The Long Walk

Yesterday I caught up with Richard Farquhar on the final leg of his quest to walk between all the racecourses of Great Britain. It has taken him 13 months, seven pairs of trainers and one dog-bite to complete the 2,915 mile challenge. It took me only 78 days, which makes Richard seem like a bit of a slowcoach, but I suppose I didn’t walk between them.

Neither did I generate such an astonishing sum for charity. Walking The Courses has raised over £350,000 for the two very worthy causes of Pancreatic Cancer UK and Racing Welfare, but Richard has not finished there and has a Gala Dinner and Auction planned for next month, fronted by Channel 4 supremo Nick Luck, and hopes to push that total even higher.

This hasn’t happened by chance. Aided superbly by his daughter and campaign manager Minty, the WTC bandwagon has received huge support from the racing community. From bucket-shakes at the end of every day’s racing to the extensive coverage across all forms of media, the operation’s organisation and drive would put many an established charity to shame. Richard, who modestly describes his role as ‘walking and talking’, said:

“Minty has done a fantastic job. The planning with the racecourses, the media, the whole works, I mean the whole lot, has been down to her. I could not possibly have done it without her.”

Richard at Wincanton

Richard at Wincanton

When we spoke he was dashing off to see Newmarket clerk of the course Michael Prosser regarding the arrangements for the grand finale, due to finish on The Rowley Mile at around midday on Thursday. Eloquent as ever, but perhaps in a more reflective mood than when our racecourse-touring paths crossed no less than three times last year, he said,

“I don’t quite know how I’m feeling actually. On one level I am excited; on one level I’m absolutely dreading it. It’s been such a massive part of my life for the last year, I suspect it’s going to be a bit of a shock to the system in all honesty.”

Richard seemed a little like I did in late May last year – slightly overawed at nearing the completion of something momentous, but also struggling to come to terms with the personal significance of the end point. I asked if he was likely to be emotional as he crosses the finishing line.

“Every chance. You know the story of why I’m finishing at the Craven meeting, in terms of being the meeting I went to with my old man so many times. I haven’t been back since he died [of pancreatic cancer in 2012]. On the basis that I can sit and watch Bambi and burst into tears, God alone knows what will happen on Thursday.”

I know the story very well, and a poignant one it is too which formed the basis of my Wincanton blog. So we wait to see how the mind copes with the finale, but Richard’s body still seems strong despite finishing lame on the recent Ffos Las to Chepstow leg (nominated as the hardest of the trek) which required a cortisone injection from the racecourse doctor.

“I’ve been incredibly lucky that I haven’t had an injury of any note. Some of the terrain I’ve walked across, it would have been so easy to take a false step and do an ankle. The legs look pretty peculiar now, and the amount of weight I’ve lost [26 pounds, no less] has contributed to me being possibly the worst advertisement in history for a tailor because my suits look absolutely ridiculous on me!”

I told him there are worse things. My suits now look ridiculous on me for the opposite reason. Perhaps I should take up walking and continue the Walking The Courses franchise in Ireland, a baton that the founder seems happy to hand on? Perhaps not – I fear I might ‘go wrong’ in the first furlong. Richard, however, a man who traditionally walked only to the corner shop for the Racing Post, now appears smitten with the pastime, and I asked him if he will continue.

“There’s absolutely no question that I will keep walking. I’m going to give it a break for a wee while after this as I think I owe my family and my employer my undivided attention, but there are a lot of parts of the country that I am very keen to go and walk – it’s now a part of me, it’s part of my DNA.”

“Scenically the leg from Cartmel to Carlisle up over the lakes was breathtaking. The whole thing has helped me realise how absurd our preoccupation is with going on holiday to another part of the world when we’ve got the most astounding countryside right under our noses. It’s just a beautiful country we live in.”

Listening to Richard, I was transported back to my own tour, and in particular the stunning drive from Lake Windermere to Hexham. It was a real turning point for me, when I stopped feeling sorry for my self-imposed misery and began to truly appreciate what I was lucky enough to be doing. Everything changed on that part of the journey. Had Richard changed, I wondered?

“I started this project as a 50-something who had had the same job for 21 years, lived in the same borough of London for 25 years, and been married to the same woman for 27 years. I think it was fair to say that I was rather like a fireplace at about 11:30 at night – there’s still a bit of warmth in the grate, there’s still a little bit of life, but essentially someone went out and got a big log and stuck it on the fire and gave it a big poke. I think I was starting to go out a bit, and this has been the most unbelievably invigorating, inspiring, fulfilling, refreshing, exciting project that I’ve ever, ever done.”

I have no idea what’s it’s like to walk 3,000 miles, or raise over a third of a million pounds for charity, but I can truly relate to Richard’s closing words. His journey was a far more public version than mine, but I sense both were deeply personal and cathartic in their own way. I was lucky to bump into him in Plumpton, felt privileged to walk the course with him at Wincanton, and now feel a strange sense of comradeship that he is entering the final furlong of his challenge. As he would say, “I hope that our paths will cross ‘ere long”.

(If you are in the Newmarket area tomorrow and would like to join Richard for the final course walk down the Rowley Mile all the details are at https://twitter.com/WalkTheCourses where you shall also find a link should you wish to donate.)