While searching for a new adventure early in 2016 I found the Isle of Wight Challenge on Action Challenge‘s website, the very same company I chose to trek Kilimanjaro with three years earlier. They offered various walking challenges, one of which was located on the Isle of Wight in the UK which appealed to me as I’d never been there before and the coastal route looked amazing.
The Isle of Wight, located four miles off the South coast of England is separated from the mainland by the Solent. The island’s Coastal Path route is 106 km in length and for the most part clings to the coastline giving the walker incredible views both inland and out to see along the entire route.
Held annually, the Isle of Wight Challenge attracts around 2000 people who sign up to participate in one of five different events: The “1/4 Island challenge”, a distance of 26 km, the “Half Island challenge”, a distance of 53 km, the “Full Island Challenge (2 days)”, a distance of 106 km split over two days with a nights camping in between, the “Full Island Challenge (non-stop)” walking the entire 106 km in one go and finally, for the well trained, dedicated and slightly insane the option to run the entire 106 km!
I decided to sign up for the Full island Challenge at 106 km non-stop. There was no way I was ever going to be able to run it but I liked the idea of doing it all in one go rather than splitting the distance over two days. My longest walking distance prior to this event had been 40 km so attempting a distance almost three times that sounded like the perfect challenge, both physically and mentally!
The challenge weekend was to begin on Saturday 30th April so I signed up online in January and paid my deposit so I didn’t miss out on a place. As it was mandatory to raise funds for a charity, I selected Help for Heroes, a British charity formed in 2007 to help provide better facilities for British servicemen and servicewomen injured or wounded in the line of duty. As I personally don’t like asking people to sponsor me I decided to sponsor myself for the event at double the minimum amount set by Action Challenge.
One step after another
Now that I’d signed up it was time to get outdoors and get some walking done as even I knew that turning up on the day having done no training at all would have been foolhardy and a waste of time and money.
I started out by planning some weekend walks with the intention to increase the distance each week until I was able to walk 80 km non-stop two weeks before the challenge date. My first walk in January was a modest 10 km but the following week I did 15 km and the week after 20 km so the distance quickly increased and before two months had passed i was up to 50 km.
I planned various routes, some close to home, others a short drive away, trying wherever possible to make the walk scenic and interesting. Thankfully, living very close to the county of Northumberland on the North-East coast of England I didn’t have to travel very far to reach some stunning coastal scenery that proved a welcome distraction on some of my longer walks.
Week by week my feet were getting used to walking for extended periods and I experimented with different socks, all sorts of tape, ointments, etc to see what worked best for me… dry feet, fitting socks and worn in boots, some of the key factors in avoiding any nasty blisters.
As far as waking pace was concerned, I was averaging around 6 kph for the first 40 km then slowing a little to 4-5 kph thereafter so with that in my head, I decided to aim for a maximum time of 24 hours for the challenge.
I was also encouraged that despite the walking plan I’d put together and (just about) maintained, I had kept my running going during the week doing three 5 km runs Monday, Wednesday and Friday and a 10 km run at the weekends. I never managed to find the time to get to my 80 km walks done, mainly due to work and other social commitments but had made my mind up that the two 65 km walks that I had done would have to be enough and rely on grit and determination to get through the rest of the distance on the big day!
I set off from Newcastle airport on a flight to Southampton where I was booked into a nearby hotel that night before getting the ferry across to the island the following morning. Both the flight down to Southampton with FlyBe and the Hilton hotel were fine, the flight in particular being very quick at just over an hour compared to what a long 5-hour train journey would have been! The hotel was conveniently located just a few kilometres from the airport and using loyalty points I’d accumulated through work travel, my one night stay cost very little.
I set the alarm on my iPhone for 05:00h as I needed to catch the 06:10h ferry in the morning so that I made the pick-up point in Cowes on time. I went to bed at early at 21:00h but after what felt like no time at all the alarm was ringing to wake me up! After a quick shower and breakfast I was in a taxi heading to the ferry terminal and onto a RedJet ferry for the 20 minute crossing to Cowes, coffee in hand! The sky was blue, the early sun was shining bright and there was a light breeze, ideal walking conditions I thought, long may that continue throughout the day!
On arrival in Cowes I walked with a few others the short distance to a car park where a bus would take us on the twenty minute journey across to Chale and the start of our challenge! Once off the bus we headed to the marquee tent to register our attendance and each participant was given a map of the route, an electronic ID tag (which would be used by the organisers to keep track of our progress through each check-point) and a glow-in-the-dark arm band to make us more visible while walking through the night. The ID tag also had the added advantage of allowing us to check our own progress via a dedicated tracking website which I checked using my phone.
And we’re off!
Everyone had an agreed start time so that 2000 people weren’t flooding the path all at once. Runners were the first off at 08:00h followed by the first 100 walkers at 08:20h then further groups of 100 every 20 minutes thereafter.
My scheduled start time was 09:40h so after I’d registered with the event organisers I had time to soak in the atmosphere and chat to and cheer on the others setting off before me while quietly wondering to myself what the hell convinced me to attempt the challenge in the first place, having far too many bright ideas sitting in the comfort of my own home without thinking through the consequences of what I’m signing up to! Before I had too long to think it through however it was 09:40h and time to get moving….
STAGE 1 – Chale to the Needles
Stage distance: 21 km
Total distance: 21 km
Ascent: 385 m
Start: Chale Recreation Ground, 0 km
Mid-Point Stop: Isle of Wight Pearl, 10 km
Rest Stop 1: Nodewell Farm, Alum Bay, 21 km / 25 km
The first stage set out from the village of Chale on the coast taking us clockwise along the coastal path. This part of the route had the best views overall, the coastline and cliffs being particularly impressive. I got talking to many different people along the route, one of whom was a great guy called Danny who lived not far from Southampton and was fund-raising for a fantastic charity called CLIC Sergeant who support children with cancer. He didn’t know at the time bur he terrified me when explaining how much training he’d put in beforehand! We kept in touch almost up to the first checkpoint but then drifted apart as we walked further on but he completed the challenge and is due to take part again in 2017! These passing conversations with different people were great as I wasn’t part of a group myself so it was nice to have some company but then, when i wanted some “me” time I’d just drift on ahead and walk alone for a while.
I reached the first mid-point stop after approximately 10 km where I topped up my water bottle and stashed a few snacks from the hundreds on offer into my day pack before continuing the walk along to the westernmost point of the island towards the island’s infamous Needles.
Once at The Needles, we stopped nearby at the first major rest stop where I took around five minutes to devour a packed lunch I’d brought with me that morning but the volume and variety of food and drink available was quite astonishing and some self-restraint was needed not to over-indulge with so far still to go… once my packed was gone I typically stuck to bananas, sliced pineapple and almond or brazil nuts at each checkpoint until near the end that is where I gorged on Haribo!
Everyone was feeling good at this stage with only a few tired legs and no injuries. The weather was also still being kind to us, lovely and sunny with a light breeze, ideal walking conditions for most of us. The First Aid team were at the check-point, ready to offer advice and assist anyone in need of help but were mostly left without much to do and spent the time wishing people good luck as they left to continue their walk. This would be the last time they had little to do, with a growing patient list outside their tent the further we went, especially so in the final stages of the challenge.
STAGE 2 – Needles to West Cowes
Stage distance: 31 km
Total distance: 52 km
Ascent: 380 m
Mid-Point Stop: Hampstead Farm, 35 km
Rest Stop 2: Northwood House, West Cowes, 52 km
Setting off towards the halfway rest stop, we headed east past Yarmouth Castle before arriving at the 2nd mid point stop. Again, I stayed only a few minutes for a quick water top-up then continued on to the northern part of the island at a decent pace when I reached the long promenade leading into Cowes and the half-way point at Northwood House Park. It was on this promenade however that I had my first doubts about whether I could complete the challenge, wondering how on earth I was going to manage another 32 miles when I suddenly felt very tired and hadn’t even reaching half-way! Had I been walking to fast perhaps? Not enough time at rest stops maybe? The self-doubt started creeping in and the promenade seemed to last forever!
Thankfully, two people convinced me that I could do it and got me thinking more positively again. First, a wonderful lady called Susan (who was doing the half-island challenge) that I met along the promenade. She’d done the full island challenge the year before and offered some kind words of encouragement, politely stating that if I was able to keep the pace I was walking at now, I should have no problem walking the second half at even half that pace! We chatted for quite a while about all sorts all the way to the half-way stop and just listening to her was a welcome distraction from how tired I was feeling.
The second person to help was a Frenchman called David who I met once I’d reached the half way point at 18:55h (53km in 9 hours but felt like a lot longer!) . While eating some pasta in the dining tent that had been erected, David turned out to be quite the veteran of many long distance walks both in the UK and in his home country, France. After some kind words of encouragement and talking about some of the “brick walls” he hit on his previous challenges he suggested I not wait around too long after dinner and set off for the second half as soon as possible before I talked myself out of continuing.
This conversation, along with the wonderful encouragement from the lady on the promenade was enough to get my head in a good place again and I was soon on my way once more, leaving behind the noise of those celebrating the end of their half-island challenge, champagne in hands!
STAGE 3 – West Cowes to Culver Down
Stage distance: 28 km
Total distance: 80 km
Ascent: 450 m
Mid-Point Stop: Simeon Street Recreation Ground, Ryde, 66 km
Rest Stop 3: Culver Down, Bembridge, 80 km
Setting out towards Bembridge, this section of the route started with a short trip on a chain ferry – a short rest for the feet despite not having long left the half-way point and a chance again to talk to some fellow walkers, all of whom were doing the full-island challenge by now, to see how they were finding it so far! Many they told me had called it a day at the half-way point as I had briefly considered but the majority were pushing on, not ready to give up just yet… I checked the website tracker on my phone and was in 143rd position, not too bad considering I was about to quit an hour earlier!
Once off the ferry, we passed by the impressive home of Queen Victoria’s summer residence, Osbourne House on our way to Ryde. Once at Ryde we walked along the half mile long pier before arriving at Culver Down. This would be our final major rest stop before before the finish. There were lots of groups walking very quietly at this stage, through the night with the aid of head-torches, looking out for pink arrows and green fluorescent markers indicating the route, some easier to find than others! The night sections seemed to go on forever, road after road, path after path, marker after marker, hour after hour after hour… getting colder, more tired and more hungry the further we went…
At Culver Down , the first aid team, unlike earlier that day, were kept very busy helping walkers out with sprains, aches, blisters etc. and the sight of foil blankets to warm those feeling unwell was a reminder that this was a test of endurance not to be underestimated. There were quite a few drop-outs at this point, some finding the distance too challenging, some finding the cold combined with tiredness too much, others had just had enough or were advised to withdraw by the medical team. My feet were holding up well still but it was clearly getting colder and it was time to layer up for the final sections and for some added energy, stock up on some extra snacks!
STAGE 4 – Culver Down to Chale
Stage distance: 26 km
Total distance: 106 km
Ascent: 540 m
Mid-Point Stop: Ventnor Park, 94 km
The Finish!: Chale Recreation Ground, 106 km
The final leg of the challenge took us to the south of the island, passing by some of the Island’s famous resorts – Sandown, Shanklin and Ventnor. I stopped in Ventnor for a short rest to up supplies – pineapple, bananas, nuts, and lots and lots of Haribo then
set off into the night again with music playing quietly through headphones connected to my mobile phone now more determined than ever to complete the challenge. I replied to a few text messages I’d received throughout the day wishing me good luck and made a couple of quick calls to friends back home for some additional words of encouragement to see me through the final kilometres!
I walked the last 20 km or so mostly on my own, enjoying my own thoughts and the quiet surroundings (that bared a resemblance to the scenes in the film 28 Days Later but without any of the crazed people trying to kill me!). The Haribo sweets were doing a great job of providing a sugar hit that despite the feet aching more now than ever I was pushing on hard well past the distance I’d practiced a few months earlier.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, the small yellow signs indicating how many kilometres had been completed showed the magical 100 km…. then 101, 102, 103… now the Chale finish line was in sight and I could see the red Action Challenge tent down the bank from where I was walking…. 104, 105… across the car park… and finally, with two lovely young ladies from the Action Challenge team cheering me to the finish line I completed my challenge in 76th place, back where I started the morning of the day before in 20 hours and 37 minutes!
Finishing was rather surreal and despite being given a glass of champagne, a t-shirt and a finishers medal it took quite some time to sink in what I’d just accomplished! I certainly now had no regrets but instead a real sense of achievement, even finishing a few hours ahead of my target time. The finishing party wasn’t due to start until 12 noon so while my arrival was rather subdued it didn’t spoil it in any way and I managed to arrive not long after the sun came up so the amazing sunrise made up for the lack of people!
After a 30 minute rest break to finish my small glass of champagne I jumped onto a bus for the short transfer back to Cowes to get the ferry back to Southampton. A quick taxi ride to the airport for my flight back to Newcastle and i was home only two hours later. Once home, a long catch-up sleep was in order followed by a few celebratory beers that evening to wrap up an incredible experience! The Isle of Wight was and is still a beautiful place to visit, the people are very welcoming and my fellow walkers on the challenge were all fascinating to talk to. I’d signed up to test myself physically and mentally and the Isle of Wight Challenge offered just that. Would I do it again? Absolutely!