Robin Barrett: August 2015
I'm no stranger to physical challenges — marathons, triathlons, four years as a Church Steward — you name it, I've done it or at least am definitely considering it! However, as well as being a keen runner I also love walking and have completed a number of long distance walks around the country, including the Thames Path, the Ridgeway and of course the Coast to Coast raising money for our £1million community centre refurbishment project back in 2009. So this summer I entered myself for a new challenge, the Grand Union Challenge, a 100km run, walk or jog along the Grand Union canal from London Paddington to Stoke Hammond in 24 hours. I had entered as a walker and so the inevitable questions and comments followed once I made my challenge public: "Is that even possible?", "How are you going to do that?" and "There are trains, you know!" none of which at the time I really had the answer to.
I had walked 40 miles in a day on several occasions some years ago but three months ago when I started training for this challenge, 62.5 miles in a day did seem quite a daunting prospect. As with all endurance events though, it's all in the preparation, and prepare I did, spending most Saturdays in May and June walking up and down the Grand Union between Hemel Hempstead and Leighton Buzzard familiarising myself with the route and getting accustomed to life on the towpath. As my training progressed I also began to realise how quickly I could walk on a flat towpath, and from 24 hours, I suddenly had aspirations of finishing the whole thing in less than 17 or even 16 hours. My weeks of training came to a climax on a rainy Saturday morning two weeks before the main event, when I got the train from Wendover to London Marylebone and then walked along the canal all the way back to Marsworth. I'm fully aware that trains do exist(!) but that day I chose just to get a single and walk just over three-quarters of a distance that I'd be walking on the day. Finally I felt ready and as confident as ever that I could complete the single longest day's walk I'd ever attempted.
The big day arrived and at 8.30am on Saturday 27th June I set off from a recreational ground in Maida Vale to begin my long journey along the Grand Union in the hope that I would be at the finish by around half-midnight. I started the walk with a wave of around 80 other people, but after just 2km of walking at my own pace I found myself alone having left almost everyone else behind. All except one man called Jonny who I had never met before but whom I quickly made very good friends with, and we ended up walking almost two-thirds of the walk together. Jonny would have liked to have walked the whole distance with me but had work the following day and conveniently lived in Hemel Hempstead, which was the location of our checkpoint after 61km. I owed everything to this once stranger as we parted ways; he had completed a 100km walk before, and thanks to him I got through the hottest part of the day, along the part of the route I was least familiar with and at the pace I was aiming for.
From here on in I was alone and on the verge of entering into unknown territory in terms of distance, but fortunately it was the part of the route that I was most familiar with. I did have the company of the occasional participant who was running the route and had fallen behind but still soldiering on, determined to get to the finish line. As the night drew in, I also came across one unfortunate individual who had taken a wrong turning at Marsworth and walked almost two miles down the Aylesbury Arm in the wrong direction, thus extending his challenge by another 7km! The support along the route beyond Marsworth from the locals on the canal was incredible, which made the final push for the finish line, at almost midnight with just my own company and the light of a head torch to guide my way, slightly more bearable.
Finally at around 12:20am on Sunday morning, I came off the Grand Union canal for the last time and finally reached Stoke Hammond and the end of my 100km walk. There were no crowds, no fanfare, just a small glass of champagne and my wife Gill who had come to take me home. As I crossed the finish line, one of organisers who was there to greet me actually didn't believe I was a 100km finisher, so I must have looked good and I didn't feel too bad, but it was definitely time to stop walking. My official finishing time was 15 hours 53 minutes and 5 seconds.
I have walked the Grand Union Challenge in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support and to date have raised £1,350, so THANK YOU to everyone who has sponsored me.