Having shared his training schedule with us, an exhausted Stephen Wilson is back to give an excellent and riveting account of his team’s very emotional battle with the Oxfam Trailtrekker 2010 Challenge. The challenge covered just over 100km between Newcastle, County Down and Carlingford, County Louth crossing some rugged terrain of all types.
Since my last update on the Mourne 7 sevens we had decided to tone down the training in the final weeks before the Trailtrekker itself. Our fundraising walk on the 15th of August was a great success as we got a beautiful day to dander from Helens Bay to Whitespots Country Park with a fantastic bunch of people and managed to raise over £300.
Our training up to now had covered virtually every kind of terrain at various times of day and night in varying conditions, but we felt that we needed to get in one last long distance walk that would be mostly on tarmac. With this in mind we decided to take on a route suggested by our support driver, John Moore. So, on Sunday 22nd August, myself, Eve and Melissa got up early and walked from Hazelbank Park in Whiteabbey, using the cycle path down to the docks, through Belfast and along the Airport Road to Holywood. Then, joined by Darren, we trekked along the coastal path all the way to Bangor. Its roughly 35km and we were blessed again with a gorgeous day for it, but I made the mistake of having one too many alcoholic beverages the night before and quickly became dehydrated while suffering from some worrying swelling and pain in my left knee. Note to self: Don’t party the night before a big hike. Apart from the rather dull section through the docks and airport road, this is a very scenic walk which took us just under eight hours. I was later able to go up Cavehill and take the a shot which captures at least 90% of the route in 1 picture.
With just two weeks to go, and all our planned training completed we it took it pretty easy in the gym on the final countdown to the big event. One thing I’ve learned during the longer hikes that I’ve taken on is that your body definitely runs on the food you fuel it with the day before. So in preparation on Friday 3rd September I did little more than rest and eat while packing my kit and can remember feeling very anxious about what I was about to take on. 100km was suddenly a very daunting prospect!
As half our team was at a wedding on the Friday, Eve and I made our way to Newcastle at about 7pm to take advantage of the fantastic BBQ laid on by Oxfam during registration. It was good to chat to other teams and compare stories of training and fundraising before Darren and Melissa joined us for one sociable pre-bedtime drink in the Avoca Hotel, which is grossly overpriced but extremely handy to Donard Park. We were all in good spirits and filled with hopes of a good nights sleep and favourable conditions in the morning… unfortunately, neither came true. After a restless night for all, the first glance out the window looked promising. However, the low clouds over Donard and the stiff cool breeze told me that the visible sun wasn’t going to stick around for long.
The breakfast of porridge and toast provided by Oxfam was very welcome, however due to a mix of nerves and excitement, some of the team found it hard to stomach despite knowing we would need the energy later on. The first group of 200 walkers had set off at 7am and we were due to start at 8, which came around all to quickly as we sorted our kit into John’s incredible big white van.
Before we knew it the countdown was on and we were under way among a group of other smiling walkers keen to get going… little did we all know!!
8:00 SECTION 1 – Donard Park to Meelmore Lodge (8km)
The 1km marker was passed with ease while we were still on the roads, but somehow the thought of “only 99 to go” didn’t seem any less daunting. Conditions held ok during section 1 which was a familiar trek along side Tollymore forest and round towards the foot of Meelmore but we were dissapointed to see that the checkpoint didn’t really provide access for support crew as we needed to grab our wet gear before the longer section 2.
10:12 SECTION 2 – Meelmore Lodge to Leitrim Lodge (14.5km)
This was the first of the two longest sections at 14.5km but despite the rain coming down just a few kilometres in we made very good pace. The route took us around the foot of Meelmore, Ott, Cock, Hen and Rocky mountains before we arrived at the Leitrim lodge checkpoint bang on lunchtime with dampened spirits and soaking clothes. It didn’t take John long to put a smile on our faces as he slid back the side door of the van to reveal what felt like 5 star accommodation!! Awaiting each of us was a chair with snacks and juice and there was hot drinks and pasta on the gas hob. I think we all could have happily married him at that point! With ample space for us all to get changed out of wet clothes it wasn’t long until we were raring to go again, so with full belly’s and our wet gear on we set off on section 3.
13:14 SECTION 3 – Leitrim Lodge to Kilbroney Park (9km)
I honestly don’t remember very much about this section, other than it being mostly a straight track through Rostrevor forest and that we passed the 25km marker, so had completed a quarter of the distance with relative ease. However, our pace had dropped and we didn’t reach Kilbroney until just after 4pm. We had a little jog down the hill to the checkpoint and it felt great to change the pace and get the heart pumping a little faster.
16:07 SECTION 4 – Kilbroney Park to Omeath (5.5km)
After a quick blister check and change of Footwear we set off along the coast road beside Carlingford Lough to the boat crossing at Warrenpoint. I only just got my bum down and all I remember is Mel saying “Go FAST” to the driver before our white knuckle, adrenaline pumping FLIGHT across the waves!! This much needed injection of fun slapped a huge grin on all our faces and we marched along to the next checkpoint in good spirits despite the drizzle, that, as Peter Kay would say “ Soaks ya right through!”
17:35 SECTION 5 – Omeath to Killeen (9km)
Despite the fun of section 4 the distance was starting to take its toll. Team captain Darren had to have some blisters attended to by the medics and Mel had been struggling with a hip injury for quite some time. They both bravely continued on through section 5, but unfortunately Darren had to retire at roughly the 40km mark, passing the baton of team leader on to me. We were so proud of him for getting so far but also gutted to see him go and I think this hit us all pretty hard. Waiting for the medics to collect him had put us dead last, which was psychologically very hard to deal with. Night fell quickly during the remainder of the stage and the boggy, wet and rocky terrain at the end was made all the more difficult as we only had one head torch between the 3 of us.
21:09 SECTION 6 – Killeen to Slieve Gullion (7.5km)
At Killeen, we took the opportunity to refuel on fish suppers. Our pace had been slow in stage 5 and poor Melissa’s injury was getting worse, but in the knowledge that the next stage was only 7.5km of flat tarmac she bravely limped onwards. This should have been a relatively easy section but with fatigue setting in and the darkness eating away at our morale it seemed so much longer than it actually was. As we neared the checkpoint, emotions were running high as Eve and myself could tell that Mel was in too much pain to carry on. I desperately wanted to say or do something to motivate her to continue but I was already struggling with my own motivation and the words simply wouldn’t come. It’s amazing how the smallest thing can make you crack in moments like this. The shout of “Hurry Up!” from John as we approached the van should have been hilarious, but it managed to put all of us in tears.
23:26 SECTION 7 – Slieve Gullion to Mullaghbane (10km)
At this point, for the first time I was questioning my own ability to complete the challenge but Eve and I were, so far, injury free and knew we had a lot more to give, so decided that we would continue as a pair if allowed. We were given the go ahead by the medics as long as we stayed among other teams, so off we went to tackle stage 7 around the base of Slieve Gullion in the dark. The stage involved a small climb but was all along tarmac paths and roads. We seemed to be fuelled by our own determination and made great pace while cutting past many other teams. This was a very peaceful stage and it felt like we could have walked like that all night. Arriving at the checkpoint on a high after a mere 2 hours to find our support crew fast asleep we stopped only briefly for water and a quick snack.
2:13 SECTION 8 – Mullaghbane to Jonesborough (14.5km)
Buoyed by our blistering pace together we powered on into the night and section 8…
Now I’m sure the intrepid Trailtrekkers that took it on will refer to this stage in many ways, and no doubt, some of those descriptions will include a wide spectrum of expletives!! To avoid unnecessary censorship I will simply call it “The Killer!” Our trusty Trailtrekker booklet assured us that this section was “All country lanes”??? No single phrase could have been further from the truth as this stage contained what can only be described as the most hellish terrain I have ever come across! 14.5km of un-trodden forest undergrowth and slippery wet boulder strewn tracks, interspersed with ploughed or grassy expanses of farmers fields in the pitch-black foggy night. We progressed at a snails pace, constantly staring down at our feet to try and ensure we didn’t break an ankle while stopping every ten paces or so to peer into the foggy blackness and find the next marker. On top of that we came to an unexpected checkpoint in the middle of nowhere and the marshal assured me that in half a kilometre we would come back to the road. He also clarified that the rest of the stage was mostly road with a short section of forest track. I cant imagine his reasons for this bare faced lie, but suffice to say he had better run if I ever find him as, again, nothing could have been further from the truth!!! At only half way thru the stage we were tackling more of the same terrain and worse. With the fog, the dark and the light from our head torches were playing tricks with our eyes, we were beginning to hear things that weren’t there and it felt like the tree’s were pushing in on us! When the sun finally began to rise we emerged onto the one and only country lane of the stage. Still together and just about still going, we plodded through Jonesborough hoping that each corner we turned would bring the salvation of a checkpoint. With our morale at its lowest, emotions running high and tears flowing freely I could tell that Eve was at her breaking point. Arm in Arm as a team of 2 we made it to checkpoint 8 but the combined effects of exhaustion, fatigue and dehydration were about to steal my final teammate.
7:07 SECTION 9 – Jonesborough to Clermont (6.4km)
At this point I was close to quitting myself, but as I sat there in that bustling hall watching the walking dead tend to their wounds while eating my sausage sandwich I saw a girl with some oranges. Now, don’t ask me why but I had been craving a piece of fresh fruit throughout the entire trek and it was the one thing we didn’t have. I cheekily asked if she could spare one, and god love her, she was happy to share. Words can not describe the feeling of eating that orange and the energy it seemed to fill me with but at that point I knew I could finish this thing and something inside me simply refused to quit.
I certainly wasn’t going to let 22km beat me after making it this far. So, after being paired with another team, amusingly named “Sure its only a dander”, I set about stage 9 which was short, but included the steepest and highest ascent of the whole trek. Luckily, I love climbing and it was quite refreshing to use a different set of muscles in the legs. Spurred on by my magical orange and the simple effects of daylight we made good pace. The fresh conversation of the new team (Bronagh, Aodheen and some of their support crew), made the distance melt away but as we approached checkpoint 9 I knew I was going to have to go at my own pace or I wasn’t going to make it.
9:43 SECTION 10 – Clermont to Omeath (9.1km)
The climb to the top of Black mountain was accompanied by high wind and driving rain but this soon cleared as I descended the long straight track on the other side. Alone now, and running on nothing more than adrenaline, painkillers and glucose tablets I remembered that I had my iPod with me so put on some tunes to keep me company. The sheep were giving me some pretty strange looks as I sang along to the likes of snow patrol and the stereophonics as I walked, and god help any farmers that might have heard me but I was well passed caring! I lost count of how many teams I caught and passed during this section, as I seemed to be speeding up while others were slowing down?
12:01 SECTION 11 – Omeath to Carlingford (7km)
With my now 4 strong support crew all willing me on, I made a very quick stop to refill with water, lighten my rucksack and take in a final bacon sarni. Changing into trainers for the final 7km gave my feet a new lease of life and I powered up the short ascent of Carlingford Mountain, before taking on the seemingly endless track along to Carlingford itself. However, about half way through this stage I inevitably found my limit and finally burnt out. I could see the finish line at the sailing club but my energy was gone and my left knee was badly swollen forcing me to limp painfully to the end.
My 3 teammates clapped and cheered me across the finish line as my emotions and feelings of both elation and disbelief took over. Three months and 181 km of training along with my amazing team, coupled with my own newly discovered stubborn determination had finally pushed me passed the 100km’s and I couldn’t quite believe I had done it!! My official finish time was 29hr 41min 37sec.
After a well-earned massage on the legs and some cream buns, we all headed off to the Carrickdale hotel to spoil ourselves after an experience none of us will ever forget.
I’d like to take this opportunity to say a heart felt thank you to Darren, Melissa, Eve and John. I simply never would have made it without you guys. And to all our sponsors, especially all the members of Class Fitness. Your incredible generosity was the main reason I simply refused to quit. And also to Class Fitness itself, your Gym makes maintaining a healthy and energetic lifestyle extremely enjoyable and without you and all the fantastic instructors and staff I never even would have considered taking on such a challenge.
Huge thanks also to all the Trailtrekker team at Oxfam, all the Volunteers and the Medics from Across The Divide, you all did an outstanding job in very difficult conditions.
As to the future, I think me and the team will concentrate on doing some shorter, more enjoyable treks and hikes in the short term but we have already considered entering the iPlod next year and I have been asked by my Brother if I would like to be a part of his team for a walking event in Scotland. I also know that at least 1 member of Class Fitness Crew is very annoyed that she didn’t finish and wants to take on 100km again at some stage!! So, Eve, if you’re going to, and you’ll have me? I’ll be right there with ya J
I hope everybody that reads these articles enjoys them as much as I enjoy writing them, and no doubt, I will have more adventures to write about in the near future. As always, please feel free to post feedback, both positive and negative and any other trailtrekkers out there, I would love to hear your accounts of the event.
Stephen has put together an excellent set of Tips for Future Trailtrekkers which will be published as a seperate article – stay tuned.
Many thanks to Stephen from Walking and Hiking In Ireland for his excellent set of articles on Trailtrekker 2010 and congrats on getting through the challenge!