It was just after 7pm when we said goodbye to our support team for the night and set out for checkpoint 5. The route we were now faced with was not all that inviting, involving as it did a climb of over 500m up one of the most difficult footpaths of the entire course, to the peak of Mt. Kintoki. This would then be followed by a steep descent down to Checkpoint 5, some 12km away.
With headlamps flickering, we entered the forest. The footpath was not really designed for night-climbing, being as it was more an endless series of hazardous rocks and roots to be scrambled over than a well-established path. It wasn’t long before we caught up with the team in front of us – we were glad of the company, and grateful that we could leave the task of navigation to someone else – all we had to do was follow their boots!
A little way up the mountain we all paused for a drink. We talked a little, whereabouts in the UK are you from and all that… and it was then that I overheard one of the other team speak to another member by name. A name I recognised.
Whilst working in the Oxfam office in March, I spent a good deal of time entering team details into the database. There was one team in particular that caught my eye – The Wandering Bureaucrats, 4 folks from the British Embassy in Tokyo. As some Mumblers may know, it has long been one of my ambitions to work at the British Embassy – indeed I actually applied for a post there a few years ago (and not surprisingly, was turned down!). As I entered the team details, I thought how nice it would be to meet these folks during the Trailwalk event. I also realised that it was highly improbable, what with their being over 700 participants and no was other than numbers to identify them.
Thus, when I heard that name I really smiled. Of all the teams we could find ourselves paired with by fortune for this harsh ascent, none could be better than The Wandering Bureaucrats. After all, isn’t it their job to ensure the wellbeing of all British Citizens in Japan?! I had to wonder, could this be a result of self manifestation?
As the hike continued, so it grew increasingly difficult with the mist closing in and reflecting back our torchlight, blinding us to the rocks and roots below. In a way this was a blessing. With very low visibility we had no way of knowing just how much of a climb lay in front of us. So taken up with just the next step, there was no time to consider how far we still had to go.
Reaching the peak of Mt. Kintoki was a surreal experience. The path suddenly ended, and there we were, on the top of the mountain. Buffeted by the strong wind, I felt elated… and then somewhat confused by the appearance of a tea house.
This was totally unexpected. Oxfam had arranged for this little hut to be made available to Trailwalkers throughout the night, with green tea served by a litle old lady for every team that paused to rest inside its cosy walls. Heaven knows how she got up there – there was no sign of any access for vehicles. It was there that, as we set out again to navigate the steep descent, I thanked the Rambling Bureaucrats for their guidance – and conversation about the Best British Biscuits which had served to take our minds off the trek on the way up.
It was a difficult stumble down the mountain. The mist made the stones slippy, the darkness making it hard to pick out obstacles ahead. Keen to make it down as soon as possible we make good time, although, as it was to emerge an hour or two later, this was to come at some cost.
I felt ecstatic when CP5 came into view, and I couldn’t help but yell for joy. I was especially happy as my mentor at the Oxfam Office was manning this checkpoint. It was so good to see him, “Look, we’re actually doing it! All that hard work of ours, the months of preparation, it’s paying off!!”
My happiness was only dampened by the pain that had started to arise in my left knee – my GOOD knee! That final descent had been hard on the joints, and in a bid to protect my ‘bad’ knee, I’d used my walking stick on the right, putting even more pressure on the left. Well, the next section was a 10km stroll down a quiet asphalt road. I reckoned if I took it slow, I should be ok. Out with the freeze-spray, the cold pads and painkillers, the bandages. I trussed myself up as best I could, and then on we went.
The next 6km or so were OK. It was nice to have a flat surface along which to drag one’s feet, and a path wide enough to walk side by side and natter. Everything seemed to be going alright.
It was at 1.30am, after 16.5 hours and 60km of almost non-stop walking, that my knee suddenly gave way. It was quite extraordinary. The road took a slight dip, and I don’t know how, but that slight change in incline led to me suddenly lurching to the left as my knee refused to take my weight. I assured Taro and Osamu that I was alright, and took another step – at which point I nearly fell over! It was no good. I’d have to rest.
I sat on the curb in disbelief. This couldn’t be happening. After coping with all those horrendous paths, how could my knee possibly complain at this wee little asphalt slope? I got up again, and hobbled another 50 metres, but clearly, it wasn’t going to work. My team mate, Vicky, asked me if I’d like to take a painkiller. This was no ordinary painkiller however – this was one of those giving to post-op patients in hospitals, and was so strong that it often caused severe sickness. I remember saying to her that I didn’t care what the side effects were, I’d take anything to get rid of the pain!
A few minutes later, I realised that I had to face the truth of the situation. There was no way I was going to complete the course in this state. Also, with me holding them back, there was no way any of my team mates would either. It was a really tough decision to make, but in the end I realised that I just had to make that call.
Having dialed the number for the Oxfam Control Centre, I recognised the voice on the other end of the phone immediately, it was one of the staff I worked opposite in the office. She was very surprised to hear from me, and sounded pretty disappointed when I said I’d have to retire, and needed a rescue car. One things for sure though, she wasn’t half as disappointed as I was! I handed over the electronic wristband that we used to clock in at every CP to Vicky, assured them I’d be OK waiting by myself for a car, apologised for abandoning them and wishing them good luck for the remainder of the course.
Then began the wait. I perched myself on the tall bank next to the road, and mulled over what had happened. I felt so upset that all these months of preparation had led to this, and couldn’t help but shed some tears.
After 15 minutes or so of sitting in silence, I felt the pain killer kicking in. Not in terms of pain-killing, but more in terms of establishing its presence in my stomach. It was a good job I was sitting on the tall bank, as when I was violently sick it all went into the gully below, leaving me feeling clean, and empty.
It turned out to be a long wait. The rescue vehicles were in demand, but I was told one would show up eventually. Until then, I had plenty of time to reflect. I thought about what a truly amazing thing Oxfam had organised. About our team spirit which had never flagged, about the generosity of our donors that enabled us to raise so much money, about the beautiful Japanese countryside that I’d had the pleasure of traversing that day, about our incredible support team, and about the pure happiness that I had felt many times over the previous 17 hours.
This was what life was all about.
I just couldn’t quite accept that it was ending like this. But I couldn’t see any other way.
My two hour wait was punctuated by a few other teams passing by. It was wonderful to make instantaneous, if brief, friendships based on our shared experience. One team in particular – team No. 1, from Hong Kong, was particularly generous. The problem was, at about 2am my phone battery died, thus I lost contact with the Oxfam Control Centre who had told me they’d call me to let me know when they cold get a car out to me. I asked this passing team if I could make a phone call. They willing lent me their mobile, and then proceeded to unpack and provide me with hot tea to warm me up!
It was about 3.30am when the rescue vehicle turned up. I was so happy to see the driver – another friend from the office. I was taken the couple of kilometers down the road to the next checkpoint, where I treated my knee as best I could and waited for morning to come and the support team to wake up.
By 7am, I got word that the team had made it to CP7, and were now going to take a short rest to recuperate from what had been an incredibly tough 16km slog through the early hours. Shortly after that I was picked up by our Support crew; we then continued to join the others at CP7.
Seeing them there really upset me. I felt I’d deserted them – after all, I’d been the one that had got them involved in it in the first place! Talking to Jon about how much I’d wanted to complete the course saw the tears well up again …there had to be a way.
Checkpoint 7 was some kind of civil hall, and in addition to a sleeping place, there was a “stretch area”, where professional sports physios provided their services to any walker that needed them.
Still in considerable pain, I didn’t think they’d be able to do much for me, but hey, if there was a slight chance anything could be done that might get me back on the path, I’d be willing to do it. And this was how I met my hero.
Lying down on the mat, I explained to the physio what had happened. Hearing this, he stopped stretching me, and asked me to wait a minute. Off he went, and came back moments later with a young looking chap who turned out to be the head physio. He asked me a couple of questions, prodded me a bit, and then proceeded to tell his colleague the plan of action.
With a back of iced water strapped to my knee, he proceeded to stretch in some mightily odd ways that I never knew I could be stretched in. Whilst he was doing this, I asked him what my problem was, and whether he thought I could continue.
He was incredibly positive, and whilst he didn’t specifically recommend I continue, he clearly saw that I was desperate to start walking again, and so instructed me on how I could walk in order to avoid the pain. He then taped my leg up – all the way from my toe to above my knee, in such manner that my leg was turned inwards. It was all a bit bizarre, but I guessed that with 10 years experience he knew what he was doing.
He really was my miracle. It was not long after that that we set out, a full team once again, to tackle the final 23km. The elevation map was not all that promising, showing a 13km climb of 800 metres, followed by a brief descent and then another two peaks to conquer.
The initial section was ok, being as it was along a little asphalt road, but once we entered the forest things got a little sticky. I looked like such a grandad, limping along at an incredibly slow pace with my walking stick! I really had to laugh at myself. Only 29 and in that state!
Here, it was decided that as technically the 6 of us were two teams (and I was no longer officially participating), that one of the teams should go on ahead at a speed that suited them, whilst myself and Taro and Osamu would continue at a more leisurely pace.
I don’t know what happened, but there reached a point when the pain just seemed to disappear. The three of us were absolutely exhausted, but felt exhilarated too – the finish now seemed in sight, being as it was only a few hours off. The weather also cleared, following an incredible thunderstorm a few hours earlier that thankfully too place when we were all at a checkpoint! The view from that ridge was just beautiful, and I wished that all my friends who think that japan is nothing but skyscrapers and concrete could be there to enjoy it with us.
Emerging from the final forest we were greeted by an awesome sight – Mount Fuji, and at its foot the vast Lake Yamanaka. We were nearly there! Up to the final peak, and then a dash down to the finish. I was so excited – I’d actually made it! I limped as fast as possible, looking a bit like one of those olympic walkers trying not to run! Takashi, our amazing support team driver, had walked from the finish back down the course to meet us – I was so so happy to see him! And then finally, through the woods, and across the finish line!
It was a very emotional moment, with our first team waiting there for us, along with a big crowd, all cheering and applauding. A remarkable sense of achievement.
Our first team, “The Blisters” (Nigel, Vicky and Jon) managed to complete the course in an amazing 30 hours and 55 minutes, coming in at 39th out of 160 teams. An incredible achievement considering how many ‘professional’ teams had taken part, and what amateurs we were. I arrived about an hour later, with Osamu and Taro – “The Longlegs” crossing the line at position 44, after 32 hours and 5 minutes.
Taking part in Oxfam Japan Trailwalker 2007 was one of those few-in-a-lifetime experiences that will stay with me forever. It was one of those incredible adventures where you push yourself way beyond the bounds of your ‘normal’ world, into a place where every moment is a demanding physical, emotional challenge.
Coming home, you feel somewhat forlorn, lost without your team-mates with whom you shared this experience. In our case, we are fortunate: four members of the team had their partners with them, either as a fellow walker or as a member of our support team. Thus, we don’t feel that pain that comes when you have returned from a far-off place to somewhere where people just don’t understand.
I’d like to sincerely thank Nigel, Vicky, Jon, Taro and Osamu, Takashi, *Twinkle* and
Misako for taking me up on my invitation to participate in this mad challenge. I am very, very grateful.
I’d also like to thank all the Oxfam Japan staff & volunteers who have put literally thousands of hours work into making this happen.
Last, but by no means least I’d like to thank you, our sponsors, for helping us raise in excess of £2000 for charity. The response was staggering, and I’m truly grateful.
Of course the question now is, will we be doing it again?!!
Watch this space…