Monday, 12 December 2016

Walking through epics

So you have a scene where your character must walk across the country due to: Apocalypse happened and we ran out of fuel, invading dragon horde ate all the horses, or some other reason. The reason doesn't matter here because this is not a guide to writing plausible reasons for tormenting your characters with endless treks across wastelands, verdant countryside or other scenery.

This here is a personal account of how unexpectedly difficult a long hike actually is.

To put it into context: I'm 5 foot 4, female, 32 (the walking discussed below has, except for those explicitly stated otherwise, occurred since I turned 30) and heavier than I'd like to be but not unhealthily so.

Gym routine (when I go!) is typically HIIT. Get the heart-rate up with a 1km run, warm up arms with a bit of light rowing (2.5 km) and then start the punishing part.
Burpees. Many burpees. I don't like burpees.
Then onto kettlebells.
I use bells of different weights for different things:
Squats at 16k
Two handed swings and lifts at 12k
One armed lifts at 8k
I do set numbers of up to 10 lifts, with a 30 second interval between each type of lift (eg, I do 20 swings, 30sec rest, 20 squats, 30sec rest, 10 right arm lifts, 10 left arm lifts, 30 sec rest, 20 lunges, 30 sec rest). Then I repeat the routine 3 times.
Then I do a 1km cool down
Then I go swimming
Then I go home and die.

My point is, I'm coming from a fairly solid underlying fitness level and I like hiking.

I did a little walking when I was a kid - my parents were fairly poor and there were 4 kids. As a result our treats tended to be on the frugal side. At some point they started driving us to north Wales and taking us over a few hills, around a few ruined castles and occasionally to a beach. For the cost of petrol and a few home made sandwiches and scones we could have a whole day out that served the double duty of entertaining and exhausting us.

As an adult I didn't walk. I moved to the Pennine Way when I finished uni and I walked out to the reservoir often and once cross country from Mytholmroyd to Hebden Bridge but no proper walking.

Then I moved to Gloucestershire and had even less walking.

Then I met Gavin and when we first dated we walked a little. Eventually we walked a *lot*.

At the start we walked because it was a good date. Then we stayed at home a lot and ate more than we should. Finally we realised we had become unfit and turned back to walking.

We broke up and I hit the gym. Hard. As described above. A month or so later we got in touch and resumed hiking. We walked every weekend, at first 3-4 miles, then 6-8, then up to ten, It was frustrating because there were very few walks of that length in the walking books we had, so we had to combine walks with long breaks driving from route to route or stopping for a pub lunch.

Finally we decided to walk the Cotswold Way. People do it as a holiday over 6 days, stopping in B&Bs overnight, so we decided to follow that plan each weekend until we completed the walk.

Our first walk was 18.6 miles, 2,289 feet ascent. We knew we didn't have time to stop for lunch so carried food; sandwiches, cake, beer, etc. and started very early. Here's the route - not exactly what we walked, but close enough.

We stopped at the 5 mile mark for a mid morning breakfast. It felt good and took some of the weight out of my pack. We kept going to 10 miles, no problem. We were chatting about how amazing it was that we had already met the usual limits and felt so good, while we ate many calories. We also had a look at what we'd covered already and felt kind of smug.

It was mile 15 that we hit real difficulty. If you check the mapometer route linked about you'll see that the profile from that point is basically downhill and level. However, I remember it as possibly the most torturous hour and a half of my life.

On our walks we average 2.4mph over rough terrain. That last stretch back to the car was sheer agony and took far, far longer than easy terrain should have. Our feet hurt, excruciating amounts. We were wearing robust walking shoes that we'd long since broken in, and I wore hiking socks. It was the day I realised all those people passionately evangelising about the right footwear actually knew what they were talking about and weren't trying to peddle snake oil.

So here is the TL:DR summary of things you need to know when writing your characters who have to walk a long distance without already being expert walkers:
1) your tolerance builds *fast* - start at 4 miles a day and you can rapidly and easily build to much higher than that. Humans are very effective walkers :)
2) your footwear *matters* - characters may not have strong soles at the start, but they can't walk without severe pain without them when you need to cover long distances. Speedy trick: if you can bend the sole back on itself without effort, that's too flimsy to walk. If it folds but takes some pressure, that's a good flat land or short distance walking shoe. If it doesn't give under the pressure, it's likely to be a good option. Obviously, in real life you need to do extensive testing, but for your characters, this should do :)
3) the first thing that will hurt are the joints: knees, hips and lower back for me. When the foot pain starts. it won't stop. If you take off your shoes or rest your feet for any length of time, you lose the numbing effect of constant walking. The pain that comes after mile 16 is intense and horrific but can be walked on. You aren't bleeding, you aren't even bruised. You just hurt like hell.
4) when you stop walking the first thing you want to do is take off your shoes. This is usually trickier than normal - bending is hard, your feet are tender so you have to open the laces wider than normal and then, of course, your legs start to stiffen because you're no longer walking. Good news, this isn't like post exercise stiffening where you can't use them the following day. It's more of a continuous tingling that unfortunately also hurts.
5) The next day you will still hurt. You can, if you have the right mindset, keep ploughing on regardless. I never have so I don't know what happens.

The most walking I've done was 24 miles in 48 hours. I didn't feel bad at all by the end of it because we never passed that tipping point. We did also do 22 miles along a river in one go with a stop for lunch halfway and by the end of that we were broken. However, it was very flat and I don't consider it to be a good measure of normal performance.
The fastest walking we've done was 4 mph. This was over pretty flat land, good daylight and firm under foot. It didn't last long.
The hardest walking I've ever done was Nympsfield - Wootton Under Edge stretch of the Cotswold Way. I don't know why it was so hard, but it was utterly brutal. There was a hill early on that destroyed me and I couldn't claw it back from there.

I'm very happy to answer walking questions from my own experience - just get in touch!

@demiurgent_g