‘100km?’ That doesn’t seem too far I thought to myself.
‘Walk from Putney Bridge to Henley?’ Oh that’s a nice walk along the Thames for a weekend.
‘63 miles?’ Ok, now that is starting to sound quite a distance.
‘Over two marathons?’ Hum… now this may take some time.
‘Likely to take over 24 hours, overnight to complete?’ Ok, maybe this challenge is rather considerable.
‘Will you do it?’
I couldn’t stop the words from passing my lips and agreeing to take on the Thames Path Challenge.
I joined The One Brand one month ago as the new National Account Manager, but I’m very familiar with the incredible work that The One Foundation does having worked in partnership with them at World Duty Free for the previous three years.
Having had the opportunity to experience, for myself, the hardship, endurance and resilience of the communities in Malawi two years prior, I know how far money donated through challenges and sponsored activities goes.
With 663 million people still without access to safe, clean water and One’s objective to raise £20 million for water projects by 2020, I accepted the challenge.
I knew I couldn’t do this on my own – so with a little persuasion, I was joined by Paul Hutchinson, Mike Tyler and Tony Goddard, from World Duty Free, Ben Tayler who used to work at One and Chris Palethorpe from Bidvest Foodservice.
Saturday 11th September soon arrived. It was dry and cool, good weather for walking but rain was forecast for later. I was nervous by the prospect of what was ahead of us but was confident, after some trekking recently in Peru, that me and my little boots would look after each other.
There was laughter and stories, a real buzz of activity and chatter when we began. Walking along the towpath through Putney we passed Barnes, along to the home of One Water in Richmond, and then headed past Hampton Court along to Kingston.
With the incredible support from Action Challenge, regular checkpoint and rest stops were available. An opportunity that involved all of us stocking up on food supplies, fluid, a review of the condition of our well-worn feet and a chance to check in with our many amazing supporters online to give them an update of our progress.
The regular flow of fellow walkers soon thinned out, but Team One (as we soon referred to ourselves as) stayed together. The rhythm and pace of our feet was steady. 5km an hour to start with soon slowed down to a steady tempo but aches and pains were starting to raise their ugly heads.
Blisters, sore soles, aches in our joints and tiredness were to be just the beginning.
Having walked 10 hours, Staines-on-Thames was to be where there was a gap in our pack. Tony was fighting an injury, an injury that was causing a lot of pain.
The 50km rest stop was well needed. We had 11 hours of walking behind us, but potentially another 12 – 13 hours ahead. With pulled hamstrings, dizziness, fatigue, hunger and tears, darkness had fallen upon us and our team of six became five. Tony had no choice but to retire from the challenge.
Psychologically, the idea of repeating what we had just endured was terrifying. Physically, it seemed impossible.
There is an African proverb which states ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
We stuck together.
Head torches on and using walking sticks found from the trees, we went into the night, away from the bright lights of the rest point, the warmth of the tent, the comfort of warm food and drink.
With no walkers in front of us and no walkers behind, Team One were on their own. The night was quiet.
Being led by glow sticks in the trees, walking single file, the sheer scale of what we were enduring overwhelmed me. Exhaustion was defeating me; I couldn’t seem to swallow away the hard lump in my throat, or the warm sting of tears behind my eyes.
I forced myself to look back and remember Nasundu School in Malawi where World Duty Free has funded a feeding programme ensuring that not only did the children get an education, they also received at least one meal for the day. I had never met such a grateful, joyful and happy group of children. I could hear their voices singing in my head and I could see them dancing. I found myself smiling.
Back in the cold reality of the night, I knew I had to carry on walking.
Between 70 and 80km was by far the toughest section of the course. Each and every distance marker seemed to get further and further apart.
The cool mist of morning was rising and the haze of dawn lifted us into Sunday.
By this point, we all just wanted it to be over. With new clean fresh socks on, breakfast devoured, warming tea drunk and the new morning here, we gained a new lease of life to cross the finish line.
We were on the home stretch.
Through Cookham then round to Marlow, the final sweep around the Thames to Henley couldn’t come soon enough.
Coming into Henley, we were joined by 10km runners and Sunday walkers. They seemed to be aware of what we were concluding and shared with us words of encouragement. Our fatigue must have been written all over our faces.
Anything to change the feeling in my toes or in my hips, I found myself slowly running along. The pain in the balls of my feet whilst walking was taking its toll. I never thought I would hear myself say that running felt better than walking.
Team One had spread thin at this point but we were still all in sight. Adamant we would cross the line together, we dropped back and re-grouped. Seeing the 99km marker was spectacular. The last 1km involved laughter, encouragement, support, many tears and from me – apologies for even asking the guys to take this on with me.
We could see the finish line in sight when crossing Henley Bridge.
Our friends, family, loved ones and our teammate Tony, clapped us over the line. I can’t even describe the feeling I had when we crossed, arm in arm as a team.
We had finished it! We had completed The Thames Path Challenge. I have never felt so proud, accomplished, overwhelmed and emotional as I did at this point.
Injury for Tony was not going to defeat him. One week later, he stood back in Runnymede and by himself, walked his remaining 50km. 11 hours he endured but when reaching the end, he felt proud that he had also now completed the challenge.
In total we raised just shy of £4,000 and for that, I want to thank each and every one of you who supported us before, during and after this gruelling challenge.
At the beginning of the day I started with five colleagues and acquaintances. 27 hours later I finished with one blister, two sore hips, two swollen ankles and five very close friends.