Monday, 13 May 2013

Snakes and Ladders, Friends and Falling

We're just three tops in and already we've made the decision to bail out. We'd started our attempt on the Cumbrian Traverse in less than promising weather, but what little promise there was has now all gone. A stiff challenge has deteriorated into a foolhardy venture.

Coming off Caw, a tentative suggestion had been made by Dave. 'If this doesn't get better, I can see us getting rained off.'

I'd made a joke of it at the time - 'I thought you guys from up North were tough buggers!' I'd told Dave and Chris A. But, just half-an-hour later, things have changed.

After going off-piste, we're heading back in the direction of White Maiden. Crouched behind a huge boulder in a futile attempt to gain shelter, I pull out my GPS, get our exact location and take a bearing to the next summit. When Dave suggests going down to Coniston, this time there's no smart-arsed comment. We're cold and need to get off the hills. It's strange that until that moment, I'd felt ok - chilled and very wet, but uncomfortable rather than in trouble. However, as we crouch behind that rock, the realisation of how cold I am really hits me. After putting my hand-held into the waist pocket of my pack, my fingers are so numb that I can't pull the zip closed. My hands are rapidly becoming useless. It takes an age to get my winter gloves back on.

At this point, five minutes of good sense were definitely in order. What I should have done was pull out my extra base-layer and micro-fleece and put them on straight away. What I should have done was dig in the bottom of my pack for my water-proof trousers and put them on too. What I do is neither.

Knowing we'd be sat in a caff in Coniston within an hour lures me into a false sense of security. A deluded laziness means I can't be arsed to layer up properly. Standing still, I'm cold and just want to get running again.

So that's what we do. And that's where things start to go wrong.

There's times I look on my running as a game of Snakes and Ladders. Running's a game I choose to play. It has few benefits aside from the intrinsic enjoyment of playing the game.

I play a lot, and my consistency shows itself in steady progress. Starting from a lowly square, I move slowly along the board, gaining fitness, improving in performance and accomplishing challenges as I go.

At times, the dice thrown for me are blank and my progress up the board is halted temporarily. Other times witness a sudden dramatic increase in performance, motivation or confidence for no apparent reason. I climb a ladder and reach a higher square much more rapidly than I dare dream. Now and again, after weeks or months of climbing steadily, something happens and you can't help falling. It may be the onset of an injury or a disasterous performance in a race. You tumble down the back of the snake, unable to stop, but hoping that the square you eventually land upon isn't one on the bottom row of the board.

In recent months, my progress has been steady, but pleasing. I've climbed short ladders, but generally moved along just one square at a time. However, I guess part of me knew deep down that a snake was waiting.

The last month's weekends have been busy and exhilarating. Two days on the Coast-to-Coast, a trip to the London Marathon, a blast round The Three Peaks, and a run from Side-to-Side. Future weekends also beckoned with adventure - the Windermere Marathon, receeing in the Peak District, our club's summer relay and numerous BG supports. Lucky then that I'd put a weekend aside to stay at home and have a rest.

All would have been good if Dave Swift hadn't got in touch with an offer too good to refuse. 'What are your thoughts on the Cumbrian Traverse on 11th May?' his e-mail had read. Of course, my thoughts were, 'Yes please.' We'd had our eyes on this one for quite a while. Starting at Broughton Mills, the Cumbrian Traverse is a 35-mile high-level, South to North crossing of the Lake District, taking in 21 summits and finishing in Keswick. Taking around 12 hours to complete, it is, by all accounts, a fantastic day out. I'd let Dave down a couple of times last year due to injury, so when the possibility raised itself again, I jumped at the chance.

Setting off on Saturday morning, spirits had been high. The weather was iffy, but no worse than we'd been out in many times before. My fitness was better than it had been for maybe a year. For ages, the dice had been kind and I'd been playing the game well. As we jogged off from Broughton Mills village hall in the direction of mountains, I was blissfully unaware of how far I'd fall.

Reaching the Walna Scar road a little later, a potential problem rears its head. Debbie, Tammy and the superheroes will probably be at the Three Shires Stone, waiting for us at the point where the route crosses the Wrynose Pass. It's almost certain that phone reception there will be zero. If we descend to Coniston, we've no way of letting them know where we are.

At the point where Walna Scar intersects with the path to Brown Pike, we opt, instead, to go for Plan B. We'll turn left, go over Brown Pike and stick to the path, eventually dropping down Wetside Edge to reach our support. Chris A. pulls out a schedule and we make quick calculations. Instead of being in a warm caff inside half-an-hour, we're faced with another couple of hours of travel.

By now, I'm freezing, but still feeling upbeat. The wind, however, is ferocious. The percipitation swings between rain, hail, sleet and snow. We keep moving, but soon I'm struggling. Dave and Chris A. are leaving me behind. Why the great increase in pace? On the verge of being pissed off, I soon see that they're stopping at regular intervals to let me catch up. Sharing words with each other, I guess they're talking about me. As I reach them, Chris A. says, 'You ok, Chris?' 'Yeah,' I reply, but the look on his face shows that he doesn't believe me. Off we go again, but, try as I might, I can't keep up. I realise that, far from the lads' pace increasing, it's mine that has slowed dramatically. I'm a stubborn bugger, and I never like to admit my failings, especially where running's concerned, but slowly I begin to realise I'm in the shit.

I force myself to stop and put on more layers, but it's a job I should have done ages ago. By now, it's too late. Dave and Chris A. fuss around me, helping me get my jacket off, my fleece on, and my coat back over the top. Their actions tell me that they're concerned I'm not doing well. We press on afterwards, but I'm still hopelessly off-pace. The muscles of my upper body are sore from shivering, my shoulders ache so much I find it difficult to lift my arms. Each stride is fuzzy, hard work. My eyes fight static, my mind running over a story I wrote about a television some weeks ago. Dave drops back, talks to me, asks me questions that I can't be bothered to answer. 'Leave me alone.' This is what's going through my head. 'Leave me alone and don't talk. 'Cause I don't want to talk. Talking's too much effort.'

There's a touch of panic in Dave's instructions to Chris A. 'We need to get off the hills. Get to a road or a house or anywhere. Get warm again.' He doesn't mention my name, but I know he's thinking of me. This is confirmed by his next question. 'Chris - you got an emergency bivvy?' I nod, but I'm thinking there's no way they're leaving me here. Where they go, I go, no matter how long it takes.

Dave takes a descending path to a cascading beck, and I follow. The wind is less threatening, but I'm so tired. Each step is a challenge. We find shelter while Dave and Chris A. make important decisions. By coming off the ridge at this point, we're unsure of where we are. I'm no help. I'm past caring. Chris digs out my GPS and the lads figure out our location and where we need to be. I put on my waterproof trousers and realise I don't feel cold anymore. Why then is my shivering so severe?

For the next half-hour I trudge. Time's slowed down. I take a glove off, but can't get it back on. Chris A. forces one of his mittens on my hand and Dave stays with me, talking about loads of stuff that I can't recall. He's keeping me here, I know that. I must look terrible. But I really don't care. He gets me to take a cake bar from my waist belt - the thought of eating hadn't occured to me - but I can't break the plastic wrapper. He does it for me, hands it back, makes me eat it.

And I trudge. Keep going. Because it's the only option.

Before long, we're on a good path. As we drop down, the cloud clears and the road comes into view. By the Three Shires Stone, there's a couple of cars. I've never been so glad to see them.

Arriving at the fell-wagon, Chris A. orders me to get inside, get my wet clothes off, get dry ones on, get warm. 'I'm ok now,' I tell him, but do as I'm told. Within ten minutes, in warm clothes and a down jacket, my shivering's subsiding. Tam brings me soup and a roll that Debbie's prepared and I wolf them down, suddenly ravenous. Feeling much, much better, a tiredness now takes over me. I'll close my eyes. Rest for just a moment.

When I wake up, we're turning into Coniston and heading for the lakeside cafe. Over an hour has passed while I've been flat out. Tam sees me wake and says, 'Thank God for that. I had to nudge you a couple of times on the way to make sure you weren't dead.'

I feel right as rain again. After pulling up in the car-park, Debbie greets me with the words, 'How are you now?'

'Alright,' I tell her.

'Dave's been saying on the way that it's nice to see that you're just human like the rest of us!'

I laugh, apologise to the lads for holding them up and offer my gratitude for the way they looked after me up there. Chris A. explains the ins-and-outs of hypothermia, but - stood there, chatting to him in the sunshine - I find it difficult to comprehend how different I felt only an hour ago.

As always, I've plenty of time to think on the long drive home. Tam asks if I'm ok at frequent intervals, and I tell her I'm just fine. She tells me of the conversations she had with Dave and Chris A. at the Three Shires Stone whilst I was busy getting changed in the car. How worried they were about me. How glad they were to be off the hills in one piece. She tells me of something Dave had said - something that's sometimes so easy to forget. 'That's why you go into the mountains with your friends,' he'd told her. 'It's a social thing, a good crack. But, you know, sometimes it's dangerous out there and it's then that you need each other.'

His words struck a chord, and as the miles passed, I thought about them a lot.

Snakes and ladders. Friends and falling.

Whilst I may often choose to play this game alone, I look forward to the miles I spend with friends. The conversation, piss-taking, laughter and company can't help but enrich an outing. Most of the time, it's a fun thing, just great being together. But now and again, you realise that friends are there for another reason.

In this game of Snakes and Ladders, it's sometimes inevitable that you'll fall.

And, at times like this, it's comforting to know that your friends will be there to catch you.

On Saturday, two friends caught me. I'd just like to say thanks.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Introducing The Lincolnshire Quartet: The Side-to-Side

It's a shame that, sometimes, the places that hold great significance in your imagination are, in reality, a huge let-down. I'd spent half a day months ago mapping out a route across Lincolnshire, from its most westerly point to its most easterly. Whilst the most easterly was well-known and well-documented, its cardinal counterpart remained an enigma. In the end, I'd pulled out OS maps and figured it out for myself. I'd managed to narrow it down to a short stretch of country road in between the hamlet of Askerton Hill and the village of Staunton-in-the-Vale, just west of Long Bennington and south of Newark. I'd imagined this place hundreds of times over recent weeks. I'd noticed a trig point marked at a T-junction along this road, and determined that that would be a fine starting point for a fine journey. There may even be a small plaque attached to it saying something like, 'Lincolnshire's Most Westerly Point', I fancied.

But I'm here now. And despite a good search, the trig point is nowhere to be found. I've no choice than to start from the layby where Tam's parked the car. A layby as non-descript and grubby as any layby on any little-used road in the back end of the middle-of-nowhere. Macdonald's wrappers litter the verge. A colour supplement from the Sunday Sport lies creased and discarded in the hedgerow. Huge piles of stone chippings, artificial molehills for future pothole repairs and resurfacing, fill one end of the road-side space. All romantic aspirations broken, but not quite shattered, I resolve to make-do. I pose for the customary awkward 'before' photo, kiss goodbyes and jog off slowly.

My pace is restrained and remarkably easy. I'm aware that this is just an illusion. In 10 or 11 hours time, my economic shuffle will certainly not feel as comfortable. In front of me, some 60-odd miles distance is the North Sea. My destination. To get there today, I'll run across my county.

Inspired by a quarter-shelf of books I'd read recently, I'd sat outside our Gran Canarian holiday villa at Christmastime and idly thought not only of the journeys I'd like to make in the future, but also of how I would make them. The idea that travelling through similar landscapes could be made radically different by altering small variables like the speed of travel had begun to intrigue me, gently gnawing me towards the direction of imminent experimentation. A piece I'd read about Wordsworth, the reknowned Lakeland poet had been a catalyst. Wordsworth, it appears, composed best whilst moving through the landscape which inspired him. He was a well-known wierdo of his time, gently tramping the Lakeland fells, talking to himself, making notes and ironing out couplets that would stand the test of time. Perhaps, the piece proposed, thought happens best at a speed of 3 miles an hour - the pace of a typical walk?

I resolved to volunteer as guinea-pig. By changing minor, but key, variables of a long trip, I'd wondered, how would be satisfaction gained and the memories accrued be affected?

On returning to the UK, I'd already decided on four journeys I would use for my own pointless, but interesting, research. The journeys would define my home county, Lincolnshire. Each would differ in several important ways. The length of each, both in terms of distance covered and days taken, would differ considerably. All would be human-powered, but at least one would require a mode of transport that differed from shank's pony. Some would be done, either wholely or partly, in the pleasure of company, but at least one would be completed alone. Importantly, having learnt the lessons of The Sixth Statement, I would set no calendar restraints on these trips. It was highly unlikely, if not impossible, that I'd complete them within a year, but I was comfortable with the knowledge that they'd happen when the time was right.

So, The Lincolnshire Quartet was born. And the first installment would be The Side-to-Side.

Within a few minutes, I'm over the A1 and into Long Bennington. A left into Church Street sees me reacquainted with the Viking Way. It's over a year since I passed this way, determined and distressed, in the latter stages of a race I'll never repeat. I know this stretch of the trail well, but it's the first time I've run it in a west-to-east direction. I've always run these paths in the opposite direction at the end of a long, tiring day, so it's a revelation to see the area through the rose-coloured spectacles of freshness.



Crossing the infant Witham, I run slowly, pushed by a wind that will follow me all day. The spires of the churches of nearby villages - Westborough, Foston, Hougham and Marston - stand out against the unsettled sky, points in a gigantic topographical dot-to-dot. My running joins the dots, makes the lines inbetween, completes the picture.

With no running companion, no watch, no radio, I'm free to run with myself - to explore not only the geography of the map I hold in my hand, but also the psycho-geography of the map of memories that I hold within. Insignificant landmarks spark frequent vivid recollections of earlier travels, virtual photographs from the mental shoe-box of my mind.

I approached The Side-to-Side initially with just two criteria - the route would connect the western and eastern cardinal points of Lincolnshire, and it should be possible to be completed, comfortably, in a day. The planning- what little there was of it - went from there. Quickly, the trip began to take shape.

I'd start from near Askerton Hill and finish at Ingoldmells Point. The route in between would start with about 15 miles of the Viking Way, between Long Bennington and the B6403, south of Byard's Leap. From there, it would skirt north of Sleaford on rural roads before joining the riverside path adjacent to the River Slea and the Kyme Eau as far as Chapel Hill, and then onto Tattershall. The second half of the route would take me through Coningsby, Tumby Woodside, New Bolingbroke, Stickney, Midville, Burgh-le-Marsh and onto Ingoldmells.

The route itself interested me. Aside from the initial stretch along the Viking Way, the rest would be through areas I've rarely run through. The long riverside stretch, I was sure, would be a delight. Later, the route would take me into the heart of the lowlands, north of Boston - an area known for its flat and featureless terrain, as well as its expanses of straight, potentially boring, drove roads and country lanes. I'd spent much of last year in the Wolds, Lincolnshire's undulating area of outstanding natural beauty, always high on the tourist list for the type of people for whom the brash and vulgar seaside towns were just too much. But here was an area that was just as typically Lincolnshire, if not more so, and it lay, for me, mostly undiscovered.

I would complete the Side-to-Side in a continuous run, the pace of which would be sufficient to allow me to leave the start and reach the finish in daylight, but relaxed enough for me to fully enjoy the trip. I would do it alone, carrying what I needed in a small pack, and refuelling, as necessary, when the route passed through the two or three towns that were large enough to have a shop.

I estimated my chosen route at about 60 miles. In truth, I really didn't want to know the specifics of distance. Increasingly in ultra-circles (of which I tend to view myself as outside - I'm a foot-traveller, not an ultra-runner), there is a tendency to label routes with 'Fastest Known Times'. I want no part of this movement towards making each journey a race against a clock. It just doesn't seem right. I'd take a certain pleasure from being, to my knowledge, the first person to run across Lincolnshire, but little from the dubious honour of having done the fastest known crossing.

I also took some satisfaction from the knowledge that this particular route was one I'd never do again. I envisaged a scenario whereby I might undertake the side-to-side journey many times in the future, each one using just the same start and finish points as the only givens. The route between the two wouldn't be constricted to the 'fastest way', but given room to breathe. The possible paths between these two given points were almost endless.

The first three or four hours have rolled by easily, but now the day's in danger of becoming too hot. Depite the cloud cover and the occasional spot of rain, there's a mugginess that's hard to enjoy. I'd decided on the option of taking two small bottles to keep the weight down, but, by Leasingham, they're almost done. I'd identified the village as a refuelling stop before the start, but now I'm here, there's no evidence of shops on the road that hugs its southern edge. No doubt half an hours's exploration would set that right, but I'm aware that if I'm to reach Ingoldmells in daylight, I need to keep moving. I decide to push on to Tattershall, a good two hours away, and hope for the best.

The stretch along the Kyme Eau is as good as I'd hoped it would be. I bathe in tranquility, passing not a single soul until I reach South Kyme, with its famous tower and charming riverside moorings. By the time I reach the Witham, however, I'm done in. Seriously dehydrated, I shuffle the mile or so to Tattershall in a real funk, consoling myself with the knowledge that usually when you feel things can get no worse, they tend to get better. There are exceptions, of course, but I'm hoping this isn't one of them.


I stop at the shop in the town centre, buy an egg bap and enough liquid to drown in. A bottle of pop goes down in a few glugs. A bottle of sports drink restores my equilibrium, and a bottle of water sees me right. I walk for a couple of miles along the main road to Coningsby, necking these fluids whilst sticking a couple of spares in my pack for the next leg. I'm tired - you're always tired when you've been moving for six hours - but I'm hoping my legs will feel ok once I muster the enthusiasm to change from a walk to a jog again.

You're never really alone when you run. By choosing to travel by myself on the Side-to-Side, I'd chosen to listen to my internal dialogue rather than that of a companion. When you're tired, it's sometimes harder to find motivation with no-one else around, but, equally, the times spent listening to your own voices are sometimes the most rewarding. It's becoming increasingly rare to just be with yourself in our modern world. A long journey on foot still offers this gift. No telephone to answer. No e-mails to reply to. No temptation to 'connect' via social media. No obligation to interact at all. Just the ground below. The sky above. One foot in front of the other. A breath and a heartbeat.

I break into a slow run as a path takes me beside a council estate just out of Coningsby. I spend a couple of minutes running through a mental checklist, assessing the state of things. After frustrating periods during last year, my body seems to be holding up remarkably well of late. My time in The Woodshed pointed to a different way of doing things. A low-carbohydrate diet and an extra hour's sleep every night have certainly produced decent results, as has the pacemaker fitted in September. Whilst I pondered, at the time, that my serious running days might be over, my fears have proved unjustified. In fact, in terms of performance and volume, my running seems to have improved since. 'Doubling' too has helped sort out an ailing body. Although my mileage in recent weeks has hovered around the 100 mile mark, it's rare that I cover more than 7 miles in any one run during the week, preferring instead to split my days into an early morning and early evening outing. As my first really long run for over a year, I'd figured the Side-to-Side would be a good indication of this regime's success. And it's so far, so good.

The afternoon is hot and still. I jog along the deserted roads through the heart of farming country. It's hard to imagine here that thousands of people, at this moment, will be crowding the coast making the most of the Bank Holiday weekend.


I settle into a routine of taking a short walk every now and again to work different muscles, before resuming my shuffling jog. Passing through the area around Engine Farm, east of Stickford, I'm pleased to recall this is Lincolnshire's lowest point, slightly below sea-level. I jog on, smiling to myself as I recall last year's mission to locate Lincolnshire's highest point - an obscure trig buried in a hedge near Normanby-le-Wold, traipsing through deep snow drifts on a day out with Leon and Our Kid.

I'd expected the afternoon to drag, but the flatlands of my county have proven strangely liberating. On the horizon, wind turbines start to come into view, teasing with the promise of the end of the road.

Crossing the River Steeping, I feel I'm on the run-in to the finish. My pace picks up almost imperceptibly, and in the midst of a deep tiredness, there's a renewed purpose. Soon, I'm arriving at Burgh, enjoying a bottle of milk outside the Spar and arranging for Tam to meet me at the finish.


The sun's low as I run through Ashington End, my journey almost at an end. The drone of stock cars in the nearby stadium acts as applause for the bell lap. I take a field path from Addlethorpe to reach the Ingoldmells drain, the roller-coaster at Fantasy Island now dominating the skyline. I run alongside the Skegness Road - a road I know so well from my childhood, cut through Hurdman's Way and onto Sea Lane. Dodging the crowds, I'm running quickly past arcades, shops and pubs, until I'm over Roman Bank and onto the Extension. Then I'm on the sea-front. The North Sea before me. I'm done.

It's lovely to have family or friends waiting for you at the end of a long run, but I've done the last leg faster than I anticipated, and Tam and the superheroes haven't arrived yet. However, I'm not disappointed - ending this way seems to fit in with the day. The Point has changed from the magical days of childhood adventures. The coast guard station has been converted into a disco-bar. Dune-land has been developed with shops selling seaside shit and dodgy arcades. The beach has been invaded with cheap cabins, kiddies' rides and miniature trampolines. Like the day's starting point, this place should be special, but it's not.

I put on a jacket from my pack, take a couple of photos and walk back down the pullover. I find a bollard and sit on it, think about the day I've had, what it has told me, what it has taught me and what I'll make of it in a few days, a few months, a few years. I'll write a blog in a couple of days, record a few thoughts, but there'll be nothing special there. That will only come with time and distance. I know that.

I'm content as I sit and watch. Kids are eating chips beside grown men in onesies getting pissed. Sunburnt grandparents in union jack vests and three-quarter length trousers are taking evening cruises on hired mobility scooters. Beside me, a teenager's carrying dump bins full of beach balls back into a pound shop. The night is charged with both anticipation and resignation.

Eventually, I get up as the fell-wagon arrives. Music from a fair-ground waltzer soundtracks my farewell, and, over the road, the sun sets on the day, sinking in a orange pool of light behind an artificial volcano.