In the Footsteps of the Fallen: Heading Home

You can read about the early days of my Footsteps of the Fallen run here and about running along the Western Front here.

Day 11 – Ghyvelde to Folkestone

The alarm went off at 4am and I quickly ate breakfast and packed up ready for the day ahead. By now this was a smooth process, with everything being done methodically in the same order and kit being packed into its usual place in my rucksack. It generally took around an hour from waking to be ready to depart, although a good 20 to 30 minutes of this was dedicated to dressing and taping my feet (something that was worth doing properly as it would then keep them protected for the whole day).

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An early start to reach the ferry

I set off in the darkness under starry skies, enjoying the cool air after the previous day’s heat. As I reached the outskirts of Dunkirk I was treated to a beautiful sunrise, which promised another hot day to come. I spent a rather dull morning travelling in straight lines, either along the edges of canals or following Dunkirk’s long straight roads, the boredom only broken by the occasional tabac stop for coffee or a cold drink and to top up with water. I was starting to feel excited though at the prospect of reaching the UK and the final phase of my run, which helped keep my spirits up.

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Following one of Dunkirk’s canals

After around 17 miles I had reached the port. Foot passengers are not allowed on the Dunkirk to Dover ferry and so my husband Neil had kindly agreed to come across to France, drive me on to the ferry and drop me off again on the far side! We had arranged to meet at the roundabout just before passport control so that he could drive off one ferry, pick me up and drive straight back on again. I reached the roundabout, found a spot to wait in the shade and rang him to let him know I was in place. He looked at my location on the tracker and said it didn’t look quite right; lots of double checking later and I realised I had marked the wrong roundabout on my map – I actually needed to be another mile further up the road! So much for a nice leisurely wait in the shade! I grabbed my rucksack and ran on up the road, making it to the right roundabout just a few minutes before Neil did.

We got lots of funny looks on the ferry as I sat with my feet up on a chair, surrounded by a complete kit explosion as we swapped dirty clothes for clean ones and topped up with more food. I also did a bit of running up and down the ferry trying out a selection of different trainers, eventually opting for a pair that were a whole shoe size bigger than normal to accommodate my massively swollen feet. The ferry journey went all too quickly and in no time at all I was at the docks in Dover and getting my rucksack back on ready to run as far as my overnight stop in Folkestone.

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In sight of the White Cliffs of Dover with my mascot, Tommy the Teddy

I now joined the North Downs Way which I would follow towards London as far as the River Medway. The first section of this provided a tough introduction, with some steep climbs up onto the cliffs around Dover, but I was already loving it! I was in my element running on the hills in the beautiful evening light; my feet and legs relished the soft turf of the downs and my spirit soared at the gorgeous views. Neil met me again at Folkestone for supper at a pub, before he headed back home and I prepared myself for my remaining 4 days of running.

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Looking back down to Dover from the North Downs Way

 

Day 12 – Folkestone to Charing

I had been warned that today was to be the start of a major heatwave, so set out early to try and cover plenty of miles before the heat really kicked in. Staying cool was a challenge on the exposed downs, but I took it steadily and admired the spectacular views. I knew I was getting very tired now as reading the map was becoming more difficult and I was having to concentrate hard to avoid making navigational errors; I certainly didn’t want to add on any extra miles at this stage!

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Spectacular views at the Devil’s Kneading Trough

I was very grateful to the landlady of the pub in Stowting who suggested putting ice in my water bottles; this was to become part of my routine over the next few days to deal with the heat. I met a few dog walkers early in the morning, but then barely saw a soul until the afternoon when I met two walkers who were hiking the North Downs Way in stages. They were very impressed to discover that I had come all the way from Paris in less than 2 weeks and told me it had taken them 2 years make it from Winchester!

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The Wye Crown

I had a very late lunch and an ice cream in the pretty town of Wye, before heading on through some lovely parkland around Eastwell House towards my overnight stop near Charing. Although feeling tired I was loving the scenery of the North Downs and was very much enjoying this stage of the journey.

Day 13 – Charing to Nash Street

Thankfully the next section of the North Downs Way followed many shady drovers’ lanes under the edge of the Downs, which was a welcome relief from the heat. I passed through numerous bluebell woods, the woodland floor carpeted by swathes of blue in the dappled shade of the trees.

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Beautiful bluebell woods

Near Lenham I passed a memorial to those killed in both World Wars, in the form of a cross cut into the Downs; it was a poignant link to the earlier stages of my journey.

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War memorial on the North Downs Way

Around lunchtime I met up with Amy from the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS) to film some of my run. It was great to see a friendly face and provided a welcome distraction from the solitary miles. You can watch her footage here.

In the afternoon the day unfortunately became more exciting as I discovered a fire at Blue Bell Hill picnic site, caused by a discarded disposable BBQ; thankfully I was able to find someone at a nearby house and we managed to put out the fire with a bucket of water.

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Heading down to cross the Medway

Drama over, I crossed the River Medway on the pedestrian section along the side of the M2, before finding tranquillity again as I headed up through rolling fields and woodland towards Cobham. That evening I had the pleasure of being hosted by fellow ultra runner Annabelle, who understood exactly what I was going through and practically waited on me hand and foot. I felt very spoilt, although soaking my feet in cold water did have me writhing around on the ground in agony (but did help with the swelling)!

Day 14 – Nash Street to Greenwich

I was now finally approaching London. I started the day still following tracks through quiet fields and woodland, but sadly the proximity to the urban environment was apparent in the extensive fly tipping and the sight of several burnt out vehicles.

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One of several burnt out vehicles spoiling otherwise picturesque woodland

I followed the pretty Darenth Valley Path towards Dartford; passing under the M25 was a very happy moment and the end seemed in sight! I had planned a route which weaved into London through a series of parks and green spaces, staying off the tarmac as much as possible. My route took me along the River Cray and then via Danson Park, Shooters Hill and Blackheath, all linked by sections of road. I stopped in Danson Park for an ice cream and a drink near the children’s play area; it was absolutely heaving and it was strange to be surrounded by so many people after two weeks of running through quiet rural areas.

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Discovering London’s green spaces on the way to Greenwich

At Blackheath it was very exciting to see all the barriers and marquees being set up ready for the London Marathon. I was starting to feel quite emotional now and sat on the heath for five minutes, watching all the activity and collecting myself for the last mile and a half to Greenwich. Then with great excitement I made my way down through Greenwich Park to meet Neil. As I spotted him at the bottom of the hill the emotion all became too much and I burst into floods of tears; all the pain, exhaustion and tension of the journey finally bubbling to the surface and being replaced by a feeling of relief to have made it this far. Now I just needed to somehow get myself prepared to run the London Marathon!

Day 15 – London Marathon

My Mum was bringing my two children, Isaac and Emma, to London to watch the marathon and I couldn’t wait to see them all. I was very worried though; I was absolutely exhausted and was really concerned that I wouldn’t make it round the course within the 8 hour time limit. I strapped up my feet one last time and dosed up on paracetamol in an effort to manage the pain. Then it was time to join the hordes streaming through Greenwich Park on their way to the start.

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About to enter the London Marathon Start Area

It was feeling very warm, but I wasn’t too concerned about the heat having already been running in it for the past few days. I stayed in the shade as much as possible as we gradually moved forward in the starting pen. The atmosphere was fantastic and already I felt buoyed by the excitement and anticipation of the runners around me.

I decided to run as much as possible early on in an attempt to get some time in hand. As we crossed the line many people set off at speed as the adrenaline kicked in. My legs grumbled as I broke into a run, but I was surprised to find that they still felt strong with no particular aches and pains and I was able to settle into a comfortable rhythm. I enjoyed watching the crowds, getting high fives and marvelling at some runners’ fancy dress costumes.

My main aim was to run all the way to Mile 9, where I was hoping to see my family for the first time. I just managed to spot them, but couldn’t make my way across to them on this congested section of the course. I was amazed to find that my legs still felt fine though and stuck to my steady running pace, focusing on short sections and getting to the next milestone. I finally managed to see my family properly at Mile 11 and stopped for quick hugs all round, before pushing on to cross the iconic Tower Bridge. I kept giving myself small targets to aim for, halfway, then Mile 15, then the ABF charity cheering point at South Quay. Each time I was surprised to find that I was able to keep running strongly.

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Approaching Tower Bridge

Finally at mile 18, the exertions of the last two weeks caught up with me and I started to struggle. I reminded myself that I only had another 8 miles to do out of a journey of almost 400 miles and kept plodding on! I was still mostly running, but my pace had slowed and I needed the occasional walk break. Fortunately around this time I settled into a similar pace to Callum the Rhino. He was still going incredibly strongly despite the heat and was attracting massive cheers from the crowd as ‘First Rhino’! The wall of noise was incredible, surely as close a feeling as an amateur sportsperson can get to walking out at Wembley stadium, and it kept me pushing on. By Mile 24 the combination of the support from the crowd and the knowledge that the finish was within reach had me feeling strong again and I felt as though I was positively sprinting towards the line!

Running up the Mall under the Union flags I felt an incredible glow of pride and I punched the air as I crossed the finish line in another outpouring of emotion. Despite my exhaustion I had somehow completed the London Marathon in an almost identical time to my Paris run – one minute faster at 5 hours 3 minutes.

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With my Paris and London medals at the finish

 

Reflections

It took a while for my blisters to heal and to stop waking up in the middle of the night believing that I was supposed to be running somewhere, and it has also taken some time for the achievement of this challenge to actually sink in. I still have to pinch myself to believe that I actually ran 390 miles from Paris to London, the equivalent of 15 marathons in 15 days! I wanted to set myself a big challenge and it certainly was demanding, by far the toughest thing that I have ever done. When I struggled with my blisters I did at times worry whether I would actually be able to complete the run, but I discovered new reserves of both physical and mental strength that allowed me to keep pushing on despite the pain.

It was incredible to follow the Western Front on foot and it was an extremely emotional experience (probably made more so by tiredness!). It really felt that I was following in the footsteps of those who fought in the First World War and when my journey got tough I reminded myself of what those soldiers had gone through.

I am very grateful to my family for making it possible for me to undertake this challenge. As the Mum of a 7 and 5 year old it was difficult to leave them, both practically and emotionally, but knowing that I had my biggest supporters cheering me on was a massive boost. Hopefully it may inspire them to dream up their own adventures in the future!

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With my chief supporters

I am delighted to have raised nearly £4,500 so far for ABF The Soldiers’ Charity. If you have enjoyed hearing about my journey then please do consider making a small donation via my fundraising page, thank you.

 

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8 thoughts on “In the Footsteps of the Fallen: Heading Home

  1. What an achievement and amazing journey. I really enjoyed reading about your adventure, you nearly had me in tears reading about seeing Neil in Greenwich Park! Well done.

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  2. Wow, you really are amazing. Reading this brought tears to my eyes and I can only imagine the mix of emotions as you crossed that finish line. You should be very proud of yourself, and you are setting a fantastic example to your children of how to set and reach goals. So, so proud of you. Xxx

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  3. Wow, congratulations! I ran the London marathon a couple of years ago – but couldn’t imagine running from France to get there in the first place!

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