Roast Potatoes and Managing the Mental Challenges of ‘Time on the Trail’

Steve Ellis News

Roast Potatoes and Managing the Mental Challenges of ‘Time on the Trail’

Watching celebrities walking the ‘via Francigena’ on BBC2 Pilgrimage: Road to Romegot me thinking of a social media post I contributed to today regarding a fellow Nordic Walking Instructor returning from completing the ‘West Highland Way’ has led to me to reflect on my own travels and challenges faced. You may be facing similar challenges and thoughts now or in the future whilst on your adventures.

Over the past 7 years with Gemini Outdoor we have run overseas trips to Morocco, French Alps, French Pyrenees, Tuscany, Tanzania as well as numerous trips in most corners of our amazing British lands; each and every trip presents an array of challenges for both us and our Members – mental, physical, financial and spiritual.

Can I do it? Should I do it? Will I be fit? Am I mentally strong enough? All valid questions, and perhaps good reasons not to open oneself up to a challenge; however, that is what makes us different – we overcome the ‘failure to launch’ mentality!

Chatting online with our ‘Cotswold Way 2019’ group regarding the logistics of their trip, they were questioning their ability to walk the distances that have been suggested for their 6-day trek, to help them, I was able to reflect on a trip I took with Michelle across the Pyrenees (GR10) in 2005…“had we thought about the 900km and 60000m of ascent and descent ahead of us as we set off from Hendaye on the Atlantic coast for 3 month…we would simply never had started!” the enormity of the trail ahead of us was immense, and at that point the challenges at best unknown, regardless of how much preparation we had done!

Like any project, a walking challenge has to be broken into manageable chunks, even daily distances can be overwhelming, so those may need breaking down also. To manage the mental challenges we faced on such a long 3-month trek, our GR10 daily trek was split down into 4 main parts ((breakfast) start to snack break – snack break to lunch – lunch to snack break – snack break to finish (supper); and as many opportunities to see things, eat things, drink and rest as and when needed). This allowed us to focus our mental attention on short 1½-2 hour segments only. During each leg, we would walk together, and sometimes alone immersed in our thoughts. Initial thoughts and worries in the first few weeks were concerned with ‘OMG…we have no job to go back to!; is our home ok in the hands of rentees? are family ok? blah blah blah!’; however, after 14 days on the trail 2 significant things happened; #1 we stopped thinking about all those things outside of our immediate bubble, and #2 our hill fitness kicked in and we were never overtaken again by anyone on the trail. The latter physical attribute gave us a significant mental boost everyday…having been passed in the first day or so by an elderly lady carrying a laden picnic hamper on her head whilst lugging a young child on one arm and a baguette in the other…our spirits were understandably low; so this it was a big relief and major mental challenge  we overcame!

During the trek, a lot of things we thought about focussed quite precisely on the attributes discussed by Maslow and his ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ – warmth, food & shelter. It’s fair to say that we though a lot about where we would find water, where we would camp, and roast potatoes were mentioned at least ten times a day, as we played our trail version of the ‘Ready Steady Cook’ game.

Physically, we both endured back and shoulder pain, bouts of flu, fatigue and significant weight loss…19kg in 3 months! At times, ‘teddies were thrown’ and ‘tears were shed’ as the rigours of the trail took their toll day-after-dayand the summer storms took hold each afternoon. We questioned ‘why are we doing this?’ and battled with the inner torment of wanting to quit, yet wanting to see what was around the next corner and ultimately complete the route; in the end, our combined efforts, determination, stubbornness and inner spirit of adventure got us through – we supported each other physically, emotionally and mentally and have enjoyed the memories together ever since.

Some 14 years on, barely a month goes by when something doesn’t remind us of our journey…it may be that amazing salad in Biratou that set us on our way after a few tears; the Golden Eagle encounter close to La Pierre St Martin or the gateau basque at Estérençuby; the storm that we cowered and ran away from and the cow taken by a lightning bolt; the campsite owner who let us pitch on the pétanquefield as his site was full and the bowl of melon he gifted us for walking his beloved GR10!; breaking bread and sharing cheese on a mountain side with a sheep herder; rats running around the cavity walls of a gite when we had flu; sheltering from the rain in a mountain hut with speleologists from Bordeaux and thinking they were a religious order (until we translated speleologist)!; the blue-winged stingy thing that bit Michelle’s leg and laid us up for 4 days; sweltering unbearable heat in Bidderay and eating pats of butter for energy; the kindness of the hotelier who saved us from hyperthermia, and the food-filled grotto whilst camping at lac d’Estaing; the picnickers who drove up to a refuge and watched us so hungry after no food for 3 days and subsequently filled their faces; running around a campsite in a lightning storm with an upturned metal chair on my head; throwing my teddies out the cot when my water system leaked again…stripping off and walking off in just my boots, whilst Michelle lovingly retrieved my clothes from a ravine; meeting the ‘Kiwi’ couple on the hill and spending a week with them in the pilgrims festival town St Jean-Pied-de-Port; and the numerous games of cards, eye-spy, long chats, and so many laughs…

What we ultimately experienced was a life changing mental experience throughout the entire journey; we learned from the pain and remember the good times that outweigh the not-so-good ones. Had we not learned from the trail quickly, it would have been easy to be overwhelmed by it; yet, filling our days with simple purpose, daily routine and thoughts of roast potatoes spurred us on!


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