When the going gets tough!

22 June 2023

Along with her fellow walkers, Kerrie and Adi, Leonardo Training Co-ordinator, Yvonne Sykes, took on the infamous Cateran Yomp in early June. Sponsored by Leonardo, the event is run by and supports ABF – the national charity for the British Army. As part of Armed Forces Week 2023, Yvonne tells us what is was like to ‘Yomp’ through the most remote and wild parts of Scotland, and what inspired her to do so.

As a former member of the Royal Air Force (RAF), I continue to have a close association with the armed forces. Military charities are close to my heart, so I feel lucky that I’m able to push myself outside my comfort zone while raising much-needed funds for our military family. This has previously led to me running the London Marathon in aid of SSAFA, and doing the Forces March – the equivalent of walking five marathons in five days – for The Veterans Charity.

Along with my friends Kerri and Adi, we sought a new challenge that would push us even further than previous challenges. The Cateran Yomp is organised by ABF, The Soldiers Charity, and is the biggest, toughest event of its kind. The 54-mile circular hike through the Cairngorm Mountains must be completed within 24 hours, with three distance options – Gold (54 miles), Silver (36 miles) and Bronze (22 miles). It is based on an infamous long-distance military training march and takes every ounce of grit you possess.

Kerri, Adi and I formed a walking group called ‘148 Squadron’, which was a nod to our RAF backgrounds and our collective ages. We have over 55 years’ service between us, with me spending almost ten years in the RAF, stationed in the UK and overseas.

The first challenge of the weekend was the 400-mile drive from South Gloucestershire to Blairgowrie, Scotland, since a rail strike prevented us travelling by train. I didn’t get much sleep, but woke up on the morning of the race nervous and excited in equal measure. We had breakfast and did a final kit check before making our way to the start line. With a staggered start, we were in the second wave of walkers which departed at 6:15am. The majority of people in our wave were serving soldiers, and because of our RAF background, there was plenty of healthy banter along the way.

The course featured seven water stops and three checkpoints equipped with porta loos, water, hot drinks and snacks, with some checkpoints even providing hot and cold meals. There was no shade and very little breeze even though at times we were quite high up, so the heat was intense at times.

At the second water stop it became apparent that Adi was struggling with her feet and suffering badly with hay fever, which she hadn’t ever had before. By the third water/lunch stop, she had developed blisters. As a very positive, buoyant and determined individual, she continued to smile through the agony. After 22 miles and just over nine hours into the Yomp, we arrived at the Bronze checkpoint when Adi made the tough decision to end her challenge experience. This was a great achievement, and although she was disappointed to pull out, she had given everything she could.

Until that point, the route had been really challenging, with changing terrains and the highest peak at approximately 2000ft. Kerrie and I had mixed feelings leaving the Bronze checkpoint, as we had completed the first major milestone but were sad and disappointed to leave Adi behind.

13.5 hours into the challenge, we reached the next water stop. It was very picturesque as it was at a bothy – a small basic shelter found in remote mountain and glen locations across Scotland – next to Auchintaple Loch. We had heard about this water stop before we commenced the challenge, as it had gin! Upon arrival, we were offered a little tot of gin, which we enjoyed very much.

The Silver checkpoint was only about three miles further on, but included another steep hill. Just over an hour later, we arrived and did a full kit change for the night ahead…plus we were quite stinky at that point! It felt good to have new socks and clean underwear on! We spent a little longer at this rest stop, as we knew we were going into probably the most difficult stage of the challenge. We refuelled with pizza and chips, and lots of sweet tea.

Feeling re-energised after a kit change and a full belly, we set off with optimism knowing that we had 38 miles under our belt and just 16 miles to go. The one piece of advice we were given, was to try to leave the Silver checkpoint during daylight as this would help us deal with some of the uneven terrain we would encounter during the night. Little did we realise how difficult the last 16 miles would be in the dark. As the sun set, we were greeted by a mesmerising strawberry moon.

The moonlight disappeared and we were left with just our head torches for guidance. We really had to pull together and communication was key to advising each other of any changes in terrain. Daybreak was a real moral boost, with the bird song as a backing track. The camaraderie was great as everyone was looking out for each other with a kind word or a sugary sweet. The seven miles to next water stop seemed endless. When we finally arrived, we were offered fizzy cola which was exactly what the doctor had ordered, since I had started to feel a bit dizzy. Three cups gave me the energy boost I needed.

With just three miles to go, the question was whether we could complete them within the remaining one hour forty minutes. The burn on my thighs was immense, but we did not have the luxury of time on our side, so just had to get on with it.

By now, people around us were starting to run as everyone was desperate to finish within the 24-hour time frame. With the realisation that we might not finish in time, we agreed to run down quite a big hill. It wasn’t as bad as I anticipated, and before we knew it, we could see the finish line!

I felt quite emotional as we crossed the line, elated and relieved that we had completed the challenge within the allotted time. In total, 1,230 people registered to take part in the challenge. Of the 885 people who signed up to the full 54-mile challenge, 471 people completed it, with Kerrie and I crossing the line in 23 hours 45 minutes. We finished 359th and 360th respectively, and were the 43rd and 44th fastest women.

I’ve previously taken on other ultra walks including London to Brighton, Cotswold Way (Bath to Cheltenham) and the Isle of Weight Circular route. They are all 100km, but I would say the Cateran Yomp is by far the most difficult, largely because it is time-critical, but also due to the terrain. A lot of the tracks and paths were made of a gravely texture with rocks and stones of varying sizes, which made it constantly tricky underfoot.

I would definitely recommend this event to anyone looking for a challenge. It is tough, but pushing yourself is the whole point of undertaking such a challenge. You will have highs and lows, and will have to dig deep mentally, as there are times your energy levels will dip and you will question if you can go on. The stunning scenery and the camaraderie around the route make this challenge unique. The organisation and support you receive before and during the event is amazing, and the icing on the cake is that you will be raising money for such a worthwhile cause!

Since 2010, the Yomp has raised an incredible £4.3 million for the UK’s soldiers, former soldiers and their families. To date, I have raised £732, including £330 thanks to the generosity of my Leonardo colleagues through a raffle. My fundraising page will remain open for a little while if you would like to sponsor me.

Armed Forces Network Group

Leonardo's Armed Forces network group connects and supports our veterans, reservists and military family colleagues and communities. Additionally, it assists new employees as they transition from military to civilian life.

For the wider Leonardo UK business, the group helps enhance our collective sense of pride in being part of UK and allied defence, through sharing stories from our veterans, reservists and military families.

Transitioning to a civilian career

Leonardo’s commitment to the Armed Forces Community is pledged through our support of the Armed Forces Covenant, while we have been awarded the UK MoD’s Employer Recognition Scheme Gold Award.

We understand that the transition from military service to civilian life can be a major challenge for some people. To address this, we work with the Career Transition Partnership to provide initial and ongoing support.

We also have a dedicated Armed Forces Network Group which supports Leonardo UK Armed Forces veterans, reservists and spouses or partners of serving members.

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