A walk with wisdom: journeying 40km in the UK South Downs

I don’t go to the gym. I walk 15 minutes to the station in the morning and sometimes, if it’s a particularly dreary start, I take the bus. I say this – not to be self deprecating, but to paint a picture.

When my workplace said we were doing a company 40km walk – I said “great! Sign me up” why? Because it was an opportunity to force myself to be fit and actually just to see what my body was capable of doing. If you read my box hill hike weekend you’ll know that that was my measly attempt to prepare for the 40km walk a mere one week before; probably not the wisest approach to ‘training’ but hey, I did the walk, I’m alive. My feet were just a bit painful for a few days.

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For me, walking/ hiking is a physical representation of how hard work, determination and perseverance produces results. That’s why I really recommend that you add it to your trip when travelling. Here is my experience:

6.30am, I began the walk, I put one foot in front of the other – I was nervous. Although this was something I’d do on a normal day to get to a destination. I couldn’t help thinking about how long I would have to do it for. We were told that people would likely arrive at the finish line between 4-7pm.

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To begin, I was chatting with people in my group, my mind eventually drifted away from the challenge. I would occasionally lose focus of the conversation and remark about the breathtaking settings “how stunning”. I’ll be okay I thought, what I see in front of me will be my motivation to continue, to take my mind off of my feet.

At some point mid-conversations my breath became heavier, I felt we were going up hill and I eventually stopped inputting into the talking. I was in my head. How much long of this? 2 minutes more, 2 minutes more, and then I realised that though I had come far, this ascent had a long way to go. I stopped, and felt my heart sink as many people journeyed ahead of me. “It’s not a race, take your time” – someone from the tour operator said to me – and I realised he was right. I couldn’t keep up with the people I started with and I would have to embrace my ability.

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Mid-way up the hill

Approaching things in this way meant I somehow found myself walking alone: a group in front of me, a group behind. Meanwhile I was now at the top of the hill and was amazed by what I could see: rolling hills to the left, sea to the right. I felt really lucky to be there and I began snapping away, enjoying the contemplations in my head and the experience. I could hear my breathing which was a very surreal experience too. Being in the city you’re used to many sounds, but rarely the one that come from you, as it never really is quiet enough to listen.

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After one too many stops I lost the group in front. I came to a cross road and realised I wasn’t sure where to go – all I could see where cows and green. There were bright arrows marking the way to go during the route, but I couldn’t seem to find which direction I should turn. I panicked a little, then walked down another green hill. Once I got to the end I realised that I was on track. I continued, reassured, I began snapping photos, enjoying my walk and contemplating again; it was during this time that I wasn’t to see a bright orange arrow – meaning I was to turn right and I strolled onward into a little town. It wasn’t too long before I knew I was lost. I gave the tour operator Discover Adventure a call and they got me on track, so I began making my way back.

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I then got another call, from the lady who was following us on the trail, removing the arrows as we progressed onto the next stages of the walk. In my faffing, and off-course route, she had passed me, and didn’t want to continue or I wouldn’t be able to spot the arrows during my walk.

I was disappointed in myself. 45 minutes you’ve spent off track when this was a hard enough challenge, and now everyones ahead, what if at the last moments of the walk, you really needed that 45 minutes but then you’re all out of steam?

I was sufficiently dejected by the time I made my way towards Heather, the lady collecting the arrows. She greeted me with a smile and optimism “it’s so good you managed to find your way back, most people would have just given up”. We were at the 10km mark at that point, a place to stop for the toilet and a snack. She called the Discover Adventure team to say that we were fine and that we had snacks – then we were on our way.

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I can’t tell you what we talked about: partially because it was hours worth of stuff, some personal, some I don’t remember and some trivial. But we talked and walked and didn’t really stop. We talked about our families, things we wished for them, why travel was important for open mindedness, how different the UK is in various towns, Heather’s career before working with this tour operator, ageism: both sides, relationships and much more. We would get suitably quiet, if the route was particularly hard, or we got lost inside our own heads; but in terms of the hike itself, it was such a relief to no have any pressure and not be alone!

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At each stop, the tour operator would be waiting with encouragement and cake (sometimes tea) to move us to the next stop. Towards the end of the South Downs walk you reach Seven Sisters – if I’m correct it holds the name for the 7 hills it challenges you to walk across. I have never been so tested in my life. But in a way, that was the moment that showed me that our daily doings are simply mind over matter. Yes I could feel pain in my feet and knees, but I could also continue – so I did.

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Heather at Seven Sisters

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Seven Sisters

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Taking this photo sitting down at Seven Sisters

Approaching the end of the horrible hills (we’ll call them) we had reached 35km. It was 6pm. The tour operator team were concerned the sun would go down before we made it to the finish line and explained that this was the last point they could pick us up. “it’s up to you” they both said to me “I’m just worried about the time” the boy in front of me continued. “Has everyone else finished?” I said. “Yes”. Just as I began to say I wanted to continue – the rain started (it had been on and off all day). I realised then that I had already achieved what I wanted to, by even knowing that I was prepared to continue, even though at this point my feet were burning. “lets go” I said to the team “I can always come back another day”.

At the finish line we were met with cheers and kind words from the others “well done, you’ve done so well”. I turned to Heather and asked if we could have a picture together by the finish line. It only seemed right, as she had shaped so much of my experience. I thanked her profusely and wished her well.

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Heather and I at the finish line

“The rest are in the pub when you’re ready”. “thank you” I smiled. When I entered I spotted another walker at the bar, we caught up on how it was, both smiling and shaking our heads. As I went further into the pub I was met with further cheers. I collapsed on to a chair, and smiled weakly to those sitting close to me. As I began recounting my experience and in particular how I got lost someone handed me a bottle of cider. I paused from the monologue and took what I can only describe as a really long sip. I write this 3 weeks after the walk and cannot remember what flavour or brand it was, but I can tell you it was the best cider I’ve ever had.

The walk I did with Discover Adventure was bespoke for the company I work for. But a very similar walk on the South Downs Way is their South Downs Ultra Challenge. Check it out if you are  like me, looking for a new challenge. Trips with Discover Adventure encourage you to fundraise, as part of your booking goes to charity. Subscribe to their newsletter if you wanted to be updated about their newest challenges.

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