I guess this is the night when I should be writing a post of my new year’s resolutions (or it’s the night when most bloggers do it; we all know my style is far more 7 or 8 January).
Instead, I’m going to write about one of the most inspiring events I witnessed this year: my husband and my dad completing the 30th Hong Kong Oxfam Trailwalker together.
Posting something inspirational is just as forward-thinking as new year’s resolutions, innit, and leaves less room for the inevitable failure to achieve specific goals (i.e. to publish a videoblog of me doing freestyle rapping in Cantonese, while wearing a bikini from pre-baby days, sitting on top of a pyramid composed of gold bars. ONE DAY!).
A few months ago I would have thought Joel completing this gruelling 100km trek would have been about as likely as my achieving any of the above goals – but as he continuously proves, his incredible mental determination enables him to complete even tasks he physically shouldn’t be able to, like an arduous mountain-scaling hike he’s barely done any training for. As his loving wife, I applaud and celebrate his achievements with unrestrained pride – but this one was a little bit personal for me, since I myself had been the captain of a team who hoped to complete the Melbourne Oxfam Trailwalker in early 2006. My dad had done the Hong Kong Trailwalker the year previously and, inspired, I had talked some friends into creating a team of four and had commenced some leisurely training strolls around the Maribyrnong River. On a good day I could do the 5km circuit in an hour! I mean I was gonna smash that thing!
But a few months before the big event, I met the love of my life – YES THE VERY SUBJECT OF THIS POST – and what happened? I became almost immediately knocked up with Rufus and had to withdraw from the Trailwalker. My team were naturally disappointed to lose such an inspirational and competition-conditioned leader, though they stoically managed to complete the race in spite of (or because of) my absence. I, meanwhile, lay on the couch eating Saladas with Vegemite and plastic cheese for the next six months, and haven’t really looked back, and now it probably takes me a good three hours to do a 5km walk around a flat suburban riverside path. I don’t know for sure; I haven’t tried. And in the meantime, Joel has now completed the only athletic event I one day dreamed of doing myself.
It came about like this. Since we’ve lived here, Joel and dad have done a fair bit of hiking together. I guess on their hikes they talked about hiking-related matters, and it came up that one of dad’s friends was doing the Trailwalker, and someone had pulled out of his team, and they needed a replacement. Perhaps Joel sensed some karmic resolution, I’m not sure, but he volunteered for the spot. A few weeks later someone else pulled out of the team, and dad filled THAT spot.
The Trailwalker is an Oxfam fundraiser that initially began as a training exercise for Gurkha regiments in Hong Kong. As you can imagine, it’s a brutal journey scaling mountains that when added together are higher than the Everest peak – and a distance of 100km in a maximum of 40 hours.
There are hardcore teams from China’s People’s Liberation Army who do the event in around 12 hours (with a support crew of about 20, and probably changing of race numbers between fresh runners and other such shenanigans), but Joel’s team had a more modest target of 30 hours.
At this point, if you know me, you can attest to how foolhardy an endeavour it would have been for me to ever attempt this event. 30 hours without sleep? I doubt I could even achieve that if all that was required was sitting on the couch with a few books, let alone traversing the MacLehose Trail.
I did, of course, volunteer to be part of the support team. Our crucial functions included distributing sustenance at various checkpoints, in food form and also salve, anti-chafing balm, clean socks and putting bandaids on fucking manky heel blister form. These were some rank tasks but
we did it with grace and we did it with style we did it.
As the event approached, Joel thought it might be a good idea to do some reconnaissance work around the areas of the course I’d need to show up with my steaming soup tureen and smiling face at all hours of the morning. The very night before the event, we drove all around the New Territories scoping out the checkpoint locations. By the time we reached the finish line at Yuen Long, I had to ask Joel to drive home because I was too tired. From driving a car around part of the course! At that point I did wonder how the fuck they were going to walk so far, but that wasn’t really my concern and it was time for me to have a well-deserved passenger-seat nap in any case.
I was working when they started at midday the next day. The strength of the emotions I felt at the time when I knew they had started walking surprised me. I felt proud to the point of tears. I mean I know our grandparents used to walk 100km through the snow, without shoes, just to get to school every day, but times have changed and it’s a massive achievement these days, you have to agree.
Rain belted down unexpectedly shortly after they set off, and didn’t let up for the next 18 or so hours. By the time they reached the very first checkpoint they were sodden, shivering, and experiencing the beginnings of what would later become trench foot. They loaded up at this checkpoint on pasta and oranges.
I was worried at this point about Joel. He was showing signs of understated distress (very quiet, not speaking positively) which is unlike him; later, he said it was from hiking in a soaking wet t-shirt for too long.
Between that checkpoint and the next, I had a few hours to come home and flit about the house finding spare socks and ponchos for Joel, and other things which he had already packed in his kit. I didn’t know what else to do. Eric, our wonderful neighbour who had previously completed the Trailwalker in London, helped by providing enough spare raincoats to allay the most stressed wife’s panic, and also driving up to the next checkpoint with me.
Also along for the ride were Penny and Bette, a massive urn of soup, 10 litres of water, the whole team’s kit bags, and four golf umbrellas. It was 11.30pm and the checkpoint was in the middle of the country park, at a dismal rotunda on top of a steep hill. You can imagine our dismay when we were informed we couldn’t drive anywhere near the checkpoint and would have to hike up the hill burdened with our great load of support paraphernalia. In the driving rain and pitch black we trudged up that hill to the spot, only to find the only bench seat being used by a fucking Trailwalking team. We had no choice but to catch our breath under the dubious shelter provided by a tree next to the rubbish bins. We fought the urge to use/consume all the support supplies ourselves after our epic 20-minute exertion, and a mere 2.5 hours later, the team arrived. They were grateful that we hadn’t eaten all the soup and applied all the anti-chafing balm to our crotches, I think.
Joel was much more positive at this checkpoint and I was able to relax. I was no longer concerned about him completing the walk and could fully focus on buoying him up (one might say that had been my job at the previous checkpoint, when I really had been worried – but the thing is it’s so unusual for him to be the one out of us requiring bolstering that I was a little unsure what to do…)
At that point they had completed about half the really hard mountain-climb stages. They were walking in heavy mud-caked shoes and soggy socks, over a slippery and rocky trail churned up by all the teams who had gone before (they’d been in the last starting group). It was a massive effort to only be two hours behind their original time estimate. We helped them change their socks and shirts, refilled their camel-packs with water, and sent them back into the night. I don’t mind saying that night was the guiltiest sleep I’ve had in a while. Especially when I didn’t wake up in time to go to the breakfast rendezvous on the other side of Hong Kong. Fortunately other members of the support team made good with the eggs and bacon, and I was able to speak to Joel on the phone and ascertain that they had completed 62km in the 16 hours they’d been walking, in spite of the constant flooding torrent. They were still only two hours behind their schedule, had completed six of the 10 stages, and were in reasonably good spirits. One of the team-members had previously lost all of his toenails in training, and dad had an infected blister, so there were some podiatric concerns, but otherwise they were in okay shape.
I spent the rest of the day getting fleeced for goes on the jumping castle at a school fair with the kids, buying chocolate bars and Gatorade for the finish line, and fretting about remembering how to get to Yuen Long without getting lost on infamous Castle Peak Road and ending up in the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen. This is not somewhere you want to end up when a team of hikers is waiting for you to pick them up. It’s not somewhere you want to end up anyway really under any circumstance, with its hordes of vendors chasing you up and down Lo Wu Shopping Centre foisting goods of shoddy Chinese manufacture upon you.
While I dealt with my potential navigational concerns, the team, they just walked and walked and walked some more. They didn’t have to worry about navigational concerns, did they – there were marshalls and signs and guide-ropes and shit like that everywhere.
My drive to the finish line was every bit as harrowing as I’d expected. Exit signs were posted AFTER the exits; there’s nowhere to pull over to check a map; I didn’t even have a map – the list of problems was exhaustive. I was on tenterhooks to see Joel, and dad, and I really thought I wasn’t going to get there. This was doubly distressing because I, being the proud owner of an 8-seater people-mover, was in possession of the only finish-line permit distributed to the team. It was all on me to pick these dudes up. In hindsight I should never have been assigned a job of such importance…but I got there, and if I hadn’t written this post, no-one would probably ever have known how close I came to not getting there at all, leaving the team to try to hail a taxi home from the side of a Yuen Long freeway while I was hauled away by mainland Customs officials for entering the economic zone without a valid bill of lading for the 370 litres of Gatorade I was hauling.
OH GOD I’M STRESSED JUST THINKING ABOUT IT!
When I finally, miraculously, did get to the finish line, with a tidy 15 minutes to spare, I was told that the carpark was full and directed to a secondary carpark 2km up the hill. This devastated me because I was desperate to see them cross the line. Also because it meant carrying all the shit down the hill.
But I got to experience something amazing. It was about 8pm, dark but clear and fine. The hikers were coming off the last bit of the trail, around past the carpark I had parked in, and down a reasonably quiet winding road that led to the finish line. On the side of the road were some barbeque pits surrounded by happy Hongkongers filling the air with woodsmoke and dinner smells, and laughing and torchlight. I found an empty picnic table just off the road at a point where the hikers had to pass by. Next to me was a smiling marshall with one of those lit-up pointers, sending them in the right direction. And I watched the teams go past. Some were still running; some could barely shuffle. People were staggering past on two walking sticks looking like half-dead beings from a world of pain. I can’t describe how inspiring it was. Tears pricked my eyes and I glared reproachfully at the barbeque-ers while rejoicing in the tenacity of these amazing people who had done this huge thing (the hike, not the hotdogs). About 30 minutes later Joel’s team arrived and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment. I’d been worried about getting gross sweat on me when I kissed them, but they weren’t manky at all, just HEROES!
I’ll always regret that I then decided to try to move the car to the finish-line carpark. I did get a parking spot, but I missed the team coming across the line by about a minute. But I don’t think I’ve ever given my husband a more emotional hug. After I recognised him. He’d lost 3.1kg over the two days.
My dad, immediately on crossing the line, was in a bad way. He was shaky and nauseous and I was alarmed to see him like that. But also, just so proud. The dude is 57. Some people who read this are probably 57 or even older and you’re probably like “Eh, 57, no big deal” but you have to admit it’s pretty old to be completing physical events like this.
Speaking of old people, kudos also to Penny and Bette who not only did the bulk of the support-team work, in appalling conditions, but backed it up by walking the last 22km to buck the guys up. Now that’s impressive.
They walked 100km in a weekend, were still smiling at the finish line, and in a final support-team fail, I couldn’t even manage to take an in-focus photo. Though as my uncle Garry said, dad was out of focus for three days after the they did the Machu Picchu walk about 10 years ago. So let’s blame him.
Massive respect to my two old men. What an awesome achievement.