How – training and prep*

So how exactly do you get ready for an epic hike like this?

Getting fit is only part of the story.   In fact, it’s probably the easiest part.   You also have to think about all the logistical consequences of being away for so long – even simple things like who’s going to cut the grass back at home.   And you have to get mentally ready as well.

 

Getting the permissions..

I’d been thinking about this walk almost since I finished my cycle ride in 2005.   And I first broached the idea to my wife in 2009, four years later, but still five years before I actually set off.  When you do something like this, you have to give everybody plenty of notice!   We eventually agreed that I’d do it once our younger son left home and went to university – which happened at the end of 2013.   So spring 2014 would be my first opportunity and I didn’t want to leave it much longer, as I knew I would find it tougher and tougher the older I got.   (And by the way I arranged for a friend of a friend to help my wife with the garden – and to cut the grass!)

I also had to allow plenty of time to negotiate the necessary permissions from work.   I’ve done a series of high-profile, high pressure jobs and it wasn’t until 2012 that I finally moved to a new position which was a bit less demanding.   As soon as I moved into this role, I mentioned to my boss that I’d like to take a sabbatical for this walk.   Fortunately, with 2 years notice, it gave adequate time to plan, and he agreed.

So by mid 2012, the necessary domestic and work clearances had been agreed, and I could set about the more detailed planning.

 

Getting the kit together

I first had to figure out my route, and how I would navigate.   At about this time, the “ViewRanger” app became available, so that problem was quickly solved – as explained on the “Tech – navigation” page.   Actually planning out my route, getting the maps, and daydreaming about what I’d see en route, was one of the more enjoyable aspects of the whole project.

Massive backpack on West Highland Way in 2010
Taking a breather and checking out drinking gear with massive backpack on West Highland Way in 2010

The next step was to start getting together all the gear that I’d need for the hike. Fortunately, I’d backpacked the West Highland Way in early 2010, and that gave me a good idea about what I’d need.   The main feature of that hike was the immensely heavy rucksack I carried, and I vowed to do better than that for LEJOG.   I did this mainly by deciding not to cook for myself except when there was no alternative, but instead to eat in pubs and cafes.   I also got a much lighter rucksack (see “gear” page) and this, together with not having to carry so much food, relieved the load a lot (though some of this was offset by the extra electronics I was carrying).

Then I had to find boots and clothing.   Balancing utility against weight was really challenging – and eventually I settled on mostly Icebreaker merino clothing and Scarpa goretex boots.   As the “clothing and boots” section explains, after a lot of trial and error I found these offered the best combination of low weight, high warmth, good wet-weather performance, and tolerance for dirt.

I also had to find a suitable tent, sleeping bag, waterproofs, and the myriad other bits and pieces you need to survive for such a long time.   I fell back on my West Highland Way experience a lot to do this, plus I read the blogs of others who had done the hike before me.

 

Testing, testing, testing..

I didn’t want to set off on my hike and find out that I had left some vital bit of equipment behind.   Equally, I wanted to feel that by the end of the hike, I would have used everything I carried (apart from my emergency first aid materials).   In the end, it worked out pretty much as I had hoped, though I only achieved that by a lot of testing before I left.

First of all, I tested out my blogging technique and equipment in a walk along Hadrian’s Wall in October 2013.  This made me realise that I needed an easier way of structuring my blogs, and as a result I developed the “Web post HTML generator” spreadsheet (see “Tech-blogging” page).   You can see some of the blogs I produced on this hike by clicking here:

And here is a copy of the Web Post HTML Generator, if you’d like to try it out:

Web Post HTML Generator (737 KB)

 

 

Then I started assembling all my gear, bit by bit, and packing and re-packing it to minimise weight, maximise accessibility, and make sure that everything would stay dry.   Once I’d done that, I did a final “dry run” for my walk – a three day backpacking hike from home, two weeks before I set off, carrying all my gear, and camping at sites very similar to those I’d be using for the “real thing”.   You can read about the blog I wrote as I did this practice by clicking here:

Endless mud on the winter 2013/14 training hikes
Endless mud on the winter 2013/14 training hikes

I learned a lot from this practice.   The main one, rather surprisingly, was about navigation. I had planned to walk along public rights of way shown on my OS map, only to find that outside the popular tourist areas, these paths quite simply didn’t exist.   This also proved to be a bit of a problem on the main “LEJOG” hike too – quite often rights of way don’t actually translate into visible footpaths on the ground.   I also discovered that my water bottle leaked, and had to be replaced, and that my pack was rather heavy.   So when I got back, I went through everything again, and ejected some spare clothes I’d been carrying but couldn’t actually foresee needing.

The practice also helped get me into the right frame of mind for the walk.   I discovered that mental resilience was going to be important, particularly if the going started to get tough on long days, or over difficult terrain.   So for the last two weeks before I set off, I focused completely on the task ahead – in fact, maintaining concentration at work for those final days proved very hard.   In the end I was just glad to get started.

 

Getting fit

Strangely enough, I’m not sure that being ultra-fit is before you set off is a huge advantage. Obviously, you have to have a certain level of fitness and if you hadn’t exercised for years, you wouldn’t be able to do it (especially given how punishing the first few days on the coastal path were).

But I found that just doing the LEJOG walk itself improved my fitness levels over time, so being much fitter at the start probably wouldn’t have made a lot of difference in the long run.   In fact I suspect my fitness peaked about midway through LEJOG and then declined in the later stages.   I certainly started to feel very weary as I trekked over the remote fastnesses of northern Scotland towards the end.   So I think there is a real danger of over-training before departure – in my case, although I was pretty fit, I think if I’d been a lot fitter, I might have peaked even sooner on the walk, and suffered a longer period of decline.   I’ve heard other walkers say the same – basically that their bodies were “wrecked” by the end and I even read one account recently of someone who had hiked it and was still suffering stabbing pains in his feet two years later.   Luckily that didn’t happen to me.

Nevertheless, I did try and raise my fitness to a certain extent before I set off.   For most of the previous six months I went on long walks ever weekend, and generally managed 20-30 miles every weekend.   For the last month or so, I carried my full pack, too.   You can read some of these blogs I wrote on these practice walks by clicking here:

Exceptionally wet training walk in February 2014

I did these practice walks over the wettest winter the UK has ever known.   It allowed me to test my waterproofs to the full, but it was pretty awful.   Not just the rain and flooding itself, but the miles upon miles of mud everywhere.   Paths were quagmires, and fields were boggy war zones like something from the Somme.   I just hoped that LEJOG wouldn’t be as bad – and luckily it wasn’t.   In fact I don’t think I ever actually suffered quite the same degree of miserable muddiness anywhere on the “Real Deal”, as I did on my practice walks over the winter of 2013 – 14.

I also tried to walk the three miles or so across London from the railway station to my office whenever I could.   This did help raise fitness a bit.   But unfortunately because I was walking in work shoes with no padding, I started to get painful knees.   In fact, in retrospect, I think this may have been a classic case of over-training, and one of the factors which contributed to me having such bad knees in the early stages of LEJOG.

 

Sponsors..

I needed to allow plenty of time for my sponsors to hear about my hike and to donate.  So I first put a “flyer” in our Christmas cards, in December 2013.   Then I emailed all my friends, and all my colleagues at work, and put the details of my JustGiving account on Facebook and Twitter.   I found I had to go back to people several times in order to prize money out of them.   Friends also organised a fundraising evening for me (see “Scouts” page) before I set off.   So by the time I departed, I had raised over £6000, which was twice my original target and about two-thirds the total amount I collected over my whole walk (my last sponsorship pledge came in in February 2015 – almost a full year after I set off!).

 

Money, money, money – how much did this all cost me?

Just as an aside, to anyone thinking about doing a LEJOG hike, don’t let yourself believe that this will be by any means a cost-free exercise.   By far the biggest expense was my sabbatical, which lost me a third of a year’s salary.   Then there was all my gear, which (if you include the iPad which I already had anyway) probably came to at least £2,500.   Then there were campsite fees at £10-15 a night, evening meals at about £20 a day, snacks at another £10 per day, and incidentals like occasional B&Bs – in total over the hike another £4,000 at least.   And this is not to mention the fuel cost of getting to and from the start and finish and innumerable other expenses like the gardener I’d had to hire, and phone charges.   Probably another £500 at least.

If you’re doing the walk for charity, you might get some free accommodation along the way.   This did happen to me but when it did, I tended to donate a cash equivalent of my own money to JustGiving.

So, even if you camp like I did, quite apart from the loss of earnings, I think you’re looking at a cost of at least £5,000 to £10,000 to walk LEJOG.   And probably even more if you stay at decent B&Bs (which are at least £40 a night) along the way.

 

And afterwards?

One of the strangest features of the walk, and one which I hadn’t expected at all, was the sense of loss when it finished.   For the five years up to and including the walk, whenever I was having a particularly rotten day at the office, I could cheer myself up by thinking that in only “X” years, or “Y” months – or even “Z” weeks, I’d be doing something so much better.   Now that I have finshed, I no longer have that, and after 5 years, there is a bit of a sense of loss.   It’s taught me that you cant’t focus too much on short-term challenges.   There’s always an “afterwards” which you have to be ready for, too.

 

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