I have just got back from an amazing experience attempting to trek from France to Spain over The Pyrenees following the famous “Chemin de la Liberte”, also known as The Freedom Trail. This route is tough. In fact very tough. It was used during WW2 by evading and escaping Allied airmen and Jewish refugees to flee occupied France into neutral Spain. These people were running for their lives pursued by the Nazis and many of them paid the ultimate price. It is now used as a training exercise by the SAS and other military units.
Ultimately, I didn’t make it. I took the painful decision to pull out at the end of the second day at the “point of no return”, beyond which if anyone gets into difficulties the whole team has to pull out. I was incredibly frustrated as I still had more to give. But the next two days, although shorter, are steeper and harder and the high altitude and heavy packs were already making the trek one of the toughest things I have ever done. I am very proud that my son Tobias Heywood-Bourne went on to complete the trek with three others from our group (that’s him in the photo).
I had selected this challenge at the end of last year, as a motivation to get fitter and to help with the effects of Parkinson ’s Disease which I have had since 2009. Although I didn’t complete the trek, I have undoubtedly achieved my main objective of getting fitter. In preparation I climbed Snowdon and Ben Nevis. There are many other positives to draw from the trip; I have found something new that I love to do; getting out into the great outdoors is fantastic for your mental health; I have made some wonderful new friends along the way; I am now fitter and stronger and have lost over a stone in weight.
These are all well and good. But during the two long days I spent waiting for the others to return, I wondered what were the real lessons that this trip had taught me. Just what were the deep insights that sometimes only failure can reveal?
There were three:
1. Do your research thoroughly. Don’t make assumptions. I had done all the training the company marketing the trek had suggested, but it wasn’t enough. I assumed that the guide worked for the company that we had booked with. He doesn’t. Contacting our guide directly would have confirmed how difficult it was and what training was necessary.
2. It probably won’t be one big issue that defeats you. Hopefully you have all the big basses covered. It is more likely to be a combination of several small things. In my case a slightly heavier pack, slightly steeper ascents, for slightly longer periods, at higher altitudes in wet and slippery conditions. I could probably have coped with any one of these, or possibly two, but in combination it was just too risky.
3. Be pro-active. Over train. Don’t accept ‘just enough’ or ‘second best’. You never truly know what is around the corner so be the best “you” you can be. “Train hard, fight easy” as a good friend once advised me. And prepare early, you might not get a second chance.
It seemed to me, in that lonely hut on the mountainside, that this last point is the most important. We never know what fate has in store for us, with our health, our career, our loved ones, etc. We must be as prepared as we can be for the knocks that life will definitely throw at us at some point. Trying to deal with it when it happens is too late. Be prepared now to face, or hopefully avoid, the pitfalls and challenges that life is going to throw at you. Because you know it will, you just don’t know when.