Well - we did it - and it hasn't quite sunk in yet, and I guess when I start to write it all down, it will finally be real, and I'm a little bit sad that it's all over!
Arranging to meet at 9.30am, at Barefoot for the final kit inspection, I was choked to see balloons and 'Good Luck' banners across the front gate and door. (Janine, bless her socks, had been the good fairy) Laying all our kit out on the studio floor, we hugged each other, packed and were finally on our way. Planning a leisurely drive up, with lots of stops for cappuchinos and muffins, we overshot our turnoff and had to go through Manchester, finally arriving with just about enough time to unpack and get ourselves to The Bull at Tintwistle for a 6pm private 'pasta party'. I could hardly eat! I was putty pale, my innards shook and I felt freezing cold. I didn't think I was nervous, but my body was telling me otherwise. The other three seemed as calm as ever. You're not ready for this, said my body. You're not fit enough, you had that virus you did, for AGES. You'll hold everybody up, said this nasty insistent little voice, and your hip will drop off and EVERYFINK.
A pep talk from Captain K set me back on the staight and narrow, and we returned to the hostel to assemble our trail mix for our bumbags. We sat around the table, dividing our treats - nuts, dried fruit, mini mars and broken up Nak'd bars - into 2 little resealable bags for first half snacks and second half snacks and then we all were packed off to bed early, alarms set for 4am.
With admonishments from the hostel warden to keep the noise down, we crept out into the cold dark morning at 4.30, and Al drove us to Holmbridge Village Hall for registration.
Walking past a very fat chef cooking mountains of bacon beneath a gazebo outside, we entered the hall, packed to the brim with - well, about 400 mainly very young men, a sprinkling of women - none of them nearly as old as me - all busily packing their rucksacks and stretching and eating and all seeming to know exactly what they were doing. We made our way to the registration table, where we were handed our identity tags - I was 61B - to be tied around our necks until we complete or retire from the race.
We decided to go and have breakfast and a hot drink, back at the van with Al. I have been having a protein shake for breakfast every morning for months, but, unable to plug my blender in, I had to settle for muesli. It was nice, but I'm not very good at digesting it, and I thought it was the best option at the time. To be honest, my stomach felt about the size of a thimble, just when I needed a capacious holdall!
We trotted back for our kit inspection, anxious about our shoes. The kit inspector whizzed efficiently and rapidly through all our kit, casting a brief and knowing glance at our shoes and pronouncing them 'fine'. All that worry, and there they were -'fine'. "Off you go", he said, quite kindly,checking that we weren't carrying too much. In my haste to repack, the bag containing my afternoon nibbles exploded all over the floor. "Aargh, my snacks" I whimpered, scrabbling to pick up some dried apricots before catching myself and leaving them, under the kit inspectors table, where they stuck to everyone's feet for the rest of the morning I imagine.
Time for a quick cuppa, a warm up around the church and then suddenly, it was 6.45, and we began to hang around the exit, for the OFF. Very low key, teams are started in pairs, in 2 minute intervals. No worries about adrenaline making us set off too fast - a man sat next to a big clock by the door, and said languidly, ok, teams 60 and 61, 10,9,8,7,6, right oh, off you go. And we were off! Stepping out from the Hall, Al is waiting with his cameras - "Hang on" he says, "I haven't got you all in!" "Can't wait!" we said cheerily, "See you at the next checkpoint!"
I felt good. I'd taken my anti-inflammatories for my arthritic toe joint (poor old cow, haven't I mentioned it before), and we set off at a fair pace, walking with a number of other teams, and listening to their banter and cheery voices, for that first 3 miles of easy track and reaching the 1st checkpoint dead on time.
It all went a bit wrong after that. The next section is Black Hill, and the first climb is short but very steep, and suddenly every scrap of energy deserted me. "Blimey" I puffed "I thought I'd feel like this at the end, not right at the beginning!"
Soon after the climb is the bit where you need to sort out your own navigation. And the fog decided at that point to thicken up to about 20 feet of visibility. I had absolutely no memory of this bit - the first time we'd done it I'd had a terrible time with my hip, and just limped along behind everyone, not seeing where I was going (it all looks the same anyway), and the second time, I wasn't well enough to do that section and Karen and Dawn had done it alone.
It soon dawned on us that we weren't where we wanted to be, and Karen sprinted on ahead to try to find the path. This was my least favourite terrain, ankle twisting tussocky grass, and constantly climbing in and out of peat groughs. Stringing ourselves out so we could just see each other in the fog, I suddenly heard a cry, and thought 'Hey, they've found the path!" Then I saw Dawn's orange top, close to the ground, and then another plaintive call -" He-elp!" Paula got there first, to find Dawn with one leg stuck fast in a peat bog, up to the hip. Completely unable to free herself. Karen and Paula took an arm each and heaved. Nothing happened. "Hmm," said Karen. "Lets try it backwards" "Noooo!" exclaimed poor Dawn "my foot is twisted!" My contribution was to take off her rucksack, and keep out of the bog myself. Karen gave a mighty heave, and Dawn splopped out of the bog, landing on top of Karen, accompanied by the most horrible pong. Paula said it was the peat, but I thought it might have been the relief...
Eventually we re-joined the path, and made it to the 2nd checkpoint, a tent by the trig point. It seemed quite a few people had got lost at this point, so we didn't feel too bad.
Plain sailing down into Crowden Youth Hostel checkpoint 3 (about 10 miles) for a hot drink, and for Al to catch us up with the other team's progress. We were cheered to hear that some competitors were already looking worse for wear, and we were still quite fresh!
A couple of miles over the reservoir, to checkpoint 4, then onto Bleaklow for the first major climb of the day. The path goes up really steeply, then bends around the side of the hill, falling away horribly to the left hand side. My head spun and my ears were singing - whether it was the savage wind or a slight touch of vertigo I don't know. I think I was gripping my pole so hard at this point, I gave myself the most enormous blister on my index finger, and had to put my gloves on, where they welded themselves to my hands for the rest of the walk. I was able to make a little headway on the teams ahead of us for a time, and then found the stoney terrain slowing me up whilst I looked where I put my feet. Once we hit the Pennine Way, it was very pleasant walking, and we dropped down into Doctors Gate at about lunchtime, enjoying a hot drink and a sandwich at Checkpoint 5. By this time we'd walked about 20 miles. Next was the road section, about 3 miles of A57 to the Snake Pass Inn, Checkpoint 6 - and Kinder Scout! This had loomed large in my night sweats, and whilst I'd romped up it last time, that was when I was fresh, not after over 20 miles walking....
We waded through the river, the water felt nicely cooling against my hot feet, and began the ascent. I pacemake the climbs. This gives Karen and Dawn enough breath to sing their way through the Abba songbook. Also the musicals Oliver! and the Sound of Music, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and many others. It was a LONG CLIMB! And right at the top is the really really steep bit, where we have to find the finger path (see previous bogs). Dawn did her Scout Lee bit, and we actually intercepted another team who'd been in front of us for ages. "You cheated" they said. Yeah right. You try it then, I wanted to say. If only I'd had the breath.
Just before the descent, Capt k brought out a huge bar of Green & Blacks milk chocolate. I've never tasted anything so great in my life. I did quite well on the descent, actually, faster than I'd done it before, and we were quite jolly passing The Nags head and walking into Edale for Checkpoint 7. This was a major milestone, as all the big climbs were now behind us, and it was about'headology', and mental endurance now. Of course, there was still about 20 miles to go, but, y'know!!!
I had to bin my gaiters as the zipper had busted on one leg, and the other kept riding up to rub my heel.
We walked gaily through some pretty leafy lanes, and then emerged into a field, where the most enormous hill rose up before us. "AAArgh" I said, or something similar. No-one told us about this one! I was having the most horrible energy nosedive, brought on I think by the corned beef sandwich I had illadvisedly eaten at Edale. I felt really queasy. Karen whipped my rucksack off me, strapped it to her chest, and still got up that hill quicker than me. I tell you, these girls are AWESOME!
We started to see other teams, staggering up the hill. One young lad was weaving from side to side. Dawn gave him her last mini mars. He could barely see, and made a grab for her pole instead, love him. The rest of his team were lounging about at the top of the climb, tutting. That's not teamwork, I wanted to say. WE"VE got Teamwork!!
I'd been having these energy peaks and troughs for the whole day. I hadn't had them in training since the early days. It was terrible - I'd feel completely empty, and that nasty body-voice would say - see, i told you, not fit, hah, who do you think you are -and then when the food kicked in, I'd get this great surge forward and kick the body-voice into touch! I couldn't seem to take food out of my pouch without slowing or stopping and so I gave all my food to Karen and she fed me as I passed. A handful of jelly beans sucked off her peaty palm tasted great!
Al was unexpectedly at the point where the road met the track,it was great to see him! and he restocked Paula with mini mars as an added bonus. We passed a couple of competitors holding hands, hobbling painfully. We sustained ourselves on the way to Chapel deciding what kind of cake we'd have. Lemon Drizzle, decided Paula, and we were sorely disapointed to find that the Checkpoint from Hell, manned by WI ladies making steamy urns of strong tea and dispensing homemade 6inch high Victoria Sponge cake was nothing more than a grey scout hall, with a few biscuits and penguins, (that's the chocolate variety - I wasn't hallucinating).
The girls ransacked my rucksack for painkillers as we left - Dawns inner thighs were hurting, I think from her peat bog episode, and we prepared ourselves for the final sections. We took a bit of a scenic route a couple of times, tiredness setting in. Dusk was falling, and we wanted to be at 'Haribo Hill' before night fell. It was the best checkpoint (9) ever. A big army style tent on top of this horrible uphill road section, I had coffee with milk and sugar and it tasted lovely. A kind man rummaged in my rucksack for my headtorch, tied reflectors and chemi-lights to our packs, and pointed us in the right direction. It was pitch black ouside. We left with a team that we'd been bumping into throughout the course, and I had a major surge of energy and could have run the final leg. Marching on, I said something, and turned, hearing no reply, to see the rest of the team way behind me. I'd mistaken the clanking of my mug, light, reflector etc as the clicking of their poles, and gone off in completely the wrong direction across the field.
I actually quite enjoyed the night walking. You only had to walk to the end of the beam from your headtorch, and had none of the pschological barriers to conquer.
I also felt terribly emotional. It suddenly dawned on me that we were going to do it. Nothing would have stopped me from getting through that final section. I would have crawled it! Still a long way to go - about 9 miles I think, we walked with this other team to the reservoir, and uphill (nasty thing), then along the track towards the Cat and Fiddle pub (closed) and Checkpoint (10). We learned that this was the third time they'd done it, and last year they'd finished at 03.30!!!
I completely demoralised them by mentioning that it was a miracle that I was here at all, as I'd had a hip replacement only 2 years previously, and then burned them off, streaking past them with my Nordic Poles twinkling in the light from their head torches. We didn't see them again. I hope they made it.
Amazingly, Al met us at the top of the hill, having walked from the Cat & Fiddle, by the light of the full moon!! Karen asked him to go back, as we didn't want to be accused of cheating at this late stage. It was lovely to see him, and a complete suprise.
The Cat & Fiddle was a big disapointment. The helpers were more interested in keeping warm themselves than helping us. It was really cold, and we put the rest of our clothes on, buffs, hats and gloves. I don't know how much further it was. Maybe 5 miles? We'd gone quiet by then. No singing. Tired, our legs aching, there was a huge blister under my right foot which I had thought was a stone in my shoe, my arms were killing me, and I could see from the way Dawn was walking that she was in pain. Paula looked as fresh as she had when she started. The girl is EPIC! Karen was tired from the weight of responsibility (and from carrying my rucksack twice uphill). We made ourselves into a sort of Nordic Walking Train, keeping step, one behind the other and propelled ourselves forward. Made mincemeat of the 'cheeky dip'. I almost felt a pang of regret when I saw the Buxton university buildings. A sign attached to a chemi light on a post said : 4 inns FINISH, and an arrow, pointing ahead . "Come on girls" urged Paula,"lets make it look good for the finish!" Straightening ourselves up, we pushed on in formation, to the next sign: 4 inns FINISH, and an arrow pointing ahead. Formation a little ragged, we stepped on to the next sign: 4 inns FINISH, and an arrow pointing left. Up the blooming bank would you believe, and then up a flight of steps, where we crashed tiredly into the bright lights of an office, where somebody said - " Oh, another Team here", cut off our tags and lights and reflectors,took off our packs and told us our time was 16 hours and 46 minutes.
I plopped down onto a row of 4 chairs, and a nice First Aid lady asked me if I'd like a drink. "Yes please" I said, shakily. "What would you like?" she said "I don't knoooooowwwww!" I wailed. Dawn sat down at the other end of the row, and burst into tears. The First Aid lady didn't know which of us to go to first as the tears streamed down both our faces.
Paula unearthed Al from the van where he'd fallen asleep waiting for us to arrive. Well it was quarter to midnight, and we'd been up since 4 am! We all went to the rugby club where we were fed - very hard baked potatoes and beans, and a blessed, glorious beer!
There was only one women's shower, so that took ages, and finally, there was nowhere for the girls to sleep in the hall. Luckily,the Team Motorhome rose to the challenge, and took us all in. We still had the energy for a fit of the giggles though. Dawn lay next to me cocooned in her sleeping bag. "I think I need a hospital" came this little voice into the night. "Or we could open the champagne, I think that would help me sleep"
I don't think any of us needed any help sleeping!
We came 47th in the field. 4th in the Falcon (women's) trophy. Next time.............