Getting to grips with Sport Walking challenges

If you find coming up with new ideas for your Sport Walking challenges a little…. umm…. challenging, then fret not because the Sport Walk guide to Sport Walking challenges is here to help!

So, as you probably already know, challenge is to Sport Walking what the ‘off side rule’ is to Football, it’s inconceivable to imagine one without the other! The challenges we take on provide us with the ‘sport’ and give us the purpose for everything else we do as Sport Walkers – training, planning, learning, even just walking faster than everyone else in the park (yeah, we know how competitive those Sunday afternoon walks with the dog can get).

But while the beauty of Sport Walking challenges are their near infinite variety and scope, this can also be a drawback. Sport Walking challenges can be completely personal to each walker, so there isn’t a standardised list of challenges or events to pick from, the way there is with running say, where there are huge numbers of 10Ks, Half Marathons and Marathons taking place every weekend. 

So let’s look at some key types of Sport Walking challenges, how you might approach them and what each one gives you in return. The starting point is always going to be that you want to complete the challenge route in the shortest time you can and perform to the best of your ability, regardless of the nature of the challenge. With this as a given, we’ve divided them into six categories:

The Challenges

  • Organised major challenge events & races – long distance, usually 50-100k or further
  • Your own personal major challenges – long distance routes 50k or over
  • Your own shorter challenges – up to Marathon distance
  • Your own ‘sprints’ and ‘super sprints’ – full gas time trials over feature laden routes – hill climbs, city parks, coastal scrambles, land marks and visitor attractions.
  • Mountains and mountain routes – single peaks, ridges and ranges, highest peak routes (Welsh 3,000s, Scottish 4,000s)
  • Your own multi-stage challenges – Coast to Coast Path, Welsh Coast Path etc – either supported or self sufficient

 

Organised major challenge events & races

In some respects this is the easiest type of challenge to take on because all you need to do is sign up and do the training, everything else is (normally) laid on for you. There’s huge variety out there but most of the events open to walkers are likely to be 50k and above, most tend to be around 100k.

At the moment, the events that openly welcome walkers tend to be charity events, rather than pure ultramarathons. If you’re more interested in testing yourself than raising money for charity, then charity events can be costly because often there’s a large premium if you’re not prepared to commit to raise several hundred pounds.

Other races that don’t require fund raising can still be quite expensive to enter but when you consider that you’ll be spending up to 24 hours in some cases on the trail, with full support and feed stations, then perhaps the £100+ entry fee is a price worth paying for the experience and convenience.

So what’s on offer? Well, there are branded ultramarathon running events that also welcome walkers; independent ultras that may allow walkers if you can meet the checkpoint cut offs; mixed discipline charity challenges (run, jog or walk) including some group events (for teams of four); challenge walks organised by the Long Distance Walkers Association (many of which are open to non members subject to availability) and other independent events. Of course, there are also ultramarathon events that don’t state that they are open to walkers and, in theory, they could be an option if you’re confident you can make the cut offs but you’ll probably need to show comparable results from another major event to be accepted.

At the moment, there aren’t a huge number of events that aren’t charity fund raisers that welcome Sport Walkers and treat them equally to runners. It’s one of the things we’re keen to address here at Sport Walk – to establish greater provision for Sport Walkers within ultramarathons of all types and distances. Many events that are primarily aimed at runners but which allow walkers, don’t distinguish between the two groups in the results, so walkers can’t easily see how they compare to other walkers and this is another aspect we’ll be working to change.

Arguably the highest profile ultramarathon series that actively welcomes walkers is the Threshold Trail Series, including Race to The Stones, which is a UTMB qualifier and has been voted Britain’s best ultramarathon. Threshold Sports organise three events – Race to the Tower (52 miles in the Cotswolds), Race to the King (52 miles on the South Downs) and Race to The Stones (100km along The Ridgeway). Entrants can either go non-stop for the whole distance or divide the race into two days with an overnight camp. Sport Walk’s Roger Burlinson completed Race to The Stones in 2017 in under 16 hours, finishing in the top 50% of all entrants – runners and walkers – which shows the potential for Sport Walkers to mix it with runners and come out well up the field.

Given that these events place you among hundreds or thousands of other people (runners and walkers), the best way to approach an organised challenge is to let your competitive streak come through. Yes, we all have one, even if you think you don’t! If you just want to challenge yourself to walk 100k along the Ridgeway in under 24 hours, why pay to do it? Why not just scoot up to the trail and go? What you get from events like Race to The Stones is the potential for you to pit yourself against others and yes, part of this challenge is not to react to other people’s pace but to stick to your plan and then to see that plan pay off the further you go. 

You also get the reassurance of the organisation behind you and the regular feed stations. The main positive though is really to share the experience and undertaking with huge numbers of other people, to see the effect the challenge has on them and for that also to rub off on you. Yes, you have your own objective, your own goal and yes, you will feel good passing a runner who’s stopped to walk up a hill but it is the overwhelming sense that this is a shared endeavour with thousands of others that really gives you the buzz.

Some major organised events or series you might want to consider:

  • Threshold Trail Series – 80-100k, Race to the Tower, Race to the King and Race to the Stones
  • The Challenge Series – usually 100k, The Isle of Wight Challenge, London to Brighton Challenge
  • Oxfam Trail Walker – usually 100k, teams of four
  • Salisbury 54321 – up to 50k and fully open to and welcoming of walkers
  • Stone Henge Stomp – Long Distance Walkers Association event open to runners and walkers and non-members

If you want to know how to tackle an organised event like Race to The Stones, read our guide here.

 

Your own personal major challenges

Your personal long distance challenges come a close second to organised events, partly because they will most likely be along some pretty iconic routes, partly because you’ll get the same sense of fulfilment from completing a long distance path in a good time and partly because you’ll need to recruit a support crew to help you and this gives you that sense of shared endeavour you get with an organised event.

There are some real classics that fit into potential non-stop long distance challenges – The South Downs Way, The North Downs Way, The Great Glen Way, Hadrians Wall etc. These are all classics and will give you as big a sense of satisfaction as any organised ultra challenge.

The benefit of a personal challenge is that you’re in control. You choose the route, you decide the date, you have complete freedom to decide every element of the challenge. The downside is that it’s just you on the trail (apart from other people you meet along the way) and you’ll only encounter your support crew at your checkpoints. Now, this might not worry you too much and if you call in a few favours you can ask friends to join you for stretches at given points. Going through the night is a particular time to consider this.

You might not get the official recognition or a medal for your efforts but really and truly that’s not why we do it. It’s all about your time! If you can reach your goal, get the time you want, you won’t care if anyone was there at the end to say well done, although most likely there will be a welcoming party because your support crew will want to be there to see all their work pay off!

Things to consider with your own challenges are planning, preparation, recruitment, food supplies, equipment and, of course, training. The last one is pretty straightforward in terms of fitness but you’ll want to add some sessions to replicate those times when you might be at your lowest because you won’t have that infrastructure or the number of other people around you to take your mind off your discomfort when you’re just doing your own challenge, so it’s worth preparing for that.

Planning
Planning becomes critical for your own challenges because there won’t be any course markers, marshals, feed stations or trail lighting for night sections. It’s just you and the trail, so you need to know how well the route is marked, if you’ll need to navigate, what sort of condition the trail is in, where your support crew can meet you and how many easy access points there are along the whole route. It’s no good if the only access points are all within the first 10k of a 100k route – how will you re-stock with food and drink at 80k? Basically, you need to adopt military precision and plan for every conceivable variable and potential issue.

Preparation will need to involve training on as many sections of the route as you can, so you have knowledge of the route and its topography. You should train with the fuel you plan to use for the challenge, so you know that it doesn’t cause you any gastro intestinal issues and you should also train with your full pack, with all the key things you’ll need to carry for the attempt itself. That way you’ll be fully at ease with the way the actual challenge will play out.

Support Crew
Your support crew will be critical to the success of your challenge, so choose wisely. You should consider who will be best for you when you’re at your lowest. That old college friend who’s great for a pub quiz might not be the right choice for 2am on a wet trail when you really need reassurance, encouragement and unquestioning support.

Ideally you’ll want two separate crews of two people, who can both drive. That way, you’ll have two vehicles both with two drivers who can leapfrog each other or, if you’re happy to cover maybe 40k without support, can take shifts to cover day and night sessions.

You’ll want to appoint one of these people as your support crew ‘manager’ for want of a better word or to be the person who makes executive decisions about really important things, perhaps like telling you that you need to stop! You’d then also want one of the others from the other vehicle to be the ‘deputy’ so they can assume that role when the overall lead is ‘off duty’.

If you can, you might also want to recruit other friends to meet you at certain points along the way, just to give you moral support. If you’re able to pick friends or work associates and give them locations where you’d love to see them, this will give you an element of that camaraderie you get with an organised event. Seeing a friend ahead, who can encourage you to keep going and wish you well is an invaluable asset in your attempt to reach your goal.

The key thing with your support crew is that the further on you go, the more they will need to be attuned to your mood and condition and the more frequently you’ll need support, even if you don’t really need it. As the mileage increases, you’ll be less interested in nuances, more interested in the basics – how much further, do I like this food, can I reach the end? Your support crew will need to understand that the smallest thing can and will set you off, so they need to handle you like the most spoilt and demanding boss they’ve ever had.

This is not to excuse your behaviour or to condone your actions but it is to understand the nature of taking on a major endurance challenge and what it takes to finish. Being right as a support crew will not get you across the line. Being clever will.

They need to be able to read you well and also be able to control their own instinctive reactions to situations. Everything will become amplified and the best way for a support crew to provide support further into a challenge, is simply agree to everything and be ready to softly and kindly steer you towards a better option if it all goes pear shaped.

It’s also vital that you have someone in your team who is strong enough to sit you down and tell you it’s over, that they’re not letting you continue.

Food
Refuelling along the route is more than essential, it’s life and death. If you get this wrong, you’ll fail no question. Having tested your potential fuel in training, you just need to plan how frequently you’ll need to re-stock and then think of variations or additional supplementary food or drink you might want to consume at crew checkpoints to pick you up or give you a strategic hit of something. It’s a good idea to take on some crisps or nuts at checkpoints and then also to have something different and savoury at lunch and dinner time, so that your day bears a passing resemblance to a normal day. This flavour re-setting can be really important as the relentless hit of banana, chocolate or fruit flavourings in your bars and drinks can take its toll. Soup is a great evening top up at a brief checkpoint stop, along with some flavoured cous cous or new potatoes with butter and salt.

Equipment
You’re going long and you’re going it alone (albeit with a support crew) so your equipment choices are even more important than for an organised event. You need to be self sufficient for long stretches, partly so you don’t burn out your support crew and also you’re not likely to have the back up of checkpoints every 10k or so. It’s a good plan to pick an adventure vest with about 15L capacity, so that you can carry all your fluids and fuel bars, together with some nuts or other treats. You’ll want your normal waterproofs and a few essentials like a foil survival bag, compact first aid kit, blister repair kit etc. Depending on the conditions you can leave warmer clothes with your support crew to give you options at checkpoints as you go on but it’s a good idea to put all these potential items in a single bag, so that your crews can hand it over to each other as they change shifts.

You did it but did you REALLY do it?
If you’re trying to set a Trail Record or a significant time for this challenge, you’ll need to think about verification. Look at any other times for the same route and maybe make contact with any organisations that are involved with that specific trail to get guidance on any route diversions (if it’s a classic route, route diversions would mean potentially postponing your challenge until the route returns to normal) or other issues that might influence your performance.

The key thing to remember when you take on your own challenges is that this about total elapsed time, not your pace or speed.  When you’re training, it’s fine to stop the clock when you take a comfort break, so that your data refers only to your actual moving pace and speed but in the challenge itself the clock never stops. It’s all about how long it takes you to get from the start to the finish, so it’s vital not to put any markers on your journey (triggering a new lap to signify completing a section of the route for instance will put a marker on your data which might suggest that you stopped the clock, which would be a disaster). Yes, track your challenge with a watch or other device but just leave it running throughout, even when you stop to rest.

Some major challenges you might want to consider as your own goals:

  • The South Downs Way – 161km / 100 – South Downs National Park
  • Hadrians Wall Path – 137km / 85 miles – Coast to coast across the Penines
  • West Highland Way – 151km / 94 miles – Milgavie to Fort William through Scotland’s best landscapes
  • Sport Walk New Forest 80Sport Walk New Forest 80 – 80km / 50 miles – Our own route across the New Forest – a superb starter route. Find out more here

 

Your own shorter challenges

There’s not a huge amount to add to the major challenges for this one, apart from the fact that by tackling shorter routes of up to Marathon distance, you increase your potential exponentially. Generally speaking, it should be possible to carry all the supplies you might need, still go light and be well prepared for anything up to 45k, which is just over Marathon distance. 50k is also possible but you might then need to pack a slightly larger vest and some additional fluids, unless you plan to spend time re-stocking along the way, it’s your choice.

We generally measure potential distances and self sufficiency by how long you can travel without needing to physically stop to re-stock food and drink. We’ve consistently been able to go 40-45km on one set of supplies, which is usually more about fluids than food. If you have a 1.5L bladder and two 500ML soft flasks, this has shown itself to be enough for us over 40-45k. If your physiology is different and you find that you consume more fluids generally, then you may need to look at a 2L bladder and, perhaps, extra soft flasks packed in your main vest compartment. Either that or sacrifice a little time at a planned stop at a store to buy water along the way and carry additional supplies of electrolyte or energy tabs to replenish your fluids. Of course, you could enlist support for challenges this length and that would be fine (there are no rules about how long a challenge should be before you use support) but for the sake of this article, we’re basing shorter challenges on routes you can take on alone. It saves your little helpers for the big important challenges and means that you’re more independent.

Things to consider
Depending on the environment you’re travelling through, you may be able to ditch some of the precautionary kit you’d take on a major challenge but if you’ve done your prep, you’ll probably have refined your kit to be as light and efficient as it can be for any duration, so carrying ultra supplies will be fine.

Of course, if you are going it alone without support, make sure you leave your route with someone and also give them a realistic idea of how long you plan to take. For some routes, you’ll probably need someone either to drop you off at the start or pick you up at the finish, which takes care of that issue as they’ll need to know what’s going on to be able to deliver or collect you.

Apart from this, the advice really is to just immerse yourself in all the potential routes out there. At 40-50km, you really are spoilt for choice and there are probably more challenge options than you’ll ever complete. This distance will take you anything from five and a half hours to ten hours depending on your strength and fitness, so you can complete the challenge easily in a day and with the shorter distance, you’ll also recover more quickly, which means you can take on another Marathon challenge again pretty soon.

Here are a few shorter routes that we know of (most of them are in the south but a little research near where you live should reveal routes suitable for you):

  • Staunton Way – 34km / 21 miles – Queen Elizabeth Country Park to Havant – one of the best loops we’ve found. Find out more here 
  • Clarendon Way – 39k / 24 miles – Salisbury to Winchester – cathedral to cathedral
  • Hangers Way – 34k  / 21 miles – Buriton to Alton taking in the hills they call the ‘hangers’
  • Malvern Hills ridge
  • Blackwater Valley Path – 35km / 22 miles – Aldershot to Wokingham

Of course another great way to take on shorter challenges is to pick a section of a longer route or combine two or three interconnecting routes to create a loop. You could do this with iconic major trails like the North Downs Way, the Chilterns Way, the Ridgeway or any other trails, especially where less known way marked routes cross National Trails.

 

Your own ‘Sprints’ or ‘Super Sprints’

This category is not so much a challenge category in that it will give you a full day’s activity, it is more about scratching that itch – “I wonder how long it would take me to walk up Arthur’s Seat?”, “How long would it take me to walk from the Houses of Parliament to Tower Bridge?”, “How fast could I go for a mile along the Pennine Way?”

We class ‘Sprints’ as being around 10k and ‘Super Sprints’ up to 5k. It’s the sort of thing that would only take an hour or so to complete and they have a dual purpose. You can use them as a part of your training – hill climbs are great for building strength and taking on a Super Sprint up a hill climb route is perfect as a training session for that. Other types of short challenge might be to try out your top speed and see just how fast you can walk, which again has a training benefit in that it sharpens you up and pushes you physically.

There is also the benefit of shorter routes enabling you to build a Sport Walking challenge into travel or a sightseeing visit – you can walk around parks, through visitor attractions or along a stretch of coastline as a challenge and then repeat it at a leisurely pace to soak up the views. Maybe you’re on holiday and there’s a tourist path that takes you to a view point or along a stunning stretch of coastline.

Of course the easiest way to take on a Super Sprint challenge is to use your commute. Go for your PB on the way to the station or your route to the office and get a buzz before your working day has even begun. If you don’t commute by foot then why not start doing it. Park further away, build a walk into a part of your route to work if you possibly can, even if it’s not every day.

Some ideas for Sprints or Super Sprints:

  • South Bank / North Bank – Waterloo Bridge to Westminster Bridge loop in London
  • A section of the Grand Union Canal in Birmingham
  • Old Winchester Hill in Hampshire
  • Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh

Take a look at one of our favourite holiday ‘Super Sprints’ in Croatia here

 

Mountain Challenges

You might think that Sport Walking wouldn’t work so well in the mountains – they’re steep, the terrain’s rough and it’s difficult to settle into a smooth rhythm but in fact, mountainous regions can provide some of the most exhilarating challenge walking there is.

Everything is amplified – the climbs are harder, the trails are more technically challenging, it’s less about keeping a smooth regular walking rhythm and more about maintaining the best pace you can over big rocks, uneven paths and precipitous ridges.

Of course, there’s a pretty strong proviso here – that you have good mountain sense and experience, know how to mitigate risk and are prepared for the specific hazards that mountains bring but if that’s the case (and you can always learn these things through guided walks and courses) then the mountains offer you the ultimate Sport Walking challenge.

Given the amount of climbing (ascent, not actual rock climbing) you do, the routes you undertake are likely to be shorter than for a lowland ultra or Marathon challenge. This is more about the amount of vertical distance you take on than pure mileage, so it’s always worth starting with a route that’s shorter than you perhaps think you can manage.

With mountains, you can pick any distance and get a really fulfilling and tough challenge, from climbing a single peak like Scafell Pike, Snowdon or Ben Nevis, through ridge walks such as the Snowdon Horseshoe or Striding Edge, all the way up to multi peak challenges like the Welsh 3,000s or Scottish 4,000s (there’s two of them to choose from).

All the usual precautionary measures apply but there’s ever more need to have a well planned and logged route, to have someone trustworthy back at base to call for help if you don’t return within your expected time and to upgrade your clothing and weather protection so it’s suitable for the mountains.

No trip into the mountains will ever be risk free and a major part of the attraction of Sport Walking in mountainous areas is that you are testing yourself far more than on lowland trails but with good mountain sense, the right kit and supplies, you can be as safe as it’s possible to be.

If you take all the right precautions and ensure you have knowledge and experience before trying anything too challenging, these can be some of the most enjoyable and rewarding Sport Walking days you’ll ever have!

Potential Sport Walking mountain challenges:

  • Single peaks as fast as you can – Snowdon, Scafell Pike, Ben Nevis or why not try something a little smaller like Cat Bells or Cnicht
  • Multi peaks, possibly with ridges between – Snowdon Horseshoe, Helvellyn via Striding and Swirral Edge, Tryfan and the Gyders, Ben Nevis via the Carn Mor Dearg Arete 
  • Highest peak challenges – Lakeland 3,000s, Welsh 3,000s, Scottish 4,000s
  • Mountain classics – The Bob Graham Round, The Cuillin Ridge

 

Multi-stage challenges

Finally, we come to what most people think of when they consider taking on a long distance walk – multi stage routes. Many of the challenges that others might choose to take several days to complete, Sport Walkers will often aim to do non-stop, so for this section we’re more interested in the bigger routes that really do need more than one or two days of non-stop walking to complete. The longer way marked and National Trails that are so long, you simply have to factor in overnight stops.

There’s quite a lot to choose from too, from iconic routes like the South West Coast Path, the Welsh Coast Path or the Pennine Way to less well known trails like the Monarch’s Way. Given the nature of the beast, it’s likely that you’ll need to be self sufficient and that means stopping to re-stock with supplies as you go along. It’s unlikely that a friend or family member will be prepared to follow you in support for a number of days or weeks, so this means that logistical planning will be key – finding places to sleep, stores to buy new stocks of food etc.

The key with these types of challenges is to reference existing resources for hikers and simply try and scale down the gear you need to carry and the supplies you want to take so you can move faster than a hiker might. Apart from that, it’s a question of planning, training and getting the time off work!

Here are a few routes to whet your appetite for a major multi-stage challenge:

  • South West Coast Path – 1014km / 630 miles
  • Offa’s Dyke – 285km / 177 miles
  • Monarch’s Way – 932km / 579 (LDWA) or 625 miles
  • Welsh coast path – 1386km / 861 miles
  • Hardy Way (Dorset) – 349km / 217 miles

 

Whichever challenge you pick, give it your best shot and the distance won’t matter, your achievement will be the same. The challenges we take on as Sport Walkers define us and with so many options to suit every taste and every ambition, the world really is your oyster.

Move fast, go light but, most importantly, challenge yourself!

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