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.







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