Long and grinding road

Distance walking leads to sore feet and hallucinations. But it's worth the slog

This time next week, a hundred or so people will set out from Tunbridge Wells Tennis Club at 10am and will not be seen again by the general populace for anything up to another 26 hours. They are long-distance walkers taking part in the Wealden Waters, a non-stop 100-kilometre journey on foot that will take them through Kent via the scenic route before it deposits them spaced out, mud-caked and weary, back at Tunbridge in time for breakfast on Monday.

This time next week, a hundred or so people will set out from Tunbridge Wells Tennis Club at 10am and will not be seen again by the general populace for anything up to another 26 hours. They are long-distance walkers taking part in the Wealden Waters, a non-stop 100-kilometre journey on foot that will take them through Kent via the scenic route before it deposits them spaced out, mud-caked and weary, back at Tunbridge in time for breakfast on Monday.

In fact the WWW, as it's known among aficionados, is not the longest event in the Long Distance Walkers Association's calendar. Think of the personal pride and sheer bloody-mindedness that spurred on the injured Chris Maddocks to finish the 50km Olympic walk an hour after everyone else had finished, and you get some idea of what motivates some to endure one of the LDWA's annual Hundreds, during which participants have the opportunity to see the sun come up after two consecutive nights.

"Back in our Invicta Hundred in 1992," says Tom Sinclair, secretary of Kent LDWA, "we had to wake one chap up on the path to Sevenoaks. He'd been walking along quite normally with his mates when he just sat down and went to sleep."

It's easier to define long-distance walking by what it isn't. It is neither racewalking nor rambling. Nor is it powerwalking, a slow form of fell-running, or an extended orienteering session punctuated by stops for tea and the application of blister plasters. No technique has to be mastered, although the ability to read a map is useful.

Whereas racewalkers, like actors in Hollywood movies of the prudish Fifties, must always keep one foot on the ground, anything goes in long-distance walking, although participants judged to have deviated from the route to gain advantage will be disqualified. The majority of LDWA challenge events, in which a set distance has to be covered within a specified time, are open to joggers and runners as well as walkers.

The routes might be long, but they don't have to be that long. Of the LDWA's 7,000 members, only a small proportion take part in the ultras. "People can get the wrong impression - that it's all extreme stuff, for the kind of people who go in for ultras," says Les Maple, who produces the LDWA Handbook, going on to point out that the majority opt for shorter distances, such as the 15- to 20-mile social walks laid on by regional groups.

You need to be fairly fit to take part in one of the longer events, but basically the only way of training to do a distance walk is to, well, do a distance walk. "You don't need physical training, you need mental training," says Bobbie Sauerzapf of the Norfolk and Suffolk group. "You have to tell yourself the pain is going to get better, and just believe you can do it. If you want something badly enough, you'll put up with a little bit of discomfort. The beauty of it is that coming first or last doesn't matter. It's not cutthroat, you're not hurting anyone else, and you get as much out of seeing someone else finish as you do yourself."

All walkers cite the camaraderie as one of the main reasons why they do it. This is hardly surprising - after 24 or more hours of bunching together for support and of ad hoc comfort stops behind the nearest bush, it is impossible to stand on ceremony with your companions.

In fact, it's often impossible to stand. The finish point of the longer events can look like a battleground, with people curled up snoring on the floor or looking as if they have just raised their heads from a bag of glue.

Unlike marathon running, long- distance walking, which takes places largely off-road, produces few injuries. The main hazards are very sore feet, and, towards the close of longer events, the hallucinations that come from physical and mental exhaustion.

"I was about six miles from the finish of a Hundred," says Avril Stapleton, LDWA groups secretary, "when I became absolutely convinced there were puddles on the track. The chap I was with said, 'Why are you dancing around, Avril?' and I said, 'Because I don't want to get my feet wet'. It was a completely dry night! On another Hundred, the friend who I was walking with suddenly said, 'I can't walk on them, I can't. All the pebbles - they're alive - I'll squash them'. But while most of my experiences with hallucinations have been quite funny, it's all very real at the time and some people have some really horrible ones, like believing they're being chased by herds of elephants."

There are no winners, and the only prize is a certificate recording distance covered in what time; at major events, fabric badges are given out, but only to finishers.

"If people don't finish, they'll often feel bad," says Tom Sinclair. "They'll think, 'I could have struggled on, why didn't I?' One sad letter I had after a Hundred was from a chap who'd had to retire after 96 miles. His feet had given up and he'd taken enough painkillers. But it's happened before and it'll happen again."

The big question, of course, is, why they do it? Perhaps that's best summed up by Bobbie Sauerzapf. "It's quality time you give to yourself, and you have to be totally and utterly selfish about it. You let your brain go into freewheel, just follow a route description, and do something completely alien to your ordinary nine-to-five existence. It's a different world, and, when you are night-walking, a different country.

"All your senses come alive. I remember doing a Hundred in Shropshire - it was a balmy night, we were in shorts and T-shirts, walking through meadows with the dew on the grass slapping our knees. There was a marvellous dawn chorus and a sunrise like a salmon-pink kaleidoscope, changing minute by minute before our eyes. Then we went round a corner, straight into a wall of honeysuckle scent. I wasn't hallucinating. It was just awesome."

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