Date walked: 02/07/2012
Time taken: 10 days
The final stretch
I had hoped that a few days without walking would help me recover a bit, but quite the contrary. Even before getting out of sight of the deserted and trashed fields that had been used as campsites by the festival goes I realised that I actually felt pretty crap. Despite having only walked for a few minutes my heels were in agony already and my calves kept cramping up. On top of that, I felt completely drained, exhausted, tired and lacking energy. The 5 days of hardly sleeping due to non-stop noise, partying and floodlights keeping the campsite bright as day during the night had taken its toll. Not that this was entirely unexpected, after so many years at the festival, I had gotten in the habit of always booking another week off work after the festival for recovery, but this combined with the exhaustion from the brute force walk previously was all kicking in at once. Nearly 40 degrees didn’t help much either! At least path finding was pretty easy, following cycling paths with clearly marked directions along the way and using the gps to have a rough idea which way I needed to head. Stumbling along in a daze and sitting down for a rest after nearly every kilometre.
I eventually called it quits and stopped in Rillaar at the first hotel I came across, having only walked 19km. I was quite disappointed by the poor progress but remained hopeful that a proper nights sleep in a bed would sort me out again. I spent the rest of the day just lying in bed, reading and resting.
Despite sleeping like a baby that night, I woke up feeling even more tired than the day before. It felt like the few days of not walking had given my body the impression the job was done and it could shut down now. I still had about 200ish kilometres to go and there was no way in hell I would give up this close to my goal after all this! Physically I felt dreadful, but I was relieved to find that my determination and stubbornness were still alive and kicking. I was no longer in a rush though, so after breakfast I checked with hotel reception if I could extend my stay by another night. Sadly they were fully booked and I had to continue my journey. As expected, my progress was pathetic and despite taking most of the day, I only managed 19km again before stopping at a hotel in Diest. This time I booked my room for 2 nights straight away!
Apart from going downstairs for breakfast and popping out briefly in the afternoon for some food shopping, I spent all day in bed, reading and catching up on some emails on my phone. The continued interest from people in my walk helped in getting my spirits up a bit again, especially an email from Coeliac UK, the charity I had been fundraising for, asking how I was getting on and whether they could write about my journey in their next magazine issue. As I had been doing my fundraising through justgiving and never actually contacted the charity organisation itself, I thought it was quite nice that they got in touch with me.
The following day I felt less tired finally but physically still just as weak and drained, if not even more so. I set off again after breakfast, wondering what do to. Resting and taking it easy wasn’t really helping, plus I got to the stage where I really just wanted to be done and get home. The scenery was mostly pretty dull, walking along endless straight roads, my body was at an end and it wasn’t much fun anymore. The constant 35-40 degrees did the rest to make the walking pretty unpleasant. Since resting wasn’t helping anyway, I thought I might be able to get more motivation from just pushing forwards and trying to cover as much ground as possible. It had worked pretty well getting from Chipping Norton to Werchter after all. The main issue was the pain in my feet, they had often become sore towards the evening after a long day of walking but now the pain was permanent and continuously getting more intense. Something was definitely wrong, but since this didn’t feel like something I could get sorted by just going to a GP, I decided to just continue and get it sorted at home. Over the years training in martial arts and various other sports, I had a lot of injuries, countless broken bones, dislocated joints and several surgeries, so a bit of pain is not really a new experience but this was a very different. Sports injuries tend to happen quickly, help is usually not far away and the adrenaline rush that comes with it makes dealing with the pain relatively easy. You generally just avoid doing whatever movement causes the pain and wait til it has healed up. Now, however, I was forced to continuously repeat the one thing that caused the most pain: taking another step, for 8-10 hours a day! Although not nearly as painful as a proper injury, there was also no adrenaline to help deal with it and it all felt quite masochistic, repeatedly inflicting the pain myself. The only way I managed to keep going was to, in a way, zone out. I just tried to keep my mind busy enough to not ‘notice’ the rest anymore. After all this time on my own, there wasn’t really much left to think about, so I spent most of my following days with maths! Not sure why really, I never particularly liked maths, but feeling this exhausted, even simply calculations proved challenging, and that challenge helped keep me distracted. If I took about 2.5 steps per metre, over the 2100ish kilometres I covered by now, that would be about 5.25 million steps I had taken. Assuming with every step I took, I was lifting all that weight in my backpack, would that mean that for every gram of gear I had carried less, I could have saved myself lifting 5250kg so far?! Maybe all those ultra-light geeks cutting labels out of their clothing to save one gram were on to something after all! …. Complete and utter nonsense but by spending my days with silly calculations like this, going through all kinds of variables I somehow managed to keep going. Another tactic I used was something I remembered from watching Touching the Void; breaking my journey into smaller and smaller goals to make them more achievable, to the point of picking targets barely a few hundred metres away and continuously playing around with my gps to measure up how far I still had to go. The strangest bit is, this all made me feel quite happy in a way! During my earlier stage, walking across Holland and making incredible progress, I was getting worried that if I continued progressing so well all the way to Luxembourg, I wouldn’t be satisfied. I have always been driven by challenge and arriving at home still feeling fit, I would never stop wondering how much further I could have gone! Now I knew I had reached my limits!
While this all worked quite well to help me walk on, the downside of this zoning out is that I have practically no recollection of those days walking to the Luxembourgish border. I have an unusually detailed and vivid memory of almost every day walking from Aberdeen to the rock festival, probably because it was overall such an incredible experience, helped along by lots of photos and a detailed journal in which I had written at least a page a day.
I have no idea what to report here about the following few days though as I cannot remember anything really apart from a few jumbled memories. My journal is of no use either as I was too exhausted to write anything in the evenings and just went from arriving at a hotel to having a shower and crawling to bed.
One of the few things that stuck in memory is leaving Diest after my day of resting and getting stopped along the way by an elderly couple doing some gardening outside their house and asking me where I was going. When I gave them a brief overview of my journey, they promptly invited me in for a drink and wanted to hear more. After a few pleasant beers in the shade, they even insisted on giving me a tub full of homemade pasta to take with me.
Unfortunately, all my journal contains for the rest of the trip is dates, locations and distances walked:
05.07.12 – Diest to Wimmertingen – 30km
06.07.12 – Wimmertingen to Liege – 34km
07.07.12 – Liege to Tiege – 34km
08.07.12 – Tiege to Vielsalm – 32km
09.07.12 – Vielsalm to Marnach (Luxembourg) – 36km
10.07.12 – Marnach to Vianden - 25km
11.07.12 – Vianden to Ferschweiler - 30km
For the walk from Diest to the border of Luxembourg, some random photos is all I have:
Improving scenery the further I headed East into the Ardennes:
On the 9th of July, I reached the northern border of Luxembourg after 2233km. While I still had to cross the whole country, all 72km of it(!), just getting this far was enough of a motivational boost to wake me up from the daze I spent the last few days in. The drop in temperature after the previous days rain also made walking a bit easier.
Over joyous to be nearly home, I stopped at the petrol station on the border for some supplies and was promptly greeted in French… great, nothing had changed then! While most Luxembourgers will proudly tell you that we indeed have our own language, finding someone who actually bothers to speak it is an entirely different story. I never liked speaking French and being forced to speak a foreign language on a daily basis in my own country was just one of the many reasons I had been quite happy to leave many years ago. I tried not to let it spoil my good mood by thinking of life ahead of me back home and continued on. Despite the painful feet, I really enjoyed my walk again.
My mate Thierry had gone to Luxembourg after the rock festival too to spend some time with his family and called me to ask where I planned to end up so he could visit me yet again. Further motivated, I progressed quickly and reached the town of Marnach where he and Michael, another friend who had also studied with me in Aberdeen, met me for a few drinks. The three of us had shared a flat in Aberdeen for a couple of years and it was great hanging out! Once it got dark, they drove home and I looked for somewhere to sleep.
It was too late in the evening to find any accommodation so I picked a forest nearby and went for a final night in my bivvy. I quickly found a nice spot and had a really comfortable night.
Weeks later I would find out that a while back both my cousins had moved to Marnach and their house was less than a mile away from where I slept that night! Bit of a shame I didn’t know at the time, it would have been nice to visit them along my walk.
Waking up after a good nights sleep, I quickly packed my bag and set off. I never spent much time in the northern part of the country but todays journey was through familiar areas which was a nice change as I knew exactly where I had to go, what to expect and how long it would be. On the earlier parts of my walk I got a lot of pleasure from the unknown, but feeling this exhausted and drained, I preferred knowing what lay ahead.
This would be my second last day on the road and I was really looking forward to make my way towards Vianden, where my grandparents used to live and I spent many great summers working as a lifeguard in the local open air swimming pool. They still had a house there which was abandoned now, but my parents were going to meet me in the evening to give me the keys so I could sleep indoors. I was very much looking forward to seeing my parents again and progressed quickly. At some point along the walk, I came across a junction where I had the choice to continue directly towards my target destination or make a small detour to visit my granddad. It was only about a 5km detour, but the way my feet felt I just couldn’t bring myself to add any distance to my journey, not even 5km. I felt quite guilty walking on, it would have been nice to drop by for a quick visit but at the time I didn’t think I could have managed. I arrived in Vianden before my parents and relaxed on a bench in the park with my kindle until they got there. Seeing them again was absolutely fantastic. We spent the evening in a pub catching up and it gave me the final motivation needed to drag myself along for one more day. Before they left, I got the keys of them for my grandparents old house, which luckily still had some beds in it.
Despite the comfort of a bed, I hardly slept that night. I was too excited about getting home but at the same time emotional about this incredible journey coming to an end soon. After getting some breakfast from the bakery next door, I set off on the last leg of my journey. The route was comfortable and easy, following a cycle path for most of it. Walking along it reminded me of discussions I had with friends in the past about walking that route, but at the time we thought it was ridiculous to walk that far! It was only 30km, but when your entire country is only 57km by 82km, 30km is quite a big distance
About 4-5km from my hometown, I sat down and had a prolonged rest. Not far to go but it was all uphill from here. While resting I received an email from justgiving that someone had made another donation, which pushed my total raised over £1500, which had been my fundraising target. Reaching that target just before finishing my trip was brilliant. Perfect timing yet again! With that, I got back up and made my way up the hill through a nice forest.
As soon as I walked around the corner onto my street, I was met by a lot of noise, vuvuzelas and shouting from my family and friends and even a ‘Finish’ banner to match the ‘Start’ banner my friends in Aberdeen had surprised me. Crossing that finish line was overwhelming and the sense of achievement easily overshadowed anything else I had so far accomplished in life. I don’t really have words to describe it! I think what really made this whole achievement so special to me was that it was spontaneous, not something I had planned for ages and trained myself up to. I had hardly any long distance walking experience previously and not got into the whole outdoors stuff until I was 26-27. Most of my teenage years and early twenties were spent on digital adventures instead of real ones and not that long ago I would have thought it impossible to walk this kind of distance.
I got a lot of satisfaction out of taking my boots off for the last time. They had done an incredible job getting me all this way and still looked like they would have a few hundred miles in them, but I decided to keep them as a memento instead and never use them again.
Once all the greeting and hugging was done, we spent the rest of the night in the garden barbecuing, chatting and celebrating. I did pretty much all of it from sitting down though and let everyone else crowd around me and serve me my food and drinks, I really didn’t feel like using my feet for a while!
It was also time to crack open a special bottle of whisky I had bought before setting off and sent home to await me on my arrival, a 38yo Glenallachie!
It would take several days for it all to fully sink in that I actually made it and that this epic journey had now come to an end!
- Claim to fame
The morning after my arrival two reporters from our Luxembourgish news channel came by for an interview. Still feeling pretty tired and dazed, not having had time to settle in yet, it was quite awkward staring into a camera and answering the questions. We only have one new channel in Luxembourg and most people seem to watch it so I got quite a bit of attention in my hometown once the report aired. Going to the hairdresser I got riddled with questions, in the supermarket people stared at me and when I went to the bank, the bank manager came over to me to shake my hand… in some way it was nice, since I did feel quite proud of my achievement but at the same time I don’t particularly like being the centre of attention and it felt quite strange. In the UK plenty of people do crazy things like walking coast to coast, end to end, continuous rounds of the munros etc but Luxembourgers overall tend to be a bit lazier so my trip drew a bit more attention there than it would have over here.
The report is in Luxembourgish, but I guess there are pictures, so if anyone is interested, it can be found here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/fndhpxihxoy6g9h/The%20Walk%20-%20RTL.mp4
A friend of mine also wrote an article about it for one of the major newspapers in Luxembourg. This one is in German, so again probably not much use for most people here, but here it is anyway
Lastly, Coeliac UK wrote a small article about my fundraising efforts in their magazine. This one is in English at least!
- Effects on health
That my feet needed some looking after was obvious, but I also wanted to get a general health check done just to be safe after having lived mostly on jaffa cakes, full Scottish / English breakfasts and whatever high-calorie food I could get my hands on during the walk, which generally wasn’t the healthy option. So I went to see my GP a few days after my arrival. He thought it was too early to tell about my feet but he was confident I would regain the feeling in my toes again, the nails should grow back and the pain in my heels would go away after a while. He also diagnosed me with a mild case of athlete foot, which was to be expected I guess and prescribed some treatment for it. He then did a full check but from what he could see everything else seemed in order, so he sent me off to hospital to get a full blood test done. About a week later I went back to see him again with the results. The two pages of funny numbers meant absolutely nothing to me but I was pretty happy to hear that literally every value tested was in the perfect range! From cholesterol to whatever else they checked, I apparently couldn’t be healthier! Sweet!! I was really surprised about this considering my poor diet but according to the doc, I did exactly what our bodies are designed to do: be outdoors and move lots instead of sitting in an office all day.
As predicted, after a few weeks of taking it easy, my toes went from being all numb back to normal. The toe nails didn’t really grow back, but since it was only the ones on my little toes I lost, I am really not fussed. The pain in my heels however stayed and there was no improvement at all. When I was still limping after a good month, I went back and got sent from my GP to a sports specialist to a podiatrist who eventually told me that because of the continuous impact over such a long period of time, calcium had deposited on the bottom of my heels and over time formed into bony spikes, which is why every step hurt so much and just waiting wasn’t helping. The only solution is surgery to get them removed or wearing insoles with holes in them so that area of the foot doesn’t make contact with the ground when walking. I got some insoles, which cost a fortune and only fit my day to day shoes, so until I find the time and can be bothered with surgery, I just bought some more standard inlays for all my other shoes and hiking boots and cut holes in them. Works just as well as the proper ones I received from the podiatrist!
Bit of a nuisance, but a small price to pay for all the other health benefits this trip had. Aside from the blood work coming back perfect, I noticed quite a few other improvements, mainly my immune system! All my life I have had quite severe allergies to cats, dogs, pollen, dust etc. I spent my summers running around with boxes of tissues due to major hay fever problems and every time I went to visit my mum, who got cats once I left for university, I needed to take anti-histamines and an asthma inhaler as soon as I entered the house. ALL of this disappeared over the course of my walk. I had noticed the lack of hay fever already along the journey, but all of a sudden I could play around with the cats for hours without the slightest itch, sneeze or runny nose! I have not had to use any anti-histamine tablets or inhalers since completing my trip and haven’t been ill once in the nearly two years since! Previously I would come down with minor colds at least once a month! Since spending all that time living outdoors, often cold and wet, my immune system has become rock solid, no more allergies, no hay fever and no more asthma! I will gladly accept some slightly mangled feet for this!
- Life after the walk
After spending a few brilliant weeks relaxing and catching up with friends and family I moved into my own flat, started working and re-joined the ‘normal’ life. From this moment on, it didn’t take long for me to realise why I hadn’t really wanted to come back in the first place and had only done so because I felt the need for some change in my life. The longer I stayed there, the more I hated pretty much everything about the place and quickly turned into grumpy miserable bastard. I felt really guilty because my parents had obviously been happy about having me live closer again but I became so moody, we ended up arguing almost daily, usually all through my own fault which made me feel just worse. Having given away the majority of my belongings, taken out a loan and spent all my savings on this trip, I was broke and felt increasingly claustrophobic about being stuck in this tiny crappy country with no way of getting away again. I lost all interest in sports or doing anything really apart from sitting at home, eating and drinking too much and putting on about 2 stone in a short period of time.
Luckily, realising how miserable I was, my parents offered to help me out financially so I could get out of there again. I didn’t have to think twice about this offer, quit my job, called up my old boss in Aberdeen who was immediately willing to give me my job back and started making arrangements to return to Scotland by the end of November. Despite a really bad time in Luxembourg, it was a good experience and made me realise what matters to me in life. I have never been the kind of person to get any real satisfaction from work and career, yet didn’t know what else to do. Having had this incredible adventure on the one side, followed by living the money-oriented lifestyle of one of the richest countries in the world, it very quickly became clear to me that money matters very little to me. Even though I returned to the same job and life in Aberdeen, I went back with a very different attitude. I no longer care about working my way up the career ladder and prefer to focus on my life outside of work. I am back to an active and healthy lifestyle full of sports, adventure and outdoors activities, dropped back down to my normal weight and feel better and happier than ever before. I no longer feel the need to prove anything to myself and have become a lot more relaxed and confident.
While I have been out of the country too long to be able to apply for British (or maybe soon Scottish) citizenship just yet, I plan on cutting my ties with Luxembourg for good as soon as possible and can yet again be found roaming the Scottish countryside or camping near a bothy in my trusty green bivvy.
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- Location: Aberdeen
- Occupation: IT dude
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