The 2022 Svalbard crossing expedition is on. The sabbatical is booked. I’ve blown the dust of the kit checklist and done several happy-dances round the house. After two cancellations, I’m remaining cautiously optimistic and I do need to have a defined Plan B if it cancels again: mostly around what I do with the sabbatical. But that planning is for later. My attention is now on being ready for April 2022.
In July 2019 I ran/walked the Thunder Run, a 24 hour relay race around a 10km trail in Catton Park in Derbyshire, UK. I completed 4 laps for my team and felt pretty good about it, and by April 2020 I was ready for the Svalbard Crossing. Fast forward to now and I can walk 55km in 12 hours so I am much fitter this time round with 9 months to go. That being said, I am the queen of self-doubt and I am definitely not in as good a place mentally as I was in July 2019. This is hardly surprising but I know that over and above physical training, I need to focus on training my mindset. This is supposed to be fun, after all!
So what does this mean for the Cheshire Challenge? Next weekend I will clock round my target of 30% complete this year, 50% feels way off but maybe 42%? I’m going to press pause on the challenge for a few months over winter, the Cheshire plains will turn into a clarty horrible mud-fest and I desperately want some winter mountain time. So 42% by November? That feels like a good number.
I was very excited to be given the chance to talk at YesStories and am even more excited that the talk has been published!
YesStories is a series of talk on adventure and saying yes more given by all sorts of amazing people and I feel very proud to be in such great company! My talk was all about finding, losing and adjusting adventure: the journey I took to nearly get to Svalbard and the Cheshire Challenge, my way of dealing with having to wait another year.
Feeling the need to take control amongst all the uncertainty, I’ve started a new challenge!
An awful lot could happen between now and April with Covid-19, which has made me worry that it could affect my expedition to Svalbard again. I know that with polar adventures you are often in the lap of the gods and that resilience and stoicism is key, but I’ve found it hard to focus on training knowing there is a chance it might not happen again.
The mountains are only an hour or so away from me and are a perfect place to train and a place I love to be. But, Wales is still on a stricter lockdown as I write this and there is always the possibility that we all go back to a higher lockdown if infection rates rise again. I am also very conscious of the huge pressures the lifting of lockdown will have on local communities and facilities: the mountains aren’t going anywhere so I’d rather wait before returning. I needed to set a challenge that I can start ticking off now, is close to home, is good endurance training, doesn’t require any new kit or skills and could be done solo or with friends: it needs to be something that stands alone from the Svalbard crossing at the same time as contributing to it. So this is a challenge for Covid times.
The Cheshire Challenge
There are 22 long distance paths that start, finish or are wholly within Cheshire where I live. 1394 km (866 miles) in total. I unofficially started on the 7th June 2020 when lockdown began to lift in England but now, with a spreadsheet ready, I’m making it official! I’ve set myself some rules for the challenge:
The path must start or finish in Cheshire
The path can be done in sections
No double-counting distance if sections are repeated
Going to Svalbard is going to be a huge learning curve for me, but the biggest challenge is skiing. The cold, the camping, the days on my feet covering long distances are all extensions of things I have done before: I have a vague idea of what I am letting myself in for and know I coped.
But skiing is a completely new skill.
I couldn’t afford to just go to somewhere snowy abroad (I didn’t have the holiday allocation anyway) and Scottish snow is not something to rely upon, especially as it would almost certainly be perfect conditions on the weekend I couldn’t go! So I needed to find another way to learn.
Back at Yestival 2018, when I announced I was going to Svalbard and that I couldn’t ski, someone suggested roller skis. I filed it in the back of my mind until, while on a course in London, I saw someone roller skiing in Greenwich Park. Some research later and I discovered Skikes. These are a little different – sort of what would happen if rollerblades and a mountain bike had a baby. They are German and looked very bad-ass: my shiny toy sensor pinged and I contacted, John at Skike Sports North.
John was very keen to help and I became the proud owner of a pair of V9 Fire Skikes. It’s always worth joining the Facebook groups for obscure sports or interests, they are often full of keen people with a passion that want to share it, I was soon directed to instruction videos, hints and tips and offers of help and encouragement.
It was on a week’s holiday that I really started to get the hang of them.
Outside the cottage was over a mile of barely used rough tarmac leading to a forest track. I spent hours up and down, up and down while my calves screamed at me to stop. The next challenge was to Skike round the forest at home. This added the excitement of people and bikes and kids on bike darting around like over-excited squirrels, dogs and dogs on leads that stretched across the path in front of me.
I nearly bottled it. I reached the gate and a huge dose of imposter syndrome hit. Who on earth am I, a 42 year old woman wearing novelty rollerblades and elbow pads? What if I fall over in front of someone? What if I rolled, out of control, taking out small children as I catered towards the lake? I had a moment. I did have a bit of a cry. And then I remembered Zoe Langley-Wathen’s 100 Scary Days, a challenge to get out of your comfort zone. I hoiked up my brave pants and set off. And guess what? It was fine. I didn’t fall over and didn’t visit the ducks in the lake. No one paid attention to me but my feet got lots of admiring glances with exclamations of “they’re cool!”. So, on to the next stage. Snow.
Imposter syndrome again. Sat in my hired ski boots and salopettes, surrounded by cool looking people in funky ski wear while I sweated uncomfortably in my outdoor gear. I was fearful of finding out I was really crap at skiing. I had made one good decision to have a full 6 hour lesson at Chill Factore in Manchester, rather than broken in to 3 lessons. Other groups were spending the first half an hour recapping what they did the last time, whereas we just kept going. And I discovered I loved it. And I wasn’t too bad at it either. Our instructor Paul B was brilliant, he adapted the lesson so all eight on the course got individual attention and got the most from it. By the end I was happily parallel turning and a bit sad I had to go home.
Done. Next stop, Polar Training in Kvitåvatn. Eek.
It started, as I think many adventures do, in the queue for mulled cider at Yestival.
I finished cycling the Camino in October 2017 (blog here) and was feeling a combination of the post-adventure blues and a lack of direction. My husband had given me a felt penguin as a present from a business trip – The Penguin of Future Adventures. I named her Isabella Bird. Isabella Bird was an explorer and the first woman elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, so it seemed a good name for an adventurous penguin.
I had taken Isabella Bird to Yestival, stuffed in the side pocket of my back pack. It was while queueing for the bar I met a friend i had made the previous year. We chatted about our adventures and he asked me what I planned to do next. I said I wasn’t sure: there were so many things I could do, another cycle tour, walk a trail, climb a mountain and that I was a little overwhelmed by the options. After listening to me a while, he said “well it has to be a cold adventure or the penguin can’t go”. And suddenly I had a direction: a cold adventure.
Cold is pretty much covered by places far north, far south or up high. Far south seemed expensive and too big a challenge to dare to do. Which left the arctic or a mountain. A smaller pool of possibility, but still pretty big. A opportunity arose in the form of the Fjallraven Polar, a dog sled expedition in the arctic. Even though I had no expectation of getting enough votes to participate, I was surprised just how many people voted for me. I liked the idea of a journey, maybe a traverse; and though I like the idea of a dog sled, the idea of a human-powered journey appealed. Years of stress at work had made me unfit, I was not comfortable in my body. I didn’t dislike my body, rather I had neglected it as was beginning to pay the price. A human-powered journey gave me a reason to train.
The final refinements of the plan came from talking to three amazing women: Sarah Williams, Adelaide Goodeve and Helen Turton. Sarah invited me on a Facebook live chat in the Tough Girl Tribe to talk about my adventure ideas and get some support from the tribe. This sparked the memory of Adelaide’s Svalbard adventure, after a good chat about it and allaying some of my fears she put me in contact with Helen and her company, Newland. A call to Helen and the plan was fixed. Svalbard!
Back at Yestival in October 2018, I stood on stage and told everyone my plan. No turning back.