So, the facts. Last weekend I took part in a 40-mile charity walk called Keswick 2 Barrow, or K2B. I took part to raise money for the Birchall Trust, which offers free counselling to those affected by rape and sexual abuse in Cumbria and Lancashire. That day I took 71,676 steps and finished the walk in 13 hours and 25 minutes.
I would like to write about it, because it was such an incredible day, which I had trained for weeks for. During my training, on the day and after, I’ve been brought to tears more than once by the incredible kindness and support I’ve had. This piece of writing is my thank you-letter for them.
There are some things I need to discuss first, though. I’ll start with the feathers. There is a popular saying, in the UK at least, that ‘when feathers appear, angels are near.’ White feathers are interpreted as almost like a spiritual hug or a pat on the back, telling you to have faith.
Feathers have no cultural significance to me, but without a word of a lie, I kept seeing singular white feathers during my training. I walked half of the Lake District during the weeks leading up to the walk, and they were everywhere. In bushes, next to paths, fluttering in the wind in front of me as I lifted my gaze. If none of those was obvious enough, I might see a small blob of white as a single white feather flew straight past my head, almost brushing my cheek. I took it to mean that even though I was walking alone, I was never alone.
I also believe it was an angel that made me seek help from the Birchall Trust. By all standards, the day I reached out was a completely ordinary day. An evening, I was working from home. I finished what I was doing. Then something, I still couldn’t tell you what, took me to Google. For years I had filled my head with things, first with studies and then with work, so the horror film wouldn’t have space in my head to come.
At this point, I have almost completely stopped eating. I live on coffee so I wouldn’t have to fall asleep. I volunteer for every work task that comes up so that I wouldn’t have to face silence. I’m self-harming to cope with the stress. Maybe something had happened that day, something small that had put the thought in my subconscious. What it was, I can’t remember. I have decided that it was an angel who took that quiet moment between the task I had just finished and before I could start a new one, to lean in and whisper in my ear: “Now. Now.”
Then I wrote three words. ‘Rape help Cumbria.’
I didn’t know if that was the right word to use. It took me months before I could actually even say it out loud. But I had all these memories in my head. Images, sounds, smells. They came into my dreams, my consciousness with the slightest provocation or even without, and enveloped me into an embrace where there’s no oxygen so I can’t even scream. The word ‘flashback’, which I later learned, doesn’t even come close to describing what it’s like. For a moment, your reality is replaced. You aren’t here, you’re there.
I was put in touch with an organisation called Bridgeway. I tell a kindly volunteer that I have things in my head which I don’t understand and now, I’ve started thinking. I remember I didn’t tell much during the first few calls, but there was never a rush.
I can’t remember what I said, but even the slightest allude to the abyss swirling inside me felt like the words were too big to fit into my mouth. They understood. A few calls in I finally describe a memory, one that has been forcing itself into my head whether I’m asleep or awake.
Finally, I ask: “Was this…normal?”
I can’t remember the volunteer’s name, but her voice was the angel in my ear come to flesh.
“No. No it was not.”
That’s how I started to make my way out of the abyss.
Then I was directed to the Birchall Trust. I was so poorly however that after my first few sessions I was hospitalised for three months after a suicide attempt. It had all got too much. When it started to become clear that I was going to be in hospital for a while, I told the Trust to go ahead and give my slot to someone else.
What they did instead was to assign me with a counsellor in Barrow, the town I was hospitalised in, so I could still keep going. They didn’t want me to have to stop after I had taken the leap to ask for help. To this day, I have no words to describe the kindness of what they did.
While I was still with the Trust, I decided that after I leave counselling, I will find out how much helping me had cost so I could raise that money back. Nobody has asked me to do it. I just felt like it was the only right thing to do, so that someone else could have the same help I had received. All in all, that sum came to £8,000. Before Keswick to Barrow, I had raised around £1,000 back.
Walking for 40 miles wasn’t even a consideration. For what they’ve done for me, walking 40 miles is nothing. However, during fundraising, I came to find out that raising money for a charity that helps people affected by rape and sexual abuse is not the easiest of fundraising causes. It makes people uncomfortable. If you haven’t heard of the Birchall Trust, the name won’t tell you what sort of work they do. Therefore, when I’d tell people I’m doing Keswick to Barrow, people would ask. So, I’d tell them.
I’d get a look. It’s hard to describe. It’s not one of malice, but of slight apprehension, almost embarrassment. They won’t say it’s a valuable cause. Usually they won’t say anything beyond ‘right.’ Obviously, I won’t know for sure, but I have a pretty good idea of what they’re thinking.
“Why are you doing it? Did it happen to you?”
Which is fair. People tend to fundraise for causes that have impacted their lives in some way.
But I hated that look and that silence, so I just started to say after my little info speech that I used to be a client. I realised that my fundraising had to be more personal than had I done it for some other cause. Obviously, it’s the single most personal thing to reveal about yourself to a complete stranger, but I realised that I didn’t care anymore if someone knew. I have nothing to be ashamed of.
Where did I learn that? From counselling.
My openness about my own experiences seemed to turn the tide. People who I’d never met or spoken to would donate. My posts were shared and I was told I was so brave for ‘standing proud.’ Even though I appreciated it, it felt a bit odd. Why wouldn’t I stand proud? The only person who should be ashamed is the perpetrator, and I know he never will be.
When I get a Birchall t-shirt day before the walk, it has the words ‘helping those affected by rape and sexual abuse’ smack bang in the middle across my chest.
“That’s really prominent” I think to myself.
But then I realise that I don’t care.
On the day of the walk, a volunteer at a water refilling station makes an unprompted comment.
“That’s such a valuable cause.”
I could’ve hugged him.
So, the walk. I hardly sleep the night before. It’s hard to fall asleep when you know that you need to get up early. I need to catch the shuttle at 5am, the alarm for an hour earlier. I have packed the previous evening, but keep checking and re-checking. Plasters, food, sports drink powders, four pairs of socks, pain killers. I check my fundraising page. £790. More than I could’ve dreamt of. I feel queasy and nervous when I make my way to the bus station. Is there anything I’ve forgotten? People have been so incredibly generous. Now I needed to do my own bit.
Mum rings me before I head to bed, even though it’s almost midnight in Finland.
“We have such a great daughter. We’re so proud of you.”
For the first ten miles, the world is dark. The birds are starting to sing. It was not supposed to rain. I checked the weather forecast the entire week and it was not supposed to rain. Still, it’s raining. Keswick is like an enchanted fairy tale wood, with the fells half-hidden by mist. What is visible of them draws dark and majestic against the grey sky. I have always loved mist more than a clear sunny day. A mist suggests that there could be more secret peaks, valleys and hidden worlds behind it. I walk alone, but I have an audiobook: ‘The Adventurer’s son’ by Roman Dial.
I like audiobooks. The calm droning of a narrator suggests that the world is in order.
A lot of people stride past me at the beginning, some of them in full fancy dress. I think about how uncomfortable they must be, if I am uncomfortable in proper kit. First, I get stressed about being constantly overtaken but I tell myself to keep to my own natural speed and not to force it. I’ll just get tired.
I can only do my best. If that’s not enough, it won’t be.
I look at the scenery. The fells, the lakes. I see sheep, a heron, hear thousands of birds. I dip in and out of groups. Ask about the charities they’re doing it for. Surprisingly many don’t know, they’ve just signed up when someone has asked.
“It’s difficult to pick a charity, isn’t it?” I hear someone say to their mate.
It definitely wasn’t for me.
It was such an intense day. The K2B is usually held in May, with more daylight hours. Now checkpoints had cut-off times, after which you weren’t allowed to continue. That was the most stressful part of the entire thing. I made it to one checkpoint with half an hour, another with only 20 minutes to spare, but I caught up.
I repeat, it was not supposed to rain. It was supposed to be a cool, dry day. Instead, I get drenched no less than three times throughout the day. It’s a welcome cooling though, because between the rain the air is humid and hot and my clothes are slimy with sweat. I chat to people. I hear complaints about backs, hips, feet, bums and knees. I’m spared from surprisingly many complaints in terms of aches; my problem are blisters, mostly on my toes where it’s difficult to get a plaster to stay on and cover all of it. I only take a half hour break throughout the day, chopped into five minutes, which are used to add new plasters on. I put on talc, rinse socks and chuck them back into my bag to dry. Towards the end, my feet consist more of Compeed than of skin. My only crisis of confidence is when during the last 12-mile stretch a plaster simply refuses to attach to the bottom of my foot anymore. I probably didn’t have an ounce of liquid in my feet at that point. A kind St John’s Ambulance first aid volunteer wraps my foot up and gives me a sticker.
“For being brave?” I ask.
People were so kind throughout the day. The event is very well known locally. Passers-by would honk their horns, say ‘well done’ or ‘keep going, not too long now!’ As we walked through town centres, we were applauded. A couple of times I had to pretend to wipe sweat when it was actually a tear.
Regardless of which charity you were raising for, there was a sense of comradery between walkers. We’d make jokes and swap experiences. Even for an antisocial person like me it was a morale boost, especially in the last 12 miles where the moors seem to go on forever. You can’t really stop either once you reach your natural pace, because it’s difficult to pick up again. You just walk. And walk. My fitbit keeps announcing landmarks. 30,000 steps. 40 thousand. 50.
I’d admire sceneries. I’d say ‘moo’ back to cows on a field. I’d see a heron flying over. I’d see the morning mist to begin returning against the pink and golden sky. I’d see familiar landmarks that were suggesting I was getting closer. The sea. The Ulverston lighthouse. The smell of salt that you could start smelling in the wind during the last 15 miles that kept growing stronger.
My mind was chopped to sections. There are this many miles to the next checkpoint. Then I have only five checkpoints left. I have to be there by this time, I have two hours. Now there are this many miles to the next checkpoint. Then I’ll only have four checkpoints left. Three. Two. One.
I hear of charities I’ve never heard of. Illnesses that need more medical studies done on them. I share my experiences and get the stare and the ‘right’ again a few times, but some wonderful reactions as well.
“Good on you. Seriously, good on you”, a gentleman says and I think I’m going to cry again.
I spend most of my time with a woman and a man who are raising money for the air ambulance. We banter and keep each other’s morale up. They have both done the walk several times so I follow them like a heat-seeking missile so I won’t get lost from the route. When we reach the last check-in point at Dalton, we can draw a breath. Now there are no time limits left, we can take as much time for the last three miles as we want.
It’s Saturday. People are going out. Smokers outside pubs and groups of women teetering on their high heels clap and yell encouragements to us. Horns blare. Cyclists wave. Every event warden keeps saying ‘not too long now’ and I want to say I’ve stopped believing them because I’ve been told this for the last 10 miles.
One of the last landmarks we pass is the hospital, where I spent three months four years ago. I think about how I’d scream at nurses to let me out so I could die. I walk past the gate which I’d use when I was allowed out on day release, when I was better. I run my finger over it as I pass. Everything comes full circle.
As we start to hear the music and the cheer of the finish line. I get sad for a moment. The day has been so intense that I hadn’t imagined actually reaching the end but now, seeing friends and family cheering for arrivals, I was all of a sudden facing the fact that I had nobody to wait for me. I try to brush it aside. I have a lot to be grateful for. I’ve had an incredible day. My training paid off. I’m finishing this. I’ve raised money for a charity that helped me.
I focus on practicalities, ask my adopted team mates what’s the easiest way for me to walk to the hotel from here. You’re not walking, are you? I’ve already done 40 miles, another mile more won’t make a difference.
The actual finish line. We let each of us to cross it individually. There is a DJ booth where announcers call out the name of the person arriving as families and friends call them out.
Then I hear it.
My best friend is there, holding a sign. She has driven up in secret from Wales and has waited for three hours at the finish line to surprise me. She’s told the DJs how to say my name. For a moment all I can hear is my own name in the loudspeakers. I start crying.
13 hours and 25 minutes.
I keep crying throughout the evening. I cry when my phone keeps pinging of announcements that I’ve been further sponsored. Some of those kind people I’ve never even spoken to. I cry when one of the air ambulance walkers has somehow found my page and donated. I thought I might raise to a couple of hundred but now I’m close to raising a thousand. I cry when my friend sends me a voice note to say how proud they are of me. I cry when I read the congratulation messages. I cry when I call my parents to tell them I finished it.
My heart is so full.
We did it.