Friday, 12 April 2013

The Loneliness* of the Long-Distance Walker

* I'm paraphrasing.

Walking for miles alone is rarely lonely. In fact, it's liberating.

I think I've mentioned before that I'm doing the London MoonWalk again this year -- a 26.2-mile walk through London, overnight, dressed down in a decorated bra (and suitable walking trews of course) to raise money and awareness for breast cancer research and care.

My training is coming on... less apace than gently, gradually. Over the Easter weekend I joined my parents and their friends for a 'gentle stroll' through the Kent countryside. We clocked up a mere 5 miles but then it was sleeting at times!

  

Photos by me on Instagram

The weekend before, I took myself off for a 10-mile gallivant around darkest Surrey and got slightly muddified.


Last Saturday I managed a less-than-projected 11.66 miles up and down the Brighton seafront. Actually some of that mileage was spent walking down the beach with a friend, his friend, and another of his friend's collie puppy, Meg. If anything's an incentive to walk it's the boundless energy of a dog. While I loved seeing my friend, though, I felt oddly anxious to break away and start walking properly, by myself. (The presence of a third party made it rather more difficult -- three's a crowd, and all that, so I felt the time was right.)







This weekend, I'm aiming for 16 miles around London.

...I can't walk the MoonWalk alone. I know. You'll never walk alone with 14,999 other bra-bedecked people alongside you.

That's why I'm enjoying the solitude brought about by my training walks.

I have a playlist of carefully selected music (mostly upbeat dance tracks), and I have a pace. A style. For the first fifteen minutes sometimes my shins ache. Later on my lower back and right hip (traditionally) start to hurt. And then at some point I break through the pain barrier. That's the physical part of it.

Mentally, well, every mile brings about a new inner monologue.

Sometimes I think about walking. About finishing the walk I'm doing, anticipating the triumph of it.
Sometimes I think about the distance. How I want to, need to, go a bit further. Push myself.
Sometimes I think about where I am, and where I need to be. And how the heck I've managed to get so off-track. And why wasn't this road shown as a dirt track on my map!?
Sometimes I think about how Surrey Highways have so often failed to acknowledge the existence of walkers and leave us running from roadside to roadside in pursuit of safety and pavements.
Sometimes I don't think about walking at all.
Sometimes I'll be remembering moments from my past. Other times, plotting stories. Making plans, lists.
And the next thing I know, I've missed a turning, or I've clocked up another two miles and not even noticed. Physically walking and emotionally walking involve a satisfying disconnect at times.
Walking gives me that time and liberation to think about all those things I shelve, put aside to consider at other times, and then often forget.

...On that note, I would like to introduce you to the new love of my life.

His name is Harold Fry. And he is the central protagonist of Rachel Joyce's novel 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry'. Now, I don't use the words 'life-affirming' often if at all but this novel truly is.

Cover image via here

In short -- retiree Harold Fry is living an uncomfortable, unremarkable life with wife Maureen in Kingsbridge, Devon. On the day upon which Harold receives a letter from his dear friend, Queenie, he writes a reply and sets out to post it. And keeps walking. And keeps walking.

Some 80+ days later, he arrives at Queenie's side in Berwick-upon-Tweed, as he has promised her.

Harold's journey has been extraordinary -- a true pilgrimage of almost Christ-like proportions complete with wide-eyed followers but marked most noticeably by Harold's own memories and the revelations of the events that separated Queenie from Harold some twenty years prior.

I wept. For the last three chapters of this book, I wept.

I stuck (clean) strips of tissue in pertinent pages and wrote down favourite quotes -- this book 'spoke' to me as a long-distance walker and also as a human bean; there were certain truths in Harold's story that made me place the book down on the train table at times, and think, yes, that's it. That's how I feel.

Quote from book | Image from here

I've read another short story** since 'Harold Fry'. But I'm still stuck on him. He's given me a book hangover. You know those.

via Pinterest | via here

Anyway. Check out Rachel Joyce's website here.

** Rather predictably, the next story I read was The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Alan Sillitoe). I admit, I saw the film first. The story struck some chords, the film others. (Shallowly, these chords were along the lines of, oh gosh, James Bolam was a bit dishy in the 60s, wasn't he?!)

From the short story, I particularly like these quotes:

You should think about nobody and go your own way, not on a course marked out for you...

...I wonder if I'm the only one in the running business with this system of forgetting that I'm running because I'm too busy thinking...

To which I say, "No, Smith, you're not." (OK, I'm not running, I'm walking, but the principle is the same.) 

And for me there is nothing lonely about long-distance walking. Even if I'm the only person on a lane for miles. 

In fact I'm oddly comforted by that.

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