Agonising bliss

I’m not sure how many times I have done the 12-hour walk since my first race in 1996. Not each and every year, but several times. And every time I do it, I’m sure I spend some of the time – some of the most painful moments, when the soles of my feet ache every time they touch the ground – wondering why I'm not doing something else. At the end of the race, however, my reasons are always abundantly clear. It’s an inwardly rewarding experience, reminding us that the most spiritual experiences cannot come to us effortlessly.

Allow me to recount my experiences from this year as best I can…

1st Hour: A leisurely (but fairly fast) stroll, walking with some of the other athletes, joking and chatting with them. My goal is to reach 40 miles, or 36 laps of the mainly concrete, suburban-New-York course. I have it in my head that, with my current (lower-than-normal) level of fitness, it would be an excellent distance to walk in a 12-hour period. In the first hour, I’m well on track to get that distance, presuming I can keep the pace for the next 11 hours… which is, of course, unlikely.

3th Hour: Already feeling sore. No fair! I have my first food of the race, deliberately avoiding anything that might give me a stomach upset. I still look forward to the last hour of the race – not simply because it will be almost over, but also because I expect to have my usual final burst – the second (or third, or fourth, or eighth) wind, which allows me to transcend my pain and somehow walk much faster. It usually happens…

4th Hour: Suddenly I feel much better. Walking alone silently (without chatting to anyone else) can be meditative, so I’ve been doing so for the past couple of hours. Somehow, I’m not feeling overly sore. I’m not sure how long this feeling of peace and relative painlessness will last, but while it’s here, I’m taking full advantage of it.

5th Hour: The feeling is gone now. I’m sore again, which slows me down with each step.

6th Hour: In desperate need of some magnesium to strengthen by aching feet, I head to the medical tent. It’s busy. It might be “only” a walk, but people are still prone to injury.

7th Hour: I walk with a friend of mine for a while. This guy is an excellent athlete and sportsman (far better than myself). So far, he’s done the same mileage as me, but it has taken its toll. “Let’s talk about our pains and injuries,” he says. Unfortunately, he’s not joking. “My back is totally killing me,” he begins. This is the last thing I want to discuss - strangely, I don't want something reminding me of my ailments - so I joke around instead. Laughter gives him back pain.

(Within the next hour, he will check himself in for an extended stint in the medical tent... but he will go back on the field - and finish walking at the end, rather than succumb to temptation and go home early. That's part of the challenge.)

9th Hour: I believe this was the slowest hour for me. Thinking that perhaps I hadn’t had an ample supply of magnesium, I returned to the medical tent. There are enough people there for a party. A few of the faster athletes, who had been doing so well, confide that they have decided to stop walking. Like any endurance event, the field becomes smaller as the hours draw on. I continue on – but I can’t imagine that final spurt could be possible this time. My body is too worn out. I’m in pain, I’m slow, and I'm simply unable to walk any faster.

10th Hour: At around the 10:30 mark, I suddenly feel it coming. The final spurt. Now I’m going fast once again. I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s always there to give me a glorious final hour.

11th Hour: The final sprint is not exactly my best ever – in my best races, I am walking faster than at any other time, overtaking even the best walkers – but it’s there. I change my estimated final distance from 33 laps to… a little over 33 laps. With 40 minutes to go, I do a fast thirty-fifth lap. Thirty-five! Certainly more than I was expecting a couple of hours ago. It takes a lot out of me. That’s it! I’m finished – and while it was just short of my goal, I’m happy with it.

But then my lap-counter, Abhinabha, says “If you go just a little faster, you can do another lap.” Faster??!! I’m dying here! All I want now is to sit down with the coffee and sweet pastries at the food station that I’ve been avoiding for the past 11 hours and 40 minutes! But for some strange reason, I decide that I’ll try anyway. I put everything into that one final lap.

At this point, it isn't easy. I make it across the line in 11:58:40, with less than two minutes to spare – one of the very last people to finish – and I’m aching all over, especially from the waist down. But despite all my second-half expectations, I reached my goal: 36 laps. Abhinabha informs me that I had the best mileage of all the athletes on his lap-counting sheets.

Which makes me (among other things)… the national Australian male champion for 2007 (an achievement every bit as underwhelming as it sounds).

My back is totally killing me…