Thursday, 8 March 2012
I come to a stop at the side of an old wooden shed at the point where The Viking Way crosses the main road into Bardney. I try, in vain, to find some shelter from the torrential rain that's been falling for the last 5 hours. Taking off my sopping running gloves, I blow on my bare hands, hoping to invite feeling of some sort. I briefly consider pressing on, but, almost immediately, dismiss the idea. I briefly consider packing in, finding shelter in the nearby village centre and waiting for my lift to arrive. But, again, the idea is dismissed. I don't give up.
I experience just a moment of clarity and realise that I have to take some action straight away or things are going to go wrong. I've put myself in some challenging environments in the past, but I've never felt like this. I'm not in danger - I'm in rural Lincolnshire - I'm metres away from someone's house. However, retreat is not an option. I'm shivering uncontrollably. I've never been as cold. I've no idea what hypothermia feels like, but I can't be far off.
For miles, I've been delaying stopping, putting on extra kit, preferring to pick up the speed, keep moving, get to the end more quickly. Now, I know, I've got no choice.
I reach up for the plastic buckle on my pack's chest strap. My fingers won't work. Press the plastic arms together and the buckle will release. It's something I've done thousands of times before - doesn't require thought or strength. But, try as I will, I can't do it. My mind looks back to school day changing rooms, trying to do up shirt buttons after a winter's games lesson. I concentrate, try again, but to no avail. The shivering's taking me over - violent shudders shaking me under their own will.
I put my hands down the front of my tracksters, finding a warm spot between my thighs, and press my legs together. God knows what a passer-by would think if they saw me now!
After a couple of minutes, I pull out my hands and try the chest strap again. Eventually, it clicks open.
I focus my attention on the waist strap now. I've got to get the pack off. Frustration errupts in a string of expletives as I just can't release the plastic buckle. After an eternity, I manage to loosen the strap, buckle still closed. I wiggle my arms free from the shoulder straps and slide the pack down, stepping out of it like a lady steps out of an evening dress.
Picking up the pack, I grip the zip tag between my teeth and manage to open it up. I rest it against the shed wall, trying to keep the contents as dry as possible. It's sheeting down, and the morning breeze has mutated into a late afternoon howl. The day has shed its sheeps' clothing. I stand, afraid, helpless, before a hungry wolf.
I focus on relaxing. My shoulder and back muscles ache from the relentless shivering. I pull my Kamleika jacket over my head and throw it on top of my pack. Then I take off my Merino base layer, leaving my torso naked to the elements. I wring it out, a desperate effort to get rid of its wetness, and put it back on. Digging in my pack, I pull out a technical tee-shirt, put it on. I pull out a lightweight Pertex jacket, put it on. I pull out a beany hat, stick it on my head. I pull out my Goretex over-trousers and ease them over my tracksters. I've no more spare clothes left. A pair of mittens would be heaven, but I never thought to put them in. I pull my Kamleika back over my head, edge the zip to the very top with my dysfunctional fingers and yank the hood over as far as it will go.
I'm unbelievably cold. I need to keep moving. The hungry wolf is snarling. I grab my phone from the front pocket of my pack and manage to press the buttons that allow a call to the only number I've got stored in there. Home.
'Dialling...HOME,' it says on the screen. For a moment, I'm there. It's warm. I'm lying in the bath. I'm drinking a mug of sweet tea. And, in that moment, the wolf pounces, knocks me down, overwhelms me.
'Hi Babe,' Tam answers. 'You ok?'
I feel the saliva from the wolf's jaws.
'Come and get me. I can't go on. I'll be in the tea-room in Bardney village. This weather's done me in!'
I say these words only in my head. I look at the wolf and there's a gleam in its hungry eyes.
I push my feet against the wolf's stomach and press as hard as I can. It falls backward, startled. I sit up quickly, now on the front foot.
'I'm ok, ' I say. 'I'll be at Fiskerton in less than a couple of hours. I'll meet you at that spot I showed you on the map.'
It's hard to talk - the cold's even making speech difficult. The gloves and backpack go back on in a flash. I've little time to lose. I'm almost ready to get going when I hear the angry growl. The weather has deteriorated further - to the point where no sane individual would possibly want to be out in it. I know that and, somehow, in spite of everything, I can't help but smile. I look to the muddy track ahead, and then back at where I've come. I stand, afraid, before the hungry wolf. Afraid, but no longer helpless. Not quite. And then I'm off.
Empty miles are usually run in glorious technicolour. Every shade, every nuance is noted, celebrated. You're 'in it.' Eventually, however, as hours pass, that splendid emptiness starts to be filled up by thoughts that carry only negativity. You become aware of your tiredness. You notice every pain, niggle, sore muscle. The colour of your run starts to seep away. As exhaustion creeps upon you, you may not notice that your world has become monochrome. Black and white. Just two choices - keep going or stop. Go a little further and the black and white merge like messy paint into a single shade of grey. Things are easier now. There are no decisions to make. The idea of stopping simply drops away and you're left with one action that becomes unconsciously automatic - put one foot in front of the other.
An hour and a half after leaving the wooden shed, I arrive at Fiskerton. One foot in front of the other. One front in front of the other. A mantra. A rhythm. Running down a minor road, a car horn wakes me from my hyponosis. I look up from the ground in front of me and realise I've nearly run past Tam and the superheroes waiting for me in the pre-arranged lay-by.
The wolf's made its best efforts. The plunging temperature has turned the rain into snow. The hard-pack of the field paths has softened into unrunnable soup. For a time, it almost had me. Now, it will have to find its sustenance elsewhere.
Tam's got a laundry bag ready in the passenger side of the fell-wagon. I take everything off, dump shoes and clothes into the bag and, standing naked, towel myself down. I pull on a pair of old pants, a jumper and my down jacket and flop into the seat. I'm ravenous. I wolf down a sandwich, a few squares of Mars Bar cake and a chocolate milkshake. Then, while I drift in and out of sleep, Tam drives us all home.
I'm easing myself into a hot bath a bit later. I'm glad that one of the most miserable experiences of my running life has come to an end. I feel done for, totally knackered.
Whatever had possessed me to come up with the idea in the first place? A 'big double' weekend on The Viking Way - 80 odd miles over the Saturday and Sunday to recce the route before I make a non-stop attempt on Lincolnshire's longest Long Distance Path at the start of April. Bad ideas always start out as good plans, I console myself, as I lay back and the soapy water swallows me.
Tam comes in. 'Cup of tea. Two sugars,' she says, places the mug on the side of the bath and goes back downstairs.
I close my eyes for a while, allow myself to fully enjoy my moment of relaxation. Then I reach over for the mug. Sweet tea. My most valuable training tool. I hardly drink it during the week - coffee's my thing - dash of milk, no sugar - but, after a day out running, there's nothing like it.
I take a sip and almost immediately the grey starts to separate. Black and white multiply into muted shades, and by the time I've swigged half a cup, my life is back in technicolour.
I finish the tea and reflect on a great weekend. 42 miles from Barton to Donnington-on-Bain on the Saturday. Gorgeous late-winter sunshine, the delights of the Nettleton Valley, feeling tired but strong at the end of a long day.
Sweet tea's running through my veins. I'm smiling again.
But yesterday wasn't a touch on today. The stunning scenery between Glouceby and Fulletby. The seclusion of the Spa Trail between Horncastle and Woodhall Spa. Battling against the weather from start to finish. Never seen so much rain! The snow as my only companion for the last hour. Rarely have I felt so alive. It seems such a shame that one of the most incredible, hardcore experiences of my running life has come to an end.
Tam pops her head round the door. 'You ok?' she asks.
'You want anything?' she goes on.
I shake my head.
But as she closes the door and starts down the stairs, I realise that such a memorable day deserves celebration.
'Tam!' I call out, and I hear her footsteps coming back to the bathroom.
She comes in and looks at me, eyebrows raised.
'Any chance of another cup of tea?'