South Downs Way – notes from day 1

Departure!

Awake at 5.10am & too edgy to enjoy breakfast but left on time with 2 pyjama-clad girls. Finished reading ‘All The Light We Cannot See’ (Anthony Doerr) on the way to London & found a grateful recipient who told me her son would be very envious of my walk & that she’d pass the book on when she’d read it.

Glad I had extra time at Waterloo to find toilets and buy some breakfast. 1st drama was realising phone was only 40% charged – maybe I switched of the socket last night?!! Or actually, maybe it wasn’t plugged in – doh! No sockets on train to Winchester so already making use of portable battery pack… 

My pack is heavier than I might like (11kg with water) and the weather is a tad warm but I’m ready…

The walk:

Winchester was horrid – I just wanted to get in a green space but it seemed to take forever! Wandered towards the cathedral (didn’t actually see it); bought a spinach & ricotta pasty (it was actually a folded pizza filled with peppers); took it back but failed to find another savoury vegetarian option so left with nothing; missed the official start point, went back to find it and then started – beautiful but short stretch along the river; and then seemingly no signs! In hindsight I think they’d been turned around but still annoying. Once I found my way it seemed an age getting out of Winchester and then the road noise could still be heard for a few miles. Finally, after a few tears (thinking about all the things last year that had brought me to that point, missing my mum, tired & a bit frustrated at the patchy start) I took a few big breaths and found my feet.  

Met a ginger Archie and had a brief surge of homesick-for-my-pooch tears. Stopped to apply my first compeed (left heel) and ate my cheese roll from home. Stopped again the take out toe spacer. Realised I was going to reach my destination before 3pm!!!

I deliberately planned an easy day to start with but I think the desire to get going took over. Note to self – next time, set off later or sit and have lunch in Winchester! No matter – sat in the shade with water, book and snacks waiting for the pub to open. Remembering that this is a holiday and sitting down is permitted.

The evening:

The accommodation was fairly basic but the bedding and towels were clean and there was the unexpected bonus of a TV & a bath. Neighbours watched; clothes and body washed. I’d planned an early dinner but once I sat down I didn’t want to move, and then a big group of Harley’s rumbled into the car park and jumped ahead of me in the dinner queue!! It made for a really nice vibe in the bar though, as I half read, half eavesdropped, and ate a really delicious spinach & ricotta cannelloni.

When I woke at 5am to the calls of the peacocks next door it occurred to me that their owner must be the same man who had remonstrated with the bikers as they left at 8.30pm last night, presumably about the noise they were making! 

A beginner’s guide to preparing for a long distance walk (part 2)

my top 6 tips for planning any long distance event, new activity or life in general.

Here’s the next section of my beginner’s guide to preparing for a long distance walk, created as I prepare to embark on my first one. In case you missed it, you can read part 1 here

Consider what you need to spend money on:

When I started walking in January, I was wearing jeans, a cotton t-shirt, a cotton hoodie, a vaguely-showerproof dog-walking coat and some vintage walking boots I found tucked away in my shed! On long walks I was covering 13 miles so the lack of ‘proper’ clothing didn’t stop me walking, but I realised fairly early-on that I would need to up my game a bit…

My first purchase was a pair of decent walking socks. Unfortunately they weren’t the right ones for me, but the second pair was much better and I’ve stuck with those ever since.

The thing I resisted buying for longest was a pair of walking trousers, just because they seemed so geeky!! Happily I found a pair that weren’t beige and I haven’t looked back since!

NB If you’re buying new clothing for your event, don’t do what I did and buy three pairs all at once, only to find that loose and comfortable at home = chafing and uncomfortable over a longer distance. I have had to buy a couple more pairs, a size smaller than I would instinctively go for, to get the right fit. I’m hoping the larger size will come into their own in the winter as I’ll be able to fit a pair of leggings underneath, but I could have done without the additional expense.

The first time I wore ‘all the gear’ I felt like a potential fire-hazard, dressed head-to-toe in man-made (aka technical) fabrics, but over the past few months I have appreciated the benefit of said fabrics many times over.

all the gear…in all the colours!!

Finding the right footwear was a bit of a mission but now that I have ‘the ones’ I am glad that I didn’t settle for those which just didn’t feel quite right. The difference they make is huge and it is so good to feel confident that my feet will be ok, especially when I’ll be relying on them as my sole (see what I did there?!) mode of transport from the moment I step off the train in Winchester until I arrive on Hastings pier. If you only get one thing right for your event, make sure it is your footwear!

pair of boots #5

Unexpectedly, my best purchase to date has been a rain poncho. I’ve learned that the thing which annoys me & slows me down the most is faffing on and off with my backpack to put on/take off a waterproof coat when the weather just can’t decide what to do. The rain poncho goes on over everything (including my pack) so on days when I think I’ll need it, I hang it (rolled up in its little bag) from a hook on the front of my pack, ready to pull out and throw on at a moment’s notice. I believe that it is also the most truly versatile piece of kit – ground sheet, canopy, one-woman toilet-tent, hammock, curtain (for my dorm-room bed), talking point…I tell you, it is genius & I love it!

Of course you don’t necessarily need to spend money on everything – ask around and see what you can borrow, even if it is just to try things out before you buy. I have borrowed a sleeping bag for my event and have borrowed a trekking-friends’ poles to train with. In truth I could have used them for my walk too, but I had the romantic notion that I wanted my own pair of poles so that they would be with me for all my memorable walks, now and in the future. Daft I know, but that’s the way I roll!

[I’ll write a separate post about trekking poles soon…lots to say!]

Test everything:

Once you have acquired your kit, or as you are busy acquiring it, get it on and test it how you will use it for your event. Test it in every type of weather, over different distances, with different loads (if you’ll be carrying a backpack) and at different times of the day. Even if you feel silly walking the dog with a 50 litre backpack on, do it anyway! It will create no end of interest from your neighbours, but more importantly it will tell you what, if anything, you need to refine.

Things to consider (obviously the specifics will vary with each type of event):

  • does your underwear chafe? (it’s important to find this out early on)
  • how do your feet feel after  x-hours or x-miles?
  • are your waterproofs waterproof?
  • how does your backpack feel on your back/shoulders/hips?
  • how easy is it to get your gloves out when a sudden cold wind whips up a hail-storm without warning? (answer – far too long, but lesson learned!)
  • how quickly do your clothes dry off after walking through a field of long grass right after a heavy downpour?
  • how easily can you access the things you might need frequently? (in my case the things I like to have in easy reach at all times are lip salve, tissue, phone, map, snacks & water, plus gloves, hat & sunglasses accessible without needing to take off my backpack)

Use every training session as another chance to test out your kit, as getting things right will make the biggest difference for your actual event. Feeling confident before you start is one less thing to worry about when the time comes.

Work out the right fuel & hydration for your body:

This has probably been my biggest lesson.

When I started in January, I was covering 13 miles without any snacks (except for Christmas cake on one joyous occasion) and only rare, brief stops for sips of hot water. I didn’t think I needed any food because I wasn’t getting hungry, and I only noticed how thirsty I was at the end, but what I did notice was that I became very cold as soon as I stopped walking, and then felt totally exhausted for the rest of the day (and sometimes the next day too).

Over time I have experimented with different fuel options and have found a formula which seems to work for me, while I’m walking and afterwards. For a long walk I now carry:

  • a 2 litre water-bladder in my backpack, from which I take small and frequent drinks (I also have two 1 litre collapsible bottles for the SDW so that I can carry extra water on the really long days/in hot weather)
  • an insulated bottle with hot water in it for when I take a break
  • a nut bar or sesame seed bar for protein and energy
  • a raw fruit bar/snack for energy
  • a packet of oatcakes for slower release energy (and because sometimes I want something savoury rather than sweet)
  • Kendal mint cake as a back-up / treat towards the end of my walk
snacks for walking

snacks that work for me –
what are your favourites?

I won’t necessarily eat all of these things (it will depend on time/distance/exertion) but I now have a better understanding of the fuel I need to get me where I need to be and in good shape when I get there.

Giving some focus to this area of my preparation has been very important. To start with I didn’t like drinking cold water (because I don’t like how it feels in my stomach) but I have adjusted and become comfortable with the stomach-feel during recent weeks, spurred on by the knowledge that sipping hot water wasn’t giving me the hydration I needed. The benefit of testing out lots of different food options, has been that I now have four go-to products which my body copes with well.

There was a near-choking scare along the way – I was eating nuts and raisins, whilst walking and talking to a friend; as I did so, I partly inhaled a half-chewed nut, which got a bit stuck in my throat for a few worrying seconds, while I coughed and spluttered and my friend tried to work out how she would be able to perform a back slap while I was wearing a backpack!!! That one incident (and visions of choking to death alone on the SDW) did more to focus my mind on potentially suitable snacks than anything else.

As with your kit, test out your fuel options every time you train for your event – it is another area where confidence in a tried-and-tested approach will make a huge difference when it matters most.

When I started thinking about walking the SDW, I thought it was just about doing the miles and had no idea how much I had to learn, but the process of getting ready has been as positive as the practice walks and physical & mental health benefits. I am feeling slightly nervous about what I’m about to do, but so excited that I have this opportunity to challenge myself in this way.

I’ll report back soon to let you know if all my planning came good and to add anything new that I haven’t learned yet!

A beginner’s guide to preparing for a long distance walk (part 1)

my top 6 tips for planning any long distance event, new activity or life in general.

I’m not sure what age I was when I started walking (I think I was the child who was happy to sit in one spot for hours at a time?!) but given that I’m 53 now, I reckon I must have been on my feet for about 52 years. Over the past 18 months, walking has helped me process grief and hormone-related depression and has increasingly become an inherent part of me. There’s something in the rhythm of walking that makes me feel truly alive, which is why I’m about to set off for my first long distance walk (LDW) next week…

Earlier this year I decided that I was going to walk The Pennine Way (a vague dream I’ve had since I was a teenager) and then I looked into it in more detail and got a bit scared. It’s not my style to do an organised walk, with baggage transfers and plush b&b nights, so I realised that I wasn’t quite ready for this particular challenge for my first solo LDW. Instead, I set my sights closer to home, with a shorter, less challenging walk – The South Downs Way (Winchester to Eastbourne) plus an added day to get me to Hastings.

It occurs to me that this might be the most planning & preparation I’ve done in a long time, largely because this is the most I’ve stepped out of familiar territory for a long time too. I’m not worried about the walking itself, even though my longest distance so far is not equal to my longest days on the SDW, but I wanted to feel confident about following a map, having everything in my backpack where I can access it easily, staying dry in the pouring rain, not looking like a total novice, etc, etc.

rain poncho happiness
the joy of a waterproof
rain poncho 🙂

I’ve been thinking about the process of preparation a lot over the past few weeks and as result I’ve written my beginner’s guide to preparing for a long distance walk.

Although it is about walking for me, I think that many of these stages are relevant for any long distance event, new activity or life in general. I’ve tried to put them in some sort of order, but of course many will overlap. This post covers the first 3 tips (the getting started stuff) and I’ll share the next 3 tips (the practical stuff) tomorrow.

I hope you find something useful, whatever you’re planning.

Start where you are:

It sounds obvious, but it is too easy to wait until everything is in place before we start doing something new or challenging. We might wait until we have all the right equipment, or until we have lost weight, or until we feel fitter, or until the weather is better, or until someone can do it with us…but actually what we really need to do is just start.

I wanted to do a LDW so I started by walking further:

  • I signed up to #walk100miles which has been a great source of motivation and information
  • I began adding extra distance whenever I walked the dog (walking around an extra field, or going twice around the local woods instead of once)
  • I started planning longer walks on the weekends, discovering new footpaths near my home
  • I set up an informal walking group every Wednesday morning – making a commitment to be there for other people has helped me to make a commitment to myself
  • I have made more effort to walk instead of using the car for local trips, eg. going to the library, collecting parcels form the post office or a quick visit to the supermarket

The best thing is that over the past few months, walking has become such a great part of my day that it no longer feels like an effort to do it.

Plan your event:

Give yourself time to think about what sort of an event you want to do and then take time to research the various options available.

I knew from the start that I wanted to do an independent, unsupported walk – ie. not a pre-planned, organised walking holiday. For me, walking has been about learning to believe in myself, and so it feels important to do this by myself too. It wouldn’t be everyone’s choice, of course, so I think the first thing when planning your event is to know what is right for you.

Once you have decided on your event, and made some initial plans, step back a little and take time to review and re-plan as many times as you need. For the SDW, I bought a book which covers the whole walk plus lots of advice on suggested daily distances, places to stay, etc. I went through it in fine detail and planned out my daily schedule and places to sleep. The next week, I looked it over again and re-scheduled the whole thing. And the next week, after reading another book on the subject, I did the same again! Only then did I feel ready to book my accommodation and arrange time off work.

My main focus in the planning stages was:

  • getting the distances right (not too short – arriving by lunchtime – and not too long – arriving after dark)
  • guessing my likely average pace with a backpack (not something I had practiced at this stage)
  • sticking to a budget (ie. finding the most cost-effective places to stay without resorting to sleeping under canvas)

Try to plan well-ahead of your event so that you have plenty of time to review and reschedule if necessary.

Create a training ‘schedule’:

As a fitness instructor, this one is an obvious consideration but actually I only recently realised that I have been doing it all along without having specifically planned it out from the beginning.

Since I planned my event, I have gradually increased my weekly distances; walked over different terrain (to more closely replicate the terrain on the SDW); gradually added weight to my backpack; trained in different weather conditions; mixed in shorter, faster walks with longer, slower ones; and walked with and without the dog (he’s not coming with me on the SDW so I needed to check how it would feel – in truth quite lonely, but much easier to only think about me and not him too).

Archie’s face when I told him he wasn’t coming with me…

A few weeks ago I increased my weekly mileage by 50% and experienced my first (and only) blisters. It was quite an important lesson and luckily gave me time to review and change my boots while I still had time to do so.

Once the boot issue was resolved, I upped my mileage again for one week just to see how it would feel doing three long walks in a row; and since then I have tapered off again in the same way that I might if I was training for a marathon.

If you’re not sure how best to train for your event, get some help – talk to friends, look online, find a trainer, join a club or read-up on your activity. Training is not rocket-science but you don’t have to learn everything the hard way – unless you want to!

empty plate
scrambled eggs be gone!

With one week to go I am now focusing less on distance and more on making sure I eat and sleep well. I know I can walk, and I’m confident in my kit, so now I need to make sure that I’m in good shape to do it well.

Tomorrow I’ll add my next 3 tips focusing on what kit to invest in, how to check it’s the right kit for you and how best to fuel your body…

putting my house in order

Putting my house in order – January 2019

Not one for NY resolutions, I am however really enjoying the surge of energy I’m feeling at the start of 2019. This time last year my Mum had not long died and I felt as if I was crawling into the new year. My only goal at that stage was to have one thing each month to look forward. Those things became my stepping stones through a difficult year.

It took me until October to even start to emerge from my grief. Obviously the grief is still there but it is no longer pulling me under – it’s a part of life but it’s no longer all-consuming. From that point on I had a real drive to ‘catch up’ on the months I had lost and I entered into a phase of frantic DIY which lasted until early December. In hindsight, I realise that it was mostly about being so busy that I didn’t have time to think; it was my way of escaping from the world and staying safe in my house. It left me with newly painted walls and total exhaustion!

Since Christmas I have started on a new DIY project, but this time it feels different. I’m not using it to avoid the world – I’m using it as a way of putting my house in order and the change in focus feels quite nurturing. Resolving problems, clearing out cupboards, reorganising and re-thinking how I use the space I have, has been a really positive process – although the dog is still not happy that his bed is in a different place!!

At the same time I’ve started taking more care of my body – the ‘house’ in which I literally live – by reviewing and overhauling some lazy nutrition and exercise habits:

  • I’ve defrosted and sorted through my freezer; stocked up on staple ingredients; batch-cooked some meals and prepped so that healthy meals can be quicker and easier to prepare.
  • I’ve been trying to walk at least 5km a day – some days I’ve gone double that distance, some days I haven’t reached it, but over time I hope the average is 35km a week. I’m finding it quite tough – not the distance, but the time it takes to walk the distance – but since I hate running I’m just going to have to find the time required!
  • I have also signed up to R.E.D January to nudge me into doing something fitness-related every day (on top of walking). I have become very good (aka bad!) at ‘letting myself off’ my own fitness training over the past few years, armed with some real reasons but mostly lots of excuses, but I am determined that it is going to change this year. I’ve started with short workouts on the basis that 10-15 minutes is an ok place to begin and that done is better than perfect. It’s not too late to sign up to R.E.D January if you need a gentle nudge too

The final part of putting my house in order is finding a word to set my intention for the way ahead. I caught myself  thinking I didn’t want to do this because although I think it’s a neat idea, nothing came to mind and I didn’t want to give my energy to it…but my #cy365 photo prompt for Thursday was ‘one word’ and that kind of forced the issue! My first thought was ‘now’ because it was in the title of the book I had just finished reading (‘Goodbye For Now’ by Laurie Frankel) and I decided it was a good reminder about being present – ‘in the now’.

here

Then as I walked my 4.7km this morning I decided that ‘here’ was perhaps a better reminder to be present in life and so that is what I have settled on. I regularly give myself the chance to opt out of living fully but maybe this year will be different and I will opt-in to the ‘here and now’ more often…

Regardless of the time of year, I think it is always useful to take time for some auditing and life-laundry. Putting my house in order feels like the best way to start the year, and so much better in every way than the way it started last year.

I don’t plan to use these intentions to beat myself up with if I get side-tracked later on, but at their heart these are the things that matter to me and it seems sensible to set out my stall in the quiet moments before I go fully back to work next week.

I’m fed up with not showing up in my own life and I am the only person that can do something about it, so watch this space (or don’t!) – this year I will be HERE!

Jx