Since Ironman my mind has been focussed on the Yomp. Yomping Since 1664 is a charity hike the whole length of the South Downs Way non stop, mainly fundraising for the Royal Marine Charitable Trust, but for me also making money for Autism Hampshire. As the Royal Marines were inaugurated in 1664 the length of the South Downs Way was extended to 166.4 kilometres or 103 miles.
Friday afternoon saw my friends Kramar and Alan arrive at mine full of excitement and anticipation of what was to come over the weekend. We decided a good feed was in order so we polished off a tasty three courses at a local village pub. For once there was no guilt in the sticky toffee pudding, we would burn thousands of calories over the following days. We all went to bed early, but before not much sleep at 03.10 my alarm rang and Yomp Day had arrived. I’d laid all the breakfast out the night before which saved valuable time. Porridge, bananas and bacon sandwiches, all washed down with a mug of tea.
In no time we were in the car heading to Winchester. Although I’d been a steward at this event last year I was still a little nervous at what was ahead. In training I’d done a few 30 mile hikes but this was over three times that distance. My plan was to just take each 30 miles at time and try not to think of the distances as a total. The start point was already buzzing when we got there. Last year there were only few brave enough to take on the yomp, but this year there were over 60. Including serving Royals from 40 Commando and a whole team of wives and girlfriends aptly names The Bootneckettes. Film maker and honorary green beret holder Chris Terill was there to not only complete but also to film. Also present to start the event was Cassidy Little, the winner of the people’s Strictly Come Dancing for Comic Relief.
05.30 and we were all called forward to the start and after a few wise words from yomp mastermind Robin Hollington and Cassidy we were off. The start of what was to become an epic and life-affirming challenge. Our team was now complete with Max and Dominic and although we were told we didn’t have to stay as a team we decided we’d do our best to stick together. The first few miles flew by. We were all still fairly well bunched and the chat and leg pulling was flowing nicely as were the pings from my phone with messages of good luck and support from friends.
All was running smoothly until I noticed a chap in front about to head off down the wrong path. I whistled and got him back on track only for him to tell me he’d seen another group go that way. With nearly 100 miles still to go the last thing I needed was extra distance chasing lost souls, but I couldn’t just ignore the situation. I ran down the track eventually catching them quite some way down. It was the team headed by Sian Woodland who raises a huge amount of money for charity and they were very grateful to be stopped before they’d gone too far. I caught up with the team at the first drink stop. Time for a Mars bar and top up our water before moving on. I knew this part of the route well and we were making great time.
The first proper hill was Old Winchester Hill. I knew that not far after was the second drink stop and also a chance to get an ice cream. With nearly clear blue skies the weather was perfect. Next stop would be lunch, which we were all looking forward to. A team from 40 Commando had brought a field kitchen to feed us en route and we started making guesses on what would be on offer. It was about this time I felt my first injury, a knot in my right calf muscle was gradually getting worse, more uncomfortable than painful. What I also learned was that to mention any injury would unleash a torrent of abuse from team mates. Best to ‘man up’ and shut up.
Lunch was a very tasty Chicken pasta and an opportunity to sort the first of many foot issues. I’d been advised to get Friars Balsam for blisters. The idea being to pop the blister and spray the Friars in to make use of its antiseptic properties. I’d been warned it might sting a little, let me tell you that was a massive understatement. It’s agony for a few seconds but does a great job. I decided to swap boots for trainers to ease pressure on the feet. A good stretch seemed to sort the calf muscle and once again we headed off to keep ticking away the miles. In no time at all we reached Harting Down, the next water stop. I still had plenty left in my bottle so I started taking bigger drinks only to get there to find no water station and nearly all my water was gone. Now I’d have to ration my water which on a hot day is far from ideal. There was however an ice cream stand, not only is it a morale boost but also full of sugar. Having forgotten my wallet it was down to Kramar to treat me.
By now we were over 40 miles in and much farther than I’d ever walked before. To pass some time we played some daft games, I Spy was a bit of a disaster but the ‘Who am I’ game certainly helped the miles pass and by 19.30 we’d reached the second food stop. By now just about everyone had blisters and the screams and expletives from Friars Balsam had us all laughing nearly as much the walks adopted by people putting boots back on blistered feet. People had already started to drop out and there is no shame in that. Just by crossing the start they had proved themselves braver than most and I challenge anyone to walk 40 miles on blistered feet.
Our team had a visit from Tony ‘Bear’ Day. A friend, Fan Dancer and Test Week marcher. Larger than life he’d given up a barbecue with friends to come and give a cheer. His smile and banter were really appreciated. Putting boots back and hitting the trail again we plodded onwards but something had changed. The conversation had dried up and apart from the odd very bad joke from Dominic so had the laughter. We were all struggling, constant walking on hard flint tracks was murdering our feet. Kramar had stubbed his toe on a big stone and was really suffering as we walked into the dark. Painkillers and walking poles helped but only delayed what we all feared and at midnight, having covered 60 miles, we were one man down.
The four of us plodded on through the dark, our pace had slowed now as not only did we have sore feet and legs to deal with but mental fatigue too. At 03.00 we hit another drink stop and I took the opportunity to eat a pasty. We’d been nearly contantly grazing on sugary sweets and energy bars and to be honest they were making me feel ill. Our old team mate was also there, sat in the front seat of a car, eyes closed and mouth wide open. Normally this would cause maximum hilarity but all I felt was a tinge of jealousy. He was comfortable and asleep. What I would have given for some sleep.
Onwards yompers, ever onwards! The first glimmer of light started to appear in the sky and I was struggling to stay awake even though I was walking. I couldn’t focus my vision and found myself hoping for breakfast to be late and give me a chance to nap. The Devil’s Punch Bowl North of Brighton was the place we were to have breakfast and as it came into view I got a lift. However, Max was having a tough time. Dominic tried to engage him in conversation with no response. He tried again and again no response. Max was effectively sleepwalking. Eyes open and walking, but the brain had gone to the land of nod.
Stewards, how we loved the stewards. Generally a steward meant a road crossing, drink or food stop. These particular stewards meant food, it was breakfast time. When we got there the bacon was ready but the porridge was still cooking. So much for my nap! Bacon sarnies and two cups of tea and it was time to think about moving. But Max had had had enough and told me he couldn’t go on. Then Alan said the same. I did my best to temp them both to stay but Max was adamant he was done. Alan agreed to go until the next drink stop. At that moment I knew he’d finish, at that moment he got maximum respect from me. To stop at 70 miles has absolutely no shame but to then change your mind and continue takes something extra.
We were now well and truly doing the hard yards. Every step was a battle, and I could feel new blisters with every mile. A signpost said ‘Eastbourne 33 miles’ but it may as well have been 333 miles in my mind. Fatigue meant that what felt like a mile walking was probably half at most. I’d convinced myself lunch would be near the A27 just past Falmer, but when we got there it was only a drink stop. I was devastated. Lunch was another 6 miles. This was probably the lowest point for me so far. I was hot, sweating, tired and sore. Kramar was there fussing around, filling up water bottles and supplying chocolate bars and bananas. Dominic decided to change back from boots to trainers, but there was no way I would even consider taking my boots off.
The South Downs Way has some of the most stunning views. Although we really weren’t at all bothered by scenery at this point, the hills around Firle were amazing. The village of Southease was the lunch spot. Again another feast cooked up by the 40 Commando guys. Only 18 miles to go. I took the plunge and removed my boots to repair some damage and after taking time to liberally spread some Vaseline to chafing that you really don’t want to read about here, we set off for the final push. I felt pretty good considering, apart from a pain behind my left kneecap, and we decided to up the pace as much as we could to break the back of this final stint.
All went well for 3 miles until a misplaced foot caused my knee to twist. Having had knee cartilage surgery before I knew what I’d done. It was another 4 miles to the drink stop and with every step it got worse. I tried plastering the knee in Voltarol, but it was no use. For the first time the thought dawned on me I may not finish. My Mum was waiting with Josh, my son, at the finish line. I called to say I might not finish and whatever happened I would be a lot later than I’d planned.
The thought of not walking over the line to meet Josh was more than I could take. For the first time fear of failure was added to list ailments. At the drink stop I asked if the medic was around. Organiser Robin phoned him and described the symptoms. I waved goodbye to my team mates. Al was not in a good place himself and just needed to keep going. I could see they were gutted for me but it was important they should finish even if I could not. Robin got to work sorting my knee and a kind man came out of a house with a knee brace in hand, having overheard the conversations. Added to that a yomper who could not continue lent me his walking poles and half an hour later I was walking, albeit slowly.
I had a few miles on forest tracks before reaching the coast. The medication worked a treat on my knee and my speed was building. I reached the Seven Sisters, or as a friend very aptly called them the Seven Bitches – seven brutal hills one after the other before you eventually hit Eastbourne. Crossing the final road I was met by the stewards, and their smiles and encouragement gave me such a boost. I was going to finish, I had about 6 miles to go and I was going to hit it as hard as my body would allow. The walking poles were a real help up the steep hills, easing the pain going down. The effects of dehydration were also hitting. No matter what I did I couldn’t lubricate my throat. With only a few miles to go the plan was just not to stop at all, just keep moving.
I counted off the hills and past the stewards at Birling Gap who said they’d seen my team mates only 15 minutes ahead. That gave me another spurt. How amazing to catch them and cross the line together. Reaching the pub at the top of Beachy Head it was all downhill into Eastbourne but tiredness made me make some daft decisions and I ended up taking the stupidest route into town, eased only by swearing at every rabbit I saw, and there were hundreds of them. Finally I could see houses, I knew the finish line was at the far side of Eastbourne and that couldn’t be far at all from here. As I reached what looked like a main road I was approached by a steward, ‘Well done mate. The finish is straight down that way, and it’s only three miles.’
He may as well have kicked me in the balls. Three more f**king miles and, even worse, all tarmac. I wanted to cry, I had totally had enough and was spent. I started walking or more accurately hobbling along. Three miles! I knew I couldn’t do more than three miles an hour so I had a full hour walking on red hot blistered feet to get to the end, but more importantly, to get to Josh. I saw a taxi and I will admit to thinking the unthinkable but those thoughts soon went. I was going to finish and I was going to walk every inch.
One of the 40 Commando lads came off Beachy Head just after me and my mission was now to keep him behind me. I could see the pier in the distance and decided not to look up until I got there and just go as hard as possible. Just short of the pier was a marquee with live music booming out and some drunk guys falling about the road. I managed to get past them, then took a check on how far away from the pier I was. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Only 100 yards in front were Dominic and Alan. I was gobsmacked. I tried to run but it turned into a pathetic wobble and as I reached them I took a deep breath and in the most nonchalant way, trying desperately to sound super cool and not like an excited child said, ‘Well, we started as a team, it would be rude not finish as one.’ I wish I had my camera to catch their faces, absolutely priceless. Now just the matter of the final mile.
The final mile is always the worst. I was shocked at the condition of my team. Big Al was struggling when I left them and was now walking like a zombie and Dominic, who had shown absolutely no sign of fatigue before, could barely keep going. To make it worse, we couldn’t find the finish. I’d resorted to using the sat nav on my phone and even that was taking us the wrong way. Luckily the mother of one of the Bootneckettes spotted us and steered us in the right direction. Turning through a hedge could see the finish gantry and there was my mum with Josh.
I cannot possibly describe that moment when Josh came running, nearly knocking me over, with tears running down his cheeks. Suddenly it was all worth it and I managed to pick him up and carry him over the line.
So that was that. I had completed the yomp. By far the hardest thing I’ve ever done but I did it with five great guys. What a team we were and although Kramar and Max will be back to finish the job next year I can safely say once is enough for me. A huge thank you to Robin, the stewards and the Royals past and present who helped make it such an epic event. Please check out Yomping Since 1664 and sign up for next year’s event.
And don’t forget you can still sponsor me at http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/Ianford69