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Cancer Can Take A Hike

  • Published 20-08-2023
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Cancer Can Take A Hike
As I entered my twenties my sister's cancer returned. She would not beat this bout.
Bordering my forties I still don't feel like I've properly processed her passing. I've not had a cathartic outpouring of grief. I certainly don't look back at my memories and smile with warmth and closure. Instead I live my days batting down sporadic whispers of anguish before they manifest into thoughts I would actually have to deal with. I harbour a secret hostility about the matter and for around two decades now haven't found the appropriate means to convert it into anything less insular or intrusive.
So when my best friend asked if I'd join him in fundraising for his sister who was now entering her own rounds of cancer treatment, I knew immediately it was something I should do. An outlet I should explore. If I couldn't coax closure out of myself perhaps I could channel my elusions into something profoundly more positive.
Cancer Can Take A Hike
He wanted to participate in Cancer Research's Jurassic Coast Big Hike - a 26 mile marathon walk around Dorset's picturesque landscape alongside 500 other hiking enthusiasts. Essentially, a lot of walking atop a lot of cliffs.
Nature. Muscle ache. Good-doing.
As a professional desk dweller my days are comprised of woeful immobility. If I utilised hardware that counted my steps or measured my heart rate as is commonplace now, it's findings might deduce I were some sort of wall-mounted paper towel dispenser - occasional bursts of action punctuating large periods of static. I'm about as adept to excessive bodily assertion as a cauliflower is adept to operating heavy machinery.
And I wasn't alone. The crowd on the day was notably varied in athletic prowess, ranging from teenagers who alarmingly and literally skipped past us on the course, to tranches of hikers who, like myself, clearly didn't adopt exercise into their daily routines. But even they had the upper hand over my readiness to participate, because they likely managed to conduct some form of adequate training ahead of the event. I, whilst understanding how wise it would have been to train, did not train at all. I'd been far too preoccupied in the lead up to the day with coding donation page templates and combatting database complexity. With designing logos and speaking at events.
Days drifted by and before I knew it I was on a train bound for the start line - and I'd barely moved a muscle.
The train caught fire. How's that for foreshadowing how things might transpire? The train was happily motoring along towards Southampton when smoke began to seep out of the ventilation grills along the length of the carriage. Mild British pandemonium ensued.
After an hour stranded on the line between stations we'd eventually learn that the air conditioning unit in the front cabin had overheated and melted, burning into itself and sending smoke throughout its internal pipe work.
Detrained and delayed an hour the journey resumed on the next passing train.
Cancer Can Take A Hike
The 8am start line outside Corfe Castle presented us with two enthusiastic dancers on a small scaffold stage instructing us to bend this way and that, stretching limbs and warming blood. This was our induction into the onslaught, concluding with a klaxon and an enthusiastic trudge beneath a large inflatable banner. We were off!
Little blue arrows mounted to fences and posts and trunks were our means of navigation, steering us through otherwise unmarked fields, hedgerows and back alleys. We placed our trust in these markers implicitly. They were lighthouses; vestiges of hope, calling us towards the end. I considered that had anyone affixed their own surreptitious arrows in a bid to sabotage the route, we absolutely would have followed them blindly astray. Into a ditch. Into someone's lounge. Doesn't matter, we'd follow for sure.
Cancer Can Take A Hike
Folded cliff tops and sheer drops were the mainstay, spanning an estimated 850 metres of incline in all. The route was pretty perilous, and I don't say that lightly. The ground was so uneven that our ankles were continually pummelled and shredded. At several moments we were also wading through shoulder-high nettles and brambles.
Wherever there was a twisted, neglected staircase the route master made us climb it. Even with a mild, paved incline adjacent, the markers always lead us up the steps. We thought scaling the stiles in the farmland tracks was getting repetitive but that was nothing compared to the phenomenal volume of altitude-busting staircases we had to traverse. One at Houns-Tout cliff was especially vertical, infamously so. A ladder carved into the earth littered with passed out hikers. One lady, facing backwards and bleeding at the shins, was swaying in circles, treading and falling the same couple of steps as if glitching in a video game.
This was around the thirteenth mile of the quest, and about the time my friend and I had stopped communicating with one another. We hadn't fallen out over arguing whose body was the most broken, we simply didn't have the energy to focus on anything but keeping ourselves upright. Preserving our breath. Suppressing the strain. This was bloody hard.
Cancer Can Take A Hike
The east-most peak of the trail lead us through Swanage seafront, the first contact we'd had with people who's spirits weren't crushed in about eight hours, discounting the couple of appearances from my friend's family who popped up along the route where they could for welcome encouragement.
Beach goers and tourists enjoying their fish and chips and ice cream watched us gaggle of disheveled bodies descend from the grasslands and shuffle across the cobbles towards the promenade. What a callous endurance it was to walk past copious cafes and pubs and not illegally break from our objective to partake in their spoils!
It wasn't all bad in Swanage though; a group of curious bystanders walked alongside us and quizzed us on our endeavours. We told them about the hills and steps. We told them about the early start and miles covered. We told them about the cancer.
They insisted we take a £20 cash donation on the spot, which on one hand was remarkably charitable, but on the other seemed to fill the air thicker with doughnut oil and stale beer.
I anticipated experiencing many things during our hiking endeavour - pain, joy, defeat - but not the full gamut of weather that the atmosphere could muster. Setting off we were subjected to wearing thick coats of sweat as the sun beat down upon the rolling hillsides. By the time we reached the home straight I could barely see ten feet in front of me for sheets of rain and walls of grey cloud. All the other hikers had vaporised. Now, my friend and I weren't communicating with one another because we couldn't even make each other out. We couldn't hear each other over the howling wind and pounding rain. Not that we had much but anger left to express at the 21st mile. We were angry with the punishing weather this late in the tour, we were angry with the boggy ground that had formed pockets of water in our boots which slapped hard against the arches of our feet, and angry with whoever was charged with distributing the "mile markers" across the route, for towards the end they'd gotten sloppy and set them up further and further apart.
Eventually we exited a field and the weather eased up enough to check in for a quick conference - we were both indeed simultaneously sunburnt and soaked through to our pants. We'd essentially had generous yet undesired showers whilst fully clothed in the wilderness and now, on top of everything else, we had several miles still to endure with waterlogged undercrackers.
Cancer Can Take A Hike
Unexpectedly, in the distance, the blackened columns of Corfe Castle rose between two green embankments and we were elated at our summation the trek was almost complete.
But the arrows, well, they turned. They turned this way and that, snaking us away from the castle, and around its base, and then across a road, and for a moment we wondered if we'd looped back in error and had started the course again. Our spirits were just about obliterated when we broke through a tree line and felt the tremors of baseline, the smell of freshly cooked beef stew and the crackling of a jubilant megaphone. A few more yards ahead of us was the finish line. We'd made it.
The aftermath was prolonged. It took three days to fully dry out my possessions. The anguish of putting on the radiators in May, during a cost of living crisis, to dehydrate my phone and wallet was palpable.
It was well beyond a week before I could comfortably walk on staircases again. I mean that in a physical capacity, not mental. Blisters had thankfully alluded me but my calves had shrunk or hardened or something - stairs could now only be tackled with sideways crab-like manoeuvres and grunting that only farm animals could decipher.
Cancer Can Take A Hike
It was all totally worth it. I'd never committed to a marathon before. Never succumbed to intense physical endurance designed to destroy the flesh before.
I'm delighted that 11 hours of gruelling personal challenge is encapsulated in a winner's medal and a mug with surprisingly impressive thermal retention. I'm delighted I spent quality time with my friend and raised a modest sum for charity. I'm elated I've now a sense of something towards the loss of my sister that isn't total antipathy.
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