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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Taking team building to a whole new level

This is a story about the craziest physical and mental challenge in Latvia. This is a story about how 3 of Scandiweb's most resilient individuals completed it. And, most of all, this is a story about their journey to the finish line.

Well done, Eduards, Aina, and Māris. You're forever champions.

This is your story.


The Challenge: Kolka-Dubulti walk

You have 55 hours to walk 136km. You begin at 4pm on Friday and have until 11pm Sunday. You must walk along the beach, with some exceptions for port areas, forbidden zones, and the more sizable rivers. There are camps roughly every 35km, where participants are offered food & a camping place for tents.

If you complete the walk, you receive the highly coveted black bracelet, which serves as an eternal testament to your accomplishment. More importantly than that, it's an unforgettable life experience. And a story to be told.

Getting There: Preparations

The tools

8 wide-eyed, driven, and hopeful Scandiweb individuals signed up.

Soon after, they were bombarding knowledgeable friends and acquaintances about how best to prepare. One such friend, a hiker who braves 50-60km distances on a regular basis, replied: “It's too crazy. Don't do it. I'd never do it.” She wasn't the only one riddled with disbelief. In fact, a majority thought that it's an exercise in futility and we'll never make it.

Others were more helpful with their suggestions. Well-fitting shoes were a priority, naturally. But the biggest, and perhaps most game defining suggestion was foot gel. Slather your feet with the gel and forget about blisters, is what the more helpful friends promised. They were right and without it the chosen trio would never have made it to the end. It made your feet oily and made the shoes slightly slide around, but oh boy was it worth it.

There were some other more obvious suggestions, such as pack light, but come prepared for bad weather, as well as bring walking sticks. And some other less obvious ones, such as - bring some dishes. This last one was ignored to much regret, but more on that shortly.

The plan

The general mood of the team was split. While some saw this as something deserving of an attempt - let's see how far we get, grab a beer, and head home - others were laser-focused on succeeding, never entertaining the possibility of not finishing.

The latter group, the determined ones, us, schemed and strategized how best to accomplish the monumental task ahead. Here's the strategy:

Walk throughout the night, skipping the first camp (Roja), completing 70km and arriving straight at camp #2 (Mērsrags). Sleep a couple of hours. Walk to camp #3 (Zīvārtiņš). Sleep a bit longer. Then walk straight to the finish (Dubulti). The most foolproof plan ever concocted.

Some pre-emptive consideration went into the fact that it's going to be a painful experience, and when you're delirious with pain, you're prone to make stupid decisions. Keeping this in mind would help avoid squabbles and needless bickering when the going got tough, so the mere consideration of this would ensure mental fortitude further down the sandy line.

And finally, a half-silly, half-serious pact was made - If you're alive and your legs are functional - walk. Don't give up. Don't stop.

The next thing we knew, we're at Kolka and our destination - 136km ahead of us.

The starting bell was joyfully rung and the huge mass of people began walking, with 8 Scandiweb heroes in their mist. Foolishly optimistic. Determined. Unknowing of what awaited them.


THE WALK

Checkpoint #0: Kolka - 0/136km

It was a fresh & sunny day. Perfect walking weather.

A small win right at the very start! A decision was made to walk behind the mass of the people and this brought about an unexpected benefit - there was a ready trail created by the people ahead, making the sand sturdier and easier to walk on.

Since it was of utmost importance to keep feet as blister-free as possible, the foot gel was used immediately and generously. A wise decision.

Due to different walking paces the 8 Scandiwebians (and the 2 brave better halves that decided to participate with us) naturally separated into different groups. Our trio of future-champions was joined by one of the couples. The others found their own tempo, as they made their way down the beach.

On the way: 10/136km

After about 10km, walking became tough. Some initial signs of wear appeared and the slanted beach meant that you were constantly walking with one foot ever so slightly higher than the other. It was noticeable. And annoying.

Further on along the way, rivers blocked our path. Although they were knee-deep at most, they nonetheless posed a significant obstacle. After the lengthy distance covered, our leg muscles were strained and tight, which meant a heightened vulnerability to cramps upon impact with cold water. As expected, got cramps. It wasn't pleasant, but we braved the rapids and pushed forward.

We also noted others had an ingenious strategy for crossing the river - putting their feet in large trash bags, taping them shut, and confidently walking through the rivers. This way they didn't have to take off their shoes and perhaps were even offered some protection from cramps. Something to keep in mind for the next time!

Despite the challenges, the 5 of us marched on for hours and hours, eventually reaching the first checkpoint.

Checkpoint #1: Roja - 32/136km

It was around midnight by now. Exhaustion was severe. We had ran out of calories. And the glassy, tired looks were a clear indicator that food was needed.

Thankfully, the checkpoints did in fact offer food. It wasn't a royal meal, but the marmalade, sausages, nuts, cucumbers, tomatoes were just what was needed. Indeed, after a short break and a resupply of calories, the spark in our eyes rekindled, and the exhausted & distanced look was swapped back for one of liveniness.

To be fair, the large bucket of sugary coffee also helped with the spark. Maybe more so than the tomatoes. Guess we'll never know.

We learned why, during our preparation that felt like a lifetime ago, we were told to bring dishes with us. Because none were available on the spot! At first we didn't have anything to eat and drink from, but Eduards came up with an impromptu solution - cutting up some bottles and stuffing them with food. This ended up working just fine.

Refueled, restocked, and rested, we were ready to continue.

On the way: 40/136km

The weather had been nice until now, but it was the middle of the night and a light drizzle started. Soon after came a hint of danger. The beach was rocky. Rain made the rocks wet and slippery. Jumping carefully from rock to rock, it was a miracle nobody slipped. We opted to switch to walking through the forest.

Curious about how the others were doing, we contacted Deniss R., a colleague, who we expected to make it very far, if not complete the walk. Unfortunately our curiosity went unsatisfied, as the only reply we got was a cryptic and ambiguous one.

By the way, have I told you how awesome walking through the forest is? It's awesome. So awesome. The soft ground feels incredible on your tired feet. The beach sand is too soft. The highway's asphalt is too hard. The forest floor makes you feel like Goldilocks trying the middle-sized bear's porridge - it's just right!

Sadly, soon after, we ended up on the road. That's when the heavy rain started.

On the way: 50/136km

It was getting light outside. An overcast morning. We took a break at a bus stop. There were others. Most had given up and were waiting for the bus.

The fourth Scandiwebian, Deniss D. & his better half sat down for some rest… and couldn't get back up. They were out.

Shortly after, the bus came and collected our fallen comrades who had made it farther than most.

Only 3 of us remained.

As we continued walking along the road and through the never-ending downpour, oblivious to the progress of our other colleagues, we decided to mess with them by making a video of us running along, as if we weren't on the brink of catastrophic exhaustion.

Collecting our strengths, we turned on the camera and ran. It was a formidable effort that took bucket-loads of energy. We managed to run for a grand total of 3 seconds. Then we all collapsed.

But it was enough for the video.

On the way: 58/136km

Soon the most intense pain ever hit us. The pain grew and grew with every step. It was as if someone took a giant sledgehammer, like the ones used to tear down walls, and was hammering away at our feet hitting harder and harder each time.

We couldn't sit down, nor take a break. You'd get cramps immediately. And if we stopped, it would be the end of the adventure. Plus, we were so damn close to the next camp. So we pushed through.

Despite going through pain that made you question your very existence, whenever you'd pass another Kolka-Dubulti walker, we put on a brave face, stood up tall, and exchanged words of encouragement. Slouching back down miserably, as soon as the other people were gone.

The whole walk was just 53 hours of lying to passers by that you're fine.

Checkpoint #2: Mērsrags - 62/136km

After 17 determination-shattering hours of marching, we stumbled into the second camp. In spite of the furious protests of every muscle in our bodies, we manage to get our tent up. A minute later Māris & Aina are out cold.

Eduards couldn't sleep, took his sleeping bag outside and dozed off in moments.

2 hours later, he's awake. There's music in the distance, the sun is warming his face, and the green foliage above him is swaying gently to the morning breeze. There's a feeling of being in some open-air summer festival. A dreamlike moment of serenity.

Then the pain kicked in, bringing this moment of bliss crashing down and returning our hero to the brutal reality. Realizing that they're not even halfway through didn't make it any easier. As he got up, a symphony of loud cracks follows every movement. It sounded like someone was crushing a large empty plastic bottle.

But the legs felt rested!

In the camp conversation struck up with a Kolka-Dubulti veteran. Like Antons at eCOM360, she asked “Why are you here, guys?”. She asked this to every participant. To this day she had received no satisfactory answer. People do the challenge because they just feel like they need to. There's rarely a solid reason.

Re-energized, we packed up, grabbed some food, and got back on the road.


The first 15km were great!

The solidarity of everyone involved was a thing of marvel. A huge shoutout goes to locals - the people who had to endure the endless procession of limping and stinky (oh so stinky) strangers. Many set up tables with coffee, ice packs, food and this occasional friendly oasis was always an incredible boost in morale. Thank you, thank you, thank you, kindest of strangers.

And then our legs gave out.

On the way: 80/136km

We were going through hell. But, it's like Churchill said: "When you're going through hell, keep going".

So we did.

With 2 backpacks and a fanny pack between us, we constantly rotated carry duties, to help each other rest from the weight. It helped. But not much.

Throughout the walk we were religiously slathering our feet in the foot gel. It worked wonders. It was an irreplaceable commodity. So when we noticed that we were running out of it, we got very, very nervous.

Even breaks became dangerous - every time you sat down there was a chance that you wouldn't get back up. But time after time, break after break, we persisted and kept struggling forward.

To clarify, there wasn't actually much sitting done during the breaks. Everytime you stopped to catch your breath, you had to lie down and lift your legs up, to make sure there's adequate drainage and excess fluid doesn't build up.

Then we messed up.

Google Maps doesn't have trails. As our trip took us through a forest, we had to orientate ourselves using whatever we could. To our relief, we found a river. We followed it for 1km, before realizing we were heading in the wrong direction. Had to walk back. Excruciating.

But then - good news. Antons calls and says he'll join for the final distance. Offers to bring anything, any supplies. LITERALLY ANYTHING.

We ask for foot gel.

On the way: 88/136km

Suddenly, a car stopped right next to us. Sitting behind the glass was the veteran girl we met in the camp, who asked why do we participate. Turns out she couldn't answer the question herself and gave up. Generously offering anything we need, even willing to hand off her high-grade walking sticks to us - random nameless strangers - she was a huge help. Thank you forever.


It's not too far to the third camp anymore, but it feels like distance doesn't lessen. Aina can't walk anymore - her knees are refusing to function. Māris is about to pass out - he has blue lips and is paler than the moon staring down on us.

Eduards is somehow still keeping it together. But the reality is that his legs have gone numb. All the pain disappeared, but cold sweat started dripping from his hands. And then the pain hit like a train, with every muscle and joint screeching out in harrowing unison. 5 minutes later, the pain is gone once more. Another 5 minutes after, it has returned with newfound intensity. And then it's gone again, continuing a vicious cycle that tested the absolute limits of willpower.

On the way: 98/136km

2km left. Delirious from exhaustion we're struggling to find the camp, which is commonly referred to as the camp of death. Expecting there to be music at the camp, we channeled all our remaining energy to listen around in the hopes of hearing that relief-bringing melody, that indicates food & rest is just around the corner.

And then music! And relief! … and then tragic disappointment… it was a passing car.

Checkpoint #3: Zīvārtiņš - 100/136km

Somehow we make it. Hands are shaking, nay, trembling with a force that makes you greedily wonder how many calories are unnecessarily wasted by your body. We register the chips. Set up camp. Pass out instantaneously.

4 hours later, we're awake. Can't get up. Everything cracks with the ferocity of a thousand earthquakes. When we're finally on our feet, we can't stand straight. The body is screaming to quit. We're limping around trying to revitalize our legs, looking like a badly choreographed zombie backup dancer crew.

We finally get in touch with Deniss R. He informs us that everyone else is out. In fact, excluding our companions we lost at the bus stop, nobody else had made it past or much beyond the first checkpoint. We were the last ones going. We had made it so far already. We couldn't stop now - we'd carry Scandiweb's hopes and dreams straight to the finish line!

Deniss R. offers to bring us anything we need. We ask for food.

Soon after, we got our first supply delivery - Antons arrives with the foot gel. We're immeasurably thankful. But we don't have the energy to talk. Even our thoughts have gone silent. We respond with weak grunts and non-verbal cues.

It was at this point that the grandeur of the event truly hit. People were spending their free time to supply us with whatever was needed. They were truly and fully rooting for us.

Mustering up nonexisting energy, we set off for the final part of the journey.

On the way: 110/136km

The first 10km were doable. Everything after - not so much. It was like walking on sharp blades. You could feel every step reverberate through the body. Battered by invasive winds and relentless rain, we persevered.

The beach was littered with half-dead people shuffling forward or lying down in the sand, trying to find the energy to complete that final distance.

What helped us was that it was now a race against the clock. Imagine going through all of this only to finish in 55 hours and 1 minute and being disqualified? No. We couldn't let that happen. We kept moving, as fast as our worn-out bodies would let us.

Suddenly, just ahead of us, we saw a familiar face. Deniss R. had arrived with food & drink. Couldn't believe our eyes at first. Eduards ran. Hugged Deniss. Collapsed.

We feasted. Protein, cookies, sugar, all types of pastry… it was heaven. Especially after our diet of vegetables & any junk food we could get our hands on. The meal hit the spot.

The next couple of km were easy.

On the way: 116/136km

It was 20km to the finish when the shakes began. Our veiny legs wouldn't obey anymore. Forcefully dragging them through the sand, we had to stop every now and again.

Whenever we passed someone or were passed by someone, we stood up straight. They did too. The mutual energetic encouragements were gone. The “Cmon guys, you're doing great! Let's gooo!” were replaced with “You ok?” and “yeah, fine”.

As soon as there was some distance between us and the other participants, we slouched back down, nearly collapsing in the welcoming sand. We saw others do the same. Everyone was running on empty, but tried to put on a facade to encourage others to not give up. It helped.

We waddled onwards.

Hand in hand.

We were almost there.

If anyone would faint, we would drag them across the finish line.

We would make it as a team, or not at all.

And then…

We made it.

FINAL CHECKPOINT: Dubulti - 136/136km

Legs shaking, knees creaking, joints aching, body protesting, semi-conscious, we crossed the finish line. And we did it together.

It felt like a week had gone by since we left Kolka 53 hours ago. Time didn't matter anymore. After sitting down, or rather collapsing, on the ground, you could feel all the pent up spite, camaraderie, determination, and everything else that kept us going when our muscles gave up, just flow out of the body. The sensation was akin to being a water bottle & somebody pouring all the contents out.

We had walked 136km. But couldn't find the energy to get our bags sitting in the sand just 3m away.

We had walked 136km. But couldn't stand for a photo.

We have walked 136km.

In the end, there was only one thing that kept us going. The team. We refused to let each other down. Individually, we would've given up long ago. But together - never.

We had come to know each other better than ourselves. We had seen each other at our most vulnerable. And we had lifted each other higher than we ever thought possible.

It was the toughest, most challenging, and most painful journey ever.

But it was complete.

And we did it together.

The end

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