Severe reactive arthritis in my early 40s left me unable to walk properly for a couple of years. Now fully recovered, my love of long distance walking has transformed my body and my life.
Imagine if I could no longer walk. How would I cope? That was the thought that ran through my head some years ago. The fear I felt made me realise how much walking meant to me.
40 and Crippled with Arthritis
Flash forward a few months. I had just turned 40 and was stuck in a wheelchair. My body was riddled with arthritis, feet swollen like elephant trunks, burning red with inflammation. Every joint in my body was stiff, swollen and inflamed. I had a moon face from the steroid medication and I couldn’t walk. When I did attempt to stand on my feet, the pain was so excruciating that I screamed in agony.
Overnight my body had transformed itself into that of an old woman, complete with grey hair. My world had diminished into a world of pain. I tried to move as little as possible. Staring at my swollen feet and knees I wondered if and when I would ever be able to walk again.
I spent six months in a wheelchair, being wheeled about by my partner. Relapse after relapse meant a further eighteen months hobbling about on crutches, going to physiotherapy to learn how to walk down steps again and lower my body onto the ground.
It was a long process and the bleakest two years of my life. But when I emerged, it was with the knowledge that I would never again take walking for granted. I knew that walking was something I loved to do and wanted to do more of. But first I had to get my body strong and fit again.
Discovering the Joy of Long Distance Walking
Five years after I fully recovered from the reactive arthritis, I set off on my first long distance walk, 100 miles along The South Downs Way. It was one of the most empowering experiences of my life.
I will never forget descending into Eastbourne at the end of the walk and sobbing tears of utter joy and gratitude that my body, and my feet in particular, had carried me all that way.
The sense of achievement I felt in that moment was unsurpassed. It had been tough, at times the pain in my feet and aching legs was unbearable, but I had persevered and found the strength and stamina to walk 100 miles. I was aware all the time, that each step I took was a step further away from that wheelchair I had once sat in, and a sign that I was better, fit and able.
The following year, after a long recovery from knee surgery, I walked The Cotswold Way, and in July this year I completed St Cuthbert’s Way.
Walking St Cuthbert’s Way was one of the best walking experiences of my life. I experienced very little foot pain and at the end of the walk the soles of my feet were tough, the muscles in my calves and thighs well-toned. I felt strong and more at home in my body than ever before.
How Walking taught me to Love my Body
On St Cuthbert’s Way I realised I’d found my spiritual home and reached a place of peace. Walking in the countryside was where I felt in communion not only with nature, but with myself.
My mind and body seemed fully integrated, and as I moved forward, each step was a celebration of healing, good health and of life.
It had been a long journey. Years of illness had left me feeling betrayed by my body. There was a disconnect between my mind and body. It was as if we were at war, my head would make plans and my body would wreck them. I felt my body was not to be trusted, it was unreliable, and more a source of pain than pleasure.
But long distance walking changed all that. A long walk is about stamina and endurance. Day after day, in spite of the pain and blisters, you need to rely on your body to carry you to the next point, and keep on going.
A long distance walk is no place to wage war with your body, it’s where you develop respect. In my case, it’s where I learned to stop fighting my body and began to love it.
Why I Love Walking
There’s a sense of liberation in being away from it all when you walk. Time slows down to the beat of your feet. I love the sense of physical exhaustion at the end of a long day’s walk, muscles that ache because they’ve been working hard all day, carrying me sweating and panting up hills and down into valleys.
Where once my arthritic feet struggled to fit into soft slippers, now they embrace the support of my hiking boots. And I love my hiking boots! Putting them on, I feel transformed, stronger, taller, more capable, and, dare I say it, slightly butch.
The Sensuousness of Walking
Back in London, I speed along the pavements, darting between pedestrians. My body feels like a machine, arms like pistons at my side, legs striding forward. I’m aware of my hips spiralling around the base of my spine, heart beating a little faster, breath controlled. My face is flushed, I have a warm glow.
My mind is calm. Free of thought. Instead I sense the world around me. I can feel the breeze against the fine hairs on my arms, hear the bird song and traffic noises.
I focus on moving effortlessly through space. Every now and then I tune in to the rhythm of my steps; 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and. I listen to my breathing and take deep, even breaths. Keep moving, faster, faster…
Each step is part of a rhythm, and that rhythm is music, and that music is life.
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