From couch potato to 28km in just 4 months. How???

“I want to have a medal too”, she says one day. 

Out of the blue. Resolute. Hopeful.

Her brother has got many from various sporting events. Both hubby and I have a small collection between the 2 of us, him mostly from running, me exclusively from walking long distances.

I know this isn’t going to just go away. What Kathleen wants, Kathleen gets. Apart from being the soul of the party on a daily basis, she’s always been very determined and proved us wrong on many an occasion.

She is the oldest of 3. She is 20 and has Down’s syndrome. She’s never been the sporty one, never ran anywhere except to run away (I’m not joking!), will dance all night but will get tired from walking 10 steps! She’s also a fashion diva (She’s a model who will strut her stuff on the catwalk this Saturday at the London Fashion Week for FashionsFinestUK) who looks down on outdoors clothing. I remember thinking at that moment “Piece of cake! What could be the problem? “

I need to put my thinking cap on. Piece of cake, I think not. This is going to be a mammoth task. It may not be as hopeless as it seems, however. After all, we got her a Fitbit watch a few months ago and she loves to try and complete her circle, every now and then…

I feel very conflicted about it all, though. On the one hand, I’m elated at the thought of doing something that I love, TOGETHER! The few months she was away at college were very difficult for the 2 of us. I also love a challenge and want to make it happen for her.On the other hand, trekking is MY thing. It’s what has kept me off antidepressants for the past 6 years. It is how I re-energise, how I calm down. I also need to train for my next challenges but not at snail pace and certainly not with such short distances! How is this going to work????

 I first check out and spot the Thames Path Challenge immediately because 1/ it’s rather flat 2/ It’s in 4 months time 3/ it’s nearby, 4/ it’s her birthday soon so we could get her kitted out and make a big fun thing of it.. 

I tell her of my plan to get her that medal: I’ll register us for the first quarter, i.e. 28km and she’ll have to go on long training walks with me and our dog, Max. She’s on board!!!

The timing couldn’t be better actually: her dropping out of college means more time and flexibility for training, and her ongoing severe sleep anxiety could perhaps be reduced with the outdoors exercise!

Off we go to buy her the full kit, with her dad (always an added bonus). She’s ecstatic and can’t wait to try it all out.

We started off very slowly, with a 5km stroll. Well, that took for ever and didn’t go down very well with her feet. 

Each walk turned out to be a learning curve. For her. And for me!

She hates the wind (even if it’s a breeze, it messes up her hair and she’s quite OCD with her hair), so I made sure to bring pins and hair bands on the next walks. Problem solved.

She hates the sun, so we got her a sun hat for the next walks. Problem solved.

She gets bored quickly but loves music and dancing. She usually wears hearing aids. So, we got her wireless bone conduction earphones (they don’t sit in the ears but above them) for the next walks. Didn’t work that well in the beginning as the signal is diabolical where we train. With no distractions (can’t brag I’m fun company, and she is so not interested in scenery!), she focused way too much on her feet. So, I set up a custom-made playlist on her Spotify and that was a breakthrough! She started dancing on all our training walks and her favourite tunes helped take her mind off her feet many a times. Problem solved. (It has to be reported that by now, each tree in the area knows at least one AbbA song by heart…).

I started drumming into her that it may well be pouring down with rain on the day of the challenge and that we should at some point train in the rain as well! (She’s always hated the rain. Yes, it messes up her hair and she never really liked getting wet, except in the shower or in the bath). She eventually agreed and when we did, it went extremely well!!!

She even got into tree-hugging! 

Now, another big challenge was FOOD during the training. At the age of 18, Kathleen went from eating just about anything and everything to developing all sorts of intolerances which until they were identified were impacting on her health and behaviour. It means that she is now gluten-free, yeast-free and dairy-free (no almonds and hazelnuts either). You can imagine the stress whenever we are out for the day and need to eat. Yeast is the worst, it’s in EVERYTHING!!!

I then made the decision to eat exactly like her so I would understand how she feels. It enabled me to start meal-planning, cook everything from scratch, and be creative with snacks.

Food has always been a HUGE motivator for Kathleen so I would either make sure we had a good meal before we left or carry the meals in my backpack, and always carry a good stash of snacks (dates, crystallised ginger, fruit, DeliciouslyElla treats, dried apricots). Problem solved.

The one thing we struggled with throughout was how to care for her feet. They’re very sensitive. I tried all the tricks in the book but at the very end, what seemed to be working best for her was Vaseline or Gewhol cream all over her feet.

Every time we managed to resolve an issue, the greater distance we were able to cover. 

The surprise side effect it had on me was that I realised the therapeutical benefits of swearing  (not at her, obviously, but at the universe shall we say…). It seriously became my only way of letting off steam, in the middle of the woods… I mean, what do you do, what do you say after you’ve run out of arguments when she refuses to move, demands we get home NOW!!

I won’t lie, I believe I threatened to quit at least once per training session!

Each walk was draining, mentally for me, physically for her. There was never one that went smoothly, although it always started on a high. There were times when I was hoping she’d come to her senses and agree it had been a crazy idea from the beginning. She never did. There were other times when I doubted myself; had I set the bar too high? Was I setting her up for failure? Was I pushing her too hard, not enough? And yes, there were times I doubted her ability to achieve her goal.

I felt proud and helpless and mad all at the same time! 

But you know what, in spite of all this, she always managed to make me look at her in awe and utter amazement. As she has for the past 20 years…

In between the issues, she was hilarious, dancing, chatting, singing, totally happy. I couldn’t get enough of these precious moments. She was so resilient.

Training her may have been my biggest challenge but the whole thing was a massive one for her! She had to overcome her sensory issues with wind and rain, endure sore feet, give up her favorite TV shows and favourite pastime (watching YouTube videos of her favourite artists and write it all down on notebooks).

I watched her walk 5km, then 6, then 10 all the way up to 16! She kept at it, all the way complaining, laughing, dancing and singing!

I believe that attending various events and being at the finish line witnessing her parents get a medal, feeling the energy and the buzz, triggered her ambition to get her own.

And the big day arrived. She had to complete the first quarter, i.e. 28km whereas the furthest she had ever walked in one shot was 16! 3,000 people were to take part, either for the full 100km, or 50 or a quarter. All for their own reasons. All with an amazing story. She was the only one with a learning disability.

We could hardly contain our excitement. We arrived the night before to register. Stayed at the hotel. I had brought our dinner, our breakfast for the next day, and our lunch and snacks for the challenge which I expected could last anything between 8 to 10 hours. (Let me point out that the organisers try and do cater for most dietary restrictions but as yeast is a B…tch, I didn’t want to take any chances!).

She loved everything about this challenge, mostly the incredible buzz at the start line, the friendly faces, the kindness oozing from everybody, the warm-up, Dave the Master of Ceremony, and the impending joy of being presented with a medal.

She was talking to just about everyone and anyone, telling them to be strong and to keep up as they were regularly passing us by!!! All of them had a kind word to say to her!

Unfortunately, I realised I had made 2 mistakes by the 5km… 1/ We had trained mostly in the forest, hardly ever on tarmac. The Thames Path Challenge is mostly flat and mostly on tarmac. (terrain and footwear make a huge difference when it comes to pressure points and muscles used) Oops…

2/ So when she started complaining about her pinkie toes that early in the challenge, I thought it would be best for her to swap to trainers instead of the walking boots she had trained in. Second mistake. I should have taken care of her pinky toes and put her walking boots back on, leaving the trainers for the last 3km or so.

She was glad to reach the 14km rest stop where she had some food, a drink and during which I massaged her feet and legs.

Sian, a most wonderful Trek Master, volunteered to team up with her until the finish line. They bonded straight away! So after about 30mn at the rest stop, the 3 of us set off for the remaining 14km. Bob, another volunteer Trek Master, had also offered to team up with us during the 2nd half. Kathleen is a people’s pleaser and she loved walking flanked by these 2 lovely human beings.

I was only in it to record the whole thing, take pictures and post on social media and that’s exactly what I did! I was so grateful to Bob and Sian. Kathleen really got on with them and showed off her dancing and singing skills at the most unexpected times!

All was good until about 25km. Kathleen then starting experiencing pain at the top of her feet and on the arches. She was fed up. 

Her dad showed up with our dog just before 28km which gave her a short-lived boost. She couldn’t wait to hit 28km. But when we did, we were still not at the finish line and that nearly broke her as we kept telling her it’s round the corner.

Eventually, and with much coaxing, she not only received her medal and crossed the finish line, she was given the love tunnel to run through!!!

I cried before, during and after. I am just so darn proud of this young woman. Hearts should be made of Spandex because really, mine has run out of space to store all the love I feel for her and my other 2. All she could say on the way back home in the car, and until she fell asleep, was: “Can you believe it? I got my own medal!!”

The next day, she insisted on accompanying me to the 100km finish line to get the bag we’d forgotten and gave out hugs and medals to the participants who crossed the finish line during the 2 hours we were there.

I am scared to report that she wants me to sign her up for 100km!! That’s not going to happen, worry not! I may consider a 25km on a different challenge but most definitely with the same epic organisation! From top to bottom, across the board, staff, volunteers, participants, all first class! xxx

If you wish to support the cause she did the challenge for, here is the link:

To be continued….

You can follow Kathleen’s story on the following social media (YouTube will be up soon): Facebook: Kathleen Humberstone

Instagram: @kathleenhumberstone

Twitter: @KathleenHumber4

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