Sunday, 17 May 2015

Surprising ourselves.

This Parish Walk, some of us will surprise ourselves. We may triumph over some physical or emotional difficulty. We may get further and faster than we could have hoped. We may earn the praise and respect of those around us.

We may not.

To those who haven't tried it, it will probably seem melodramatic to say so, but I have found the walk to be an adventure into the pit of the soul.

We find ourselves to be decent people. We care about our health, about community events - we are good sports. But judgements such as these will encounter some severe stress testing over the summer solstice. The calm, the meek, the softly spoken will be heard swearing at their support drivers. The community volunteer will not notice himself  throwing another plastic wrapper into a hedge. The failed tactician, exhausted and crestfallen, bitten with anger and embarrassment, will begin to invent excuses, feign injuries, develop conspiracy theories... even cheat. Rare though I'm sure it is, I believe I have witnessed it with my own eyes.

Last summer, the feelings were complex. On the one hand I was overcome by love for my baby daughter - constantly nagged to get home and hold her, to put her to bed and put a stop to this irrational and obsessive race! On the other hand, a demon was inventing ways out of having to face an embarrassing performance. I'm not proud of the train of thought, but I'm sure it's crossed the minds of one or two other sportspeople facing apparent defeat, and in retrospect, I find something very unsporting in the act of retiring from the race after being overtaken. There is an element of resentment, of not wanting to give the better performer the clean victory they have won, of trying to take away from their achievement. But these now are the reflections of the self I was familiar with, of the good self who, under the conditions of a hot and under-trained Parish Walk attempt, proved to be fragmentary, illusory - even fictitious.

And I would not call the unsporting, disappointing self real either - in the nebula of this experience somewhere, as in all of us, there is a Mike George of the 2012 Parish Walk who, vomiting, collapsing, hallucinating, overcame the inevitable waves of depression and frustration that followed Richard and Vinny's overtaking of him, to fall half-dead over the finish line in surely the most incredible 3rd place performance any of us will ever see.

In a way, we train in utter darkness. Of all the eventualities I prepared for last year, stopping before the end hadn't even crossed my mind. Over the years we build strength, over the months we build speed, and in the final weeks we load our bodies with fuel and water - but with the psychological challenge of up to twenty-four hours of unbroken concentration, and with the core of our personalities turning out to be dreamt, how can we possibly prepare for the encounter with ourselves?

I was walking up to the Manx Harriers clubhouse before the End to End. ''What's the story then,'' asked the infamously straight-up Robbie Callister, ''was it really blisters?'' Honestly, I didn't know. The blister in question circumnavigated the leading toe of my right foot and was the size of a toe itself. The nail could be seen bobbing about in the plasma. Placing it onto the ground produced a sensation like a long, red hot needle being sunk into my foot. But I have asked myself over the course of the year - didn't that sort of thing happen before? Haven't I carried on under those conditions before? Wouldn't I carry that same blister over the finish line this year, and in good time?

The answer to that question, as to the question of how we will all fare under the gruelling conditions of this unique endurance race, will, and must, for another five weeks remain a surprise.


  1. And to those who haven't attempted the Parish Walk but would like to, regardless of the distance you wish to achieve, the feelings of personal achievement and exhilaration when you reach your personal goal are amazing.
    It is not all blood, sweat and tears, it is also an amazing day filled with varying emotions and large doses of island spirit.