‘How was your weekend?’
Most of us will be asked this question at least once on a Monday, by work colleagues, family members or a friendly bus driver. Normally my replies range from ‘too short’ to ‘chilled’, or if I am really lucky, ‘we had a party on Saturday night and I spent the whole of Sunday recovering and trying to remember her name.’
This weekend was different though. I have just hobbled back from my local supermarket. ‘How was your weekend,’ Rita the friendly shop assistant asked as I was paying for the milk.
‘It was hard work.’
‘It normally is with those two boys of yours.’
‘No, this weekend was really hard work,’ I told her, ‘I walked from London to Brighton.’
Yes, my weekend, along with those of a lot of souls far more hardy than mine, was taken up with walking 65 miles, or a far more impressive-sounding 103 kilometers, from Kempton Park to Brighton Racecourse.
My adventure started with a fairly innocuous-sounding email from my mate Bryn. ‘I have just found something interesting in the Metro. How do you fancy walking from London to Brighton?’
‘What would I want to do that for? Isn’t it quicker to get the train,’ I replied. This was a response I would become thoroughly sick of hearing during the walk itself…
‘It’s raising money for the British Heart Foundation. You’d probably be investing in your own future.’
Bryn’s email was marginally more interesting than the other emails I received that afternoon. After a period of deep meditation and self-reflection, as well as a quick look down at my ever-expanding waistline, I thought ‘what the hell’ and signed up.
I wasn’t the only one Bryn managed to persuade to join him on this epic trek. Ben, a father of two young children who don’t always sleep through the night, accepted Bryn’s promise of a night without disturbed sleep. Dave, a horse-racing enthusiast, signed up to the idea of visiting two race-courses in a weekend. Dave’s wife Helen even agreed to give up her weekend to drive here, there and everywhere, supporting us in our endeavours.
Once we had signed up (and bought our hats – I must have missed that memo), we read all the literature the good folk at the BHF threw at us. Our training regime kicked in fairly early. We might not have visited the gym or done quite as much walking as the training plans recommended, but we did visit some fine pubs in Surrey and surrounding areas.
Our intrepid team leader kept us on the straight and narrow as the event drew ever closer. My team mates tell me he sent out not one but three check-lists. I must remember to stop his emails from going straight into my junk mail folder now that the walk has taken place.
As my taxi pulled up outside Bryn’s on the morning of the event, I did my best to disguise my hangover. Three physically fit athletes and a South West London author. We were ready.
Once we picked up our BHF T-shirts, our head torches and particularly our pre-walk rolls and coffee, we were even readier.
The walk started innocuously enough, with a quick breakfast-time jaunt through Kempton to the Thames, and then a stroll along the River Wey. A friend joined me for a portion of the Wey walk. It felt like a pleasant Sunday stroll. But gradually, as the temperature rose and the distance mounted up, we began to realise what we had taken on. Reaching Guildford in the late afternoon sun, we were already counting the aches and pains, and we were only about a quarter of the way through the walk. I was feeling a bit light-headed, from the sun, not from my hangover. An ice lolly, a rehydration tablet and a chocolate muffin – especially the muffin – helped deal with my problem.
At checkpoint four I took my walking boots off to check the state of my feet. Taking my socks off hurt too much. I think I removed a layer of skin too. Not liking what I saw once my feet were exposed to the elements, I quickly put my boots back on and, for the rest of the walk, did my best to forget about my feet altogether.
Ben, a deputy head by day, was in charge of walk entertainment. His team quiz kept us going until the 50 km marker. If you can name the last ten Eurovision Song Contest winners, or ten of the members of Nottingham Forest’s 1980 European Cup-winning team, then you are a better man or woman than me. I only managed to name one Bob Dylan album, and that was a lucky guess.
As night began to fall, we were making good progress. Ben’s other great contribution to team morale was a quick detour to M&S Food at checkpoint four. Fuelled by extra sausage rolls, as well as the BHF-flavour soup, we passed the half-way point as darkness fell. The other thing that helped us through the night was ibuprofen.
England’s countryside is noted for its picturesque rolling hills and dales. Sussex is particularly lovely in the darkness.
The banter slowed slightly in the early hours of Sunday morning, as did our pace. My team mates resorted to running through the alphabet, naming anything from heavy metal bands to sitcoms. I tended to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other.
As dawn began to break and the beautiful sunrise was revealed, sorry scratch that, as the rain began to fall, we passed the 75 km marker. We were beginning to realise quite how far Brighton is from London.
There were times when one of us would go a bit quiet on the walk, slow down slightly or grimace in pain. That one of us was normally me. And the times normally coincided with us walking past, rather than into, a pub.
Even our team leader felt the pain. Instead of his normally Churchillian inspirational speeches, somewhere between Surrey and Sussex, in the early hours of Sunday morning, he was heard to mutter ‘what’s the point’. He was also heard to mutter ‘f**k off you w***er’ as a runner jogged past him as we made our way over the South Downs.
The last 25 km was tough. Not just because it was the last 25k, but because it was the hilly bit. Uphill was hard work, but for me, with my dodgy knees and by now my probably near gangrenous toes, downhill was harder. For some reason, Dave and Ben were setting a fearsome pace as we negotiated the South Downs, so I had little choice but to shatter the pain barrier and crack on.
We made Hove, and a rendezvous with friends, at about ten in the morning. I did my best not to offend Andy and Sam, but the reality was that the bacon roll and coffee were top of my priority list.
The jaunt along the seafront to Brighton was OK. The climb up the hill to the racecourse certainly wasn’t. What sadistic git decided we should finish our 100 km-plus trek at the top of the steepest hill on the whole walk. I nearly quit with only a kilometer to go.
‘Anyone fancy jogging the last bit,’ Ben asked as we entered Brighton Racecourse. It was probably a good job that I wasn’t capable of actual speech at that point. I just shook my head.
Had I had any breath left, the welcome we received at the finish-line would have taken it away. Lots of the fantastic volunteers who made the event possible were there to greet us at the finish line, as was Helen, our awesome support driver.
The other three members of my team have all run marathons. Their unanimous verdict was that walking from London to Brighton was harder than running a marathon. I have now removed ‘running a marathon’ from my bucket list. Phew.
The whole event was fantastically organised. It was truly humbling to be surrounded by so many positive and enthusiastic people, be they the volunteers who gave up their weekends to make the event possible, fellow participants who all had their own story to tell, or the members of the public who showed genuine interest in what we were doing. If you would like to help the British Heart Foundation to deliver their ambitious, vital and ultimately life-saving programme of work, you can donate via my justgiving page.
I will share some more exciting news about my debut novel, Six Months to Get a Life, in the coming few weeks.
When my editor returns from her early summer holiday today, my second novel, Six Lies, will hopefully keep the smile on her face for that bit longer.