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28 January 2016

How I learned to walk miles on a midnight marathon across London

Between Clare Balding striding into the road to stop traffic and Grace Dent's elegant glide, we survived the Moonwalk.

By Tracey Thorn

My New Year resolution was to drink more champagne. I realise that sounds a bit like taking up smoking for Lent, and I’m only moved to tell you this because of Nicholas Lezard’s remark in his column the other week about the nastiness of Prosecco. I’d had a similar thought halfway down a glass of the stuff over Christmas, and vowed that in future I would try, on those occasions when something fizzy is required, to drink actual champagne.

This Marie Antoinette-ish resolution came amid the flurry of announcements about new drinking guidelines, so I did feel a little out of step, but reassured myself with a jolly cry of “Quality, not quantity!” and remembered that I’m at least obeying orders when it comes to current government exercise requirements – as long as walking round London listening to audiobooks of Trollope still counts as exercise. I bloody hope so, because I feel that walking is the one form of exercise I’ve ever completely nailed.

I learned how to walk by doing the moonwalk. I know, you’re now picturing me sliding backwards across a polished floor, but no, I don’t mean the Michael Jackson moonwalk – a thing of grace and beauty – but the charity fundraising MoonWalk: a 26-mile night-time march through London, performed by women in their bras to raise money for breast cancer research.

I took part in it a few years ago as part of a fantastically glamorous media team that trained for weeks on end. We’d meet every Sunday and walk beside the Thames, gradually building up distances and endurance, until we were easily covering 20 miles and more. I say easily: I mean huffing and puffing, covered in blisters, and fuelled by Marmite sandwiches – but still, we did it.

We were a great gang. Alice Arnold, Voice of Radio 4 at the time, would stop every couple of miles for a ciggie. Crossing busy junctions was made easy by Clare Balding striding into the middle of the road to stop the traffic. Grace Dent had a walking style so effortless and fluid that she looked like she was on castors, while Kath Viner, now editor of the Guardian, still claims the MoonWalk was the most miserable night of her life. But at the time, I thought she was joking, and wondered why she was looking at me like that as we sang show tunes through Battersea Park.

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Everyone says that when you run a marathon there’s a moment when you hit “the wall”. Same goes for walking a marathon, especially in the middle of the night, and I do remember hitting rock bottom on Clink Street and very nearly ending it all as we passed the Golden Hinde. But much of it was magical. Crossing Tower Bridge at 3am, the streets deserted, part of an army of marching women thousands strong; then walking down the King’s Road as the sun started to rise, greeted by a standing ovation from all the firemen lined up outside the fire station.

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What I took from that walk was the ability to walk without really noticing the distance. Once I start now, I can just keep going. Wind me up and watch me go. If there’s someone to talk to, all the better. I now walk with a group of friends once a week, all of us anxiety sufferers who’ve tried a bit of CBT and a bit of mindfulness meditation. We share the week’s Top Worries, talking while walking being very like talking while driving: you don’t have to look each other in the eye, so everything seems less embarrassing. We release our mortifying thoughts while looking resolutely ahead, grounded by the fact of our feet hitting the ground.

On my own, I walk with my audiobooks, or sometimes music, which often provides a comically apt soundtrack. Last week I was out walking to the accompaniment of a cast recording of Stephen Sondheim’s Company. The song “Marry Me a Little” reached full jazz-hands crescendo and as I sashayed along the pavement, singing (in my head), “I’M READY! I’M READY NOW!” a car sped past, my very own husband tooting his horn and waving. Really, I’m quite surprised he even acknowledged that he knew me. 

This article appears in the 27 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?