On the weekend of 11th to 13th March I attempted to become the first person to circumnavigate the M25 on foot non-stop. With the help of a few friends who acted as my support crew my plan was to start the 165 mile trek beside the QE2 bridge in Dartford, on the western side of the Thames, and walk clockwise around the M25 following the A and B roads until I arrived back at the QE2 bridge on the eastern side of the Thames (there is no pedestrian access to the bridge itself) some 40 to 48 hours later. Or at least that was the plan.
I also wanted to use the walk to raise money for Sport Relief, one of the biggest annual charity fundraising events in the UK in which celebrities raise millions of pounds by challenging themselves to massive sporting challenges (see Eddie Izzard’s 27 marathon challenge, Jo Brand’s 150 mile ‘Hell of a Walk’ and Greg Jame’s 5 back to back half ironmans) and thousands of people like you and I contribute our little bit by raising thousands of smaller amounts through our own sporting challenges.
I contacted Fitbit to help me with my fundraising by sponsoring a prize to the person who had the closest guess as to the number of steps my walk took – providing that they also made a donation. And to that extent the walk was a success. I raised £1,500 for Sport Relief and hopefully also spread the word about this great little device called ‘Fitbit’.
Fitbit also kindly gave me a Fitbit Surge which was a nice upgrade on the Fitbit Charge that I previously used.
Unlike an organised event/race in which I only need to turn up to and walk, there was plenty that needed to be done before I even laced up my shoes.
Firstly, I had to plan the route. All I knew was that it would make sense to start and finish at the Dartford Crossing, although at the time I didn’t realise that pedestrians couldn’t walk across the bridge. The M25 motorway circles London but because it is a motorway, you can’t actually walk on the M25 itself. I have used MapMyRun previously to plan walking routes, including the ‘Richard Walks London’ route that I did in central London last year, so decided to use it to map my M25 route which would follow the A and B roads around the M25, staying as close to the motorway as possible throughout the journey. MapMyRun is an easy tool to use and it also integrates with Google Maps, and Google street view to enable the user to see what the roads along the route actually look like, and the route I mapped out looked OK to me.
There was a good mixture of narrow country lanes, suburban streets, and busier high traffic roads. Plenty of variety. The only problem, as I was to find out, was that in a number of places the roads that MapMyRun planned were not ‘roads’ as such, but were dirt or grass trails – they all had names including one grass trail called ‘New Road’. Fortunately the weather was kind to us as many of the trails would have been impossible to walk if it had rained throughout the week beforehand.
Once I had planned the route I created and printed detailed maps that spread the full 165 mile route across 55 A4 printed pages which had every kilometre marked and the names of all the streets that we would be following. I printed three copies of the maps – one for me and two for my support crew. I also laminated one of the copies in case it rained.
I also employed the services of OpenTracking.co.uk who uploaded the map to their website and gave me a GPS tracking unit to carry so that anyone who was interested, my support crew, and I could see where I was on the map at any time. This proved to be very helpful on a number of occasions when I got lost, although unfortunately the tracker stopped transmitting after about 30 hours.
After all the planning, the morning of Friday 11th March finally arrived and I left home mid-morning to travel via train to the start where I met one of my support crew, Sarah Lightman, who was giving up her weekend (along with Jim Hanson and Suzanne Beardsmore who would join us on Saturday afternoon) to help me achieve my goal. Walking long distances isn’t easy. When you get tired you can’t think clearly, and when you can’t think clearly you forget to eat regularly, and you make other mistakes that you wouldn’t normally make. But a good support crew makes all the difference, and I had the best. Both Sarah and Suzanne are experienced long distance race-walkers and Jim has supported us all during many races in recent years. I know that I wouldn’t have completed this walk without the support that these three gave me during the weekend. It definitely wasn’t something that I could have done solo.
Friday gave us a beautiful spring afternoon, and for the first time this year it was warm enough to wear a T shirt outside. We knew that the temperature would plummet overnight though and I had plenty of warm clothing plus other stuff I might need during the weekend which we put in to the back of Sarah’s car as I made final preparations for the walk.
And then at 2:30 in the afternoon I was off. The start of my next adventure.
I had daylight for the first 3 ½ hours and for most of this time it was reasonably warm. It was enjoyable walking along roads that I hadn’t walked before. Sarah was leapfrogging ahead and feeding me every 30 minutes and everything was well with the world.
But as it started getting colder my pace started to slow although I still felt good and was enjoying myself. Around about 7:30pm it was time for Sarah to leave me for the evening. We had decided that it was more important to have all three of my support crew with me on the Saturday night, and that as I would be relatively fresh and on roads that I had either walked or cycled before during the Friday night section, I would be OK walking alone. So I put all of my warm clothes on as well as my camelback which was filled with food and drink, and collected the maps that I would need to get me around the lower portion of the M25 overnight, and said goodnight to Sarah.
It got cold very rapidly and my pace dropped quickly. This wasn’t a race though so I wasn’t too concerned about my pace. Whilst I had a plan in mind that would see me walking the first 80 miles in 18 ½ hours to get through to Black Park in Windsor in time to walk parkrun at 9am on Saturday, I wasn’t going to lose any sleep if I didn’t make it. Actually I was going to lose a lot of sleep!
It was during the night that I realised why all of the long distance races I have done to date (8 races of 100 miles or further) have been in the summer – because the nights are so much warmer. The freezing cold weather was sapping my energy. At one stage my hands were shaking so much from the cold then when I tried to have a drink I ended up pouring it down my front. I was also having trouble reading my map when my hands were shaking, and got lost a few times by making silly mistakes.
But despite the cold I was still enjoying the adventure, and was evening enjoying having to find my way back on track after getting lost. The GPS live tracking was proving really useful.
At around 3am on Saturday morning I arrived at the A3 motorway. My map showed that I was to cross the motorway via a footbridge but I had somehow managed to arrive at the motorway about 50 meters down the road from the footbridge and in the dark I couldn’t work out how to get on to the walkway. So instead, given that there wasn’t any traffic, I climbed the barriers and the median strip and clambered across the road. Having crossed the motorway I needed to walk through the forest on the other side for about 200 meters to get to the road that I was supposed to follow, but somehow I managed to go the wrong way and it took me almost 30 minutes to find my way back out of the forest. The forest isn’t actually that big either!
A few hours later I got lost again when I found myself in the grounds of a hospital. My map showed that I should take the 2nd exit at a roundabout but the map didn’t include the hospital which was actually the 2nd exit. My wife happened to ring me while I was walking through the hospital grounds and asked how I was going. I replied that I am “in a hospital” and then quickly explained that I wasn’t actually “in hospital” but just lost within the hospital grounds.
And on another occasion I thought I was a few miles ahead of where I actually was, and was therefore reading the wrong page of my map. I tried to walk through a gate and down a private road but was stopped by security guards. I returned the way I had come and took another side street which wasn’t on my map (because I was reading the wrong page of the map) only to get completely lost. It wasn’t until about an hour later that I worked out that I was actually trying to read the wrong page of the map – and that was only because somehow I had managed to catch myself up and get back on to the correct page. All a part of the adventure.
Sarah called me at around 7am and we agreed to meet at Egham at around 8:30am. If I was to get to Black Park by 9am I had to be in Egham (65 miles into my trek) by 7am and that wasn’t happening, so I sent a txt to the Black Park parkrun event director to explain that I wouldn’t be there, and continued my slow’ish walk. The fact that I wouldn’t be doing parkrun would also help me catch up on some of the excess mileage I had done getting lost – as I wouldn’t need to do the extra 5km I had planned on walking within Black Park.
I passed the 100km mark in 14 hours 38 minutes and found Sarah soon afterwards with a hot Pot Noodles which was just what I needed to try and warm up. The weather was still cold so I kept my overnight warm clothing on and continued walking. I still wasn’t really tired. Just slow.
Sarah continued from where she left off the previous day, leapfrogging past me and feeding me every 30 minutes. At around 11am my parkrun and ultra-running friend, Louise Ayling, surprised me by joining me for an hour or more. It was good to talk to someone for more than just a few moments at a time although I don’t remember what Louise and I talked about. The conversation helped take my mind off the job at hand and made the next few miles go by that much faster (both in my mind and physically).
Louise walked with me until Suzanne and Jim joined us in the early afternoon and from there on I had a constant walking companion with either Suzanne or Sarah walking beside me to keep me company and take my mind off things.
For most of the afternoon I made steady progress through hilly countryside around the north western side of the M25. We walked past many beautiful and expensive properties and lots of small country pubs as we went from one village to the next. I was slow but was making steady progress walking at a pace of around 3 ½ to 4 miles an hour.
When we passed the 100 mile mark just before 5pm (26 hours and 19 minutes after starting) I posted on facebook that we would be finished within another 21 hours! And that was when it hit me – 21 more hours on my feet!
When doing an ultra-distance event, or any event for that matter, it is best not to focus on how far you have to go – at least not until you are almost finished. Up until then I had simply been focussing on one step after another. Every kilometre my watch would vibrate and I would check my pace. And then keep walking. I don’t think I gave any thought to how far I had to go until I got to 100 miles.
In need of a rest:
I kept going and continued to maintain a reasonable pace but as it got dark I started to tire. Jim and Sarah/Suzanne (whoever wasn’t walking with me) continued to leapfrog me but it seemed to take longer and longer to catch up to where they were waiting each time. Occasionally we would catch up with them before expected. This would happen when the ‘road’ we were walking down became a dirt trail that cars couldn’t travel along and they would have to double-back and find another route while we continued to follow the map.
There was one particular street, Tom’s Lane in Kings Langley, which I would have sworn was at least 3 to 4 miles long although Google maps tells me that it is only 1 ½ miles in length. It was a steady uphill slog from start to finish. I was walking with Suzanne at the time and Jim and Sarah came past us in the car, stopped a few meters ahead and jumped out of the car with packets of hot chips from the local fish and chip shop. This was just what I needed. I had basically been snacking for the previous 30 or so hours and it was really nice to eat something substantial.
Unfortunately it wasn’t enough though, and just as we approached 32 hours I decided that my idea of walking non-stop wasn’t going to work. At least not this time. We caught up with the car and I climbed in to the back and slept for 15 minutes – lying across the back seat with my legs hanging out of the door and my feet resting on a fold-up chair that Jim arranged as a foot rest. It wasn’t a deep sleep as I could hear voices but it was enough of a sleep for me to feel a little rested when I was woken up by my cold support crew who had been standing beside the car trying to keep warm.
I wasn’t ready to give up yet, but I was exhausted and needed a rest. I don’t know whether this was the start of the end, or whether the rest prolonged the inevitable, but 2 ½ hours later I again found myself sitting in the car, and this time we made the decision that at the pace I was walking (about 2 ½ miles an hour) there was little chance, if any, that I would make it to the finish within the next 18 to 20 hours and that the best thing for me was to get some proper sleep.
It was 1am on Sunday morning and I couldn’t face the idea of spending any more time on my feet, so I also made the decision that I wouldn’t attempt to continue after a sleep either. That was it. I had attempted to walk around the M25 and had failed. It was a challenge that had beaten me. Mount Everest wasn’t climbed by the first person who attempted it, and the M25 would not be walked non-stop by the first person who attempted that either.
It turned out that we were only a mile or so from the nearest hotel so we checked in to the Days Inn in South Mimms and I was asleep within minutes – after posting and tweeting a quick message to those people following my progress to advise that I had stopped.
A quick recovery:
Ruth collected me the following morning and Jim and Suzanne took Sarah back to find her car and they all headed back to their respective homes to recover from their ordeal – supporting is just as hard, if not harder, than actually doing the event and I am grateful for the work that they all put in over the weekend.
When I got home I slept on the couch for a few hours before going to bed for a few hours, having tea, and going to bed again. A great way to spend a Sunday, but not what I had planned.
Incredibly, the following morning I woke up feeling refreshed. And while eating breakfast I got this dumb idea about going back to South Mimms and continuing my walk. I had booked the Monday off work in order to recover, and I felt recovered. So why not go and complete what I had started.
I expected (and maybe hoped) that Ruth would try and talk me out of it, but she supported the idea so after breakfast I packed what I needed for an un-supported 45 mile walk, drove the car to the railway station nearest to where I would finish, and caught the train back to South Mimms. From there I walked the 2 miles back to where we had stopped in the early hours of Sunday morning and rang Suzanne to confirm that I was in the right place – there was a hand carwash on one side of the road and a pub on the other, and I couldn’t remember either of them. I thought we had stopped in the middle of a country lane but Suzanne confirmed that I was in the right place.
The last quarter:
My original map indicated that the whole route would be about 165 miles and we had completed 120 so in theory I had just 45 miles to go. It was 3pm on Monday afternoon so it was reasonable to expect that I could finish by about 2am given that I felt recovered, and even if I was a little slow, I should be finished by 4am. I didn’t need to be at work until 9:30am so I would have time to drive home, get a small amount of sleep, and then get over to north London where I was scheduled to be working for the week.
So I set off towards the finish and almost immediately got lost! Not a good sign. The plan had always been to follow the ‘A’ and ‘B’ roads on the outside of the M25, staying as close to the M25 as possible. And as we had discovered over the weekend, many of the ‘B’ roads were actually just dirt trails. This added to the interest though and meant that the walk was anything but boring. It also made getting lost very easy and my map reading isn’t great at the best of times. One of the other benefits of having Sarah and Suzanne walking with me on Saturday was that it was their job to navigate. But I was on my own now.
The first few hours of the walk were reasonably uneventful. I wasn’t walking fast but I was walking at a reasonable pace and was happy with progress. Until, that is, I came across a street sign that I recognised from earlier. It was about 9pm and I was in the same place I had been two whole hours earlier! I couldn’t believe it. I studied the map and worked out where I had gone wrong, and then followed the correct route. But two hours was going to cause me some problems with getting home and then to work in the morning. For the next few hours I kept convincing myself that I could finish by 4/4:30am but I knew in my heart that that was unlikely, and once I accepted reality I then spent a few hours thinking about what excuse I could give my client for letting them down – maybe I could tell them that I was sick (maybe I was), or maybe tell them that Zac was sick. But I then thought that potentially they may have heard about my walk, and it would be unprofessional if I made an excuse that wasn’t true. So I decided that I would call them and explain the situation when I got to the finish. If I had thought things through in advance I could have put my work clothes, laptop, etc, in the car and gone straight from the finish to the client’s office via a local swimming pool (for a shower) but this wasn’t an option. I would have to finish the walk, go home, have a shower, and then go to the client’s office.
I was enjoying the walk but wasn’t walking much faster than 3 to 3 ½ miles an hour, and having got lost for two hours it was likely to be after 6am by the time I finished. The good thing about that, though, was that it would be daylight when I finished meaning that I could take a ‘finish line’ selfie.
So I walked through the night, enjoying most of it other than the extreme cold. I had my neck and face covered during the night and it was so cold that I didn’t eat much – as eating meant I needed to bare my skin to the cold air. I wasn’t hungry though. With my new healthy eating diet I have found that I can walk for hours without eating. I did eat every couple hours, but not every 30 minutes as planned.
Eventually it became daylight and I still had a few miles to go. Cars and trucks started rushing past me as people headed off to work – and I kept walking. I got lost one last time, with just a few miles to go, when my map told me to go down a pedestrian path which had a locked gate at the end. I had to double-back and find another route through to the finish which was through the industrial area called ‘Greys’ on the eastern side of the Thames.
And finally, just before 7am, I arrived at the end of the road beside the QE2 bridge, and the entrance to a truck depot.
The journey had taken me 86 ½ hours from when I had started at 2:30 on Friday afternoon just a few hundred meters away on the other side of the river through to 7am on Tuesday morning. Of that, I had walked for 49 hours and 56 minutes not counting the additional 2 miles from South Mimms railway station to where I resumed the walk on Monday afternoon.
I had walked 177 miles (285km) and taken 342,313 steps. Add to that the 2 miles I walked from the South Mimms railway station and the 2 ½ miles I still had to walk back to the car, and it would be fair to say that this was my longest ever walk – beating the 176 miles I walked at the Privas 3 day race last year.
I had also raised almost £1,500 for Sport Relief!
After walking back to the car I rang the client I was due to see and explained that I would be late. Fortunately he was 100% understanding. I then drove home for lunch and a shower before heading off to work. No time for any sleep. Ironically, having just walked a lap of the M25, my Sat Nav told me that the M25 was too congested to drive home via that route and took me home via the A13 in to central London.
Walking distances of 100 miles or more tends to do a few strange things to my body.
Firstly, after every event I have done of 100 miles or further I have had night sweats for at least one, and often a few nights. It is as if I have an illness and my body is trying to sweat the illness out of me.
Secondly, my mouth and tongue tend to swell up a little and I lose all sense of taste. This time around the roof of my mouth also felt raw and it was painful to eat anything for a whole week. It is still not 100% recovered as I write this.
And lastly, the obvious one is that even with the best precautions, you tend to get blisters on your feet. For this event I used Injinji toe socks together with 2Toms Blister Shield and I only had two small blisters – one on the inside of each heel. Those blisters came through during the Saturday and I popped and drained them on the Monday before starting the final quarter of the journey. They came back again during that stage, but overall I am pretty happy to report that I walked 177 miles and only got two small blisters.
The other issue I had going in to the event was my right knee which had been causing me pain/discomfort and had limited my training during the 3 weeks leading up to the walk. The good news is that the knee didn’t hurt at all until I had my first sleep at 32 hours, and after that it was only occasionally uncomfortable. It is sore now, and I won’t resume training for another week or so to let it recover more, but it held up for the duration of the walk. During the walk I had the knee taped using Kinesiology Tape that I purchased on Amazon. My physio had recommended it and pointed me at this YouTube video which I followed to apply the tape.
And one other side affect that I have suffered from since my first Roubaix 28 hour race is that I appear to have killed a nerve or nerves in the front of my left foot, and don’t have much feeling in that foot. It almost always feels like I have ‘pins and needles’ but I have had the foot checked by doctors and there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong that they are worried about. It is just one of the side-effects of being a long-distance race-walker.
The good news, though, is that my legs recovered quickly. They were a little sore on the Monday but if it wasn’t for the blistered feet, I would have been walking normally by the Tuesday.
The plan now is to take another week off, 2 ½ weeks in total, before I resume training in preparation for my next two races – the Continental Centurions 24 hour race in Holland in mid May, and the Grand Union Canal Race (145 miles) at the end of May.
Surrey Comet Article:
This article was published in the Surrey Comet after I completed my walk:
Fitbit Blog article:
This article was published on Fitbit’s blog after I completed the walk: http://fitbiteurope.tumblr.com/post/142291947815/if-you-think-the-m25-is-tough-when-stuck-in
And in August 2016 I appeared in my first ever podcast interview when Chris Desmond from the Uncomfortable Is OK Podcast interviewed me about the M25 Circumnavigation and my upcoming 6 day race.
I did it!
In 2017 I had another attempt at a non-stop M25 circumnavigation. Read about it here.