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McMillan tops 100km walk for Oxfam

|Written By Michael McKiernan

On the warm sunny morning of July 22, four exuberant associates from McMillan LLP gathered at the foot of the grassy hills of the Snow Valley ski resort near Barrie, Ont.

McMillan LLP associates (l to r) Rob Barrass, Richard McCluskey, Amanda Sutton, and Andrew Walker at the Snow Valley ski resort near Barrie, Ont., before their gruelling 100-kilometre trek along the Ganaraska trail system. Photo: Michael McKiernan

They were there to compete in Trailwalker, a 100-kilometre charity hike along the Ganaraska trail organized by Oxfam Canada. The trek, which has its roots in a British army training exercise, has morphed into a charity event now in its third year in Canada with participating teams required to start, stay, and finish together within 48 hours.

Buoyed by the deafening dance music pumping out of the resort’s sound system, the four readied themselves, brimming with energy and pacing nervously as they completed final checks.

“We couldn’t be more excited,” says Amanda Sutton, pulling on her backpack. “We’re pumped.”

It’s a rare chance to leave their corporate-commercial practices behind for the day, although fellow team members Richard McCluskey and Andrew Walker note the office is never far away and joke about how many agreements they’ll read on the trail. Several BlackBerrys are also coming along for the ride.

“Only so I have a way to text my girlfriend,” says Walker. “And to keep our generous donors up to date.”

Team captain Rob Barrass says they’re eager to get started after weeks of preparation. “We’ve done some training as a team and done a lot of training individually,” he says before leading his team to the back of a crowd of nearly 400 people for the start.

It was a different scene 34 hours later in Orillia, Ont. as the team members dragged themselves across the finish line, their bodies broken and their feet numb, according to Barrass.

“I think we sort of shuffled through the last 20 kilometres,” he says. “We were just happy and maybe shocked to have finished it. It’s quite an endeavour. It’s one of the most arduous things I think I’ve ever done and I’ve been hiking for weeks in the Himalayas, and at least there you get breaks.”

Still, within days Barrass was already looking forward to another assault on the trail next year. “Looking back, it was a highly rewarding experience. You get a huge sense of accomplishment. I’m getting kind of excited for improving our time and doing it all over again.”

Barrass says his team had planned to power through the event without sleep but eventually bowed to temptation after more than 24 hours on the trail by taking an hour-long sleep under a tree by the side of a highway. “That was definitely the best nap I’ve had in my life,” he says.

The toughest part of the event, he notes, came just past the halfway mark during the nighttime hours when “you realize you’ve already walked a marathon and a half and you have another marathon to go.”

According to Barrass, all four members of the McMillan team had trouble keeping their motivation at times but spurred each other to keep going. “It really does become a mental game, and you have to support each other mentally and physically. It’s an amazing bonding experience. I think the four of us know each other extremely well now and are the better for it.”

Robert Fox, Oxfam Canada’s executive director, paid tribute to the McMillan team, which has so far raised almost $12,000 for the organization’s work in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. “We’re really pleased this year with McMillan’s participation,” he says. “The team from McMillan is actually the top fundraising team of all the teams participating in this year’s event, so they sort of set the bar for the legal community. We’re looking forward next year to having more law firms and lawyers involved.”

Marty Venalainen, another McMillan associate who sits on the board of Oxfam Canada, was set to compete in this year’s event until a cycling accident put a stop to his participation. He says he had no problem recruiting lawyers for the team at McMillan and would also like to see other firms getting involved to get some friendly competition going next year.

“I think sometimes the nature of lawyers is we’re really up for a challenge,” he says. “We’re used to spending those long nights, so convincing them to go without sleep wasn’t too much of a challenge. We’re hardcore.”

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