Sunday, 26 August 2012

I Like Question Marks

Answers come to you at the strangest of times. I'd been trying to find this one for the best part of the summer. I'd almost given up - but, now, here it is. Dead simple. It's all I need to say. 'I like question marks.'

I'm sat on the lower slopes of Scafell, just below the scree chute, just above the wall. It's early evening. A warm day has given way to a short symphony of thunderstorms, and now we're left with a tranquillity charged with negative ions. The magnificent horseshoe of the Western Fells - Yewbarrow, Red Pike, Pillar, Kirk Fell, Great Gable - lies in front of us, intimidating, beckoning. Over to the left, the sun paints pictures on the Irish Sea. Already I know this is one of those snapshot memories I'll never forget.

I look left and then right to my two friends sat either side - fellow foot-travellers - and once again to the mountains in front.

'I like question marks,' I think, smiling inside. 'That's it.'

We'd been at at BBQ weeks ago - a family get-together, an ace night out - when Our Kid had got on his soapbox. With the London Olympics on the horizon, he'd started on one of his favourite subjects - the tyranny of competition. I'd heard it all before, and agreed with some of what he had to say. 'Co-operation is what we need, not competition,' was the gist of his argument. Whilst I nodded my head in agreement now and again, it was once he got onto the subject of running that the conversation became livelier.

Now, I'm no race monster. I usually race just a handful of times a year - mainly cross-country or low-key local events. Mass participation extravagances leave me cold. Performance in a race situation has ceased to be a motivation for my running, and whilst I don't mind the occasional voyage into quicker miling, I'd rather do my own thing.

Our Kid knows this, and he also knows how to wind me up. After declaring that he was never going to participate in competitive running again, his attention turned my way.

'Den,' I 'd told him, 'Running isn't all about competition. You know that. If you don't want to race, that's great. Take it or leave it.'

'Yeah,' he'd retorted, 'You don't race a lot, but you do compete. You're always doing it. You set yourself these mad challenges - 'I want to run all the bloody footpaths in Lincolnshire' - 'I fancy kayaking all the navigable waterways in the county.' You do it all the time. It just takes over. Why don't you just do the odd bit here and there? Take it easy? Enjoy it? Why does everything have to be 'a challenge'? The BG, the Paddy Buckley - bloody hell - you're worse than anyone!'

As I sat and listened, I knew he was right. I set myself these pointless challenges. I do it all the time. It's Keep On Burning. It's a part of me. But why do I do it? Why?

I leant back in the deckchair, took a swig of beer, and couldn't think of a good answer.

I'd met Dave mid-morning at Dunmail and we'd waited for Leon to come in off Leg 2. I'd spent so many enjoyable hours with Leon over the past year, both in the Lakes and on the Lincolnshire paths, that I desperately wanted his Bob Graham attempt to be successful. The report from the change-over at Threlkeld had been good - right on time for Leg 1 and moving well - and even though the schedule had slipped by a few minutes by the time he'd got off Seat Sandal, Dave and myself were both confident enough in our abilities to navigate and talk bullshit over long periods in order to coax Leon into Wasdale on time.

For whatever reasons, however, it wasn't to be. By the time we'd reached Scafell Pike, Leon had stopped chatting and asked for his waterproof coat, mentioning how cold he was, despite the obvious heat of the afternoon. Not a good sign.

At Mickledore, Dave had suggested a gel. Leon had tried, and failed, to get it down, and sat for a couple of minutes on a large boulder with his head in his hands. As I'd looked at him, I'd imagined myself in the same place. 'Guys- I'm sorry. I'm done. It's not my day,' I would have said. I'd have politely declined any suggestions to finish the leg, and have welcomed the chance to retreat to Wasdale by the tourist path from the Pike. Not Leon. After a few moments of silence, he'd stood up, nodded towards Scafell, now being swallowed by heavy weather, and said, 'Right. Let's go.'

And we did.

(photo by Dave Swift)

Coming off the top of Leg 3's last summit, the Wasdale valley revealed itself as the weather moved on. Joined by an invisible rope, three souls on the same journey had descended wearily, lost in the thoughts that only a long day in the mountains can provide. Eventually Leon had broken the silence. An outstanding adventure would end at Brackenclose. A full curcuit of the Bob Graham Round could wait for another day.

A few minutes later, we're sat on the lower slopes of Scafell, side by side. There's no rush anymore.

It's been a great day, even though the result was far from what each of us wanted. Leon's ok. He's comfortable with his decision, and he'll be back for another go next year.

I share a few words with Dave. He's been flying this year and recent months have been full of long days and strong running. He's fitter than I've ever seen him. And yet, despite all this, his big challenge for the year - the Paddy Buckley Round - came to a halt after eleven hours. I know how deep his disappointment was.

I think of my own challenge - to run all the Lincolnshire footpaths within a calendar year. My schedule had been slipping for weeks, and the recent news of an impending heart operation had finally put paid to any slight chance of success.

We sit there for a while. Three failures in a row.

And yet we talk and laugh. Is this what failure should feel like? When you live your life in the shadow of The Question Mark, I guess so.

There was a time, long ago, when my life was dominated by the fear of failure. Nowadays my only fear is never daring to fail.

I cast my mind back to my previous Bob Graham support. Martyn had also failed on his first attempt. In a couple of weeks, he'll go again, and this time I'm sure the result will be different. I'm sure as well- absolutely positive - that Leon and Dave will succeed too. Because that's the sort of people they are. That's the sort of people we are.

Dare to ask questions of yourself and sometimes you'll fall short. It's inevitable. And with all these crazy challenges, that's what we do - ask questions. It's nothing to be ashamed of. It's real living.

Ask questions of yourself and the future will be full of soaring highs and depressing lows, but in the midst of those mountains and valleys, that's where you'll find out who you truely are. That's the way it is - we wouldn't have it any other way.

As we stand and jog in the direction of the Brackenclose car park, I understand that we'll leave this world with nothing left. Every drop of life energy would have been given to the people we love and the things we love doing. When we finally close our eyes, we'll be worn-out, weather-beaten and haggard - our minds bright with memories, but our bodies all but wrecked.

We'll have given everything we have to give.

Surely that's the way to live a life?

                    *                    *                    *                    *                    *                    *

Two weeks later, I'm stood by the gate on the Brackenclose road, straining my eyes to make out movement on the lower slopes of Scafell.

(photo by Carol Morgan)

It's not long before Martyn arrives, accompanied by his supporters. He's a few minutes off schedule, but looking relaxed and strong. After a brief sit down, a change of socks and a cup of tea, he's up, heading for Yewbarrow with a new group of BG buddies.

Tam's arrived to meet Lightning and myself after our night's wild camping by Sprinkling Tarn. It doesn't take much convincing for her to let me join Dave and Phil for a leisurely trip over to Honister. We climb the side of Kirk Fell and run the rest of Leg 4 at a relaxed pace, waiting until we can see Martyn and his gang in the distance, before jogging on. We're at the slate mine before them, and we let the crew know that everything looks spot on.

Ten minutes later, Martyn arrives. With 3 1/2 hours remaining, we all know that, barring disaster, he'll soon be joining The Club. After refuelling, the gang start the slog up Dale Head. Green doors are beckoning.

I say my goodbyes - we need to be off and will miss Martyn finish, but I remind Debbie - Dave's partner - to text us as soon as he gets to the Moot Hall.

Three hours on, we're passing Wetherby on the A1. It's pissing down. I keep looking at the wagon's clock. Can't be long now.

Eventually, Tam's mobile bleeps. Text message recieved. I grab the phone and read the few words:
'Just arrived. 23.30. xx'

I read it out to Tam and the superheroes, and they give a massive cheer. I just sit there, grinning.

                                                   (photo by David Harrison)

Living life under The Question Mark isn't always easy. I remember Martyn's disappointment on his previous attempt. I think of Leon, Dave and myself on the lower slopes of Scafell a couple of weeks ago. I look ahead to the challenges the future holds, with results both good and bad. And then I bask in the feeling that Martyn's success has given me.

This is why we do what we do.

I like question marks.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

The Sound Of Fire (Part Two): The Rainbow


It's weeks since the fire burnt itself out. Weeks of looking. Weeks of hearing that small voice, so clearly for the first time.

'Why can't anyone see me?'

Then, out of nowhere, I know where to go.


I'm on The Loop - the footpath that's closest to my heart.

It's late in the day. There's a stillness that's calming. The sun hangs low, obscured by the occasional cloud.

I cross the road at Little Cawthorpe and head for the waymarker that points out the route towards the woods on the hillside. I run easily. My shadow follows me.

It won't be long before I'm there.


The things that happened that summer changed me. Took the smiles from me. Made me dirty.

But, as I stood before the fire, I finally realised. It's taken nearly forty years. The things that happened that summer were not my fault.

I don't need to feel ashamed any more.


The path crosses a large field, goes over a wooden footbridge and climbs towards the trees. There's a grace in my stride that I've missed in recent months.

The knot in my stomach tightens. This is a meeting I've put off for a lifetime. Someone I've ignored, pushed into a corner of my mind. Done my utmost to forget.

I realise now how scared and lonely he must have been. His pleas, always hidden behind the sound of fire.

'Why can't anyone see me?'

Even I had turned my back.


The past makes the present. What happened then shaped the rest of my life. Started the spiral. The beginning. The end.

You can cover your shyness with alcohol. You can hide your scars with Japanese tattoos. You can joke about the break-up of past relationships. You can dismiss your inability to share your deepest feelings as 'that's just me.'

And I have. But now I'm strong. I can look at what happened and take no blame.

Seven years old.

The sound of fire has gone. Now I'll do what I need to do.

And then things will change? Will I see the good in people? The best possible outcome rather than the worst-case scenario? Will the words 'I love you' become easier to say? Because I feel it. I feel it.

I hope so.


I run beside the wood and down the slope to the stile. Over the fence, the field rises sharply to another wooden fence. My favourite place. I'll always sit for a moment on the top stile, savour the silence, absorb the beauty of being alone in a special place.

As I climb the bottom stile, my shadow slips away.

It's almost time.

I close my eyes for a moment, feel the evening sun on my face.

I open them when I hear his voice. A small voice. Little blond boy. Seven years old.

'Why can't anyone see me?'

On the top stile, I see him. He's sitting, swinging his legs nervously against the fence. Brown and white jumper, dirty blue shorts and black plimsols. I remember Mum buying them for me.

His eyes are so sad.

'Why can't anyone see me?'

'I can see you,' I say softly, 'I can see you.'

As I run up the hill, I'm crying. Years of tears. I'm sorry. So sorry. It wasn't your fault. It was him. We both know it.

That summer was when I left you.

I can see you. I can see you.

The summer that's clouded the rest of my life.

I lift the little blond boy off the fence and I hold him so tight.

'I'll never let you go,' I whisper.

I can feel his little body shaking. His uncontrollable sobs. He holds me so tight.

'I can see you. I can see you. I'll never let you go.'


We walk, hand in hand, across the plough to the faraway farm buildings. We walk slowly. We have a lot to talk about.

Raindrops are falling. Summer rain, illuminated by the evening sun. Tiny spheres of fireworks.

I glance back.

Over the stile, there's a rainbow.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Giving It All Away

It's strange how you fall into things. Patterns of behaviour. Habits. Routines.

How you convince yourself that certain possessions are important. A house. A car. A pair of trail shoes. A ball of string.

It just happens. Life goes on, shaking along in the groove you've created for it, laden down with the baggage that might make things more comfortable, but, ultimately, in the long run, can only slow you down.

Then something happens that makes you stand back, reassess, contemplate a different path. What if I make a small pile of the things that are important - just a handful of people, places and possessions? What if I scoop everything else up into a huge stack - stuff that has become part of the way I live my life but aren't necessary and generally give me more hassle than enjoyment? And what if I take all of this and just give it all away?

Doctor W. calls me from the doorway of his office. I shut the book I'm reading, grab my sack and hop out of the chair. He gives me a warm handshake. I like Doctor W.

He goes behind his desk and I sit in the chair on the other side. He flicks through my notes and asks the questions he always asks.

'How are you?'
'Have you had any episodes of light-headedness, dizziness, blackouts, chest pain or breathlessness since I last saw you?'

I give the same replies I always give.

'Good, thanks!'
'No, none of them.'

He shows me the printouts from my most recent ECG and Holter monitor data. Points out the abnormalities. The missed beats. The slow pace.

I've seen it all before.

Then he takes off his glasses. Puts them on top of the pile of notes and looks at me.

'Chris,' he says, 'You really are an enigma.'

I laugh, uneasy.

'The last monitor shows a number of things,' he continues. 'Your heart rate is very slow. There's times during the night when it is consistently lower than 30 beats a minute. There's also times during the day when it stays at lower than 40 beats a minute for long periods. There's times throughout the day when the space between beats can be over 3 1/2 seconds. Your heart stops, then it picks up again.'

I nod, taking it all in.

'The various scans you've had show no evidence of structural damage to the heart. There's no hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, although your heart, particularly the left ventricle, is definitely enlarged. That, however, is to be expected in an endurance athlete.'

He's told me all this before. I wonder where he's going.

'If you were experiencing blackouts or dizziness, there would be no doubt about my course of action. But you're not. However, looking at your charts, it certainly appears that the electrical system in your heart is weary. I think it would benefit from some help.'

Right. I know what's coming next. Had expected it to happen sometime in the future, but not just yet. I'm only 45.

Doctor W. picks up his glasses and fiddles with them. 'The question,' he sighs, 'is what to do with you? What would be best for you?'

Ok, I think. Just tell me.

'I'm going to suggest that you be fitted with an artificial pacing device. It's not a major operation. I'll make an incision under your collar bone. I'll feed 2 wires, one to either side of your heart and connect it to the device, which is about as big as a 50p piece. It'll be done under local anaesthetic, and you'll be required to stay in hospital overnight. What do you think?'

A pace-maker at 45. Fuck me! Throw me in the knacker's yard! That's what I think.

We talk for a good while about the suggestion he's made, any possible alternatives, the potential risk of collapse (and death - that's what he means but doesn't say it.) We chat about the Fabrice Muamba incident, although he reassures me that the circumstances were somewhat different to mine. I tell him about the death of Micah True, the legendary White Horse, who's death was attributed to abnormalities of the heart which could have been caused by ultra-distance running. I ask him about the slew of articles that appeared in the weeks after Micah's death which proclaimed extreme endurance activities as positively harmful to your heart. He answers all my questions, calms all my concerns. I agree that a pace-maker seems the best way to go.

He says, 'Without a pacing device, you may never have any episodes of collapse. But I can't rule it out. If I didn't fit one and then something happened, I'd kick myself.

I'd kick myself. It seems an odd phrase to use in such circumstances, but I get his gist. I'd kick myself. A scenario runs through my head:

Nurse: 'Doctor W. It appears one of your patients, a Mr. Christopher Rainbow, suffered a cardiac incident last night and collapsed suddenly. His wife called the ambulance, but, I'm afraid, there was nothing they could do.'

Doctor W.: 'Oh, thankyou for letting me know Nurse. I'd thought of fitting a pacing device to Mr. Rainbow's heart, but eventually decided against it. I rather wish that I had now. Excuse me while I kick myself.'

Doctor W.'s voice brings me out of my daydream. 'Have you any other questions, Chris?' he asks.

Just a couple of important ones.

'I will be able to run afterwards, won't I?'

'Of course,' he replies. 'After a while, you'll almost forget it's there.'

That's a relief. Just checking.

'And, after the operation - how long will it be before I can go for a run?'

Doctor W. smirks. 'Give it a couple of weeks. You'll know if there's any discomfort. But just take it easy for a bit.'

Not so bad then.

'I have one piece of bad news, I'm afraid,' he says then.

'Oh right.'

'I have to tell you that the device I'll be fitting won't have any performance-enhancing effects.'

'Ha!' He's a card that Doctor W. It's one of the reasons I like him.

Five minutes later, I'm leaving the hospital. The waiting list is about 4 weeks. I'd asked him to try and leave it till after the Bank Holiday weekend - 'It's a busy time at work, and I've got a long run planned.' He'd pencilled me in for the last week of August or the first of September and told me he'd see me soon.

I'm not feeling sorry for myself. It's no big deal, there's little risk and I'm relieved in a lot of ways that I'm going to have a back-up to keep my ticker ticking.

But something is nagging at me. Reminding me of the disconnect between my mind and body. In my head, I'm hard, unstoppable. But yet physically I'm done for. My heart - the engine of my body, the organ that provides my life-force - will no longer work alone. I need the help of a small battery, a nifty device and 2 wires to keep me alive. It's humbling, and a little scary.

It's been a personal theme of this year to get the balance right. The Ball of String. And now there's a more pressing reminder to sort things out. When you really grasp that each of us only has a finite amount of time, that time suddenly becomes much more valuable.

I don't need a lot to be happy, fulfilled and satisfied. But I want to fill every day with those very things. Everything else I can give away.

Time is precious. I've a lot to do.

Best start now.