Julian Jackson, who lost his sight in 2010 to a retinal inherited disease, set off on an epic journey at 9:30 am on Sunday 29 April 2018 from Land’s End (Cornwall) and finished at John O’Groats (Scotland) at 4pm on 22 June 2018.
100% Optical were a proud sponsor of The Big Blind Walk and reported on Julians journey throughout. But what was it really like walking 8 - 11 hours a day through some of the countries rawest, rugged yet beautiful terrain? How do you go about organising such an event and what were the implications to Julians health as he fought hard to carry on through some incredible highs and very dangerous lows?
Julian gives us a vivid account of how walking 18 -27 miles every day for 55 days without sight can be made possible with a passionate and caring team supporting him every step of the way.
2.5 million steps and 1,089 miles were completed and not even blisters that turned into raw wounds, an infection through his feet (cellulitis) that then spread up to his legs were going to stop him!
To paraphrase Winston Churchill...
“This is the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end.”
The Big Blind Walk 2018 may be over, but the fight to prevent sight loss, treat eye disease, restore sight and rehabilitate patients goes on! If you like us have been inspired by Julian, please do show your support by donating some money to the cause here DONATE
1. How did you go about planning the Big Blind Walk from an operational point of view? Can you give us more of an insight into how food, shelter, clothing, volunteers, the route of travel etc were organised?
My plan was to get from Land’s End to John O’Groats in less than 8 weeks including rest days and without having to run it or spend too much time on main roads, but which was also interesting and had a touch of exploration about it! So we devised a route that offered a great mix of terrain and landscapes, using a variety of roads, riverbanks and canal towpaths, footpaths and bridle paths, country lanes and serious cross-country through bogs and moorland.
I estimated that I could cover an average of approx 22 miles per day but this inevitably increased to 27 miles per day or dropped to approx 18 per day depending on the terrain and difficulty in walking – or climbing without my white canes in some instances!
This then determined where we would stay overnight and we plotted our campsite locations accordingly. We moved to a different campsite every day. My support vehicle (a 7.5m long motorhome) was driven by my wife Laura and she drove ahead to recce the route for any unforeseen hazards and possible rerouting and to buy in fresh food and provisions and then to set up camp which included hard-standing for the motorhome and grass for the large tent which accommodated the guides. She treated my (and my guides too) blisters and wounds on my feet at the end of each day’s walk and then organised my water, food, snacks and clothing depending on forecast weather conditions.
I wore lightweight breathable tops and walking trousers which were perfect in the circumstances – loads of pockets for chocolate and snacks, painkillers, gloves, eye drops, anti-midge net (only required in areas around Loch Lomond to Fort William in Scotland), mobile, some cash and space for any forthcoming donations from passers-by.
My 3 pairs of walking shoes took a battering. In retrospect, at the outset as I was neither an expert nor a practised long distance walker, I was delighted with my choice. I needed durable and flexible shoes that were strong enough with a great grip to deal with rocky, slippery and rough surfaces as well as be light enough and not too built up so as to allow me to “feel” the ground as I walked. I always had a waterproof in the bottom of my rucksack but extraordinarily I only used it for 2 afternoons in 55 days!
The organisation of my guides to ensure that they were in position in the right locations and at the right time was complicated. We had no room at all for error or delay so I must pay tribute to all of them for arriving and leaving the stop/start locations on time, navigating the route, guiding me and ensuring that we arrived into the next campsite in relatively 1 piece with sufficient time to rest, repair the feet, stretch out the muscles, catch up on pr correspondence and eat huge quantities of carbohydrates and protein.
Various “walking companions” intercepted us on the way, having tracked us via the tracking device which I carried in my rucksack. This tracker proved to be an invaluable pr tool too, engaging supporters on a level which encouraged everyone to feel involved and where possible to physically participate. Shortly, my historical route recorded by my tracker will be uploaded to my bigblindwalk.com site so that those so inclined can retrace my footsteps during 2019 and continue to raise funds for eye research.
2. How did your body react to such a long duration walking outside?
I burned over 6,000 calories per day as I was continually walking for up to 8 hours and sometimes 11 hours per day, depending on the distances and the terrain which sometimes slowed me down to 1.5 miles per hour (especially in the Lake District, Cumbria and parts of Scotland). As a result, despite my large breakfasts and dinners and constant snacking throughout the day, I lost 4 kilos during the walk.
My feet went through an interesting cycle. Large blisters appeared on day 5 and fluid was extracted and plasters applied every evening. However, these blisters then turned into raw wounds that required bandaging. It was a constant battle to keep my feet totally clean and we temporarily lost this battle when I picked up an infection through my feet (cellulitis) that then spread up my legs, resulting in painful swelling around the ankles and knees. I required 2 large doses of anti-biotics before the swelling subsided. I was strongly advised to “rest for 5 days” by the GP’s who treated me in A&E, but of course I had to politely ignore their advice and carry on! At the end of week 5, I hit a sweet spot where my feet seemed to regenerate themselves – new toenails appeared where I had lost them and although some of my toes had changed shape and the sides of my feet had widened due to the constant bruising of soft tissue, they felt hard enough not to require any further padding or plasters except the application of Vaseline every morning to provide some layer of protection.
A yoga routine every morning before we set off was crucial in keeping my back and joints strong and supple. As a result, I suffered no back pain from carrying a rucksack or cramp in my feet or legs. It also gave me a period of intense calm before tackling the challenges of each day.
3. Describe the hardest parts of the journey for you or the team.
Unsurprisingly, the most testing stretches of the walk were during the first 10 days when we were just getting into our stride whilst tackling some big gradients in Cornwall and Devon and then of course the climbs up some of the Cumbrian fells and the rockier terrain along the West Highland Way and the Great Glen Way. However, the mileage we covered along some of the tarmac roads were especially punishing - the constant threat from thundering traffic combined with trip hazards such as overgrown grassbanks, storm drains, kerbs and potholes, made walking particularly energy-sapping.
My leg infection was a particular low point for me. I was aware that if it reached my upper thighs, it would be almost impossible to carry on. However, I had to press on and hope that the anti-biotics would take effect as quickly as possible.
Describe the most rewarding parts of the journey.
Each day of my walk was so rewarding, whether it was interacting with the public who showed such generosity, kindness and humanity towards us or making it across particularly rocky or hilly terrain or “seeing” the vistas and landscapes in my mind’s eye as described by my guides or meeting particular people like the Buddhist monks in Gretna Green and the gold panners in a river outside Tyndrum and walking with the soldiers from 51 Infantry Brigade in Scotland. Hearing the changing birdsong as I travelled north (for example swallows arriving in Devon and swifts over Glastonbury and curlews and lapwings in Scotland for the first time), smelling wild garlic and touching dry-stone walls and hugging ancient oaks were all equally rewarding and connected me so closely with my surroundings.
The experience of walking that last mile into John O’Groats will stay with me forever. My group of guides and walking companions crossed the line together and this encapsulated why my walk was successful – it had been a triumph of collaboration, cooperation, comraderie and companionship and above all, connectivity with people and my surroundings. It was an intensely emotional finish to months of conceptualising, planning and then executing the walk. I was exhausted and exhilarated at the same time and even more determined than ever to carry on the fight for sight!
Is there anything you learnt about yourself or others that you were not aware about when you first set off?
I was so impressed with my guides who showed such tremendous stamina, resilience and good humour in the face of some very stressful situations. They all had a critical role to play in guiding me over and around every obstacle and I pay tribute to them that I did not seriously damage myself during the over 2.5 million steps and 1,089 miles that we completed.
I had trained hard for this walk but I was still surprised by how much fitter I became as the walk progressed, so much so that towards the end, I felt I could walk up to 40 miles per day! It fascinated me how the body became attuned to the daily level of physical exertion required and adapted to meet this demand.
I felt totally focused and mentally prepared for the walk and now from experience I can say that self belief played a huge role alongside the brilliant support provided by my wife and guides in reaching John O’Groats. Belief in myself as well as in the cause of eye research gave me the desire and momentum to push on, despite any adverse circumstances.
How much money have you raised to date and what is the strategy to encourage people to continue donate?
The Big Blind Walk has raised approx £40,000 and I will continue to raise awareness of sight loss and promote eye research via my social enterprise VisionBridge’s activities (www.visionbridge.org.uk), Big Blind branded fundraising events, social media and other media outlets. Thankfully, media interest remains strong and donations continue to drop in. Please do visit bigblindwalk.com and click on the Donate page if you have not already done so. Thanks so much.
Do you have any other plans to organise more events in the future?
Yes. I am planning the “Big Blind Cycle 2020” which will involve an approx 4,500 mile ride on my tandem all around the outside of the UK. I aim to cover up to 80 miles per day and to spread the word about the critical importance of funding eye research far and wide! All keen cyclists are welcome to join me along any stretches of my route. More details to follow in Spring 2019.
How can people get more involved with your projects?
Easy. Please email me on: firstname.lastname@example.org and we can discuss my plans.
A gallery of images of The Big Blind Walk has been put on youtube here ---> Image gallery