When Sport Relief asked me if I’d do a challenge, I said I would, but only if I didn’t have to do anything above walking pace – thinking they’d never call me back. Unfortunately they did. And after being put on the first and last training programme of my life, I found myself about to walk from one side of the country to the other. What follows is my diary of what happened. But with all the swearing taken out.
Day 1 — Humber Bridge to Laxton
Although I know my Sport Relief walk from east to west will begin with having to cross the Humber Bridge, I haven’t really considered that my hatred of heights will come into play. But it does.
After just ten minutes of my week-long challenge, I find myself sticking tight to the inside railing, trying to ignore the wind and rain that have helpfully made an appearance to see me off.
Luckily, it isn’t just the wild weather that’s a taste of things to come. There are, to my surprise, other people braving the gale at the start to walk with me – including a local woman whose own vertigo has meant she hasn’t crossed the bridge in more than 20 years. She’s apparently been inspired by my efforts to make the walk across, which moves me – but not as much as the bloody bridge itself, which takes a battering from the wind as we inch across it.
Once I’m down to sea level, though, I get well into my, albeit very short, stride. Despite it remaining a thoroughly filthy day, I make it to the end without dying and almost, almost, enjoyed it. Trouble is, I have to do this six more times!
Day 2 — Laxton to Thorne
On waking up, I’m immediately introduced to a new part of my anatomy, the IT band – a ligament that runs down the outside of my thigh from hip to shin. This annoying motorway of muscle apparently runs up your body with the sole purpose of putting you in agony and now mine is having itstimetoshine.
Despite this meaning every step I take makes me want to punch someone, there is a ray of light as I set off, because my friend Alan Davies is joining me for the day.
Poor Alan. After eight hours of hard walking through South Yorkshire, he finds himself trudging through one of England’s largest bogs. In the rain. At night. When he starts to talk in great detail about the times of the last trains from Doncaster to London, I know he’s looking forward to getting out and who can blame him… I seriously contemplate going with him.
Even discovering that two of my oldest friends have come up to walk the last few miles with me doesn’t fully lift the gloom: it’s a hard, miserable end to the day.
To cap it all, once I make it to the final stop, the physio uses his enormous thumbs of pure evil to go at my screaming muscles.
Liverpool feels an awfully long way off!
Day 3 — Thorne to Harlington
After the bleakness of the night before, I wake up relatively cheery. Well, I say cheery… I manage not to headbutt the first person who tells me to keep putting one foot in front of the other, so I’m quite pleased with myself.
I’m beginning to notice a pattern emerging: my physical and mental mood descend rapidly once the sun goes down and the high-visibility jackets go on, so I’m determined to make the most of the daylight and get as many miles under my belt before I turn into a walking pole-wielding menace again.
Despite the beginnings of blisters on my feet, which resemble Cornish pasties in both look and bouquet, I set off at a good pace, with my coach Greg Whyte urging me on in a way that, miraculously, just stops short of making me want to kill him.
In Doncaster I’m joined by Gabby Logan, a woman of such poise and elegance that she makes walking look like rhythmic gymnastics. While, under normal circumstances, such grace and fitness might be utterly annoying, she’s also such good company that it spurs me on and when darkness falls I manage to keep up a decent pace – although, by the time I get to the finish for the day, I’m pale, feel a bit faint and need a wee more than at any other time in my entire life. As I walk in to the final stop, Lee Mack, who has come to walk with me tomorrow, must take one look at me and wonder what on earth he’s let himself in for.
Day 4 — Harlington to Langsett
The one thing I’ve been looking forward to about this entire endeavour is the calories. Burning 6,000 calories a day means needing to eat 6,000 calories a day. Just imagine, a licence to eat. But guess what – the law of sod means that not only does the walking reduce my appetite, it actually leaves me unable to muster enthusiasm for putting anything in my cakehole. By the time Lee Mack begins the day with me, I’ve just about managed to force down a sausage and some scrambled egg.
I discover that I needn’t have worried about Lee’s athletic prowess, for he more than makes up for it in verbal energy. The first few hours pass in a blur of one-liners and, even when the flow dries up a little, the route itself provides material by taking us through a place called Pennistone.
Today isn’t just about knob gags, however, it marks the halfway point of this daft venture and also the moment that for the first time I secretly think I might stand a cat in hell’s chance of actually doing the thing.
Then, to top it all, my hero Billy Bragg appears at the end of the day and plays for me.
A very good day!
Day 5 — Langsett to Denton
As if by magic, my delicate, fledgeling confidence at having made it halfway yesterday is given a solid kicking when I realise I need to cross the Pennines today while storm Jonah rages. Three days earlier this storm with a silly name dropped feet of snow on New York, and now it has made its way to us with a load of wind and rain to dump.
As lorries tumble over all around the area, I set off walking into the wind like some tinpot mime artist and hope I’ll make it. What I hadn’t banked on was the amount of snot walking in these conditions conjures up – it’s astonishing. If anyone copped a load two or three miles north-east of me as I jettisoned yet another nostrilful, I sincerely apologise!
I quite enjoy the drama, though, and despite falling over my trouser leg as it flaps around in the gale, I arrive at the lunch break thrilled to have made it and with the cleanest nasal passages of my life.
My ears are working well, too, and as the day goes on I notice the change from the Yorkshire to the Lancashire brogue as I move closer to Liverpool.
As darkness falls and I begin to hurt and slow down more, Davina McCall appears with her boundless energy and never-ending positivity. Despite all of that, it’s still really lovely to see her. I gave her a piggyback on the final day of her Sport Relief challenge a couple of years ago, but think I’ll save us both the pain of asking for the favour to be returned.
Day 6 — Denton to Warrington
After days of walking through the beautiful British countryside, the person I know will enjoy doing that the most, Bill Bailey, turns up to walk the penultimate day with me. Tragically, he’s chosen part of the route that is so urban we spend the first three hours doing a wheelie-bin slalom through residential streets where we’re more likely to spot a Poundland than a peregrine falcon – but Bill is such amazing company and even writes me a little poem:
There was a young girl called Brandy,
At walking she was pretty handy.
She raised so much dough,
They all said, Go Jo!
Cos she’s got as much guts as Gandhi.
Which is rather lovely. He also does a vole impression and tells me a joke about two women in a toilet, both of which have me snorting for miles.
Walking through south Manchester towards Warrington, the support and donations I get are amazing, as they have been throughout. So while I’m hurting and hoping I’m not going to fail, I know tomorrow’s the final day and soon I’ll be able to throw my walking shoes high into the Mersey.
Day 7 — Warrington to Liverpool
A 5.30am start ensures I get the miles in to make it to Liverpool’s Pier Head before The One Show on BBC1 goes off air at 7.30pm. Even with those pre-dawn hours in the bank, it’s touch and go towards the end of the day and it’s great to have John Bishop out on the road with me to motivate, navigate and occasionally translate.
The last few miles become a bit of a route march as I try not to be late, but it’s worth it to cross the finish line at 7.21pm, having clocked up 135.7 miles, burnt over 40,000 calories, taken over 500,000 steps and, most importantly, raised £848,702 so far for Sport Relief.
I’ve really had to steel myself at times to keep going, but the support I’ve had has made more of a difference than I ever thought it would. Hearing women tell me they’ve been inspired to get active and take on a challenge of their own is quite overwhelming for someone like me who’s not exactly celebrated for their feats of physical endurance. In all sorts of ways, it really was a hell of a walk!
Jo Brand’s Hell of a Walk for Sport Relief is on Thursday at 9pm on BBC1