TGO Challenge 2021 – Turning potential failure into success

This year’s TGO Challenge felt different to the ones I have done before.  I wrote here about my pre-Challenge nerves.  Chats with fellow Challengers showed that I wasn’t alone in feeling anxious.  Fitness, the summer heat, midges, Covid (restrictions and maybe even catching it) – these are tangible, logical worries but there was also a more vague nagging worry which I think was caused by the mental upheaval of the pandemic and lockdown.  Many of us were setting out to do something which should be normal for us ….. but which felt so strange and which I wasn’t completely convinced would ever actually happen after two postponements.  Travelling for many hours on public transport; being so far from home; making a “non-essential” journey; eating in bars and cafes; mixing with people; all of these things contributed to my anxiety and I believe others had similar concerns.

A Kilchoan start was always going to require at least an extra day so, for the first time, I travelled on the Thursday and had the pleasure of meeting several Challengers on the journey.  At Oban I waved them goodbye and caught the ferry to Mull, then the bus to Tobermory.  A night in a B&B (booked whilst on the train North; most of this year’s planning was last minute, partly due to my inability to believe that the Challenge would happen) gave me a comfortable base from which to explore the town and walk up to the lighthouse.  A beautiful location which I decided would have been worth the trip even if I gave up now and went home.

I forgot to dip my toes in the water at Kilchoan but I’m counting my Tobermory to Kilchoan ferry, on Friday morning, as an appropriate alternative.

My day 2 camp was my first bad midge experience.  It was horrific.  I felt trapped in my inner tent by a huge cloud of them.  At around 1am, so in the very brief period of (almost) dark overnight, I woke up gasping for air.  I was so hot in my tent; I needed some air ….. but I couldn’t open the inner tent door because of them.  I tried to calm down, but I felt so panicky.  I wrote in my diary that “I wanted to turn on the big light” – ie I didn’t want to be in a hot, enclosed space in the dark.  I’m not scared of the dark; I usually love camping or bivvying at night, but I felt so claustrophobic, it was horrible.  I decided to go outside and run around a bit.  It was cooler outside and there didn’t seem to be any midges.  Returning to my tent, I thought calm thoughts – mainly about that day’s boat crossing of Loch Shiel which had been such a joy – until I fell asleep.

After dropping me off at Polloch my boatmen head back to Dalelia

That experience put huge doubt in my mind about my ability to complete the crossing.  Usually, in May, I can camp high or low or find stealthy spots in woodland as I near the East coast.  This year, though, I might find myself trapped inside a small tent slowly poaching.  I could lose most of the pleasure of camping.

When I reached the Corran Ferry on Day 3 I bumped into John, a Challenger, who was hatching a plan to alter his route to miss out Lundavra and instead go through North Ballachulish on the road.  I was physically exhausted and mentally scarred and realised that there were hotels and B&Bs along that road; I booked one whilst on the ferry!  I tweeted about my struggles and got so much support from people telling me that adapting my plan was very sensible and not a sign of weakness (although I could only half see that myself).

Most of Day 4 was spent walking with Graeme who, I think, had also altered his route.  It was great to have some company on the road walk into Kinlochleven and for coffee and lunch.  It’s possible Graeme saved my Crossing as his company was a welcome distraction from the self-doubts that were nagging away at me.

From then on things started to get better.  My back had been absolutely killing me due partly to the weight of my pack but also probably due to the relatively thin padding of the (old style) Osprey Exos rucksack.  I gave myself regular rest stops but found that anything over 12 or so miles was a chore.  At least the weather was generally ideal for a rest; I’d have probably kept walking in the rain.

I booked a couple more (unplanned) rooms along the way; 7 of my 13 nights were in the tent.  Knowing that only every other night would be midgy gave me the confidence to camp and I didn’t have another night as bad as that second camp.

The view from the tent on a midge-free camp

By the start of the second week I felt that I would finish.  I’d found a way to cope with the additional challenges I was facing this year and I was actually enjoying myself.  There were so many flowers compared with in May.  I saw a stoat, lots of frogs, loads of birds, and deer – including ones with antlers (which I hardly ever see).  I was also followed by a swarm of black flies which spent the night bouncing between my inner and outer tent but didn’t bite.

Probably just a type of grass but I thought it was pretty

I’d bought a new mobile phone a couple of weeks earlier and could now, for the first time, carry the offline 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 OS maps for my whole route.  This made a huge difference and saved so much time compared with the compass and 1:50,000 map method or even getting a grid ref from a GPS.  I did use my printed maps and compass, as I find that a quick and satisfying navigation method for open country, but the OSMaps app was heavily used for confirmation and checking detail.

As usual, I made some navigational bloopers; usually when I knew exactly where I was and didn’t need to pay attention to map, compass, or common sense.  The descent into Glen Clova, over a steep, bracken and heather-covered hillside was not fun and could have been avoided if I hadn’t been blasé about which track I was on.

Clova is down there. Now STAY FOCUSSED!

From Clova I tweaked my route and tagged along with Alan, Barbara and Lindsay for a couple of days.  They were good company and I think we all kept each other going.  We climbed the Stile of Death, scared off some ne’er-do-wells (who possibly had crossbows ….. but the story gets more far-fetched with each telling), ate fig-rolls and, in Brechin, drank beer.

My final day was spent on my own and, with no comment on the previous days’ company, I was glad of that.  The weather was beautiful and I enjoyed a slightly meandering route to the coast.  There was no rush; I could enjoy being by myself and eke out the final hours of my walk.  I was horrified to see the St Cyrus sign when I reached the place marked as Cocklem Bents on the (1:25k) map.  I swore, many years ago, that I would never finish at St Cyrus as it’s a very popular finish point and I’m contrary.  It turns out that the St Cyrus nature reserve is a little down the coast from the village of St Cyrus.

Not where I expected to be but the toilets were great!

The beach was wonderful.  I went for a paddle then sat listening to the waves.  OK, I may have shed a tear, too.  I was so pleased that I’d not given up when the going was tough.  I’d managed to work though the difficult times, with support from people both remote and present.  If I’d given up, I’d have added to the list of worries which were weighing me down at the start. 

The beach at Cocklem Bents / Nether Warburton / St Cyrus Nature Reserve

This was my 12th crossing and in many ways unlike any of the others but I think it highlights what the TGO Challenge is known for; individuals facing their own unique challenge and finding their own way, with the moral support of fellow Challengers, to succeed.  I’m so glad I did it.

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19 Responses to TGO Challenge 2021 – Turning potential failure into success

  1. Very well done Judith. It takes real strength of character to overcome all the physical and mental challenges you faced. I’m so pleased for you that you finished.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jen Henders says:

    Congratulations Judith. What an honest & frank blog you have written. Sometimes when you are out hiking you have these thoughts, but you think you are the only ones suffering them, then you find out you are not. You overcame your difficulties & any challenges that arose & you must be so proud of yourself. It shows the strength of character you have. Well done.

    Like

    • Judith says:

      Thanks Jen. Yes, it’s an honest account but I hope it doesn’t put people off. The sense of achievement is greater if the journey has been challenging.

      Like

      • Jen Henders says:

        No I think your blog does quite the opposite. Telling people it’s okay to have all those feelings, it is perfectly normal. But you can work through them & still have an amazing experience.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. lizziwake says:

    An excellent account. I can understand all those feelings – I had them too when helping with a D of E trip recently. It was exhausting managing the anxiety of being amongst so many people – often in close confines – whilst feeling I’d totally forgotten how to camp and managing an injury that’s hampered me for over a year. Very well done in completing the Challenge this year – but even more for actually having the courage to start it. Just booking the travel must have been unnerving. It’s good to know that one is not alone in one’s concerns & worries & your blog tells me that it’s ‘normal’ to be feeling anxious and out of practice at the moment. Thank you for such an honest report.

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    • Judith says:

      Thanks Lizzi. I found the indoor social events – and some parts of the train journeys – slightly worrying as I’ve been conditioned to believe that there’s a killer virus lurking in every enclosed space.
      It has been good to talk honestly with people about how the return to “normal” could be challenging. Hopefully most people will be tolerant and patient as we come out of the pandemic.

      Liked by 1 person

      • lizziwake says:

        I think that’s what been tricky helping with the D of E trips – enclosed in a minibus with students & in close confines eating with other trainers. We discussed it at length and it was good to voice fears as well as how difficult we’ve all found it. The students were just turning 18 (one had a birthday whilst we were away) and all were already vaccinated or keen to get an appointment. Very reassuring.

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  4. Robin says:

    Well done. I’m not sure how I’d cope with the midges! Walking with others is a huge boost and is one of the joys of the Challenge.

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  5. AlanR says:

    We had no doubts that you would overcome all the mental and physical challenges that the challenge throws at you. You started at a difficult place, not only difficult to get to but difficult to get yourself onto a decent path to get the mileage done. You did fantastically well and didn’t convince yourself that you wouldn’t finish. It’s very easy to call it a day and the best thing to do when this happens is to sit down, slow the heart rate down and even have a nap. But you did it, ‘cos you’re well ‘ard. Well done.

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  6. PilgrimChris says:

    An inspiring read Judith. It (almost) inspires me to break the habit of a lifetime and actually plan a route just to try the TGO Challenge at least once 🙂

    Like

  7. Martin Banfield says:

    That’s a great report, Judith. Well done, you make Sue and me feel like real wimps, but we did have a nice holiday in Braemar and Montrose!
    The flower is Bistort. Higher up you may have noticed a smaller white variety – that’s Alpine Bistort.

    Like

    • Judith says:

      Thanks Martin. It was good to see you and Sue; looking so clean and full of energy 😀

      I think I may have seen the Alpine Bistort. So many flowers this year.

      Like

      • Martin Banfield says:

        I’ll be doing a ‘Highland flowers’ posting in due course (will let you know), but we go to Wales tomorrow, so it’ll have to wait. It was ‘towpath flowers’ today.
        M

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Dawn Linney says:

    Well done, I am so glad you managed to complete the challenge.

    Liked by 1 person

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