“Is this really a sensible idea for someone on long term warfarin who had a prolapsed lumbar disc less than two years ago?” This was the evaluation of the experienced GP who conducted my annual appraisal in December 2012 when I explained that I planned to take up to three months off from mid March 2013 in order to walk (off road as much as possible) from the south to north of mainland UK. However by that time I was already psychologically committed to attempting my journey from The Lizard to Dunnet Head via Lands End to John O’Groats. I had told lots of people about my plans, worked out approximate dates and a route, bought equipment and even started to look at where I would stay on the journey. I had even worked out how to include the walk in my professional personal development plan (PDP) for 2013-14, although I’m certainly not even going to try to attempt to suggest to my accountant that the costs would be claimable against tax as a business expense.
Having completed my challenge, I’m now trying to distil the essence of the walk and explain how it has helped me to learn more about myself and lead to professional development. Prior to the walk, I had written in my PDP as the agreed action or goal: “When I have done similar activities in the past, they have challenged my self reliance and insight and made me feel more able to cope with the challenges that work throws at me. Unfortunately the effect seems to wear off as the memory fades but it is exciting to have some different challenges from time to time.” I had stated that by completing the walk I would know that I had addressed my need. However I realise now that, before the memory fades, I do need to reflect on what I have achieved.
Before I set off, I had stated that it seemed that, as a GP, I spend my days trying to enhance the survival chances of my patients but that on my walk I would be concerned mainly with my own survival. I planned the walk to be something for me and my own development and on this basis decided that I would not seek sponsorship to raise money for charity. I was also aware that getting sponsorship would increase pressure on me to complete at all costs (something I had been aware had happened on the four occasions when I was sponsored to run the London Marathon) and that I would be expected to write a blog for my sponsors to read as I went along (also increasing pressure). Moreover, if raising money for charity was the challenge then I could actually achieve this more efficiently and raise more by spending the three months working and then donating my earnings to charity.
The following summarises what I feel I have learned:
- This walk would not have been possible without the help and support of a lot of other people. Often as a GP I feel that I have done a lot more than the minimum for many patients to try to help them. At times this can become a source of resentment. However, with much lower material reward, many people showed enormous “professionalism” in their efforts to help me achieve my dream. This was chiefly the smaller bed and breakfast providers.
- When a task seems too enormous to achieve then to try to take it literally one step at a time. This was particularly true near the beginning of my walk, for example after the first day when I realised that in terms of completion it was as though I had only done a few hundred metres of a marathon.
- If I have survived the last part then I can survive the next. For example, near the Kinder Downfall on the Pennine Way, I was unable to stand upright because it was so windy and at times I was holding on to rocks and crawling on all fours so that I did not get blown away. It took me over an hour to cover about a mile. I just had to focus on getting to the next rock.
- Good organisation and forward planning make things work more smoothly. However it is also important to remain flexible, keep options open and be prepared to change plans as conditions change. I was very pleased that I arrived at the start of the West Highland Way on the exact day that I had planned. I had fallen on the Pennine Way and was still suffering with some left sided low back pain when I reached the West Highland Way. This meant that with the added weight of camping equipment that I had opted to carry from Milngavie, I was struggling more than expected. Moreover the weather conditions were much worse than expected for the time of year – wind, wintry showers and low temperatures. On my third day on the West Highland Way, the conditions and an exacerbation of my back pain caused by lifting my rucksack awkwardly led to me camping short of my planned destination (this was the first night I had not pre-booked any accommodation as I had actually planned to camp). It was the first time that I had put up my tent for the night (had just pitched it in the back garden at home before). In retrospect, this was a problem as I had not learnt how to adjust some tapes attaching the flysheet to the inner so that the flysheet would not flap on to the inner. As a result, water dripped into my tent overnight. Moreover, a sharp shower of rain the next morning meant that much of my equipment got wet as I packed my tent away. That afternoon I arrived at an isolated hotel looking for accommodation to find that it was all fully booked and the only nearby alternative was to camp in a dedicated camping field near the hotel. It was pouring with rain and extremely windy so, particularly as many of my possessions were already damp, this option was distinctly unattractive. The helpful hotel receptionist managed to help me by putting me in contact with some people who were prepared to transport me to their home and offer bed and breakfast. This was when I realised that my planned very remote route north of Fort William requiring consecutive nights of wild camping and away from any civilisation was unrealistic and, in the expected weather conditions, too dangerous. Fortunately I was able to re-plan my route with a less remote and safer alternative.
- When everything looks as if it is going wrong then not to panic but to consider options in a logical way. For example in north Staffordshire I dived under a barbed wire fence when some bullocks in a field suddenly started to trot over towards me. The rain cover of my rucksack was shredded on the barbed wire. The weather was showery and I realised that the contents of my rucksack would soon become soaked. I thought that potentially this could signal the end of my walk. First I tried to use some adhesive dressings in my first aid kit to stick the rucksack cover back together, but the adhesive did not stick. Next I used some safety pins strategically placed to join together as many of the shredded parts as possible. This was satisfactory for the rest of that day. That evening I spent about 90 minutes sewing the broken parts using a complimentary hotel mending kit that must have been in my wash kit unused for about 20 years. This actually worked very well and, although I bought a new rain cover a couple of days later from an outdoor shop, I actually stuck with the stitched cover (in fact in the wind on the Pennine Way I would have lost any rucksack cover that was not firmly secured to my rucksack).
- Enjoy each moment as it comes along rather than merely focussing on the end achievement.
- Keep an eye on the main goal, but also have other goals and enjoy reaching these. Completion of the Pennine Way and of the West Highland Way were highlights to celebrate in addition to reaching John O’Groats and subsequently Dunnet Head.
- Coping with adversity and working out how to do this, although painful at the time, is actually satisfying and rewarding in retrospect. The harder bits are the parts that I tend to look back at with the fondest memories although I also remember that they seemed to be disasters at the time. These included walking in the wind near the Kinder Downfall; when my rucksack rain cover shredded on the barbed wire; the dog biting me near Painswick; the first night I camped; a thunderstorm with lightning on the Pennine Way; the exposed rock that I had to climb up on Pen-y-Ghent; crossing a band of snow on climb up Great Dun Fell amongst many others.
- Success is 90% or more hard work and 10% or less inspiration! Despite all the misadventures etc., most of the walk merely involved careful planning and trudging on to the destination.
- We all need to have life dreams which we can try to achieve. Often these include an element of danger. It seems that in 21st century UK we increasingly risk manage excessively, over protect and hence are unable to try to achieve our ambitions and neither are we allowed to fail. It concerns me that in many ways this means that we miss important areas of human experience. A lot of people queried the safety of my trek as a woman walking alone. Fortunately on my walk, I only had one experience of meeting a very odd person who made me feel frightened and I used various tactics to try to reduce potential risks.
Important ideas I can use in my professional life:
- Acknowledge the contributions of other people. Even when working alone, it is as part of an often unseen team.
- When things seem to be going wrong, to think logically about finding solutions. This works better than panicking.
- Plan but remain flexible and be prepared to change.
- The more difficult problems can lead to the most satisfaction.
- Keep trudging on and not to expect every day to be exciting.
- Celebrate small achievements as well as large ones to maintain motivation.
- Encourage others to achieve their dreams. Be aware of risk and acknowledge it but allow people to take risks.
- Enjoy what is happening at the time.
- When doing a difficult task, take it a step at a time.