'I found I was standing before acres of ploughed earth. There was a fence keeping me from stepping into the field, with two lines of barbed wire, and I could see how this fence and the cluster of three or four trees above me were the only things breaking the wind for miles. All along the fence, especially along the lower line of wire, all sorts of rubbish had caught and tangled. It was like the debris you get on a sea-shore: the wind must have carried some of it for miles before finally coming up against these trees and these two lines of wire. Up in the branches of the trees, too, I could see, flapping about, torn plastic sheeting and bits of old carrier bags. That was the only time, as I stood there, looking at that strange rubbish, feeling the wind coming across those empty fields, that I started to imagine a little fantasy...I was thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half-closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I'd ever lost since my childhood had washed up, and now I was standing here in front of it...'
Kazuo Ishiguro, 'Never Let Me Go'
* * * * *
There's times when I stand quite still, and remember.
Times when I think of everything I once had. Mountain paths, country trails. Windswept summits. The sun setting over the sea on an evening run across the wet sand.
Before The Church.
There's times when I try to recapture the feeling that running gave me. The glorious sense of freedom. That deep pillow of pure joy.
But it's gone now.
And this is the way it is. The best way. The only way. I know that. My race results show it.
So, after standing at the window, looking out towards the hills of The Wolds, eventually I turn my back and focus on the sheet of instructions I clutch in my hand. This is what's important now, and I accept it.
It's two years since I joined The Church. Before that, I was lost. Directionless. The Elders told me that. Too many empty miles. Hours of junk.
My life is better now. I'm a true disciple. A proper athlete. I no longer run for fun.
The Church comes together every four years. From all corners of the world, they gather, celebrate, compete. Mass euphoria. Religious ecstacy.
It was during The London Gathering that I became part of the coming together. Swept away.
I had no second thoughts. Cleansed and inspired, within weeks I had joined The Church.
I'm climbing Fairfield. The steep path is loose and scratty. The clag's been low all morning, ever since I started the jog up the Newsham House road. Running through clouds. Relying on the compass for summit cairns. Missing, and then chancing upon the broad gravel tracks more by luck than by skillful navigation.
Finding the summit shelter, I huddle into it's walls and dig out a drink and a couple of squares of chocolate. And then I'm ready for the return journey to Threlkeld.
Just minutes later, I'm concentrating hard on the rough terrain at the start of the descent. I'm so wrapped up in the moment that I almost miss the magic.
To my right, the dense mist thins. In a moment, a sweep of blue sky appears. Then the summit of Helvellyn and the zig-zags to Dollywaggon. I stand, transfixed, watching one of Nature's finest movies. Blown by a moderate breeze, curtains of cloud are drawn back to reveal magnificence. In just a few minutes, the whiteness that has obscured and shortened the Lake District peaks has vanished. It's a gorgeous day. I look over to the Eastern fells, down to the shimmer of Grisedale Tarn and over to Steel Fell and the Central fells beyond. It's all here.
But it's gone now.
The Church has ministries in most towns and cities. I was welcomed with open arms.
From then on, the question, 'What do I want from my running?' became obsolete. Of course, the only possible answer was, 'I want to run faster.'
These, my friends, are the way of The Church.
The Elders bestowed unto me a watch and a Garmin. 'These are the tools of The Church,' they said.
It took a little longer, however, to be introduced to The Church's most sacred document. But I showed willing. I persevered. I showed an acceptance to hand my life over to a sheet of A4 paper. And, soon, the time came. I bowed down to The Schedule.
As I cross the fields behind Partney Primary School, my head-torch beam picks out the faint trod towards the hedgerow by the stream. It's dark. It's raining. It's November. It's beautiful.
My pace is slow, mud clinging in huge clumps to the bottom of my studded shoes.
Through the gap in the hedge, through the field with the long grass that pulls at your stride and reduces you to little more than a stumble. Across the plough and onto the footbridge to the rising path behind Skendleby church.
Alone on a dire night like this, my mind racing with thoughts, dreams, memories, adventure.
It's not until I leave the short road section, away from the village-centre street lamps, that I realise my head-torch has died.
I stand at the three-way fork for a moment or two. Each road will provide me with a safe, but uninspiring, tarmac route to Saleby. I weigh up the options, looking for the lesser of available evils. Then I notice the finger post, partly hidden by the branches of a road-side tree. The moonlight illuminates two words I'm addicted to - PUBLIC FOOTPATH - white letters, green background. I look up at the sky. There's a big moon, and the rain's stopped. I'm in no hurry to get home. It doesn't take a second for a decision to be made.
As I run by moonlight, I relish the uncertainty that Empty Miling is made of. The times I've passed an unfamiliar footpath sign and just headed that way for the fun of it, simply because I've never been along the path and have little idea where it leads. Sometimes, I'm disappointed. Sometimes, I'm astounded.
After a country mile, I spill out onto the Bluestone Heath road. I jog down into Claxby Psalter and up the grassy bank in the direction of Well Woods. This is always my favourite part of the run home - a slightly downhill section, tunnelled by overhead foliage - a track made for running quickly, skipping over tree roots and hurdling over fallen branches. In the absence of artificial light, tonight brings the promise of exhillaration. I run headlong into the darkness. Faster. Faster still. Smiling crazily, I'm blissfully unaware of unseen obstacles. Sprinting into the night. Revelling in the gloriousness of play, of wild abandon. Until the inevitable happens. My left foot plunges into a shallow hole and it's enough to send me freefalling. I land in a heap in the scrub beside the track. Temporarily winded, I eventually roll over onto my back and rub my hands over the new hole in the knee of my favourite tracksters. Feeling ridiculous, I lay there for a while. Covered in mud, lying amongst rotting leaves in the middle of a wood in the dark, I can't help but start laughing. 'This is running,' I think, 'I'm alive!'
But it's gone now.
I study the piece of paper I hold in my hand. The name of each day is printed in bold type, upper case, Monday through Sunday. Beside each day, my task is outlined in deceptively simple words or phrases. Intervals, fartlek, threshold run, tempo run. Easy run, recovery run, A race, B race, target race, rest day. Planned to sterile perfection. Each task is followed by a precise measurement of distance, miles or metres, and a precise measurement of time and speed. All junk has been stripped. What remains is perfect, soul-less, efficient - a fail-safe blue-print for performance enhancement. The Schedule.
At those times by the window, I stand quite still. I remind myself that I entered The Church of my own free will. I think of what I have now - PB's in 10k, 10 miles and the Half - and I remember the things I've lost, blown like plastic bags against that desolate fence on the last page of a book I love; uncertainty, spontaneity, recklessness, enjoyment, individuality, plain old fun.
The things I surrendered to The Schedule