Friday, 28 January 2011

Memorable Runs No. 1 - The One In Which I Meet The Man In Black (October 1996)

The staff meeting had dragged on a bit. By the time I got out of school, jumped in the VW bus and drove the few miles from Kirton to my Boston town centre flat, it was already past 5. Autumn was creeping up, shortening the days and narrowing the options for any long, off-road jaunts. It'd be dark by 6 - before I knew it, the clocks would be changing and bringing the start of the 'dark season.' Weekends would soon be the only time I was able to run in daylight - weekday runs would be contrived circuits around the town's lit streets or 'headtorchers' on the back whacks.

I'd promised myself a run out along the Seabank earlier as I'd tried to listen to my year group partner stress the need for us to get the term's planning done. 'Yeah - we can do it next week. Definitely!' I'd said as I pictured Cut End in the half-light, jogging as far as the Bird Hut and looking out towards the mouth of the Haven and the North Sea beyond.

I ran up the three flights of stairs, let myself in, got changed quickly and let myself out. 1/4 past 5 - half an hour to get out along the Bank while there was still light, and a run back along the farm roads. Plenty of time.

As I reached the junction with London Road, I paused. My usual right turn would take me over town bridge, down Windsor Bank and up onto the Seabank behind Fogarty's factory. Left would take me over the railway tracks and onto the Seabank on the right side of the river. I could drop off at Frampton Fen and get back to town on the minor road which led to the Industrial estate. It was a touch longer this way, but I had plenty of time. I stood for a while and turned left. It was a decision I was to regret.

The right side of the Bank had definite attractions compared to its neighbour on the other side of the river. Once you reached the mouth and turned south, the Bank had a wilder, more remote feeling, exhillarating but foreboding in its isolation. The kiss-off for this route was the access from Boston. Running along the Bank entailed an initial 2 mile journey through the docks and by the council tip. It was for this reason that most of my runs took the route on the other side of the river.

Tonight, however, the first 2 miles flew past. I was floating. I'd get this feeling only occasionally - pushing hard, feeling fantastic. The day was fading fast, but there was just enough light to see by as I reached the drop-off to Frampton Fen. I stopped for a moment at the stile and looked out over the marshland of The Wash. Turning round, I could just make out the length of the farm track I was to take to reach the road about a half-mile away. There was a figure on the track - some bloke walking his dog I thought as I set off again at a jog.

As I continued, I became aware of a fact that immediately got me spooked. Where was the dog? There was no dog. What would someone be doing out here at this time of day?

I slowed slightly but kept moving hesitantly towards the figure. As I drew closer, it was obvious that the figure was a man. A man dressed from head to toe in black. His face was concealed by a balaklava. Nervousness turned to decided unease. A hundred yards away and the man in black bends double. Tying a shoe-lace? But the man in black is wearing heavy motorcycle boots. Unease turns to panic. I slow to a walk, twenty yards from the figure. Time slowing down. He stands up slowly. In his hand he holds a huge rock. He's going to kill me. I'm going to die on a farm track on Frampton Fen, beaten to a pulp by a man in black. Time stops.

I stop walking. I stand still and wait for the struggle. The intial panic has subsided. But I'm too young to die. I'm about to turn and head back for the Seabank when the man in black takes a step towards me. He stumbles slightly, and in the instinctive reaction of cushioning a fall, throws his hands in front of his body and looses grip on the rock. I seize my moment, dodging past him and running faster than I ever have before. I daren't look back. I reach the road, and after half an hour of adrenaline-fuelled 6 minute miles, I'm back in my flat, supping a brew, wondering if I imagined it all.

In my restless dreams that night, the man in black becomes The Balaklava Man. For weeks I think about him constantly. I scan the local newspapers for mention of him. I begin telling the children in my Year 6 class made-up tales about The Balaklava Man at the end of the school day. There are a whole set of off-road routes I dare not do anymore, even in daylight. Eventually, I give up teaching, move on and move away.

Two years later, I'm living in a remote chalet at Anderby Creek, The front room is dominated by an enormous window. After falling asleep on the settee, I'm awoken by a tap at the window. I half-open my eyes. The LED clock reads 02:01. The man at the window is wearing black. His head is covered by a balaklava. I close my eyes, crying, pretending to sleep, hoping that he'll go away.

The Balaklava Man follows me, stalking me, waiting to take me. Waiting for when the time is right. I see him in shadows.

Climbing a snow-packed gully to the summit plateau of Kirk Fell last year, I became aware that one careless move would almost certainly lead to a fall. I was briefly overawed by the fragility of humanity. Ten minutes later, standing safely at the top, I rested my hands on my knees in relief, looking down on my route. What stupidity had possessed me to climb up there without crampons and an ice-axe? I'd used up another life. Then, taking a drink. I noticed a figure standing by the gate post on Black Sail Pass. The Balaklava Man was waiting. He could wait a little longer. I tightened the straps on my sack, turned towards the summit of the fell and, with a spring in my step, started jogging up the fence-line.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

The Art of Empty Miling

Designed as a derogatory term, 'empty miles' refer to the 'junk' miles that some distance runners have a tendency to do to flesh out the weekly training statistics. They have little physiological benefit, take up time that could be better spent on other forms of training and have no place in a serious endurance runner's training schedule. They are, however, what running is all about.

As a teenager, reared on schedules where every session had to count and even easy runs were for 'recovery' not enjoyment, I soon became disillusioned. A PB in the 5k or 10k would be cool, but at what expense? I liked to run long, off-road, easy. And so I started to substitute short, track, hard for long, off-road, easy in my training. My times suffered, but I looked forward to every run. Years later, after turning my back on that early promise and failing to fulfil any potential I had, I met a runner I'd known from those times. 'He could have been really good,' he told the friend I was with, 'but he didn't like the hard work. And he ran too many empty miles.'
I raised my eyebrows, laughed and replied, 'Yeah, you're right - too many empty miles.'

Fast-forward to the present day and a lifetime of running based on empty miles. I've had some success, but not a great deal. But it's been a blast, and will continue to be so.

Whether spending a day on the Lakeland Fells, running a 30 mile loop in the Lincolnshire Wolds or jogging down to the bridge and back with my young lad, empty miles continue to dominate my running. I could train 'smarter.' I could include more structured speedwork into my training. I'm sure I could improve my PB's in distances from 5k to half-marathon. But, then again, they're not really important to me. And, anyway, most travellers would agree that enjoying the journey is more important than arriving at the destination.