Can't remember the name of this dump, but I know we're in Loughborough and I'm sure it's Student Night. It has to be - everyone's younger than me, the drinks are cheap and the DJ's playing Gene's 'Haunted By You'. Our Kid's somewhere. Krazy K and Big Phil too. It's nearing that moment. I can feel it. The point of no return.
I'd arrived at Loughborough late the night before, direct from the NEC. Prince's 'Gold Experience' tour. I'd bought two tickets months ago for myself and my narcoleptic girlfriend - around the time when we still liked each other. By the time the show had come around, the character flaws we'd both found charming in the early days had become irritating. The cheap talk had dried up, as had any passion. The batteries had run out.
I'd taken a train to Stoke-on-Trent to pick her up and we'd gone on to Birmingham International, travelling in an uneasy silence, both aware that the dance was soon to end and that we were finally onto The Last Waltz.
As Prince rattled through the mediocre new material and the monumental back catalogue, I'd looked at the sleeping figure beside me, tried to wake her a couple of times, but eventually given up. Resisting the temptation just to get off, leave her there, I'd made a weary attempt to try and enjoy myself. I'd failed miserably, and listening to the taxi driver analysing Aston Villa's season on the way back to Our Alli's had just about done me in. Early the next morning, I'd put Natalie on a train to Stoke, well aware that we'd never see or hear from each other again. A peck on the cheek and a half-hearted wave later, I'd watched the engine pull out of the station, breathed a sigh of relief and traipsed back through town, wondering just where and when this downwards spiral had started.
Up the hill. Past the chip shop.
Was it that moment when the radio news broadcast Leaf Phoenix's frantic 911 call as he watched his brother die outside The Viper Room? Was it that last kiss before my Dad died? The Australian Girl telling me, without emotion, that she no longer loved me? Was it that lunch-time when I looked around the primary school staffroom and realised I'd stumbled into a career I'd always regarded as a second-best choice? What about the day that Richey Edwards collected his passport from his Cardiff flat, drove his silver car to the Aust services and disappeared towards the Severn Bridge?
This downwards spiral.
Round the corner. In front of the Ferrari garage.
Playing Thieves' 'Unworthy' on constant repeat in the cold, dark front room of the flat above the caff. Two bottles of wine before each night on the tiles. Kicking concrete bins, smashing my hand through windows. Broken bones. Expensive shirts with blood-stains. Getting lairy at end-of-term dos. Staring at the ceiling. Sleeping by the front room window, phone by the pillow, hoping someone would call. Building a good reputation, falling apart. And the sadness. The sadness. The sadness.
Does the spiral stop? Where does it end? Just like falling from a roof, will I feel the freedom of flight, passing out before I hit the pavement? Or will I have to experience the pain of impact, lying there, contorted, crumpled, Bowie on the cover of 'Lodger'? Split into pieces, spitting teeth, snot and blood, drowning in a pool of my own piss?
A night out won't be the remedy. It'll only speed the descent. But, for a while, there'll be the anticipation of finding something. A glimpse of sunshine through the clag, a reason to believe in myself or anything at all, a girl who might, in time, say 'I love you' and mean it.
And that's the way the night started. But that's gone now. All gone. Nothing left. The point of no return.
'Fuck it!' I shout to anyone who'll listen and the rest who won't. 'Fuck it!'
Walk to the bar. Find Our Kid. Double rum and coke. We're spiralling.
In the time it takes to tip the glass, I feel the ecstacy of freefall. Who know's where the end is? A stranger's bathroom? A dirty bed? A motorway bridge? A lonely beach? And who cares, I think - air rushing past me, the taste of saltwater in my mouth - who cares?
* * *
It's well past midnight on a warm night in late June. I'm walking across the main car park in Keswick, Tammy at my side. A car door opens and a stranger asks, 'Are you Chris Rainbow?'
'Ey-up,' I reply. 'You must be Dave.'
He gets out the car and introduces me to his partner, Debbie. We exchange greetings and stroll up one of the ginnels to the town centre.
On the bench outside the Moot Hall, a couple of strangers are sitting with an apprehensive air about them. As I get closer, one of them asks, 'Are you Chris Rainbow?'
'Hi,' I reply. 'You must be Mark. Or is it Paul?'
We exchange greetings and wait to be joined by another two runners - Paul and Nick. They're not strangers. I've met them once before.
As the Moot Hall clock ticks onwards towards one o'clock, we all set off at an amble, out of town, through the park. A group of strangers. Six runners heading for Skiddaw. Six people from all corners of the UK, joined by an unbreakable bond, linked by a shared dream. Another six members of Bob Graham's circle of friends.
I look back on that night and the day that followed with a fondness that, even two years later, is staggering. After my wedding day and the birth of the superheroes, it probably ranks as my fourth best day ever.
It remains so special for so many reasons. It was the day that reaffirmed my self-belief. After many years of falling slowly and several months of hurtling in free-fall, I'd found myself on a beach one morning. The old man's words stopped the spiral. Keep it up son, he'd said. Keep it up. I'd promised myself to do my best, and I had. I'd built a new life, become part of a new family, found a happiness that I'd only chanced upon briefly in the days long gone. I was becoming whole. The Bob Graham Round completed that circle.
In the space of six months, a long-held but latent wish had cemented itself as an immediate goal. As I made my first visits to the Lake District for years, it soon became an all-encompassing obsession. I remember looking back on those months before the day of my attempt and feeling like I'd arrived in the place I always knew was waiting but had never been able to find. The endless days in the mountains, trails and tribulations, a series of minor failures and achievements, necessary lessons learnt. This was what the Bob Graham was all about, I'd thought. The actual attempt might succeed, it might fail, but I'd already filled a mental book with unforgettable memories. In some small way, I'd become different.
It was surprising, therefore, when during the course of that day and the years that followed, I found out I'd been quite wrong in my assumption. Whilst the Bob Graham Round was an epic physical challenge, the defining essence of the whole experience was something quite different. It was about friendship.
I'd posted a plea on the FRA forum appealing for help with my day. In no time at all, a team of supporters had been put together. These - in the main- were total strangers. Total strangers who drove hundreds of miles to carry my gear, help me navigate and share my company through 70 miles of Lakeland's finest fells. Total strangers who asked for nothing and gave everything. Total strangers who, in the course of that one day, became friends for life.
* * *
I'm sat in the fell-wagon in the Threlkeld Cricket Club car park. It's 9.30 on a Friday evening in June. The tops are obscured by dense cloud. The heavy rain is unremitting in its ferocity. It's not a great night for a BG attempt, but it's unpredictable variables like the weather that go towards making a successful Bob Graham Round the holy grail of fell-running challenges. It isn't meant to be easy.
I'm reminded of a quotation I came across from a friend recently:
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, knows if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."
On nights like this, the runners out on the high fells have a bravery that the ordinary man will seldom comprehend. Succeed or fail - both outcomes are equally possible. Success today will be the culmination of months of obsession, just as it was for me. Failure will merely be a step along the path to later success.
The weather worsens as I sit in the car. The Contender should be down in a few minutes from Leg 1. I check my gear, get out and chat to the assembled team, drink the obligatory mug of hot tea and wait for him to arrive. I've met Martyn twice, but such is the nature of the Bob Graham that I already feel I've known him for years. A friend I've made on the hill- another member of Bob Graham's circle.
Martyn arrives up on schedule, looking good. Whilst he's fussed over in the back of his van, I jog back over to the fell-wagon to say my goodbyes. After I've received a magic kiss from Whirlwind, Tam says, 'I can't believe you're going out in this!' I look towards the summit of Clough Head, buried in cloud, soon to be covered by darkness. I hold my face to the sky, feel the raindrops bounce against my skin. I look over to the Leg 2 support crew - total strangers, joined by an unbreakable bond, linked by a shared dream - good friends I'm soon to make. And I can't help thinking There's nowhere else I'd rather be.
On Sunday afternoon, we leave Debbie, Dave and Ronnie at the car park by Coniston Water and I collapse into the wagon in that state of pleasant euphoria brought about by a long day in the hills. The run over from Ambleside had stuck to good trails rather than the fell-tops, but the brilliant weather and good company had made it a most pleasurable day.
We're heading out of the village when one of the superheroes spots a large bird of prey. I'm useless with birds - couldn't tell you what it was - but, suffice to say, it was large and magnificent. As Tam continues driving, the rest of us crane our necks and watch it as it spirals upwards with grace, beauty, impossible freedom. Where will that spiral end? I wonder.
We live our lives in spirals. On the drive home, I think about the downward spiral that led to the beach. Who knows where it started? Some insignificant event, most probably, that disrupted the inertia of my former life and pushed me, almost imperceptibly, in the wrong direction. But such is the nature of spirals. Once the momentum starts, it's impossible to control. Everything gets sucked into the vortex, the spiral widens and then the end is inevitable. Bowie on the cover of 'Lodger'. That's how I envisaged it. The reality was different. If I close my eyes, I can feel the tears on my cheeks, the damp sand through my fingers, the sound of waves on against the shore. An old man's voice whispering, 'Keep it up son.' The moment I left the bottom and resolved to take flight.
To say that the Bob Graham Round was central to this flight is, perhaps, a lie. I'd put that down to meeting Tammy, starting a family, loving and feeling loved. But, somehow, this crazy, obscure fell-running challenge got caught up in the upward spiral.
I think back over the weekend. Martyn's heroic attempt finished on Pillar. Understandedly disappointed, I couldn't help but well up when he apologised to his supporters at Honister. To all his friends gathered at that grim, grey slate mine, apologies weren't needed. We'd assembled together to help a mate achieve a dream, and we'd done that, not out of obligation, but because we genuinely wanted to. It won't be long before Martyn's back, and that first sip of champagne outside the green doors will taste all the more sweet for this weekend's endeavours.
I think of Dave A. and Alix, who met on his Bob Graham Round last year and are now engaged to be married. Of Mark's proposal to Lindsay last weekend on the top of his favourite mountain, Great Gable - the summit on which he finally realised his Bob Graham Round was in the bag. I think of Ronnie, busily planning a Ramsey Round in his own quiet way, in an attempt to join an elite handful who have completed the three major rounds in the space of one calendar year. And I think of Dave and Debbie - honest and genuine friends - people who we see only occasionally but are always there. I've a feeling Dave has something up his sleeve for the summer. I can't wait for the phone call.
Then I think of all the new friends I've met over the weekend. These people who I'll bump into whilst recceing in the hills, on windswept camp sites or in remote car parks, waiting for a contender to arrive. The people I'll share my own Bob Graham memories with, talk about the best line off Calva or the trods round the Robinson rock steps. The people who'll understand what I'm about because they're the same.
And the realisation hits me that this isn't just a circle of friends - it's a spiral. A glorious, life-affirming spiral that will only ever grow.