On walking a 100 km in a day
Last summer, a friend asked me if I wanted to do a 100km walk in Germany in September. I said yes. I'd meet a bunch of Internet friends in real life, and it'd be challenging. At that point, I had no idea just how much.
I had bought new shoes a week earlier. A week is enough to break them, right? Right?
No it was not. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
So I went to Munich, I stayed at an old wizard's apartment, I met the would-be-in-alternate-history heir to the Bavarian throne at a bier garden, and I did the 100km walk.
Too fast? Fine, let's rewind.
The wizard was an old German man with a beard that befits his fictional vocation. He had jars upon jars of Q-tips and toothpicks lining his tiny wood-paneled kitchen. He made his own built-in stereo for it too. Cool dude. Good host. Now onto the next character.
The heir to the royal family of Bavaria is a cool guy too. You can have a normal chat with him over a ridiculously oversized bierstein. He's a little busy, but that can be expected.
And now for the walk.
It turns out that the new shoes were a mistake. Despite taping a good part of the foot surface area, some parts were left untaped. More on that later.
The walk was for Africa. Most participants were predictably German, since the whole thing took place in Bavaria, near the Austrian border. There were only a couple people from other countries. 4 Americans, 3 Germans, and 1 Czech walk into... no, just walk. That was our international group that set out from the Bavarian Prince's castle to walk 100km, a little after 2PM.
The first 30km were easy. Nice 5.1km/h pace. This first part led us through the woods and meadows of Bavaria, and along a beautiful lake.
One nice thing about walking a long time in a group is that you get to chat with everyone. You walk up to one member and chat, then you drift to another. You really do get to know people. You're walking along a set route, you're in the only international group (in-group, you might say), so you might as well chat. You start with the usual questions, and then it turns more into banter, and then it starts going in the direction of serious topics. Or the breeding habits of eels, doesn't really matter. You know you'll be stuck with each other for the next 24 hours, so there's plenty of time to discuss anything you want.
And so we walked, and walked. Hunting down the arrows that were supposed to guide us was harder than we had imagined. GPS route saved us more than once.
After a dinner of curry at the first major stop, the arrows turned into glowsticks, and day turned into night. The glowsticks are an underrated navigational device. Soon, I made up a mini-game with a friend: he who sees a glowstick first calls it, and gets a point.
It's a simple game, it lasted us the whole night. Jokes and these kinds of social mini-games were a staple of the walk. At first, they were more playful, but then humor started to serve another function.
Somewhere along the line, and way before the finish line, blisters started to form on my feet. The untaped areas made themselves known, painfully so.
It was before the 2AM tomato soup stop. That's where the real walk began, and that is the beginning of me not being able to convey the true experience of the walk to you.
The tomato soup in a mug at 2AM in the middle of nowhere, Bavaria, was good. The best tomato soup in a mug at 2AM in the middle of nowhere, Bavaria, that I've ever had. As I drank the hot soup, I did try to tape the untapable, but failed. Over the course of the next 30km or so, pain became my companion. Each step hurt a little more, and a little more. Conversation continued, though not as lively as before. The words and the humor took on more of an edge, as the pain manifested in different ways for different members of the group. A knee here, a hip there, a blister on my heel... Some of us were alright, others, like me, were not. Still, we continued treading the glowstick-girded path through German woods.
It was somewhere during the 50-70km mark where the experience turned from one of some pain and some fun into one of mostly pain. I am not exaggerating. My shoes were of the heel-first persuasion, and both my heels had blisters on them, from the untaped side. Likewise, the tip of the shoe was fairly tight, and so blisters formed between my toes. The middle of my foot was the taped area, and was safe. However, it turns out that you can't really walk on just the middle of your foot. So, every time my heel or toes connected with the path (mostly asphalt, some gravel), I experienced pain.
The fun part was that you could predict how long you'd walk. Our pace started at 5.1 km per hour and remained at that mark for the first 30km. Then it dropped to 5.0 km/hour. Then 4.9km. And so, in pain at the 70km mark, I could predict that I have roughly 6 hours of more pain with each step ahead of me. That's the sort of number that one can't fixate too much at that point.
So I fixated on walking, as did the others. The conversation became sparse, crowded out by the pain. The focus of one's thoughts turned more inward, only occasionally coaxed out by a fresh conversation topic, despite the beauty of the moonrise, or the magnificence of the Alps ahead of us.
At the 70km stop, a German organizer took one look at me, trying to win the tape Whackamole, and immediately asked if I needed a doctor. That would have been concerning to a less stubborn individual.
In case you're curious, I think 70km is enough for a nice long walk. I'd walked 70km in the freshman year of high school with our biology teacher and a couple classmates. Twice. The second time, I didn't have blisters. That was fun. The first time, I did. And that is the experience I thought back to on this walk. The notable difference is, however, that we did not stop at 70km. No, there was still 30km ahead of us. 6 hours. 6 long hours. But I digress.
We continued walking. After that stop, I could only shuffle for a couple kilometers. Then the muscles remembered that slower speed meant more time walking (and more pain), and so I sped up from 3km per hour to about 4.4 in the hour after leaving the 70 km stop.
Somehow, I got some second wind before the 90km stop and half-walked, half-waddled ahead of the main group. That's where I took out my secret weapon: kratom. It's a mild drug that gives energy and also, crucially, dulls pain. For the next hour, I was cheerful. Alas, the dose (I didn't take my barista scale with me) was too low, and so the pain returned with verve.
The last 10 km were just plain pain. The Alps ahead of us were beautiful. I tried to remind myself of that every 15 minutes or so when I looked up from the path for a brief moment. The conversation turned into short sentences and grunting, with a very occasional humorous comment that was extra funny, contrasted with our state of exhaustion and pain.
"Hey, did I tell you, this walk was such a great idea!"
This was one of the running, well, waddling jokes of the whole walk.
Some genius thought it would be fun to have a castle be the end of the route. This is genius, you see, because castles are famously constructed on hills. And with the slope, the pain increases too.
There was a funny incident right before the finish. Not funny to me of course, but most definitely to the old man who was sitting on a bench with his wife. As I was shuffling by, he looked up. And then he laughed. It took him perhaps half a second. One look at me. Laugh. This illustrates the state I was in at that point. There was little on my mind except just shuffling ahead with another member of the group who had been reduced to a non-communicative state by the walk.
But I got to the finish. I got my medal. I exchanged a couple words with the Bavarian prince and then engaged in what had become a running joke with the Water Man.
Water Man: Vasser? (German for water.) Me: Yes, sir.
Very funny to us both, as we haven't slept for over 24 hours, and while I walked, he provided water to all the other wanderers.
The bliss that came when I sat down on the castle terrace was intense. The relief I felt was indescribable. And that's nearly the end.
Then we headed to a restaurant, chatted a bit, and dispersed. Our group of 8 made it, which is fairly remarkable since only about 1 in 8 people generally walk the whole 100km.
Then I hobbled to the place we were staying at, took a cold shower, and slept. The rest are boring details.
The conclusions? While I have described the pain, I can't really convey it. The walk is the most challenging thing I've ever done. Not in its intensity of exhaustion, but in the sheer amount of time under pain. I genuinely made me think of torture, many, many times in the last 30 km.
It's hard to describe it in a succinct way, as you may have noticed. The scenery was beautiful. The conversations were great. The pain was ... well, I believe I may have mentioned something about that. The whole experience became a testament of what a human spirit can endure, for me at least, others might have had a different experience entirely.
Anyway, I hope this year's walk is just a bit less challenging.