Sir Steve Redgrave once said that if endurance sport carried on the way it was going, women might one day overtake men. No slacker in endurance activities himself, the winner of five successive Olympic gold medals in the notorious muscle-and-mind-blowing sport of rowing, he had noticed trends that seemed to imply women that at ultra-distance suffer-fests did significantly well – in some cases, to the point of winning. Hypotheses abound. Women have greater tolerance of agony. Women are better at race-pacing. Women derive more energy from fat. Women have smaller muscles that don’t tire as quickly. Women have a greater number of fatigue resistant fibres in their muscles. No one knows for sure. The jury isn’t in. So all you can do, for now, is watch and wonder. The Mixed Zone editor Sue Mott carries out her own investigation
“They also serve who only stand and wait” … with a serving spoon in their hand. Waiting inside an east Kent village hall to serve hot, exhausted and potentially decrepit people with five hundred hot dogs whose Best Before date is identified as the year 2020. What could be in those hot dogs bar preservatives, someone wondered. But it was a fleeting concern. Given the privations being imposed on the bodies of the pending visitors, E-numbers were the least of it.
Welcome to the inner secrets of the mythical Hundred. First of all, it is not a myth. It really happens. People, men and women, actually do this for masochistic ‘pleasure’. While apparently in their right minds. Although that fact is clearly debatable. One early exchange was instructive. A woman, visibly scarlet and sweating in torrents, appeared on the horizon and swiftly devoured the last few strides to the check point.
“What do you need?” asked a volunteer solicitously rushing to meet her. “To die,” she gasped.
But then she had reached the 93rd mile in her quest to complete The Cinque Ports Hundred, the latest in the series of non-stop, 100-mile, cross-country challenge walks organised annually, and with commendable fiendishness, by the Long Distance Walkers Association. It stands as a beacon in the annals of sport for sheer barking madness as up to 500 competitors are given 48 hours (and hot dogs, and don’t even mention the tinned macaroni cheese) to complete the 100 miles, running or walking through the night – or two nights if they need it – on no sleep and an exotic assortment of blisters.
Funnily enough, Britain is the only place where this is a thing.
What ancient cultural roots must it foster, this urge to go wandering round the country in the dead of night with a head torch and a set of instructions positively runic in their descriptions. For example: “GR TR 221 353 (toilets are opposite flag pole). SO keeping hedge on L of path, at jcn FL at litter bin. At next jcn SO past green container, immed BL. Over X track (amphitheatre on R).”
Getting lost can, understandably, be an occupational hazard, especially as you enter your second night of sleeplessness and, as one former adherent admitted, start seeing “cathedrals in the trees”. Those not in the elite corps of this purely amateur occupation – the first back receives a certificate just like everyone else – can be very prone to “faffing about in a featureless field” for far longer than is strictly necessary.
This explains why Gary Upstone, of Bicester, and David Wakeling, from Surrey, were first back while half the competitive field were still out there, faffing about or baling out. But there’s no shame in retirement, as 138 people did on this occasion. It might even be a useful guide to sanity. Richard Denby, from Bristol, was entirely relaxed about his withdrawal from the race after 64 miles in the blazing heat. He had, after all, completed 10 Hundreds beforehand. Richard is 83. “I can’t complain, can I?” he said with a rueful smile.
And it is true that not everyone can be blessed with Gary Upstone’s remarkable powers. “I’ve got a photographic memory,” he explained at the final checkpoint, scooping huge spoonfuls of jelly and tinned peaches into his mouth at the same time. He recces the walk once beforehand and can then visualise every field, road, stile, blade of grass without once consulting his map. David’s skill is slightly less remarkable but equally effective. He follows Gary.
And so they prevailed. They finished the walk hand in hand, crossing the line together in a time of 23 hours and 18 minutes, to the mass acclaim of the assembled volunteers. Joyfully, they hugged and kissed each other on both cheeks. The fastest woman, Lisa Walbridge, running with her husband, was just over an hour behind them, and that is very much the shape of things to come.
Of the Cinque Ports’ top 20 finishers, five were women. While the Long Distance Walking Association was once entirely male-dominated, a quiet revolution has occurred. Women now form almost 50 per cent of the membership. They say the greater the endurance required by an event the better the female of the species will perform. Watch this space.
A prime example was Victoria Morris, who finished 13th in a time of 29 hours 38 minutes. This is the librarian who decided to walk from John O’Groats to Land’s End last year (so far so normal) via the highest point in every historic county on the way (definitely not normal). See www.mappamorris.co.uk She was alone with her rucksack and tent. No support vehicle. She allowed herself a shower in a Travelodge once a week and occasionally her husband would drive up in a van to meet her. She ate mostly Weetabix because it didn’t matter if it got crushed, and was relieved when she left Scotland because she could get rid of the ice axe and crampons. She walked through all the British seasons from winter in Scotland to autumn in the West Country.
“The most beautiful moment was the sunset between two mountains at Pattach Loch near Dalwhinnie, listening to the call of the snipe. It’s true what they say. Snipe really do sound like sheep stuck in a drain pipe,” she could now confirm. Even so, would snipe-call analysis really compensate for the agony of an eight-month journey carrying eighteen kilograms on your back?
Why? Why? You long to ask.
“I think it’s something to do with the challenge, isn’t it? And you do feel so alive when you’re out there walking – like this weekend – with the wind coming at you and the electrical storms all around you.”
Ah yes, the storms. It should be mentioned that as well as the unaccustomed heat that enveloped the Cinque Ports Hundred, the walkers were also treated to a night of thunder and multiple lightning strikes. They vaguely registered the fact and carried on.
Not surprisingly, there is a tremendous amount of phlegmatic resignation to the Hundred among the camp followers. People may roll their eyes but still seemed compelled to bear witness. Jenny Winn, whose dad has completed loads of them and is not even allowed to mention his feet in mixed company, sat updating the results and knitting a sock on four tiny needles. Whoever staggered through the door of the village hall/check-point in whatever degree of distress, she and the rest of the organisers were courteous, helpful, solicitous and entirely relaxed. All victims were offered bowls of cold water to soak their feet. All recoiled at the very idea of removing their trainers. And then off they went again into the shimmering unknown. (Except Gary, of course, who knew it full well.)
One walker had a gash on his head. He thought it was from a twig. In rugby, as tough a game for men and women as ever invented, they whip you off the field to be treated immediately for a blood injury. Apparently, in walking, no one takes any notice. Perhaps if someone was bleeding from a fresh stump they would be offered a plaster from the first-aid kit.
Outside the village hall there was a congregation of three wives, two from Nottingham one from Halifax, and a spaniel called Cookie. They were variously gathered on a grass verge in the shade, occasionally scanning the distance for a lumbering dot that could be their husband (or owner). One of the women was exceptionally laid back. This was her husband’s 15th. “Can’t say I wasn’t warned,” she said. “Our first date was me being left in a field for four hours while he went off for a run.”
New LDWA chairman David Morgan, a former chief inspector in the South Wales police, joined the Association in 1994, and admits his first opinion of the Hundred was: “They’re all nuts.
“But it nibbled away at me. I’d walked 50-odd miles before and vowed afterwards, ‘I’ll never do that again’, but then you begin to forget about the pain and just remember the good bits.”
Inevitably, he succumbed, and in 1996 completed his first Hundred in the Yorkshire Dales in a time of 45 hours and 24 minutes. Funny how everyone can always remember their times.
What he loves about the Association is that it is “ordinary people doing extraordinary things”, to no great fanfare and to certainly no prize money. He is immensely proud of the work done by the organisation to collate every single long-distance footpath in the country; to run challenge walks; to operate a register for both hill walkers and national trails. “It’s a broad church,” he said.
He especially enjoys the fact that following his completion of Kent’s trial-run Hundred in the week before the main event (31 hours, 30 minutes, since you ask) he couldn’t stop eating for three days afterwards. One day he had three lunches. Followed by dinner. “It’s one of the best parts of the Hundred,” he said. “Eating.”
But there are other obviously delights. A Hundred is clearly a place where the barriers between people are completely removed. The walkers are all in it together. Men and women, young and old, experienced and novice, lost and found, they help the weary and celebrate those who come in first. Although not as much as they celebrate the people who come in last. The comradeship is tangible. They have survived an ordeal. They have come through pain and suffering – and indestructible hot dogs – and they won’t have to do it again until next year.
Postscript: “In summary …” said Roger Dean, a veteran of 15 Hundreds, who now turns out as a supporter. “To do a Hundred makes you appreciate all those moments in your subsequent life when you’re not doing a Hundred.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles