When I started seeking sponsors for a 54-mile walk from Fort William to Loch Lomond, the usual comment went along the lines of "Oh, when are you taking a week off to tackle that?" On subsequently stating that our team of four Norwich Union colleagues would be doing the walk in one weekend, non-stop, overnight, some long-held suspicions about my sanity were confirmed.
The Caledonian Challenge is billed as the most challenging yet rewarding fundraising event of its kind. Teams of 4 are invited to walk through part of the West Highland Way, passing through some of Scotland's most spectacular scenery. Sounds like a good idea for a stroll in the Scottish countryside until you start to contemplate the logistics. (a) It's going to take a long time to cover the route - around 24 hours, including stops. (b) The distance (54 miles) is twice as far as a marathon (ouch). (c) The route could hardly be described as flat. (d) The midgies are ferocious during mid-summer. (e) Despite the mid-summer billing, this part of Scotland has been known to deliver four seasons of weather in one day.
These factors began to sink home when the event organiser, David Fox-Pitt, visited our office in Perth earlier in the year to promote the event to an audience of prospective participants from Norwich Union. Warnings of the need for lengthy and frequent preparation walks, allied with a potentially long list of additional equipment requirements began to send alarm bells ringing in my head.
I began to think of excuses why I couldn't commit to the walk - the best one I could come up with at this point being that I couldn't raise a team. Enter stage left John Clement from Corporate Partnerships, Affinity Markets team, joined ably by Lucy Fyffe from the Creditor Claims Investigation Unit in Dundee. Now we were three, as the saying goes. We subsequently learned that Martin Brooks from Nottingham Claims was keen to join the fun and was looking for a team to take him on board. A team was thus formed and any excuse I could think of was blown away.
Each of us was reasonably fit to begin with but needed to do a bit of extra footslog training in addition - our problem was that Foot and Mouth Disease had restricted access to much of the walking land across the country. Lucy's tales of jogging, horse riding, dog walking and other fitness pursuits were beginning to have a disconcerting effect on my confidence, compounded by Martin's tales of regularly walking a fair distance to and from work in Nottingham and John having discovered some tracts of Scottish landscape not subject to restriction. Although I'm a keen cyclist, I hadn't done much walking during this year. Nothing for it but to follow Martin's example and start walking the 5 miles or so to and from work each day.
About 6 weeks or so before the event, a team practice walk seemed like a good idea to test our stamina and gauge our preparation needs for the last few weeks. With Martin joining us from Nottingham for the weekend, we joined up with another band of happy wanderers from Norwich Union (John Burgess, John Grainger and Ian Patrick from business solutions) to walk the Lairig Ghru - the 20-mile ancient drovers' route through the Cairngorms. We figured that if we could survive a tough walk like that unscathed, it would mean something (like conveniently trying to forget the event would be more than 2 and a half times this distance!). This was the first time we met as a team, and to our pleasant surprise we were all able to walk at around the same pace. Swapping views on equipment needs was a handy exercise, too. Earlier advice from the event organisers to buy an expensive hydration pack (at 80 quid a throw!) was made instantly more palatable by Lucy announcing she'd found that the Lidl supermarket chain were selling rucksacks "with a straw thingy" for a tenner. Next stop the local Lidl!
Further individual training (and more worrying about the distance) led us to the event itself and the chance to meet up again. Having persuaded Gordon Burns, a friend and hill-walking buddy, to chase around after us in my car over the weekend, our team was now as ready as it would ever be.
Many thanks also go to Heather Hayes and Sodexho, our caterers, for organising copious supplies of the right kinds of food and drink to see us through our "wee stroll". This was a superb help to the 4 Norwich Union teams involved, and something we did not take for granted - we are all eternally grateful.
Over 1000 people were involved in the walk, making this the largest outdoor corporate event in the country. Supported by the St Johns Ambulance Brigade, the armed forces, despatch riders, massage teams and scores of marshals; the event's organisation was impressive. Other teams of 4 had joined us from all over the country, with some making the journey from the United States to take part. With a number of celebrities to see us on our way, we left at midday on Saturday 23rd June to commence our epic voyage.
Over the first 12 miles to the first checkpoint at Kinlochleven, the various teams stretched out, with those in more of a hurry scooting off into the distance. Our agreed team objective being to finish the route, any temptation to keep up with the faster walkers evaporated swiftly. Gordon, our support driver, chef, and provider of morale-boosting humour, met us with steaming hot soup, sandwiches, cold drinks, fruit and fresh clothing. Just as well it started to rain at this point, or we'd all still be sitting there putting off our next move for another few minutes!
Another couple of miles down the road we came across a few other hardy souls, less sane than ourselves, who were RUNNING ALL 98 MILES of the West Highland Way in the other direction! We applauded their stamina while they nimbly bounded past us, as we numbly plodded on in the rain. Stunning views of Buachaille Etive Mor and other mountains in the Glencoe range almost made us forget the pain of the ascent of the Devil's Staircase, while the rain eased off.
Stage 2 at the 22-mile mark took us into the Glencoe Ski centre. No snow but more food and drinks from our roving chef. By this time, there was a hint of dusk in the air, so time to move on once again. Feet doing fine, morale doing fine, legs beginning to remind us about the distance and terrain!
Onward through Rannoch Moor and the end of daylight. Head torches donned (again, where required, courtesy of Lucy's research at Lidl's) we trudged on through the night to approach our next checkpoint a further 8.5 miles later at the Inveroran Hotel. Now, the Inveroran Hotel is VERY remote - probably, behind the back of beyond is an apt description. What greeted us a few miles out were sights and sound reminiscent of the film "Apocalypse Now" - floodlights, music and a Salsa party in full swing. My theory is that if Salsa originated from this part of the world, the moves could be explained by the discomfort of being attacked by the sabre-toothed midgie. If it wasn't the middle of the night, we could be excused for thinking the damned beasts had blocked out the sun. Needless to say, we didn't hang about longer than we had to, despite increasing exhaustion.
On past Bridge of Orchy Station, the urge to lie down and sleep for several hours became the overwhelming temptation, yet when the sun rose an hour later (3:30 am approx.) although still well and truly knackered, the urge to sleep disappeared. A spring in our step (relatively speaking) took us a further 11 miles further, past Tyndrum to Auchtertyre Farm and the prospect of a massage to aching legs. My legs were screaming for me to stop, so a massage was a real tonic, if only to fool my old bones into thinking that there were "only" a further 12.5 miles to go.
By this time, participants' attrition rate had increased and we witnessed a few sorry cases from other teams seek first aid attention for feet which had long parted company with a few layers of skin. Gordon's bacon butty
breakfast and efforts not to look too alarmed at our state of exhaustion
spurred us into the final effort to reach the finish at Ardlui, on the
shores of Loch Lomond.
The last 6 miles hit us in the same way as marathon runners hit
"the wall". The ground started to go up again, the terrain became
hard and rocky underfoot and various parts of the bodies we didn't
realise could hurt so much reminded us why we don't walk 54 miles regularly! Countdown markers on the route passed a mile at a time (someone who turned the 6-mile sign upside down must have caused a few double-takes at this late stage of proceedings). I'm sure the organisers' measurement of the last 2 miles leaned more towards artistic licence than accuracy. Over the last mile or so, we discovered it was no less painful to stride on quickly than to trudge on slowly, so to reduce the pain (logical after 24 hours or so of walking - you'll have to go with me on that one!) we blasted towards the finish point.
The ferry across Loch Lomond to Ardlui had room for 5 bodies - 2 of which had clambered aboard already. Rather than split the team at this point, we resolved to cross together.
Crossing the finish line at around 1 pm on Sunday 24th June, we were presented with medals that were pure gold as far as we were concerned. We'd stuck together as a team throughout the walk and finished as a team. That felt good.
We recon our team's collective sponsored efforts will have raised around £1,000, which Norwich Union will match £ for £. As far as I can establish, the 3 other teams from Norwich Union have raised a similar sum, so around £8,000 should be winging its way to the Scottish Community Foundation. The event organisers hope that the whole event will raise about half a million for worthy community projects across rural Scotland - best of luck on that one.
It's amazing how time has helped us forget aching bones and tiredness - there's already talk of taking part again and other keen souls have already expressed an interest in taking part next year. Would you be keen to have a go?
Have a look at the website on www.caledonianchallenge.com to see if YOU'RE up to the Caledonian Challenge!
Norwich Union Insurance
The walkers (Cameron Glasgow, George Renouf, Jim Strang and myself) set off from Edinburgh for Fort William on Friday night, arriving at our B&B around 9.30pm. A brief walk up Fort William's High Street that evening was as much training as Cameron or Jim had done for the event, and was our first and last opportunity to train together and discover our natural pace. I had approached the event with more respect, hiking up Arthur's Seat the previous Sunday. "Hah!" noted Cameron, "Tomorrow will make that seem like a walk in the park!" How true. We terminated our short training walk when we found the Highland Star Chinese Restaurant, and fuelled-up on a couple of pints each and a chow mein. Bed just after midnight, and up at 6.30 am for a quick cookie before checking in for the start of the Walk.
The Walk began on Saturday morning at 8am from Fort William and the first 12 miles were a breeze. However, our dismally minimal team training began to show after two or three hundred yards...roughly equal to the distance from the east end of Fort William's High Street to the Highland Star. The team split into two, the hastily developed theory being that it would be folly not to walk at your own pace. We regrouped at Kinlochleven, the first checkpoint. Wendy Cochran and her friend Pamela, had kindly offered to support us through the event and supplied us with copious rolls, cakes, drinks and sweets, and morale boosting chat.
The next ten miles, up and down the Devil's Staircase and part way through Glencoe, was much harder than the first section. Jim tore his knee ligaments and hamstrings coming down the Devil's staircase. By now our team training regime was even more evident and Cameron and I had disappeared out of sight. It was left to George to single-handedly help Jim down the mountain. He managed to call Wendy and Pam on the mobile. Fortunately, at this point the West Highland Way is close to the main road, and Wendy and Pam were able to cart Jim off to First Aid. Sadly he had to retire although played an invaluable role later in the day as Chief Car Mechanic.
After a short debate, Cameron and I decided that the least we could do under the circumstances was to wait for George at Checkpoint Two (the Glencoe Ski Centre Car Park). Worn out by his efforts with Jim, George and Naver, George's trusty black lab (see, he wasn't really on his own!) appeared 45 minutes later. Cameron had developed awful blisters and had to have his feet patched before we could embark on Section 3 so we all got a welcome rest and a chance to catch our breath.
Section 3 began well, with George, Cameron, Naver and I walking together. However, after a couple of miles, Cameron discovered that jogging was much less painful than walking, since it changed the pressure points on his feet. Naver also liked the new pace so Cameron and Naver disappeared over the horizon.
I felt bad for George that Cameron had stolen his dog, and was fleetingly struck by a rare surge of team spirit. Consequently George and I walked together for most of this section. Our blisters began to worsen towards the end of this stage, but we were past the half-way point which psychologically gave us a lift. George stopped ahead of the last hill climb of the section, to have his feet seen to at a first aid point. George urged to me to "Carry on" at this point, and and after half-heartedly protesting, I set off. If we'd been in an old war movie, it would have been at this point that I'd have handed George my Webley revolver.
I reached Checkpoint 3 at Bridge of Orchy, only to discover that Cameron had not only set off ten minutes earlier without George or me, he'd left poor old Naver! To be fair, dogs weren't allowed on the next section of the walk. It's worth noting too that thanks to their jogging tactics, Cameron and Naver managed to win the "Fastest Team with a Dog Prize", and established a new category for "Fastest Man with another Man's Dog!"
George and I regrouped at Bridge of Orchy and after scoffing a few rolls, bananas and Snicker bars, he and I marched off on the penultimate stretch. This was 10 miles and we covered it in 2 1/2 hours, which was great going. We overtook a lot of walking wounded and it was very noticeable how much fatigue had set in all round. By the time we reached the final checkpoint at the Auchtertyre Wigwams, we just wanted to get the whole thing over with.
I grabbed some soup, a roll and a banana. I stuck on a few more plasters and changed my socks for the last time. George went straight for a massage. A bit of executive relief was probably just what he needed, because when he pitched up at the checkpoint car park, Wendy had to tell him that his new Merc had broken down and been abandoned at the last checkpoint. It turned out that Jim had turned the ignition on to listen to the England game on the radio, but had turned the key too far and had flattened the battery!
Still reeling from the news (and his sauna....sorry, massage) George was very keen for a bit more of a lie-down before the last stage. With impeccable logic he'd also decided that after his rest, if he could get up and walk round the car, he'd be able to do the final 12.5 mile stretch! Wendy tried to distract him in conversation..."so, what are you planning to do with the rest of the weekend etc.?".
I was eager to end the ordeal, and with George's blessing ("Oh f*** off then!") I headed out into the darkness. It was 11pm and cloudy so the full moon was hardly to be seen. I teamed up with two HSBC people we'd met earlier in the walk.
Oh, I forgot to mention, Cameron had left Checkpoint 4 about an hour before George and I arrived, but then you probably figured that out by now!
Not far into the last section, my two new walking companions were beginning to toil. I bade them (and their head torches and map...crucial point this) farewell and carried on up the hill. I passed the 10 miles to go marker, 9 miles, 8 miles, and at this point the track was smooth so I broke into a jog and kept this up for a couple of miles. However, the 6 mile marker never came, and the track seemed to peter out. Eventually, I saw the two other walkers up ahead. "Thank goodness, are we heading the right way then?" I asked. Sadly it turned out that we were all lost; no head torches, no map (I'd dropped mine earlier).
We hunted up and down for the trail but it was nowhere to be seen. Eventually, we heard a river that we figured would lead to Loch Lomond (which was where we were to finish) and that in turn led us to a road. I walked and jogged in on that, no longer caring about the state of my feet. I passed a drunk sitting bent-double outside the Drovers Arms being sick and nearly joined him. With considerable relief, I finished, two minutes before 3am, 18hours and 58minutes later. Technically, I was on the wrong side of the loch, having missed a turning but did I care! Cameron had finished about an hour earlier and George, against the medical advice that he received at the final checkpoint, finished the course at around 5am.
It was hellish, but I'm glad I did it and the others feel the same. Jim was genuinely very unfortunate. Other colleagues are already talking about getting teams together for next year and are debating who's up to it. Are YOU?
Thank you very much for your sponsorship - cash/cheques to The Scottish Community Foundation please.
A Highland Hell
by Angus MacDonald of The Kilted Foursome
(printed in The Scotsman 26th June 1999)
It was never going to be pleasant, a twenty mile stroll is exhausting, double that and you are in real pain with the last 12 taking you into the realms of something you intend never to repeat. The literature showed a kilted fellow with two mates smiling as they strolled along in the sun. That picture was taken last year after the first 17 miles, and will probably be used next year too. The Caledonian Challenge is billed as a 52 mile sponsored walk down the West Highland Way from Fort William to Loch Lomond non stop. It didn't mention the fact that the weather might be more a combination of a tropical storm and a west coast gale. Before we had even started we were drenched, and 10 teams didn't even cross the start line. A rousing send-off by Clanranald, the chieftain of the Macdonald clan, with extensive safety brief by the exhausting organiser David Fox-Pitt saw the 517 starters strike off up Glen Nevis. 17 miles later we reached Kinlochleven, our first checkpoint, where the beloved soldiers and even more beloved support teams plied us with tea.
My portable came in useful on the Devil's Staircase above Kinlochleven, when we had to summon the army helicopter to rescue a fellow with cramp. We had already lost at least a dozen walkers who felt it was all too much. The arrival at Kingshouse at the entrance to Glencoe was like a scene from a horror film. Acres of cars with valiant support teams trying to drape plastic sheeting over weary walkers, with over 30 miles to go. Of the 4 members of parliament only John McAllion was still hoofing it. Walkers were falling like flies. Apparently, as the founder, participants had placed a couple of contracts on my life, an incentive to move on quickly.
Rannoch Moor was next, a section during which 15 individuals were picked up by the motorcycle dispatch riders and carted off the hillside. It was now dark but still bucketing it down. The Merrill Lynch team from Edinburgh, booked in as the "hobbling herd" was going strong, as were the 11 walkers from Stewart Ivory, the fund management company, led by the well-known John Thomson, who along with Angus Tulloch, both aged 49, were to finish.
Cazenove, the blue-blooded bankers, from London were 3 hours behind us as their plane had been delayed. The American Factset team had got off the sleeper at Fort William, turned up in good time to register but were tempted away by McDonald's hamburgers, to reappear 30 minutes after we had all set off.
The fourth checkpoint beyond Tyndrum, Auchtertyre farm, saw everyone absolutely exhausted. Our wives valiantly served us up lashings of bacon and eggs before pushing us on for the last 14 miles. Lord Aberdour told us that one member of his team had dropped out and hitched a lift at 2 am, to be dropped off at Crianlarich. Unable to persuade anyone at a B&B to take him in he curled his soaked body into a ball in a church and dropped off to sleep.
At 11.59, Drew Mackin of the Clydesdale Bank had run in to the finish, 52 miles in 11 hours made us all feel very humble. Compaq Computers were in a 4.15 am, and then came the Edinburgh bankers Noble & Co, led by the obnoxiously fit Henry Chaplain.
My own team, the Kilted Foursome, limped in complete at 8 am, with the backs
of my legs lacerated by the swing of the wet tartan. Heroic walkers staggered
in throughout the day, with the last at 5 pm. 67% of the starters completed
and we believe some £300,000 will have been raised for small needy causes
throughout Scotland. Some big amounts were raised, notably by Andrew Gobourn
of Reuters and the teams from Kenmore Group and Stewart Ivory. I said to Alastair
Dempster who runs The Scottish Community Foundation, the charity who distributes
the money we raise, "Never, ever again", "you said that last
year" he said, "and the year before that".