Blog: Connal’s 54 in 20 Army Challenge

Wed 29th May 2019

The Challenge

To walk 54 miles from Gairlochy to Fort William and down the West Highland Way to Tyndrum in under 20 hours.

Walkers: Lance Corporal Davie Millar, Lance Corporal David Richardson, Colour Sergeant Stephen Carvery and myself.

Support: Corporal John Manson and Fusilier George Liddle

It’s become a tradition for me to take on a personal fundraising challenge for the Rangers Charity Foundation, if not every year, at least every two.  Over the years I’ve swum, danced, climbed, cycled, run and walked.  I’m passionate about the work of the Foundation and know that so many of our supporters are too.  Supporting our armed forces and veterans is something which I’m particularly proud to do and alongside the Club we strive to make a difference in an incredible number of ways.

My last challenge for the Foundation was a non-stop long distance walk (without time constraint) with the Royal Marines – 81 miles along the Great Glen Way, which we completed in 34 hours.  That was truly epic and painful.  This time around, I was delighted to have enlisted the support of the Army for a challenge to cover 54 gruelling miles in under 20 hours.  Although a shorter distance than my previous challenge, this one would have to be done at a much quicker pace if we were going to succeed.

I began training for the challenge with a three month lead in.  Lance Corporal Davie Millar agreed to take me on for twice weekly personal training sessions in the gym and I would separately schedule a series of long distance training walks during the lead up to the challenge on 2 May.  It was great to build up a rapport with Davie during those months and to benefit from his expertise in the gym.  He is competitive though.  Not only is he a body builder with outrageous self-discipline and motivation, he always had to make sure that he beat my calorie count on the machines when we ran together.  Petty behaviour! - but usually quite funny at the time.  I did alright for a 50 year old, but I’m always keen to push myself and see if I can improve my fitness as I get older.

As well as focussing on cardio work and core strength in the gym, there is no substitute for getting some serious miles done underfoot.  During the lead up to the challenge I undertook a mixture of long distancewalks, mostly on my own.  Long distance runner and Foundation supporter David Smith joined me for a 20 mile walk along the Forth & Clyde Canal – I think he found walking much more painful than running!  Members of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, Foundation Chair Jacqueline Gourlay, Linda Shields from the Foundation team and other friends and supporters of the Foundation joined me for a walk from Balmaha down to Milngavie covering the last 20 miles of the West Highland Way.  It was actually quite a tough walk on the legs and really brought home the challenge that 54 miles was going to bring in just a few weeks’ time.

Having a target and a challenge helps ensure that I train and have the ability to push my physical and mental strength boundaries every so often.  As well as fundraising for a great cause, I’ve always felt that such challenges are positive for personal growth and positive life experience too.  In my case, they have the added (and for me vital) benefit of helping reduce or even avoid difficult incidences of depression.

If I didn’t have a focus for exercise like this, it’s possible (likely) that I would have a significant relapse of depression and obviously I want to try and avoid this scenario.  As I’ve grown older, I am now better equipped to recognise when things are perhaps dipping for me and therefore better able to try and manage my way out of it, though it’s not always easy.

Depression can have an impact on relationships, family and friends, but in my experience it makes such a difference if: you can be open with those who you trust and value; if someone acknowledges how you are feeling; is willing to listen (as I’m sure they would for many other illnesses) and lets you know that they are there to support you if they can.  You can’t beat good communication!  For me, it’s not something that needs to be talked about all the time, but knowing that it’ll be ok if you do, is great.  Suffering in silence and being in the loneliest of places is, I hope, not something I will ever have to cope with again. 

Gairlochy – Fort William

We left Glasgow in the minibus at 10.30pm, arriving at the start point beside the Caledonian Canal at Gairlochy at about 1.45am.  We had a short, and in my case failed, attempt to sleep for an hour before preparing to start the walk at 3am.  The challenge hadn’t even started and we’re already going to be deprived of a good night’s sleep!  The idea was to try and maximise the amount of daylight for the challenge and use the first 10 miles of flat track beside the canal to ease our way from darkness into daylight.  It was quite chilly, but clear and still – so still, that the tiny amount of pre-dawn light or residual moonlight, meant that a perfect replica of the real Ben Nevis rearing up to the south of us was visible on a small lochan as we walked by. 

When you’re aiming to walk such a big distance nonstop, the idea of 9 or 10 miles for the first leg sounded quite short to me, but you still have to get used to the fact that it takes time – in this case, around 3 hours, so that it was fully light by the time we reached the entrance to Glen Nevis and some welcome bacon and square sausage rolls prepared by John and George.  There were a couple of red deer in the forestry commission car park nearby which were obviously used to having people around. 9.5 miles completed.

Fort William – Kinlochleven

We were all feeling fine and keen to get the next stage underway, after taking a full 30 minute break for breakfast.  This would be a much longer and more hilly section of the walk and we were also now on the West Highland Way proper.  We joined a track which switched back and forth as it climbed through forestry with some great views back toward Ben Nevis, whose summit was now shrouded in cloud.  The weather on the west coast is a fickle beast!  After gaining quite a lot of height, the path wound its way between glens and then along the foot of the Mamores (a series of mountains) and then steeply down to Kinlochleven.  I enjoy my hill climbing too, and the Mamores are a great group of mountains strung together by a series of ridges – if you get the weather, it’s a spectacular place to be. 

This section was around 13 miles long, and was the first sign that foot pain and blisters for some of the team were on the way.  It wasn’t just the distance and the bumpy terrain, but the pace we were walking at (fluctuating between 3.5 and 4 miles per hour).  By the time we reached the zig-zag track down into Kinlochleven the weather had really warmed up – something which a West Highland Way hiker coming the other way proved when she said to watch out for a snake sunning itself in the path just below.  I chatted briefly to two women at the bottom of the hill and on hearing about our challenge she immediately pulled out her purse and donated what coins she had – such a great gesture to finish this leg of the challenge.   I checked my feet over in Kinlochleven, whilst taking on some fuel.   I had taped my feet up pretty thoroughly before the walk started and was ‘pleased’ to find that I had only two blisters, one on each of my wee toes.  They were fairly sizable though and having forgotten to bring sterile needles with me, had to burst them between two of my finger nails before taping them up.  23 miles completed.

Kinlochleven – Glencoe

All the height that we lost coming down to Kinlochleven would have to be gained again (and more) before we reached Glencoe, our next checkpoint.  It was a sweaty business climbing up from Kinlochleven

and then climbing and skirting around the high hillside and heading south towards Glencoe and the Devil’s Staircase. 

One bizarre challenge on this section though, was the increasing number of West Highland Way walkers we were passing on the path, and they were all “driving” on the “wrong” side of the road (!), or in this case narrow track.  It’s great that the WHW is so popular and it was incredible to see the high proportion of walkers who coming from different countries to walk it, BUT, someone needs to put up a sign to say please walk on the left when passing folk ;-).  I had to give up trying to follow British hill “driving” etiquette in the face of overwhelming numbers coming towards us (most WHW walkers do it from south to north).  My mind was probably getting fixated on all of this as the distance started to pile up and it was good to have distractions as the climbing on this section seemed to go on forever.  Davie Millar was also dealing with some intense back pain, which he tried to stretch out from time to time, whilst trying to stick to our fast walking pace.  David Richardson too was having to contend with a growing number of really painful blisters.

After finally reaching our high point looking across and down into Glencoe, we quickly covered the ground down the Devil’s Staircase (sounds worse that it is, but maybe that’s easy to say when you’re going down it).  It also gave us the opportunity to appreciate our surroundings, with amazing views of the iconic Buachaille Etive Mor standing proudly at the head of the glen.  The last mile or two towards the car park below Glencoe Ski Centre seemed to go on for ever, but the hot plate of food and cold can of juice organised by John and George was a great reward.  Captain Jason Craig had also travelled up from Glasgow to check on our progress and encourage us on.  34 miles completed.

Glencoe – Tyndrum

After a fairly long break (around 45 minutes) we got ready to set off for the last 20 mile section.  It was much chillier now and rain showers had developed – not great timing, when real pain and tiredness had set in.  I was feeling in a bit of a dip to be honest, but did my best to keep it to myself.  I can only describe the next 14 miles as miserable.  The weather was rubbish, my legs were in pain and my feet could feel every single stone underfoot.  After around seven miles though I realised that I was spending too much time inside my head and not making enough effort to chat to the other guys and distract myself from the pressure of the ticking clock and the difficulty in coping with the pain.  The guys had some sobering stories to share about their experiences in Afghanistan and this really brought home to me the value of showing solidarity to serving armed forces personnel and those veterans who may sometimes be in need of additional support after leaving the services.  I’ve always felt a strong affinity with the armed forces and respect for their professionalism, sacrifice and unique camaraderie.  I felt really grateful for their backing on this challenge and knew that, despite the narrowing window of time to get this done in under 20 hours, there was no way that we were not going to succeed. 

Separating us and Bridge of Orchy was a hill, and climbing this proved to turn the air blue a few times.  The injustice of it at this stage of the challenge!  We met the support team after making it down the hill, took a quick team photo and then cracked on to tackle the last six miles.  This section was mostly flat, but it seemed to be the longest six miles EVER.  We had split into two pairs at this point - each acting as motivational support for the other as the light quickly began to fade.  In fact for the last 20 minutes we were walking in darkness and relieved to know that finishing the challenge within 20 hours was safe.  In the end, we just nudged past the 19 hour mark, completing the 54 miles in a time of 19 hours and two minutes.  

I was very proud of the guys for completing the challenge and hugely grateful for their support, in particular to Davie, for his brilliant personal training support and encouragement during the months leading up the big walk.  As well as obviously having an important very personal purpose for me, the fundraising associated with the challenge for the Rangers Charity Foundation’s Armed Forces Fund had smashed through the £12,000 mark.  What a brilliant result!  I am truly grateful to the soldiers from the Royal Regiment of Scotland for their backing, and for all the tremendous support which this challenge has helped generate for charities supporting armed forces personnel and veterans.  54 miles completed.

Reflections

Relief is the first emotion that washes over me after managing to finish a challenge – relief that I was able to achieve what I set out to do.  I’m not a super hero and this isn’t the most difficult challenge thatanyone could do – not by a very long margin.  It was a challenge for me though and one that I could set myself and train for in amongst a very busy day job.  The combination of the weeks of training and the feeling within myself of completing the challenge will reap benefits for me for months, especially mentally.  It has reminded me that I can cope with and overcome a tough physical and mental challenge and given me a glimpse again of the real Connal – sometimes that only shows itself when you have what I would say is a powerful experience.  The busy life lots of us lead can often push your own sense of yourself to the side.  Working on my mental health is a long term project for me, but I think I have it in my sights when I need to, and value the opportunity that challenges such as this can bring for the Foundation and for myself.   

I now try to be much more open about my mental health in my role at the Rangers Charity Foundation.  I do think it’s important and helpful to be candid, not least because many of our own programmes in the community benefit people who may be struggling with their own mental health.  There is no stigma or shame in this as far as the Rangers Charity Foundation is concerned, so if I can help personify this simple fact then I will.

Being proactive in seeking out goals and challenges and making physical activity part of my routine is probably the most important way in which I can try and prevent difficult episodes of depression.  I have just turned 51, but don’t want age to be a barrier to pushing my boundaries from time to time.  I know within myself that managing to complete the 54 in 20 Challenge has renewed my self-confidence in following this approach to better my mental health.

I found myself watching a documentary the other evening about Alistair Campbell’s journey with depression and how he explored different approaches as options for him to help manage it.  There was one analogy towards the end of the film as he discussed depression with an expert in Canada.  She talked about a jam jar which would start to fill up with genetic baggage and then baggage from life experiences.  For some people, say for example the experiences of what life may have thrown at you, the jar would completely fill to the brim and then cause a challenging mental health episode or illness.  The interesting image that resonated with me though, was that whilst we might not be able to control a lot of that baggage, we can do things which help extend the top of the jam jar – physical exercise, fresh air, making time to do relaxing things, spending time with friends, getting some good sleep, communicating.  I’m sure that list is endless and will be very personal to the individual, in the same way that our mental health is.  Taking on these challenges each year and making sure that they are something I can enjoy training for over a period of time – that is extending the top of the jam jar for me.  It’s helping to make sure that those baggage ingredients don’t manage to reach the top of the jar and break it.  I really like this analogy and I’m sure it’ll help me have a positive perspective on things which I can do to make a difference.  Now that my feet have recovered and all the blistered bits have fallen off, I’m ready to venture back into the gym with Lance Corporal Davie ‘Calorie Counter’ Millar - the target now is just to get leaner, fitter and just feel good within myself. 

If anyone is affected by depression and would like to find out more about understanding it, please follow the link below to a great booklet by SAMH.  It describes the symptoms of depression and the different kinds of treatment available.  It suggests ways that you can help yourself and also what family and friends can do.  There is a list of useful contacts at the end of the booklet too.

https://www.samh.org.uk/documents/UnderstandingDepression.pdf

Thanks

I would like to thank everyone who supported me on this challenge journey, for words of encouragement, prize donations and sponsorship. In particular, I am grateful to members of the Royal Regiment of Scotland for backing the 54 in 20 Challenge and to Lowland RFCA, Paul Bain, Scott Forrest, Gordon Stewart, Brian Ferguson, Janice and Steven Shields, Annette and George Bell, Linda Shields, Jacqueline Gourlay and everyone on the team at the Foundation.

Until the next challenge...!

Tags: Armed Forces / armed forces fund / Connal Cochrane