I have always believed that the type of marathon walking I do, is of the highest level of athleticism. When I was 16 I ran 2 to 3 miles before breakfast and between 5 and 8 miles in the evening. I trained to run the mile and was recording faster times than Roger Banister was at that age. On my last school sports day I entered every race – 100 yards, 220, 400, and the mile and 100 yards relay. I won the lot and broke the school records. The school Matron came upto me afterwards and said I was a fantastic runner; I know! Unfortunately there was no one to lead me on further and after a lot of very serious rock climbing, I took on marathon walking. Simply because it was something I could do much longer than marathon running and kinder to my body. I believe my record shows that I have brought marathon walking to Olympic standard and in many ways has not equalled. Even after my unprecedented mileage of 217,000 miles and still counting – the average human walks 75,000 miles in his/her lifetime - I am still in the same body I was born with, same hips and knee joints and no pain anywhere. I am now wearing my 131.pair of boots.
The test for a true Champion is longevity. The majority of “Champions” are in my mid, just a “One hit wonder”. After their achievement they do no more or simply retire. A true champion goes on, does more, and achieve's more remarkable endeavours. My first long walk was some 50 years ago and since then have not retired but continued to do long marathon walks every year. Many people consider running a marathon a great achievement, it is but in the wider picture it is not so remarkable. Today a few run one everyday for a week, but this is nothing, for although I walk I do more than a marathon a day in miles, but also carry 50/60(25/30 kilo's) pounds on my back for months on end, without a rest day. When I walked across America – 4,263 miles – I averaged 24 miles a day for 178 days. I had reduced the daily mileage on purpose so as not to occur any foot problems; I didn't.
On the Appalachian Trail I walked 32 miles with 30 kilos on my back for ten days – I was carrying 2 weeks food and fuel, but eased off to 28 miles a day, as I was concerned of overdoing it. As the Americans remarked, “I was smoking up the trail”! I never set out to do this, it just became natural and was never under any pressure and I never felt tired at the end of the day.
The only time I have pushed it too far, was on my 7,000 mile record breaking walk around Britain's shoreline. I averaged 28 miles a day for some 120 days and suddenly felt pain in my right foot. Unknowingly I had a stress fracture in my third metatarsal, I had simply walked too much. I had no previous knowledge of this and thought I had somehow sprained my foot. Prior to this walk my longest walk without a rest day was only 2,200 miles. I did another 300 miles on the sore foot and reaching Glasgow had my foot x-rayed. The doctor told me of the break – it had flexed over 1 million times - and told me to stop walking and have my leg in plaster; to immobilise me! To continue I would do permanent damage.
My foot and leg were put in plaster but after two weeks had to be redone as I itched too much! After a month the plaster came off and the specialist told me to rest my legs and walk no more than 2 miles a day! “Perhaps in three months time you could set off again!”, he said. I said nothing but walked with a limp. The next day I climbed a Munroe and felt fine. Over the next six days I did six more – one each day - and then went to see the specialist. He said I was walking well and told him what I had been doing and that I was setting off around the coast again in the morning! He went quiet.
I set off and did 17 miles the first day and was still limping, and for the next few days hovered around the 17 mile walk. I knew I was walking my foot back into walking order and as the days passed naturally increased the mileage and was soon back to walking 30 miles a day. I went on and did more than 3,500 miles without a rest day and had no more foot problems, although the final couple of weeks my performance was ragged; some days good, some days bad. Again I had walked too much, had stabbing pains in my legs and had lost two stone in weight; I am 6 foot tall and weighed just over 9 stone! I was simply burning off muscle tissue. It was all mind over matter, having the right frame of mind. This is essential for marathon walking, few walkers understand the mental and physical pressures that you go though on a marathon walk. A party of three hikers may set off to walk the Appalachian Trail together but after three weeks they are walking alone or gone home.
Mental attitude is the key. I work out my basic daily route months beforehand. I visualise myself being at the finish and know totally I will get there. Each night on a walk I get the tent up and lie down, resting my legs for some 12 hours. This enables me to get up the next morning refreshed and ready to do it all again. As I lay there I run through the following day's walk plan, so that when I wake up my mind is already programmed to do the day's walk; I know my day's goal and will get there whatever the problems.
Over the years I have developed and refined my techniques and have naturally come to the same conclusions that doctors and nutritional experts supporting the cyclists on the Tour de France have arrived at. The technique of visualising I have been doing for many years. Milk is a great source of food and liquid for the body and helps restore muscle tissue. I drink 2 or 3 pints of milk a day on a walk – on the coast walk some 1500 pints! Food such as tuna and beetroot have huge benefits when on a long haul, be it walking or cycling and I have naturally eaten this food many nights on a walk, on all my walks.
In hot weather I carry no water nor drink any, despite considerable criticism this is no hardship and the best way to walk through deserts and temperatures 100-120 F. The simply fact is the more you drink the more you want. And the more you drink the more you sweat. And, water is heavy to carry. Desert nomads follow the same principle. Like the cyclists I have found if there is a stream by my path, I don't drink the water but splash some on my face and momentarily cool down and feel refreshed – cyclists splash bottled water over themselves as they ride. If you want to pursue these principles, on food and drink, I can highly recommend the book - “The science of the Tour de France – training secrets of the world's best cyclists” by James Witts. (Bloomsbury Books 2016).
To achieve this attitude of marathon walking you have to be totally dedicated; single minded and spend years in training slowly adjusting your body and mind to the long-term goal. Like all things in life it does not happen over night and there is no fast track. You have go out and walk regularly and often, putting in a few miles every few days. Gradually you build up your strength, stamina and determination. As you progress from a 100 mile walk to a 200 mile walk you begin to understand your body and its limits. You also begin to fully understand yourself mentally. In time you realise that it is not physical fitness that is the key but having the right mental approach. You will learn that you can push yourself incredibly and nothing is impossible.
This was how I started, a 100 mile walk and climb around the Isle of Arran. Then, next a 250 mile walk and climb around the Island of Mull. Then a leap to 1,000 miles without a rest day. Then a 1,600 mile walk, then 2,000 miles. And the year before my 7,000 mile coastal walk, I walked in “training” some 3,500 miles, including a 1,600 mile Lands End to John o' Groats walk – walking and linking the two extremities of the mainland was a huge physiological boost to the walk. As I clocked up the miles I realised that after 500 miles I was settling in to the routine. After 1,000 miles becoming more at peace with the walk. After 1,500 miles I was at one with the walk and nothing was too hard and was at the start of my peak performance. This would last to about 2,500 miles when I would begin to physically decline but still maintained a very high mileage – a marathon a day. If you walk the Pennine Way at 271 mile you have overcome the initial walk problems and adjustments, but there is much more to do to reach the state of “enlightenment” walking. Having trained myself over the years I do not have to “get fit” beforehand; I am already in the zone for the walk and a natural athlete. I simply tell myself the plan and it all goes like clockwork. I have wired my brain and mind to be super walking consciousness. You should never over do it, your body will tell you when you have done enough. Train with the gear you will use on the walk and break in the boots so they are like slippers. Carry your heavy pack for once on the walk the weight and pressure on your feet will be very different from a day walk and day pack.
I am often asked, “Do you ever feel like quitting?” The answer is no and the thought never enters my mind. I just get on with the task in hand and enjoy it, whether its stormy, torrential rain, muddy paths, or baking hot sun. It's all part of the walk and experiences that I will look back on as a highlight of the day.
It is a hard road but not lonely one for you are geared up mentally for the task ahead; there is nothing to fear. Don't let anyone put you off. Just set off and place one foot in front of other and the miles and days will float by, as in a wonderful dream.
I break all the so called “rules” of walking, but then a pioneer is always ahead of the field, breaking new ground. I carry minimal and no fancy equipment -I don't use or carry walking poles, don't inform anyone of my route, have no backup, no phone, and no emergency contingency plans. I am totally free with no burdens or deadline. But I know one inescapable fact, I will make it unharmed. This is not foolhardiness, just knowledge and unprecedented experience gained over the years. I can cope with being in a crowd and alone for weeks at a time. I can be walking in baking temperatures or in sub-zero temperatures, it makes no difference. I know myself inside out and know how I react to all kinds of situations. What lies around the corner spurs me on.
Over the weeks and months walking 20 to 30 miles a day, I have adjusted from the “modern” world to living a simple life. Nothing is too much trouble. I am at peace and just enjoy each step, view, building, tree, flower, bird and animal I see along my path. Usually it takes three months to reach this enlightened state of mind, so the reverse is true upon completion. It takes three months to become “normal” again. To sleep in a bed, eat at a table, wear shoes and long trousers, pick-up the phone and talk to people. But, the next walk is being planned.
(2,107 words – 2/9/2016 – Copyright - Revd. John N. Merrill)