. Almost enough to keep me distracted from what I could see ahead – an almost vertical cliff climb that looked like something out of Heidi. But there were no goats cambering up the hillside, just a steady stream of walkers slowly snaking up the cliff in the distance. And as well as going up the cliff path, I had to come down the other side – thanking my Craghoppers walking poles every step of the way. The path was loose gravel, slippery and uneven, and the poles were the only way I could inch myself down the slope step by step without sliding down on my backside ( although I did think about just rolling down at one point). This section of climb and descent, climb and descent on uneven, difficult ground in full midday sun really started to take its toll. As I landed on the pebbles of lulworth cove and picked my way across the beach between boats and kayaks and picnicking families enjoying a lazy day on the beach, my initial satisfaction at reaching the half way point in under 4 hours quickly dissolved as I saw the tail walker close behind me – I might have been well ahead of the time I had expected to be walking it in, but I was right at the back of the group , and only half way. Almost instantly that I realised this, my pace slowed. My legs dragged themselves up the gravel paths away from Lulworth and on towards lunch and even though physically I was hot I felt OK – mentally, I felt demoralised and I could feel my enthusiasm drain away. My son had called me several times to say he was struggling without me at home, he wanted me to come home, and I looked at all the families out enjoying the beach and wondered what on earth I was doing.
Another down hill stretch ( don’t be fooled, these are just as hard as the uphills!) and the second stop point came into view – with lots of people still eating lunch and sitting in the sun relaxing. Hooray, I thought, a quick refuel and I’ll be off ,and I wont be at the back anymore. It was too hot to eat much, and I knew if I hung around too long it would be harder to get started again, so a second change of socks into some new super comfy Craghoppers hiking socks, my feet were grateful and I was ready to leave. I popped into the porta loo and realised my face was covered in a white powder – salt from where I was sweating so much in the heat. I washed it off and drank some more water, and didn’t think much else of it. Then as I went to leave, I realised everyone at the lunch stop was waiting for a lift, to take them to the last stop before the finish as they didn’t feel they could manage the distance but wanted to be able to walk in over the line. I was stunned that this was even an option, and also devastated that this meant I was at the back once again. Off I went, feeling pretty lonely and very worn out. But I knew that if I was going to get to the finish line, it was under my own foot power. Pulling out didn’t feel like an option – the previous ten miles would count for nothing if I didn’t walk the whole thing. The miles dragged slowly by. Another few climbs and I was beginning to doubt my feet. The tail walkers were right behind me, I hadn’t seen a marshal for what felt like miles and I told myself its because they’d gone home, as the walk had been going on so long. I know that after the first few big climbs there was more uneven walking, because I remember altering my poles so one was slightly longer than the other to help me balance on the narrow tracks. But I cant remember much more about the path between miles 10 to 14. I didn’t even take any photos after the first big climbs. It was head down, one foot in front of the other for 4 long miles until finally the sign for the next stop point came into view. Slight relief at getting a break was instantly wiped away as I realised the crew were packing up the gazebos ready to leave. Had it taken me so long to get there that the walk was over?
At this point I realise that I should have a photo of me sat on the step of the First Aid ambulance looking exhausted but I could hardly summon energy to open the bottle of water let alone much else. My brain wouldn’t work to let me speak, my hips felt so stiff I knew if I sat down I wouldn’t get back up again. The last four miles had felt like ten all over again, and taken almost as long, and all I could think of was the poor marshals and tail walkers, who would have to wait around for hours for me to finish. The support team asked me how I was doing and I conveyed that I felt it was taking me too long and I was slowing them down. We have all day they said, we are happy to walk at your speed and no one is in a rush, you can do this! I didn’t have the capacity to reply – I couldn’t get the words through the lump in my throat. I rifled through my bag to find some sweets to put in my pocket, and saw the Ibuprofen I had chucked in at the last minute. I swallowed two, the irony of having birthed four babies without pain relief and not having taken paracetamol in over twenty years did not pass me by – but at this point I was willing to try anything. I got up, wondering how long I would be able to go on for, and fully expecting to be leaving the course in the back of a land rover, the only uncertainty being when, not if. One foot in front of the other, I started the last, long section to the finish line thinking I would just go as far as I could.
The last section passed along the cliffs and beaches that had been just a few miles from our first house, the house three of my boys were born in, and each part of the path felt more and more familiar. It was also much easier walking, open gravel paths and wide flat grass routes made the walk easier but the biggest thing was the sun had dropped, the temperature was a more reasonable in the low 20’s and some parts of the path were shaded, with trees and small rivers to cross bringing some relief. The noise of podcasts and music had begun to annoy me so I walked on in silence, stopping only for a quick drink every now and again. I was sure by this point I was hours behind every one else, but just kept on, trying to keep up a good pace, and moving forward. After a steep climb up a staircase, I noticed a marshal waiting by a wall. I was so surprised to see him, I thought they’d all gone home hours ago. I could hardly speak, but passed on a heartfelt thank you to him for waiting for me, and he replied ‘no, thank you for you’ . I choked back a lump in my throat and kept on up the road until another marshal was waiting, directing me down a leafy path, where he waved away my thanks with a cheery ‘ see you at the finish line’. As his words sunk in, I realised it was only 5 miles to go, and the sobs came fast and heavy. I walked that mile of shaded path with tears flowing down my face, sobbing and wiping my face and thinking there was no way I could carry on, and that I was going to finish this after all, in equal parts. And suddenly as quick as the tears came they went, my legs felt light and as Weymouth came into view, the paths opened up to fields and I passed the ‘3 miles to go ‘ marker and remembered my friends from the running club saying ‘ you can run three miles’ . And I will I thought, I will. I will.
Ok, so I didn’t run, but I did jog a bit, and walked a bit and jogged a bit until suddenly the last marshal waved me on by, and I jogged along Weymouth sea front remembering how I had last run along the wide esplanade 8 years ago, chasing an escapee toddler , whilst heavily pregnant and pushing a baby in a pushchair. I rounded the corner into the nature reserve, the last stretch of the course, and there in front of me were ladies walking. I couldn’t believe it. I had been only just behind them for miles, no idea they were just around the corner all along the cliff top. I wondered how different those last few miles would have been if I had known that. We crossed the finish line, there was very little clapping or cheering as most people had headed off, but by that point that was all I wanted to do too. A painful walk to the car park and an hour later I was home, ready to inspect the damage to my poor feet and wondering whether it was worth the effort of the stairs to sleep in my own bed.
The next few days were all about moving slowly. The worst injury was to my neck and shoulders – sunburn had caught every tiny patch of skin that I had missed with cream and it was so painful. With huge blisters on the bottom of my feet and each toe I spent a lot of the next week sitting down, walking very slowly and feeling much like those slow postpartum weeks with a new born, except I had nothing to distract me and the restlessness was almost as hard as the walk itself. I also had children to entertain and I didn’t want them to miss out because I had chosen to inflict this pain on myself. I wasn’t in a good head space. I didn’t feel that proud of my achievement, I was cross I had let myself get sunburnt and realised I had been significantly dehydrated. I also didn’t feel like coming almost last was that great, and the ‘it’s the taking part that counts’ wasn’t cutting it. I spent a lot of the week reading Bryony Gordon’s new book ‘ Eat, Drink, Run ‘ and suddenly I begun to realise the enormity of what it takes to run a marathon, and maybe also to walk almost a marathon. The emotions, the tears, the mental battles. I drank lots of water and rehydrated.I soaked my feet and the sunburn faded. I let myself off a bit, and begun to think that maybe it was quite an achievement after all. I definitely should have done more training, I was naive thinking water was enough to stay hydrated, and I should have believed in myself and told more people what I was doing. But, I did do it, when so many people just say they will. I learnt so much about myself, and about the power of surrounding yourself with others who believe in you. The marshals, the tail walkers on the day, the ladies at my running group, and eventually, myself. I showed my children, and myself, that you can make time for the things you want to do, and even when its really hard, and you feel like you haven’t done enough, its worth trying it anyway and giving it your everything and you can keep going. I can’t say there will be a next time for me and the Jurassic Coast hike, but I will absolutely hold onto the lessons I learnt , and I will be choosing a new, different challenge next year, and I really hope you will too. This wasn’t easy, but it was about far more than those 24 long, hot, painful miles along the Jurassic Coast, and for that, it was worth it.
** Please note this post contains affiliate links. This means that if you click a link and purchase something I receive a small commission for that sale, however the price remains exactly the same for you. I was kindly gifted some Craghoppers goodies for my walk but all opinions are my own and I only work with brands I genuinely love and always give my honest opinion.**