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.

                                                         *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

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.

                                                      *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

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.

                                                         *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment