Sometimes I feel like God is gently nudging me in a particular direction – I feel like if I listen carefully enough, it’s crystal clear what His plans are for us. The idea of doing an endurance week with the children was borne through a series of these gentle nudges, with all the pieces falling perfectly into place.
First up, we were supposed to be in the Lake District this week, climbing Scafell Pike and Helvellyn, kayaking on Lake Windermere and ghyll scrambling along its rivers, but the current Covid-19 restrictions put paid to that plan. No matter, we’ll rebook for another time. However, after a long run of stretching our brains hard with academic work, we were mentally tired, but our bodies were largely unchallenged.
We all felt the itch for some sort of physical adventure. But what to do from home?
Secondly, MrJ and I have a current fascination with watching documentaries about endurance races, such as Running for Good and Inspired to Ride, and we happened upon an interesting one called Project Acheron: Patagonia. This follows four elite athletes, led by two American Navy SEALs and a Patagonian guide across the wild and beautiful terrain, in a series of high-performance challenges, designed to push their limits physically, mentally and spiritually.
Awakened at 3:30am, they trekked across glaciers, scaled sheer rock walls, paddled across freezing melt water and summited mountains never climbed before until late in the evening, not once being told the plan of how they were to cross this extreme environment and for how long. What was more, their brains were scanned pre- and post-trip so the scientists could see how the brain reacts and adapts to stress. What they found was that their brains did change as a result of the experience. The amygdala, the part of the brain in control of decision making and emotional reactions, improved its capacity to process information under stress. It ultimately improved their ability to deal with adversity, and all four went on to make major strides in their own sports.
We don’t have mountains and glaciers in Kent, but could we recreate our own (very scaled down version) of Project Acheron?
Thirdly, we’re doing the Simple Homeschool Read the World Summer Book Club again this year and one of our first recommended titles for this week’s study of Oceania & the Poles: Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage to the Antarctic. Although this particular book was suggested for teens and adults, and makes a long read aloud, I knew Bean9’s fascination with explorers would make this the perfect book for us. And then, as I cleaned the house, I happened upon an unopened DVD I’d bought last year: Shackleton with Kenneth Branagh (both Beans are big fans after watching him in Henry V)!
The idea of endurance and tough physical challenges to move us out of our comfort zone, of taking risks to push personal limits, was certainly coming through loud and clear! As Ben Fogle said in his book about climbing Everest, “Risks encourage quick thinking, creativity, resourcefulness… (on taking risks) you become braver and bolder; self-confidence and self-esteem grow and create a strong mindset.”
I believe this is just as important for children as it is for adults. But what would be the right level of challenge for them? How could we tailor an endurance week for a 9 & 10-year old that would provide just enough stretch to test their limits, but that wouldn’t be too much?
I decided to ask them. One evening, we went for our usual 3-mile amble around our local countryside, and I voiced the idea. I told them about Project Acheron (and later they watched the documentary), and asked if they were to do an endurance week, what challenges would they set themselves? It was, at the end of the day, a week’s break, so I didn’t want to force anything on them they didn’t want to do. Their reaction took me by surprise a little: they were HUGELY enthusiastic about the idea. So much so that I had to rein them in – at one point, Bean9 had us running a marathon on Day 5!! After much deliberation, they set us a plan for a five-day endurance week, including four days of physical endeavours and one day of mental challenges. Here’s what it entailed:
Day One: Build a Hammock and Rope Ladder from Scratch
We had intended for this mental/practical challenge day to be in the middle of our endurance week to give our aching muscles a rest. However, we needed to rejig the order of everything around the weather and MrJ’s work schedule and so we ended up starting with this more cerebral task.
MrJ had ordered us some dowels, rope and a few carabiners ready for us to start this project. I’m not going to lie, it probably cost us more in materials than it would have to buy a readymade hammock, but this was all about the experience! Both Beans were skipping around in excitement at the prospect!
We started off working in pairs on separate tasks. Bean10 and I diligently measured out 17 lengths of rope along the corridor, taping the sections at the end and then cutting in the middle of the tape so as not to fray the ends. We then halved each length, knotting each one to the carabiner at its middle, leaving us with 34 pieces of free rope protruding from the carabiner.
Meanwhile, Bean9 and MrJ were to drill 17 evenly spaced holes into the first dowel. First though, they measured out and marked 17 dots along a piece of string held taut by pinning it to a table with two pins. This was to act as the template, which they fastened tightly to the dowel, marking where the holes were to go. Then, it was out to the tool shed to drill the holes and sand it all down smoothly.
The next task was to attach this first dowel to the rope/carabiner construction. Carefully taking the two ends of each rope, they made a reef knot about 30 cm from the carabiner and then threaded the two free ends through the dowel pushing the wood tight against the reef knot. Next, they did a second reef knot on the other side of the dowel to hold it in place. They repeated this for each double-ended piece of rope, securing the dowel in position.
We then moved outside and hung the carabiner from the ceiling in the greenhouse. It was Bean9’s and my job to start the knotting for the main body of the hammock. Every six inches, we tied four pieces of rope into a square knot. On each row of knots, we left one end pair free to act as the starting pair for the next line of knots. Once we’d completed one row, we moved down six inches to start the next one. And repeat many times! The knot was quite tricky to get your head around; the Beans grasped it much faster than I did, but I persevered, determined to master it.
Whilst we knotted, Bean10 and MrJ drilled 17 holes in the second dowel, and then they took over the knotting for a while, giving us a little break. These two sped through the remainder of the knotting and soon it was time to attach the second dowel in the same way as the first, with a reef knot either side of the hole. This closed in the main body of the hammock.
The final job, attaching all of the ends of the rope to second carabiner, was the trickiest so MrJ took charge, ably assisted by us all. The difficult part was ensuring each double pair of rope was as taut as all the others.
But finally, he managed it and we carried our completed hammock (feeling very proud of ourselves) out to the courtyard to measure up where to affix it to the wall. MrJ drilled holes and attached the hooks into position, whilst I took the opportunity to read a few more chapters of our Endurance book to the Beans. Once he’d finished, we secured the two carabiners to their hooks and after a bit of adjustment were ready to try out our new hammock, very carefully, from the lightest of us to the heaviest!
It’s so comfortable and relaxing in there – we were pleased as punch with our finished product!
The next task of building the rope ladder was much simpler by comparison. It was Bean9’s design: he’d carefully worked out the measurements, adding these to his sketches. I left the Beans and MrJ to it and after only a short time of sawing the rungs to the right length, drilling holes, threading and knotting the ropes into position, they presented me with a finished product. Clearly, they then had to test it out immediately, using it as a way of getting up to their treehouse.
We were all quite tired after our day’s construction, none more so than MrJ who’d had to remain calm throughout, showing us how to do each step, patiently watching on and supporting us in our endeavours. But there was still one job left to do: prepare our bags ready for the next day’s challenge, which proved to be, by far and away, the hardest of our ventures.
Day Two: Walk a Marathon!
I was, I have to admit, a little anxious about the prospect of walking 26.2 miles in one day with the children. We’d never walked more than 13 miles with them before in one stretch. But it’s what they’d set out to do and nothing would deter them. So, we planned a route which had us parking the car in Deal and walking home from there along the coast. We’d walked a 5.5-mile section of this mammoth route before on New Year’s Day with friends. That had seemed a longish walk, and yet it only amounted to one fifth of today’s planned mileage. I tried not to think about it…
By 5:45am I was up and making sandwiches, waking the children at 6am so they could take on as big a breakfast as they could manage at this time before heading out into the drizzly morning. In the car, I read a couple of chapters of Endurance for some added motivation. We were ready to walk by 7:45am and set off in jubilant spirits despite the grey weather, with the kids bouncing around, and us issuing boring instructions like, “please don’t step in the puddles and get your feet wet or you’ll really regret it later” (they did…).
We stopped for water and snack breaks every hour. Initially, both were very excited about the prospect of eating as much as they wanted as they were unlikely to be able to eat sufficient calories quickly enough to replace those we lost through the walking. But as the day progressed, as always seems to happen when we walk long distances, eating became a chore and we all started to feel a little sick at the prospect (this is literally the only time this ever happens to me – any other time and I’m always ready to snack away!).
All four of us chatted away happily until we got to about 9 miles, at Dover, where Bean9 started to struggle with motivation. A little earlier than I thought he might. So, I sent Bean10 off with MrJ and took Bean9 under my wing, distracting him by chatting about his upcoming cricket practice which has just restarted this week. We chatted about his friends, some of their interactions, his worries and concerns, and then moved onto him explaining cricket rules in general, the various ways of getting out, famous cricketers and cricket pitches and oh so many other things cricket related. Who knew there was so much to talk about on the subject? And with a captive audience, he waxed lyrical about the topic! He seemed to love this special one-on-one time with me and although Bean10 kept looking back longingly at us, I think wanting to join in, she was sensitive and kind enough to know that he needed this time with me.
We walked this way in our little pairings until we got to the half-way mark, 13.1 miles, at around 12pm: the perfect time to stop for lunch. And oh, my goodness, was I pleased to stop. I don’t think I’d eaten enough food up until this point and the constant Bean9 distraction had drained my energy even further, so I was very happy to plonk myself down and tuck into the sarnies overlooking the serene sea. We didn’t stop for long though for fear of seizing up, and so soon set off again, revitalised and fantasizing happily about what we’d do when we got home! It was agony to start walking again as I’d stupidly managed to get a massive blister on the bottom of my foot from the previous day’s 10-mile run (which I’d done on my toes to improve my technique – very foolish mistake when you plan to walk a marathon the next day…). But I pushed through the pain, and it seemed to settle somewhat.
Bean9 once again dominated my time, although I did manage a little section holding Bean10’s hand which was lovely. Our conversation turned to skiing and after a fair few miles of walking I found myself agreeing to give up the prospect of a holiday in sunny clines for one on a ski resort whenever the opportunity to travel presents itself again. The one person I spent very little time with was MrJ; in our whole day of hiking, we hardly spoke a word to each other, so preoccupied with the children were we.
The walking was getting tough now and it was getting harder and harder to distract Bean9 (Bean10 on the flip side had no problems at all and plodded on contentedly). With about 3 miles left to walk, Bean9 hit his wall and became somewhat hysterical, flip flopping between highs and lows. I’d been very calm for the majority of the walk but have to confess to losing it a little bit with him now, which clearly didn’t help. We were now so close to being able to finish the marathon in under 8 hours of actual walking time, so we tried our hardest to chivvy him along. The problem was we were in home territory now and had hiked these sections many times before, so he had a picture in his mind of just how far he still had to walk. What kept him going though was the prospect of Bean10 and MrJ completing it in under 8 hours and him failing to do so. And so, through gritted teeth and tears (I was feeling very worried at this point that we’d pushed him too far), he persevered, pushing himself into the front of our group.
Finally, after 7 hours 56 minutes of walking (9 hours 15 minutes including breaks), and an elevation gain of 850m (which was actually a higher elevation gain than when we’d hiked up Snowdon, given how far up the starting car park is situated), we made it! Amazingly, MrJ’s route planning was so accurate that we hit 26.2 miles on the middle of our driveway, so we stopped to take a photo of them crossing the imaginary line!
What an achievement. The kids were so happy they practically bounced down the rest of the driveway, with huge smiles on their faces, thanking us profusely for encouraging them the whole way. The giggling continued as they peeled off their shoes and socks to reveal the most wrinkly feet you’ve ever seen!
After rehydrating and changing our footwear, we hopped into our second car to drive back to pick up our first from Deal, 40 minutes away, marvelling all the while at just how far we’d walked. With the tunes turned up loud, they sang joyfully all the way home. Once there, they went for a soak whilst I prepared some much-needed pizzas for dinner, after which they crashed into bed, falling asleep almost immediately. We were going to need a much later start for day 3.
Day Three: Cycle a Marathon
We were struggling with achy muscles and low energy levels on day three, but with a big breakfast, a very slow start and some encouraging messages from lovely friends, the Beans and I (MrJ had to get back to work unfortunately) set out on our next challenge: to bike 26.2 miles. With blisters strapped up and armed with the realisation that this was going to be a walk in the park in comparison to the day before, we embarked on a route we’d cycled before.
Physically, this wasn’t going to be difficult for me but the stress of making sure the Beans got through it safely was more of a challenge. In the past, we’ve had some hairy incidents. Once, Bean10 lost control of her brakes down a steep hill and veered at top speed across to the wrong side of the road on a blind bend… Another time, Bean9, having a slight obsession with looking back and down at his gears, once, whilst doing this, cycled full pelt into a tree at the side of the road, bouncing him back and off his bike into the middle of the road… Luckily in both cases, we’d been blessed with empty roads, but I was all too aware of the potential dangers. This time, they were under strict instructions to be very cautious and look ahead at the road at all times!
And this, fortunately, they did, with Bean9 waiting for us carefully by the roadside if he got too far ahead (he was definitely the best at this discipline and there was no moaning from him on this day). We cycled across the marsh; up some extremely steep hills into the countryside; had a nosy at many a beautiful country house nestled into the landscape; and exclaimed at the gorgeous cows as they stared at us with expressions of what appeared to be genuine fascination as to why we’d want to move ourselves up such sheer inclines on top of those strange machines!
The trickiest part was the last section along the A road. The cars were getting so close to us and I was worried the children might make a mistake in their exhaustion. I road alongside Bean10, forcing the cars to slow down to overtake us and thus providing a bit of protection for Bean9 ahead, but it was still a stressful time. With much relief and after a couple of pitstops for water, toilets and crème eggs, we made it home after about three hours of cycling. Day 3’s challenge was complete.
Day Four: Kayak Five Miles
For the children, the physical challenges got easier throughout the week and they seemed to be having no problems at all. For me, I was struggling with the mental exhaustion of keeping them all safe, managing all the kit & supplies, and holding it all together. It quite literally wiped me out.
Again, the physical challenge of kayaking five miles presented no concerns for me (although it did for Bean9 as this is his least favourite of the sports). However, the idea of getting all of our kit down to the canal, inflating two kayaks (one double, one single) correctly (I’d never done it on my own before), keeping Bean9 motivated with me in my double (I had no concerns about Bean10 who loves kayaking), and then deflating them all, getting the kit home, cleaning it and drying it out, felt somewhat overwhelming after the previous three day’s efforts. I turned to the children for help and they came up trumps. When we arrived at the canal, under time pressure as it was due to rain, we worked as a team to set up the boats. The atmosphere was extremely supportive: we were three people toiling alongside one another rather than a mother looking after her two children. We even avoided sibling bickering!
We slid the boats into the water, carefully got in and set off. There were a few spits of rain but given that we were already wet with river water from our inefficient paddling, it didn’t really matter. The conditions were perfect with little wind, and it was enjoyable pootling along the river.
The only blight on the day was Bean9’s moaning. I tried to lift his spirits with one of Churchill’s quotes: “a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” He reflected on this for a while and it did seem to turn his attitude around a little. He started to say things like: “actually this is really fun.”
We reached the first bridge (the furthest we’ve ever been) after two miles of paddling, past some very cute and inquisitive cows (Bean10 loves the cows) and persisted into new territory to reach the second bridge, half a mile later. Here we took a quick drink/snack break, turned the boats around and headed back the way we’d come.
All the way down, I’d tried to coach Bean9 to paddle in time with me and lengthen his strokes to make us efficient as possible. Finally, on the way back, he mastered this, and we started to fly along, which made him jubilant. This did mean though that we were now significantly faster than Bean10 in her single and so we needed to keep stopping to let her get ahead. She found this quite demoralising and later admitted that this was the hardest part of any of the challenges for her, but she’s a determined little soul, and persevered until we eventually reached our entry point.
I was anxious about this next part of deflating everything with cold numb fingers, but again it wasn’t as bad as I’d anticipated and we all played our part, bundling everything into the car and warming up again on the drive home. We made it home four hours after starting out, ravenous for our lunch! Just one more challenge to go!
Day Five: The Run
The final event and one that Bean10 was worried about. This was the challenge they’d changed time and time again, unsure what distance they should attempt. Bean10 had only ever run 4.5km before, but Bean9 had managed 8km. So, Bean10 set herself the trial of running one 5km in the morning and 5km in the afternoon. Bean9 wanted to do 9km in the morning and 5km in the afternoon. My calves were in agony from my crazy toe running on day one, and the blister was giving me pain, but this wasn’t a long distance for me and there were no safety or logistical issues to deal with, so I happily set out with them.
Bean10 had a great first run, tackling it with gusto and sprinting the last section home.
Bean 9 and I dropped her off and went for an extra 4km loop. He also ran extremely well, running far ahead of her in the first section and continuing the fast pace into the second loop.
Once home, we’d planned to run the second 5km at 12pm, just before lunch. However, Bean10 had a bit of tummy ache from a homemade smoothie she’d had earlier, so we opted to delay the run until the afternoon. I wasn’t sure whether she’d do the second run, but she was determined to complete her endurance week in style and so we pulled the trainers on again and headed out. It was more of a 5km jog, but that didn’t matter. We were all about completing not competing. And complete we did!
With one hammock and one rope ladder made, and after 26.2 miles of walking, 26.2 miles of cycling, 5 miles of kayaking, 6.2 miles of running (8.7 miles for Bean9), and all in all about 15 hours of exercise, we’d finished our exhausting five-day endurance challenge. Do I think it’s changed us in any way? 100% yes, without a shadow of a doubt. The children have been brave, taken risks and pushed themselves physically and mentally outside of their comfort zone. They’ve walked, kayaked and run further than they ever have before. They’ve battled pain and overcome motivation issues and exhaustion to complete their ambitions. I have no doubt that they’re brains will have been altered and their lives moulded by this experience. Whether or not they realise it now, they will be just a little bit better able to cope with adversity in the future.
Every adventure, every journey, every challenge is unique to the individual – I would encourage you to set your own endurance week over the summer. It’ll be tough but it’s worth the pain and you’ll be so proud of yourself when you complete it.
And now for a rest!