Why do we walk and what do individuals get out of walking? In our first interview, Paul Taylor from Burntwood talks about his durational walking challenges in the Midlands and beyond.
Hello! Who are you?
Hi, I'm Paul Taylor and in February 2020 I walked one million steps as part of The Prince's Trust's Future Steps challenge. This was the latest in a series of walking and other challenges I've set myself over the last few years, ostensibly to improve my fitness.
The Covid-19 restrictions have obviously affected my ability to take extended walks, and this has possibly had a related impact on my mental and physical health. But, as we enter August, I'm once again starting to walk for walking's sake. And I'm hoping it won't take as long to improve my health is it did the first time round…
Why do you walk?
In 2017 I changed job and started working from home four days a week. Cue a rapid drop in my fitness levels. My wife bought me a Fitbit to track my exercise and the step counter caught my attention. I found myself ‘gamifying’ the step count, going from 10k daily steps, to 15k, to two-week stretches of 20k steps a day.
But then I also started to enjoy exploring local footpaths, walking routes and public footpaths. The Beacon Way passes close to my home and that led to other long-distance walking routes.
You connect your walking activity with sponsorship of a cause and also record the walks publicly? Why is that?
I find the motivation to complete harder physical challenges from telling people I'm going to do it, mostly on social media, and then talking about it as I prepare and undertake it. It feels like it would be a missed opportunity not to raise money or awareness. Now people suggest charity-organised challenges for me to undertake.
My 93-mile Two Saints Way walk, from Lichfield to Chester, took four days and was possibly the most physically difficult. But it also the most rewarding for what it achieved – helping a CrowdFunder campaign by some good friends reach their target for a Climate Change and biodiversity project on Scotland’s Western Isles. That really helped push me through those points when I didn't think I could complete it.
What is your relationship with walking? What do you get from it?
My main outcome and goal is still the fitness. I'm fitter now than I possibly ever have been. Walking seems to be the one form of exercise that I can actually keep up.
But I have also really enjoyed exploring my local area. I live in Burntwood and have done for 40 years. But I've walked through parts of it in the last two years that I've never been to before, followed footpaths I never knew existed just to see where they go. It's taught me a lot about my home town and, in part, led to an interest in local politics that I hope to explore.
Finally, I get a certain peace of mind from walking that comes from the simple act of putting one foot in front of another. It can calm my thoughts and give me space to think things through. I suffer, on and off, from depression and walking helps to relieve that, particularly on pleasant days and in attractive and/or interesting surroundings. I've found the longer challenges can have dark and difficult moments of their own, however. Any difficult endurance challenge does, and you have to keep telling yourself that if it wasn't difficult it wouldn't be a challenge and it wouldn't be worth doing.
Where do you walk?
I mainly walk around Burntwood. Gentleshaw Common, Cannock Chase and Chasewater are all within 10 to 30-minutes walk from my house. We also have urban routes like the Anglesey Branch Canal and the newly opened McClean Way in Brownhills.
If I'm walking simply for the step count I often walk to and from the train in Lichfield and Rugby to go to the office. Or, when I'm having to make up those last few thousand steps for the day's target, the preferred destination is a pub for a ‘hydration break’ (a running joke in my FB posts – it's a pint of cider). I know all of the pubs in Burntwood based on how many steps it takes to walk there and back. I've considered setting up a ‘Drunk Hiking’ group at times. Part hike, part pub crawl, part exercise in pushing H&S concerns to breaking point.
Do you prefer to walk alone?
I usually walk alone, out of circumstance rather than choice. There aren’t many other people I know who want to walk as far or as often as I do. I listen to a lot of music and audiobooks. I do a weekly internet live stream music show [check out Paul's excellent radio shows – Ed.] focusing on new music and long walks give me plenty of time to listen to new material.
How do you record your walks?
I have been documenting my walks on social media using hashtags such as #MillionStepFeb and #AardvarkSaintsWalk. I started a blog but it's not compatible with an activity that leaves you totally worn out at the end of the day.
Vlogging has given me a way to show my often beautiful surroundings and get across some longer thoughts that would have been difficult to type out. I also do shorter video pieces for posting on Instagram and FB stories. If feels like a way of sharing not just the facts of the walk but also the emotion of it. Particularly on a cold, dark, wet morning when I really wasn't happy about being out there to get an early three-hour walk in before work.
It came as something of a surprise after each of the first few challenges when people told me they found my posts inspiring. It hadn't occurred to me that my mad escapades could do that. A few friends and followers have taken up or increased the walking they do after seeing my posts and vlogs and I find that incredible. It encourages me on further.
What do you think about on long-distance walks?
Everything. Nothing. I find the repetitive, but not totally unthinking, nature of walking soothing. It frees me up to reflect on things, to allow my mind to roam or to focus on a specific issue as I wish.
I like to find out about my surroundings. I am one of those people who spends as much time staring at his phone screen as at the surroundings. And that's often because I'm looking up things of interest that I've seen around me… landmarks, businesses, things that pique my interest, random questions I've had while my mind has wandered.
Has your walking become a bit of an addiction?
I can stop anytime I want. Honest… I don't think it's an addiction. Yet. But I do find in the period after a long challenge I get a mental and physical crash, almost a withdrawal, while I adjust back to normal levels of activity.
And there's always a desire to do something else. To walk somewhere else. I definitely miss it when I'm not doing it. It has some of the features of addiction, particularly when I'm rearranging my day or heading out late at night just to hit an arbitrary step target. But that's largely because my ultimate goal is the improved and maintained fitness.
What will be your next walking-based challenge or idea?
I want to do the Coventry Canal in a day, which is 38 miles from Fradley to Coventry. And to do the rest of the Heart of England Way once the weather improves.
I'm also interested in linking up with some local historians to find new walking routes with history to them or to keep old public footpaths alive. And I'd love to plan and then walk the route of Queen Elizabeth's 1574 progression from London to Bristol as part of a project for a friend who's obsessed with that event.
Ultimately, before age prevents it, I'm tempted to try an LDWA (Long Distance Walkers Association) 100 Mile event : 100 miles in less than 48 hours. However, I think that might be a step (or tens of thousands of steps) too far.
Do you have any suggestions or recommendations based on your personal walking practice, or just generally about walking or walking in the West Mids?
The West Midlands has some fantastic planned walks. I'd strongly recommend picking up a guide book to some local ones and trying them out. And then just get out there and walk.
Start small if you're not a walker. Don't buy expensive kit until you need it. When you start reaching distances where you’re suffering from wear and tear, then invest in decent hiking socks and shoes. And gaffer tape is the absolute best prevention method for blisters. Gaffer tape on your feet and micropore on your toes.
If you'd like to be questioned about your walking, drop us a line and we'll subject you to a light interrogation.