At 5am on Saturday morning we woke up to lashing rain outside the tent, a great start to the 100km trek started on the South Downs! After months of training, fundraising and preparation our day was finally here - rain or no rain, this was it. So, after a hasty scoff of bacon, beans, bread and bananas (not quite all together) to the sound of the Ghurkhas piping us out we set off at 6am on our epic adventure.
The excitement you feel when setting off on those first few steps is so hard to describe and even the lashing rain couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm as the first few kilometres fell away behind us. At check point 1, our first 10km we realised how much harder it is for the support crew when it's raining. Last year we just sat down in the sunshine whilst they bustled around us with cups of tea and positivity, finding us clean socks and generally being lovely. Even more so than last year, our support crew excelled this year as they too had to deal with lashing rain, whilst trying to make cups of tea and change our wet gear for new dry stuff, trying to keep everything in some semblance of order whilst we tried to move on as quickly as possible rather than get even wetter standing around.
Checkpoints two and three bought more changes of clothes and waterproofs, more tea and a slight dampening of spirits in general - we were only 6/7 hours in - how would we cope with 24 hours+ of rain and weather like this, especially through the night? I think we all had the thought that, perhaps, we wouldn't. Nobody voiced their concerns though and positivity was still the order of the day with face paints and masks from our support crew to cheer us all up and a lot of flirting with the Ghurkhas to secure us a tarmac space rather than the muddy parking space! Then, miracle of miracles - half way between check point 3 and 4 - the rain stopped! About 20 minutes later a small amount of blue sky and the odd ray of sunshine peeped through - cheers and singing could be heard up and down the hills and paths!!!
The amazing change this brought about in our team (and probably everyone else) was remarkable. We started chatting and laughing again - you could almost feel the weight of worry that had been lifted from everyone. We tramped on with lighter hearts and almost a new spring in our step as clothes dried out and the day pressed on.
Check point 4 was our first dry one!! We were met with bubbles, “Team Explore” shiny bunting and our two lovely support crew who fed us heartily at this point with pasta salads and sweeties!!! Sadly this was where Lucy and Lizzie left us to hand over the van to Rachel and Paula who were to take up the night shift. Lucy & Lizzie had done us proud and would be a hard act to follow!!
So, we headed off, waved and hugged them both goodbye and pushed on to the half-way point. Coming into check point 5, 50kms down, there is a particularly nasty concrete hill - it was here that Steve's knee first started to really hurt - by the time we reached the grass of the check point he could barely stand on it and was obviously in huge amounts of pain. A visit to the first aid tent, a large amount of ice packs and a slightly sarcastic but very lovely first aider and Steve felt ready to push on to 6. A very courageous (and stubborn!) thing to do.
Between 5 and 6 night started to fall - finding your feet amongst the muddy paths had been difficult in daylight let alone in the dark and so we had to be extra careful. It was about half way between the two points that Steve's knee got worse and it became obvious that he wouldn't be able to continue past 60km. He struggled on though, wincing often but never complaining, we slowed right down and all of us dealt quietly with the fact that 4 would have to become 3 and how hard that would be for everyone.
Checkpoint 6 was the hardest - a tearful farewell to Steve for all of us and having to press on one team member down was horrible. Having had to drop out last year, I knew exactly how disappointed and frustrated he would feel and just wanted to stay with him and make sure he was ok - however our two new support crew looked after him well and me, Fiona and Debs pressed on into the night. It's hard to say what you remember most about the night stages - after a quiet start the night picked up for us. We were relatively upbeat and enjoyed watching the head torches bobbing along in rows in the night. It was always exciting to look back and see lines of lights coming down the hills where we'd been and somewhat foreboding to look ahead and see them streaming up the hills in front!
Checkpoints 8-9, the hardest section of the route. The longest at roughly 14km and the really hard hours of the morning 2-4am when it's darkest, coldest and you are pretty much at your lowest. Still the rain was holding off and we were pushing on. When dawn broke it was amazing. The views from the ridge we were on were spectacular and the prospect of daylight to walk in again was a real spur. A gorgeous sunrise and a most beautiful rainbow only helped our spirits. A brief but heavy downpour threatened to sap them again, but it soon cleared back up and we found some new energy from somewhere and sped up towards the 9th check point and the last time we would see our support crew before the end.
At 9 we knew we had around 4 hours to make it to the end if we wanted to complete the course in the 30hrs time limit. As we were all stiffening up quickly now every time we stopped we literally had a quick sock change and then headed on - our next stop would be Brighton - the culmination of our hard trudge.
To make this next section easier for us there was a huge hill, steeper and longer than any other on the route about 10 minutes in!!! This coupled with a strong gale blowing in your face and a very steep down-hill the other side, was just what we needed to spur us on!!! But spurred on we were - all knowing that the end was definitely now within our reach we all dug deep from somewhere. All exhausted, all aching, hurting in various places and a lot quieter than we had been when we started we eventually caught site of the race course in the distance - we knew it couldn't be more than 4 km away due to the distance between the checkpoints, but it looked a lot further!!! Eventually - we arrived, the last 1km of the trail is actually on the race course itself - so with springy "comfortable" grass beneath our feet we came home! The sound of the Ghurkha pipers that had played us out in the morning, played us back in at the end where there was a very emotional reunion with our missing team mate and all our friends and family members that had come down to see us - we had finished.
The hours that have followed have been hazy! A mixture of stiff and aching muscles, sore feet and sleep and a sense of satisfaction, pride and wonderment and the stupidity that lead us to take part in the first place!!!!
A massive thank you to everyone who sent us messages throughout the trail - your support was invaluable - and to everyone that sponsored us as well. I can promise I will not be taking part again next year, but it is immense, amazing and something I will never forget. My team mates were awesome, our support crew beyond awesome! And now for some more sleep - thanks guys x