A View of the Oxon 40

Saturday 4th May 04.45. Why on earth is the alarm clock going off; it’s still dark for goodness sake? Ah, now I remember - it’s the Oxon 40.

Let’s go back 6 months to early November. I’ve heard of the LDWA but never knowingly met any members let alone walked with them. On an introductory mid-week walk in November I find that they walk at a reasonable pace, for a reasonable distance and don’t take unnecessary stops - just what I want from a day’s walking. That evening I joined the LDWA and started walking regularly with TV group by mid-December. Social walks are enjoyable 6 to 7½ hour walks when I can walk different areas to my usual ones, find out about the areas from other group members and chat. One recurring topic of conversation is challenge walks, of which I was completely ignorant until joining the LDWA. Listening to the conversations I start to wonder how far can I walk? Well the only way to find out is to try so in January I booked into the Pewsey 35 mile and Oxon 40 challenge walks purely on the distances. On the social walks I am now told "Pewsey? That’s a quick one, 35 miles in 11 hours". Naively I had not given any thought to the time allocated to complete the walk. Well Pewsey passed off OK, completed within the time (and quite a bit of cake eaten) and the Oxon 40 allows 2 more hours for only 5 more miles so it should be easier, shouldn’t it?

Back on the social walks and I start hearing that this year’s Oxon 40 is tough, maybe too tough, tales of 6000 feet ascent, experienced walkers have taken over the 13 hours during recces, although conditions were pretty poor. Then I’m reassured: "A reasonable LDWA walker should be able to complete it in 12½ hours or so". 12½ hours? That does not leave much room for error, what if I can’t follow the route description properly or have any problems? Suddenly there is a new problem being discussed by the organisers "Will the bluebells be out by the 4th?" Well if that’s their biggest problem they must be well organised. I printed out the route description in a large font and made sensible page breaks to be able to read and discard sheets as I went along. I also had Exp 171 with the route marked and the paragraph and check points clearly marked so that I could quickly check my position if needed. I was as prepared as I could be.

So we are back to the 4.45 alarm on 4th May. Get walking togs on, eat porridge, check kit and load car with clothing options, boots, rucksack and Bridget, who had offered to help in the kitchen. Then check kit again and drive to Henley reassuring myself that the past couple of weeks have been relatively dry and the forecast for today sounds good for walking so if I don’t get lost too many times I might be able to complete. I hope Bridget has forgotten my estimates of completion times as I don’t have the confidence I had after Pewsey.

Arriving at Henley YMCA at 6.30 I am met by cheerful people checking me in, offering a cuppa, wishing me good luck. Are they always this cheerful at 6.30? I leave Bridget in the hands of the kitchen team and hang around outside drinking my tea and deciding how much to wear. I don’t want to be continually taking clothes on and off as I’ll lose time and there’s not much to spare. I eventually decide on shirtsleeves and trousers, it’s chilly on the arms but I’ll be alright once we get moving. As 7 o’clock approaches everyone gathers outside for last minute instructions and I notice people sizing each other up and one or two positioning themselves the right side of the crowd for a good start, then we’re off. It’s a bit like the start of John Lewis’ sale as people move out of the car park and converge on the narrow lane to the left of the YMCA. Once out of the lane and onto the road the jostling for the front begins in earnest and before too long someone breaks into a run to be followed by several others running down the road. Why do they do that? They declare themselves as walkers to start at 7 and then run. Are they afraid they will miss out on the refreshments at the check points or do they think the kitchen will run out of meals after the first 100 participants are back? I know that the organisers’ biggest problem is the feared lack of bluebells so I’m confident that there will be enough food.

Details of the next 40 miles are a little patchy in my memory. Things went well at the start and I found myself being pulled along by some serious walkers for the first few hours. The route description is pretty easy to follow and being in a group means there’s the reassurance that we can’t all get it wrong. Anyway they look pretty experienced and exude the confidence I wish I felt. First thoughts are that the shirtsleeves were a mistake - it’s getting colder not warmer. Then CP1 comes into view; check in and into the hall to be welcomed with "Do you want a hot drink?" "Have something to eat or drink." Well the 5 o’clock breakfast does seem a long time ago I’ll just have a couple of sandwiches and maybe a piece of — What? The others are leaving already? But what about all this food? Oh well if that’s how it works I guess I’m off as well or I’ll never keep them in sight. That’s the way it went for the next few hours, weather was a little cool but I was in woods during the two brief rain showers (I was later told by the Chairman that he organised this).

I passed through CP2 better prepared; grab a drink, a couple of sandwiches, piece of cake or fruit and off. Sorry if I was rude to my fellow group members but I now realise why this is not called a social walk: there’s not much time to be social. A quick check of the GPS shows that we’re still making very good time, all my plans of keeping a steady 3.5mph are blown, the only question now is can I keep this up for the full 40 miles?

Arriving at CP3 (the lunch stop) it is now time to tighten the boots and have a little more than a grabbed sandwich so I just manage to leave in time to keep the last of the bunch in sight. The going underfoot is very good and it has warmed up now but I can see how difficult the ascents could be in the wet and with so many climbs I am extremely grateful for the couple of weeks of drier weather. I catch a root and take a tumble on the track down to Pishill - tiredness is setting in. By now things are pretty hazy; I remember seeing bluebells and I remember the Oxon 20 route joining the 40 near Stonor but that made it more difficult to see my target walkers. I apologise to all the Oxon 20 walkers enjoying their day’s walk who I hurried and squeezed past along the track. I apologise to those I raced to the gates so that I did not have to wait behind them. I also apologise to those who spoke to me but I was running out of energy to respond with much more than a "Hi", or a grunt. I remember that it was really starting to get warm now and I’m beginning to think that shorts may have been the better choice. However, more of a concern to me is that my knees are feeling the strain.

CP4 is the busiest one on the walk with both 20 and 40 milers checking in and feeding, I find that all the leading group of 40 milers are still here but as they leave I decide that it is more important for me to finish than to keep going at their pace so I mentally wave them off and say thanks for the ride - I’ll make my own way from here. Setting off not quite on my own as there are many 20 milers on the same route but I am now setting my own pace, it is slightly slower but interestingly (to me) my knees stop hurting. Maybe at this pace I can finish? Over the next few miles I meet several runners (one of them several times usually at junctions where I pass him and then he’ll pass me further along the track). Leaving the 20 mile route I thought I would envy them as they were going straight back but we’ve got another couple of loops to do yet, the weather has warmed up and I’m actually thinking that I’ll complete. Over the hill and into Hambleden, through the village and - who thought about sending us up this hill after 30 miles of walking? Uncharitable thoughts go through my mind but I guess it is not called a challenge walk without a reason. Round the hill and down through the Hambleden valley to CP5 in the car park. Now the priority is more water: I’ve got through a lot over the past couple of hours with the sun and hills but I also pick up a chocolate biscuit as a reward for getting here.

Out of CP5 and across the weir to turn left, when I know full well that Henley is to the right, but it can’t be far now just 4 or 5 miles and there’s plenty of time so I should be able to complete. After another couple of hills there start to be more people around, families out strolling and they look as if they’re enjoying themselves. To be honest I stopped thinking about enjoying the countryside a while ago and just concentrated on getting round without getting lost and walking further than I have to. Pretty soon I’m at Henley Bridge, the riverside is crowded with people and it is difficult to walk fast without tripping over a child or knocking someone over, probably not the best advert for LDWA so I’ll slow down and try to avoid the obstructions. At least I now know where I am and that I’m getting near to the end; Mill Lane, Noble Road and the YMCA. Made it, check in and - Gosh it’s really hot in here, I’m back outside to cool down. I obviously looked worse than I felt as several people asked if I was OK and Bridget brought me out a cuppa but after a breather, a meal and a sit down I felt much better. I even forgave Gerry for that hill out of Hambleden.

My first Oxon 40 and I really enjoyed it. It was well organised and efficient, all the helpers were cheery and helpful, the route description was easy to follow, the CPs were well supported and had a good range of food, the meal at the end was very welcome but most of all it was a good challenging walk. I felt a real sense of achievement afterwards and that is because I had been tested.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the success, most of whom I did not see to thank personally or was not in a fit condition to do so. The bluebells even put in an appearance in several of the woods, I guess the chairman organised that.

Ron Doole