The alarm goes off… I wake up in a total haze… darkness. I try to pick up the phone without falling over some indefinable objects. I slowly realise that I am in a hotel room and then, a sudden shock; it is the next day of the Nijmegen Marches - time 3am. I prepared everything the night before, so I just check that my legs are still functioning. A quiet sigh of relief… I put on my clothes and go down for breakfast; of course everything takes twice as long when one is half asleep. Just a sandwich, some fresh fruit and a hot drink - difficult to stomach at such an early time, but it is a must. Wrist band, bumbag, bottle of water - check. The coach is ready and waiting for our team outside; the morning air is rather nippy. About an hour later we arrive in Nijmegen, by the Wedren, and the kind coach driver wishes us good luck and off we go into the sunrise. We now know what to expect and we join the masses of people behind the start line. A bit of stretching, prep talk and off we go… again.
The support on route is almost indescribable; it starts with the happy, overenthusiastic 5am drunks (still partying from the night before) cheering us on, followed by locals in their dressing gowns, hugging a cup of morning coffee whilst sitting outside their houses on specially exported sofas saying good morning. It is all very surreal as we have already been walking for 2-3 hours! The small towns that line the route seem to take a huge pride in how they greet the 47,000 walkers; some have the whole town filled with brass bands and percussion ensembles, others choose a different theme each year to decorate their town. An amazing, happy-family atmosphere reigns wherever we look; the elderly, families, teenagers, plus the absolute stars of the marches - the little children lining the route, offering sweets, biscuits, fruit… even hot sausage rolls to keep us going! There’s teenage girls standing by the roadside with big FREE HUGS signs, hoping for a handsome soldier! The more you give the crowd, the more you get back.; a smile, a wave, a hug!
Then we leave the town and the challenge becomes very real; the pedometer says 20 miles, the sun is getting hotter, and our team really needs to pull together. Some are doing amazingly well, while some are struggling. Chatting and singing helps! We found out a lot about one another in the 4 days of walking together and supporting each other. A group of strangers at the beginning of Day 1 and a family by Day 2.
A group of soldiers are heard in the distance… we are catching up with them. They burst into a pretty outrageous marching song and before we know it, we are making friends, marching with them, singing along to it all, even getting them to learn one of our Walk the Walk songs!
Control coming! Everyone together! We know very well by now, how important it is to keep close, so our wrist bands can be scanned… a must for us all to complete our challenge! No one should ever underestimate the importance of the TEAM aspect; we have all trained individually, we all have our little habits we acquired during the months of training. Some are used to walking faster and some prefer the slightly slower pace; we had to adapt and adjust our little habits to fit together and we had to learn fast. By the third day it was heart-warming to see one team member carrying another team member’s rucksack. They are adamant to finish the challenge and the rest of the team is supporting them… we will do this together - go Team Walk the Walk… you can do it!!
A few more miles of laughter, singing, and we are back in Nijmegen again, finishing another day and it’s only lunchtime! The Wedren, the square where all the walks start and finish, is lined with small tents offering food, drinks, sports items and souvenirs. The centre of the square is packed with benches, one of which we made our regular post-walk meeting place. Before we knew it, the coach is taking us back to the hotel and a quick cold shower, a long hot bath, swim, sauna and Turkish steam bath. Legs feel like stones, the muscles are all seized up and can only hobble… but fear not, rescue is on its way and Vincent will fix it! It’s my turn for a massage; 20 minutes of heaven and hell and then I am able to walk, hop, jump, and skip again. Dinner with our newly acquired family, next day’s clothes at the ready, millions of photos downloaded and edited, and in bed by 10pm.
The last day is quite an experience; the last 6 miles takes your breath away. A million and a half people line this straight and long final road leading into Nijmegen, creating a fabulous carnival atmosphere. The crowd is out to celebrate, singing, cheering, drinking, dancing and handing out gladioli to the walkers. I look around and everybody is tired but in good spirits. Some get their second, third or even fourth wind, while others are just taking it all in. Then we notice hospital patients waving to us from one of the tents. They are all bedridden, but smiling at us and waving flags if they can. A big lump in our throats - getting very emotional. A big group of women shout ‘BREAST CANCER’ and give us a huge cheer… we all feel like celebrities. A dancing policeman directs traffic, while music from one bandstand after another thrills the ever-growing crowd. The FINISH is finally in sight!
After a few emotional words, big hugs and laughter, we pin the ever so precious Nijmegen cross just above everyone’s hearts, before proceeding to the Finish area together, arm in arm. We all feel proud, very proud. I phoned my husband, sent some texts… I wanted the whole world to know what we have just achieved!
While sitting on our regular Walk the Walk bench waiting for our coach to arrive, we notice that others in the crowd have different medals. Some with only a number (12). Curious, we start chatting, and we learn the medal is fully named "Cross for demonstrated marching skill", as defined by Royal Decree in 1909. The walkers receive a specific medal depending on the number of times they have successfully finished the event. The Four Day Marches Cross can be awarded in bronze, silver (5th) or gold (10th). The ribbon bears numbers depending on the number of times the participant has completed the marches. I wonder what kind of medal was awarded to current record holder Bert van der Lans in 2016 when he completed his 69th Nijmegen Marches!
Did I get you thinking about signing up for next year? Just a few tips before you do…
Don’t start your training without:
As we are always walking as a team, it is also essential to be flexible in terms of your speed. Although everyone has done their training, you never know what the event days will bring; injuries, blisters or even a bad stomach can alter how you usually walk or what speed you do. You need to be patient and supportive of each other; you are now a team and will need to achieve this challenge together… and you can do it!
The training will be hard, especially as you will have to fit it around your already busy life, but full commitment for these few months is essential.
Of course it’s always helpful to have a friend who kicks your bottom at your moments of weakness, especially in the crucial first few weeks. After that, Walking becomes second nature. And then you start noticing the benefits (shaping up whilst living on chocolate) which also gives you the much needed boost.
Can you do it? If you think you can, you will! The youngest contestant finishing last year’s marches was 11 years old, the oldest was 93!! You will be amazed at what your body is capable of!
Would I do it again? Oh absolutely yes!! I am aiming for the gold medal!!!
Here's just a few ways of supporting us!