Well, the blisters are slowly healing, the limp is becoming imperceptible and the sleep debt is gradually reducing. My Oxfam Trailwalker experience is over for this year and recovery is on the way.
It’s a gruelling event, particularly for those teams who choose to push on through the night to reach the finish line the next morning. Your feet hurt, your muscles ache and you become hypnotically delirious watching that bobbing circle of light on the ground from your head torch, willing your body to keep putting one foot in front of the other, hour after endless hour.
But the wonder that is Trailwalker is that it creates an instant, pop up community. Over 3,000 strangers bond over their pain, their struggles and their mutual confusion as to what possessed them to take on such a thing. It’s a unique, shared experience.
At the start, walkers joke with each other, check out the funny costumes or matching outfits, work out which teams they think will make it and which look like they just wandered down from the shops for a stroll. There’s plenty of laughter, chitchat and general bonhomie.
Later, the conversation tends to start with, “So, how’s it going?” The answer can vary from “Great! How about you?” to a barely audible grunt, depending on how the recipient of the query is faring.
As the pace slows and the walkers thin out, people stop asking how you are. They know how you are because they’re feeling it too. This is when the positive affirmations kick in. “Doing a great job”, “Keep going”, “You’re almost there”.
People who’ve never met and probably will never meet again become each other’s biggest supporters.
Sit on the side of the road to remove a stone from your shoe and the next walker will ask if you’re okay. Then they’ll wait and help you get up again.
At the top of a particularly difficult track, I was handed a lolly (sweet/candy) by another walker “for my trouble”. One small act. Encountering the same team at various points, as rest times and walking paces varied, we would share a joke, a comment, a bit of cheer. We bonded over a piece of flavoured sugar. It was the simple things.
Every community needs its cogs to keep things going. At each checkpoint awaited our Support Crew. Providores, clothiers, caterers, psychologists, cheer squad, they were our angels of mercy.
And the added glue to this moving instant community was the volunteers. People who donated their time to stand in the cold, the dark and the rain to point us in the right direction, give us a word of encouragement and some nourishment. Close to the end, exhausted physically, emotionally and mentally, while I waited for a slower team mate to make her way down the last hill, one volunteer, seeing obvious signs of distress, offered me a hug. It was gratefully received.
The joy, oh the joy, of approaching that finish line, the cheers not only of our supporters but of more strangers in this sudden, gathered community drawing us to the end of our troubles and the satisfaction of a challenge overcome.
There are Trailwalkers who have come back not once, not twice but five and even ten times. At 4.00am, 20 hours in, I couldn’t imagine how anyone would want to come back a second time, let alone multiple times. Then, mere days later, my mind plays nasty tricks and whispers the words “next year…”.
Perhaps it is the community we miss. It certainly isn’t the blisters, the boring bits, the seemingly eternal darkness. But the camaraderie, the shared experience, the chance to give and receive support and encouragement to and from fleeting, nameless friends… That is surely what draws us back time and time again.
Postscript: Those who have been following my blog may be wondering how I fared when I was required back on stage the Sunday after the event. I am pleased to say that no lines were missed and due to the mystery of acting, all stage moves were completed without a perceptible limp (getting down the stairs off stage was another matter).