„So, we’ll go and do it?“ Ondra asked me. „You bet, this year we will not miss the march.“ We talked about the London night march against cancer, a very popular event. The money from this campaign travels to research this insidious disease. Tickets for this event are sold out very quickly. This year, the campaign has reached over 17,000 brave souls who decided to take on the just over 42 kilometres crisscross journey through central London. We did not practice for the walk, but we were determined to do it. After all, I love walking, so what if for once, I’ll go all night.
Missing the start
A rush to the subway, which is heading towards Southwark Park. That’s where our night march begins. Arriving a little late, once we get out of the subway station, we immediately join the passing crowd. The basis of the event is to shine as much as possible (that’s why it’s called Shine Night Walk), which walking people have taken very seriously. Besides the neon bracelets, people there also have flashing headbands, colourful wigs and flashing Christmas bulbs. Some of the ladies and even some gentlemen wear pink skirts. The view of the crowd is genuinely captivating. People are having fun and are full of enthusiasm; the organisers encourage us at every moment. We are heading towards Tower Bridge, which is nicely lit at night. It is at Tower Bridge that we will also end our trip.
London at night is a world unto itself. People are moving around on us honking and waving. I like it, but it seems to me that the time and the miles pass slowly. I am slowly starting to experience how crazy it is to walk 42 km on concrete pavements. I applied for the walk because I did not think about the distance. Now that my naive idea begins to catch up with the harsh reality, I know now that this is going hurt, a lot.
Each participant has, in addition to their number, a tag with their name and for whom they are marching. Most of the people I saw were walking for their deceased loved ones. People walked for their partners, children, wives, sisters, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers and other family relatives. In the glow of the neon colours and flashy pink socks, I suddenly face with the fact that this procession is not a cheerful one. Some have obituaries on their backs filled with beautiful photographs and quotations. I was a bit ashamed as I had missed my label. At the last moment, I scribbled down the name of my sister-in-law. For me, it is important that I carry this inside of myself more so than on my back. Moreover, I did not need to share my story, and it was already depressing enough.
Many of them also walked for those who have recovered themselves; others walked to raise money for drug research. All connected – everyone is somehow touched by cancer. I wonder whether there is anyone who is not affected by cancer, either directly or indirectly. My curiosity overcame my instinct of self-preservation. I read the stories on the backs of other people who passed us. Some were full of colour, others containing only plain text. For example, when I saw an elderly gentleman with the simple plain text „for my dear wife,“ I fought back the tears and felt full of compassion. Those stories are in their thousands, and even though the purpose of the march is to help beat cancer, you realise that you are surrounded by many who themselves have lost much in life.
The Thirteenth mile
We carry on until we are close to King’s Cross station (yes, famous for platform nine and three-quarters from Harry Potter). As it seems with all stations in the world, even here were homeless people huddled in sleeping bags. What is nice is that a lot of walkers leave them snacks from the nearby refreshment stand. Every police car or ambulance that passes us is honking. We move by various music clubs, and our supporters are now some local drunks who shout out to us.
My initial enthusiasm and desire to take pictures are gone. I put all of my energy into walking and also take in the diversity of the city. Ondra maintains the conversation; it costs me a lot of energy. I admire him because he got up at three in the morning, rode in a bike race from London to Brighton and had a nasty fall, having bruises (all colours of the rainbow), and not only had the determination to undertake the march, but also energy to encourage me in talking. I want to fall into a coma slowly, and his conversation keeps me going. My mind mercilessly reminds me which part of my body hurts and puts me in a sullen mood, full of self-pity.
We are approaching Notting Hill. A beautiful residential area shrouded in the light of the street lamps where tranquillity reigns. A massive entrance to a large house gives me a sense of Alice in Wonderland. The crowd is interspersed with smaller groups. It is around two in the morning and makes me dizzy from the notion that I have to undertake the same distance again, but Ondra is much more optimistic than I am. After a while, we also get to another refreshment station with toilets.
These refreshment stations are placed approximately every four miles. Besides drinks and snacks, they also have „perfectly clean toilets”. It deliberately mentions „perfectly clean“ as they are luxurious compared to the toilets at any festival. The flush works, they have toilet paper and even a mirror, so you can evaluate how miserable you look at the moment. The march is superb organized in all respects, although I had to pee once between cars.
I had long grown accustomed to the pain. It seems to me that time is running slower and slower. Instead of optimism that I exceeded twenty miles, I feel utterly lazy. Ondra also had no more power to maintain a conversation. At the next station, we sit on a bench and immediately fell asleep. Ondra proposes to sleep in a local park. It is near dawn. No, I do not want to fall asleep in the park like the homeless, and I preach again to go into battle, this time I’m the one who takes the baton of determination. We are like two martyrs.
When I look at the others, I completely understand what is happening within them. We are all connected in this endless march for a better tomorrow, each inch, step by step. If we were auditioning as walking corpses, no doubt we would succeed. Ahead a lady is walking with a backpack on which she has pinned a sign dedicated to her mother. Beside her, her father is pushing an empty wheelchair. „If we manage to catch the lady in front of us, I want to take a picture of her backpack, as it accurately reflects the nature of this whole march.“ However, they have disappeared soon.
Ahead, with hope, the last station is shining at the twenty-third mile. Desperately we roll off the park bench nearby parliament. We agree that we underestimated this because we did not train for it. After all, running and cycling is another type of movement. I watch the sunrise as rays of light peek out through the trees; a beautiful morning, Ondra happily napping. I wonder which part of my body is not in pain and I find that my eyes are doing fine. We pass Big Ben and watch as the sun reflects from it. Except for a few marching zombies, the morning is unusually quiet for London. Despite Ondra being full of optimism in the middle of the march, the last three miles were called some pretty nasty words.
The closer you are to the finish, the more you realize that distance is just a relative term.
After endless misery Tower Bridge suddenly emerged in front of us, a long-awaited sign that victory is within reach. The young lady with a backpack appears again in front of us. I collect the remains of my strength and determination to catch her up. I want to immortalise her story in this article, so I gently touch her arm and ask for permission. She agrees and lets me take pictures of her backpack. I shoot the inscription, which she bears all the time on her back. Suddenly it hits me. Someone else sat in the empty wheelchair last year. Now it was empty and in the corner was hanging a floral pink Hawaiian necklace symbolizing the welcome into heaven. The man who pushed the wheelchair was likely the father of the girl with the backpack. He was wearing a pink skirt, and his eyes were full of tears all the time.
In the last phase, tears were welling in my eyes, in silence, we went on steadily. Ondra was even worse than me. They walked a short distance from us. The clattering wheelchair acted as an amplifier to an already unbearable reality. I wished I had more courage to go over and hug them, firmly, strongly and with understanding. I managed only a silent cry.
Finally, there is the sign with the number 26; we joyfully take official pictures with it. A few hundred meters ahead of us we go up the red carpet to the welcome room where we get medals. The organizers sincerely congratulate everyone. I already know that it is an experience which I will never forget. I feel it in my right knee for at least another week! But seriously – this march was an experience that, in the end, you’re not just doing for those who are no longer with us nor just because you’re helping raise a considerable sum for cancer research. Mostly, you are doing it for yourself.
Where did we walk?
Please ignore the number in the figure; the map is accurate even if the distance is not :)
This article was translated from Czech; the original version is available here.