Firstly, apologies for a considerable absence in content over the last few weeks but if you’ve been following me on social media you’ll realise that I’ve had other things to do. But like it or not, I’m back! Now, as this is an entertainment website, I realise that the following article is just about as far removed as you can get but as it’s my website I think you’d agree that I can do what I want! If you come to Beyond The Title looking for my narrow minded opinions on the state of today’s TV then you might be a little disappointed because last weekend I achieved a personal goal to walk to the top of a mountain. This explains my textual absence for over two weeks but I’m sure you can appreciate, it was definitely worth it!
I’ve never really been one for physical challenges – I’ve always thought they were for people with far better physical prowess than me. Yet last year over a dinner party round a friend Sarah’s house she told me of her upcoming mountain walk in the Brecon Beacons National Park. Having never even gone to Brecon I was just interested to know what if was like. We got talking and a while later Sarah uttered the words “Have you ever thought about hiking a mountain Josh?” The simple answer to that question was no and the only mountain I’d previously thought about was Cold or Big! (For those of you who are up on your nineties one hit wonders!). Yet it did get me thinking: could I actually get to the top of one?
Anyone who knows me is well aware that despite my strong opinions about the way I like to be moved, I also uphold fears about who it is who moves me – for god sake if you catch me on the wrong day I don’t like anyone moving me let alone a whole team! So I knew that if I was actually going to do this, it was going to have to be with the right people (yeah, I know I sound like a diva but not for the first time!). It was time for me to start to assemble my team of unfortunate souls who I wanted to get me up this big hill and like most things in my life it was going to ruffle a few feathers but did I care? Did I fuck?!
In a funny sort of way, I always think walking me requires a far better technique than to lift me because you need to be totally in sync with my body and the way it moves. I need to know that the person walking me is going to let me walk at my pace in the style I like. I’ve lost count how many times new carers automatically think that I don’t actually walk at all, I just like to be held in a way that looks like I’m walking but really my legs are in mid air taking less weight than a gust of air. This couldn’t be further from the truth and I like to think I can take my own weight and merely need support on my top half for balance and support. Forget leg day at the gym, walking takes all my energy so it’s clearly obvious that I’m actually doing something.
For the past eight months I’ve been slowly increasing my walking regime in a bid to give me the slightest chance of completing such a mission. We’ve been out in all weathers experimenting with different terrains and different walking techniques to prepare me for the big day. For someone who spends 90% of their day in a wheelchair, it’s very refreshing to see the world from another perspective ie upright as opposed to sat down. It’s at these times when I realise that I am very lucky to have this luxury and just feel sorry for those in a similar situation who perhaps don’t. There are many people in my situation who I’m sure would love the opportunity to walk up a mountain but either lack the physical resources to do it. I’m certainly not the only person with CP to crave physical stimulation and can’t imagine a life without it.
Compiling my perfect walking team was a difficult process: I not only had to consider people’s physical strength but also their technique in walking me. Like anything, everyone has their own way of walking me which is perfectly fine but I have preferred ways that I like to walk and I needed to make sure that the people in the team were going to adhere to my preferences. It took several months but I eventually settled on a team consisting of: my carer Ben, his brother and friends Tom, Sam and Frank with moral support from a large group of friends who were absolutely vital to me completing the challenge.
I always knew that to conquer such a feet was going to require hard work, dedication and a lot of training. I started by enrolling at my local fitness centre, somewhere I hadn’t been for a very long time. To see me bounding into the gym heading straight to the leg extension, I imagine is very disconcerting for some people – like a blind person playing snap. Yet the gym was useful to increase my core strength and fitness as I might be lean but so unfit! After doing my regular routine of leg extensions, lat pull down and sit-ups, we realised that there was scope to actually do walking training at the gym. This was where I really started to test myself and despite being a totally different terrain to a mountain, it allowed me to see how far I could actually walk (which at first wasn’t that impressive!).
We eventually experimented with different terrains and were frequently out in all weathers. This is where it really hit home what I’d actually let myself in for and suddenly I was experiencing little niggles and injuries. My walking technique consists of someone supporting my upper body by wrapping their arms under mine and making sure that my head remains over my feet at all times. This may be a rather obvious thing to the able bodied amongst us but for me who is at the mercy of whoever is walking me, it becomes a lot more complex. As a consequence of this, we discovered that my left leg would flick out when I took a step which resulted in me having substantial pain in my hip flexors. This was not going to defeat me and so I enlisted the help of a sports massage therapist to ease them. Like most therapies, this was painful but as soon as he’d worked his magic I was ready to conquer Pen y fan!
Yet disaster was about to strike as just a month before the big day, Ben suffered a major injury to his arm and shoulder leaving my walking challenge hanging by a thread. I still realised that I’d have the support of the whole team but without Ben I knew I wouldn’t have that safety net which I required to get me to the top. His walking technique was absolutely perfect and I just needed someone else who was able to replicate it. Luckily I have some great friends and when I told my old friend Dom of my predicament he instantly offered his services and I can’t even begin to tell you how relieved I was to have him on board. Dom is just one of many friends who would go to the end of the earth to help me out and I just feel so grateful to have this support.
On the morning of Saturday 5th May 2018 I found myself at the base of Pen y fan surrounded by fifteen of my closest friends in preparation for my biggest challenge to date. I was encouraged by the news that we had almost doubled our target of £1000 for Brainwave which was absolutely amazing and was looking forward to a gentle stroll to the highest peak in the Brecon Beacons National Park. There were people everywhere and it seemed that Pen y fan is a well walked trail for anyone and everyone irrespective of age or ability. This settled my nerves and as the team congregated at this picturesque base I was reminded that I was among some of my favourite people in the world and even though it was gonna be tough I was definitely in perfect company.
The walk began with one of my best friends Tom at the helm. He’s really confident in moving me around and therefore had no issue in helping me find the perfect pace. As we walked I was able to take in the beauty that surrounds this well trodden mountain range. I felt fit and ready and I just hoped it would last! Tom has been walking me for years and it’s become almost second nature for him to move me so I knew he wouldn’t have a problem. In fact we realised that we had walked fifty metres without breaking sweat and it was frankly time for someone else to have a go. Next up was Frank, he’d been my carer in the past so everyone assumed that they could leave him to it but I was used to people walking me a certain way (like a true diva!) and he found it difficult to recreate this technique. Yet Frank is not a quitter and was determined to play an active role in getting me to the top. With a little help from Ben, Frank was able to perfect his technique and gradually grasped the notion.
One of the hardest things was knowing when and when not to take a break. I didn’t want to rest for too long and risk not being able to get back up again, yet I knew that if I pushed myself too much I would ultimately do more harm than good. So I was very methodical about when I took breaks and only rested until I got my breath back. This gave me a fresh energy to conquer the next stage of the walk. With these short breaks I was able to get into a stride which I felt was manageable and maintained my heart rate at a healthy pace. Even though Tom, Dom and co perfected a great rhythm, there were just a handful of times when I really needed Ben to jump in and see me through harsh terrain. Although instructed by his osteopath that under no circumstances should he attempt to walk me, at these critical times Ben realised that if he didn’t step in there was no way I would complete it. So he sacrificed jeopardising his own health just to help me achieve my goal…something that I’ll never forget!
After walking several metres with Ben, I realised that I was back in the zone and ready for someone else to take the reigns once again. Dom continued on and managed to get me into a nice rhythm which was combined with the news that we were now over halfway. The path slowly changed from smooth concrete to uneven flint; something which I hadn’t accounted for in my training and suddenly I needed to be extra aware of my foot placement to avoid rolling an ankle. It was then agreed that I should wear an ankle splint as a precaution. I’d never wore any sort of splint before and was unsure how I would get on with it, yet as soon as Ben put it on I realised that it was going to help. Luckily this kept my ankle straight so that I could just concentrate on walking rather than merely avoiding injury. The last thing I needed was my ankle going the same way as my hip!
Strapped up and ready to go again, my thoughts turned to the reason why we were doing this. Brainwave are a charity which supports children with mental and physical disabilities, including their families, throughout the UK. Our friend Sarah already raised a fair amount of money for them before returning to her native Australia and we wanted to carry on her tradition. Also if a charity such as brainwave was around when I was younger, I most certainly would have taken advantage of the resources they have to offer so in a funny sort of way it seemed right. Yet apart from that charity, I needed a good incentive to get me to the top and thinking of people who are tragically no longer with us was just the emotional determination that I needed. Alice Turner had been part of the early years development team when I was really young and had a dominant hand in getting me into mainstream education. Tragically she passed away in early 2016 leaving a whole string of disability success stories in her wake. I felt this was a fitting tribute to her memory and legacy and just hope that I did her proud!
Attempting to forget about the emotional incentives of the challenge, I was faced with one of the steepest parts of Pen y fan. Nearing the end of the trail, the gradient became a lot more gruelling. Originally the consensus of the group thought it should be carried up this part but Tom had other ideas. Tom has always had a lot of faith in my physical ability and this was arguably putting it to the ultimate test. Not even allowing me to stop for a break, Tom knew that if I didn’t just keep powering through the pain I would never reach the summit. At that precise moment I thought Tom was a fucking bastard! How dare he push me to my physical limits like this? Yet when he eventually let me stop and I could see the top in the distance I realised that the hard work was slowly paying off. Tom just knew I needed a bit of tough love to get me through!
After well over two miles, I was on the home stretch and Dom was the unfortunate one to do the last stint. Tired, in pain and in need of a stiff drink, I could almost smell the finish line (or was it my B.O?!). I had in my mind what I thought the finish line looked like: a pile of stones shaped into a tower. Yet what people didn’t tell me was that there are quite a few stone shaped towers near the top of Pen y fan and every time I saw one I thought I was done…but no, I just had that bit extra to go. I began to get transfixed on stone shaped artefacts until I realised the massive gradient above me leading to the official peak. I sure as shit wasn’t going to fail now, not this close to the finish line. I felt I could hear the Rocky soundtrack inside my head as I clambered up with Dom who was by now doing most of the work. Suddenly I heard lots of people chanting my name, was I in heaven? No, I was at the top of Pen y fan and just about to touch the monument!
What a feeling to reach the top! A whole range of emotions raced through my head: exhaustion, relief and a lorry load of pride. When I was reunited with my wheelchair I remember just taking a moment to let it sink in and look out at the amazing view. I’d been walking for over two and a half hours and despite the aches and pains in my legs, it felt amazing! Not in my wildest dreams (and believe me, I have some quite elaborate ones!) did I think I would ever get to the top of a mountain let alone walk up one. Yet I had done it, I had conquered Pen y fan!
For someone who hadn’t even considered undertaking a physical challenge of any magnitude, it was so exhilarating to stand at the top and look down on what I’d accomplished. I never thought it would even be possible but with the support of the best friends a man could possibly have, I had done it! Without the amazing team around me I would have never had been where I was and while it’s very easy for me to get the plaudits, the team behind me were the real heroes in making the impossible seem not only possible but within my reach. It’s quite clear that I have some of the very best friends a man could only wish for and for that I am extremely thankful.
Here is a video of me reaching the top;
Climbing Pen y fan wasn’t just a challenge, it was the ultimate proof that with the right support and encouragement, I can accomplish anything and I just can’t wait to see what challenge awaits me next.