Why I walked 34 hours non-stop for our Armed Forces Partnership

Wed 28th June 2017

Connal Cochrane, Director of the Rangers Charity Foundation, took on a mammoth task when he decided to walk the 79 miles of the Great Glen Way without stopping. In his often very personal blog he takes us from the fear that it could never be done to the euphoria of completion.

Each year I try and take on a personal fundraising challenge for the Rangers Charity Foundation. It’s partly because I like having a challenge to aim for as part of my life, especially if it is fitness related, but also because I believe that if you are asking other people to support a cause it’s good to do your bit too.

After so many years with the Rangers Charity Foundation, one of the challenges I face now is coming up with something different! I’ve climbed, cycled, danced, swum and dog sledded during my fundraising exploits over the years. This time round I wanted to train for a number of months for an endurance related challenge. Over the years I have had various periods of depression, some more severe than others, and although I am now able to better recognise when things are taking a turn for the worse, it is still a very active and personal struggle to manage it. There is one thing I know which is helpful for me – regular exercise. It’s not the solution for everything (or everyone), but in my case it helps me feel more in control of my depression and boosts my ability to try and bring positive energy to all aspects of my life.

What I settled on doing was to walk the 79 miles of the Great Glen Way in the Highlands non-stop in under 36 hours. As I was doing it in support of the Foundation’s special Armed Forces Partnership –  for which this past season we have been aiming to raise £25,000 in support of four charities: Erskine; The Rifle’s Regimental Association’s Care for Casualties Appeal; Poppyscotland and Combat Stress – I enlisted the help of our friends in the Royal Navy.

Lt Cdr Gary Farmer, and a small support team kindly offered to provide logistical back up and two Royal Marines would be joining me for the hike. The team tackling the length of the Great Glen Way in one go would be Tommy and Stu from the Royal Marines and I. I think when Tommy and Stu heard about the challenge initially their thinking had been to take turns walking with me over the course of the 79 miles. However, in the end they decided that they couldn’t have a “civilian” taking on such a challenge and the notoriously tough Royal Marines not living up to their name and committing to the same brutal challenge too! I’m glad that their pride and professionalism won the argument…

Back in November I joined a gym and began receiving expert twice weekly personal training sessions from Ralph Gamba. Looking back I think the challenge I settled upon was a bit extreme, but I can now see that I was making sure that I couldn’t shy away from getting fit in the gym or getting lots of fresh air on long hikes as the date of the challenge drew nearer. It’s also quite exciting when you don’t know if you’re capable of something but are determined to give it your best shot.

Fast forward to 6am in a car park in Fort William on Saturday 3 June and final preparations were underway (mainly eating bacon and sliced sausage rolls!) before the start of our mammoth hike through the scenic heart of the Highlands from Fort William to Inverness.

Fort William to Gairlochy - 10.5 miles

After a few fresh faced photos to share on social media, we started our 79 mile journey just after 7.30am. Within a mile, a bridge repair and diversion signs indicated that the route was at least an extra mile long already! The first big chunk of the Great Glen Way is a broad track beside the Caledonian Canal – very scenic, very flat and great to establish a quick walking pace to begin to eat some of the miles away. We paused for some photos in front of the still snow specked north face of Ben Nevis before pushing on to the canal locks at Gairlochy where Jaffa (Paul is his real name), Gav and Kaz were waiting with some hot food and snacks. For the Royal Marines, “foot admin” was crucial, and both Tommy and Stu had large parts of their feet and toes already taped up in order to avoid the worst of blisters. After quickly checking our feet over and giving them a bit of fresh air, we set off again for the next slightly longer stage to Laggan.

Gairlochy to Laggan – 13 miles

Again, the Great Glen Way was showing its gentler side for this second stage, with our path tracing its way through beautiful loch-side forest and tracks without us having to either gain or lose much height. By this time, I was also well onthe way to learning the lyrics of a song which Tommy was keen for me to join in on. The lyrics are of the “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” variety! At least it got us all laughing. The other thing about the Royal Marines is that they have their own language, and it was definitely an education for me to start interpreting and learning the countless slang words they have in their repertoire. By the time we were approaching Inverness over 24 hours later, I was well blooded and not having to ask for translations anymore – a sign to me of just how long we’d spent in each other’s company! We’d been lucky with the weather so far, with lots of sun and warmth. By the time we reached Laggan, the shower clouds were beginning to line up in the west, so after a great chicken and pasta stew stop courtesy of Jaffa, Gav and Kaz we set off for Fort Augustus at around 5pm.

Laggan to Fort Augustus – 11 miles

I remember this stretch of the Great Glen Way as the first sign that pain was on the way. Our walking pace had easily been above three miles an hour so far and the impact pain was growing on the soles of our feet with the hint of blisters starting to appear. As chief time keeper, Tommy was helping us to keep up a strong pace and a routine that meant we walked for an hour, stopped for 10 minutes, walked for an hour, stopped for 10 minutes…and so on, until the next proper rest and refuelling stop with Jaffa, Gav and Kaz was reached. It was a hard but very successful strategy.  By this time, the midges were out in force and this also helped keep our already brief rest stops short and sharp. 

Fort Augustus to Invermoriston – 10.5 miles

When we reached Fort Augustus the Royal Navy boys again came up trumps with a new round of hot food and checking on our well-being. Foot “admin” was now here for the duration. Tommy’s feet were beginning to boast a growing number of big blisters and draining new blisters and re-taping his feet was unfortunately now firmly part of the rest stop routine. My feet were mainly holding out on the blister front (apart from on a few of my toes). The main issue for me was a growing and seemingly constant pain across my feet from the relentless pounding they had been receiving. Every time the three of us stood up to leave a check point now it looked as if we were trying to learn how to walk again, very slow tentative shuffles, then tiny steps, then gradually accustomising ourselves to the pain once again and focusing on the next bunch of miles (rather than the full distance to Inverness). This stage to Invermoriston would see us walking into growing darkness and also coping with the first sustained climb of the walk. Rising around 1,000 feet above Loch Ness, the forest track seemed to rise and rise forever, but a few renditions (again!) of Tommy’s song and sharing of “dits” (stories) kept our sense of humours in place until we reached the top. Invermoriston is almost back down at the level of Loch Ness and with my head torch on to guide us through the darkness we zig-zagged down through the forest to the village. It was now after midnight and although the sight of Jaffa, Gav and Kaz was very welcome it’s fair to say that I did feel like curling up on the ground and having a sleep. Everything was starting to take its toll on us and I think this was the toughest stop to pick ourselves up from and carry on. I struggled to find any appetite to eat something substantial and had to force a plate of food down because I knew that my body was going to need it. It was mind over matter territory now.

 

Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit – 14 miles

Setting off from Invermoriston in the darkness with dawn still some way off was difficult. All of us were really fighting our own internal battles against aches and pains and for me, the thought of the 34 miles still ahead was hard to avoid. Tommy and Stu were both brilliant at quickly sensing a dip in mood or a silence between us that had gone on just a little too long. “That” song, more “dits” and positive reinforcements and mutual encouragement were all brought into play. We were still using a head torch from time to time as dawn slowly crept up on us towards 3am, but once the forested areas thinned out, it was much easier to find our way. Unfortunately for me, I was feeling both ill and exhausted. I thought I was either going to be sick or faint, the pain in my feet and legs was intense and I felt as if I could fall asleep if I just closed my eyes as I was walking. Between 4am and 5am this had driven me into complete silence and when our 10 minute break arrived, I was struggling to avoid Tommy and Stu seeing the tears on my face and the feeling that my challenge might be coming to a premature end.

I felt in a bit of a hopeless spot, and frustrated, on top of how awful I felt. Tommy said that he and Stu would be finishing the challenge to Inverness and I said that that was obviously their decision and that I respected it, but that it was hard for me to hear, given how grim I was feeling. Tommy decided that we should walk for another half an hour to where the forest track met a road so that we could have a slightly longer rest. It was during that half an hour that I began to realise that the pain of giving up on the challenge and having to look back at what to me would have been failure, would have in the end been far more painful than carrying on and hoping that I could turn a corner somehow. Our 20 minute rest stop in the hills above Drumnadrochit helped me gather my emotions, open up a bit more with Tommy and Stu and tap into their positive energy to get the challenge done.  I will be forever grateful to them for helping to pull me through those few hours in particular. It was no use me consoling myself that I am double their age and therefore it’s ok for me to be in a mess at this stage. I’m (only) 49, I’ve trained, I’m fit and the only obstacle to getting this thing done was me.

 

Drumnadrochit to Inverness – 20 miles

On reaching Drumnadrochit we had a lengthy break. The last stage of the challenge was going to be the longest without any support from the Royal Navy gang and would perhaps take us around seven hours. We all agreed that we were going to complete the challenge now and nothing was going to get in the way of that. After refuelling, taking on more fluids and treating blisters and the growing problem of chaffing, we set off by about 11am up into the hills above Loch Ness with Inverness finally in our sights. It was sunny, the views beautiful and the “dits” more and more outrageous and funny from Stu. 20 miles are 20 miles though, so there was no easy way to get around the fact that this was going to be a long, long slog to the end. We kept strictly to our walk an hour and stop for 10 minutes routine and kept eating and drinking. By the time we had climbed over a hill and away from Loch Ness and then down to a tarred single track road, the pain in our feet had intensified once more. 

The solution for Tommy and Stu was that we would “double time” it the remaining few miles to Inverness. This would mean a slow disciplined jog instead of walk, and to me it looked like a crazy and even more exhausting enterprise. However, I gave it a go and was surprised that the pain in my feet turned down a notch because they were spending a tiny bit less on the ground and with less weight on them to bear. 

 

My friend Murray and his daughter Julia cycled out from Inverness to join us and encourage us on for the last 3 or 4 miles. It was great to see them and have their support. Tommy and Stu kept up the double time pace and I managed to keep my own pace going with their continued encouragement. The three of us jogged together down the last mile into Inverness before Tommy produced a hip flask for us to toast each other at the end of an amazing challenge. We arrived 34 hours and 15 minutes after leaving Fort William. 

Completing the Great Glen Way Armed Forces Challenge was a true team effort and it was a privilege to have had the support of Tommy, Stu, Jaffa, Gav and Kaz. I am very grateful for everything they did over the course of the challenge. I hope that Tommy and Stu also feel proud of their achievement in completing the Great Glen Way in this way. They are remarkable people and it was a pleasure to get to know them. 

The challenge has raised £5,640 so far in support of the Rangers Charity Foundation’s Armed Forces Partnership, thanks to the tremendous generosity of supporters, friends and family. I’m not sure what my next challenge will be but I won’t be forgetting this challenge in a hurry. This has been a hugely strengthening experience personally and I can’t put a price on the value of that.

Tags: Rangers Charity Foundation / Armed Forces / Connal Cochrane / Great Glen Way / Royal Marines