Tuesday, 27 September 2011

A Comma


It's three weeks since the tractors and trailers stopped passing. All afternoon, into early evening and through the night, the silence on Rose Lane would be squeezed small by the frantic rumble of the speeding farm vehicles, transporting grain from the fields behind the house to the storage sheds on the corner. I'd wake in the small hours, glance at the clock's LED display and hear the far-away groan of the Combines still at work - a comforting sound - a reminder, like rain against the window or wind through leaves, that the world keeps turning even when you're playing no part.

And then, suddenly, it's gone. The harvest is in, August ends, and September arrives like a sigh.

It's 6am. I lean against the pavilion on the Spilsby playing fields and take off my shoes. A mist hangs low in an eerie layer over the football pitches, and, thinking of the words of Keats, I walk over the concrete walkway to the edge of the grass. 

September has always been my favourite month. If a year was a sentence, September would be a comma - a moment to breathe between finishing one thing and starting another. For a month, the year's on hold. Summer still lingers in the occasional glorious late-season sunshine, but the bite of winter is never far away. Days shorten, time slows slightly. Hard times are round the corner, but always just a way away.

It's dark, but I can make out the dew on the grass. It sparkles like glitter. I step off the concrete and begin to jog. It's been a while since I've been here in the morning, but I'm glad to be back.

An easy 3 mile run round the local playing fields before returning to work has been a staple of this year's routine. I've been down here most weekday mornings since Easter, and the absence of this small part of my day over the last month has left me wishing I was here when I've been elsewhere.

I think of a friend who's  recent question I couldn't answer at the time. 'What's the point of those 3 mile runs you do in the morning?' he'd asked. I'd tried to think of some clever justification, but, in the end, I'd just shrugged my shoulders and said, 'Dunno - they just feel right.'

September, I promised myself early on in the year, would be a comma in my running year too. After a summer of long runs, endless empty miles and satisfying achievements, I'd take a break. I'd rest for a month, recharge my body in preparation for the forthcoming cross-country season and the rigours of next year's big plan. I'd knock the morning runs on the head for a while - what use were they anyway? - and stick to easy running no more than 6 days a week.

The grass is cold under my bare feet - so cold that it's painful at first. I grimace, tread lightly, and gradually the pain subsides to an invigorating numbness. I've missed my morning runs and couldn't wait to start again. After months of running in minimal shoes, the thought of going barefoot excited me. I was reminded of summer days, 12 years old, when we'd jog the half-mile from the caravan to the beach. There, we'd walk along the wooden breakers to the very end, and after staring at the inky sea for what seemed like an age, we'd dive in and swim back to shore. An incredible feeling for so simple an activity. This - this barefoot running - it feels the same.

And now September's gone - its restful melancholy soon to be replaced by the harsher face of October. October will strip the leaves from the trees, bring down its cloak on the long days and steal the sunshine. It will pave the way for its wintry companions.

For a blissful while, we've paused - taken stock and smiled over summer memories and recent glories, Now, the sentence continues.

Eight laps of the field and I'm done. I find a step to sit on - all the best runs end with a step - and begin to brush the wet grass from the soles of my feet.

What's the reason for these morning runs I wonder. Why do I feel compelled to return to this place at the start of each day?

To increase my endurance? Granted, they add 15 miles to the week, but at the pace I run them, it's hardly going to make a difference?

To strengthen my feet? Improve my running form? Maybe - but no, that's not the reason.

I look over the field, and as the sun rises, it dawns on me what these runs are all about. They're the month of September, a pause before I walk into the hurricane of a new day. They're a comma before the words continue. We need the words, or where would we be, but without the punctuation, would those words make sense?

I've some busy hours ahead, but now I'm ready.

I'm grinning as I put on my shoes and run effortlessly into the rest of Today.

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The catalyst for these thoughts was 'September' by David Sylvian. Although an extremely brief composition, its aching beauty and sublime melancholy stay with you for much longer

Friday, 2 September 2011

A Jog Around The Loop: The Lindsey Loop, August 2011

A quiet obsession started over three years ago at a remote kissing gate in rural Lincolnshire. Running from Spilsby to Alford on a windswept December's Friday afternoon, I'd made my way steadily through the shoe-sucking plough of the arable land the other side of Mavis Enderby and reached the fence that marked the highest point of this part of the route. On the other side, dark clouds rolled threateningly across the mid-winter sky. Rain was falling over Horncastle, but the views over Hagworthingham and the Furze Hill Reserve recharged my flagging spirits. Sunlight pierced holes through the clouds and fell in shafts of laser light on the hills before me. 'God's Light' I'd called it as a kid. I couldn't wait to carry on.

Treading down the nettles at the kissing gate, I noticed something I'd not seen before on my journeys through this area. An off-white plastic badge was nailed to the wooden upright. It looked as though it had been there for ages. On it was a large figure '8' and the words, 'Lindsey Loop'. Never heard of it, I thought as I shut the gate and trotted down to the valley bottom without a second thought.

A good friend of mine was recently explaining the idea of 'saliency' - that phenomenon where once something becomes relevant to you, you seem to notice it everywhere when, before, you'd never noticed it at all. Once you drive an old VW, it's amazing the number of other old VW's you see on the road - that's the same idea - and I guess it must explain what happened over the next year. Out by myself in the most remote of places, I'd chance upon a finger-post with a distinctive arrow sticker - The Lindsey Loop. My obsession grew, and as I purchased route notes, plotted on maps and began to recce small sections over the subsequent months, I started to dream of a continuous run over the whole Loop. At 96 miles, it seemed feasible that a 24 hour round would be possible. It was ironic, therefore, that another 24 hour round - The Bob Graham - took me over for a while, and The Lindsey Loop was put on the back burner.

At the start of this year, I mentioned to my mate, Leon, that I'd thought of having a stab at The Lindsey Loop sometime. He replied that a club relay over the route would make a cracking day out. The seeds were set.

In March, the day after an operation that I knew would curtail my running for the best part of three months, I realised that my plans for a good performance in July's Lakeland 100 would be overly optimistic. Although disappointed, I was buoyed by the thought that a go at The Lindsey Loop for the end of the summer would certainly be possible. August Bank Holiday weekend was pencilled in. Also, I realised that planning a club relay of the route would be a perfect way of recceing the whole Loop, as well as giving me something to get my teeth into whilst I couldn't run as much as I wanted. The Kid was whispering again. I knew he'd get his own way.

On June 11th, Mablethorpe Running Club completed The Lindsey Loop in 19 hours and 21 minutes. All ages and abilities took part in the long-distance relay and it was a great day - one of the best.

Now, there was only one paragraph left to complete this particular chapter. I just hoped I could write it.

*                    *                    *                    *                    *                    *                    *                    *

The Lindsey Loop is a 96 mile long-distance recreational walk located largely in the Lincolnshire Wolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It links six market towns in East and West Lindsey, and is divided into eight sections with a choice of final section from Donington-on-Bain being either to Louth or Market Rasen.

The late Jim Cook of Lincoln Group, Rambler's Association had the original idea of creating The Lindsey Loop in 1983. Various routes were explored the following year, often with great difficulty, for, at the time, a large number of public rights-of-way were either ploughed out or obstucted by crops for year after year. After Cook's untimely death, his work was continued by Brett Collier.

Major Brett Collier was a legendary figure in rural Lincolnshire. He trained as a teacher but saw distinguished military service in the Far East before his capture by the Japanese when Singapore fell to them in February 1942. Singled out for execution by beheading because of his officer status, his life was saved when the executioner became unnerved. From Singapore, his unit was sent, in captivity, to Korea, from where Collier was sold to a mining company who put him to work below the sea off Nagasaki.

He was below the sea at Nagasaki at 11.02am on 9th August 1945 when the atomic bomb fell there, killing 150,000. It destroyed the entrance to the mine, leaving Collier and his comrades trapped by what they believed was an earthquake. They dug themselves out to emerge, unbelieving, to the sight of the sea boiling and the indescribable devastation. In support of his comrades mentally scarred or physically sickened by the effects of the detonation, Collier spent the rest of his life fund-raising for this cause.

It was in 1960, when he moved to Lincolnshire to lecture at Bishop Grot. College, that Collier took up the pastime of walking. He later published eight books promoting walking in the county, and was Secretary of the Lincolnshire Fieldpaths Society and President of the Lincolnshire Rambler's Association. Before his death in March 2005 at the age of 85, he was an avid leader of walks and scourge of path-blocking farmers, developers and ineffectual councils.

I am deeply indebted to this great man. On almost every long run I do in my part of Lincolnshire, I am reminded of the legacy of Major Brett Collier.

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27th August

We're driving through a thunderstorm towards Market Rasen. Lightning splits the sky over the coast whilst the scatter-shot of huge raindrops blur vision through the windscreen. The forecast for the next few hours is heavy showers. I'm hoping that this is the worst of them.

I've gone for a mid-afternoon start. That way, I'll be running the sections closest to me - the ones I know the best- during the night. It also means I can stash supplies and give Tam and the superheroes chance to go home and get a decent night's sleep.

I'm a little nervous. I've never travelled as far on foot before. I've drafted out a 23 hour schedule for Tammy, but I'm determined to run 'to feel' and make sure that I enjoy the day. I've kept everything seriously low-key. I've mentioned nothing to even my closest friends and best running buddies. The only expectations weighing on me are my own.

1. Market Rasen to Caistor

Photographs, kisses and away.

I jog round the back of St. Thomas' church, follow the road out of town, and soon I'm in the woodland near the railway tracks. The afternoon is bright and I settle into a comfortable shuffle.

The first section is easy-going. Route-finding is straight-forward and the running is mainly low-level. Soon, I'm at Claxby - a beautiful village overlooked by an imposing hill. I stop and have a short chat to a couple of walkers outside the Viking Way Hostel, and then follow the base of the ancient ridge towards Nettleton.

From there, a dog-leg loop takes me to Caistor town centre. I walk the steep hill up to the market place, determined to stick with my BG plan of walking the significant inclines, and arrive at the car to find Tam reading the paper and Lightning sat on a wall sketching the war memorial with a biro. Tam jumps as I tap on the door and says something like, 'You shouldn't be here for half an hour!' The schedule, I can tell, is not going to be worth much.

2. Caistor to East Ravendale

I've pencilled in a 10 minute refuelling break after each leg. On long runs like this, food and drink can be the key to failure or success. I stick to the things I've found work best for me - coffee, red Fanta, milkshakes, rice pudding and Irish stew. In addition to the breaks, I make a conscious effort to eat and drink every 30 minutes whilst I'm running. A few swigs of orange squash and a mouth-full of Haribos are my secret weapon.

This next stretch is a delight. After following The Viking Way to the bottom of the Nettleton Valley, I climb up to the Roman High Street on The Nev Cole Way and head in the direction of Rothwell. Rain's falling steadily, but I can see it will pass. At the road-crossing, a sight fills me with confidence. A rainbow arcs over the finger-post before burying itself in a cloud. Ever since I was small, I've always associated a rainbow with good luck. This is it! Someone's smiling on me.

On the track into Rothwell, a stout wooden post marks a sharp right turn. In June, as I'd jogged along this stretch with Leon at 2am at the start of our club relay, we'd laughed at the sight of a pair of flip-flops hanging proudly. I'm amazed, as I pass nearly three months later, that they're still there.

Soon, I'm over Jim Cook's bridge, through Cuxwold and onto a short stretch of road that I know very well near Croxby. A series of races starts and finishes on the brow of the hill each summer, with different dates consisting of either one, two or three laps of a tough, hilly course. Probably the longest running races of any in Lincolnshire, they're great events. The hill to the finish is legendary, guaranteed to mangle you as you run at your very limits. The words 'Heartbreak Hill' are painted at the very bottom of the steepest section just to remind you just how terrible you'll feel as you eventually cross the line. Running down the hill isn't nearly so bad.

Passing through the hamlet of Hatcliffe, I jog the short section of road that leads to East Ravendale and Tam's Caff. I'm well up on schedule, but the kettle's whistling and the chair's out for my arrival.

3. East Ravendale to Louth

As I start the next leg, I'm greeted by another rainbow - a second reminder that things will be fine. This is a tough section - a linear route straight to Louth with undulations galore. I'm up on schedule and glad to realise that I'll hit Louth before darkness falls.

I've run so far in my racing flats - much more cushioned than the shoes I've been using of late - but already there's some 'tiredness' in my feet. the top of my left foot in particular feels increasingly tender - the onset of some tendon pain perhaps. I resolve to change into my battered trail shoes at the next stop.

The commentary from the Liverpool v. Bolton game keeps me buoyant. Whilst I never listen to music whilst I'm running, I'm a sucker for 5Live. I'm reminded of last week's Paddy Buckley support. Dave commented that it's good to have someone with you who will just talk - even if it's total rubbish - to take your mind off the climbs you're taking on and the enormity of the task that lies ahead. The radio serves me in much the same way. Peter Allen, Danny Baker, Alan Green, Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode are just a few of my radio running buddies. They join me on most long runs, rattling on, keeping me company. Sometimes I'll listen, sometimes it's just noise in my ears - my mind's elsewhere - in the run, in the landscape or maybe miles away.

It's getting on - daylight's fading as the sun sinks behind me. The leg almost done, I run into Louth, through the town centre and out up the London Road hill. The Caff's open in the cricket pavilion carpark. I quickly get a tin of stew down and prepare myself for the next eight hours of darkness.

4. Louth to Alford

I leave the carpark after kissing Tam and the kids goodnight. It's around 9pm, but I won't be seeing them again until 5am tomorrow morning. They'll be back to their beds while I click off the next 40 miles in the dark by myself. This stretch takes me from Louth to Alford - a section I've run many times. I've arranges for Tam to leave a stash just outside Alford - enough food and drink to refuel me for the miles that follow. From there, I'll run to Spilsby where I'll pop into our factory unit and wolf down a coffee and some more stew. After that stop, I'll head to Horncastle, where Tam's Caff will be open for the morning shift.

All this running through my head as I head out of Louth. I think ahead to a tricky section between Snipedales Country Park and Horncastle that I've only run once and can't really remember. I'll need the route-notes and map for that bit, especially if it's still dark. Route-notes and map? Still in the Fell Wagon! I dither for a while, deciding what to do, and decide to do nothing. After ten minutes of worrying, I eventually stop, ring Tam and arrange for her to leave them with my stash. Panic over, I head into the gloom over Kenwick Golf Course and beyond.

Headtorch running is something I've grown to love. In the early day, I used to spook myself all the time. Now, I look forward to it - running in that bubble of light, like scuba-diving above ground.

The running's going well but my foot's getting increasingly painful. I get a support bandage out of my sack, take a couple of ibuprofen and hope it'll settle down (it does for a while, but remains troublesome right until the end.)

On the track between Alford and Well, I'm stopped in mid-run by a blinding light - a spotlight's picked me out and I stand like a rabbit in the headlights. Then headlights do appear - a 4x4. I'm used to being asked - politely or otherwise - by farmers what I'm doing on 'their land', so I presume this is just more of that. As the truck stops, a couple of heavily-built likely-lads enquire, 'What the f**k are you doing?' It's one o'clock in the morning. I give them my answer to a look of blank amusement. They're 'doing a bit of lamping' they inform me, and with that, I bid them goodnight and get off sharpish.

5. Alford to Spilsby

At the stile in Well, I recover my stash and hike to the top of the hill, past the church and towards the woods, thinking that banana washed down with chocolate milkshake is the long-distance runner's equivalent of the Nectar of the Gods.

This section is my home turf. Living near Alford and working in Spilsby, I run this way all the time - at 10 miles it's a perfect run-to-work distance and I'll do it maybe 100 times in a year. The familiarity is a comfort, but the odd thick patch of fog is disconcerting and the wet ground is doing my head in.

I'm glad to reach the Industrial Estate in Spilsby an hour later. I've pencilled in a 20 minute stop here to get myself sorted. 2am - over half-way, downhill all the way to the end.

6. Spilsby to Horncastle

I leave the factory unit a few minutes before I'm due, lock the gates to the yard and jog in the direction of the path that takes me past the churchyard and towards the playing fields. An eerieness pervades the Industrial estate - it doesn't seem right to be here at such an hour. I'm relieved a few minutes later when I'm back in my light-bubble on the track towards Hundleby.

My legs feel surprisingly good. There's a little tiredness but no stiff at all. Jogging is no problem and I'm pleased with the pace. Dotun Adebayo  is my witching-hour radio running buddy and the sound of his voice takes me back to a previous life when I'd regularly drive through the night, struggling to stay awake to his show. Things are much better now.

After an hour or so, I push through the kissing gate where this whole adventure was born. There's only darkness on the other side tonight, and for the first time on the run, I lose the trod over the fields and end up at the stream in the valley bottom at the wrong place. I instinctively know I'm too far left, and after skirting right, I eventually find the footbridge and the continuation of the path. It's 3am - my brain knows that my body should be sleeping and decision-making isn't easy. Minutes later, a lack of concentration means I'm off-path again. I've missed a right fork and hit the ditch at the field's edge instead of hugging the tree-line by the Furze Hill Reserve. I can't be bothered to back-track. If I jump the ditch, plough through the waist-high nettles, I'll be back on course in no time. I make a run for it and clear the water, but, in the darkness, fail to realise a barbed-wire fence is hidden by the grass on the other side. I'm now impaled on it, like road runner in the coyote's wicked trap. I pull myself off it and inspect the damage. Lots of cuts on my thighs, knees and shins, but the waterproof jacket's ok - it better be - it cost me a bomb. I know the legs will look after themselves, and head, bleeding but not bothered, in the direction of the Snipedales Country Park.

Out of the Park. I arrive at the section I'm most wary of. A long path across ploughed fields will eventually lead me over a farm track and to the main road into Horncastle. This was hard to follow in daylight, nevermind in the dark. Take a bearing - no problem - but I've no compass with me. I pause and then jog off in the direction I think is right. Ten minutes later, I'm lost. It's dark, I've no features to help me out, so I just keep going. Before long, I spot the lights of a grain store and head in that direction. Once there, I pull out the map and try to get an idea of where I am. I get my bearings, find the farm track and run down it for a few minutes before the angel on my shoulder prods me and makes me stop. I pull out my map, pissed off now, and realise I've come the wrong way. Twenty minutes later, I'm back on path, but increasingly glad of the signs of morning, and really pleased to meet Tam and the superheroes outside Horncastle.

7. Horncastle to Donington-on-Bain

Scoffing down some rice pudding by the Fell Wagon, I try and do some calculations. I'm well under 23 hour schedule. With  less than 28 miles left, and Tam back in tow, I decide to get rid of my sack and push things on a bit. Under 21 hours would be great. I know things are going ok - my feet have had it, but everything else is alright. I get rid of my jacket, put on a dry long-sleeved top and get off.

When you've run all the way through a dark night, the morning is a revelation. Circadian rhythms are stirred, the body and mind are alerted and your mood automatically improves. The path winds through the most beautiful section of the entire Loop and I travel, enlightened, through the dawn towards the new day. Mist hangs low in the Wold's valleys and the rising sun stains the hills a glorious shade of gold. I run, alive, awakened, through a dream.

Through Belchford, Ranby, Market Stainton - picture postcard perfect - and finally to Donington-on-Bain. One foot in front of the other. A breath. A heartbeat.

8. Donington-on-Bain to Louth

I take my last break at Donington outside the village shop and I know I'm almost there. 13 more miles and this part of my journey ends.

The Lindsey Loop is unique to the other Lincolnshire long distance paths in that it has two alternative endings. From Donington, you can continue back to Market Rasen. Plotted on a map, this looks the cleanest line and completes the figure'8' of the loop,

You can, however, choose to end your trip at Louth. In his guide, Brett Collier describes this alternative as 'a truely delightful section' and 'a superb day's walking.' It's this choice I go for.

Leaving the village, a steep climb brings me out of the valley, opening up the most magnificent views on all sides. A twenty minute slog through deep plough temporarily dampens my spirits, but once I'm at Grim's Mound - a Bronze age barrow on the track to Calcethorpe, I'm moving well again and I know that the running is good from here on. A glance at my watch, and I know that a sub- 20 hour round is on the cards. I don't want to ruin the last few miles with a race against the clock, but part of me can't help myself. I stretch my legs and pick up the pace.

A few miles on and I arrive at Welton-le-Wold. Jogging through the village to the spot I know Tam will be parked in, Lightening comes bounding towards me. 'Dad, can we run from Hubbard's Hills with you?' I'm glad he's asked. Having my two little superheroes pace me for the last mile will be the perfect end to the trip.

This thought sustains me as I go through the woodland and up the last climb of Jack's Furze. For the first time, I see Louth in the distance and I'm reminded of Brett Collier's words - words I've read so often I can recite them from memory:

'...as you walk downhill, all the way from Jack's Furze towards the magnificent 295 foot, crocketed spire of St. James' church and then along Hubbard's Hills footpath at the end of your Lindsey Loop walk, you will certainly have a feeling of accomplishment and a wonderful memory of the Lincolnshire Wolds area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to treasure and recall all your days.'

I race to the bottom gate of Hubbard's Hills and weave through the Sunday strollers to the carpark at the top end. My welcoming party puts a  big smile on my face. In addition to Tam and the kids, Leon's made it back from the Lakes in time to join me on the last mile with his youngest daughter, Alice. It feels right that they should be there.

We jog the last mile, chatting, laughing. As a teenager, I'd daydream at the end of a run of storming into the Olympic Stadium, the end of a titanic marathon duel. As I entered the arena, the crowd would be standing, cheering, screaming - witnessing and applauding my momentus world-record breaking feat of endurance. This whole scenario plays again briefly through my head, but I realise I've discovered something infinitely better. For now, the arena is all around me. Its architecture is described in route-notes and Ordnance Survey maps. its structure is forged from hills and valleys, and held together by rivers, streams, hedgerows and bridleways. it's indescribably beautiful.

As all five of us enter Louth market place, there's no standing, cheering, shouting. A few people are shopping, a couple are sitting on a bench. We sit on the steps of the War Memorial and wait for Tam. There's no medal, goody bag, no free technical t-shirt. Instead, there's a handshake, a kiss and a 'You did it Dad!'

I stop my watch. 19hours and 50 minutes. Then I sit for a while with my friends and family, and take off my shoes.


In the days that follow, The Kid awakens me at night, wiggles into my daydreams. He whispers, 'How fast could you get round supported, good weather, mid-June?' or 'Chris- have you ever thought of going round mid-winter? or 'How close to 12 hours could a two-man relay get?' 

'Keep On Burning?' he's saying, and I can't say 'Stop!'

It appears I may not be finished with The Lindsey Loop just yet?