Trail Walker 2017
Written and Pictures By: Ian Harding and Andy Lyes
For the past several years teams and personnel from RAF Benson have taken part in the Trailwalker event.
Held annually in aid of The Gurkha Welfare Trust and Oxfam, it’s a 100km endurance event for teams of up to 4 people along the South Downs Way from Petersfield to Brighton. It takes in over 7220ft of ascent, 3 counties and some spectacular scenery; all to be completed with minimal support and in less than 30 hours. This year 2 groups from 28 Sqn, a Station team and a support crew from 606 Sqn raised £4600 collectively for the charities and set out to complete what would turn out to be more than “a walk in the park”.
Some of the participants had completed the event previously and they were mined for any hints or tips in the months running up to the walk – sock discipline and nutrition over such a long distance were all covered in depth. In between work and family commitments, a considerable amount of training was organised, with group runs, mass fund raising and repeated reps of Beggarbush Hill being a firm favourite! Fund raising was a key part of the training as it helped us reach our financial target but also allowed the teams to get to know each other, as a 100km jog is not the time to have a personality clash. With cake sales, a 12hr run and bike ride on camp, proceeds from Sqn functions and even bucket shaking outside Waitrose, the money raised was phenomenal and all went to two exceptional causes.
The talk in the week leading up to the start was mostly around the weather forecast, and no matter which way you interpreted it the rain was heavy and of biblical levels! Despite this, training continued apace and preparations sustained; central to this was the experience and calm reassurance of the support crew. Every year 606 Sqn kindly volunteer for this exhausting role, and every year they provide the support and advice to keep tired and emotional people on the go. Their role is to move between each checkpoint and prepare for the next team with hot drinks, food, new socks or any odd request they feel able to fulfil. After walking 15km in solid rain and thick mud it is a great relief to let them coax you into a warm van and force a banana into your hand. It is easily said but we could not have done it without them.
Accommodation prior to TW17 was at MOD Southwick Park. Following some morale at the pre-event registration and Gurkha curry, everyone retired to settle their bodies and minds to the task ahead. Sleep was in short supply as thoughts turned to the miles and hours ahead and the sound of zinc tape being applied and reapplied rang through the barracks into the early hours; not to mention a fire alarm going off 3 times between 11.30pm and 3.00am, requiring an evacuation each time. The morning started with a breakfast on the start line with the finest British Army porridge, non-specific pork sausages and glorious sunshine. Morale was high, and the assorted teams all due to start at the same time found a common theme of how best to tie your shoe laces to distract from the impending pain. A quiet determination settled amongst the Benson Spitfires, Venoms and Whirlwinds as the jump off approached, with the support of the Oxfam volunteers and the Royal Gurkha Rifles (RGR) ringing in their ears all thoughts turned to Brighton and the finish line.
The event itself is split into 10 legs with the 9 checkpoints dotted in fields and car parks along the route; the aim being each team walking unsupported between the checkpoints and only carrying what they need to survive until next contact with the support team. In principle this is quite straight forward and shouldn’t pose too many problems but trying to find a white van in a field of white vans is not the easiest! The routine at each checkpoint depended on how you felt; are you in a rush, do you need a bit of comforting or has the weather forced a change of clothes or shoes? The support crew is key here, prompting and cajoling the aching muscles into action for another stage. Once the team leave the comfort of the checkpoint they settle into a routine of picking a good pace, coming up with a topic of conversation not yet bled dry and trying to get Shake It Off by Taylor Swift out of your head.
The first 35km were completed in a fast time; the Venoms raced ahead in search of a record time whilst the Spitfires and Whirlwinds paced themselves to enjoy the social side of the event as well as counting down the Km. One of the joys of this event is dipping in and out of conversations as you pass teams, some can be just motivational but some can be quite thoughtful, a particular favourite was a father cursing his daughter for signing him up for the event as a birthday gift! The South Downs is a chalky soil, add a continuous supply of rain and the going gets a little sticky. The much discussed and dreaded rain held off until just after lunch and was relentless for the next 18 hours; it started as a light drizzle and peaked around 3.00am with 25kt gusts and heavy rain that attacked every gap in the waterproofs, soaking anything in your rucksack that wasn’t double bagged.
Conversation was limited in these conditions and people’s thoughts were solely on putting one foot in front of another, getting to the next checkpoint for fresh socks and a respite from the conditions. Sadly it was during the night that 3 of our competitors had to withdraw due to injury, the determination to continue was immense but on strong advice from the RGR medical team they retired to the team bus. Every checkpoint has a medical tent so people can have blisters treated, sprains massaged etc.
Throughout the night the volunteer medical personnel worked tirelessly to keep the masses going forward, but a rate of attrition was growing as competitors reached their limit and it was inevitable that some would not be finishing this year. Throughout the history of TW17 checkpoint 8 is legendary for its welcome and ability to raise the lowest spirit, this year was no exception as despite the inclement weather the CP could be seen from 5 miles away with disco lights, strobes, cyalumes and as you got closer the inspirational music (Top Gun, Rocky, Belinda Carlisle) really gave you something to smile about! Unfortunately the leg following this remarkable morale boost is the longest (14.5km) and through the darkest part of the night, again the rain continued unabated so feet and bodies gave up all warmth and we pushed onwards towards the finish with our feelings as dark as the night above.
Morning came with a sliver of sunshine over the horizon and the sight of CP9 in the distance. Thankfully the rain had stopped at some point but I cannot remember noticing the change! The sun warmed our faces and we nursed our sore legs towards the last stop before Brighton, the pace was steady and the bagpipes welcoming us in were more emotional than I would like to admit. Following a coffee and a year’s supply of Tangfastics, Benson Spitfires set off for the finish.
The Venoms had finished several hours earlier just after midnight and were catching up on well-earned sleep, and the Whirlwinds had fallen back but were steadfast in their determination to finish!
A WhatsApp group used by all teams gave constant updates as to teams positions and their wellbeing. Looking back through it, paints a picture of the peaks and troughs with some fairly unrepeatable dialogue…Throughout the walk Brighton and its racecourse are visible on the coast, tantalisingly close but always out of reach. As we completed the 90th km it became a reality as the path was heading almost directly to it; this motivation was just what we needed for our aching limbs and the pace quickened (slightly, but it’s all relative).
Energy levels picked up so much that a member of the team managed to put on a fresh t-shirt in preparation for the finishing photographs, it was obvious when speaking to all of the teams around us that it had been a long night but the sun and the cheers of the waiting crowd had erased all memories of the previous 95km. The last 2km are all on the racecourse and despite it being soft underfoot it was covered quickly and the relief in crossing the line was palpable.
After a handshake and a photo, it was straight to the food – a curry at 0630 had never tasted so good. All through the finish hall families, competitors, support crew all sat together debriefing the ups and downs and comparing blisters and injuries.
At the end my Garmin said we’d covered 63.2 miles in 22 hours and 45 mins, taken about 130,000 steps each and eaten more flapjacks, Haribo and peanut butter than is recommended in a day. Absorbed and cursed several litres of rain water, ruined 25 pairs of socks and sang American Pie so much if I ever hear it again I’d cry. But we had finished it, along with most of the other 1600 competitors who started and their support teams who arguably had the dirtier end of the stick; we were Trailwalker Strong! Oxfam and the Gurkha Welfare Trust continue to raise amazing sums of money worldwide on behalf of causes much more deserving than our sore feet or aching muscles, and if we can help by baking a few cakes or going on a stroll then we should. Next July more teams will take up the challenge and push themselves to the limit, and everyone who has stood on that line will know how they feel. Hopefully the weather will be kind, but if it’s not then the teams will still endure and hundreds of dedicated volunteers will help them every step of the way.
“Manis thulo dilale hunchha, jaatale hoina.”
People become great because of their heart and not by their race/caste.