I know there will be those that say that doing the impossible no longer makes it impossible. Likewise there will be those that say that my leg obviously can’t be that bad if I managed what I did on Monday. The truth is that for all my careful planning, all my insight, all my knowing of the secret limits of my body, I was so unsure whether I’d be able to complete this that I only told a couple of close friends where I was going, and only then so they knew which canal to dredge for my body should I not turn up for work on Tuesday.
In some ways I’ve had a miserable summer. The ongoing recovery of the leg has meant no geocaching, a summer confined to tarmac and brick instead of earth and tree. Caching is my reset button, where I can go away with troubles and come back with perspective. I’ve been grumpy around friends and colleagues and seen myself get more and more depressed as I’ve slipped down the UK rankings. Although, maybe that’s just a representation of the fact that I am still injured, still limited, still recovering. I don’t cache because I have to, I do so because I want to. Maybe it’s not the most important thing in the big scheme of things, and yet, if it makes me happy, perhaps it is the most important.
With the August Bank Holiday looming, I couldn’t help but think that summer was over, that soon the weather would turn cold, the rains would come with more regularity and the nice solid footpaths would once again become muddy and slippery. And then to make matters worse, my housemate and friend decided they were going to go do a nice big series of 130 caches. A series I could not sensibly do (and one I did not begrudge them doing). It was the final straw.
But as much as I wanted to say “fuck it,” I couldn’t. The leg is such that the circulation is all screwed up and as a result any cut wouldn’t get white blood cells to it properly. Heck, I’d bruised myself with a loaf of bread. A cut would also be at risk from infection and we all know how the last two leg infections nearly ended up.
So I had to be sensible. If I was going to go do something impossible, it needed careful planning not recklessness. Number one I needed to avoid below knee-height hazards. Byways are typically good but I’ve seen a few become so muddy from green laning that footpaths divert into the edge of the woods. I wanted to avoid the urban as I’ve done nothing but walk on tarmac which ruled out a lot of cycle path series, which left only one real contender, the towpaths.
On the plus side, caching series along rivers or towpaths generally have decent paths underfoot, on the downside they are linear which means you get to the end and find yourself miles from the car. You can sometimes do something clever by parking a car at each end if there’s two of you, but if you’re on your own…
I knew I needed to pick a really big series. The bigger it was the more the caches would be designed to be easy finds; the easier the finds, the less of rummaging in the undergrowth with a chance to injure the leg there was.
I had two potential candidates but the one I eventually decided upon had better rail and taxi links. And so on Sunday I went up to Macclesfield for my secret challenge. I’d planned to do a few drive-by caches in Cheshire as a gentle warm-up to the big day and it was as I did the first of these I discovered a major problem.
For geocaching I use a special handheld GPS device that has the ability to hold not only the location of the geocache but all the details and the hints. This is vital if you are going to do a big series, but I found my upload of data to the device had somehow corrupted and I was left with just the co-ordinates. Disaster.
So upon checking into the hotel I then spent several hours with an iPhone looking up each of over a hundred caches and writing down their hints. By the time I finished, it was time for an early night.
I checked out a little after 3am and set off from Macclesfield station at around 4am. There’s this groove you get into when doing a big series. Navigate to the locations (the ‘GZ’), opting to read the hint at a choice moment along the way, then upon arriving, using a combination of experience and the hint to locate the cache. This is not always as simple as it sounds and you find yourself over the course of the series starting to think like the person who placed them, automatically finding yourself searching the place they most likely hid it. Once located, you have to extract the log from cache and bag, sign it, place back in bag (always fiddly), back in cache and replace cache. You then go into your GPS, select “log attempt”, select “found”, Select “navigate to next” even though you’ve already walked a couple of hundred feet in that time. Given that in long series caches are sometimes only a little over 500ft apart, you can see why there’s rarely time to think about anything else. And all that work listed above adds time. If finding, logging and replacing a cache takes just three minutes (and some can take twenty minutes or more to find when they are tricky well-hidden ones), a series of 100 will add five hours to your day.
I didn’t get to see much of Macclesfield walking out of it under cover of darkness but as I started making it out of town the sky started to lighten. As dawn approached I passed a man sleeping on top of his canal boat, I still don’t know why? Cache finds were going well but some proved more difficult than I thought. In places, the canal had steep banks and some caches were up these. Most of the time it was next to the various bridges that cross it. I took it carefully and was thankful I’d worn my super-grippy walking boots even though it was the first time I’d worn them in 6 months and was worried about blisters. There were a couple of caches I looked at and thought “there’s no way I can do that without a real risk of damaging my legs”. I left those but thankfully they were addition caches to be picked up along the way, not the main series.
I got to watch as the sun rose over the hills, the rays caught in the early morning mists. It was beautiful. I saw herons and voles. I’ve missed this so much I thought. At 6am I sent a sneaky Facebook update. “You’re up ridiculously early,” replied some friends. If only they knew just how early. I said good morning to my first canal boat owner at 8am. “Up with the larks,” he said. “Up before them,” I replied. I’d now been walking for four hours. A couple of hours later I turned my phone off because the battery was being used up from all the photos I was taking. Save it for the taxi at the end or an emergency I thought.
The black of night turned into clear blue skies and despite carrying a large amount of water in the water bladder in my backpack, I was going through it at quite a rate. My lips still felt parched.
My initial target was to reach Congleton, my thought being that if things went bad, I could always quit there. I thought that was around number 50 on the series and whilst it became clear as I got up into the 40’s and then 50’s that it wasn’t I still associated it with half-way.
I also detoured to pick up a few extra caches. My previous solo best was 97 finds in a day. That had been when I was healthy. But whilst this series had 121 caches, walking past easy extra finds felt wrong. It was only when finally on the outskirts of Congleton mid-afternoon that I took the wrong path to one and aborted trying to find it, and then followed it with another extra that seemed too perilous to get to that I decided to ignore further extra caches unless they were on the towpath. I’d pretty much done them all anyway.
Reaching Congleton around cache 80, I took a detour off the towpath to find a corner shop and buy some drink – two bottles to quench my current thirst and then enough water to refill my water bladder.
For some reason I find that around cache 80 it always starts to become exponentially psychologically tougher. For hours now you’ve been walking, with a backpack, and not only walking but bending, stretching and climbing. Your body aches and your brain starts asking you why? Why are you searching for Tupperware in the countryside? Why do you care how many you find in a day? Why don’t you stop?
I am not a religious man but there is something almost mystical about that point. You’ve taken your mind and body to their limit, all logic says you should quit. And annoyingly that moment is best described in clichés. It’s the moment to go big or go home, to dig deep and find reserves you never knew you had, to commune with your God, to really look inside yourself and find your inner strength. It’s that moment when like a well-staged wrestling fight, the hero takes an unthinkable beating and yet somehow then stands. It’s the impossible and it is glorious.
I’ve been here before, but never with a dodgy leg. I ached like hell but the leg was fine. I could have quite easily quit and still be proud of myself. But for me, that day, what drove me on was more than just determination and the ability to say “well I did 133 caches in a day with a bandaged leg”, it was a refusal to let the last few months weaken me, a big “fuck off” to the dodgy leg which has restricted me so much the last few months. My terms now, you bastard. You’re bandaged, you’re not scratched or bruised, you fucking walk.
And so, despite having already walked for 11 hours with only a 15 minute break, I continued. I continued for another five hours finishing in Kidsgrove around 8pm. I was hobbling a bit but I found all 121 caches in the series, along with 12 others bringing my total finds for the day to 133. My fitbit showed 28.55 miles walked although I suspect my stride shortened a little and it’s probably nearer 24. I could have cried at the end had I not felt so dehydrated.
I’d missed my last train back, and despite Bank Holiday rates I almost felt satisfied that the return taxi cost me over £40. I also had to drive home meaning it ended up being a 22 hour day.
I’ve ached for a few days now, but it’s been the aches of glory not damage. The leg is fine although that doesn’t mean I don’t still have to be careful with it. Doctor’s reckon I still have another 18 months of recovery to do. I’d like to do it in under 12.
So of course, walking 28.5 miles, finding 133 caches solo all with a dodgy leg is now technically possible, but I’m still not sure had I been less determined that I would have done it. I still don’t know how I did it now. What I do know, is that I am still on a massive high from it, and will smile sweetly at people who say that,as a result, obviously my leg is not as bad as I say and then show them all the gruesome pictures.