The end was in sight, but I wasn’t ready for it to end. I sat down for a few minutes watching the sky change colour, sobbing. I walked slowly up towards the col and took a photograph of the sun peeking over the horizon and sent it to my coach, Robbie Britton, with a comment “I don’t want to come down!” This was one of the most emotional and memorable moments of my life so far during the final stretch of the Tor Des Geants (TdG); a long distance trail race in the Aosta valley in Italy. It took me over incredible mountainous terrain covering 330km, 24,000m vert and 142 hours of pure joy (mostly). To date this has no doubt been my biggest achievement – physically and mentally one of the most amazing yet toughest experiences I’ve had.
Fast forward a year, and in a couple of days, I’m off on my next exciting adventure. I’m starting to bounce with excitement. In front of me is an excel spreadsheet – as an accountant this is already quite exciting! I have a list of kit on one sheet, a second spreadsheet with a rough itinerary screaming to be elaborated (6 lines long), a guidebook and a notepad with a few statistics scribbled down (around 110 miles, 13,000m vert and an ambitious target of 5 days).
I have been doing a big race/event every summer for as long as I can remember, and following the TdG event, I decided that for this coming summer, instead of taking part in an organised race, I would take myself on a solo adventure.
How do you follow up the TdG? I could go back and have another go of course, and yes there are similar events around, but in all honesty, how I felt afterwards isn’t comparable to anything else I’ve done so far. It’s a complex feeling to explain: the sense of pride in completing something a very small number of people in the running community have achieved (and on my first attempt). If I could bottle that feeling of euphoria as I descended through the final kilometres, I could make a fortune. The sleep deprivation, the physical toll it took on my body and mind for the weeks and months afterwards means that I struggle to believe anything will ever come quite so close again. Furthermore, with the recovery (as a result of my ever rising bar of expectation) taking that much longer, and the come downs being that much harder, I’m beginning to feel that I really could do with a year off the pressure.
In the months following this decision, I didn’t put much more thought into my solo adventure. It was there in the back of my mind, sometimes I romantically pondered where I might go, other times I would eye up the odd inspirational photo posted somewhere on social media. However, other life commitments naturally took over. A planned house move put a large question mark over whether I’d even get the opportunity to get away this summer. It wasn’t until last month that it became clear that I wouldn’t be moving house just yet so I swung into “f*ck it” mode. My diary quickly filling up with fun things, my bank account draining somewhat, and time to plan a trip fast disappearing, I needed to set a date.
Deciding where to go
I knew what I wanted from my trip, which was a good start. I wanted to go somewhere warm, for a week, in Europe, mountainous, a long distance trail that wasn’t going to be too difficult to navigate solo and that would challenge me sufficiently to replace the buzz of a race, but without breaking me. It would be self-supported and involve camping along the route. Mostly, I wanted an opportunity to turn off my phone for a week, switch off my mind from the daily grind and find the cathartic place I usually find myself in during a longer adventure.
The GR20 finally won my vote, the main draws being it was somewhere completely new to me, the challenge looked questionable in the time I had available, it looked stunning and it appeared reasonably easy to navigate – not that I’m bad at navigating, it’s just one less thing to think about when you’re trying to enjoy your holidays and the views.
The route had cropped up a few times in books I’d been reading (more accurately pictures in books I’d been looking at). I didn’t know many people personally who had completed the whole route in one go, though of course many people have, with the likes of Kilian Jornet and Emilie Lecomte setting a high standard for supported FKTs (an FKT was not my aim I would like to point out – this is my summer holiday).
Like many published routes, this one claims to be “the toughest long distance trail in Europe” (don’t they all say that?). This was, to me, like a red rag to a bull, one of the statements which drew me in deeper. How hard can it really be?
The traditional high route travels from North to South Corsica, covering around 112 miles and 13,000m of ascent over technical terrain and during high summer temperatures are in the 30s with unpredictable thunderstorms common. On the plus side, this will hopefully mean no, or very limited, snow cover on the high trails.
The guidebook suggests that most people take around two weeks to hike the trail. So you may wonder where I plucked an arbitrary five days from? Largely, because aside from the limited time I have in my busy calendar, I arrogantly never believe those timelines in guidebooks, never have I taken the recommended 6-8 hours to go up and down Snowdon, for example. I also applied this equation I made up:
T = R/2 - S
Where “T” = Target time; “R” = recommended time and; “S” = “SAAT” (Standard Anna Ambition Time)
S is normally some derivative of available time minus R/2. So as you can see, there is a small amount of applied logic!
I haven’t read lots about the route itself, just the basics - distance, elevation, locations of camping spots for each stage. Part of the charm of adventure for me is the unknown, not planning every twist and turn, not recycling routes. From what I have read though, it looks incredible yet tough: rocky technical trails and some scrambling, which I’m a little lacking in confidence at. I’m curious to see how I manage without the comfort of support, or check points with an all-you-can-eat cheese and bread buffet set up to tend to my every need.
Physically and mentally I know I’m up to the challenge, but stepping into the unknown could take me by surprise, it’s highly likely I’ve underestimated what lies ahead. I’d love to recapture some of the feelings I’m afraid I will never find again that I felt during the TdG last year, but this is also an entirely different challenge. I’m somewhat underprepared in my planning, but I’m okay with this. There’s no finishers t-shirt to achieve, no social media watching my tracker, only my own ambition, which may adjust as the days go on. I don’t feel that I have enough mountain miles in my legs this year. I’ve not carried this size pack with me over this distance for some years; I’m full of excuses but overall, I’m incredibly excited about getting to the start of the trail and enjoying my time in new scenery.
During the last two weeks, I’ve also acquired a travel companion. One of my best friends, Doug, who is forever known amongst our friendship group as the King of FOMO (fear of missing out), expressed interest in joining me. We have enjoyed many adventures over the years, are of a similar ability and his long time mantra when it comes to endurance events always makes me smile:
"It’s just doing something for a protracted period of time"
So it felt right to share this with him. On one hand, I really wanted to take the adventure on my own to test my limits and enjoy the silence of being alone, but on the other hand, I love to share this sort of incredible trip with someone I trust and enjoy the company of. It will also save me carrying a bivvy as Doug has a sweet lightweight tent!
So T minus 2 days, due to an overseas work trip I’ve been forced to pack before the day of departure which is unheard of... call me a magician but I managed to fit all this into 25 litres:
I have a vague plan on a 6-line spreadsheet and a small window of contingency built into the final 2 days of the week away, which has been earmarked for relaxing on the beach. Let’s hope the contingency isn’t required, because I’m going to need some beach time to even out those dodgy tan lines! The main concerns I have are carrying enough food, sourcing enough water in the heat and that I’ve hugely underestimated the challenge that lies ahead. Most of all I’m buzzing to get started!
What could possibly go wrong?
Written by Anna Buckingham: You can read more about Anna’s TdR and other adventures on her blog. As this is being published, Anna should be about half way through her journey – if all has gone to plan! Fingers crossed.
Cover photo: Sarah Jones