This summer, 37-year-old Stacey Smithson from Monmouthshire is taking on a challenge to walk 900 km (or 559 miles) across the British countryside participating in nine Ultra Challenge Series events to raise money for mental health charity, MIND.
The Ultra Challenge Series is set of organised ultra-marathons in different locations including The Cotswold Way, the Jurassic Coast and the Lake District. Most people choose to do one of the walks, but Stacey has decided to do all nine with the added challenge of completing each one of them in under 24 hours!
Stacey selected the charity MIND due to her experience as a Control Room Operator for Highways England and also due to her husband’s 22-year stint in the army; these experiences have given her insight into the world of mental health. We wanted to find out more about her training regime and inspiration.
What drew you to this particular challenge?
“In 2014, I completed an ultra-challenge on my paddleboard to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support in the wake of my mother–in–law passing away from cancer. I was aware that they offer the Ultra Challenge Series and I had been considering things I could do towards my 40th birthday to raise money for charity.
“Ultra challenges are hugely popular with up to 3,000 people participating in each event. You’re able to choose how far you walk or spread it over two days but I’ve chosen to push myself to do the whole length of each event in one day!”
Why did you choose walking?
“I love that walking is a free exercise; there’s so much research about how getting outdoors and simply walking is great for both your physical and mental health. My goal is to encourage people to get outdoors for a walk, even a short one.”
“I have always been an outdoors person and enjoyed walking but what really kicked it off was being invited out to do Everest Base Camp in 2018 – you can’t refuse that kind of invitation! It’s like being on another planet, especially the closer you get to the base camp. Summiting Kala Patthar – Everest Base Camp’s famous viewpoint – at sunrise was just amazing.
How have you been preparing?
“I signed up in October and committed to the nine events. Fortunately, I live in the beautiful Wye Valley so challenging myself to get out and walk hasn’t been difficult. I recently started doing bigger walks in the Brecon Beacons, Snowdonia and Peak District.
“So far, I’ve trained to back to back 30 km days and I have some 40 and 50 km hikes scheduled as part of training. The first 50 km will be April along the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal path; that’s 32 miles but it’s a nice, flat route where I can get used to walking for ten hours. The big one will be 50 km around the Wye Valley where it’s quite hilly.”
“Alongside walking and paddling, I do a mix of Olympic weightlifting, cross fit and strength and conditioning training at the gym.”
Wow – that is a lot of training. How do you fit it all in?!
“A lot of people see how active I am and ask how I have the time! While I do have a full-time job, and a patient husband, we have no children and with my work being shift work, it gives me a little more play time and a lot of recovery time. When I am at home I am basically horizontal! I aim to be in bed for a minimum of nine hours a night and I have an excel spreadsheet where I plan my days. It’s broken down into half hour slots and I block out different activities with different colours. I even schedule my sleep and downtime! I think it’s really important for people to get downtime and enough sleep because we easily burn ourselves out. Sleep is a key part of recovery.”
What are your essentials for each ultra challenge?
“Because these events are organised, every 25 km there’s a check point with food, drink and toilet facilities which makes the event more comfortable. In my pack, I’ll have a hydration bladder, nutrition bars, waterproofs and a lightweight down jacket and most importantly a change of socks for each 25km.
“I also invited friends and family to join me. Some have agreed to the full 100 km, others 50 km and some have offered to help logistically on the day. I’m very grateful to them all!”
Which event are you most looking forward to and what are you worried about?
“I am super excited to go to the Isle of Wight – it’s the first event! I’ve only been once before, so it will be interesting to see it from the coast as we circumnavigate the island.
“May will be the toughest month because there are three events – the first weekend in May, then one weekend off then two weekend events back–to–back. They’re the ones I’m most anxious about in terms of recovery because it’s three big events in four weeks and I still have to go to work in between.
“The hardest part of each challenge will be walking through the night when you are fatigued and can’t see as well – you are just moving forwards in the dark. It’s harder on you mentally.”
How will you recover after each walk?
“Sleep and food! We also have a local open-air pool so I will be doing active recovery there.”
Why have you chosen MIND to raise money for?
“Through my husband’s job in the military, we’ve seen a huge rise in PTSD and noticed people can be reluctant to talk about what they’re going through. MIND is a great charity for breaking down the barriers.
“In my professional life working with Highways England, it’s highlighted the number of suicides and attempted suicides around the network. I want to raise money to help work towards this happening less.”
What’s your best advice for someone who wants to get outdoors more?
“Small steps and set yourself a goal. I’d also recommend getting involved in a group such as Mountains for the Mind and Walk 1,000 Miles 2020 – a challenge group organised by Trail Magazine and Country Walking magazine getting people to walk a thousand miles over 12 months. Social media is also a great way to get involved with groups such as Adventure Queens and Love Her Wild full of like-minded people. These groups organise meet ups if you don’t have the confidence to walk by yourself in the mountains and are a fantastic way to make new friends!”
Stacey, an Aquapac fan, was sent some kit for her expedition and also to give way in a money-raising raffle.
“I love the brand. I first came across them when I was organising through my Social SUP page a 100mile 4 day Stand Up Paddleboard trip on the River Wye. The colours stand out really well and the duffle bags are great for packing down kit with their backpack straps making it easy to throw it on your back, so your hands are free to carry your board and paddle.”
Donate to Stacey’s Just Giving page here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/theultrachallenge9
Follow her on Instagram @boots_boards_and_barbells_ to keep updated on her challenge and look out for #walkandtalk.