At 26 retirement seems a long way off, and what awaits us? A time when we have worked hard all our lives only to reach an age when we are too old, unwell or broke to enjoy it. Millennials may decide to take a sabbatical earlier than expected and to live out those years while in their 20s and 30s. With this in mind, eight months ago my boyfriend and I decided quite our jobs and tackle the Great Divide Trail in Canada. This is a mixed terrain trans-Rockies trek which we aim to complete in 2 and half months later this year. At 1600km, this is one of the shorter long distance trails in North America, but it does link up with the Continental Divide if you just haven't had enough by the end, and want to carry on the adventure. On average, less than 30 people per year complete this route so resources for planning are not as abundant as for the other more renowned routes (e.g. Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails). In fact, most of our route planning has come from contacting previous through-hikers and from asking park rangers for advice. While this might seem more intensive in the planning stage, it has allowed us to become far more familiar with the trail, and has allowed us to carefully plan camping spots and re-supply stops.
What a strange plan for a year out I hear you say, "why so far?!", "why on your own?!" Indeed I have asked myself (and still am asking) the same questions. You may be thinking that as Doctors and Teachers, we had become disenfranchised with the public sector after ruthless cut after cut to budgets. But no, the idea to take a year out of our careers had been long in the planning, with the walking bit decided upon a bit more recently. It all started over a dinner out after a bad day. My boyfriend, Stan, had suggested this long trek and in all honesty, I agreed to do it to make his day better. But that was it. I should have known that Stan never gives up once he has an idea and before long we were in full planning mode with maps, avid blog reading, and with me in the corner nodding along clueless, like one of those dogs you see on car dashboards. I'd done walks before, but these have invariably been around National Trust land and ended in a cream team. After a couple of weeks, it became clear that this was his dream trip and he was beyond excited, so how hard could it be?
We quickly realised that we would need to invest in a lot of gear. We started route planning, what national park passes we would need, and where we could re-supply along the way. This was no ordinary camping trip; often being hundreds of kilometres from the nearest shop, you need to think carefully about what you're going to need, and how much of it. Excess weight is something to avoid, but equally running out of food is just not an option when you are exerting yourself to such a degree. We came to a consensus that to make it enjoyable (i.e. to not have me throwing a strop at every big climb) we needed to assess the route for distance and meters gained per day. We split the route into manageable day sections not above 30km, and averaging about 20km. This might seem low, but I am not used to walking with weight on my back, and we also thought the terrain and incline could prove tricky in places. This daily distance would allow us to make enough progress before the snow hit in October, but to also allow us to enjoy the journey and not be forever chasing a horizon. I know that despite a skiing accident earlier this year, Stan could manage these distances very comfortably. But, "you can only go as fast as your slowest team member" which in this case, is most definitely me.
On this basis, we decided to also build some training weekends into the coming months to help prepare us (basically me) for walking with weight and over long distances and inclines. The first of these was in the Brecon Beacons. What a great place to break someone into walking, I thought, the home of SAS training selection. The further trip to the Lake District with friends allowed me to me practice scrambling with a backpack and we tried out a variety of ration pack items. I realise I'm painting myself as quite the urban city girl. In fact I had a beautifully rural upbringing in Hampshire, and being in the countryside is where I feel happiest. I just wasn't brought up with walking holidays. There was the odd camping trip to Scotland, but on the whole we stayed in hotels. Now the days of staying in Hostels around Eastern Europe had gone, I had thought that my days of camping were over, but here I was at 26, facing a whole new experience.
I decided that in order to make this trip more tolerable, I would need to achieve maximum comfort in the sleeping department. After reading what seemed like endless reviews of sleeping bags and mats (that's a sentence I never thought I would say), I decided on one of each and the time came to test them out. We have all had a cold and miserable nights sleeping in a tent, and I truly thought that was just what camping was about. How wrong I was! After one night's sleep on this dream combination, I was sold- it truly felt no different to a bed and I was WARM! That was what got me over the concept of camping for 2 and a half months- now just for the walking part!
I have always been a (some might say excessively) sporty girl. Since I can remember I have been involved in sports both individual and team- and it's what I live for. Since starting work as a Doctor I have had to stop playing hockey as NHS rotas are written by people who have no care for your social life, and just don't allow you to commit to playing for a team. You either can't make the practice, or the game, or the social, and it's no way to build a team when one of you is never there. So, I took up running- completing the Edinburgh marathon in May 2016. It was something I could squeeze into any available time slot and I could do it on my own without the fear of letting people down. Despite this fitness and love of exercise, I'm still massively daunted by the concept of walking such a long distance and over such a long time period. Stamina is not something I struggle with physically, but mentally I find a real challenge. In this way, my boyfriend and I are completely different. He can happily persevere through pain and exhaustion while I often find it easier to stop. Giving up is not something that comes easily to me, but if you do it once, it's very easy to start questioning why you are pushing yourself at all. As a woman training to be a Surgeon, in my professional life, giving up just never occurs to me, and indeed persevering rarely feels like that- it just feels like the obvious path to take. But when it comes to physical exertion, that little voice questioning my ability it is always in the periphery of my thoughts. This is likely linked to self-confidence as I am quite happy to push myself at things I excel at, but struggle getting better at tasks which ask more of me. This walk was clearly going to be a test. My mental capacity to succeed was something which had the capability of defining my attitude for the positive or negative, and ultimately would result in helping me to achieve the distance or not. I need to learn how motivation works for me at a personal level, and how I could use this to my advantage in a physical setting. I know that in an academia, positive self-statements, while they sound puerile, have helped me many a time overcome anxiety in the exam room. Perhaps that could be the way forward? Or would I need to develop new methods for support? Despite these questions, and my initial nerves, I am excited at the prospect of pushing myself in a new way and am approaching this trek with a new perspective every day.