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.


  1. Chris, this is the possibly the best, most human blog I have ever read. Quite apart from the fact that I figure prominently, it's reduced me to tears. Thank you for recording that, I wish I could observe and write like you.

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  3. Thanks Martyn. Words come easily when witnessing something so inspiring. Recover well, and look forward to seeing you soon (Langdale? I've a ghost to lay to rest!)

  4. what a fab blog :-) you write so well Chris :-) alix.

  5. Chris, that is just brilliant :-) Dave H