Sunday, 15 December 2013

Ultra-Modern Nursery Rhymes No.3: A Star For You This Christmas

It was the week before Christmas in a town much the same as yours, in a land beyond faraway.

The Richest Man In Town was sitting behind his desk, thinking. He was thinking of what present he would buy his wife for Christmas. You may think that such a decision was not hard, but you'd be wrong. All the gold in the world had been used up in making wedding rings and lucky charms, so this present had to be different. And it had to be the best present in the world for, after all, he was The Richest Man In Town.

He sat behind his desk all day. But then he had an idea - an idea so great, so special, that it made him laugh!

That night, while the world was sleeping, The Richest Man In Town crept out of his house and into his garden. From the shed by the back fence, he took out the tallest step-ladder you have ever seen. He set it up carefully on the damp grass and began to climb into the sky.

The Richest Man In Town climbed quickly and very soon he reached the prettiest star in the sky. He dug into his pocket and pulled out a length of silver wrapping paper. With lots of care, he began to wrap the star up.

The moon saw what he was doing. "Don't do that," she whispered, "Please don't take my friends away."

The Richest Man In Town became angry. "I'm the richest man in town!" he shouted, "I shall do as I please. I decided to get my wife the best present in the world, and get it I shall! When the rest of the town hear of my gift, they'll know how rich and clever I really am!"

The moon smiled sadly. "The best presents in the world are kisses, flowers and love as bright as sunshine," she whispered.

But The Richest Man In Town only laughed. "Any old fool can give gifts like those. But only my wife will receive a star as a present this Christmas."

With these words, and without further ado, he finished wrapping the star and hurried quickly down the ladder.

In a house on a hill, The Next Richest Man In Town was staring through the kitchen window onto the houses below. He'd been awake all night, unable to sleep for thinking. He wanted to buy his wife the best present in the world for Christmas, but simply couldn't decide what. As he stared out of the window, he saw The Richest Man In Town set up the tallest step-ladder he'd ever seen and climb into the sky. And then he had an idea - an idea so great, so special, that it made him laugh!

The following night, while the world was sleeping, The Next Richest Man In Town crept out of his house and into his garden. From the shed by the greenhouse, he took out the longest rope you have ever seen. He threw it so hard that it snagged itself around a comet that has stopped for a rest. Then he pulled the rope tight and started to climb into the sky.

The Next Richest Man In Town climbed quickly and very soon he reached the brightest star in the sky. He dug into his pocket and pulled out a length of silver wrapping paper. With lots of care, he began to wrap the star up.

The moon saw what he was doing. "Don't do that," she whispered, "Please don't take my friends away."

The Next Richest Man In Town just stuck his nose in the air. "I may not be the richest man in town," he shouted, "But I shall make sure my wife gets just a good a present as his. If his wife receives a star as a present this Christmas, then so shall mine!"

The moon smiled sadly. "The best presents in the world are kisses, flowers and love as bright as sunshine," she whispered.

But The Next Richest Man In Town only laughed, and, without further ado, he finished wrapping the star and slid quickly down the rope.

Now The Next Richest Man In Town was very good at making money, but he was terrible at keeping secrets. The day after, he couldn't help but tell his friends just what he'd done. His friends told their friends who told their friends until, very soon, every man in town knew what had happened. "If the wives of the richest men in town are to receive a star as a present this Christmas, then so shall mine!" they said to themselves.

Christmas Eve came along and darkness fell upon our town. As the church clock struck midnight, the same thing was happening in every house.

In The Richest Man In Town's house, his wife was opening her presents from under the tree. As she took out a gift from the last package with smiling eyes, The Richest Man In Town pulled out a large silver parcel from its hiding place and handed it to her. "For you," he said, "The best present in the world!" The face of his wife lit up with joy, but as she removed the wrapping paper, the joy disappeared.

"What's the matter?" he said angrily. "I've given you a star as a present this Christmas. Isn't that the best present in the world?"

His wife handed him the parcel. Inside lay a piece of rock as dull and black as coal, for, like fish can't survive without water, stars cannot shine without the sky. She smiled sadly. "The best presents in the world are kisses, flowers and love as bright as sunshine," she whispered.

At once, The Richest Man In Town realised how foolish he'd been. He took his wife's hand and led her into the garden. Together they stood and looked into the sky.

But something terrible had happened.

There were no stars left.

The Richest Man In Town couldn't be sure, but he thought he heard a faint sob and a gentle voice whispering, "You took all my friends away." As he stood with his wife in the garden, the moon fell apart like a broken heart and the night was black.

"Don't be afraid," he told his wife, "I love you. And soon the sun shall rise on a new day."

As the sun woke up on Christmas morning, he was looking forward to seeing the moon. For millions of years, he had loved the moon but told no-one. And each day, he had given her love as bright as sunshine, for that was all he had to give.

But, as he peered over the horizon, he saw that the moon had died. He looked at the broken pieces for many moments, and then a tear fell from his eyes.

Below, The Richest Man In Town stood in the garden and looked at the sky. As the rain fell and the morning grew darker , he began to understand the terrible mistake he'd made. He let go of his dear wife's hand and wiped the rain from his face.

The sun had never cried before. And as he cried, his light died.

The Richest Man In Town stood in the darkness amidst the rain. He called his wife's name, reached for her, but couldn't find her.

The Richest Man In Town stood alone in the darkness that would last for ever more. He knew what he'd done. The sun was crying.

Then, slowly at first, he began to cry too.

A very merry Christmas from The SJC!

(Pictures by Archie and Ellie-Mary)

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Acts Of Erosion

The sun was rising over the small town of Silverton, Colorado. 5.50am.

At one end of the main street, an anxious crowd of 140 runners made their last minute race preparations. Nervous laughter. The checking of back-packs and hydration bladders. The tying and retying of trail shoe laces.

Alone by the grocery store, a skinny blond kid jogged easily before slowing to a loose-limbed walk. He carried no gear save a small hand-held water bottle and a few gels tucked into the waist band of his shorts. despite the low temperature of the early morning, he was clad in just a tee-shirt. A lightweight jacket was tied untidily around his waist. A makeshift bandanna kept his shoulder-length hair from his face.

As he paced, he repeated his mantra under his breath. 'Blow it up, Kyle. Blow it up.'

As he paced, he knew that the time had come. For three years, he had been obsessed by this one race - the Hardrock 100. For the previous three summers, he'd moved to Silverton, taking voluntary work with the Mountain Studies Institute. But the work had been of secondary importance. The reason he was here was because of that race.

As he paced, he thought briefly of the thousands of miles he'd logged without let-up on the Hardrock course. He thought briefly of the 100 mile, 140 mile, 160 mile training weeks. He thought briefly of how every step he'd run in the previous three years had been geared to this one race.

'Blow it up, Kyle,' he repeated under his breath, 'Blow it up.'

He understood his task. He was ready.

With its 33,292 feet of ascent at an average altitude of 11,000 feet, the Hardrock 100's position in the US ultra-running scene was legendary. It intimidated even the most experienced and able of the US's elite mountain runners.

But it didn't intimidate this skinny 23-year old. No, it didn't intimidate Kyle Skaggs.

As the race organiser called together the assembled athletes for a final briefing, Skaggs repeated his mantra once more.

'Blow it up, Kyle. Blow it up.'

His immaculate preparation had given him confidence. A string of medium-profile ultra wins in the last year had boosted his confidence, but these fine performances had also brought pressure. He was no longer the unknown trail bum he'd been just months ago. Now he was the 'next big thing on the scene.' With that pressure came doubt.

As he toed the line ready for the start of the race, that doubt became, for a moment, overbearing. His mind reached back to his first long race - the Zane Grey 50 - a couple of years ago. His ambitious early pace had secured 2nd place, but he'd spent hours afterwards attached to an IV drip. In aiming to 'blow it up', he'd literally almost killed himself.

A countdown started. Skaggs closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He cast aside his doubts. 'Just run hard,' he thought, 'and keep running hard.'

The countdown reached zero and a bell was rung. The 2008 Hardrock 100 had started.

'What the hell!' thought the skinny blond kid, 'Blow it up. Or blow up trying!'

He took off. Running hard. By the time he reached the end of Silverton's short main street, Kyle Skaggs was already a hundred yards ahead of the rest of the field.

The Durango Herald carried the following article on the 14th July 2008:


'From Silverton to Telluride to Ouray to Lake City and back to Silverton.
That’s a challenging route for a day trip – in a car.
Kyle Skaggs did the same mountain-town tour in less than 24 hours without a car – just his own footsies.
Skaggs, the modest wunderkind of mountain ultrarunning, won the 2008 Hardrock 100 Endurance Run on Saturday morning in record fashion.
He crossed the finish line in front of the Silverton school, paused for the traditional kiss of the namesake giant hard rock, and stepped into the history of mountain endurance running.

His time of 23 hours, 30 minutes stunned longtime Hardrock organizers and followers – an almost unthinkable sub-24 hour finish in one of trail running’s most rigorous 100-mile tests (at altitude).
He started fast, surpassing previous checkpoint records with each step from Friday’s 6 a.m. start.
And he finished strong, just as faint light started to appear over a still snoozing Silverton on Saturday morning – a half-hour before 6.
“It was just starting to get light when I ran into town,” Skaggs said. “I felt good.”
No doubt.
“I didn’t set a time (before the race,),” Skaggs said as he relaxed in the finish area after a hard-earned shower and a few bites of post-race breakfast.
“I was not worried about splits or anything,” said the 23-year-old from New Mexico – who has been living, coincidentally enough, in Silverton.
“I just went out to run, to run fast,” he said.

Hardrock race director and race founder Dale Garland struggled for words to describe Skaggs’ remarkable run.
“I didn’t think this was possible,” Garland said. “I don’t know if there is a superlative I can use for this. This is one of the great athletic barriers that we thought would never be broken.”
Garland said Skaggs’ race was without flaw.
“There was no weak part of his race. I kept waiting for him to blow up. But he was consistent. Yes, he was consistent,” Garland said, “not to mention talented.”
“The fact that he was here last year and watched Scott Jurek’s run served him very well this year,” Garland said.
“Plus, from the start he was out there by himself,” Garland said. “It was like a 24-hour time trial.”

Around this time last year, I sat down to map out my running ambitions for the year ahead. Or rather, I didn't. Deeply affected by certain events of 2012, I resolved that 2013 would have no bigger picture. Instead of focusing on anything in particular, I'd simply enjoy my running. I'd re-establish a routine after a haphazard year, race often and take on any small challenges as they offered themselves to me.

The decision was a good one. This year has been my best running year since the heady days of my mid-twenties. As someone who's never been particularly arsed about racing, I've raced more than I ever have previously. I've run competitively over 5k, 10k, 10 miles, half-marathon, marathon and 60 miles. I've run across Lincolnshire and supported successful Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Ramsey Rounds. I've been largely untroubled by injuries and have explored the limitations that running with a cardiac pacemaker has, or doesn't have.

It's been a year I've thoroughly enjoyed. It would be easy for me to simply repeat this pattern year-on-year for the rest of my running life. It would be fun.

But would it be satisfying? Would it be enough?

The answer takes little consideration. The answer, of course, is 'No'. Self-experimentation is what keeps me burning. Next year would have to involve something different.

2014 came to me by chance.

I'd noticed during the summer that a local lad, Aaron Scott, had gotten into the habit of ending his Twitter training updates with ' #gettingthejobdone'. At first, it bugged me. After all, considering running as 'a job' was the exact antithesis of Empty Miling, whereby each run is done for its own intrinsic value, not for any instrumental gain.

In the days that followed, however, I constantly found myself contradicting the very view of running I held dearest. By instinct I commented on a friend's Fb race update with the words, 'Good work!' Whilst talking to Tam about a promising young runner, I found myself saying, 'He could be good - but he needs to put the work in.' Each time that word - work - stuck in my throat, but I couldn't help it. Empty Miling dictated that each run should be play. But here was I saying that running was something different.

After a while on Google, I eventually located an article that opened my eyes. An article that made me realise that my ideas of Empty Miling were just too simplistic. That, for the last few years - to some extent - I've been wrong.

I've read this article time and time again. Each time I've done that, it's conjured up stories of people who had a passion, an overwhelming desire - who loved running for it's own sake, but channelled their passion into a singular goal. People for whom running was play, but, at the same time, something more focused than play. People who took one event and were consumed by it. Kyle Skaggs at the 2008 Hardrock 100. Pam Smith in the 2013 Western States. And more. Loads more.

After reading it many times, 2014 became clear. 2014 would be the year I devote myself to a single performance. One event. And, more importantly, it would be the year I dedicated the whole of my running to one idea - this one philosophy.

Jeff writes about running in a way that touches me more deeply than any other runner since George Sheehan. His blog site, 'The Logic of Long Distance' is astounding.

The article I keep returning to is called 'Running as Work and Play'. Most of it is printed below. It's fairly long and fairly dense. But read it. Don't just scroll through. It may not be the most important thing you've ever read about running. But it probably won't be far off.

'Common sense tends to oppose work and play. We associate play with something like entertainment--momentary immersion that may be satisfying temporarily but doesn't lead with necessity in any direction. We consider play valuable in itself, but a waste of time in terms of other life functions. We associate work with something like drudgery--boring or painful labour in pursuit of a distant but necessary end ($). We consider work to be a hardship in itself, but valuable in terms of other life functions.

This way of considering play and work leaves little space for dignified human activity. It divides life into moments of distracted entertainment that lead nowhere and periods of unsatisfying labour carried on under the compulsion of ends that are external to the activity itself.

In Democracy and Education, John Dewey rethinks the relation between play and work. He asserts that both play and work seek results; both are oriented towards ends. The primary difference between the two forms of activity is the proximity of the ends that they have in view. The ends of play are proximate and more easily achieved. Play feels freer and more plastic because the proximity of the ends of play allows the free and imaginative selection of multiple means to those ends. The ends of work are remote and require more rigorous planning. Discipline and effort are more central characteristics of work because the more remote and precarious nature of its ends requires careful and deliberate selections of the means to that end as well as discipline to apply those means over a longer period of time.

Therefore, for Dewey, play and work are not opposites but lie on a continuum that is determined by the proximity of the ends of the activity. Play is freer and more spontaneous due to the fact that the end achieved is clearly in view. Work requires discipline and effort due to the fact that the ends it pursues are distant and sometimes in doubt.

As runners know, one of the strange and compelling things about running is its status as somewhere between play and work. We get the satisfaction of both work and play.

Each run is a type of play. Its ends are proximate and can be fulfilled freely and in a variety of ways. We can choose our route, choose to do a workout or an easy run. We can choose to run alone or with a group. As we run, we can choose almost anything to think about, to chat about, to watch. We get to feel the weather, the strength in our legs, cleansing sweat. All of this is very much like play, as each run -- especially for the experienced runner -- is like a jazz orchestra of sensation to be enjoyed. As in all play, each run itself surprises us with its freeness and spontaneity. We return home more often than not with more energy than we left, having experienced true recreation. This is the proximate end of each run, the play function of each run.

Equally, however, running gives us a chance to do work. When we choose a goal in running, we are usually careful to place it just beyond the known horizon of our capabilities. We make sure, in other words, that the goal is sufficiently remote. We want goals that are difficult, ones that can't be captured spontaneously or freely but have to be achieved through choices, effort, planning, and intelligence. Just as much as we talk about running being something that we enjoy and do for fun, we also talk proudly about the sacrifices we make for our goals, the pain and the grind of training, and the way in which we are tormented by our lack of achievement.

To my mind, it's this peculiar balance between play and work that makes running such a satisfying human activity. When our running is going well, we find a kind of synergy between the play and the work. The proximate ends of each run feed into the longer-term and more remote strategies of training. Of course, this balance is not easy to find. New and experienced runners alike can fall in the trap of thinking of running solely in terms of the work function, as drudgery towards a certain end. This way of thinking about running usually leads to being unable to satisfy that end, as the distant goals of training are too remote to provide for the deep immersion and serious absorption in the run that is both the mark of play and a requirement for achieving one's longer term goals. On the other hand, if we see running only as play, as a type of entertainment with no other end besides fun and frivolity, it seems to lose a different sort of depth. We become unable to relate it to the other aspects of ourselves or connect it to other life projects. It becomes mere entertainment and hollow escapism.

There are, of course, wider lessons to be drawn. Running can teach us that work and play are at their best together. The best stretches of life flow with a rhythm in which the proximate ends of our activity sustain us and direct us towards the more remote ends. When these rhythms are out of whack, life feels like stretches of mindless drudgery interspersed with empty interludes of entertainment. Play feels like wasting time, and work feels like pure sacrifice, only externally related to what we want to get out of life. If we can find an interactive balance between work and play, we can avoid such a divided and empty life.'


Pam Smith is a decent runner. She squeezed into the top ten women at the Western States 100 in 2010, but had a disastrous run in 2012. Failing to respect the inclement weather, she became hypothermic mid-way through the race and struggled to the finish in 28 hours 45 minutes, placing 45th out of the 52 female finishers.

Almost beaten, she nearly decided to skip the 2013 race, but when she successfully gained a place through the ballot, she reassessed her situation.

'There was a whole new meaning to Western States for me this time around,' she said afterwards. 'It wasn't just a big race; this was my chance at a redo and the opportunity for redemption. It wasn't about winning, it was proving that I was tough enough to conquer this course. My hunger to do well was off the charts.'

People don't win the most competitive races by happenstance. Outstanding performances require a great deal of work. Pam Smith knew this. Once she was in, she decided to dedicate herself to smashing the 2013 event big-time.

Her approach was all-encompassing, analytical and precise - a far cry from Kyle Skagg's own very different, but equally impressive, version of preparation.

For Pam Smith, every detail and every decision was carefully considered, researched and scrutinized. Come race day, there was no 'blow it up or blow up trying.' Instead her strategy, along with the equipment she used, the liquids she consumed and the food she ate, were meticulously planned.

Smith took the obsession of race preparation to a new level.

Her specific training for the race started 6 months previous. She focused on building her mileage to levels she'd never reached before - 90 miles plus - in a periodised, progressive schedule of three weeks build, one week recovery. In addition, in readiness for the amount of ascent on the Western States course, she religiously trained on hills three times a week, every week, as well as completing approximately one million squats during those six months to strengthen her quads.

Aside from her training, Smith left no stone unturned. After 17 years of being vegetarian, she dramatically altered her diet, consuming meat in regular, albeit small, portions, and restricting her carbohydrate intake to evenings only. By performing each training run in a carbohydrate-depleted state, she reasoned that the increase in efficiency of her fat-burning metabolism that this promoted would be invaluable over the latter miles of a very long race.

As the Western States is always held at the end of June, Smith made plans for heat management too. Studying research that showed physical adaptations occur with repeated heat exposure (increased plasma, increased cardiac output and increased sweat rate to name but three), and that these adaptations appear to be maximal after 9 to 10 exposures, she bought a one-month pass to a local gym about three weeks before the race, and endured 12 sauna sessions of increasing length.

Since she lived at low-altitude, Smith extensively researched the benefits of living and training at altitude, and found them too significant to ignore. Unlike Kyle Skaggs, who was able to base himself on race terrain, Smith found this impossible, having a young family to provide for. Therefore, for months before the race, she slept each night in an altitude tent.

By the time she toed the start line, Pam Smith was ready. Her preparation had been perfect. She was eager to lay her demons to rest.

The race she ran couldn't have been more different in approach to Kyle Skaggs. Whereas he just took off, running hard for as long as possible with no pre-conceived splits and with minimal gear, Pam Smith's journey was a lesson in poise, control and supreme organisation. She'd devised complex but well-tested race-day strategies for nutrition, hydration and heat management, and put together a support team that were highly motivated, knowledgeable and well-briefed.

As the race started, Smith had belief in herself. She could do this. She glanced at the schedule she'd worked out over endless long runs and recces over the course. A schedule for 18 hours and 30 minutes. A schedule that most people, had they known, would have dismissed out of hand, as absolutely impossible for a 38 year-old mum who was a decent runner, but nothing special.

18 hours and 37 minutes after starting the race, Pam Smith crossed the finish line. Not only did she finish as 1st woman, but she finished in the top ten overall, beating many of the US's top male ultra-runners hands-down. It was a truly remarkable performance.

As she slowed to a walk, Pam Smith imagined she could hear onlookers whispering in amazement to each other in the finish line grandstand.

'Can you believe she took nearly 29 hours to finish this run last year?'

'That's crazy! She was only ranked 14th woman!'

'Will there be drug testing?'

Pam Smith carried on walking to the chair that had been provided for her. As she sank into it, exhausted, it seemed the voices just made her victory sweeter.

Once I'd decided to base my running in 2014 on an idea, it was then that I had to pinpoint an event.

One section of Jeff's article stood out in this respect:

'When we choose a goal in running, we are usually careful to place it just beyond the known horizon of our capabilities...We want goals that are difficult, one's that can't be captured spontaneously or freely, but have been achieved through choices, planning and intelligence.'

I immediately thought of the Paddy Buckley Round - the classic Welsh 24-hour mountain round. However, something about it just didn't seem right. A mountain round is dependent on so many factors, some of them - such as the weather - being out of your control. The event I chose needed to be entirely in my hands. No, the Paddy Buckley Round would have to wait until the year after.

In the spirit of the two stories I've shared, the event really needed to be a race. Thinking of Pam Smith's redemption, I looked back to when I was last defeated.

In April 2012, I competed in the inaugural Viking Way Ultra, an off-road race over 147 miles. In the weeks before it, I'd struggled with injuries, but somehow managed to get to the start line. In true Kyle Skaggs fashion, I set out to 'blow it up, or blow up trying.' Whereas Skaggs blew the course record into little bits, I just ended up blowing up. Having never competed in a race longer than 50 miles, I under-estimated the distance, getting caught up in a race early on and suffering badly later. At 50 miles, reached in just over 8 hours, I was in joint 1st. At 81 miles, after run-walking for 30 miles, I still clung to 1st, but only because the lead runner had got lost. Leaving that checkpoint, a wave of nausea overtook me and I was sick several times. Plus, my legs were fucked. I set out from that checkpoint intending to walk for 10 minutes before resuming running, but ended up not running another step for the rest of the race. My splits show the extent of the wheels falling off. Reaching 50 miles in 8 hours, I hit 100 in a still-respectable sub-20 hours. The final 47 miles, however, were torture, taking me over 15 hours - roughly half the pace of the first 50. I eventually finished in 4th place, one of only 7 competitors to complete the race from the 28 that started.

The race destroyed me. Although proud to finish, I was disillusioned at how impossibly hard I'd found it. I vowed never to race over such a long distance again. I spent the majority of the next 4 months recovering.

In light of this, my goal for next year - the focus of my running - the object for this persuading philosophy of work and play - became clear.

Mark Cockbain's a cool guy - a down-to-earth Geordie who doesn't say too much, but is hard as nails. He's an old-fashioned runner - a grafter. During his running career, he completed pretty much every event on any ultra-runner's must-do bucket list. Now that his knees are knackered, he's taken to organising 'extremely hard, low-key ultra races.' The Viking Way Ultra was his idea.

In April, I caught wind of a new event he was organising. I e-mailed him, fishing for information, and he replied that his new race would be a bastard. It would only be open to runners who'd finished a 100 mile race, but as a Viking Way finisher, I'd be guaranteed an entry, should I be up to it.

Between April and September, I successfully dismissed the idea. The pain of The Viking Way still haunted me. Tam said stuff like, 'I never want to see you in that state again.'

At the start of September, an entry for Cockbain's new race appeared one day in my in-box. I ignored it for a few weeks.

And then I came across the article. Running as work and play. An idea came as to what direction my running would go next year. In 2014, I'd explore the concept of running as work and play. I'd spend nine months preparing for a single race - something I've never done before - and that race would take me from coast to coast.

The C2C Ultra starts from Whitehaven on the west coast of England at 7am on the first Saturday in August. Runners will then have 38 hours to run the 140 miles of the Coast-to-Coast cycle route, before finishing on the east coast of England at Tynemouth. It's a seriously low-key event. It's cheap to enter, there are no big prizes for the winners, and although there are timing checkpoints en route, there is zero support provided. Instead support must be provided by the runner's own crew, who will meet them at various points along the route. No pacers will be allowed. Competitors failing to hit pre-arranged time cut-offs during the race will be withdrawn. Athletes actually entering a vehicle at any time during the race will be disqualified.

As a goal 'just beyond the known horizon of our capabilities', I think it fits the bill perfectly.

It's 5am, Tuesday morning, second week of November. As I lie in bed, I can hear the rain falling against the window outside, It's week 2 of my first month-block. Each month, I'll increase the volume of my running, building strength and endurance through relentless consistency. In nine months, I will race.

Tuesday's my big double day. I'll run 11 miles to work over an undulating and muddy off-road route. Once my work day's done, I'll run back the same way. The bed's warm. It's tempting to lie in and take the van to the factory instead. But before my work day starts, I've got work to do. Or am I just going out to play?

Three quarters of an hour later, I'm jogging through the woods at Well. For the first time in a while, my running has a definite purpose. As I skip over tree roots and hop between the ruts of farm vehicle tyre tracks, there's a playfulness in my running that lifts my spirits to highs that rightfully shouldn't be reached by anyone up at 6am on a dark, wet November morning.

I contemplate what I've let myself in for. Will the joy of my empty miles be stuffed out by this notion of running being work as well as play? Will this single-minded pursuit of a remote goal become a chore that deadens the enjoyment of my daily outings? I guess only time will tell.

Running as work and play. As I run easily down the slippery slope into Claxby Psalter, I'm mulling over that article again. Then I think of more words from my new favourite philosopher guru that seem to perfectly encapsulate the decision I've decided to put myself in:

'The rhythm of running imposes a sort of order of habit on daily life. We put our runs into place, then the rest of life falls in around that order.

Rituals and repetitive behaviours make runners seem obsessive or compulsive, and in a way we are -- some more than others. We worry that all of this running is a symptom of a loss of freedom, that we run like panthers pace a cage. But repetitive behaviours are not always obsessive or the mark of psychological damage, and routine or habit is not always dull. Indeed, some form of daily rhythm is essential to the health of every living organism. A life without routine of some sort is simply a disorganized life.

The older I get, the more I realize that freedom is about the establishment of routine. The very nature of meaningful and free action is bound up in repetition. To live a life with purpose is to make choices that lead us to develop and grow along certain channels. If we find the right channels, they deepen and grow more complex and variegated each time we return to them. This process is often imperceptible; our lives and personalities grow through a force that is similar to erosion.

Not to find these deep channels, not to return to them -- to live as if each day were brand new! This sounds lovely, and this advice is doled out often. But such a life would be a life of surfaces without depth, a life of noises and screens and words, but not music, not art, not meaning. The great musicians and the great athletes know
what the runner knows: that talent is discovered and refined through the erosive force of habit.'

It's a concept I'm comfortable with. As a disciplined runner, it's a notion that I associate with.

But in these forthcoming months of work and play, it's an idea I'll be able to explore as I've never explored before.

The race is nine months away.

Nine months of work and play. Nine months of repetition, rhythm, habit and routine. Nine months of freedom.

Nine months of  making deep channels deeper, refining my abilities, creating music, art and meaning.

Nine months of just running, small acts of erosion.

I'm flying as I enter Skendleby. And my heart's soaring. Because I'm looking at the future and I don't know the answer.

Friday, 1 November 2013

The Lincolnshire Quartet: The Coast

It's been dark for hours and I'm still walking. Somehow it seems a shame to stop. An inner voice - the runner in me - cagoules me onwards. 'Don't stop,' it says, 'Just keep going. Push on through.' And I'm tempted. Very tempted.

It's a gorgeous October evening - such a far cry from the rain and gales of days ago. The night is still, The Wash glowing under a huge moon that casts my shadow in front of me and pales the blackness around me into a comforting shade of grey.

I take a look at my watch by the beam of my headtorch - just before 11 - and start making mental calculations. At a steady 3 miles an hour, how much farther will I be by tomorrow evening if I forfeit the 5 or 6 hours of sleep I'd planned on tonight?

My mind's almost made up, until a realisation hits me. Sure, I could keep going. Granted, that would see me to the Bridge more quickly. But would I be gaining anything from this course of action? I remind myself of the reason I'm making this journey - what it's all about - and everything becomes clear again.

And it's with this realisation that I stop walking. I take off my pack, rest it on the ground and turn off my headtorch. I close my eyes and listen to the nocturnal conversations of the birds out on the marsh. I let this place absorb into me, recalling as I do, a phrase I've read somewhere sometime:

 'The more we immerse ourselves in the wild, the closer we come to home.'

Then, I open my eyes again and spin slowly, arms outstretched, palms upwards, smiling crazily in a pose taken from any one of a hundred thousand corny, 'inspirational' Facebook memes. But it doesn't matter. It just seems the right thing to do.

Just here. Right here. Is beautiful.

Twenty minutes later, I've pitched my tent at this very spot and I'm sitting in its unzipped porch, looking at what's in front of me. The moon leaves a golden slither on the surface of the dark water. Green and red lights - the eyes of  protective marsh-dwelling beasts? - blink randomly, guiding any approaching fishermen into the deep-water channel at the mouth of the Nene. And, aside from that, nothing.

After a busy and often stressful summer, nothing is perfect. I sit and stare, and before long I'm part of that nothing. I'm nothing too.

Then, I take a sip of the hot drink I've been holding all this time. Coffee never tasted so good.

The inspiration for The Lincolnshire Quartet had come from a desire not only to explore the physical splendours of my home county, but to explore also the act of movement itself.

The first journey - The Side-to-Side - had been created in a medium I felt most familiar with. Over 12 hours I'd run from the most westerly point of Lincolnshire to its most easterly edge. I'd done so at a pace - a slow running pace of between 10 and 12 minute miles - that I'd employed on all of my footpath runs in 2012's Sixth Statement. It was a pace synonomous with my notion of 'Empty Miling' - a rate of travel that was brisk enough to be sustainable over distances of up to 100 miles or so, albeit at the top end of this range with a fair deal of external support.

The next journey - The Coast - I'd resolved, would be very different. Over approximately 130 miles, my trip would be entirely self-supported. I'd carry the majority of what I needed on my back, only using shops along the route for occasional, but necessary, top-ups of food or water. Whilst I'd done this on the previous journey, the extra distance would necessitate the carrying of overnight shelter - my trusty 15 year-old Terra Nova Solar - a sleeping bag and a small Jetboil stove for use in brewing up and making a daily hot meal. Accordingly, the pace would be slower. In fact, for this trip, I would - difficult to say it, for most runners - walk the entire way.

As a younger man - a dedicated runner - I'd abhorred the prospect of walking. In 1995, when I ran from John O'Groats to Land's End over the course of a school's summer holiday, I took pride in the fact that I never walked a single step. To have done so, back then in the mind-set I possessed at the time, would have only constituted failure.

As I've matured, however, my attitudes have become less elitist. I chose the name 'Saleby Jogging Centre' as a rebuttal to the runners who look down on 'joggers' with distain. I wanted to reclaim the word 'jogging' as a positive expression, not a label to be ashamed of. I wanted people who ran slowly to be just as pleased with their achievements as those that run fast.

Then, in 2010, I discovered the Bob Graham scene - a scene populated by incredible endurance athletes who regarded walking as an integral and necessary part of what they do - an activity equally as worthy as running. With this, my whole attitude changed. I came to regard what I do as simply 'travelling by foot' - forward progress in which speed was determined by terrain, time constraints, or simply just the desire to do something different.

Ironically, in a year when I've done more road running ('proper running'?) than I have in many years, I've become increasingly obsessed with the US 'thru-hiking' scene. Wikipedia defines 'thru-hiking' as 'hiking a long-distance trail from end-to-end.' Commonly associated with The Appalachian Trail, the term now encompasses all long-distance trails. Whilst not overly impressed with the Americanism of the phrase, it sounds a whole lot more sexy than 'rambling' or 'hill-walking', our nearest UK equivalents.

It's been a vintage year for thru-hiking, with the most outstanding achievement being that of 32 year-old Heather Anderson. She hiked the 2663 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail between the US's borders with Mexico and Canada. She did so in traditional thru-hiker style, carrying all her gear in a backpack, resupplying her food via personally sent mail drops at post offices and purchases from shops on and near the trail, and receiving no planned assistance. To walk this distance is incredible in itself, but irunfar gives her achievement some context:

Somehow, Heather managed to squeeze all of that into 60 days, 17 hours, 12 minutes. On the day she finished, her time was the fastest-ever for the PCT. Faster than all self-supported thru-hikers before her. Faster than the supported/crewed hikers, too. Faster than any woman. Faster than every man.
Her record now has a qualification. The day after Heather finished, Josh Garrett finished his own PCT thru-hike in 59 days, 8 hours, 14 minutes. That’s 33 hours or so faster than Heather. But his hike was supported, meaning he had crew stationed occasionally along the trail for resupplying his food and other needs, and meaning he didn’t have to leave the trail to do so himself.

Heather travelled an average of just under 44 miles per day. She said she ran infrequently, instead opting for a sustainable three-mile-per-hour hiking pace. “My pace wasn’t fast. It’s just that I kept going, and going, and going. I would hike with other thru-hikers sometimes, for some miles, a part of a day. The difference between them and I was that they didn’t want to get up at 5 a.m. to do it all over again.” Some quick math as Heather talks, and I realize she was on her feet for more than 14.5 hours a day. Every day for a bit more than 60.5 days. Over and around some gnarly mountain and desert terrain. Through heat, storms, and whatever other weather Mother Nature tossed around. While providing for her own food, water, shelter, and recovery.

Right, well. Heather’s daily numbers make her record seem even more intangible, no? I’ve been on dozens of backpacking and fastpacking trips. I’ve run 100-mile races and 150-mile stage races. I’ve had lots of 17, 18, 20-hour days on mountains around the world. I still can’t process Heather’s day in, day out endeavours. To quote Vizzini from The Princess Bride, that’s inconceivable!

Inspired by Anderson's feat - along with Rory Bosio's UTMB victory, the ultra-distance performance of the year in my book (both by women - what does that tell us?) - I resolved to firm up plans for my own thru-hike, albeit on a totally insignificant level compared to hers, but enough to give me a flavour of what life on the trail was like.

I'd walk the entirety of the Lincolnshire Coast, starting from King's Lynn, a few miles outside the county border in North Norfolk, and finish at the Humber Bridge in North Lincolnshire. Departing after work on a Thursday evening, I'd aim to cover 15 miles before wild-camping on the sea-bank north of Sutton Bridge. On the Friday, I'd cover the 45 miles to Wainfleet Sea Lane, on the Saturday the 40 miles between Wainfleet and Cleethorpes, followed by a shorter final day through the heavily-industrial Grimsby, Immingham and Killingholme, to finish at the Bridge. I'd make the trip by myself. I'd be reliant on just myself. A step into the unknown, a jump outside of my comfort zone, I was confident it would be a journey to remember.

I wake naturally just before 5, having slept surprisingly well. Unzipping the front of my tent and pinning it back to let the world inside, the waning moon gives me enough pale light to brew up a coffee without resorting to the artificial glow of my headtorch. I lay by Buffalo jacket on the bank outside and sit on it for a good few minutes, nursing my cuppa and eating a Scotch egg and a handful of cashews.

I'd been a little nervous about the wild-camping part of the trip. Whenever I'd mentioned it to a handful of friends, I'd been inevitably greeted with a 'you're doing what?', a 'won't you be scared?' or a 'you never know who's going to be around at that time of night.' Now, sitting here after a sound night's kip, I realise it's not scary at all. It's simple and inspiring. It's something everyone should try, but hardly anyone will. The Outdoors is portrayed by the 21st Century as frightening and dangerous. You're only really safe in your house, in your office, in your car - in your little box that keeps out everything that is 'out there'. Go outside in the dark, sleep in a tent in the middle-of-nowhere, and, surely, you'll be lucky to return. For 'out there' is full of wierdos. Wierdos who'll attack you, kill you, rape you, break you and leave you in a ditch to be discovered by a dog-walker days later.

I drain the last dregs of coffee as I look over the marsh. Not many wierdos in the middle-of-nowhere out here, I think. Well, maybe just the one.

Four hours later, the daylight of dawn has been fuzzied by thick fog. I like it. Without the perspective of distance still to travel, my imagination wanders. With vision down to 20 yards, the sea-bank takes on a rare beauty that seems mythical and magical.

Soon I'm on the banks of the Welland, heading for Fosdyke Bridge. I look across the river and can just make out the far bank. To reach that bank - merely a hundred yards away - will take at least another hour of walking. Briefly, I'm discouraged. The area between King's Lynn and Boston is dissected by a series of impressive rivers - the Great Ouse, the Nene, the Welland and the Haven. To cross each requires a lengthy hike inland, and then an equally lengthy hike back out to the sea-bank. Effectively doubling the distance between King's Lynn and Boston, these river diversions are necessary but soul-destroying, making any decent progress north-wards hard work. For a while, a disheartened mood descends upon me. As I reach Fossdyke Bridge, however, the fog lifts, and so do my spirits. A ten minute sit down in the boat yard, a drink of water and a pork pie sees me right for the next section to Boston.

Walking past Kirton Marsh, my mind turns to my chance encounter with Death many years ago on an evening run along this section of the bank. Meeting The Balaklava Man had almost traumatised me at the time, but in the months that followed, the tale had become my story-telling masterpiece. After telling the story to a group of Year 6 students at home-time whilst on supply, word had spread around the school I taught at, and in the end I'd told it to countless groups and classes as an end-of-day treat, each time embroiling the truth a little further and making the terrifying tale a little more so. I'd decided to stop after a concerned parent had informed me that her daughter had begun having trouble sleeping, waking in the night from nightmares about a strange man, dressed in black and wearing a balaklava. I smile as I recall those old days - even when your life was shit, there were always some good things to remember - and I'm just a little disappointed that my nemesis doesn't make another appearance today.

I'm knackered by the time I reach Boston. The pack is heavy and my feet are hurting far more than I think they should. I buy a couple of litres of water and a pasty from a Spar shop and eat my lunch whilst sitting on the wall overlooking the Haven and the docks. I think of the years I lived just a stone's throw away from this place - of the life I had and the life I have now. I ring Tam and let her know how I'm getting on. When she says, 'Love you!' at the end of our chat, I reply back the same way.

I know the next stretch well. During my years in the area, the sea-bank was my playground. I've run from Boston to Skegness many, many times, including a number of times as part of the Seabank Marathon. Today, however, it's different. As darkness encroaches at around 6.30, I've still many miles to walk. Unlike last night, when the night-time miles were a revelation - a delight - now, I'm done for. My pack seems impossibly heavy, and the sharp pains from my right little toe and left heel indicate growing blisters that I never get when running. Landmarks I pass are familiar, but my brain can't help but process them in running time. 'Another 20 minutes and I'll be there,' taunts my running self. 'More like an hour,' replies my walking reality.

I'm relieved when I finally reach my destination - Wainfleet Sea Lane. Here, the path deviates from the coastline, moves inland for quarter of a mile to cross a drainage channel, and heads back out to the coast. It's 9.30. I've had it. I find a sheltered spot a couple of hundred yards from a small sea-bank pumping station and pitch my tent a few metres away from the channel of water that I'll cross first thing in the morning at the start of tomorrow's leg. Tiredness has gripped me. I make a quick brew, sort out my gear, and I'm asleep for 10.

I'm awoken with a start sometime later. An engine of some sort. The sound of fast-flowing water. I lay there for a bit, check the time - 10 past 12 - and then unzip the tent and peer out. Under the light of my headtorch, I see water rushing, a torrent replacing the earlier trickle in the channel. It strikes me in an instant that the engine is, in fact, the sound of pumps. I look towards the pumping station and see water cascading from a large pipe. It's then that I panic. Gathering all my stuff, I cram everything into my rucksack and then make for higher ground. After dumping it, I go back down to where the water is now lapping around my tent. Retrieving my shelter, I sit for a while in the dark, realising how close my trip just came to an embarrassing and disastrous end. A great story to tell in the pub in the future, I reason. Soon, however, tiredness smothers adrenalin. I get to work efficiently. Within 20 minutes I'm set up again in a new location and headed for sleep.

Walking is something we're forgetting how to do. In Britain, between 1986 and 2005, the average proportion of journeys made on foot fell from 34% to 25% - from over a third to under a quarter. The total distance walked by each person, each year, fell from 244 miles in 1986 to around 200 miles in 2005.

Whilst these figures are depressing in themselves (although I'm sure many would beg to differ, citing 'progress'), what's worse is that they don't specific countryside walking. In fact, the most popular reason for walking is to go shopping. It's clear that our connection to the earth, our physical attachment to it, and our personal experience of it is evaporating year by year.

Perhaps this was the reason why I needed to make this particular journey at a walking pace. Recent months had largely been spent on the roads. When training for a road marathon, I guess it's the sensible thing to do. But, whilst I enjoyed the experience, I couldn't help but feel that a piece in the centre of who I am had been cast aside. My interaction with the voices of the hedgerows, the fields, the big sky had been severed. I needed to reconnect.

Although also an accomplished ultra-runner, the fore-mentioned Heather Anderson refers to walking as 'aerobic meditation',. By slowing the pace of my journey, my trip would become a 4-day retreat - a chance to re-find myself in my surroundings.

Joe Grant writes eloquently about taking more time:

I have always liked the idea that I can run and explore a place in a few hours whereas it would take a traditional hiker several days to cover the same distance. While this adds to the quantity of what I can see, it does not necessarily add to the quality of the experience. I have come back to appreciating a slower, longer immersion in wild places as a way to feel my surroundings more fully. A reduction in the amount of gear I bring also allows for a much more direct interaction with place and the opportunity to observe a broader palette of emotions. I seek neither comfort nor suffering, but a rawness in my exchange with place. I feel the wet and cold from the snow, the heat and burn from the fire, the tree roots jabbing under my back during the night, the delight at the glow of the rising sun through the mist. Immersion calluses our being, leading us to be more part of the wild, rather than simply visitors.

By immersing myself, I felt sure that not only would I be able to renew my acquaintance with this place I call home, but also, by moving through it slowly for the first time, also be able to discover things about it that I'd previously been blind to.

Geoff Roes mentions this exact aspect in a recent article:

I guess this is the beauty of exploring the world around us on foot. The more you do it, the more you want to do it, and thus the more motivated and capable you are to do it. It’s not always easy if you are somewhere that you’ve been dozens of times previously, but you can always slow things down, look around, look for something new, and go explore it. As soon as you do this, you will find yourself wanting more. The satisfaction of doing this will make you want to look for more, and no matter how many times you have been down the same trail, you will begin to find that there is always a new way to experience old locations. Wander, get lost, stop, and sit down, it’s actually very easy to make the outdoor world feel like a very novel and unique place because, no matter how many times you’ve been in a particular place, it’s always a little different each time you go back.

As my journey on foot progressed, the truth of his words became clear.

I spend Saturday morning lost in a cloud of memories. Spending our childhood years living in a caravan in Ingoldmells, the prom between Skegness and Chapel-St-Leonards had been our stomping ground. As I walk this stretch, my pack seems lighter, my feet less laden. The steps where I gave Hazel a polo and then kissed her cheek, aged 11. The empty space where our favourite camp shop used to be. The wall I jumped off and broke my brand new Bay City Rollers necklace. The café where we played Space Invaders and Defender in denim jackets emblazoned with Rainbow and Saxon sew-on patches. The path where three of us would wait for Joanne and Amanda (too many boys - who'd miss out?), listening to Elvis Costello's 'Punch the Clock' on a home-taped cassette.

Links from a life away. If only for an hour, I'm glad I came back.


A young man runs towards me on the beach near the Huttoft Car Terrace. Blond hair blowing over his face, Lightning greets me with a simple, 'Hi Dad!' Understated - that's his way. A fizz of energy follows him. Whirlwind wraps her arms around my waist and presses her head into my belly. 'Missed you, Daddy!' she tells me.

We walk together till we reach the fell-wagon, where Tam's waiting with the back door up. It's great to see them. I sit for a bit and, despite my intentions to be self-sufficient, find it impossible to resist the warm bacon sandwich which magically appears.

For the next four miles, I walk with my superheroes, talking about everything, something and nothing. The Queen of the Mountains appears on her 'porch bike' to say hello, and we're welcomed into Mablethorpe by Shez and her three little Friars. The coffee she's brought me goes down a treat. 'And I've brought you some of your favourites for when you get hungry,' she goes, 'French fancies!'

As I leave Mablethorpe a little later, it's with a certain weariness. I'd so been looking forward to seeing everyone. But the clock never stops, and despite wanting to stay longer, I know that I have to head on.

A long beach section beckons. Panoramic, gorgeous, never-ending. But the sand subsides slightly with each step. Try as I might to keep my spirits high, I feel optimism slip away. I've a long way to go if I'm to reach Cleethorpes by the end of the day. I slog on as the light fades and my surroundings take on a cloak of foreboding. I need to be on the sea-bank by nightfall. I think of the numerous incidents over the years of people cut off by an incoming tide - a tide that travels so fast that it's impossible to outrun. I glance to my left at the dunes, to my right at the salt-marsh, and can't help thinking that being here in the dark would be a bad idea.

There's relief when I eventually reach Donna Nook. The light is low, but now a short inland diversion will take me straight onto the sea-bank that I'll follow all the way to Cleethorpes. Tired, but invigorated, forward progress picks up again. A stunning moon appears over the North Sea and I walk for miles with nothing but the sound of my own footsteps and the lazy whoosh of gently-breaking waves.

It's nearly 9 when I find a good camping spot on the bank south of Fitties. As I pitch the tent, a light rain starts falling. Ten minutes later, as I slide into my shelter and zip up the front porch, it's absolutely banging it down.

Does a long journey by foot carry meaning? My answer would have to be both 'yes' and 'no'.

What makes a trip like this so special is its pointlessness. I leave Point A and I walk. Eventually, I reach Point B and I stop. The trip means nothing.

But, of course, it's precisely this pointlessness that makes it mean everything too. The journey has no inherent usefulness - I'm doing it, to coin a clichĂ©, 'because it's there.' However, it's in these exact activities - the ones we do for their own sake - that we find the most. These are the journeys where life's Quality lies.

I spend the majority of my time doing things that are 'useful' - that are a means to an end. I get up early in the morning to go to work. I go to work to earn money. I earn money to spend on useful stuff like providing for my family, buying diesel for the van, paying the mortgage, keeping the electricity direct debits up to date so we can watch The X-Factor and The Great British Bake-Off.

That's fair enough. Most of us can't help but be on the treadmill to some extent

But that's also why four days and three nights away from it all is so magical.

Here, I've no need to chase things I don't particularly want, do things that have no value in themselves but are merely a springboard to something else.

Here, life is difficult, but simple. I'm walking just because I want to. It's an effort - each step requires determination - but it comes with a freedom we seldom experience in modern life.

As you travel from its southern edge to its northern extremity, the character of the Lincolnshire Coast changes dramatically. At first, you're treated to the desolate and lonely sea-bank bordering The Wash  - a site of special scientific interest, and one of the most important bird habitats in the UK. Once you reach Skegness, tourism takes over. Seaside arcades, Butlin's holiday camp, the highest concentration of static caravans in Europe. After Mablethorpe, the promenade gives way to open beaches and salt-marsh.

Waking on Sunday morning, I know that what lies ahead of me is the part of the Coast I looked forward to the least. Today will take me through Cleethorpes and Grimsby. After a short section along the sea-wall, I'll then be forced to detour along a busy dual-carriageway through the port of Immingham, before negotiating the gas refineries and container terminal at Killingholme. As I contemplate wiggling out of my sleeping bag at 4am, I'm not exactly filled with enthusiasm.

A coffee and a couple of French fancies later, though, I'm ready to go. In no time at all, I'm packed and starting the walk towards Thorpe Park. It takes me a good half-hour before I can take a step without discomfort. My feet are swollen and painful. I gain solace by recalling the same information I've seen on many thru-hike blogs - your feet tend to get most battered in the first 10 days - after that they generally adjust to their new, more-demanding role. A busy cross-country season looms, starting next weekend. I'm hopeful everything will be back to normal by then.

Along the long, long road between Cleethorpes and Grimsby, I realise how hungry I am - I've eaten very little on the whole trip. I'm reduced to popping into MacD's for a coffee and an egg and bacon muffin. Strange folk populate fast food restaurants at 6.30 in the morning. Maybe it's for this reason that the girl on the check-out doesn't bat an eyelid when serving a skinny guy with a dodgy 'tache and a backpack who's wearing dirty running gear and smells like he hasn't washed for some days.

After stumbling through the maze of Grimsby's streets, it's good to see the sea again. The sun's shining and the walk along the sea-wall towards Immingham is pleasant, populated by fishermen who greet me with cheery 'alright's. In the distance, chimneys of chemical works and huge container ships blight and obscure the view of the Humber Estuary.

The walk through Immingham is a low point. To class it as a 'town' is somewhat optimistic. A run-down shambles of sink-estate housing, boarded-up cafes, burger vans and lorry parks, it's almost certainly the most depressing place I've ever visited. As I trudge along the road-side verge, dodging discarded wing-mirrors, the debris of frayed tyres and dog-shit, I wish, for the first time on my journey that I was somewhere else. Anywhere else. For the next two hours, the walk is an uncompromising chore.

The sun's shining again by the time I reach Skitter Ness. From here, the grassy bank of the Humber will take me straight to the Bridge, some 8 miles distant.

Those last miles are hard. Although my legs feel fine, my feet are really suffering. I can't recall feeling this tired since those last miles of the Viking Way a year and a half ago.

But while my body's failing, my mind's alive. As the Humber Bridge gets closer, I remember a quote I ear-marked in Boff Whalley's 'Run Wild', from Ursula LeGuin:

'It's good to have an end to  journey towards; but it is the journey that matters in the end.'

And she's right. In a year of journeying, it's this one that has affected me the most. In many months of seeking increasing detachment from the modern way, it's only here that I've truly discovered what I've been looking for.

I meet Tam and the superheroes by the Humber boat-house doors and take off my pack. I'm at the end of my trip. But I'm already plotting my next over-nighter, planning the inclusion of a weekly long day of walking into my preparations for next year's Big Race.

This is the end.

But it isn't the end at all.   

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Last Year, not These Days

I'm trying on a new shirt in the bedroom when Whirlwind rushes in.

'What you doing, Dad?' she says.

'Just trying on this new shirt,' I tell her, 'What do you reckon?'

'Dad!' she exclaims, 'You look like Grandad!'

By the tone of her voice, I'm judging that's not a compliment. I look at her, nonplussed.

She carries on.

'What you need to do is roll your sleeves up.'


'And undo another one of those top buttons.'

I do as she suggests, not above taking fashion tips from a nine-year old girl.

'There!' I say when I'm done.

She looks at me again, sticks both thumbs up and says, 'Now you're cool Dad!'

'Thanks,' I say and she skips out the room, bounds down the stairs, three at a time, and runs into the kitchen.

I hear her talking to Tam while I'm changing back into my favourite old sweatshirt - a tatty green top with a 'Curtin University' logo that I bought in 1990.

'Mum,' I hear her saying, 'I've just made Daddy cool! He needs to be 'these days,' not 'last year'!'

It's the end of July and, for the next few days, Whirlwind's phrase keeps appearing.

These Days, not Last Year.

I think about it a fair bit, mull over how my young daughter must see me at times, through her eyes. What it must be like for a pre-teen firecracker to have a Dad who is so obviously 'last year', not 'these days.' A Dad who's never owned an mp3 player or downloaded any music from the internet, preferring instead vinyl or CDs. A Dad who reads books - real books made out of paper - and refuses to buy a Kindle. A Dad who will always write things down on paper first - biro and blank A4. A Dad who's ambition to keep up with the latest model of mobile phone ended with the Nokia 3310. A Dad who's never played on an X-Box or Playstation, preferring instead to slip on a pair of muddy trainers and just go out for a run.

I look at myself as she might see me, and realise she has a point. I am 'last year' or years past that.

But that's just me. Is it a bad thing?

Bearing all this in mind, maybe it was coincidence what happened in the following couple of weeks. Or maybe it wasn't.

Firstly, I chanced upon a blog site called Acceptable in the Eighties. Written by an undergraduate with a passion for running, several of its opening paragraphs really touched a nerve:

The world of running has changed a lot since its British heyday in the 70’s and 80’s. “It may be hard for anyone born after 1960 to believe,” Kenny Moore wrote, “but runners in those days were regarded as eccentric at best, subversive and dangerous at worst.” Now it seems, in Edinburgh at least, that everyone is a runner. In the running shop I work in, all kinds of people come in with variations of the same story. “For some reason, I’ve signed up to run a marathon, so I need some shoes,” they say, or “the guys in the office have talked me into running in their relay team.” For some, joining the fold as a “runner” has become a good way into office social life. Runners are respected, not mistrusted. Participation has come a long way since Kenny Moore’s time. 
The ever-increasing popularity of running should lead to an improvement in standards, with the widening base of the pyramid pushing up its peak. In fact, it seems to have had the opposite effect. When I’m asked by people in the shop how much running I do, I tell them I run eighty to ninety miles per week. The usual response to this is a look of pity and something along the lines of “oh, so you’re a serious runner then.” The assumption seems to be that whilst running is seen as enjoyable, at least to an extent, anyone who does an excessive amount is seen to be killing that enjoyment.
I have nothing against mass participation running. I agree with Haile Gebreselassie, when he says he reckons that the world would be a saner place if everyone ran every day. But the expansion of the market for running-related products, energy foods, pilates and yoga for runners seems to have distracted people from the fact that running training is a simple process. So simple, in fact, that it would appear impossible to fill a monthly magazine with new ideas on how to do it better. Nevertheless, these magazines proliferate, with cover articles like “Train less, run faster!” and “how chocolate cake can make you a better runner!” (no, these aren’t made up). A simple activity has been complicated to suit the needs of sports brands who need to find ways to make money out of a sport which really only demands a half decent pair of trainers.
The argument that sports scientists tend to make when you point out that the likes of Brendan Foster and Charlie Spedding achieved all that they did without nutritionists and scientific testing is that they would have been even faster if they’d done these new things too. Huge amounts of scientific data are compiled on the benefits of training at altitude and on new forms of strength and flexibility training. But those trying to apply scientific methods conveniently fail to recognise the simple objective fact that British distance runners were faster thirty years ago than they are now. A lot faster. And that is the only test that really matters.
The most important aspects of a distance runner’s training are patience and consistency. These things are not glamorous. They don’t fit in particularly well in today’s society. There are no quick fixes and no immediate gratification. But there is satisfaction in something done to the best of your ability and with conviction. There is solace in repeating a simple activity until it becomes smooth, efficient and, of course, faster.
For the next few months, I’ll be referring to my coach’s training diaries for 1981 and 1982, and writing about the experience of doing the simple things right and trying to replicate the kind of training that was done in his day. The diaries represent two years of accumulated sweat and effort on his part distilled into numbers – 9,037 miles to be precise. They are pretty short on description, with the prize for most commonly used adjective going fairly overwhelmingly to “tired”, and contain only occasional elaboration (“tired – knackered actually”). They chronicle the day-in-day-out toil of trying to run 26.2 miles at as fast a pace as possible and the conviction that anything worth doing is worth doing right.
And so I’m off, to publicly try to challenge the theory that my generation are doing it all wrong. I can’t deny that it’s easier for me, after all. I’m a student; my coach had a marriage, a mortgage, children and a full time job to worry about. His final words of wisdom as I walked down his driveway: “Mike, lose those diaries, and I’ll kill you.”

Last Year, not These Days.

Secondly, whilst exploring the content of a plastic box of memories, I unearthed a photograph. Frayed by age and bleached by the passage of time, it was obviously taken during the 1980's. It took me a moment to remember where exactly I'd done just that.

It shows a group of runners, frozen for a moment, but moving at some speed. Sweat-bands, nylon shorts and Viga club vests are the order of the day. Beside a wooden fence, a number of paste tables are groaning under the weight of hundreds of plastic cups of water. Young boys and middle-aged helpers in casual clothes hold out drinks to the passing athletes. Red, white and blue bunting hangs forlornly, strung between adjacent lamp-posts.

I'd taken that picture during the 1985 London Marathon. Look closely and you'll see that second in the leading group is Steve Jones. Jones won the race that year in 2.08.16. In the last 28 years, no Brit has run the London Marathon faster. Come October, Jones would be in Chicago running an astounding 2.07.13, one agonising second behind Carlos Lopez's world record - a time that still stands as the UK marathon record.

Look more closely at the picture and you might notice that Jones isn't wearing a watch. In fact, most of the leaders aren't. This was real racing - running for position, not running to hit preconceived mile splits. And this was a hallmark of Jones. He didn't need a watch. He ran to 'feel'. He ran as fast and as far as his body could take him, and when he'd destroyed the opposition, he just ran some more.

Last Year, not These Days.

The third event to inspire my plan was a casual meeting with a fellow runner whilst we were both waiting for our kids to finish a junior race. After chatting about injuries, niggles and 'how're going at the moment', my friend went into some detail about his new training regime. Simply put, he'd dug out the old training diaries of his father - a well-respected figure in the area during the 1980's, who's road times put to shame the current crop of local fast boys - and was trying, as far as possible, to follow them. The secrets of success, it seemed, were fairly straight-forward. To run fast you needed to run a lot, you needed to race often and you needed to work hard.

Surprised at what I was hearing, I told him about the blog I'd come across - a young guy doing exactly the same as he was doing. Was it pure chance, or were they both on to something? I vowed to find out.

Last Year, not These Days.

Just as every good story starts with a title, my plan needed a name before it could go any further. I toyed for a bit with 'Project 2.50's', before settling on the snazzier and more enigmatic 'Project 253' - a reference to my fastest marathon time since returning to running some years back - 2.53 in the 2007 London Marathon. Now the important part was done, I could concentrate on what I actually wanted to achieve and how I intended to do it.

Already in the year I'd run two marathons - the hilly Windermere and the off-road Boston to Skegness Seabank. Although pleased with my performances, the times I'd run - 3.02 in both - had left me a little underwhelmed. In my younger days, off a marathon PB of 2.38, the magical '3 hour barrier' had always seemed phoney. Back in the '80's, it seemed that anyone half-decent could go under 3 hours. But now, at the age of 46 and armed with a heart that needs a pacemaker to keep beating, that same barrier seemed a tougher nut to crack. This , then, is what I'd aim for - a sub 3 hour autumn road marathon.

Checking the fixture listings, I quickly narrowed down the shortlist of possibilities to two - the Nottingham at the end of September, or the Mablethorpe at the start of October. Both were similar - two lap courses with the marathoners joining the half-marathoners for the first lap. Both had a reputation for being fairly fast. However, the Nottingham was a much bigger race. Bearing this in mind, and sticking to my dictum of 'lower-key is always better', I decided to opt for Mablethorpe.

I now had 8 weeks to get myself into sub 3 hour shape. Whilst this was daunting in itself, I was determined to do this in my own way. My training would be simple. Simple in the extreme. For the next 8 weeks, I'd run Last Year, not These Days.

This simple approach would include 4 major elements:

1. I'd shun all modern technology

I rarely run with a GPS or a watch, so this seemed like no big deal. But going out for a long run without a watch was a different matter to aiming to break a very specific time in a race without a watch. To do this, I'd have to trust myself, believe in myself without the constant crutch of estimated pace readouts or mile splits. To do this, I'd have to truly run by feel.

In Project 253, every run would be done without access to time. No run would be measured, time-wise or distance-wise, by watch or GPS. Even on race day, my wrist would be bare.

2. I'd use basic equipment

In order to prove that Last Year was at least as effective as These Days, I'd avoid any products that weren't around in the '80's. There'd be no flashy, over-priced trainers, no compression socks, arm sleeves, sports drinks, protein recovery shakes or gels. You get the picture.

3. I'd run often and run a lot.

The best guys from the '80's worked hard. There was none of that 'you're doing too much' rubbish that you're always greeted with if you mention you're running more than 50 miles a week. Therefore, I'd follow suit. I'd run everyday, with just the occasional rest. I'd run however miles in a week my body allowed me to without breaking down. I'd include a fair deal of easy running, but, for a short while, there'd be fewer empty miles and more that required real effort.

4. I'd race often

Some runners nowadays are scared to race. They'll save themselves till they are fully-fit, aware, I guess, that they don't want to lose face in front of interested onlookers.

The '80's guys had no time for all that. Most races were a means to an end. Most were 'training' for the all-important target race. The '80's guys raced themselves fit. I would follow their lead.

There's not many plans that work out as they should. This one was no exception. Before it had really got started, it had all gone wrong. A 60 mile race in the Peak District had bashed me up more than I would have liked. As I was due to start my 8-week marathon build-up, a painful hip left me able to do little more than jog for a couple of weeks. Pissed off and frustrated, I hastily abandoned Project 253. It had been a dumb idea anyway. A sub-3 would have to wait till another time.

Further into August, however, things seemed so much brighter. Regular post-run exercises had freed up my hip flexors sufficiently, I'd had a decent outing at a mid-week off-road 10k, and had been re-inspired by reading the blog of a local lad, Aaron Scott. A familiar face on the Lincolnshire scene, Aaron - a young man of great talent - had been writing weekly updates in the run-up to attempting to run a Commonwealth Games marathon qualifying standard (2.18 or thereabouts) in Frankfurt at the end of October. Now this kid was hammering it big style - just like my road heroes of the '80's. Epic sessions (4 x 5k in under 16 minutes, off a 2 minute recovery) and big, big mileage (upwards of 130 miles a week). It was obvious that he wanted this badly, and to achieve it he was giving everything he'd got.

With less than 6 weeks to my own race day, I figured what have I got to lose? Project 253 was back on.

I quickly fell into a routine that had served me well through the year - daily short doubles of no further than 8 miles, alternate harder and easier days, plenty of hill running and a longer run at the weekend. All of this on approximate distance and all of it without a watch.

Whilst I never do any speed work, I consciously pushed the pace on my steady runs, and relied on another ingredient - a liberal sprinkling of races - to provide the pep I'd need come the marathon.

For 4 weeks, things went well. My mileage hit the 90-a-week mark, the performances in the 5 races I took part in during this period got increasingly ok, and my confidence in achieving my goal improved. All this time, I stuck doggedly to the rules I'd set myself. I trained without a GPS, I raced without a watch and I ran in a cheap pair of trainers that I'd bought for less than £20.

Many beginners make the mistake of thinking that no-one can possibly be a serious runner unless they're following a schedule. I'm no fan of schedules - schedules assume you're going to feel a particular way on a particular day. I use discipline instead. I'm incredibly disciplined with my running - I rarely miss a day - and the lack of schedule means I've the freedom to swap about harder and easier runs to the times when my body is best able to cope with either. It's always worked well for me in the past and it seemed to be working now. I just couldn't resist the temptation to step it up.

Most of the time I forget that I'm not far off 50. In my younger days, I could knock out 100 miles weeks, seemingly for months at a time. Nowadays, it's obvious that I can't. Just as I was beginning to think I was ready, an ominent indicator of over-use arose to greet me. With 2 weeks to go, a painful right knee started bugging me. But I was too near now to give up. A 2 week taper, I always believe, is too much. This time round, though, I had no choice.

A few days before the race, it's a Monday night - Club night - and I'm running with the Jolly Friar - a good friend, a great runner and a guy whose opinions I always trust. 'Ready for the weekend?' he'd asked me. I'd replied that things had been going well, but I felt like I'd come off the boil and was going into it a bit undercooked. In the space of half a mile, he'd convinced me to relax, think positive and acknowledge to myself that I'd done enough to do what I'd set out to do.

But doubts continued to gnaw gently. Worries. Questions. Only the race would provide the answers.

If I'm honest, race reports bore me. So, I'm not going to bore you.

On Saturday 6th October, I ran the Mablethorpe Marathon. I completed it in a time of 2.58.27 and finished 3rd. That'll do.

I'd decided to go out hard and hang on - and that's what I did. I later found out that I'd run the first half in 1.25 (too fast), and the second in 1.33 (too slow). The end result, however was more than acceptable.

So, I guess, Project 253 was a success. But just as the excerpt from 'Acceptable in the Eighties' infers at the start of this post, my result ironically raises more questions than it provides answers:

- Would I have run a faster time if I'd followed a stricter schedule?

- Would I have done better if I'd used a GPS and watch in my training, and done more prescriptive speed sessions?

- Would I have run more even splits, thereby guaranteeing a faster overall finishing time, if I'd worn a watch during the race instead of going on 'feel'?

- Would I have hung on better in the second half if I'd used sports drinks and gels instead of plain old water?

There's all these, and probably many more.

But, at the same time, it's important to realise that Project 253 does indeed provide some valuable answers.

It proves that you can run well without resort to any of the running-related crap that the activity is swamped with nowadays.

It proves that you can achieve what you want without spending hundreds of pounds on stuff that companies would have you believe you can't do without.

It proves that you don't need gadgets, complicated training regimes and the dubious suggestions of modern science.

It proves that all you need to run quickly is basic kit, a desire and a ton of determination.

And, most importantly, it proves, when all is said and done, that running is simple.

Last Year, better than These Days?

I say Yes.