"A human being is part of a whole called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself,  his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." Albert Einstein

Pushed to the limits of our being

What I learned from walking 100k in 29 hours with three friends

The political theorist Thomas Hobbes wrote that “we are all matter in motion”.  Every element of our being, from the thoughts in our mind, to the cells in our bodies, is in a constant state of migration.

We move location, change the pace of our thoughts, adjust our ideas in response to those of others, shift the parameters and limitations in all that we do, expand and extend, bond and break, knocking against each other, causing a ripple of chain reactions we don’t always fully appreciate.

This state of perpetual motion came sharply into focus when along with three friends, and some 1,600 others, I made my way across the 100km South Downs Way as part of the Oxfam Trailwalker challenge.

Ultimately, the challenge lay in the mammoth test of endurance, humour, friendship, loneliness, resilience and stubborn determination. 

It has to be said – and apologies for sounding pious – that what we endured was a choice, a temporary state of extraordinary mobility, enabled by the support of many capable people and organisations, championing us on, welcoming us, assisting us and always there if we needed them.

It was nothing compared to the millions of displaced and expelled who navigate much tougher climates and with no support to reach safety that is never even guaranteed. 

So to talk about the lessons learned from our relatively privileged expedition seems a little pathetic.  Nonetheless, it was a valuable experience in perspective and humility for that very reason, and more besides.

Kindness is the oil that takes the friction out of life

In day to day life, when I’m forced to venture out into the world beyond the security of my desk and the company of my cat, I often find myself agreeing with Sartre, that hell really is other people. Other people’s noise, other people’s mess, other people’s dramas.  I much prefer life without it.  A life of more with less.

But what Trailwalker made me realise is that while a lot of other people may be a drain on one’s time and energy, there are plenty more who are worth spending time with, who know what matters, that to smile and to care and to share precious moments in a collective endeavour for good, is the essence of humanity once you strip away all the attachments and distractions. 

From my friends and fellow walkers, to some of the strangers we encountered along the way, the ever-kind and generous Ghurkhas, and the relentlessly cheerful Oxfam volunteers, I realised that sometimes, it can be enough and mean so much if all you do is make other people feel valued, loved and appreciated.

The mind is a messy place, it benefits from being out in the open

“Everybody needs beauty: places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike.” – John Muir

There were moments, in the darkness of 2am, in the middle of the wilderness, with no other people around, no streetlights and only the illumination afforded by our fading headlamps that we had neither the energy nor the focus to know where we were going.

There were times when we found ourselves walking through cornfields, as though desolate moon walkers on an abandoned planet.  There were points when we could see nothing and no-one around us.  And there were times when we were surrounded by more people than was helpful as we navigated narrow chalky paths. 

But we carried on. Because that’s what you have to do. What’s the alternative, give in, give up?

All it often took was to look up in the sky, see swifts flying overhead, or a single red poppy in a field of dying corn, or the sun waiting to make its break from behind a cloud, to shift our attention, make us see there’s a world beyond the confines of the vice-like headspace and its self-fulfilling cycle of angst, that there are other, bigger things worth focusing on, and none of them take more effort than to look up and out.

Life is pain, accept that and move on

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” – Haruki Murakami

As my physio told me in the aftermath, you can’t walk that kind of distance without hurting yourself somehow.  That much I knew before I began, we prepared for it, trained for it, made sure we were ready and equipped.

And yet nothing can quite prepare you for the emotional and physical tidal waves of being in a prolonged state of being that is significantly far removed from your ordinary existence.  How you survive, whether you do, and with how much of your senses intact, comes down to your mind taking control over your matter.

There were moments of extreme elation counterbalanced with moments of frustration and pain.  Such is the basic, unavoidable principle of yin-yang, the physics of equilibrium.

Every state we occupy is necessarily transient. You have to ride the waves of discontent if you want to experience the bliss.  Else how will you know that what you have is something worth appreciating? 

Life would be stasis without the highs and the lows.  Once you appreciate that, accept it, absorb it, every extreme is a little more bearable.

Listen to your body but don’t be fooled by it.

“There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.” – Bruce Lee

A physical challenge can shift your focus, especially after 50k or so.  First you find yourself going inside to a deep, dark place where the internal critic that we all have has a megaphone, the reverberations of which bounce around like a toxic stream with no exit. 

Somehow, you have to refocus, on just putting one foot in front of the other.  To getting through the pain in the soles of your feet.

We can overcomplicate and overthink the simplest of things.  Physical exertion to the extreme is tough, but ultimately, it is purely about moving, in spite of yourself. 

Your mind will tell you otherwise, but it’s a demon sometimes, and your body knows better.  Sometimes.

We have a lot to be thankful for

There is much that is lamentable about humanity in this crappy world of our making. 

Careless people, unjust wars, avoidable poverty, wayward politics, cruelty, thoughtless actions and words.

But there is also a lot to be thankful for, there is love and there are people to act on tiny fragments of hope that glimmer, however imperceptibly in an insurmountable shit pile. 

There are masses of people who believe in taking positive steps and conscious action to make things a little better, to counter the gloom.

We made it to the end of the 100km, we had loved ones to greet us, strangers cheering and smiling as we approached the final few feet, we had somewhere to sit down, food provided for us, celebratory hugs, clean clothes, all the essentials in life that in that moment, we realised the enormous meaning of. 

I’ll never walk that distance again, hopefully I’ll never have reason to, but I’m glad that I did.

What’s the most good we can do – and is there even any point in bothering?

Is it always wise to make an impact?