Blimey… this is the last ever blog I’ll write about an EPIC7 challenge! Quite sad really. It’s been one heck of a journey; of self discovery, breaking myself, learning, getting into better shape than I thought I was ever capable of, crashing my bike and hopefully inspiring people to try something new. So I’d better make it a good one.
Firstly, the hardest part of this challenge seemed to be deciding it. I toyed around with various ideas and got feedback from my friends and mentor Steve until my gut feel took over and I just flew with it. Fortunately it was a wise decision.
I’m not going to forge tales of fierce blizzards or how Nessie robbed my sandwiches; but by now I’ve had enough practice to hopefully make even the least eventful of the six challenges sound suitably epic.
So, Thursday night I headed to SYHA Inverness and stashed my climbing gear ready for climbing later in the week. I caught the bus to Fort William with just a minimalistic walking rucksack and gear. I arrived at the hostel about 10pm and got straight to bed. The alarm shook me, and the other poor buggers in the room, awake about 4:30am. Headed down to the official start of the Great Glen Way at the Old Fort, took a few bad selfies, then off I went for about 5:38am.
I had walked over 30 miles only twice in my life before and each time it had broken me, so I wasn’t looking forward to the rest of the day. To begin with I was pretty cold even with all my layers on. Had I come underequipped? All I could do was walk faster. The first few miles followed a dark trail then pavements at the edge of Caol with Loch Linnhe at one side.
Within an hour or so walking in the dark had lullabied me until I was closing my eyes and a little delirious. NOT again! I thought. My iPod rattled me awake, despite taking a wrong turn near Corpach Lock. I passed Neptunes Staircase, a dazzling array of lights along the canal structure, following mile after monotonous mile of canal footpath.
Aware of the lack of facilities for the next 20 miles, my food was carefully rationed to a large snack (I.e. flapjack, wholemeal bread roll, half a Soreen) every 5 miles. To much relief, daylight eventually broke before I dozed off and deviated into the clear waters of the Caledonian Canal. Otherwise I’d been moving quite quickly, averaging about 3.2mph It was lock after lock until I reached Gairlochy. Then I was following a lochside path along Loch Lochy (which bright spark titled that one?) with beautiful views down the valley and listening to ‘Take On Me’ by A-ha. You couldn’t make it up.
After Clunes forest gate I climbed a bit higher until Laggan with awesome calm views at the head of Loch Lochy. Time for my planned pitstop at the Well of the Seven Heads store and a hugely appreciated coffee despite the disappointing realisation that Cadburys had indeed changed the chocolate in their Creme Eggs.
Stopping for any length of time accumulated lactic acid and left me hobbling so I pushed on, trying to reach Aberchalder by dusk. Being on my feet for so many hours eventually became tedious to the point that when I saw the ‘Bridgekeeper’ sign on Laggan Swing bridge I began to re-enact the Bridge of Death scene from Monty Python.
Gradually, 25 miles in, my right foot had begun to hurt badly. I picked up a mild ligament injury whilst training last December, and although not serious, it was always aggravated by walking- something I’d unavoidably been doing a lot of recently.
The final few hours passed Loch Oich along a pleasant forest footpath and every step starting to throb. My iPod brought some distraction, as it’s remarkable how our minds can play games and almost make up our symptoms. But I was concerned now that I could be taking a risk. Physios had never found any damage and it always settled down the day after, but the pain was far worse than usual as I began to hobble. Right now really wasn’t the time to be jeapordising Everest by putting tens of thousands of footsteps through an inflamed Plantar Fascia but I didn’t have much choice- the nearest road was Fort Augustus. Albeit walking like a Penguin, I had no swimming ability otherwise I’d have seriously considered throwing myself into the canal and swimming there.
Out came the painkillers and a compression sleeve which made the final couple of hours possible. Darkness fell as every hour seemed to drag on. But I had to get used to it. On Everest summit night I would be walking much longer than this, in considerably more discomfort and without the relative comforts of regular food, a mobile in my pocket or AC/DC playing in my ear. Steadily my knees, calves and hips began to go on strike. Nothing but silence and solitude surrounding me.
Lights began to shatter the darkness and soon enough so did Fort Augustus, 35 miles later. My first port of call was the Fish and Chip shop- a far cry from the structure of my usual diet plan but that was 10 hours and 46 minutes behind me.
I was utterly amazed when I checked the time. One hour earlier than scheduled! It had only taken 1546 miles to learn a thing or two about logistics- but better late than never.
Morags Lodge hostel was a homely comfort and I didn’t know what to do with all this spare time. There happened to be a music event on the same evening. Whilst tending to battered feet and uploading updates onto social media (without a single technical hitch!), I found myself surrounded by bearded men playing banjos and violins so it was probably time for a protein milkshake and bed. The next morning was more leisurely. After such a long walk I would usually have taken 2 rest days but now my body was in for a shock. After my Porridge exploded in the microwave, the rest of Day 2 passed without boiling over. My calves and quad muscles were so tight you could have plucked them, but fortunately my foot had calmed doon.
I left about 8am along quiet lanes and suddenly through the first steep section in a beautiful Pine forest where I encountered a mountain biker with his Chipolata-sized Sausage Dog barking and running closely behind. After that I spent the next few hours in solitude, with a gradual ascensual plod through beautiful forest. Soon Loch Ness appeared to my right- it’s sheer size completely overwhelming.
Admittedly, having walked over 40 miles I was finding this relatively easy. Stunning Scottish countryside all to myself and as far away from the tackiness of Valentines Day and it’s heart-shaped boxes of saturated fat as possible. Even the Loch Ness Monster had rejected me today. I couldn’t help but gaze through the morning mist at the loch and ponder the mysteries of it’s icy depths… it’s no wonder my mum gets worried about me spending too much time in the outdoors.
The path undulated until Invermoriston for a thoroughly enjoyed coffee stop. A steep climb through a forest brought more stunning viewpoints which made it much more tolerable. I found myself strangely fatigued and struggling a little so another snack stop was well received. My heart rate was averaging just 80bpm- not even in Zone 1. A hugely satisfying sign of my fitness level. On the bike I’d usually be at 140bpm. For the lesser scientifically versed, this basically meant my heart wasn’t having a hard time. For reference- an average persons heart rate at rest can be 60bpm! The next section took me down through a vast towering Pine forest like something out of Harry Potter. Aptly I ended up at the Pottery- reputedly home to ‘freaky hippies’- but I didn’t go past the door. Esoteric wasn’t the word…
From now it was quiet country roads through Bunoit. The tarmac hit like hammers on my scathed heels plodding along, my Chicken-leg calves cramping and knees stabbing with pain. It took me down a final zigzag forest track where I found a souvenir tennis ball for the dog, then into Drumnadrochit after about 24 miles. Again- ahead of schedule. I remained energetic enough to consider carrying on straight on to Inverness. But with my foot starting to creep in again, now wasn’t the time to fuel an ego or prove anything. Could this be the challenge without ANY problems? Better not speak too soon, as I topped up supplies in the nearest shop.
… No Soreen Malt Loaf.
How could I continue without my carb-laden raisin petrol? It was a tall order that would test me like never before.
The Loch Ness Backpackers hostel was a welcome sight whilst my cartilage cemented as I sat down. This place was dainty and more traditional, an old 18th century farmhouse tucked away nicely. I used the recovered tennis ball to massage my foot and swollen cherry tomato-toes; the Slovenians staying there are going to be telling their relatives some funny stories about the Scottish traditions! At 4:00am my alarm went. Tensely walking down the stairs, I passed the photos hanging on the wall of the 18th century owners, half expecting them to ricochet towards me Paranormal Activity style. Turned my tracker on, made Porridge and left at 04:50am. 20 miles to go. The luxury of street lights faded as a gate took me up through farmland and a thick forest.
My headtorch brought little comfort as the skeletal tree trunks engulfed me into trenches of suffocating darkness. I’ve never understood why we possess such a pronounced fear of dark woodland and how this is engrained into our psychology. With my walking poles ridiculously grasped like a rifle, my hood blocking my peripheral vision and music on, I pushed up the hill at probably double my average pace. Then my phone bleeped. My friend Chris had clearly seen a stellar opportunity for a chuckle…
Sweat stung my eyes as I overheated, charging up the path hoping I didn’t miss a signpost. I wanted out. With Iron Maiden blaring in my ears I tried to muzzle the screeching and squealing of Owls and Foxes… or at least that’s what I hope they were. A clearing with beautiful moorland views in the moonlight appeared. Time for an out-of-date Fruit Scone; stale enough it would have dried out my sweaty base layer.
At 345m came the highest part of the trail at Abriachan Forest, with thick patches of snow and ice slowing me down. A long downhill road brought sweeping moorland and icy winds. More than halfway now, and my calves felt like they’d been pummelled by my grandma with her rolling pin.
Wooden signs emerged in the undergrowth describing “Homemade Cakes”, “Hot Chocolate” and “Coffee”… could I have been hallucinating? A final 4 mile sign appeared as Inverness opening up impressively below me. It’s always the case that the final miles are the toughest. Weary, jaded and aching, I had to trudge my tired bones for another hour or so. I even checked my own tracker, to begrudgingly see how far I had left, determined to complete the walk within 55 hours. Then Inverness Castle peered into view. At last. Touching the marker stone at 11:43am- the Great Glen Way was complete in 54 hours 13 mins, completely solo. I’d walked the same distance as Everest Base Camp and back again in one weekend yet remained largely intact.
After giving the Chinese tourists the willing honour to take some photos, it was a relieved hobble to the local Costa. My heart rate had been so low I hadn’t burnt that many calories. Not that it was going to stop me- except the stairs, perhaps.
Couldn’t have been happier to check in and relax at SYHA Inverness, a modern and spacious hostel just up the road from the town centre, before my socks coagulated to my feet. The smell would have brought even Nessie out of hiding.
And so challenge 6 was another success in a remarkable journey of physical and mental endurance. This time it went seamlessly. I lacked the exhaustion and huge obstacles, but staying focused for a long period of time whilst knowing you have a LONG way to go, always remains a challenge. It’s something that can be managed with strategies, developed by practice. The Great Glen is usually attempted in Summer and over 4 or 5 days. But I don’t do convention. Again I’d added my own twist to a challenge and got there injury free, with a sigh of relief. And self admittedly, my fitness has developed to the point that it takes more to break myself- surely a very reassuring realisation 6 weeks before the final EPIC7 challenge, my Holy Grail. This one is set to be the most epic of the lot and will entail the same struggles but on an unprecedented scale. Mount Everest via the Southeast Ridge. You guessed it correctly.
You’ll be glad to know, that the logistics of this one, aren’t organised by me. So now I can get my head down. From everything I’ve learnt and the sponsors who have come onboard my EPIC7 journey- I’m more ready than ever to give it my best shot. Thanks for your amazing support.
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