hit it at 20 miles of day two as we reached the outskirts of Kirkham.
I’ve been surrounded by marathon runners long enough to hear talk of “the wall” and various techniques to avoid it.
Nine miles from the finish I was faced with it, it was big and I wasn’t getting around it, under it, or over it.
Up to this point my #MarchforMen had been 47 miles of hard slog, but blissfully filled with inspiration, laughter and interesting people. Having started Day One at my football club, Oldham Athletic, spirits were high even if there were some nerves. Up until the decision to do back-to-back marathon walks I hadn’t even completed a single marathon distance walking or running let alone two…and definitely not on consecutive days.
My inspiration for joining Sky Sports legendary presenter, Jeff Stelling, on his MarchforMen was simple. I wanted to do my bit to raise funds and awareness of a cancer that is killing men across the UK, 20 men will have died in the time it took me to complete my two legs…a sobering thought as I walked alongside terminally ill men and survivors and the families and friends of men that had died previously.
It was only whilst I was walking and since that I’ve been told of a number of Prostate Cancer sufferers within my own circles, including a good friend who contacted me after day one to tell me he’d been diagnosed.
Around 17 of us joined Jeff to support him on his day eight (my day one) of his 15 marathons in 15 days as he walked from St James Park, Exeter to St James’ Park, Newcastle on consecutive days. Joined by Rugby League legends Kevin Sinfield, Barrie McDermott, Brian Carney, Phil Clarke and commentator Bill Arthur (himself suffering Prostate Cancer). Setting off in slightly overcast conditions to take on a particularly hilly 26.5 miles, one of the hardest terrains of the entire 15 days, which took us from Oldham to Rochdale and then across the hills to Accrington.
It was my first taste of marathon distance and the weather was extremely kind, a marvellous sunny day meant the conversation flowed, the banter was full on and the football debate was fierce.
Jeff walks at almost exactly three miles an hour all day so the pace was comfortably good. Though by his own admission he was suffering a little by day eight. No wonder as I found on my own day two.
The hilly slog was made all the better meeting various other walkers. Particularly Kevin Webber, a man who was given just two years to live when he was diagnosed in 2014 and now two and a half years on was walking with me thanking me for saving the lives of his sons. He needn’t have done, but that’s the kind of guy he is. Since his diagnosis he’s raised over £30k including completing the epic Marathon de Sables twice. He was joining Jeff for all 15 days of this challenge. A truly inspirational guy who came back to help me on Day 2.
The scenery, sun, walk and greeting in Accrington completed a fabulous day one. Twenty miles appeared and went with no issues and the small band of brothers cruised into the Accrington Stanley car park and across the finish line with smiles as broad as could be.
The contrast to day two could not have been more marked. My feet had taken a battering on day one purely from the sheer distance and hot boots. I’d hydrated well, the energy gels had helped on the way around, but I’d still managed to acquire a couple of painful blisters on my heels in particular. The Compeed was deployed.
So the torrential rain that greeted me and 40 others at Ewood Park was far from spirit-raising. In contrast, the Prostate Cancer and Charity Challenge team were unbelievably chirpy (as ever) and restored me to my Happy Simon nature very quickly despite the creeping pain in my feet and the tired limbs.
Next though came almost six hours of slogging across country, roads and canal paths in non-stop rain and it was at this point I very nearly gave up. I’d made it to Preston North End as my knee started to ache, feeling like I needed to plough on, as that voice in my head started to suggest I stopped.
Fortunately a couple of lengthy football conversations with members of the Blackpool Supporters Trust and AFC Wimbledon Supporters Trust distracted me sufficiently from the pain that was now palpable from my damp, shredded blistered feet. I was reminded what the feeling of a blister popping mid-step felt like…several times.
But then came the wall…it happened the moment I got my bearings as we emerged at one end of Kirkham town centre. I realised where we were and how far we had to go. My knee rapidly “locked” up, the blisters sizzled like hot pokers through my feet and most damaging of all the little voice in my head began shouting. “Give it up, you’re done!” it yelled, “That’s it you’ve blown it”, “There’s no way you’re making it”.
That wall was looking impossible, I very nearly caved in.
I had to find something, I looked down and my feet were still moving, but the rain had started again. I was 200 yards behind one group of walkers and about 500 yards in front of another small one. The group in front was walking the same pace as me…no chance of catching them. The group behind were dropping back slowly…I couldn’t stop to wait. I was on my own. “You definitely aren’t doing this!”.
My feet were still moving and my brain was scrabbling for something to cling to. I remembered Kevin and the thanks he had given me, I thought of the sun that had filled the day before. I reached for a drink, I ate a bit of energy bar and my feet kept moving. “You’re done, might as well stop”.
I finally had something, I remembered what Nicola White had said addressing a networking event earlier this year. The phrases she used to keep her focused during the Olympic Hockey final…Stay Strong…Move Forward. They’d stuck with me, and I had to drown out the voice that was now screaming at me to stop.
“Strong Steps” I said to myself every other step, “Feeling Good, Feeling Strong” I said at the next step and on I strolled…well, half strolled as my knee continued to lock.
This continued for a mile, then another, at which point I’d been joined by a chap who was struggling. I talked to him, kept him moving, kept myself moving and so the last stop was in sight…one last push.
Five miles from the finish and I’d once again got myself in between two sets of walkers, and the pain was once again palpable. “Strong Steps, Feeling Good, Feeling Strong”…and a couple of songs, including a repeated rendition of “Hi, Ho, it’s off to work we go”, but the pain kept getting stronger and my knee kept locking. This was when Kevin appeared at my side.
He could see I was struggling and so we talked about all kind of things, he was fantastic and I may well have given up at that point without his inspiration, and as we entered the final 2km the sun came out.
And so my two-day journey, 20.5 hours of walking, 56+ miles and hours of conversations came to an end at Bloomfield Road, Blackpool. I said my final well done to Jeff, the man is an inspiration, how he is continuing to get up day after day and keep going is astounding.
My story may only be a snapshot of the bigger challenge, and I bring you no moments of ephinany, no life changing experiences.
What I have learnt is two things:
Firstly sometimes life sucks, it really does. Kevin doesn’t deserve what’s happening to him and neither do the 20 men that died during the time I was walking. However, there’s no point dwelling on the fact life sucks. The biggest battle we all have is first and foremost with ourselves, and we have the power inside ourselves to win that one.
Secondly, however hard life hits, we can reach any goal we want if we just keep moving forward.
I’d sum up my two days in the words of Jeff’s erstwhile colleague, Chris Kamara…Unbelievable!