Tuesday 5 February 2013

Preparing for the TGOC: Some Musings

If you like nice photos and pictures rather than words then I am afraid this post is not for you!  Nor is it for you if you do not want to read self-indulgent ramblings.  But that's blogging for you!

I am trying to ensure that I am fully fit for the TGO Challenge in May.  It’s my first attempt.  My route has been submitted, returned by the fabulous vetters for some minor amendments and has just received final approval.  I have not planned anything ambitious.  It is primarily a low level route from Mallaig to Stonehaven, linking various valleys and glens (is that tautology?).  If all goes to plan (I know it will not!) I will walk 298km, averaging 23km over 13 days of actual walking.  Height climbed will be modest, at 6244m, averaging 480m a day.  The longest planned day is 35km and the maximum height gained on any day is 803m. The shortest day will be a full day of rest in Braemar.  I only occasionally get to over 550 metres above seal level.  The plan is to camp out on 9 nights and B and B the others.  Despite the modest nature of this compared to the plans of many other challengers I am broadly happy with what I have planned for myself.   I know I will be taking in some fabulous scenery which I intend to appreciate as fully as the weather and my energy levels, aches and pains will allow.  I was also struck by a comment on the TGOC Message Board, or possibly it was on a fellow challenger’s blog, that exhorted us to remember that “this is your holiday – you are supposed to enjoy yourself not spend the time being uncomfortable, exhausted or scared”. Or wise words to that effect.
As a first time entrant I am no expert on planning and preparing for the event.  The TGOC Message Board and comments from other challengers have been a great help, but are no substitute for experience.  For some reason the other day I found myself musing on my elements of preparation, which were jumbled in my head.  It seemed, when trying to get some order into my mind, that they  can be divided into 3 groups as follows:

Planning and logistics:
Issues such as route plan, accommodation, buying any more maps and gear needed, travel to and from the event, re-supplying en route etc

Getting physically fit:
My feeling is that the nearer my attempts to get fit are to replicating the actual event the better they will be for me.**  Thus, I should be working on:

o   Being able to comfortably walk the average daily distances my route plan envisages, preferably on similar terrain (yesterday saw me unnecessarily fording two small streams in North Wales to experience the delights of walking with cold, wet trail shoes)

o   Doing this whilst carrying the weight of backpack I will have on me on the Challenge

o   Creating the time to actually do this rather than pontificating about it! 
Getting mentally fit:
This is the hardest of all and preparing for this is not easy:

o   Visualise and think through the things that I know will challenge my head as well as my body– eg fording rivers, facing killer cows and horses without the need to detour for miles, coping with the discomfort if it rains or snows every day

o   Living with uncertainty eg will there be a decent wild camping spot in the areas I plan to stay, will I have enough fuel, food etc?

o   Missing family

I suspect that mental stamina is at least as important as physical fitness on the event, but it is the hardest to prepare for.  To some extent you either have it or you don’t.  Experience brings more.  I think for someone like me, a first time, middle aged challenger, who is walking alone rather than with a companion or as a member of a pre-arranged group, it might be more of an issue.

This notion of experience bringing mental stamina and confidence was brought home to me when thinking about the simple matter of my kit list.  I pack my day pack without second thoughts as to contents.  I can plan a day’s walk in my usual Cumbrian stomping grounds casually, understanding through 40 years of experience of the area what the terrain will be like under almost any conditions.  I know in advance which routes are within my capabilities and which aren’t.  I am largely confident that I would be able to get myself out of most objective difficulties.

Yet a simple thing such as knowing what it is best to take with me vanishes as the planned experience changes to something well outside the normal comfort zone.  This has, ironically, been heightened by taking note of the views of others.  For example, two years ago I would have never considered anything other than traditional boots and tent for a backpack in the hills.  But I have recently started experimenting with other shelters and footwear, inspired by the ideas of others, read about in blogs and outdoor magazines.  That brings a bit of a dilemma.  Familiarity or weight?  Akto or Trail Star?  Boots or trail shoes? 

These dilemmas go on. Neoair or self-inflating mat?  Clothing to be worn and carried when the weather is so uncertain?  Send food parcels ahead or support the local economy?  Weight to carry versus comfort and safety?   Other worries follow.  Is my route sensible?  Are the foul weather alternatives good enough?  Will that recurrent leg problem re-emerge?  Will that 35km day with a full pack finish me off, especially when I see the sign to the railway station three quarters of the way through it?

And then just as my head starts to fixate on these issues I remember or tell myself that I am not alone in all this.  I remind myself that despite the fact I am now nearer 60 than 50 I am actually younger than the average challenger.  I remember that every year almost 300 people rise to the Challenge, and have such a superb time that many come back year-after-year.  And I get my mind back to the purpose of the event.  Yes it’s to walk across the fabulous Scottish countryside and get from west coast to east coast.  But it is also about the pure joy of the experience, about having fun and about meeting what appear to be an amazing bunch of fellow challengers. 

**It has been suggested that some Challengers believe that the best way to replicate in advance their likely Challenge experience as part of their training regimes is to spend large amounts of time swilling back beer and malt whisky.   I refuse to comment  on the grounds that they may catch up with me in Braemar. 


  1. See you in Montrose. It's all in the mind y'know....

  2. What a great post.

    Barring mishap, which you can never account for, it's definitely a mental thing. Take each day as it comes and treat each day as a wonderful day's holiday. Okay, it might be peeing down with rain and it might be freezing cold, but you know eventually it has to stop, even if it's only at Montrose.

    Just get through the morning of Day Three. That's always the killer! You've walked for two days and your legs are stiff and you have a niggley hotspot on your foot and you wake up to torrential rain and think to yourself "Bloody hell! Another twelve days of this???"

    Best thing to do is to have a coffee and then another couple of hours of kip and then a bacon roll or three and the world is a better place. It might still be peeing down but your legs have had a bit more rest, your beard will be full of butter, ketchup and bacon fat and you'll be "up for it" once more.

    You'll make it to Montrose. There'll be another 300 Challengers to help you along the way.

    1. Alan you are such a messey eater have you not heard of napkins and yes it is mental all challengers that come back more that once are short a few slates
      and yes the rain does stop.Same for me John 12 days wet 1 day dry as I walked into Montroe see you there all the best Keith

    2. "Napkins"???

      Take no heed of Young Mr Leonard, David - He's only done 16 of these Challenges - a mere lad!

  3. That just about encapsulates what I was putting myself through before my first Challenge. This will be my third and, ahem, I'm still put myself through it and getting my knickers in a twist! However, at least this year, I know I have completed two of the most challenging years, so I can do it, and I will. And so will you.
    But you won't be on your own! As a solo Challenger, you have planned an excellent route that will give you the opportunity for both solitude and company, as you choose. I have certainly found plenty of excellent company on my last two Challenges, but this year I feel 'grown up' enough to attempt some solo time. We'll see how that goes!
    You are going to have a ball.
    See you in Montrose!

  4. When I first started doing this crazy Challenge thing, I used to tell myself at the start of Day One "Hey! After today there's only another 12 days left to walk! I'm almost there!"

    And Alan's quite right about telling yourself the rain will soon stop – I told myself that on May 9 as I set out on 2003's Challenge and indeed it did stop, on May 21, as I walked into Montrose.

    Fortunately, as Alan says, it's mostly a mental thing… most Challengers have that in common.

    Have a great hike – I look forward to shaking your hand in Montrose!

    1. I sat in the Park Hotel for two weeks during the 2003 Challenge helping out on Control. For the whole two weeks I looked out of the window at the green soaked in brilliant sunshine thinking of what I was missing. In the event what I was missing was two weeks of rain!

    2. Rain? rain? Nobody told me it might rain in the Scottish Highlands in May. If it does I shall be asking for my money back.

  5. Wow! I already feel full of love for my fellow challengers(pass the sick bucket Gladys). Mike -it was your recent blog post that inspired some of my thinking. Alan and Louise -pearls of wisdom folks and morale boosting stuff. John - it will not rain this year. Alan has promised. Law of averages etc etc blah, blah.

    It's now peeing down outside and going dark so I am off to practice the whisky drinking element of the event...

  6. Yes, it's definitely a mental thing...it helps to be mental!
    You'll have a great time. Although you're a solo Challenger you'll rarely be on your own, you'll be doing a solitary social walk.
    Good luck....and don't fall into bad company!

  7. John

    Bad Company? "I can't get enough of your love, la de dah..." That's a weak joke for 1970s music fans. I do plan to pop into the Fife Arms whilst in Braemar though :)

  8. What a great post and the mental side is important. A wild night stuck in the tent alone in the middle of nowhere missing loved ones can be hard. I admit many a time having a moment of doubt even. But the weather clears, the sun shines and wow the views make it so worth it. Fine route from the description and see you at the end.

  9. What a good post for other first timers to see.

    I envy you the experience!

    Sadly, I've become addicted to the TGO and this will be my forth.

    That first one always sticks in my mind as a stand-out trip. The mixture of scenery, physical challenge, mental challenge and the sheer pleasure of sharing the experience with others ................ priceless.

    Relax and enjoy.

    See you in Montrose.

  10. You are correct about the mental aspect but IMHO have rather underestimated how important it is. If you are averagely fit then the Challenge is 80% in the mind. The most difficult part of a solo Challenge will be getting up each morning and putting on wet gear and then setting out to cover the next 25km knowing that at the end of it you will repeat the whole thing again tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow...
    The first Challenge is the hardest but probably will also be the most satisfying. But although you are solo you will never be alone for very long as you are starting at Mallaig with about 49 others!
    Have a good one.

  11. Thanks Gordon and Grumpy for yet more wisdom in the comments on my post. I think, Grumpy, that I was saying, but not very well, that the mental bit is likely to be by far the toughest for me, but only time will tell for me.

    As I said in a previous reply to a comment, though, I am reliably informed that the weather in Scotland this May is going to be perfect - blue skies with the occasional cumulus cloud, 10 degrees at night and 16 or 17 degrees during the day, and a very light breeze. There will be no rain for the last 3 weeks of the month. Cloud base, such as it will be, never lower than 5000 foot. In short, streams will be fordable, waterproofs will stay in the pack, and it will be nice dry clothes each morning....In the words of the great Electric Light Orchestra "Hold On Tight To Your dreams"!

  12. That's too hot for me David! And, rain is ok in small doses!

    You were musing on gear:

    I have an Akto and I have a Trailstar. On my first Challenge I used the Akto (because I was at that time yet to buy the Trailstar). I now use the Trailstar.
    BUT - a BIG BUT - take and use what you feel comfortable with.
    I am one of the lighter folk, but, I used to carry heavy stuff before I reduced weight carried. I still don't wear trail shoes.
    To me it's comfort over obsession (with the weight carried)
    You will need to be comfortable that the gear you carry will see you through all the conditions that can be anticipated.
    Sorry, if this sounds .....egg sucking!!
    Have a great Challenge.

    1. Not egg sucking at all Gordon. Was thinking about your similar post on the Challenge Message Board - I think the other word needed is 'flexibility' eg a lighter sleeping bag and an insulated jacket is probably better than a heavier sleeping bag alone... Well it better be as that's what I am taking.

  13. My first time.

    Last year, 2012, was my first time.
    I was a bit apprehensive about being able to complete my challenge. I have done long distance walks before but this was my first “organised” event.
    Mentally I could not get my head round the nearly 200 mile total.
    It was only after breaking the total into individual daily 15 mile chunks, which I knew could manage, that I was able to relax a bit.
    Having a daily end point/target I found also helped.
    A downside:-
    In Mallaig the night before the kickoff I overheard some of the older veterans talking about how the first timers were not prepared. Too much kit, not enough kit, too heavy packs, too light packs, "they’re all going to die". These comments were not indicative of all veterans, just some thoughtless individuals. It may have been the drink talking. It only made me even more determined to finish, even though, I was still a bit apprehensive.
    The veterans in question seemed to have forgotten that first time challengers are not inexperienced in walking and have at least managed to get through the selection process and should be encouraged not criticised.
    Other experienced challengers that I encountered later were very supportive and encouraging and many an interesting conversation was had as well as a cheese and wine party.
    Looking at the recently produced statistics it would appear that first timers had almost as much chance in finishing as the more experienced challengers.
    Next time, if I get the chance, I intend to be a bit more social as I felt that I was a bit standoffish , being a new boy and did not want to intrude.
    I should add that this was only my experience and that I enjoyed my challenge very much.
    Getting to the end, it’s a great feeling but all those who started, they are also winners.

    Just take one day at a time.
    All the best,

    1. I'm sure David won't mind me hi-jacking his thread - Hi Sandy! We didn't think you were 'stand-offish' at all! Besides - We won't let first-timers be like that! It's not what the event is about, is it?
      David - Sandy is right - if you *do* come across anyone who gives you a hard time, ignore the w*nkers!
      The Challenge is all about having fun and getting on with your fellow-man.

    2. There appear to be two kinds of Challangers, those that are welcoming, friendly, encouraging and supportive. I would have found my first two Challenges difficult without some wonderful people I met along the way. You also get the obsessive types. Those that obsess about kit, knowledge, experience, mainly their own and nobody else is as good, knows as much and shouldn't be allowed on the Challenge. The second type are rare and the only encounter I had was one who never actually met me but saw fit to critcise me regardless. This was one tiny, unfortunate incident easily forgotten when everyone else is so lovely. Simply not worth worrying about the one tiny fly in the ointment you'll probably never meet.
      It is the mental side of things that catches people out, you perhaps don't expect to be hit by a wave of homesickness. Or perhaps you didn't know what wet really means. Or that being blown from every side and lifted off your feet can happen in a seemingly quiet glen and not just on a mountain. Or that you are so achingly tired you just want to sleep. Or your confidence wavers when you've been alone a day or two...
      But we come back! It is a challenge, but it is so worth the pain to meet all these wonderful new friends.
      I'm blethering, I'll go now.

    3. Not blethering at all, Louise. Very helpful thoughts, thank you. I am sure that the vast majority of Challengers will be friendly and supportive

    4. Thnaks Sandy. There is an element where listening too much to the old hands can become confusing anyway! Everyone has their own way of doing things and so their views can be food for thought but ultimately we have to make our own choices and, guess, learn from our own mistakes and successes.

  14. Aye,nine tenths head,one tenth lead (in feet).Solo is the way to go,you can dip in and out of the social side at will, splendid times will be had on hill and in't bar. See you in The Fife.


    1. I can definately recommend solo Challenges,having
      completed thirteen solo. In a group, you walk at the
      pace of the slowest.You also travel a comprised route
      to suit everyone in the group. You stop when and where
      the group stops. Solo you have fourteen days of total
      freedom."But"if you don't like your own company don't
      do it.Having walked in a group it's more difficult to
      turn solo,you will miss all the banter,jokes and
      security a group gives you. But it is The Challenge.

    2. Thanks anonymouses. I normally day walk and do short backpacks solo (billy no mates!) but the mental attributes needed for doing this for days on end must be far tougher. But I do get the clear impression that unless my route is very bizarre I will keep meeting people, which will be very nice. For me if not them.

  15. David, you've obviously thought about many of the concerns that I had on my first Challenge - and still do as I approach my seventh. You'll be fine! Yes, the weather may wear you down. Your feet/leg/back/everything else may hurt. You may get miserable from time to time, but then something wonderful will happen. Maybe you'll come face to face with a deer. Maybe someone will give you some mint tea and some dates. Maybe the sun will come out just when you were thinking of going home. These things have all helped me and I keep coming back. Enjoy your crossing!

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Judith. I have to say if tyhe Challenge involves drinking mint tea rather than a decent cup of PG Tips then I shall drop out now! However, I understand and appreciate the sentiment.

    2. When I was given the mint tea (and dates) I did wonder how I could politely pour it away - but it was actually very nice. Honestly!


    You may find that Braemar & rest are not tautological, but you will chill out. Looking forward to meeting up with you.

    The best thing of all to get you across will be the camaraderie of the other Challengers.

    It is an event, it is a Challenge, it is definitely not easy, but it is like a big brother/sisterhood.

    You will want to do it again
    Even though at times you will ask the question WHY?

    It will be great.

    Did I say nice post?

    1. Thank you Andrew. Brotherhood/sisterhood? Help! Does that mean I should greet you in the Fife Arms with a funny handshake and one trouser leg rolled up to aid recognition?

  17. The smell and rough looking round the edges is usually enough ;-)