‘So, you’re walking the South West Coast Path,’ says a woman I meet this week. ‘How long will it take you?’
‘Two years,’ I say.
She screws up her nose. ‘Two YEARS?’ she shrieks, the disgust plain in her voice. ‘Why on earth would it take you that long?’
‘Not all in one go,’ I say. ‘I’m doing 24 miles a month.’
‘Even so,’ she says.
Even so. She was expecting to be impressed. I am taking two years to walk 630 miles. What level of self-justification I would need to offer in order to appease her? I work-full time, have a three year-old, get up at 5am to write and study for a PhD at the weekend. I want to say: I’m not exactly slacking. I want to say: It’s meant to be slow. I want to say: It’s hard enough, you know.
It reminds me of my first month back at work after having Bert, when I attended an induction course with a woman who happened to live near me. After the first day, she said, ‘So, I’ll be cycling in tomorrow. Will you join me?’
‘Oh gosh,’ I said, ‘I don’t think I can cycle that far.’
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘It’s easy.’
‘Easy if you do it all the time.’ She shrugged, and the words came out of my mouth unbidden: ‘I had a terrible pregnancy, and my blood pressure’s still crazy. I dislocated my hip while I was giving birth. I used to be fit, you know. I used to ride my bike this far all the time.’
It did nothing to diminish the look of contempt. I booked at appointment with a physiotherapist soon after, desperate to feel like I could be fit again, without my hip joint clicking in and out of place.
‘The thing is,’ he said, ‘You’ve got to be willing to make sacrifices. I go out at ten every night on my bike, because I don’t let myself off the hook.’
‘I don’t let myself off the hook either,’ I said. ‘I just do different things to you.’
We live in a world, it seems, where every other person is an endurance athlete. The last party I threw, I found myself introducing all the triathletes in the room. I’ve lost count of the marathon-runners in my life, the people who do 10k before they even start their day. I don’t think I’ll ever love that sort of exercise, the kind that requires you to measure personal bests and push through pain barriers. God knows, I’ve tried. God knows, I’ve felt inadequate for giving up.
Walking makes sense to me. I’ll happily walk anywhere, as long as I’m going from one place to another. Walking is travelling; it is the nicest way to get anywhere. The South West Coast Path is hard walking, but that just means you earn those dizzying views, that glorious solitude. You couldn’t drive there; you’d struggle to cycle it; but you can walk. Your own two feet will get you there.
Since my last walk a fortnight ago, my legs have almost itched with the desire to walk. I’ve tramped around the relatively tame slopes of Whitstable, up stairs in car parks, between tube stops in London. No equipment necessary, except to consider my footwear; no need for a shower afterwards. It’s like exercising in secret: you reach your destination, and nobody even considers the way you’ve travelled. It has taken you longer, certainly, but you haven’t had to find a parking space or wait at a bus stop. There are views, and people to smile at as you pass them. There are blackberries to pick and dogs to ruffle. There are relieved, tingling legs at your destination. Walking makes sense.
So I’m not sorry that it’s taking me so bloody long, because the time is the thing. It probably won’t make me thin, and I’m not sorry about that either, not least because I’ve just invested in something called ‘technical knickers’, and I can’t afford to buy them in a smaller size next month.
Walking that path is going to take be a long time. I’m going to find it hard, but I have no doubt that others would find it easy. I don’t care. It’s going to be hard enough to get there once a month. There will be times when Bert will be sleeping in the back of the car, and times when I drive down there on my own – guiltily, I expect. There will be times when I drag myself there against my will, and times when I can’t wait. Bring it all. I’ll be walking either way.