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Lessons from a long walk

Thursday, May 22, 2008 by Marianne Elliott

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Crossing the finish line II

Crossing the finish line – 29 hours and 28 minutes after we started

The Oxfam Trailwalker event has been a big part of my life in the past few months. It is a fundraising walk in which four team members walk together for 100km, not a relay and not a stop-and-sleep type event. We walked together over farmland and bush for nearly 30 hours. But first we trained!

The training walks were a kind of therapy for me in the early weeks and months of my return home. On gorgeous summer days in Wellington I would set out in the morning to walk for two hours or more and by the time I got home I'd have quietly processed all sorts of doubts and worries about coming home.

Many mornings I was accompanied by a very dear old friend, Andrew, who has known me long enough to let me talk my way through moral dilemmas and existential crises without trying to find answers for my unanswerable questions. On my wobbliest days I knew that I could find Andrew outside at 6 am ready to walk and talk and listen.

Once a week I did my training walk with an even older friend, Bronwyn, with whom I used to climb trees and explore creeks as a child. At the same time I left NZ for Afghanistan, Brownyn and her husband and two boys left for a mission with the UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights and Southern Lebanon. As you probably remember, in 2006 Israel attacked Lebanon and Bronwyn and her young sons were evacuated after a week of bombing in their town. They had to leave their father and husband behind to finish his mission.

Bronwyn is one of the few people here in New Zealand to whom I don't have to try to explain how I'm feeling. She just gets it. Our weekly walks have been a joy and a balm to me. Now that I'm settling more and more we talk less about war and trauma and more about our respective studies. I still think that nothing beats a long walk for a really good conversation.

Many times I walked alone. I listened to great audio books on my iPod (I highly recommend both "Water for Elephants" and "The Life of Pi" in Audiobook form). I listened to the sounds of the harbour. I listened to my own thoughts. I listened to the silence. I answered my own questions. I found more questions to answer, and I found questions to which there is no answer and learned little by little to live with the questions.

Okay – enough about the training walks. They were great.

Also great, astoundingly so, was the response and support we got from friends and family (including lovely readers of this blog). We originally set ourselves a target of raising $2500. Within 48 hours of posting the fundraising website we had passed that target. So we doubled it to $5000. We also passed that. In the end we've raised a little over $7250. This part of the experience was overwhelming positive for me.

Coming home from Afghanistan I struggled with the glaring contrast between the comfort, ease and luxury of life here in New Zealand and the poverty, insecurity and struggle of life in Ghor. I often looked around me and wondered if people had any idea how lucky they were. I wondered if they even cared that their life of comfort was possible only because of a globally imbalanced economic system which favours the rich at the expense of the poor.

When I invited people to make a donation to Oxfam's work with some of the poorest people in the world in support of our 100km walk I was stunned by the response. I can say with confidence that people DO know how lucky they are. People DO care that so many others live in poverty. They DO want to find ways to change that. When I offered people one way to make a contribution to making that change they responded with enthusiasm and generosity. It was a huge part of my healing. Thank you.

Helen and Marianne hug

A hug for my cousin (and physio-extraordinaire) Helen

Then came the actual walk. We were a team of four women who would walk together for 100km. We didn't even all know each other before we began. One of our original team members had to withdraw at the last minute and her replacement didn't know my cousin Susannah and I. We broke all the training guidelines about training together. I had done all my training alone in Wellington, the others had done their best to work around child-care and work responsibilities to fit in some joint training walks in Auckland, but our newcomer was making it up as she went along.

We had the most extraordinary support crew. It included my parents, my sister, my cousin (a physio who delivered therapeutic massages through the night) our original teammate and another cousin. Various aunts and cousins turned up through the night. This amazing crew carried us through 30 hours on our feet, by meeting us at 15km intervals giving foot rubs, filling our Camelbacks with sports drink, handing us hot water bottles to heat our chilly hands, strapping our blistered feet and serving us hot soup. I was humbled and moved by the love they showed us and the committment they made to the cause for which we were walking. I was reminded of the power of a team and the importance of giving and accepting help.

But despite the BEST support crew ever, in the end it was we four who had to keep walking. And in that process I uncovered a layer of myself of which I'm not overly fond. When the going gets really tough, so do I. When we'd been walking for 24 hours it was dark and cold and we were making our way through a hilly and relatively challenging section of the walk before dawn. At this stage of the walk, about 85kms into the event, we each had to reach deep into our personal wells to find our own strength.

My personal approach at this stage was "focus on the positive, keep your eyes on the finish line and just keep going". It is the approach which has got me through endurance running events, through mad deadlines on big work projects and through apparently unmanageable situations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. I believe that you have to use what limited energy you have under such extreme circumstances to propel yourself forward.

So when my team mate spent hours complaining about how tired she was, how much her ankle hurt, how steep the hills were, how dark it was and how long the sun was taking to rise I tried to encourage her to focus on the positive. I encouraged her to think about the women and children for whom we were walking. I encouraged her to find silly songs to sing with me. I suggested that she hold off her tears for once we were across the finish line, in case having a big cry sapped her precious reserves of energy. In the end I lost patience (God have mercy on my soul, I had been walking 85km as well!) and just told her that there was nothing I could do to fix her sore ankle or get her to the end any faster and I didn't want to hear her complaints any more.

I can't tell you how bad I felt about this. I spent days and days trying to justify my harshness to myself. It helped that my deeply compassionate mother and cousin had also reached the limits of their patience with her. But that still didn't take away the fact that I'd simply not been able to reach deep enough myself to find the patience and compassion to keep gently encouraging.

We did all get to the end. She and I walked across the finish line arm in arm and she was beautifully gracious about the leadership (her word!) I'd shown to get us all there together. But I struggled to get past the fact that this amazing event, which had come to symbolise so much to me in the process of my learning to live a life of making peace here in NZ, has ended up with me telling a team mate that I didn't want to hear any more complaints! Doesn't seem very gentle, compassionate or peaceable.

So in the end the lesson of this long walk was this: I had to let go of my expectations of the event and of myself in the event; I had to embrace the messy thrilling reality of the event and of what we had each learned about ourselves in the process; I had to celebrate what we had achieved and let go of what I felt I had not achieved; and I had to cut myself some slack (because when blood sugars are low and I'm sleep deprived I end up being just as tough with other people as I usually am with myself and seen in that light it is not so admirable!). 

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8 Responses to "Lessons from a long walk"

  1. susanna says:

    Congratulations to you for doing this for Ghor! What an achievement! I can’t even imagine walking for 30 hours… Way to go, Marianne and her walking mates! As for losing patience…you’re human! I’ve lost my patience and said things I’ve regretted in less time and under less stress than you did. I’m sure your friend understood and she’s probably glad that you pushed her to finish the walk. She should be proud of what she accomplished that day, too. 🙂

  2. boho girl says:

    this was simply beautiful. it made me so teary. thank you for sharing the messy thrilling details. i felt i was with you and couldn’t help but giggle at the idea of you singing silly songs to keep you and others going. you are such an inspiration. i love the idea of listening to books while walking. i’ve been rocking out on my iPod but perhaps i should try something more enlightening. ; )
    you are one of the bravest women i know.
    xoxo

  3. i walked my first half marathon 1 year ago this weekend…
    i walked it alone and the day was cold and wet.
    i can’t imagine walking 5x the distance.
    i can’t imagine trying to get anyone other them myself across the finish line.
    whatever it is you said that day…she stuck with you…arm and arm at the finish line speaks volumes…you should all be incredibly proud of this amazing accomplishment.xo

  4. Shannon says:

    I’m a long time lurker, but I want to congratulate you on this accomplishment. Coming home is often much harder than going (it was for me anyway). I wish I’d had a 30 hour walk and a great support system to help me. Also, I think you are being way too harsh on yourself. Perhaps your cousin needed more than gentle encouragement. Sometimes gentle encouragement is too indirect. Perhaps she didn’t realize how she was coming off, how negativity was consuming her, or that she was even complaining? There have been times that I’ve let negativity overcome me, and I’ve greatly appreciated those around me who’ve cared enough to let me know it directly. You’re still an inspiration no matter how much patience you lost!

  5. homeinkabul says:

    I agree with the rest ~ maybe she needed some tough love. I’m SO happy you’re back. It’s my last week in Herat and I’m so stressed…

  6. Captain Cat says:

    You know it’s ok to lose it sometimes, besides I am not sure that there’s an awful lot you can do about it. You’re a fellow Bull, that’s what we do, we get impatient, we get snappy – we feel bad and then we try to make up for it and we do. It doesn’t excuse it, but it’s the way we are (or the way I am at least), and we can only try to be more compassionate and patient. But your getting impatient doesn’t make you a bad person. You’re human, we all get like that sometimes. You wouldn’t be real if you didn’t have flaws. I think you need to accept and love this part of yourself too.
    This is an amazing achievement, congratulations on your walk. I’d be interested to know what the money in Ghor will be spent on. Will Oxfam decide that or do you get a say in how it is spent?
    Big hugs, and I am so happy all is going well for you. x

  7. Julie says:

    I don’t think it is possible to lead without a few harsh words once in awhile…and it sounds to me like the compassion as still there. For the good of the team, ya know?

  8. Debi says:

    Amazing story. And here’s the Big Picture,as I see it. No matter how awful you were (or just thought you were), no matter how awful she was (or just seemed to be), the reality is that everyone continued & everyone finished. You all just did it, complaining & miserable & aching & sleepy. The human experience. That’s what makes this such a real deal. That’s what makes this better than just writing a check. You literally walked the walk, not just talked the talk. Even your friend who complained a lot. My hat is off to you all.

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