The task was simple: drag a 20kg tyre along the length of the Brecon - Monmouth canal in mid-winter. The last big training session before a trip to Norway.
 
Even I, with my rudimentary navigation skills and frankly hopeless sense of direction couldn’t get lost. I’d prepared warm, waterproof gear and definitely over-catered with snacks; bananas, quavers and peanut M and Ms (so, all major food groups).
 
Four of us met at the basin of the canal in Brecon. The sky was dull and the wind was gathering itself to blow hard. I’m pretty used to clipping myself into my specialist harness (soon to be used to pull a real pulk, not a Land Rover tyre) and I was quickly ready to go. I tucked in second but I was overtaken within a few minutes and fell into third place. Our fourth team mate was handicapped by a new tyre and rope set up, and had to stop a few times to get it sorted. 
 
The first half hour was a much faster pace than I’m used to. Dragging the tyre to start with, months ago, I was working at 1.5miles per hour. I’m now up to roughly 2.5mph, but we were off at a swift pace even without a tyre, and I was sure I couldn’t keep it up. 
 
Mentally it does strange things to you, what your team mates are doing. As soon as they were round the first bend in the canal I settled down to my own pace. It was difficult terrain for the first few hours. The canal had flooded and the path was strewn with muddy, stick-filled debris ideal for building up in front of and inside the tyre. Stopping every few minutes to clear the tyre delayed me further and I began to doubt wether I could make it through the first hour, never mind the whole day. The first leg was to Gilwern, which we’d figured as 15 miles away. I was working in blocks of time, to most closely replicate the skiing routine I can expect in Greenland and eventually Antarctica. I hauled for 70 minutes, and stopped for a five-minute break to take on food. By the end of the first leg I couldn’t see anyone and I was already feeling the pace. Stopping felt wonderful - I sheltered from the blustery weather under one of the many bridges and readjusted - took layers off, ate and then the five minutes were already up. 
 
I settled into a routine after that which went something like this: clip into harness. Reset watch to zero. Switch on music and begin. I began to make deals with myself - that boat up ahead? You can check the time after that boat. You’ve hauled for 20 minutes? Great! Only another two lots of 20 minutes and 10 more to go till the next break. Think about using your walking poles more. Try placing the poles wider. Try placing the poles closer. You can have a sip of drink now. Planning what I was going to eat on the next break. You can check the time again now. Remember to enjoy the view! This place is beautiful! And so on. And on and on. 
 
I began to get an insight into what it was like for the guys crossing Antarctica. Although we were a team, it’s actually very much a solo effort for a lot of the day. You’re on your own. My private sorrows; the pain in my ankle, the fatigue, the horizontal rain, were balanced by private joys; a beautiful, full rainbow, a robin who hopped onto consecutive fence posts as I moved along, the fragile, architectural lichen on the branches. And sometimes the surroundings worked as a distraction; remembering to notice the smell of the woodsmoke from cosy house boats, the scent of wet bark in the woodland alongside the canal and the picturesque mix of wooden locks and brick-built bridges. This used up a lot of time. And some legs I didn’t even notice maybe ten, maybe twenty minutes going by. A few times it felt like all I’d ever done was drag a tyre. 
 
Then, around half way, I could see two of my team mates stopped up ahead. My heart leaped with happiness - just seeing the others buoyed me and I was determined to arrive looking cheery. Then one of them clipped back into his harness and was off. My heart sank. They were off again. I thought they’d wait for me. But one was walking back towards me. He’d been feeling unwell and had opted to ditch his tyre behind a wall and come back to pick it up later. ‘You could ditch your tyre here too,’ he offered. 
 
What went through my mind was, first of all, ‘great. I’m so done with this. He’s taken his tyre off. Now I can too.’ But team mate number one was off again, already five minutes ahead. I was 34 minutes into a leg. ‘I’ll just finish this leg. Then I’ll stop.’ I thought to myself. Actually I hoped Pete, the guy in front, would give up, and then I’d give myself permission to do the same. 
 
The time to take a break between legs arrived. There was no sign of Pete, so I thought ‘I’ll just do another leg.’ And so it went on. Just like the route. We’d started at bridge 161 (or something. At the time it wasn’t too important). But I began to live for the next bridge. I knew we finished the day at bridge 106. I started noticing bridge numbers at around the 140s. I remembered to appreciate them. After that I wasn’t appreciating then, I was counting them down. I met a few folks who asked what I was doing. ‘I’m walking to Gilwern.’ ‘Oh. That’s quite a long way.’ ‘Oh really?’ I replied. By this point I’d past the 10-mile point and was sure I was nearly done. ‘Oh yes, it’s a long way from here.’
 
And so it was. It wasn’t the fifteen miles we’d thought - the canal weaved around and the route was in fact almost twenty miles. I began to check out places where the canal was near the road, thinking I could dump the tyre and call ahead to say I’d had enough. 
 
Then I caught sight of Pete up ahead. It looked like he’d stopped, but I couldn’t see that far ahead to see what had happened. He was moving again but I was catching him up. Soon he’d stopped again and when I caught up with him he looked in pain. His knees were shot and he’d found some improvised walking poles from the woodland. I gave him some painkillers washed down with Lucozade. We discussed our options. We were the last two out with our tyres. We estimated Gilwern to be about 3 miles away. Pete said he’d crawl on his hands and knees if he had to. I believed him. Which meant I had to press on. 
 
Being in front spurred me on, and for a while I surprised myself with my brisk pace. I kept to 70 minutes hauling, 5 minutes break, like clockwork. I began to check my watch every five minutes. The breaks seemed to get shorter. Gilwern was a long way beyond 3 miles away. Dusk was gathering and it became increasingly difficult to tell canal from path, bridge from branches. (There were a lot of branches which I’d hoped were bridges). I came across one ruined bridge which - gloriously - still counted as a numbered bridge. I reached bridge 107. One to go! I called ahead as the others had walked to the finish sans tyres and were at the end point. ‘No, it’s not bridge 106. It’s bridge 103.’ Had I misheard (deliberately to fool myself?). It was at least another 70-minute leg. If this was what the days were like in Greenland, I doubted my sanity in signing up. I trudged on into the darkness - the lights of Gilwern far ahead in the distance. I chanted my new-found mantra. Some people favour Shackleton’s ‘by endurance we conquer,’ or some other well-known maxim. But the word ‘endurance’ seemed too negative. I went for Captain Oates’ (rather less famous quote) ‘We came here to fight, not to surrender.’ (From his days in the Boer War, rather than his Polar journey). Weirdly, it helped. Whatever keeps you going. 
 
I took a break - ostensibly to switch on my head torch and add a few layers but I was struggling and a breather was what I really needed. I called ahead again. I was two sodding bridges away still. The rest of the team offered to come down and meet me, and walk in with me. That kept me going for another bridge, and then I saw bobbing head torched coming towards me. It was a wonderful sight and suddenly I knew I was home and dry. My speed increased to a remarkable rate. One I was unclipped from the tyre I felt like I was literally and physically waking on air. I’d made it back. I was the first home. The confidence it gave me - that I can make it though, by counting minutes, or bridges, or sips of water, by talking to myself or repeating mantras. Whatever it was, I’d made it.
 
The plan was to do the rest of the route - at least another 13 miles - the next day. But none of us had done anything like the distance before and we’d under-estimated the effort involved in the first 19.6 miles.
 
I spent a restless night worried that we would go ahead with the second leg the following day, wondering how I’d ever begin to clip in and set off again in the morning - so it was with some relief that the consensus was to come back and do the second leg separately. When we got together that night (in the bar, where else) that’s when we shared our stories of rainbows and robins and aches and pains. 
 
And that’s where the team had my back - it wasn’t a solo effort anymore. It was ok to call it done for now. And like everyone knows, the decision of the collective team is almost always better than that of the individual. 
 
 
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