Caroline Clift: The not-so-secret Howard’s Way Walk diary of an unfit editor

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I sit here writing in my local doctor’s surgery, waiting to be told why, after a week’s rest and elevation, my foot continues to swell. Well, it turns out that I have a strained ligament, and am consequently banned from wearing high heels for the next two months and must refrain from any long strenuous walks.

It’s walking that has got me into this situation, and a chance meeting at International Confex with Matt Storey, business development manager at Gallowglass. At the show, Storey settled to tell me about his involvement in this year’s Howard’s Way Walk – a 100-mile challenge that would take a team of 30 professionals from Winchester to Eastbourne, across the South Downs Way in three and a half days. And all in the aid of Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund.

“Why don’t you join us?” exclaimed an enthusiastic Storey. Well, I like a challenge, and so with two months to go I engaged in some training, everywhere from Scotland to Brussels and Buckinghamshire – no street was safe from me and my shiny lycra!

For those of you that know me, it’s pretty obvious that I am not built for speed, as a good friend of mine pointed out – and to those of you in the exhibition world that’s Ross Piggott, formerly of William Reed. He reckoned I’d bitten off more than I could chew, but not one to shy away from giving things a go once, I signed up.

In good company

I soon learned that I was in good company – Eventia’s Izania Downie, Nick Grecian, managing director of Gallowglass, Exposure’s Simon Burton, Laura Moody of Fish Software, Lee Farrant, partner of RPM, Madeleine Johnson, event manager of Diversified’s lunch, Aaron Timms, managing director of Leading Edge Design and FESPA’s Marcus Timson to name a few. And we were all walking in memory of Howard Kerr, freelance events logistics manager, who sadly died of pancreatic cancer in August 2008.

For the past three years, the Howard’s Way Walk has attracted members of the events industry to raise funds for ongoing research into this aggressive form of cancer. Seventy-five per cent of pancreatic cancer sufferers die within six months of diagnosis and only three per cent survive more than five years. Incredibly, this percentage is the same as it was 40 years ago. Available funding for pancreatic research has, up until now been woefully inadequate.

The Howard’s Way Walk and other fundraising activities undertaken by Howard’s industry friends in 2008 (£85k) and 2009 (£48k) have so far totalled £133,000. This money, The Howard Kerr PhD Studentship Award, has been donated to The Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund, and is paying for a PhD student – Sabarinath Vallath, to pursue a programme focusing on the development of imaging and therapy of pancreatic cancer by targeting the integrin avβ6, a molecule common to tumour cells that permits pancreatic cancer cells to invade and spread.

Day one

Under the auspicious gaze of King Alfred in Winchester, a 7am start sees a bunch of keen and eager walkers gather. Filled with nerves, we set off, and I am only seven miles in when I get my first experiential moment – peeing behind a barn. Two miles later, I am charged at by a cow, which is blocking my escape route. Quick thinking sees me throw my trusty walking poles over the fence and I hastily get my leg over their enclosure. That said, I’d be somewhat flummoxed by the sight of a six-foot, red head in running leggings, so you can’t really blame the heffer!

As the day went on, and despite comfy shoes, 16.2 miles in and I get my first blister – an inevitable moment but, all the same, one which you secretly wish wouldn’t come. At this point, Jarrod Bischoff, client liaison manager at Gallowglass, has not yet earned the title, managing director of Blister Management, yet it was obvious promotion was on the cards.

Fuelled and ready to go, there was another 15.5 miles to undertake until we could finish for the day – and so it was as much of a mental challenge, as it was physical. I knew that the South Downs Way was hilly, but I wasn’t prepared for Beacon Hill – a bitch of an incline after already walking 30 miles, and one that made me feel as though my heart was going to jump out of chest. Stupidly I chose to go over the top of the mound, which gave a short and sharp shock to the system. Breaking the hill down in four, and aiming for the first tree, I was trying to remind myself that my body would find the hills 10 per cent easier the following day, as your muscle’s are programmed to remember the previous day’s conditioning. Yeah whatever, can I just get to the end of day one please, and make mine a beer.

Day two

I finished yesterday on a high. I’d walked just under 32 miles, was feeling OK, a bit stiff, but nothing that I couldn’t handle. Then I got the shakes, and I soon discovered that day two would not be my first experience of dropping blood sugar levels. Feeling sick, and physically shaking, Izania Downie grabbed her stash of electrolyte sports drinks, energy chews and an apple and lovingly threw them in my direction. I managed the first 9.4 miles and then I had to sit my first session out – a 6.5-mile stretch. To say that I was disappointed is an understatement. When I first pestered my friends and family for donations, I was conscious to make people aware that it was a huge challenge, and one which I was unsure of completing. Even at the tender age of 31, my dad still thought it appropriate to lecture me on the principles of “it’s taking part that counts”, as I sat in a Land Rover, and sorted myself out. Blisters treated, lunch ensued and I felt ready for another 9.9-mile stint. Boy oh boy, those hills were big. All in all I walked just short of 20 miles, and by now five toes were strapped up with Compede plasters and zinc oxide tape, before being smothered in Vaseline.

Day three

I was woken by torrential rain at 5am. Fabulous. We were in for a wet one. I made my way to a makeshift treatment room within the Hilton Arundel, our base for the challenge. It was like ER – bad backs, swollen ankles, the most disgusting blisters you’ll ever see in your life and sore legs were all getting treated, so I joined the queue and awaited the magic hands of Colin XXXX, senior crew chief at Gallowglass. A trestle table with a towel on top served as a makeshift massage bench, yet it was a much-welcomed improvisation, as my legs and lower back needed some work. The toes now took half an hour to strap up, and I was now resorting to Vaselined-socks in a bid to wage a war on friction. Day three was most notably the most miserable of days, a long, hard slog against strong winds and relentless rain. I completed the first 8.3 miles, which seemed to take forever, before catching a chill and slipping two metres, landing on my bum, back and elbow. I burst into tears, the result of lack of sleep, achy legs, blistered feet and inconsistent blood sugars. I was instructed to sit out the rest of the day’s walking or I wouldn’t be allowed out to play tomorrow.

Day four

The sun is shining. And we all know that today’s walk will be particularly picturesque. Today, we tackle the final 15.4 miles, and another 6am back and leg massage soon sets me on my way. Oh, and seven strapped up toes. My heels and the balls of my feet have been lovingly strapped up too as a precautionary measure, as today we will walk over the Seven Sisters. Look them up – seven bloody big hills, one after the other.

It seems that I am full of beans. My legs feel fresh, probably as a result of a massage, but that’s not to say I’m not tired. The last three days have been truly spectacular in terms of scenery but the coast brings with it an added dimension – a blustery wind and rugged force of nature. The hills seem a little easier, but the wind is bitter. And the inclines are tough on the feet. That said, Beachy Head is in the distance, and apparently Eastbourne is set to burst into view ! Over the hill, and our final destination is in sight. It’s difficult to tell if Mr Burton is pleased as each step is painful. Team spirit resides with the group though, and the walking wounded all walk to the Wish Tower, the finish line, together.

Tears, tears, tears, tears and more tears. Oh and a beer !

And finally

Upon reflection – the pain and discomfort, the stiff legs and cramping muscles have all been worth it. In total, I managed 76 miles. No, not the full 100 but I gave it a bloody good go. I’ve had a fantastic expérience, have met some fabulous people along the way, and now I know what’s involved can fully prepare for next year’s challenge. To all those that have donated thank you so much and to all those that would like still to donate visit www.justgiving.com/hww-2010 Every little bit of cash you can spare helps the cause, and oh what a good cause it is.