The previous day I had walked the 8.5 mile round trip to Storm Gym in Luton and back, stopping only to squeeze in nearly two hours of cardio and weights training. I had returned home tired but feeling physically pretty good. My feet were slightly sore and I could tell that the insoles of my trusty boots were beginning to wear a bit thin.
Still I woke up at 4:15 on Saturday morning and prepared to go out on a bit of a training walk. I wasn’t feeling too well truth be told and the temptation to just roll back into bed was immense, but with the help of Super Wife I sorted myself out and was ready to set off by 4:45am. My mum was coming over to our house to look after Niamh as the wheels had literally fallen off of our buggy two days earlier, so Lorna wasn’t able to get her to the other end of Dunstable as per usual. This meant my walk needed to start at home and finish at home and ideally before 1-2pm. I checked all my gear just as I was about to step out of the front door and boom.... the camera wasn’t working! We fannyed about with it for several minutes before I decided to just jettison the irritating bit of tat and rely on my old Blackberry phone instead.
I walked down Luton Road, through the White Lion Retail Park until I reached the new bus-way and then followed the bike path beside it until I popped out opposite the Council Offices at the top of High Street North. It was dead at that time of the morning – no movement save for the occasional lorry trundling at pace through the darkness, glinting in the amber street lights, breaking the silence with the roar of engines and tyres before slowly disappearing back into the gloom.
And it was gloomy. Smoggy to be precise. As I walked up Brewers Hill Road and then down Creasey Park Drive onto yet another cycle path, I could feel the grit in the air that I was breathing. I had read about the Saharan dust clouds mingling with the pollution in the southeast but had largely scoffed at the suggestions in the media to stay inside and avoid open spaces for a few days. I just thought of my good friend Faraz Shibli who, at only 25, became the youngest Briton to cross the Gobi Desert on foot.
Would Faraz be at all fazed by the prospect of a little bit of dust?
Would he bollocks!
So with that consideration at the forefront of my mind I cracked on at a decent pace onto the Sewell Cutting and along the Sewell Greenway. It was still dark. There was nothing but a few rabbits about. I was tempted to burst into song but I managed to stifle the urge and just trundled along with only my foot steps on the gravel to break the silence. Soon I was over A505 footbridge and into Stanbridgeford, which appeared to consist of literally 5 buildings, then north into Stanbridge along Station Road.
It was at this point that I saw my first real signs of life. As I stopped to take a picture on my phone of the church in Stanbridge, a middle aged lady (who reminded me a lot of Felicity Kendall) was walking her sheepdog towards me on the other side of the road. As she approached she beamed a massive smile at me and wished me a good morning. I momentarily thought to myself that the old Redmond rugged (yet devastatingly dashing) demeanour had worked its magic... but alas no. I had completely forgotten that I was wearing a bright green “We are Macmillan” t-shirt! I have found that if you wear that shirt (or the luminous orange livery of the MS Society or the khaki Help for Heroes hoody for that matter) you tend to get more nods and smiles per mile than if I stagger about in the tatty grey jumper and flat cap for which I am famed.
From Stanbridge it was a northwest stroll along the tarmac towards Eggington, passing a large converted windmill along the way, then through Eggington over the Hockcliffe Road and on through Clipstone.
At Clipstone you could see the Stonehenge Works looming on the higher ground ahead of you – not a particularly pretty sight – and at about this point my feet started to hurt considerably, having walked about 8.5 miles on largely gravel track or tarmac. Some serious blisters were starting to form, particularly on the ball of my right foot where the insole of my boot was starting to fail.
Having ambled through Clipstone, I came to a bit of railway track – I think for the old steam railway in Leighton Buzzard – and having crossed the track I started to pound my way up hill along the tarmac (as there was no path or negotiable verge) in the direction of Leighton Buzzard Golf Course. I was impressed with myself as I marched up the hill, barely reducing in pace and without feeling like my lungs would burst, and delighted in the little waves drivers gave me as they gave me wide berth – the charity t-shirt effect clearly operating at full force. The euphoria of the climb was swiftly replaced by the agony of the descent – a cruel twist on the usual way in which these things operate! Normally the descent is pure heaven compared to the climb – but when you have two large blisters that occupy the entire surface area of each heel, together with a sizeable blister on the ball of your right foot, and when you aren’t exactly famed for the lightness of your footfall – a downhill stagger down a long tarmac road is quite simply – not the one.
Soon I was back in the comparative safety of pavement walking and turned north east to pleasantly stroll through the lovely village of Heath & Reach. I managed to inhale a banana and a handful of ibuprofen without even slowing down whilst I gazed upon some sort of monumental clock tower on the heath. Another moan to be inserted here... Super Wife had taken the trouble of freezing my water bottle in an attempt to keep me suitably refreshed. One problem – my water was still in solid form even at this stage, some 10 miles and 3.5 hours in. I found myself lapping at a completely upturned plastic bottle like some oversized rabbit in a hutch – there was nothing for it – the two litre reserve in my pack was going into my front pocket regardless of how lopsided it might make me.
From Heath and Reach I entered into Stockgrove Park which lifted my spirits no end. A sudden familiarity swept over me, laced with a good dose of nostalgia. We used to walk Red and Duke, my two dogs, in that park and watch them attempt to swim in the lake there. As I came down the pine needle track towards the lake all thoughts of blistered feet were a distant memory. I took a picture of the lake which looked absolutely beautiful in the morning light and... my phone promptly died!
This was a minor disaster. I was 11 miles into the walk with 13 miles to go. I had no way of taking pictures of the route which I know you lovely people like to see. Most importantly I had no way of keeping in contact with Super Wife and my mum, which, when you have left them taking care of your daughter while you go off on a jolly across the British countryside, is a bare minimum requirement. I quite literally prayed to myself whilst I attempted to turn the bastard thing back on and thankfully it sprang back to life with a quarter bar of power remaining. Straight away all wi-fi and unnecessary applications were switched off – reduced to the functional equivalent of a pager – but at least I could keep tabs on the little one.
From Stockgrove I crossed the road into Kings Wood, uphill through forest tracks with the cunning use of my compass. My map reading skills are obviously still up to scratch as I emerged onto the road opposite Sandhouse Lane exactly where I should have done. Not bad, considering I’d spent the last quarter of an hour convinced I was lost!
After passing Bushycommon Wood it was another long uphill along a tarmac road, hard going but a fantastic view once I’d reached the crest of it. Now I know this is a bit of a strange thing to bring up, but what you need to understand is that when you’re out walking for 8 hours or so, on your own and barely passing anyone on your way, the mind starts to wander and then focus in on minor quibbles with alarming tenacity.
Bearing that in mind... cattle grids.
What is the point in having a cattle grid that takes up the whole track but that has large mud or grass areas at either side of it? Surely even an animal as clueless as a sheep is going to just potter around the edges and get through anyway. I saw about four such cattle grids along this stretch towards Woburn and with the emergence of each new grid on the horizon I became increasingly irate. By the time I emerged onto the London Road near Woburn I was livid.
Which was handy.... as my feet were now about to explode. As I trundled along the road into oncoming traffic belting along at 60 odd miles per hour, every step was inducing a considerable amount of pain. There was the definite feeling of walking on some sort of miniature heated water beds. I started to repeat to myself... left... left... left, right, left... left... left... left, right, left... As ridiculous as that may seem, it basically kept me going for the next couple of miles as I tramped through Milton Bryan and into the fields.
The footpaths were very well signposted to be fair, but my paranoia that there is some sort of farmer conspiracy to prevent ramblers from using rights of way was put into hyper-drive for the next 2.5 miles to Tebworth. The paths were quite literally non-existent. I had to walk from one marker to post to the next across ploughed fields where only the faintest colour differential gave any indication that a path had once existed. That normally wouldn't be too frustrating, but at this point 17-19 miles into the walk, the insoles of my boot had literally disintegrated, so that every stone, every rock, every little hard furrow of earth could be felt through the sole. Couple that with the fluid filed blisters that engulfed nearly the entire surface area of both feet and every step was absolute torture. I had one particularly painful stone drive straight into the middle of my left heel, nearly putting me on my arse and filling my sock with fluid in one single motion! Now I know all about foot care and blister treatment, the importance of dealing with issues as and when they occur, and rest assured on the big walk I’ll be following that advice to the letter. However, for today’s training walk I had no spare socks, no moleskin plasters, no creams, no needles... nothing, zip, nada. As such I simply ploughed on regardless, wincing all the way.
Once I was out of the fields, and in a mood for lumping anyone in a tractor, it was through Tebworth and Wingfield, within spitting distance of Thorn, and then onto Bedford Road heading into central Houghton Regis. As I trundled down the pavements past the Kings Arms and Bedford Square I had a sudden resurgence of energy and motivation, probably inspired by the recognition of being “nearly home.” In reality there were nearly two miles left, but after you’ve done 22 miles another 2 miles doesn’t seem that far. It was only about midday as well which meant I had maintained a pace of just over 3 miles per hour throughout.
After 45 more minutes of residential streets and roundabout crossings, I was strolling down Ridgeway Avenue towards home. I managed to squeeze one more text message out of my decrepit phone asking my mum to “slap on the kettle” and a few minutes later I was squeezing off my boots and putting up my feet with a mug of steaming sweet tea in hand. I had somehow managed to sweat through my Macmillan t-shirt – I mean saturated – which incidentally I had been wearing OVER a London Irish hooded jumper and I discovered much to my horror that my boots now had sizeable holes in them on the inside of the boot where the heels of the feet sit.
***WARNING: The following pictures are not for the faint of heart... or the squeamish... blisters and bruises galore!!! ***
Having assessed my feet that night I can safely say that they were in the worst condition that they had been since training began (Don’t worry... they’re grand again now). I reckon I have another two toenails on the way out in addition to blisters upon blisters.
But there you go... no pain, no gain... 24 training miles in the bag... and I’ll do it all again next week.
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