Blisters and bonding

By Chris Southwood 11 January 2017
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Completing five Trailwalkers makes you a Legend, but it’s no easy task.

CHAFFING, HALLUCINATIONS, BLISTERS and bonding. The Oxfam Trailwalker is a suburbanite’s Everest. One hundred kilometres of non-stop walking on tracks and trails; it’s mundane enough to sound eminently achievable by the average punter (after all, it’s just walking right?), but a bit of an adventure. That’s certainly what I thought when I signed up for my first Trailwalker – a nice stroll, all in the name of raising money for a worthy charity.

But once you do the simple maths of distance-over-speed, the scope of the undertaking becomes a little more overwhelming. It’s just walking, but it’s 30 hours of the damn stuff. Stop and think about just how much you can do in 30 hours of living; you could catch a flight to Amsterdam via Heathrow; you could go to work and come home at least twice; you could drive to Cairns from Sydney; or maybe add a deck to your house. Or, alternatively, you could do nothing but walk without cease. Suddenly you start to understand both the allure and the terror of Trailwalker.

Completing five Trailwalkers gives you ‘Legend’ status, and from the first step, that was my goal. 30 or 40 Ibuprofen tablets and 500km later, Trailwalker has given me more great memories, life lessons, bonding experiences and ligament damage than I ever dreamed. Here are a few favourite moments.  

2010: Team A Whole Box of Froth (What Do They Say About Pride?)

Not since the Mike Baird premiership has there been a greater fall from grace. I’d love to say that as a team of inexperienced but fit striders, we started our Trailwalker campaign with jauntiness or enthusiasm, but in truth it was arrogance, plain and simple. We’d scoffed at training, openly sneered at walking poles, and regarded foot taping as something for ballet dancers.

Please let me say this: If you were one of the walkers we jogged past on a climb in the opening stages, I beg your forgiveness, we were duly punished, I promise.

It only took 40km for the almighty hammer of humility to crush us like ants. What were these weird bubble things under the skin of our feet, and why did they feel like fire? And how come our kneecaps wanted to move in so many unconventional directions?

We experienced a Fukushima-like meltdown. Feet bled, toenails shed. It took us almost 30 minutes to shuffle across the 250m span of the Spit Bridge. The colour drained from the world. Somehow we all made it through, reduced to leaning on walking canes fashioned from tree branches, and spitting insults at fellow walkers who seemed to glide by like they were roller blading.

Not many of the injuries were permanent, and after three days in bed, it was agreed: we were doing it again.

oxfam trailwalker

We all like long walks on the beach … just not when you’ve already been strolling for 30-something hours. (Image: Chris Southwood)

2011: Team Cool (From China with Love)

My friend Kenny is a yes man. Present him any course action in a really enthusiastic tone and he’ll agree to it. And so it was that Kenny found himself lining up for Trailwalker, despite having just literally stepped off the plane from China where for two years his feet had known nothing but suede loafers, and his main exercise was perusing a menu.

As he looked on, with a mounting expression of panic, at his fellow walkers strapping their feet and stretching, it was hard to envisage a less prepared human being.

Positivity will get you a long way in life, and about 60km in Trailwalker, apparently. That’s when Kenny’s hallucinations and incoherent mumbling started. By 70km, despite the temperature being well into the 20s and his body oozing sweat like a mushroom in a plastic bag, Kenny was too confused to master the task of removing his winter jacket.

The final indignity came at around 80km. With his knees failing him, Kenny crawled into a medical tent for some light remedial strapping. He emerged an hour later with his legs so encased in tape that Tutankhamen would’ve been impressed by the mummification. An excited chiropractic student had decided that if Ken’s legs were physically bound so tight that his muscles were immobilised, further pain would be avoided. 

Despite the latticework of tape shedding like a snakeskin over the next 5km, a cocktail of codeine and bullying got Kenny over the line, swearing never to do it again. He’d be back.

2013: Team Sexy Ken and the Mad Rooters (A Wet Spot)

Patty didn’t deserve this to happen. He is a good guy, and I’d done this to him. His puppy dog eyes looked up at me with profound confusion, his fatigued brain not sure how to process the sudden slide in circumstances. He knew this was bad, but at 2am perhaps it was all a dream? Allow me to backtrack…

We’d come to perhaps the 10th creek crossing, and my patience had run out. 2013 was a wet one, and the trickling streams of previous years had swollen to quick running creeks, calf deep and frustratingly frequent. Keeping your feet dry is very important to avoid blistering like a potato fritter, so each creek meant removing boots and socks, a tentative shuffle through the dark water, then another five minutes of foot drying, before inevitably stumbling into the next creek about 30 seconds later.

I’d had enough of it, and so rather than de-booting, I convinced Patty we should strike out cross-country, in the dark, in search of a narrower point in the creek to cross. We found one, about 100m upstream, the black torrent running unnervingly fast and deep, through a steep funnel of mossy rocks.

oxfam trailwalker

One of these people will soon remove their underwear without stopping walking – mad skills. (Image: Chris Southwood)

Hesitation is death. I jumped out of sheer bloody frustration and somehow adhered to the rocks on the opposite bank. I turned to Patty. Our eyes locked across the gap, the noisy water forcing us to communicate with intense stares and wiggling eyebrows. He placed his feet on two lichen-covered domes, crouched like a panther, and leapt. Kind of.

In the crucial microsecond of propulsion, traction failed him, and with the open-mouthed grace of a dog launching off a jetty, Patty belly-flopped into the creek. His torso made the opposite bank, but all the important walking bits were now underwater.

After 15 seconds or so of frozen disbelief, we began to laugh with the hysteria of those who know all is lost, and we extracted Patty to go find our teammates, who had already dried off and were waiting for us. Sodden from the nipples down, Patty made it through the next 50km, into the waiting arms of his fiancé who forbade this stupidity ever again.

2015: Team Where’s Sexy Ken? (Intimacy, Unwanted)

For the future employment prospects of all involved, names have been changed in this anecdote.

Going through an ordeal, like the Oxfam Trailwalker, really accelerates the rate of familiarisation with your teammates – you learn more about each other over the course of 24 hours than a year of honest conversation could ever reveal. This includes a lot you probably didn’t need to know, like where they’re sweaty or chaffed, or when they’re going to poo next.

Rita is a pretty honest kind of woman to start off with, and 12 hours of walking with the prospect of 18 more to come can really strip away the frills of polite conversation. We’d been receiving fairly regular updates about the state of Rita’s underwear for two hours. There was a chaffing issue developing, due to poor material selection, with sweaty irritation too. But once you’re in a walking rhythm, the idea of stopping unless it’s 100 per cent necessary is deflating – when you’re stopped, the finish seems impossibly distant.

And so Rita had been verbally debating the necessity of dealing with the chaffing situation. Did it require cream? What to do about the undies? Should it be dealt with trailside or at the next checkpoint in a couple more hours? Then it struck her: there didn’t need to be compromise.

Rita could solve this issue and keep the team momentum. On her request, I handed her a pair of scissors from the medical kit. Without breaking step, Rita’s hands disappeared into her tights, the scissors flashing. A few moments, and a half dozen bow-legged strides later, she held aloft the offending underwear, like a tattered, sweaty battle standard. Glorious relief. But the crowning moment came later, when Rita emerged from a public toilet some 30km later, clasping a postage stamp sized piece of cloth that had escaped. Which gave us plenty to talk about for the next few hours, of course.

2016: Team Doing it for Troughman (Desperate Times)

After four years of horror stories, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find teammates for a fifth and final Trailwalker. Word had gotten around amongst my friends and the gig was up – promises that it’d be “a lot of fun” didn’t fool anyone. Those up for the challenge had given it a go, got a little PTSD, and decided ‘never again’.

Running out of options, with only two team members confirmed, I cast the net wide. Lewis was probably not the ideal recruit. Less than 12 months ago he’d he broken just about every bone and tendon in his ankle, and now a light game of social netball whilst wearing an ankle brace could render him lame for a week or more. But he was sufficiently naïve, and had a pair of comfy tennis shoes to walk in, so I lied to his face and told him he’d be fine.

Now with only three weeks till kick off, it was time to play a seriously high-risk card. Guilt tripping my wife into walking was easier than expected. She’d seen first-hand, as support crew many times over, the ashen dead-eyed walkers and their bloodied foot stumps. She must love me very much.  

With 17 years of loving relationship on the line, getting her untrained feet through Oxfam was going to take every skerrick of walking knowledge, patience and blister pad I had. But first I had to buy her some shoes, and hide the elevation map from her.

In hindsight, a couple of walks around the neighbourhood probably wasn’t enough to break in a new pair of hiking boots, and so it shouldn’t have been a surprise when my wife’s feet began to blister, bubbled like two unpricked sausages in a pan. The gradual deconstruction of Lewis’s ankle was always a likely scenario too, and as his mood darkened, so did the skies as our walk entered its second night, after 34 hours on the trail.

The last goodbye was going to be the longest, but a lingering farewell to Trailwalker was fine by me.