Sunday, 27 February 2011
Most of my closest friendships have followed a similar pattern. We'll meet, get to know each other and have adventures together. Eventually, for whatever reasons, we'll go our own ways. I'm useless at keeping in touch constantly - I don't particularly like talking on the phone, don't want to get too involved with Facebook, find texting a real chore. Moreover, I don't feel the need to keep in touch constantly. I'll see some of my closest friends only now and again. In some cases, years could have passed, but when we get together again, it's just the same as always. That, I guess, is the way it goes with true friends. That's certainly the way it goes with Radford and I.
There's no streetlights in the village. I clip into the pedals, click through to an easy gear and spin lazily down the slope, up through the tunnel and onto the main road at the top of Snape Hill. There's a slight headwind, but this first mile to the windmill is downhill and the going is good. In no time at all, I'm in Alford.
Our paths crossed in April 1999. The plans for my trans-Australia bike trip were coming together, and after working hard through the winter, I had saved enough money to purchase a bike. I'd last owned one over ten years before - a Haro Freestyler BMX that I'd bought whilst at university. I never got round to learning many tricks, and being so uncomfortable to ride over any long distances, I'd flogged it to a guy I worked with one summer at an amusement arcade.
The big new bike shop in town - Derek's - had just opened, but I headed to Ward's on High Street. It was an old shop and its business had obviously been affected by the new entrant to the market. However, in spite of its slightly run-down appearance, I'd heard it had a good range of bikes in stock. The clincher for me was the owner. Tom was well-known in the area and even in his 70's, I'd still see him out riding in the evenings and weekends. He obviously loved cycling - he'd be the right man to buy a bike from.
A bell rung as I opened the front door one afternoon. An elderly man, dressed in blue work overalls, was hunched over a key-cutting machine in the corner.
'Alright lad?' he said, looking up, 'Anything I can do for you?'
'Yeah,' I replied, 'I'm after a bike.'
'A bike, eh? You've come to the right place then.'
'I know,' I answered, feeling a little foolish.
'What's it for?' he went on.
'I'm biking across Australia,' I said.
'On-road or off-road?' he questioned, totally unimpressed.
'On the road,' I replied, 'Highway One from Sydney to Perth.'
'That one in the window'll do you,' he said and went back to finish cutting the key.
I couldn't see it from the inside of the shop, so I went back outside and looked in through the front window. A silver hybrid / mountain bike stood proudly on a stand. It looked a bit cheap to be honest. I couldn't see the make, and the gears were grip-shift. They might have been cutting edge on a Raleigh Grifter, but I'd recently read in a cycling magazine that it was best to steer clear.
I went back in.
'Well?' said Tom.
'Err, yeah,' I started, 'I was thinking more of something a bit more expensive. I'm doing this ride by myself - I need a good bike. I've got £1000 to spend.'
He took his glasses off and took a sip of tea from an old mug. 'Listen, lad. You're not riding in the Tour De France. That bike will do the job - you have my word on that. It's well-built, the parts are a fair spec and it'll cost you a couple of hundred quid. Of course, if you want to waste your money, I can show you a couple of bikes upstairs.
I was taken aback by his honesty. It didn't take long to make up my mind. I paid for the bike and arranged to come back in a couple of days. He'd make sure the frame size was right and help me set it up. In the meantime, he said, he'd give it a thorough going-over - after all, he'd given me his word that it wouldn't let me down. As I turned to leave the shop, he called out to me, 'Should be a smashing trip that, lad - something I'd like to do before I get too old. I'm glad you decided to come here.'
'Me too,' I replied, 'I'll see you soon.'
Outside the shop, I looked back into the front window. My bike stood proudly on a stand. Plain silver frame, grip-shift gears ( I'd always wanted a Raleigh Grifter as a kid, but my mum could never afford one ). And a small badge on the front tube - a crest with two words below it - 'Radford England.'
Despite the ungodly hour, my mind's alive by the time I reach the town centre. Past the chip shop. The club's fastest runner works there. I laugh out loud as I remember a story he told me at Saturday night's party. Past the lane where my fell-running comrade lives. He's in the Lakes this week and I think of the long days in the hills we'll enjoy later in the year. Past the Fire Station. Memories of that fraught night in 2002 when twenty grand in uninsured stock went up in smoke as our shop unit burnt to the ground. The highs and lows of life flick through my thoughts as I pedal out on the Willoughby Road and into the darkness beyond.
I picked up Radford a couple of days later. There was a new sticker on the frame - large, black and circular, it read 'Serviced by Ward's of Skegness.' I rode it back to my chalet at Anderby Creek and used in every day for the next seven months. I'd pop into the shop every couple of weeks for a chat. We'd talk about great rides in Lincolnshire, make lists of essential tools I might need for the trip. Tom would help me fit racks, recommend the most robust panniers and steer me through the trickier bits of cycle maintenance. My confidence in my ability to complete the trip grew over the months, and with excitement rising, the day of my flight neared. There was a sadness as I left the shop for the last time. Tom had brought us together, but from now on it would be down to just Radford and I.
Turning the bend into Willoughby village, I reach down and grab my drinks bottle. The coffee's at a drinkable temperature. I swig half of it down - can't beat that first cuppa of the day - and stick the bottle back in the holder. No-one's around to see me ride the red light near the Primary School. The Gunby road takes me out of Willoughby and gives me my unofficial time check. If the 5 o'clock news bulletin starts by the time I reach the 'Sloothby' signpost, I'm going too slowly. If I can reach the white house on the first corner, I'm about on track. If I can reach the new house on the second bend, I'm flying. Another thought flicks through my mind at this point. This new house was built on the site of a previous one that burnt down. Whether it was this event that caused its owner to lose his way, I don't know, but weeks later, after failing to murder a long-time friend, he successfully blew his head off with a shotgun. What if.... I think every morning.... what if I come round this corner and come face-to-face with The Headless Gunman's ghost?
Our adventure together was amazing. True to Tom's word, Radford was more than fit for the job. I suffered only a single puncture in the entire trip and had no mechanical glitches at all. On our endless days together I'd plan other crazy schemes we could attempt in the future. We were a great team, but the relationship was to turn sour. It's a cliche that once a woman comes into your life, it's your friends that go out the window first. But, in this case, it was true. After proposing to Tammy at the end of the ride, my plans with Radford didn't seem as important any more. On returning to the UK, I had a new career to build, a wedding to plan, a house to buy - I simply didn't have time for riding a bike! Radford moved from his indoors spot under the hall-way stairs to the back of the garage. After spending a couple of lonely years in there, a steady accumulation of family junk lead to the ultimate betrayal of our once precious friendship. There was no room for Radford in the garage any longer - from now on, he'd be stored, unused and unloved in the brick coal-house at the bottom of the garden.
I take a second drink of coffee as I approach Welton. I'm in the mizzle now - the wintry cocktail of mist and rain that rebounds the light from my headtorch and makes it almost impossible, in the darkness, to see the edges of the road. Despite the thick gloves and inners, my fingers are frozen. I give each hand a shake and buckle down for the long climb to Welton Top. My quads are suffering as I reach the summit, but I've a lengthy freewheel into Gunby Roundabout in which to recover. The roundabout itself is a nightmare. A couple of times over the last few weeks, I've almost been run down. Commuting drivers obviously don't look right at 5.15 in the morning. At least not to look for a cyclist.
When the next bike trip came round in 2006, Radford didn't even get a look in. I'd planned a 12 day, 1300 mile ride between the cardinal points of the British mainland - Dunnet Head (north) to Ardnamuchan Point (west) to Ness Point (east) to Lizard Point (south). I'd travel super-light, taking only a small backpack containing some cash, a couple of inner tubes, a multi-tool, one change of clothes and a pair of flip-flops. I'd cover more than 100 miles each day and stay overnight at pre-booked B and B's. I'd need a road bike - lightweight frame, skinny wheels, indexed gears - not the old bike in the coal shed. I didn't bother with Ward's of Skegness - I could get a much better deal off the internet. When my BH mean-machine arrived by courier, I was blown away - it looked spectacular, weighed almost nothing. However, training miles were awkward - I'd a suspicion that the frame was slightly too small - I couldn't get a comfortable riding position no matter what tweaks I made to the set-up. Buying from the shop might have been the wisest choice after all.
The first day of the trip was a disaster. In the process of attaching the quick-release front wheel at John O'Groats, the spindle snapped. Two hours later, after a trip along the coast to Thurso to buy the necessary part, I eventually set off. I bade farewell to Tammy as she started the long drive back to Lincolnshire. The weather, breezy at dawn, had deteriorated rapidly. By the time I was five miles from Dunnet Head, it was blowing a gale and raining incessantly. Cue first puncture. I took it in my stride, replacing the tube with a new one. Cue second puncture. Same again. As I rode towards Wick into the oncoming gale, I cursed my bad luck. Cue third puncture. This was more serious. I'd no more good tubes - I'd have to patch one if I was to continue. I found a modicum of shelter on the desolate landscape and tried, in vain, to keep a tube dry while I fixed it. An hour later - cold, shivering, wet-through - I stopped trying. I rang Tammy, now at Inverness, and begged her to turn around and pick me up. Wisely, she refused, telling me it was a rash decision that I'd live to regret. I hung up and started pushing the bike along the road-side. Wick was 10 miles, two and a half hours away. The BH had let me down. I thought of Radford, abandoned in the coal shed and felt like crying.
I follow the Lincoln road off the roundabout and then turn left, heading past the Gunby Hall Estate in the direction of Firsby. Before long, I'm on the long straight bordering RAF Spilsby. The following wind enables me to change up the gears. I'm moving now. The mist has cleared and I can hear birdsong behind 'Morning Reports'. The journey's almost done.
The Cardinal Points Trip could only get better. By the time I'd reached Land's End, any longing to be reunited with Radford had been forgotten.
Over the next four years, my running became more serious again. As a firm believer in specificity, cycling was strictly off limits. There was little evidence to show that cycling improved running performance, so I stuck to running. However, over Christmas, things started going awry. A niggle turned into a 'need a couple of days off' injury. The injury deteriorated into 'something's definitely not quite right'. A visit to my GP confirmed my fears - I would need surgery - nothing major but enough to do me in for a few months. To maintain my fitness, maybe cycling to work and back each day - 30 miles - might be the answer. I weighed up the pro's and cons. Early, early starts and the possibilty of early morning punctures on the road bike? It wouldn't work. 'But what about that old bike in the coal shed?' Tammy said.
Radford was buried beneath a mini-trampoline, a kid's scooter and seven huge rolls of loft insulation. I pulled him out, polished him up and shod him with new tyres and tubes. My old best friend was back.
'Wake up to Money' starts as I struggle up the last hill into Spilsby. Time to get my head into work mode. It's 5.40 as I open the gate to the factory yard and the printing lads'll be arriving soon. I push the bike to the unit's front door, buoyed by the buzz of the morning's ride. I turn off it's lights and lean it up against the wall. Never lets me down I think.
If every life is a pile of good things and bad things, Radford certainly belongs in the good pile. We're alike now in so many ways. Whilst not built for speed, we can both plod on forever. We may both need a little patching up from time to time, and our best days are probably behind us now. But there's one thing I'm sure of - I'm definitely looking forward to our days in front.
Friday, 18 February 2011
Various problems concerning shipping agents had necessitated a lengthy hold-up in the Israeli port and the team had fractured into two definite camps. Nick and Emma formed one. Simon, Roger, Ian, Richard and myself made up the second. Billie, doing her utmost to please everyone, pinballed between the two. Days would go by with the two camps barely speaking to each other. The atmosphere was heavy, constantly strained, ready to flare up at the slightest spark.
After two weeks, the shipping was sorted. We'd all pull together and look for a new start. Tickets were bought to fly us all to Cape Town. Or so we thought. We'd spent the previous night in a hostel - all our equipment was now on the boat. Nick gathered us all together after midday to discuss the plans for the impending flight. We were all excited. Richard had visited Cape Town in a gap year and had enthused us with his views of what a wonderful city it was. There was a new sense of optimism. And then Nick told us. Together with Emma, he'd decided that two team members would not be flying to South Africa, but would be travelling back to the UK. Their expedition would be ending today. When I think back to this moment, I can't help but think of The X Factor results shows; long, cruel, drawn-out announcements to inform us which performers are good and which are not good enough. I'm sure it wasn't as bad as that, but I remember thinking at the time that this shouldn't be the way that these decisions are handled. Surely, it would have only been decent to let the two chosen team members know their fate in private, then let the others know afterwards. But, then again, this wasn't a decent expedition.
The two team members chosen were the ones that were making the least contribution to the expedition, and those team members were...( cue dimmed lights, background music to enhance suspense)... Richard and Roger. We sat quietly in disbelief. Ages seemed to pass. Finally, Simon spoke. He tore into Nick and Emma, castigating them for the shameful way they'd handled the latest situation. He was beyond disgust and could stay no longer. 'Ok,' Nick replied without emotion. He turned to Richard and Roger. 'So Simon's going home. Decide amongst yourselves who goes with him.'
In the late afternoon, Roger, Ian and myself said our good-byes to Simon and Richard at Eilat's town-centre airport. In the evening, The Run For Africa team took a bus to Tel-Aviv before flying to Cape Town. On our arrival there, we found a hostel and booked some rooms. I ran to the summit of Table Mountain and, on returning, looked up Roger, headed to Bob's Bar on Long Street and got pissed.
The 'Cape Town Interlude' became the highlight of this whole sorry story. Arriving in early December, we were to remain there until 21st January as we awaited the arrival of the vehicles on the boat from Israel. Left to our own devices, all of us gravitated towards the type of people we'd usually hang out with. Nick met a beautiful blonde and moved into her house in the wine region for a few weeks. Billie tagged onto a group of travellers from New Zealand and joined them for a while on their adventures on the Cape. Ian struck up friendships with regulars in two local bars and did his best to get drunk for two months. Emma booked into a hostel away from the centre of the city and worked tirelessly to get the expedition back on track. And Roger and myself met Lisanne. A Dutch journalist and film-maker, Lisanne bumped into us on that first night in Bob's Bar. For the next six weeks, we were seldom out of each other's company. Whether bridge- jumping in Knysna, hitch-hiking along the Garden Route or trekking over Table Mountain and it's surrounding hills, we stayed together, relishing each other's company and having a blast. It almost seemed an anti-climax when The Run For Africa started, for the second time, from the Cape Town InterContinental on 21st January.
We left the city short-handed; Billie had decided she no longer wanted a part of the trip. We were to embark on our journey across the most dangerous continent on earth without either a mechanic or a medic. Ian and Roger had zero experience in either discipline. With 3 team members remaining, aside from the runners, the expedition now had 4 vehicles but only 3 drivers. In desperation, Emma remained behind in Cape Town, posting notes in local hostels, hoping to attract another volunteer to join us. But word had spread amongst the community of shabby organisation and ill-feeling in the camp, and volunteers were hard to find.
Early days were ticked off without enthusiasm. The excitement and anticipation of the Alexandria start was gone. There was a job for us to do. We better do it. Eventually, Emma arrived. She'd found a volunteer - a short, balding South African. Carlo was a god-send. He took over immediately, organising the day-to-day camp logistics, cooking the meals, holding the expedition together. He'd lark about constantly, take the piss. For the first time in a long while, the trip became fun.
Our last camp before the Botswana border was at Van Zylrus. During the rest day, while Roger, Ian and myself spent the day in the bar, Carlo kept himself to himself. As night fell, he got stoned and joined us by the picnic table. Ian had rigged up the stereo in one of the vehicles and was sure he'd packed an old Waterboy's cassette somewhere in his sack. After finding it, he sat with me for a while. It troubled him, he said, that I was being treated so badly. The whole trip was geared around Nick, whilst I was barely given a thought. 'Surely, as runners doing the same miles day-in day-out, you should be treated as equals. How come Nick gets to sleep in the comfort of the Hard Top every night while you're on the floor? I could go on Chris - you know. You should be equals - it's not fair.'
I reminded him that I was the back-up plan. I'd do my job - to be honest, it was what I'd expected. He sat for a while then got up to sit on the picnic table itself. He put the cassette - 'Room to Roam' - in the vehicle's stereo, and started to talk about what essential equipment the trip needed.
The next morning was to be a good, good day. We'd be crossing the first national border, climbing the first rung on this immense journey's ladder. We started the run late that morning. It was almost 6am when we jogged out of camp. Nick and myself ran side-by-side in silence. After a half-hour or so, the vehicles passed us, the team having packed down the camp. As the last of the trucks left us behind in the desert's dust, Nick started speaking, looking ahead. There was an anger in his voice I'd not heard before.
'I heard you talking to Ian last night.'
'About us being equals.'
'Listen Chris. We'll never be equals. You'll never be my equal as a runner. You'll never be my equal as a person.'
I couldn't reply.
'I've done you a favour. I've brought you along on this trip to see Africa. Do I get any thanks? Apparently not'
'Nick. I've given up my job for this. I've trained harder than I ever have to get here. And I've done well on the running so far. At least as well as you.'
'Shut the fuck up. You're nothing Chris. The way I see it, you're just another mouth to feed. That's the way it is. And if you don't like it, just fuck off home.'
With that, he picked up the pace and I let him go. I dropped to a walk; I wouldn't run another step for many months. And suddenly, I knew what I must do. A decision that was the hardest I'd ever taken - that involved giving away my dream but holding on to my dignity became, in one moment, crystal clear. I must get off the bus.
Roger and myself left The Run For Africa on February 11th 1998. Hitch-hiking as far as Upington, we slept rough by the Orange River and caught an overnight bus to Cape Town the following day. Three days later, we were back in the UK.
There are many decisions in life that are difficult to make. In fact, to an extent, this is what makes our lives so interesting. What may, at the time it is made, seem like a good decision, may, in retrospect, be a poor one. Or not. My guiding rule has always been to do what feels right. Don't analyse too deeply, just follow your gut-feeling. This was the basis of my decision in Africa. I needed to maintain my dignity. I had to go. But, back in the UK, doubts soon began to surface. I had gone to Africa with a goal in mind, and I had failed. Those were the facts. Whatever the reasons for that failure were, I began to believe, inconsequential. I would not be running into Cairo after travelling the length of the African continent on foot. It would never be my name in the record books.
A storm was approaching. There was little I could do to delay its onslaught. Grey clouds were gathering. Over the next few months, the grey clouds would become black.
On reading Graeme Obree's autobiography years later, a series of passages from his book detailed a truth that described me exactly, but which I'd never been able to fully acknowledge. He talked of his exceptional physical feats, including the world one hour cycling record, as giving him little satisfaction. Rather than being driven by the promise of glory, money or recognition, his obsession was fuelled by a feeling much more powerful - the fear of failure. In describing himself, he was also describing me. In the years leading up to The Run For Africa, I was trying, I thought at the time, to find happiness. Trying to find some sort of enlightenment that would make my life better. That would make me feel better. But with every success, all I ever felt was relief. On reading Obree's book, and with the benefit of years of more life-experience, I realised that I'd been conning myself all that time. Those trips had not been about achieving happiness, they had been about not failing. They had been about keeping my head above the water, proving to myself that I was worth something. I'd struck lucky in the sense that I'd always succeeded in what I originally set out to do. But, with The Run For Africa, my luck had finally run out.
I arrived back in the UK in the middle of February. It was July when the sky turned black. After weeks of beating myself up, drinking too much, not being able to sleep at night, I took out my trainers for the first time since that day on the road to Botswana. I'd not run one step since. Running reminded me of how worthless I was. I put the trainers on, set up my cassette walkman and left my Anderby Creek chalet. I left the keys by the sink. I didn't need to lock the door. I wouldn't be coming back.
The night was calm. I jogged down to the beach and set off in the direction of Cleethorpes. I'd run all night, keep going as long as I could and then turn back. I'd reach the track from Mablethorpe's North End car park at dawn, I'd planned, and there I would just give up.
The cassette I'd chosen for that last night was Embrace's debut LP. After a couple of hours, the walkman's batteries had gone, but one line from one song continued to wrap itself around me in the way they often do when running a long way. '...And the fireworks in me are all gone...' I was tired, really tired. But soon I could rest.
The sun was beginning to rise as I reached the pull-over. Always my favourite part of the beach, this morning it seemed especially beautiful. I sat a while, cried a little, took off my walkman and my shoes. Two figures and a dog came into view on my right, walking along the hard sand hugging the shore-break. A man, a child and a dog. I'll let them pass by, I thought, let them leave the beach, and then I'll do it. But they were in no hurry. The dog ran away from and back to the boy, scuttled into the water, retreated, shook himself. The boy chased the dog, always returning to hold the man's hand. I sat and watched as they came closer, making their way to the pull-over. A grandfather and a child enjoying the start of a new day. They stopped as they reached me.
'Smashing morning for a run, son!' said the grandfather.
'Yeah,' I replied.
'Was a runner meself y'know. No time nowadays wi' th' grandbairns. Oh, 'is sister were a bugger last night. Kept us up all bloody night!'
'Oh, right,' I murmured.
'Mind, wouldn't have it any other way!' He laughed, squeezed the lad's hand.
'Anyway, keep it up son!' he said, and off they went.
Keep it up son.
Keep it up son.
I sat for a while longer.
Keep it up son.
I put my trainers back on, picked up the walkman and started jogging back towards Anderby Creek.
In the weeks that followed the black night, I busied myself with plans for another trip. I would bike solo from Sydney to Perth, across Australia. I'd tell as few people as possible. I'd do it all myself. If I failed, I'd have no one else to blame. This wouldn't save me, but at least it'd help me tread the water.
Salvation, happiness - call it what you will - never comes in the form of physical achievement. I know that now. Salvation came to me in the form of a girl. After meeting on a sea-side record stall, I proposed six months later at a Busstleton drive-in cinema after completing the bike ride. A year after that we were husband and wife. Ten years, and two beautiful children later, I realise I've finally found what I was looking for for so long. So do the trips stop? Do the crazy schemes go on the back burner? No they don't - but I now appreciate them for what they are, rather than as a means to an end. Running a 100 mile race, attempting The Bob Graham Round are all amazing adventures, involving great days out and enabling me to meet the most inspiring people, but, in themselves, they can't come close to the feeling that my family brings me each day.
I rarely think of The Run For Africa nowadays. But the recent momentus events in Egypt caused me to reflect and put down in words, for the first time, what it all meant. I guess I see the story of The Run For Africa as a parable. And what lessons did this parable teach me?
Firstly, it taught me that 'greatness' cannot simply be earned through great achievements. We've all heard stories of how mountaineers have stepped over the bodies of dying climbers whilst trying to summit Everest. But which is a truer indication of 'greatness' - making a, perhaps futile, attempt to help another human being at the expense of an expedition's success, or leaving a fellow climber, in the most desperate need, whilst making your own bid for glory? In my book, it would be the former every time.
Maybe the do-ers of great feats of endurance need to be cold, calculating, arrogant? Maybe it's these qualities that actually enable them to achieve success? But it certainly doesn't make them great.
It's certainly also true that some of the greatest feats have been achieved by 'great' people. But for these people, it is the way in which they conduct their lives that defines their 'greatness', not just their achievements.
Great people may or may not have achieved great feats, but all of them have possessed humility, kindness and have shown the deepest respect fot their fellow men.
And secondly, it taught me that a failure can sometimes be looked back on as the greatest success. My failure in The Run For Africa set in motion a series of events that changed my life, forever, for the better. As I look over and see the smiles on my kids' faces, I can ask myself - what would I rather be? A world record holder and the first man to run across Africa, or a very proud father? I think you all know the answer.
It seems that Carlo had been right all along.
Nick Bourne ran into Cairo on 5th December 1998 to complete his epic journey. His run, one of the greatest feats of endurance, earned him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Friday, 11 February 2011
It was the night of Tuesday 10th February 1998 and The Run For Africa team were camped for a rest day at Van Zyhrus, only kilometres away from the Botswana border. Nick and Emma were lying on their camp beds, away from the real hub of camp life which was gathered around a concrete picnic table. The Waterboys' 'Room to Roam' LP - a gorgeous mess of love songs, ballads and Irish folk - was playing on the vehicle's makeshift stereo as Ian, Roger, Carlo and myself talked of essential equipment we needed on the trip.
'Fuel and water,' Ian proposed, 'that's it -the rest are luxuries.'
'Love,' murmured Carlo.
'Yes. Love,' we all agreed. 'That's what's really needed. Love, food and water. We should get rid of everything else.'
It had been a hard day for Ian. At around midday he'd learnt, via e-mail, of the death of a close friend. He'd wandered off, led by thoughts and memories for a while and, on his return, Roger and I had joined him in the bar of the bush hotel across the way. We'd matched his beers with cokes as he'd talked of old times, both tragic and estatic, and raised a toast of double whiskeys for his absent friend and his family. When all our last coins had been spent, Ian had convinced the hotel owner to trade a bottle of Johnny Walker's Red Label and 3 cans of Castle beer for a field oven he'd used on his Glastonbury Festival catering sprees over the years.
It was this whiskey that Ian was now sipping as we listened to the music. He began to talk, inspired by the sounds, of a girl called Mary - a girl who could make a violin weep, the girl of his dreams. She'd married Mike Scott, he said, the singer and founder of The Waterboys. 'That's Mary now,' Ian said, and we listened to 'A Man is in Love.'
When the song was finished, I told them of an interview i'd read with Mike Scott in an old NME and of a story that had stuck with me since.
It was 1985. The Waterboys' single, 'The Whole of the Moon' had gate-crashed the Top 10 and its parent LP, 'This is the Sea' had been released to immense critical acclaim. In interviews with the music press, Mike Scott had shared his dream, his vision of The Big Music - an epic sound built from cymbals, trumpets and guitars. And now he sat on a London bus, en route to meetings with record industry people - people who wanted to refine the raw sounds he held in his head, who demanded to choose the follow-up single, who requested another LP within the next year in order to capitalise on success.
The Big Music was a dream that Mike Scott had created. It was pure. It was beautiful. It was the most important thing in his life. But now it was being pulled at from all angles, moulded to fit other people's thinking, made dirty.
As the London double decker pulled up at traffic lights, Scott suddenly knew what he must do. A decision that was the hardest he'd ever taken - that involved giving away his dream but holding on to his dignity, became, in one moment, crystal clear. He must get off the bus.
As the lights changed to amber, green, Mike Scott stepped off the bus and walked away.
Several months later, Scott was tracked down to the west coast of Ireland. He'd bought a cottage by the sea, invited the members of his band to live with him and recruited a crew of local folk instrumentalists to help shape his new musical direction. One of them, a female violinist, he told the press, was the finest musician he'd ever encountered. He was blissfully happy, he said. From now on he'd record love songs, ballads and Irish folk. When reported in 'Hot Press', Ireland's foremost music publication days later, the writer of the article noted that, at this point, Mike Scott appeared to ramble. Something about getting off a bus.
'That's a beautiful story,' Roger said once I'd finished, 'Is it true?'
'All my stories are true,' I lied.
Later that night, as sleep descended, I lay thinking of my own dreams. Tomorrow I'd be running across the first national border, climbing the first rung on this immense journey's ladder. It would be a good, good day, inspite of all the bad feeling that our expedition was drowning in.
Little did I know that in only a few hours time, I would also be getting off the bus.
The Run For Africa expedition started in September 1997. Nick, the expedition leader and myself, the team's number two runner, flew from Heathrow to Cairo for 2 week's acclimitisation. Both of us had survived a brutal 6 month training regime, laid down by a London fitness expert, involving up to 200 miles of running per week. I'd given up my teaching job and secured a long term let on the flat I owned. Nick had left behind a modelling carreer a couple of years previously and had spent much of that time putting together this trip whilst living with his wealthy parents. He had originally planned to run with his best friend but for reasons unknown the relationship had soured, leaving Nick as the sole runner. Commercial sponsors, however, much preferred a '2 runner scenario'. This would increase the expedition's chance of success - should one runner get injured and have to retire, the second might have a decent chance of completing the trans-continental journey. Accordingly, this would give the sponsors a greater chance of publicity and a better return on their investment in the expedition. Hence the original article in Runner's World. It was Nick's expedition. I was absolutely clear about that. But I was the back-up plan and there was no way that I was going to let anyone, including myself, down.
Before we left the UK, I'd already had reservations about exactly what I was getting myself into. Nick was a man of few words, intensely private, and with an arrogance in his nature that was often off-putting. In spite of early efforts, I felt there was no connection between us at all. My past was in the working class community of a Nottinghamshire pit town and a slightly jaded East Coast holiday resort. His was in the different realm of prep schools, country estates and 'gentlemen's clubs' in the City. I couldn't take to him - the feeling was, most probably, mutual, but I found it hard to envisage us sharing the immense physical challenge of what lay in store as team mates, let alone friends. In addition, the actual logistics of the trip seemed ad-hoc and under-prepared. From everything I'd read about travelling through Africa, it seemed to me that the running would be the simple part. Countless border crossings, militarised zones, 'bandit country' areas, local government corruption, endless red-tape - this is where the trip would succeed or fail. Yet these issues were marginalised. 'It'll be ok.' That was the attitude that prevailed. 'We'll get through because we're British.'
I pushed any doubts aside on a number of occasions before we even flew to Cairo. The idea of running the length of Africa was a dream I didn't want to give up on. Anyhow, the expedition had already gathered momentum. Officially, the aim was to raise awareness of, and funds for, Save The Children. Various commercial sponsors, including Guiness and a fledgling satellite communications company had provided funds and equipment, and the RAC had delivered 4 Landrover 101 trucks to accompany us on our journey. On arriving in Cairo, Nick informed me that we'd be staying at the Inter-Continental - one of the best hotels in the city. He aimed to secure some sponsorship from them, but in the meantime, some of the cash donated from other sponsors could pay the bill for the £200+ per night rooms. My teenage hero, Terry Fox, had refused to spend a single cent of the cash pledged to his Run For Hope on either himself or his team. This had been my naive vision of this trip when I stepped aboard. It appeared the truth was more sobering. My mis-givings grew, but in for a penny, in for a pound.
The Nile Inter-Continental overlooked the busy centre of Cairo, Tahrir Square. After completing a morning 2 hour treadmill training run a few days into our stay, I'd returned to the hotel room and ventured out across the square in search of some lunch. I was to walk straight into hell. Over the square, outside the Egyptian Museum, armed gunmen shouting, 'God is greater!' firebombed and shot into a crowded tour bus. In the ensuing chaos, 9 German tourists and their Egyptian driver were shot dead. Later, I rang my mum and assured her things were fine. In for a penny, in for a pound.
The Run For Africa left Alexandria on October 1st 1997. It was a relief to be running. Each day started at 3.30am and initial progress through Africa was swift. Although I'd bonded well with the team, my relationship with Nick was, at best, awkward. Running 45 miles a day, split into 3 15mile blocks, it became apparent that Nick was intent on showing me straight away who the most important runner was. He'd hammer each run as if each was a race. At first, I stayed with him, but after a couple of days decided to hold back, running coccooned in my own world, repeating my mantra 'Keep it easy', focusing on that one 2 hour block but constantly aware of the 6000miles still left to cover. A pattern began to emerge. Nick would run hard for a day or two . Then he'd break down - a minor injury or stomach complaint and the whole expedition would come to a halt until he'd recovered. This was frustrating for all of us, but any reminders to Nick to keep the pace easy were ignored. I'd started running the afternoon block in the company of Roger - a great running partner. These runs were some of the most enjoyable of my life. We'd chat constantly, laughing at stories from our pasts. Oftentimes we might pass Nick towards the end of the run. Usually, we wouldn't even get an acknowledgement.
Emma had worked hard before our departure to procure visas to Sudan. A vast country, plagued by civil war between rival guerilla factions, no visas had been granted to cross the land border between Egypt and sudan for over 3 years. Somehow, to her vast credit, Emma had managed to do this. However, it appears, nothing in the African continent is ever clear-cut. As we camped in the desert outside of Quesir after 17 days of running, we awoke to find ourselves surrounded by police and military vehicles. The next day's run would take us into a 100km wide militarised zone on the Egypt-Sudan border. The Egyptian army, it was now apparent, wasn't going to let this happen. Our expedition would make no more southerly progress in Eygpt.
On November 17th, in a mid-morning attack, terrorists from an Egyptian Islamic group massacred 62 people at the Temple of Hatshepsut, near Luxor. The 6 assailants were armed with automatic firearms and knives, and were disguised as members of the security forces. They had descended on the temple at 8.45am. With tourists trapped inside, the killing went on for 45 minutes. During this time, many bodies, especially of women, were mutilated with machetes. A note praising Islam was found inside one disemboweled body. The dead included a 5 year old British child and 4 Japanese couples on their honeymoons.
As a high profile UK expedition in Egypt, we were immediately given a military escort. Nick returned quickly from Cairo and called a team meeting. In the unlikely event that we would be able to cross into Sudan, would we be prepared to press on with the expedition? We all replied 'yes.' In that case, Nick informed us, after taking advice from his mother in London, we would be required to write a good-bye letter to our next-of-kin which would then be sent to her for safe-keeping. In the event of our deaths, these letters could then be forwarded on.
As I ran through the desert later that afternoon, the enormity of what had just been said struck me. Would my mum, twin brother or sister find any comfort in a last good-bye that came in the form of a hastily scribbled note written in the middle of an Egyptian desert?
On returning to camp some time later, any doubts were swiftly put to bed. Emma had arrived back from the capital. The British Foreign Office had advised, in the strongest terms, that we leave Eygpt immediately. Save The Children had made contact to inform us that they would distance themselves from the expedition should we decide to continue through Egypt. And the chiefs of the Egyptian military had stated categorically that we would no longer be able to proceed through their country. We were a risk they could not afford to take. We could run no further.
The first chapter in the story of The Run For Africa had come to an end.
Saturday, 5 February 2011
My Bob Graham had started 22 years ago. Whilst studying at Birmingham University, I'd taken a mountaineering option, and found myself on a particular day walking in a small group late in the evening with our instructor, Mike Cudahy. A lecturer in the Sports Science Department, he was also establishing himself as an ultra distance hill-running legend, having recently become the first person ever to run The Pennine Way in under 3 days. He must have sensed that morale was low. It had been a long day and all thoughts were on reaching the YHA that was our destination. His words broke the silence and we started to listen as he told us the story of the Bob Graham Round. The next hour passed in a minute, and, as we finally reached the hut, I knew that one day I would do everything I could to become a member of 'The Club',
19 years followed. Travelling, a short career in teaching, reasonable success in the local road-running scene, marriage, children, establishing my own business. I'd always thought of myself as 'a runner' and although during these years I'd never stopped running, it had, in recent years, become a weekend treat rather than something I'd base every day around. At the start of 2007, however, running came calling again. The kids were past 'baby' stage, the business had become less demanding in terms of hours worked. For the first time in years I'd got time, and in that time I wanted to run. The local circuit of 10k's, 10 miles and 1/2 marathons held little appeal. I wanted to escape. I planned a completion of The Viking Way over a number of weekends, and poured over maps for off-road routes across the Lincolnshire Wolds. Then one night, after googling 'The Bob Graham Round', I chanced upon Mike Sadula's site and Richard Askwith's book. That evening in the Lakes all those years ago came back to me and I promised myself I'd complete the round when I was 42 - the same age as Bob Graham himself when he completed his iconic run.
It crosses my mind a few times on the climb up Skiddaw on the 26th June that I'm cutting things a bit fine. Although I am 42 at the moment, my 43rd birthday is the very next day!
The climb up Skiddaw is steady. Nick reins us in, telling us to keep the pace down. Paul J thrusts Haribos into my hand. It's warm. The light-weight jacket has already come off. We reach the summit slightly up on schedule, but feeling good. Crossing the fence on the way across to Hare Crag we spread out, looking for the path that's not easy to miss in the daylight. It proves elusive for a time, but the navigation from Nick is sound and we eventually hit it. The path is easy to follow now to the top of Great Calva. Leaving that summit, we follow the fence down to the Caldew. The dry conditions in the Lakes over recent months make for good running, and I even manage to cross the river without getting wet feet. The trudge up Mungrisdale is my least favourite part of the whole round. It's 3.30am, headtorches are off. I look down, one foot in front of the other and think back over how far I've come in the last 6 months.
Since my return to running, I'd worked up to decent weekly mileages and even won a couple of ultra-distance and off-road marathon events. But my Lakes knowledge was limited. I'd decided to commit myself totally to the Bob Graham from New Year 2010. I'd stopped racing and spent at least one weekend in two in the Lakes. Armed with map, compass and Bob Wightman's notes, I'd recced the whole route by myself. Every run had been solo. I needed to know that I knew the route, learnt the best lines and developed the necessary navigational skills to get me round and keep me safe. As the big day of my attempt approached, I'd thought back over the 3am Saturday alarm calls, the 4 1/2 hour drives to Keswick and surrounding valleys, those early season snow covered routes, getting lost in the clag, those beautiful days on the hills in May and realised that the Bob Graham Round was so much more than getting round a particular route in a particular time on a particular day. As my confidence on the fells had grown, I'd developed a love for the hills that I'm sure will stay with me forever. These last 6 months had been amongst the best of my life.
The march over Mungrisdale Common seems over much sooner than I'd feared - a good sign. As we climb the steep path up the back side of Blencathra, I'm finding it hard to hold back. Paul O looks in good spirits, but I've a niggling feeling that he'd be more comfortable with a slightly slower pace. I'd met him through the FRA Forum and we'd agreed to set off together, but keep our own pacers should one of us hit a 'bad patch'. We pass the stone crosses, touch the summit cairn and head down Hall's Fell. It's daylight. The rock is dry. The summits of Leg 2 are clear of mist. Paul J hands me a few more Haribos and says, 'Oh - I can smell that coffee!' Life doesn't get much better.
We reach the Cricket Club car park 9 minutes up on schedule. Tammy, my wife and road support, has the road-side cafe set up. Cold Fanta, hot coffee and blueberry muffins. Spirits are high. I enjoy a sit-down and look at Guy C, joining myself, Paul J and Marl on the next leg. He's actually warming-up for the next leg! He stretches and does a few strides while the rest of us talk about how the old peanut butter sandwiches don't seem to be going down too well.
The break is soon over. The cafe is closed and we're thrown out onto the Newsham House road. Paul O is joined by Ian S. I've never met him before, but he also lives in the UK's flattest county, Lincolnshire, like myself. The first time I'd climbed Clough Head after running Leg 1, I'd really struggled. Today, however, chatting to Guy and ignoring Mark, 'the little dude from Manchester's jibes about my beloved Liverpool FC, the summit comes easily. It's cold up here though with a fair breeze blowing, and I rue leaving my jacket down at the road-side.
On the run towards Calflow Pike, Ian turns his ankle. I admit to not paying much attention, thinking he'll run it off. Little do I know that he'll spend most of saturday afternoon in Carlisle A & E with an ankle the size of a balloon.
Guy sets a good pace and we gain time on each of the Dodds. Paul O has dropped a couple of hundred yards back, but seems to be moving ok. Mark drops back to check things are right with Ian who looks to be struggling a little. However, Paul O's party has been joined by a friend who sprinted past us on Watson's Dodd, heading in the direction of Threlkeld. He looks super fit. He's dressed in just shorts, vest and X-talons. Guy, currently residing near Bristol, turns to me and says, 'Must live up North him!'
The path undulates over Raise, Whiteside and Helvellyn. Heading towards Nethermost, Paul O's group runs a better line and overtakes us. I tuck in behind, thinking how easy he looks. A few minutes later we're at the base of Fairfield. I go up and back with Guy while Paul J and Mark remain by the wall at the bottom. I'm enjoying the day. My legs feel good. We're up Seat Sandal in a flash and gaining on a group in front who set off at midnight. Paul J and Mark both tell me to keep drinking, keep eating. They will have finished their two legs at Dunmail. From being complete strangers just hours ago, they already feel like friends. Paul J says, 'Oh - I can smell that coffee.' I laugh and remind him he'd said that at the summit of Stybarrow, over 2 hours ago. Must have a keen sense of smell.
Reaching Dunmail 33 minutes up, it's good to know the road-side cafe has opened early. Cold Fanta, hot coffee and warm rice pudding. Dunmail is buzzing with BG life. There are at least 5 other support parties around. There's even a tent pitched at the base of Steel Fell. I thank the Manc lads and Guy and promise to see Paul and Mark for their attempt on August 14th. I'm pleased to see Dave and Pat, my partners for the next leg. Dave has had a couple of hours kip after seeing us off at 1am ('seems rude not to,' he'd said earlier.) Ian Salready has his ankle raised and taped - he'd come down after Dollywaggon and doesn't look great. Nor does Paul O. Unbeknown to me, he's been struggling with stomach problems since Threlkeld. He flops into a chair and, unbelievably with the amount of activity around us, falls asleep for a few minutes. When the time comes to set off again, he tells me quietly to go ahead. He'll follow on at a slightly slower pace. My heart sinks. Although I thought we may well split up during the day, I was really hoping both of us would get round. I'm quiet on the climb up Steel Fell. Paul seems a tough bugger, well experienced in long-distance routes, but by the look of him back there, he looks done for.
On my recces, I'd saved Leg 3 till last. It scared me a little. My first outings over it during the Easter Weekend in snow and poor visibility did liitle to settle my fears. However, it had become, along with Leg 4, my favourite section of the BG route. Dave and Pat are great company. The day has become bright and slightly too warm, but with a pleasant breeze on the tops. The jelly babies and orange squash keeps going down and we're gaining time on every top. Bowfell, the half-way point in my head, comes and goes. Pat keeps telling me how well I'm going - well up on the 23 hour schedule I'd aimed for. My confidence is growing, but I'm waiting for that 'I feel like I can't go on' moment that I'm assured will come. The landscape changes from Bowfell onwards as we head over Esk Pike, Great End and towards the Scafells. We've already overtaken a couple of midnight starters and on the way to Ill Crag we stop and chat with a bare-chested anti-clockwise contender I'd been chatting to on the forum. We're all going well and share some banter before cracking on.
Over the Pike, we're down to Mickledore and following Pat as he picks out the path to the bottom of the Foxes Tarn gulley. It's hot now, really hot, and the first real signs of tiredness are creeping in. I've always struggled up the climb from Foxes Tarn to the upper ridge of Scafell - the steep, scree-ridden path usually makes me feel like I'm treading water. I'm glad to get to the top, and once there I feel that the BG is within touching distance. Running down the nose of Scafell and down to the Wasdale Valley, we take up our seat's in Tammy's cafe, tired but buzzing with achievement and anticipation. I'm 1 hour and 4 minutes up on my 23 hour schedule. Get Yewbarrow out the way and I'm nearly there I tell myself.
Whilst I'm trying to get some Irish stew down, my pacer for Leg 4, Jon, prepares himself and his Lakeland Terrier, Pip. Jon was the catalyst for my Bob Graham attempt. As the first person I'd met locally who had done the round, it was his words of encouragement and knowledge over numerous visits to his osteopathy clinic last winter that really got my attempt off the ground. I'd met Pip during an off-road marathon in October, where she and Jon finished joint 4th. He'd amazed me with tales of Pip accompanying him on all of his training runs, everything from long, slow miles to early morning interval sessions! When he'd told me a few days before that Pip would be joining us on the BG, I hadn't really taken him seriously, but as Dave, Jon and I jog towards the gate at the base of Yewbarrow minutes later, Pip is in tow.
The climb up Yewbarrow is hard. Today it is very hard. Although I'm feeling fine on the flats and descents, I'm starting to feel very tired on the climbs. Dave, freshly laden with 4 litres of water is struggling up too. Jon's bounding up telling us he always calls this 'Yewbastard', Pip's running ahead without a care and Dave and myself are dying! Fortunately, the agony is relatively short-lived, but Dave has me laughing for the rest of the leg with his repeated reminiscences of climbing Yewbarrow today, hanging on grimly to a single fern with his life flashing before his eyes.
I love this leg. Each peak has it's own magic. We're still gaining time on each summit. We're all moving well. Jon is providing sustenance in the form of Bounty bars - very welcome seeing as the jelley babies won't go down any more.
The climb up Kirk Fell is tough but I know there's only Great Gable left in the 'big climb' category and the rest of the round is manageable. That rocky climb takes all I've got but I know as I stand by the summit memorial that the round is in the bag now.
As we jog into Honister a little later, I'm flushed with the feelings of a dream about to be realised. Tammy's cafe is open for the last stint of the day. Debbie, Dave's partner, helps out. She's been a star - helping Tammy with lifts and preparing the food and drink. I thank Dave - I'll be up to help him out on his round on the 30th July. Judging by his preparation and his strong performance today, I'm sure he'll have no problems in completing.
Dave and I had been talking about Paul O on the way across Leg 4. We'd not seen him since Dunmail and were fearing the worst. However, as we relax with a cup of coffee, Tammy gives us the good news that he looked like he was back on track. She'd waited at Wasdale to see him in and he'd come in, looking confident, bang on the 23 hour schedule. Although, as it turns out, we'd have completed our joint attempt apart from one another, it gives me a real lift to know that it's odds on that Paul is also going to make it.
Colin H, hoping to train for a BG next year, has joined us at Honister. He's another pacer I've never met in person who has given up time to help me achieve my round. Over the following few days, this is one subject that myself and Tammy keep returning to. Although I'd done all my training by myself, the people who helped me during the day were the one thing that really made the day so magical.
Times up and Tammy asks Jon if Pip will do Leg 5 too. Jon says, 'I'll get off and if she follows, I'll know she wants to come.' If she stays sitting, Theresa, Jon's wife, will have to give her a lift to Keswick. As it turns out, Pip's keen enough - much to Theresa's relief as Pip had managed to run straight through the boggy puddle on Grey Knots and is now wearing the muddy canine equivalent of compression socks.
We leave Honister at 19.38. It's a beautiful evening, the sun sinking slightly as Colin sets a fast pace up Dale Head. I'm trying to relax, take this all in, but every climb is a weary slog by now and all I can concentrate on is the next summit. There's relief as the path levels out eventually and the beautifully constructed cairn at the top comes into view. The view across the Newlands Valley is breath-taking.
We jog slowly over Littledale Edge and soon we've visited summit number 41 and are on our way to number 42. The slope up to Robinson is much steeper than I remember. Despite numerous offers of food and water, I feel as though I can't eat or drink anything. My stomach is churning and I'm feeling slightly nauseous. Colin and Jon keep chivvying me along on the never-ending climb and we're greeted near the top to a magnificent view of the sun setting over Buttermere. Then we're at the top. My spirits rise again. We jog down to the rock step, negotiate the steep, grassy slope by the lone tree and pick up the pace once we hit the path by the beck.
Over the bridge at Little Town, the small carpark is almost full. Tammy and Theresa are waiting patiently along with support teams for the numerous 12 o'clock starters that will be follwing along shortly. Jon swaps his role with Tammy and we're off again - Colin, Tammy and myself, walking up the short climb that starts the road section. It's great to have Tammy along on this leg. With her being new to running, this is the first time we've actually run together. After months of patience and unwavering support, it seems only right that my 'BG widow' came along for the final stretch.
There's a relaxed atmosphere as we run along the Newlands Valley. The light is beginning to dim, but it's warm and the air is still. I'm well up on time. It's a beautiful finale to a brilliant day. A guy in flip-flops appears from nowhere at Stair and jogs with us for a few hundred yards. He soon falls off the pace but congratulates us on the nearly completed round.
The road seems to go on much longer than I know it really does, but eventually we're over the suspension bridge and turning right towatds Keswick. The time elapsed has hardly crossed my mind since Honister, but as we hit the path, I glance at my watch and realise sub 21.30 is on the cards. Colin and Tammy are setting a strong pace, but I'm reinvigorated now and push on. Off the path, over the bridge and along the pavement to the Co-op roundabout. The Moot Hall is in sight. I look back at Tammy and Colin and forward to Jon, Theresa, Dave and Debbie by the green doors, and I'm sprinting, smiling madly. The last few yards, touch the door and I'm done. 21 hours 25 minutes.
I pose for a photo, sit on the nearest bench and realise, in the midst of one of the proudest moments of my life, how terrible I feel. The next hour and a half goes by in a daze. I'm sick in one of the side alleys. I attempt to drink a pint. I'm sick again. I sit on the Moot Hall steps, head between knees, thinking idly that I never thought finishing the BG Round would feel like this.
A couple of the 12 o'clock attempts arrive to applause. Another guy arrives a matter of minutes outside the 24 hours, and then we see Paul O, his girlfriend and supporters legging it up the slope to the hall. He finishes strongly, just outside 23 hours and it really hits me then what we've done. We shake hands, the two newest members of 'The Bob Graham 24 Hour Club' and the day is complete.
The Bob Graham Round is approximately 66 miles in length. Total ascent is about 29,000 feet - equivalent to the height of Everest. Indeed, in fell-running circles, the BG Round is sometimes referred to as 'England's Everest'. In 2010, 513 people reached the summit of Everest. 88 people completed the BG Round in under 24 hours.