Highways Heroes: Going the extra 900km to support mental health

Stacey Smithson (pictured with her faithful husky) has been nominated by Highways England as a Highways Hero for her amazing, and exhausting, charity work.

Ms Smithson is a Highways England Regional Control Centre Operator and is about to embark on a gruelling set of endurance events to raise money for mental health charity Mind, which is also the official charity of the Highways Awards.

Her aim: to complete nine 100km hikes, each in under 24 hours, in five months. She has already raised more than £5,600 for the metal health charity, a cause close to her heart. Her husband has just retired from the armed forces after 22 years of service and as a military wife she knows the struggles service and ex-service personnel can go through with anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder.

You can donate to her JustGiving page here.

She speaks to Dominic Browne about support networks, motivation and rising to a challenge.

1. It's wonderful that you are taking on this challenge for charity. What have you done to prepare for it and how is it progressing?

With the original 2020 #TheUltraChallenge9 events being delayed, I have continued to walk to maintain my fitness in prep to do them this year instead. To stay motivated I have taken part in a number of virtual walking challenges as well as setting myself some monthly personal challenges.

So far in 2021 I have walked 500 miles and done enough hill work to have summited Everest twice. My first event is 22 May and my last event is 11 September – due to all the dates changes around covid restrictions I have had to postpone one event until May 2022.

The event locations:

  • Jurassic Coast 22 May 2021
  • London 2 Brighton 29 May 2021
  • Lake District 12 June 2021
  • Cotswolds Way 26 June 2021
  • Peak District 3 July 2021
  • SW Coast 2 Coast 24 July 2021
  • South Coast 4 September 2021
  • Thames Path 11 September 2021
  • Isle of Wight (May 2022)

You’ll notice there are a few back-to-back weekends in there; recovery will be the real challenge between events.

Now restrictions have lifted slightly I have been able to start walking with other people and it makes a huge difference to have that support out on longer walks.

I also got a dog #DoraTheExplorerDog – Bosnian rescue – Husky Collie cross just before the first lockdown and she has been my main walking companion this last year and has definitely made a difference on the days when I haven’t been so motivated to get out, as she still needs walking either way.

What is your favourite part of the country to walk? (Bonus points for saying how you can get there on the SRN from your home).

My personal choice is North Wales and the Lake District as I can also combine my visits with some Stand Up Paddleboarding my normal go-to activity when not hiking and not under any restrictions. However, I am very lucky and live in the Wye Valley an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and can hike on two National Trails pretty much straight from my front door. The Offas Dyke Path and Wye Valley Walk. Making the most of the green spaces and the water for my own mental health.

Journey from home to Lake District – SRN used: A40, M50, M5, M6 and A590.

You chose Mind because of your connection to the military and because many of your colleagues as an RCC operator have similar connections - ex-service or emergency services. Why do you think there is that crossover?

I think the crossover is that it is still a uniformed job within a controlled environment with structure in place and that you are helping people.

Can you tell us what it is like being in a military family and what has helped you along the way?

I have been around the military all my life, as my dad was in the Army and my grandad. It was kind of inevitable living in a military town that I would end up still attached to the military in my adult life.

My husband served 22 years and retired last year from the Army. People expect to hear that the moving around is a challenge but for me its staying put, I tend to get irritable every 18 months to two years as I’m so use to change. Sports and physical activity has been a big support for me, as it gives you an instant community where ever you go.

What keeps you going through these tests of endurance and how on earth do you ever get the courage to start?

I have taken part in sponsored events since I can remember, with my earliest memory being a sponsored silence at school.

My first endurance event would have been doing my first one-mile swim at the age of 10. We had to get special permission from the organisers as the lower age limit was 12. I remember it being tough and my dad swimming alongside me for the last lengths encouraging me to keep going.

This was followed up with my first multi-day hike when I was 11. For three days in Cyprus on an event called the Horse Shoe Hike, we had to navigate ourselves in small teams, to each of the checkpoints, set up camp and cook our own food. We only saw adults at the checkpoints. It was a great experience and the start of a life of looking for challenges to participate in.

Challenges have ranged from 1,000 burpees to a Trail Half Ironman with some endurance paddling events thrown in there too. The courage to start comes from being told you never know you can do something unless you try.

What are your top three recommendations for preparing for an endurance test?

If its going to be your first event pick something you know you are going to enjoy – I know I personally don’t enjoy running so you wont see me signing up to any running events any time soon. Give yourself time to train for the event.

Join social groups that do the activity you have chosen to participate in to give you a support network.

It's fair to say you are a person of great purpose willing to take on challenges. Have you always been like that or what made you that way?

I think I have always been that way. Growing up, I was lucky to have parents who were passionate about sports and wanting us as children to be active and to test our boundaries. We were given a lot of independence and exposure to the world from a young age. By the time I was 12, I had lived in four countries and since then have travelled to many more. I know I have been lucky/fortunate and because of this have always got involved in events/activities where I can give back to help others.

What do you like most about your work?

I like that each day is different; you can never truly predict what’s going to happen on the network. I liken it to playing a strategy board game and you have to think about what resources you have and how they are best utilised for the incident(s) you are dealing with.

PS best of luck with the hikes.

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