It's 6AM and I'm woken by my phone alarm direct from a vivid dream where I'm manning a WWI machine gun emplacement. I don't think that can be a good omen for the day.
Tim and I gear up and then grab breakfast in the lovely sitting room: full English for him, big bowl of bird seed wet with orange juice for me. On the upside, I got honey for my tea. We amble round the corner to, let's call it, base camp.
Neither of us were sure what to expect of our fellow walkers Anna predicted a bunch of rough ex-squaddies, and told me not to be a smart-arse and get beaten up but it's a really lovely group. (Not that squaddies wouldn't have been lovely. That's Anna's notion.) Only a few are, to my eye, retired or serving military. We make small talk with one or two people, and take our official start of walk photo. Then the briefings start. (Oh England was playing Germany in the World Cup at 15.00 today.)
Tim shoots off his first moblog. Of the military-looking types, there are two racked out on the ground that's a military telltale, grabbing rack time when one can both sporting England flags and one of them with these terrifying scars on his head. I kind of sneaked a shot of his head (last photo below). And while I actually tried to blag my way through talking football with these guys later, I never got the nerve to ask if he got the scars in combat, and if so how.
Among other bracing things, we're told that there are actually cut-off times for each check-point and if we miss them, we'll be pulled out, because we'd simply be getting to the end too late. Gack these H4H devils will be taking the hindmost. My idea was that I'd be trekking with everything I brought along, which wasn't all that much; but I'm suddenly grateful to Tim for talking me into leaving my copies of The Age of Absurdity and Geneology of Morals in his car.
One of the organisers lets slip that today might be the hottest day of the year. Gulp. We can't deny that the sun is pretty damned strong already and it's just gone eight. I'm even wondering if the ole hat flaps might come down on this one.
We struck up a conversation with two women called Clare and Sarah, based on the latter's piratical accoutrement. It turned out that they both had elements of costumes with them; and, moreover, that they were lively and extremely amusing walking companions. We'd go on to enjoy their entertainment value for the entire first half of the walk.
While almost everyone out here was a civvie, I was guessing that a lot of people would have some connection to the military. Sure enough, on questioning, Clare reported her brother serves in the Guards (the same division as Patrick Hennessey; I'm not sure about the regiment, but I assume the Grenadier Guards, which is the most senior infantry regiment in the British Army), and has just returned from a six-month tour of Helmand. He's evidently keen to get back, as he still has mates in theatre and, like an awful lot of servicemen and women, it seems isn't keen on them serving there without him.
And but so here comes this conical hill just a bit off the official route, and but with a totally commanding view of the area. Theres's no way I could get lost!
I had to jog a bit to catch them up which still was no problem at this point. When I did, I hit Clare and Sarah with a rap I'd prepared in advance:
Clare: That's lovely.
Sarah: On behalf of the British people, thank you very much.
I thought that went very well, and was suitably dignified. I'd go on to use the rap once or twice more on the day. (I was proud of the rap.)
It's now 10:14 with two hours down out of a likely 10, we've got a heck of a lot of day in front of us. As you will note from the photos, other walkers in front and behind are getting very thin on the ground. Basically, we're getting really strung out. And I start to worry, for no particular reason, that the leaders are going to get too far ahead for us ever to catch them. It actually occurs to me, with no one else in sight, that we're actually going too slowly (and having too much fun) and are going to miss the checkpoint cut-off time and get eliminated. (*)
So I decide to lead a break-away from the pelaton. I.e. I range ahead in the hopes of catching up the front again, plus pushing on our pace, and presuming I'll slow down again later for us all to hook back up.
My first trial is nettles. Damn these things! Ever had nettle stings? It's not as bad in Cornwall, when they attacked me, but still.
My second trial is, um, my style of walking. I overtake a small group ahead of us; and, shortly after, hear them hollering at me from behind. With my head buried in my notebook, I've strolled right past a turning, and was 100m down the wrong trail, still obliviously scribbling. So that was the end of most of the lead I'd built up.
And it is, rather. Also, my legs are starting to stiffen up. We may really have already fallen too far off the back ever to catch them up, at any reasonable pace.
And then about 5 seconds later, we hit the first checkpoint it's the seven-mile mark. I'm topping up my water as Tim, Clare, and Sarah rock up. I explain my plan (of catching the leaders). The insanely nice and cool H4H checkpoint guy, after checking off our names, encourages me that the leaders have only maybe 20-30 minutes lead on me. I can do it!
Or can I?