Saturday, 19 September 2009

The unexpected consequences of doing great things

Sencan and I went to the Southampton boat show today to have a look around. I went there on my own last year, and ended up signing onto a tall ship sailing to Dublin. I think Sencan came along this year to prevent me doing the same thing again...

The show was absolutely bustling, and there was lots to see and do. It was also fairly hot, especially in the oven-like temporary exhibition halls, and we eventually left after four and a half hours because we had started wilting.

If you have never been, the show is massive. it was a bit smaller than last year's show (part of the land has been earmarked for development), but the temporary marina built into the Solent seemed as large as it had been last year, and was filled with lots of shiny boats. This in itself must be a massively complex thing to set up, yet it only lasts for the nine days of the show.

Neither of us saw much sign of the recession there - with high-end boats selling at well over a million euros, I would reckon that some money is spent during the nine days.

A small, ocean-going rowing boat was moored at the end of one jetty, and a very tanned, muscular young woman stood alongside it. She was Sarah Outen, and she had just completed a 4,000 mile, 124-day row across the Indian Ocean from Fremantle in Australia to Mauritius. In the process she broke three world records. The boat had literally only arrive back in its container the previous day, and she still appeared to be more than a little overwhelmed.

I can only sympathise. Although my walk around the coastline of the UK amounted to not even a quarter of what she has achieved, it still took me two or three months to really get back into normal life. I still had a vacant, far-away look in my eyes when I joined Frontier three months after the walk finished, and being around so many people felt strangely enclosing after a year walking the coast. Yet I had the wonderful Sam to keep me company during the walk, to be my friend and spur when I felt down. Goodness knows, she did a great job for me, and I'm not sure I ever thanked her enough.

Sam's companionship each night (and her wonderful cooking) helped me through the walk. Although she rarely walked alongside me, her care and attention made it possible for me to finish the walk. Before I set off, I told BBC Radio Cambridge that such a walk was 20% physical effort and 80% mental effort, and it is true - it is all too easy to mentally give up. Having someone there with me each night made all the difference. Then I think of Louis, who walked the coast a couple of years after me. He was eighteen when he did it, and he camped for most of the way, doing up to 30-miles a day with full kit. He had incredible mental strength, and I am in awe of him.

Yet Sarah went through so much more. She rowed on her own for four months, spending days and nights alone on the turbulent seas. There was no-one to give her a massage when her muscles were aching, and no-one to give her a hug when she was feeling down. Her own mental strength made up for that deficiency and kept her going. Talking to her proved to be a humbling experience.

During our chat I asked her what she wanted to do next. As I asked her the question her eyes flicked out into the Solent. Something tells me she may be voyaging out again sometime.

The thing is, I feel the same. I am just raring to do another walk, to go out for two or three months on my own, to explore and see the world; to push myself to my limits. I have spent much of my life being told that I cannot do things, and, now that I can, it is so tempting to do what I can. When I go to the coast (and it is not easy to avoid here in Southampton) I get this creeping urge to keep on walking, to 'do another lap', as I call it. I stare out at the breaking waves, and my mind wanders to the sights that I saw in that year. It is the same thing with television - I see places and I wish I was back there once more. Even seaside postcards in the local library can set me off; whether they depict the majestic Lulworth Cove or the beautiful, rugged Northumberland coastline.

In the sequel to her excellent book, "Two feet, Four Paws", Spud Talbot-Ponsonby says that she managed to put her walk around the coast into a handy mental container labelled 'the walk'. I have never managed that; my walk permeates through my mind and body, ready to jump out at the most inopportune moments. Yet I would not have it any other way. Like an aged general talking about famous battles, I cannot let it go.

Yet I have a beautiful, loving wife, and I just cannot bring myself to think of being without her for such a long time. Being apart from her would literally break my heart. So I get my maps out and look at Land's End to John O'Groats; the Pacific Crest Trail and the various GR routes in Europe and dream. And that is all they will be; dreams. There is a good chance that we may be blessed with children, and that would be another excellent reason to stay at home. Maybe when I'm sixty and the kids have all flown the roost I will put my walking boots on once more, lug a large pack onto my back and head out once again. It is something to look forward to.

Part of the problem is, I did my walk when I was thirty. I did the most amazing thing I will ever do when I was relatively young. Sarah will have the same problem. Most people wait until retirement and then do something like Land's End to John O'Groats or a sail around the world; something that they have dreamt of for all of their life. I know that there just has to be another challenge awaiting for me out there, and it has to be bigger than the one I did previously. So I dream. And there is no harm in dreaming... Is there?

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