I went on my first Long Distance Walking Association walk a few weeks ago (for more info). The walk was 20 miles from Radlett to St. Albans Abbey, but by a very indirect route following, what I assume was, the Hertfordshire Way. The walk was great, I met some amazing people. One was a lady in her 70s and had represented GB in ultra walking! She has walked over 50 100mile races, several 200-300 mile races and a couple handfuls of other events, including winning the womens’ category of the Grand Union Canal race, despite it being a running race. She gave me some excellent advice on eating and reassured me that having walking as a large component of my 100mile training was not ridiculous, but essential. Nearly everyone in the group had walked 100miles at least once, and many do this distance every year. When you consider walking 100miles can take up to 48 hours, it is incredible and shifted my perspective of this distance from extraordinary to a sort of, sub-ordinary. It also gave me an insight into how much individual experiences vary, some people did not find sleep deprivation an issue at all, whereas others said this was the greatest challenge. I will not know know what will be hard for me, until I try myself, and I can only mentally prepare for the worst. My planned 96mile attempt was not seen as a drop in ocean amongst the seasoned ultra-distancers, or an impossible and pointless dream. Everyone was so excited about my goal and training and celebrated it. I appreciated this so much.
While out on a trail I am often told stories, real ones. The stories that were the turning point, the making moment, or the point of no return. Everyone has their share of tragedy and joy, but is there something about doing something as human as moving, that brings greater sharing and openness? Maybe the stories come from just spending so much time outside that superficial small talk is quickly exhausted. We purposely seclude ourselves from general society for a brief window in time. Walking for hours, training in terrible weather, unified in that rebellion with those walking, rowing, cycling, running with you. Matching strides, the repetitive and synchronised nature that binds us. It is why the military march. Equalised and in unison, united. It returns a far greater reward. Trust.
I love stories. It is when listening and telling while matching strides, sharing together what will become a new shared tale of endurance, that I have made the lasting connections with people, through shared trust, despite the briefness of our time together. Max runs in solitude, his own meditation (or maybe, penance?). He is humoured when I come back from a race or run with a new friend. When I run and walk, I collect the stories of those I am with, and in turn they collect mine. I am reading Robert MacFarlene’s book ‘The Old Ways’ and he eloquently comes back to this interchangeability of trail making and story making, of wayfaring and storytelling and I realise how much a shared experience this is.
There was another passage I dog-eared from MacFarlene’s book to re-read. It made me think about why the West Highland Way and why the entirety of it.
‘For some time now it has seemed to me that the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? And the, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?’
For myself, it is not just the place, but the action of moving through it. When I think about why I am running or walking so far, I have three motivators.
The unknown outcome. I go into training ‘knowing’ I will finish the race. I know it 100%, I have to know it. But what will come to pass between starting and ending, is the unknown outcome I am so curious to discover.
The self- knowing. To know at the next challenge that you can overcome it, because of what you have done before and to know what you do when you have gone too far. There is a perspective gained in achieving something that, before setting your mind to overcome it, you could not have.
People. Having a non-superficial shared experience with others gives me a great amount of happiness and meaning.
There is a magic in the storytelling shared on the long distance Way. How many stories the Ways must share. The footfalls, a typewriter hammer.