Friday, 18 March 2011

Back To October

When it comes to writing, I always prefer talking of the past than I do predicting the future. Every trip, every adventure makes a story, even if it's not apparent at the time. In the 'on-demand' world we live in, where news is broadcast 24 hours a day, race results are available on-line immediately and the internet is full of blogs detailing ambitious forth-coming expeditions and the mundanities of day-to-day training, my aim is to step back slightly from all of this and simply tell stories. And to tell a story properly, I believe that it's best told much later. Do what you're going to do, do it well and then leave it a while. Over time, the important events stay with you, the trivial ones are forgotten, and when eventually you revisit, the ingredients are there for a cracking yarn.

However, if, like myself, the stories are based on adventures, however small, you need, now and again, to sit, take stock, decide what you're doing next and then start planning. I generally do this in October. It's a good time for me. The busy summer season is over. The year's goal has been achieved (or, at least, attempted) by then, and as the low-key local XC season starts, I can 'tick-over', maintain my fitness and know that come Christmas and the New Year, when I've three weeks off work to run as much as I like, my plan for the next year will already be in place.

This year was no different. Having relished my time over the last year in the Lake District and longing for the sense of adventure and accomplishment that the Bob Graham had given me, I entered the UTLD100. I drafted out a rough schedule of long runs, long races and weekends away and caught myself up in that buzz of expectation and excitement you get when planning your next 'mission'.

And then it all went wrong.

As I write, A4 paper resting on my knee, laid uncomfortably on the settee, a couple of co-codamol dulling the pain of the wound from yesterday's operation, it's the middle of March, but I'm back to October. The injury which has plagued me since the end of December has been fixed. Great news, but what's less amazing are the ten weeks of hard training I've missed, the six weeks rehabilitation I face and the words of the surgeon stuck in my head: 'You'll be looking at three months in all probability before you next run a marathon distance.'

Back to October.

I've never raced 100 miles before - not a great fan of racing at all to be honest. But, lining up at the start of any race I do, I always like to feel I've prepared as well as possible. In the position I find myself, with the days in the hills and the miles I've lost and still to lose, my decision to withdraw from the UTLD100 is disheartening but easy to make. Maybe I'll do it next year instead. Maybe not. But if I'm on that Coniston start line in July 2012, I'll know I'm as ready as I'm ever going to be.

So, what's next?

A number of things I've experienced or come across in recent weeks have provided inspiration or food for thought.

I enjoyed my last run for a couple of weeks on Tuesday night. As I jogged through Well Woods on my way from work, I was looking forward to getting home. Our little man had been running in the area schools' XC. Whilst I've never missed one of his races, the impending operation on Wednesday meant I had just too much to sort out at work before three days off, and I couldn't get there. I rang my wife once I thought the race was over.
'Hold on...' she told me, answering her mobile, '...he's still running now.'
'Alright?' I questioned.
'Yeah - he's 6th or 7th,' she replied. 'Hold oo...' Thirty seconds of shouting, screaming and commotion followed.
'Alright?' I questioned.
'Whoa! What a finish!' she said and passed the phone over, 'It's Dad.'
'Hi Dad!' Little Man panted, 'I came 2nd!'
'Fantastic mate!'
'Yeah, and I've won a trophy!'

Running over those final fields towards home in the fading light, I pictured his face, so proud of himself, and showing me that trophy when I stepped through the door, holding it as if it were the most important thing in his life. I tried to remember the times in my own younger days when a medal or a trophy were so special, and to pinpoint the time when the intrinsic joy of running came to mean everything and races' mementos lost their meaning - the time, I guess, when I started Empty Miling.

There's no cups or trophies on display in our house, except those earned by the kids. Their bedroom shelves are full of medals and trophies from dancing, running or football, and they treasure them. Mine end up in a plastic storage box in the airing cupboard. Whilst I may or may not cherish the experiences linked to those trophies, the actual trophies mean nothing at all. And, over the years, the actual experience of 'the race' has come to mean less too. Reading about the immense journeys undertaken by the likes of Hugh Symonds, John Fleetwood and Steven Pyke just somehow fill me with more excitement than the prospect of a race.
So, back to October:

1. This year's adventure should be a challenge, not a race - a personal journey over a route I've had in mind for some years, which has intense meaning for me but is largely meaningless to everyone else. It will be a solo run with strictly minimal road support. It will be unburdened by the constraints of competition (and trophies), but will be, as far as I know, the first time it has been done.

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The recent week's of cycling also have a say on the matter. Whilst, initially, merely a way to maintain fitness while my running opportunities were limited, the daily cycling commute has opened up a new can of questions, reservations and future intentions. I'd forgotten how much I actually enjoyed it. Simply getting from A to B under your own steam is a right buzz, and commencing a long shift under the influence of those endorphins is a fine way to start a work day. This is justification, in itself, to continue the two-wheeled commute, but there's more...

The price of deisel at our local garages now stands at £1.43.9 per litre. A quick calculation one evening revealed that by using the bike, rather than the work van for the daily commute would save me around £90 a month - a decent amount in the hard times that Cameron, Osbourne and The Fools have sponsored.

And, moreover - disregarding the monetary incentives - a cycle commute leaves little trace. Listening to the rantings of The Vagabond over the last two years, and recently reading an excellent article by US up-and-comer, Dakota Jones, has left me reconsidering the impact of our beloved activities in the places that are most precious to us. It's easy, for example, to question the environmental impact of increased footfall over the Bob Graham route or the ethics of driving a round trip of 500 miles for a weekend's running in the Lake District. Whilst, inevitably, I'd find it impossible to stay away from the wild places I am drawn to, regardless of environmental impact, maybe it'd be a good idea this year to try something else.
So, back to October:

2. This year's adventure will be local. This will enable numerous recces without the use of motorised transport, which will leave minimum impact on the environment. It will also give me a fantastic excuse to eek out the unexplored gems in my local Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty which, up till now, I've largely overlooked.

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And so a plan takes shape: what it will be and where it will be set. Now, onto the way it will be done.

I guess I'm very superstitious in the way I go about preparing for a trip. Being, naturally, a fairly negative person, I always start with the worst case scenario and plan around that. In past experience, if something can go wrong, it usually will. If you plan that into your preparation, I often find the eventual outcome will be pleasantly successful.

Whilst planning is usually meticulous, build-up is best kept low-key. My feeling is that by continually talking up a trip, you're building yourself up for a fall - you're hexing yourself. The less people that know, the better. The weight of your own expectation is enough to shoulder, without the burden of other peoples.

There are those magical times when, unannounced and unexpected, someone does something outstanding, to the complete surprise of everyone. Ian Sharman's recent victory in the Rocky Raccoon 100 was a classic example. As the cream of US trail running talent came together to do battle, a little-known marathon kid from the UK shook up the cart with a performance - 12h 44mins 35secs - that ranked second fastest over the distance The nearest competitor - the legend that is Anton Krupicka - was a good 40 minutes in his wake.
So, to October once more:

3. This year's adventure will be undercover and unannounced. Only myself and my support will know what it is or when it will take place. Anyone else will have to wait until after it's done to find out the nature of the mission and its outcome.

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Or maybe not.

A recent post on Alastair Humphrey's site really struck a chord when I read it:

I said 'no' recently when asked to join an expedition. The trip sounded epic: a heady cocktail of trying something new and pushing my limits in the wilderness with a double measure of danger and misery mixed in.
The thought processes that led me to say 'no' were long and winding and of no relevance except for the one question I asked myself.
'Would I do this trip,' I pondered, 'if nodody ever knew that I had done it?'
The answer was no. And so my answer was no. 
'Would I embark upon this year's adventure,' I ponder, 'if nobody ever knew that I had done it?' The answer is most certainly Yes.

And so, back from October. It's the middle of March. The mist hangs low outside the window. There's a period of recovery to either endure or enjoy. There's new footpaths to be discovered through forgotten fields. There's empty miles to be run in splendid isolation, experiences to be savoured and memories to be made. And maybe one day, when all this is long gone, I'll come back, reflect romantically on what was, and just tell another story.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Keep On Burning

The plan had been simple - the best one's always are. I'd join our driver on his monthly delivery route to Glasgow. I'd jump out at Penrith, get a bus to Keswick and run over Skiddaw, Great Calva and Blencathra. I'd have just enough time to get round before catching a bus back from Threlkeld to Penrith from where I'd cadge a lift back to Saleby. Dead easy.

Skiddaw dominates the skyline of Keswick. It's a hulking, massive, magnificent mountain. It also has a recently renovated path straight to the summit that is so wide in places that many walkers refer to it in disdain as 'the motorway'. It's hard to get lost on Skiddaw.

Two weeks previously - the first weekend of February, I'd travelled to the Lake District to begin my Bob Graham training in earnest. No matter how many miles you ran in a week, the determining factor in BG success or failure was 'fell-hardness' - a mental and physical fortitude that would enable you to ascend and descend England's highest peaks in the course of one day - that would drive you up rocky climbs when your legs had lost all feeling, and run down sheer scree slopes when your quads were screaming 'Stop!' You couldn't get this on the roads of Lincolnshire. The only place for this training was in mountain country. I'd decided to spend one weekend in two in the Lakes, and that first weekend had been perfect. Snow on the tops, but a clear sky and superb visibility. I'd gone round the Newlands Horseshoe on the Saturday and then ran Leg One on the Sunday. I'd returned to Lincolnshire with a grin on my face.
Today, however, as I stood outside Booths and looked in the direction of Skiddaw, I sensed that things would be different. The majority of the mountain was covered in impenetrable cloud - low-lying, thick, foreboding. The friendly giant, for some reason, didn't seem as welcoming. But there was nothing to be nervous about. I'd a map in my sack, a compass in the back pocket of my tracksters and a new Garmin handheld to fall back on. If conditions were too bad up there, I'd stick to the path, go as far as the summit trig and come straight back down the way I'd gone up. I polished off a flapjack, finished my take-away coffee and set off at a steady jog towards Spoony Green Lane.

I was barely on Jenkin's Hill - the steep section near the base of Skiddaw - when the cloud overtook me. Keswick vanished from sight on my left, as did everything else beyond a hundred yards. The cloud brought with it a sense of claustrophobia that was oppressive at first, but which faded as I adjusted to my new white bubble. Before long it started snowing. Big, fat, wind-blown flakes - proper snow. It covered the existing compressed snow on the path and softened the landscape, erasing all definition. The first gate on the path (half-way I always think) was buried under a two foot drift. I clambered over it and ran on over the following flatter section of the path. By the time I reached the second gate, marking the start of the summit pyramid, I'd lost the path altogether. The gate and its fence were completely covered save for a few inches. I followed faint footprints in the direction I knew the summit lay, but I was starting to feel nervous. Ten minutes later, I was at the top. I touched the trig and turned to head straight back down.

By now the snow had become a blizzard. I stumbled on, hardly able to see. It was difficult to make out where the land finished and the sky started. Everything was white. Just follow the footprints. I was walking now - the snow was too deep for running. On and slowly on. And then... I lost my footing on the slope, my arse hit the ground with a crack and I slid, uncontrollably for thirty or forty yards. Digging in my feet and dragging my hands, I eventually stopped.

Jesus - that was crazy! I stood up. Which way had I been walking? Where was that top gate? Which direction was the summit? No idea - all sense of direction had left me. I pulled out my compass from my back pocket. It disintegrated into its component parts - that explained the crack, the fall had killed it. Nevermind, I'd fish out the GPS. I took off my gloves - my hands so cold - now that I was stood still, I couldn't stop shivering. This would tell me exactly where I was. I pressed ON to be greeted with a message -'BACKLIGHT LOW. REPLACE BATTERIES.' Within a minute, the screen turned grey. I'd been sure that those Duracells in the kitchen drawer had been good ones. Now I was sure they were not.

For the next half-hour, I tried, in vain, to find the path. Panic was growing. I could die here. Fancy freezing to death on the top of Skiddaw - I'd be a laughing stock - after all, Keswick was only a couple of miles away. I sat down and took solace in a peanut butter and marmalade sandwich. The situation suddenly appeared less bleak. I'll just descend - any way - make sure I don't go over the top of any crags and I'll be ok. And I was.
Twenty minutes later I was sat in hazy sunshine on a boulder near Southerndale Beck, supping from a flask of coffee. I looked back towards the menacing peak of Skiddaw. Scary.

After a short rest, I headed down the valley, gained the ridge on the left and ran over Ullock Pike. After following the Longside Edge path, I ended up at Carl Side Tarn. Here the path split in two. Turn right and an easy descent down Carl side would take me to the Keswick road at Millbeck. Turn left and the path would rise in a steep traverse back to the summit of Skiddaw. How come so many of life's important decisions are made at a simple fork in a path? (I thought briefly of the night I met The Balaklava Man, but tried to stop myself.) Right or left? I looked right into the welcoming foothills - a benign, pleasant scene. To my left, the mountain's summit was still hidden. Be nice to get up there and do it right this time. But if I get lost again, I'll miss my bus, miss my lift, and how the hell will I get back to Lincolnshire with a couple of quid in my pocket?
And then The Kid spoke to me. Right is the easy choice, the soft option. Left is Keep On Burning. I turned left and headed up the slope into the clag.

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To have only each other in this sphere we populate to share the twinkling lights of a midnight city or the sight of scenery so brilliant to rush away your breath is just a snip snip of what could be, enough but not nearly when you truely consider how we could quite easily link together in sweat of all types, for fun, pleasure and toil.

Instead, it seems, we have chosen to front on the goggle eye box, a wicked vision of children, balloons, sunshine eternal, wealth of the filthy kind, all manner of plastic crap, yanky cop shows and homes for their bombs, and aahh...contentment. All still more bullshit that masks the real picture of self-inflicted death, addiction, misery and mass consumering. American express? Fuck off, I'd rather walk!
                                                                                             The Cappuccino Kid

Keep On Burning flickered into life in the mid-90's. What started as a  borrowed phrase from the Northern Soul scene, soon became an idea. In no time at all, the idea had become an ideal for living, a design for life. Its soundtrack was House music, Surf's Up-era Beach Boys and late 70's Stevie Wonder. Its figure-heads were Paul Weller and Kevin Rowland, both artists regarded as 'difficult', deliberately obtuse and uncompromising. Its spokesman was The Cappuccino Kid -  a mysterious, silver-like character who penned sleeve notes for The Style Council's records, and who inhabited an 'Absolute Beginner' world of cool cats and squares. Its history was developed in a series of stories written and sent between my brother and I over the course of several months in the days when people sent letters.

Keep On Burning was about doing your best, doing something difficult, constantly striving. It was about turning your back on convention, contentment and embracing adventure. It was about not listening to advice, knowing you were right even though everyone told you otherwise. It was about mad nights out, crazy trips and creating your own personal history. It was all of these things. And it still is.

There's this burning feeling inside of me that stops me from standing still and goads me into planning the next adventure. The more outrageous, the more demanding, the more mad, the better. I'm surrounded by people who's aim in life is to buy a HD-ready 42" plasma screen or update their i-phone. Fair enough - the fact that we're all different is what makes life interesting - but that path is not mine. I want to be scared, estatic, dis-orientated, exhausted. I want to run new trails, lose myself in mountains, cycle across a continent. And the fantastic thing is that I can't see an end to it - it's in me, as ever-present as the next heartbeat.

Wait till you get married, have a family, they said, implying that things would change. And they did - but not in the 'settle down, accept a boring half-life, become content' sort of way. For contentment is the enemy. The word implies a passivity, a resignation, an 'everything's alright' mentality.

But everything's not alright, and  - No! - having a family is an adventure in its own right. It heightens life-experience, not dulls it. Kids bring you absolute emotion - happiness, pride, frustration, love, despair - but certainly not 'contentment'. And whilst time may become more precious, a bit of careful planning with just a hint of selfishness allows the Keep On Burning  spirit to flourish.

Writing this, in the glow of a great run through the Wolds with a fellow traveller, I'm reminded of how much Keep On Burning still means to me. It's about days like this ... and more.
Fitz Cahall of The Dirtbag Diaries crystalised a notion that Keep On Burning embraces. He divided experiences into 3 types of Fun.
Type 1 Fun is an activity that comprises nothing but simple, unbridled enjoyment - sliding down a snow covered hill on a tea tray, dancing to Bizarre Inc's 'Playing With Knives', free-wheeling down an impossibly steep mountain pass.
Type 2 Fun is an activity that is intrinsically enjoyable at the time, but requires a fair deal of effort and a degree of exhaustion - today's jaunt through the hills, running a marathon.
And Type 3 Fun is the ultimate expression of Keep On Burning. Type 3 Fun is no fun at all at the time, but brings back the best memories in retrospect and makes a fantastic story to tell in the pub. It's getting hopelessly lost in the hills, descending into the wrong valley at the point of collapse, and then, after realising your mistake, trudging two hours dejectedly to where your car is parked. It's jumping on a train, slowly becoming aware that it's the wrong one and by the time you get back to the station, you've missed the last connection. A December night, sleeping on a platform bench might not seem like fun at the time, but- trust me - it's classic Type 3! It's an event you'll remember for the rest of your life and one you'll be asked to recall every time you meet old friends for a few pints.
Keep On Burning takes you to these places.

I guess Richard Bode in 'Beachcombing at Miramar' gets it:

I have a choice, the same choice that faces every man. I can live a frivolous life, trying to impress others with the house I live in, the clothes I wear, the car I drive. I can strive to be a success in the way of the world, seeking the admiration of others, revelling in thier jealousy. I can seek domination over my family and fellow workers in a vain attempt to hide my own deficiencies. I can seek fame, which is the most elusive pursuit of all, for it has no substance and soon vanishes into the ait. I can prattle about my friends and neighbours, dissipating my life's energy a little at a time. I can wallow in self-pity, refusing to accept responsibility for my own circumstances. I can manipulate others into taking care of me, which is the way of all petty tyrants. I can complain about boredom, as if it were up to those around me to inject excitement into my day.
These are the patterns of the living dead, people who have foresaken life, who are willing to squander their most precious gift, because they refuse to face up to the reality of death. If they wanted to live, truely wanted to live, they would rise up in a resurrection of their own making and commit themselves to the life they have.

However, it's The Kid's words that I always hear at Keep On Burning moments:

We have this one brief life - this last chance - and then we are gone, and an opportunity lost is an eternity of regret.

And at times like this, I reflect on the wonder of living and think of all the dreams I've left to dream, the schemes I've yet to scheme, and The Kid speaks again:

Dear listener, look forward every day, these unfinished symphonies are but just starting.