Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Those Who Watch Over Us

The sky's on the edge of blue to grey as we turn off the road into the tunnel of trees. The back end of a long day, we're almost home.

For a change, I'm driving whilst Tam sits in the passenger seat, flushed with the glow of a 3.35 London Marathon, but yet to feel the gnawing verocity of its after-effects.

She's telling me of a text message she received as she waited that morning at the start area.

She pulls out her phone, scrolls through, finds it and reads it out.

'Hi Tammy.
 Just wanted to wish you good luck - I'll be thinking of you - and to thank you so much for your love, support and kind words you have for Robbie. It means everything to me. It would to Robbie as well. I'm sure he'll be there with you the whole way. Look after him for me please. Thank you again, Tammy.
Take care, lots of love, Robbie's mum.'

She couldn't help crying, she tells me.

I look away from the road for a moment, turn my head to the left, tears in my eyes, and look at her.

She's crying now, too.

Over recent years, I've become a cynic when it's come to big city marathons. I've moaned about the extortionate entry fees and the virtual impossibility of securing a place through a ballot that's subscribed to its limit within a few hours. I've ranted about the 'charity hi-jacking' of mass participation road races, the obscene number of places they get allocated at the expense of the club runner, and the culture which looks down upon any athlete who wishes to participate in a race for the singular beauty of the challenge, rather than 'doing it for charity'. And I, too, have looked down on the runners who gravitate towards such events. Why run 26 and a bit miles on faceless tarmac in a cattle-crowd of thousands of people, when you could be alone, a part of nature, running wild?

I'm good at voicing my opinions, I guess, and even better when that opinion rails against the widely held view. And I've been pretty decent at slagging off big city marathons to anyone who knows me.

But stood on Tower Bridge at 10am on a London Marathon morning, something changed. I saw something clearly for the first time, and I realised something important too.

I realised I'd been wrong all along.

It's the mark of a man's life that the world around them is changed by their presence. To change the world around them when they're no longer here is, perhaps, an even greater sign that the life they lived was important.

It's a few months since Robbie left us. I can't count myself as privileged to have been a good friend of his. Robbie, to me, was just one of the dads at the school gates. He was the good looking postie with the cool tatts, the flip-flops and the smile who'd wave as he passed you in his red van. He was the running buddy who'd occasionally pop along on a training night or who you'd see at a Wolds Dash race, chat to for five or ten minutes, before getting on with your warm-up or cool down. He was the sort of guy who'd stir latent, stupid, school-kid-jealous thoughts - the kind you used to have which whispered inside your head, 'I wish I could be more like him.'

I wish Robbie had stayed around. For my own personal reasons - I would have loved to get to know him better - but also for reasons infinitely more important. I wish Robbie could have been there for his mum as she grew old, could have been around for his daughter as she grew up. I wish he could have partied with his friends on a lifetime of Saturday nights, and I wish he could have felt the immense pride of walking his sister down the aisle as she wed.

But Robbie's gone.

It's strange, therefore - so sad, but comforting too, that, even as someone who knew him only briefly, I've seen him so many times as the world has turned through autumn, winter, spring.

I've seen Robbie in the mornings as the Royal Mail van pulls up outside the office door. I've seen Robbie on the drive home, walking past the bakery, cap on head, arm wrapped in clingfilm, protecting fresh artwork. I've seen him on every run along the bottom path through Hubbard's Hills, running towards me, blue tee-shirt, shorts and a headband, his i-pod strapped to his arm. I've seen him in the look on Tammy's face as she's pulled on her running gear, ready to brave the foul weather on another long and lonely Sunday run. I've seen him, too, in Rhea's eyes as the band his mates played in reformed for her wedding day to play a song he loved for the married couple's first dance.

Team Running For Robbie was put together in July last year. Members of his family and a host of friends have competed in various races and long distance challenges to ensure Robbie's life is never forgotten, and to raise funds for PAPYRUS - a charity that works to help prevent suicide in young people. Tammy has told me countless times over recent months how proud she feels when she pulls on the PAPYRUS vest with Robbie's picture on the back. She's mentioned something else a few times too. When she's tired, going through a bad spell in a race or struggling to reach the finish, she'll have a little word with Robbie. She'll remind herself why she's doing what she's doing, and she'll imagine just one person in the crowd who's watching her - a young man or a young woman, just like Robbie. Just one person who can't see a way forward, but might see Robbie's picture, call up the Hopeline number above it, and realise that, however dark things seem, there's always someone, somewhere, looking out for you.

The crowds are dense, excited and noisy on Tower Bridge. I'm waiting with my great friends from Mablethorpe Running Club. I'm looking for the sight of Tammy, heading for the half-way point of the marathon. I'm thinking of Robbie.

I'm with friends, good people who look out for me, people I love. I look over the bridge and take in the people on the opposite side of the road. All are in groups. There's laughter, shouts of encouragement, enthusiastic cheers. It's almost overwhelming. In the wake of the sickening events of the Boston Marathon, people have come together - to celebrate the spirit that guides and binds us, to remember, to be there for each other, to watch over their fellow men.


Tam comes and goes with a pose for the camera, a mad wave and a grin as big as a rainbow. And before long, the joggers and the walkers start to stream past. 'Charity runners'. Never had any time for them. Until now.

I think of the passion Tam has invested in her chosen charity over recent months. A charity that means something so important to her. A passion stoked by a belief that by running 26.2 miles, she can make a difference.

All around me, there are thousands of people just like Tammy. They're doing this because they care. Because they want to make the world just a little bit better. Because they're human, and humans look after each other.

And I'm seeing things differently. The over-weight woman with the red face in the Children with Cancer UK vest is a mother who lost her daughter too early to the cruel disease. The young lad walking with a limp in the Heart UK vest is a son who watched his dad collapse and die. The girl with the pony tail who looks nothing like a runner in that Help For Heroes vest? Her brother never returned from Afghanistan.

My imagination. But the truth. Ordinary people don't just pick a charity out of a hat. They choose one because it means everything to them. Then they dedicate themselves to the hardest physical challenge they've ever attempted in their lives. They might run. They might jog, or they might walk. And it really doesn't matter how they get round, how quick they finish. Because these people - well, these people are amazing.

There's hardly light left as I'm jogging by the drain. A little leg-stretcher after getting home from the marathon. 

Robbie's mum's text in my mind.

The only sound is a whisper in the ether.

'We're human, and humans look after each other.'

I think of Whirlwind and Lightning's big squeezes when we'd arrived home. I think of Tammy, my family, my friends - the people I'd do anything for, and who would drop everything to help me.

'We're human, and humans look after each other.'

I think of the charities and organisations I've seen today that work tirelessly to give help to people who need it. Of the people who've succeeded in a challenge they'd previously never dare dream of, to raise money for these charities.

'We're human, and humans look after each other.'

Then I think of the ones who've left us, but who's presence is still felt so strongly in our everyday lives. Those who watch over us.

Leaning against the gate, back at home, the sky is dark. My eyes are drawn to the red lights of the distant Belmont transmitter, but I'm not really looking. Instead, I'm seeing Robbie running into the finish in his last race. Appearing over the wooden bridge and sprinting down Hubbard's Hills bottom path, he looks hot and tired. He's a right to be - after all, he's completed his first London Marathon today, watching over Tammy for every step of that 26 miles.

As he comes nearer, his smile is unforgettable. I remember the words of the text Tammy read to me an hour ago, and I smile too.

'Look after him for me please.' You did that Tammy. Robbie's mum would be proud.

*             *              *
The website for PAPYRUS is here.
Tammy's Running For Robbie justgiving page is here.
Robbie's good friend, Andrew Tomlin is Running For Robbie in the Manchester Marathon on Sunday 28th April. His justgiving page is here. 

Monday, 15 April 2013

A Country In Six Days

We're sat round a plastic table in the Pinnacle Cafe at Capel Curig, eating bacon and egg baps and drinking tea. It's just gone 9am, August 2011. Dave has just set out on the first leg of his Paddy Buckley Round attempt, and the rest of us, who've gathered to see him off, have retreated inside for some food and a chat. Dave's partner, Debbie, is sat opposite me and we're talking over the events of the last year. It's a conversation I think about often.

In May 2010, having spent five months preparing physically for my Bob Graham Round, I decided I needed to start work on a support team. Knowing only one local runner who'd ever had a go, and living in Lincolnshire - a county not best known for its mountains or its tradition of fell running, I composed a short plea for help, posted it on the Fell Running Association forum and anxiously waited for replies. Such is the generosity of the fell running community that, in a short space of time, I'd filled the gaps that needed filling.

On the 26th June, I completed my round - one that started in the company of strangers and finished in the company of friends. Over the course of that summer, I made the long journey back to the Lakes two more times, returning my dues by offering support to the three members of my party who'd also planned rounds for 2010. It was with great happiness and a real feeling of accomplishment that I was privileged to run up Keswick's High Street to the Moot Hall doors with all of them. The statistics show that the success rate for Bob Graham Round completions is roughly 1 in 3. Amazingly, however, during the months of July and August, everyone associated with my special day who'd had ambitions for completing, had succeeded. A year later, the evening when I received my membership certificate for The Club in the company of Paul O., Dave, Paul J. and Mark was one of the proudest of my life.

Our paths had crossed several times since that day in June, and it's this that we're talking about in the cafe. Having a partner who spends hours in the mountains while you wait for him in barely accessible car-parks might mean that your passion for reading books is ignited. Certainly, this was the case with Debbie. While Dave had spent a lot of time in the outdoors, Debbie has spent a lot of time driving around after him, waiting, making tea, and reading books.

She talks about ideas from a book whose title I can't remember and whose pages I've never digested. She asks me if I believe that some things happen for a reason. That some things are meant to be.

At this point, some people might stare back with a look that's vacant and an expression that conveys the following question: 'What the hell is she on about?' But I'm not one of them. I know what she's talking about because I feel exactly the same as she does.

In a short time, we'd stumbled upon a strange, insular, but genuinely welcoming group - Bob Graham devotees - and been accepted with warm smiles and open arms. The people we'd met had become friends for life. And our desires and destinies had become intertwined. Our paths had crossed over the last year, and they'd continue to cross over the years to come, for it was inevitable that when one of us had an idea, a plan or an adventure in mind, the rest of us wouldn't be long in wanting to get involved or help out.

As I finish my breakfast and our conversation leads us to other topics, I can't help but be filled with the realisation that completing the Bob Graham Round wasn't the end of something - just another tick on an endless 'bucket list' - but exactly the opposite. It was the start of something. The start of something that would involve exhaustion and elation, failure and success, statements and question marks. The start of something that would involve ambition, folly and humility. The start of something where magnificent surroundings would always be shared in the midst of magnificent company. It was the start of something life-affirming, life-changing and wonderful.

Two years down the line from that conversation, it's pleasing to be able to say that my instincts were right.

As my spiral of Bob Graham mates has wound itself larger, I've found myself in their company, not only on the Lakeland fells, but in other obvious and not-so-obvious surroundings - the mountains of North Wales, the peat groughs of the Dark Peak and the rolling hills of Nottinghamshire, to name just a few. Some of my friends' lives have carried on in much the same way as before their rounds (the same, but different - a round can't fail to change you somehow), Some of them have moved North in search of a better way of living. Some have changed jobs to be closer to their passions, some got engaged to be married. No doubt, we've all experienced the highs and lows of this strange vision we call life, but - whatever - we've continued to bump into each other in the hills, play a little part in who we all are.

Out of all these friends, it's Dave who I've met up with most often. Through Dave, I've got to know his closest running buddies, and, through me, he's got to know mine. The spiral has continued to grow.

It would have taken a fair deal of holding me back when he announced his latest adventure.

On Monday April 7th, he would set off from St. Bee's Head on England's west coast and travel on foot across the country to Robin Hood's Bay on the east coast, following Alfred Wainwright's iconic Coast-to-Coast route. He'd aim to complete the 190 mile journey over 6 days, covering between 30 and 35 miles a day whilst raising a few hundred quid for Marie Curie - a cancer charity close to his heart.

I guess there'd be people who'd explain their own endeavours of this kind along the following lines: 'A supreme test of physical and mental endurance!' And, maybe, they'd be right. But that's not Dave. He just referred to his trip as ' a few nice social runs in lovely surroundings with some good mates.'

By the time the Rainbow gang had joined him on Friday morning, the back of his journey was already broken. He'd started the trip with a solo run to Rosthwaite on Monday, but had been in the presence of company on each day since - Paul J. on Tuesday, Chris A. on Wednesday, and Leon on Thursday. There were still two days, and 67 miles, to complete, however, and it was to be my pleasure, along with Leon, to accompany him on these.

It's not my place to tell the story of Dave's adventure - I'm sure he'll do that himself - but certain moments keep appearing and reappearing in my head over the last couple of days:

- a long, frank and honest conversation between Dave, Leon and myself during a lonely road stretch on Friday morning. The sort of conversation friends can only have once they really know each other;

- the feeling of anticipation (and dread) when Dave mentioned he'd like to 'hammer it a bit' over the North Yorkshire Moors at our Friday lunch time stop;

- the feeling of anticipation (and dread) when Dave started to 'hammer it a bit' over the North Yorkshire Moors during Friday afternoon;

- the sense of relief when we arrived at our proposed end of day rendevous at Clay Bank Top. Only to realise that by 'hammering it a bit' we'd arrived two hours early for our pick up. Then have Dave suggest that we may as well press on another 6 miles to the Lion Inn;

- sitting on a large stone beside a wide moorland track in the dense mist, just Dave and myself, talking about the suicides of friends or loved ones;

- the photo-opportunity too good to miss on Saturday, when, trudging up the steep road out of Grosmont, we passed a sign reading '33%'. Taking out my camera, I said to Dave, ''Ere - I'll get a picture of this sign. Pretend to run up the hill behind it!' Which he did. Except, once I'd taken the photo, and with some 170 miles in his legs, he then proceeded to run to the top whilst Leon and myself struggled to walk it;

- the beauty of the first sight of the North Sea and the magnificent cliffs of the Yorkshire Coast;

- the agony of the seemingly ever-lasting path along the edge of the North Sea, on top of the magnificent cliffs of the Yorkshire Coast, as the sight of Robin Hood's Bay - our destination and finish point - constantly evaded us;

- the hairs of the back of my neck standing up as we ran down the steep street of Robin Hood's Bay towards the harbour, the beach and the sea;

- the wind 'making my eyes water' after I'd given Dave a hug and congratulated him on his epic achievement.

Dave reached the end of his trip at around 4.30pm on Saturday afternoon. He ran straight into the sea, a proud and happy man. The pebble he'd taken from the sea on the west coast was duely returned to the sea on the east coast.

A few photographs were taken. Of Dave, standing in the sea. Of Dave performing the yoga move he'd promised Tammy he'd do on the completion of his trip. Of Dave, Leon and myself -  his friends and running support for the day. And most importantly, of Dave and Debbie - a lady without which his running journey would have never happened. It's easy to forget the role our wives and partners play in our outlandish schemes. Debbie had driven over 600 miles during the course of the week in order to help the man she loves achieve his goal. I know how appreciative Dave is - he mentioned it countless times during those last two days - and I'm sure this is the finishing photo he'll, rightly, treasure the most.

Once the excitement of the finish was over, we started the slow walk up the hill to the car-park at the top. The sun was low in the sky and the wind had turned bitter. It was agreed that some kind of celebration was in order. And celebrate we did. In style. With a drive to Whitby, a mug of coffee and a plate of mushy peas, fish and chips.

As we drove home to Saleby, the aching of my feet was nullified by the treasured memories of the last two days. I thought of a passage I've always loved in Mike Cudahy's 'Wild Trails to Far Horizons', as he describes the closing moments of his record-breaking Coast-to-Coast run in 1985.

Once back, I dug it out, read it and re-read it. The words perfectly captured the sentiments of finishing such a challenging trip.

'The final mad, utterly ridiculous flight down the steep hill to the sea-front is like a crazy dream. If I meet with a car on this bend I know I shall simply put one foot on the bonnet, one on the roof and be over! Nothing can touch me. I'm at a pinnacle of all my mental and physical powers. I am not merely alive, I am a life force, elemental, joyful.

Perhaps that is why another elemental life force, the sea, creates such an impact on my spirit as I rush headlong into it, cooling my burning feet. It's crashing around me like a living entity, so welcome! How marvellous that it has swept right up to the edge of the cobbles and is in such lively form. I persuade the others to come and join me and we all embrace with the waves laughing around us.

Never have I felt such sheer and simple joy at the end of a run. Moments such as these not only provide the answer to why one does things like this but why we are alive at all. One moment of such joy is worth more, far more than countless years of steady rational living. To have encountered hardship, discomfort, to have experienced one's physical, mental and spiritual limitations and weaknesses, to have found a path beyond them, not conquering them but accepting and yet transcending them, to have been supported, guarded and guided lovingly by friends represents, for me, a joy both sublime and supreme. I ask for no more.'

I wondered if the same thoughts went through Dave's head as we descended the steep slopes of Robin Hood's Bay. I'd a feeling they couldn't be far off.