Saturday, 6 December 2014

The Point Of Pointlessness

The first brew of the day is usually good, but today it's more than good. As the jetboil cools in the porch of my one-man tent, I sip the strong coffee from a plastic cup and listen to the continuing sounds of this morning's alarm: water rushing from the pumping station's pipes on the opposite bank into the sludgy Haven; the occasional bark of wetland birdlife I'm too ignorant to identify; the heavy breathing of Our Kid outside my simple nylon sanctuary which transforms for minutes at a time into muffled snoring before eventually relaxing back into deep sighs.

Half-way down my cup, but still not all there, I zip open the tent and let the new day inside. Turning off my headtorch, I watch the world wake up.

Our Kid's laid on an inflatable sleeping mat, cocooned neatly in a cheap sleeping bag and slightly less cheap bivvy bag. He pulls his woollen beany up from over his face, opens one eye and grunts, 'Where's my brew then?'

'Morning, mardy arse,' I reply and add the remains of the hot water to a large spoonful of instant coffee. Whilst he comes to, I slip on some shoes and shuffle off to explore our overnight location in the growing light.

I'd spotted the small copse of trees just off the Seabank a few weeks ago, and thought then that it would make an ideal spot for a night's camping sometime. And so it had proved to be. We'd arrived in the darkness, just after 10 last night, set up in the shadow of a tree bizarrely emblazoned with a Blair Witch-style pentangle and enjoyed a night in the outdoors that seemed unfeasibly comfortable given the late November date of our trip.

I clamber up the bank and watch the sky warm up like the picture on an old-fashioned television. The sun, not quite risen over the North Sea, tints the clouds in colours that promise beautiful weather. Flocks of wading birds settle on the muddy banks of the river only to move on seconds later in unkempt, screeching murmurations. Wild horses gallop, riderless, free, on the far bank.

There's a fence up here, and I sit on it, following the progress of a small dingy from the direction of Cut End towards the Port of Boston. Its outboard motor leaves a scribble behind it in the water. A man at the back, a man at the front, a dog sat contentedly in the middle. The man at the front waves as the boat passes, and I wave back. Before long, the engine noise retreats and I'm left, alone for a while, with just the natural sounds of The Wash.

In its isolation and bleakness, there's a beauty here. It's real, seeping into me. I feel it.

My mind wanders to the adventure of the previous day, then a tingle of expectancy casts my thoughts towards what we're about to do today.

It's not long, though, till a quiet internal voice speaks to me. As I sit on that fence, as the dawn merges into early morning, I listen to what it says and know that it's the truth. 'This is it,' it says, 'Surely. This is the point.'

In the immediate aftermath of this summer's C2C Ultra, I'd felt almost cast adrift. After two or three weeks of active recovery, my body and mind were both itchy for action. Although I'd no intention of plunging straight into training for another big race, I needed a little more focus than just going out as and when I could be bothered. And so, in those moments when I'd nothing better to do but just jot notes on random sheets of scrap paper or doodle on the back of used envelopes, a phrase came to me - 'Totally Pointless Challenges' - and a plan began to take some sort of shape. Before long, I'd got the start of a short list of snappy titles and one or two vague ideas:

The Totally Pointless Challenges

1. The Moonlight Marathon
A run from Boston to Skegness along the Seabank (probably the loneliest landscape in Lincolnshire), to be completed on the night of a full moon without the aid of any artificial light.

2. The Kayak Commute
A journey from my home in Saleby to my workplace in Spilsby (a distance of only 10 miles as the crow flies) done entirely by foot or kayak. Using the Wold Grift drain, the North Sea and the River Steeping, I'd link these stretches of water by hauling my boat on wheels by foot until I eventually arrived at work. Using this rather out-of-the-way and rambling route (around 40 miles), the trip would be a long commute - probably one best not undertaken on a work day.

3. The Lincolnshire Grand Tour
A 7-day cycle trip of 150 miles devised by Penny and Bill Howe in their book 'Cycling in Lincolnshire', which had sat, largely unread, on my book shelf for the best part of 20 years. As a route, taking in, as it did, most of Lincolnshire, it looked perfectly ok, but it needed a twist to give it sufficient fizz. The twist would be this: could I do the whole thing as one continuous ride?

4. Source To Sea
A long distance kayak trip paddling the length of Lincolnshire's grandest river - the Witham - from its source at South Witham to the sea, east of Boston. Best done over a long weekend, I'd carry sufficient food and water to last the 3 or 4 days it would take and wild camp at night.

5. The Darkest Night
A self-supported run of about 90 miles around The Wash, starting from Hunstanton and finishing in Skegness. To be completed over the weekend of the Winter Solstice, when, coincidentally this year, the moon is in its lowest phase. Starting at 9am on Saturday 21st December, the night we'd run through before finishing would truely be the longest and darkest of the year.

Other ideas came and went, but it was these 5 that always seemed to stick. I'd do them in no particular order and they'd probably keep me entertained for the next 6 months or so.

It's unfortunate that when I get an idea, I find it hard to put down. In addition to the challenges themselves, I also found myself drafting out a set of rules - a sort of ethos that the trips must meet:

a. They would be low key and non-competitive. None of them would be timed or raced against the clock. Success would be measured merely in finishing the challenge, regardless of how long it took.

b. The planning would be minimal - sufficient, but only just - and each challenge would be done, ideally, on an adhoc or spur-of-the-moment basis.

c. The challenges would be 'anti-gear'. I'd buy no new clobber for any of the trips and none would require exorbitantly expensive kit. I'd do each with the stuff I already owned, even it it made any particular trip a little more uncomfortable or slowed me down a bit.

d. I'd welcome company. Although I was sure I'd end up doing some of these challenges by myself, it would be brilliant to think that I'd be in the presence of good friends or interesting strangers for some of them.

Sorted. The scene was set. Or so I thought. That was until the prospect of a Totally Pointless Challenge no.6 reared its head - an idea for a trip that wasn't my own at all.

I'd been scrolling through Fb on a work day tea-break when a link from Alastair Humphreys' MicroAdventures page had caught my eye.

Read it here, why don't you?

I can't remember the tag-line that accompanied the article, but it was something like, 'Fancy cycling here to the coast for a swim?' To be fair, if the nearest sea hadn't have been so close to home, the idea wouldn't have been so attractive. But it was, and it seemed a shame not to do something in such circumstances.

By the end of the day, another adventure had been added to The Totally Pointless Challenges list, company had been sought, and a free weekend in November had been pencilled in:

6. The Landlocked Triathlon
Setting out from Coton-in-the-Elms - the place furthest from the sea in the UK mainland, we'd head to the coast at Boston. No-one in their right minds would consider swimming in the sea off The Wash (check out Roger Deakin's wild swimming classic, 'Waterlog' - even he wimped out of doing just that). Therefore, we'd camp overnight on the Seabank, run a marathon the next day to the bracing seaside resort of Skeggy, and finish off our extreme triathlon with a quick trip in the sea.

Crazy? Certainly. Pointless? Most definitely. Exciting? You bet.

The Totally Pointless Challenges season kicked off at the start of November. On a Friday evening, the night after a full moon, Tammy drove 4 of us (and a dog) to Boston town centre and dropped us off near the market place. It was pissing down. The cloud cover was dense. The moon that we'd be depending on for this Moonlight Marathon was nowhere to be seen. Nevermind, I'd reasoned, plenty of experience of trips not going to plan had left me with the capacity to look on the bright side at even the worst of times. The forecast looked promising, and even if the moon failed to materialise, we'd be able to run the Bank with our headtorches, still guaranteeing a good night in the back of beyond.

A mile out of Boston, leaving the ominous orange glow cloud of the town behind us, the sky cleared and a halogen moon appeared that would remain with us until we'd reached our destination. A landscape I knew so well was transformed under the natural light, and our run was brushed with magic. Jogging into the lamp-lit streets of Skeg at the end of our adventure, I felt like a man returning from the moon. We'd been to a strange place - this familiar place on our doorstep, but made fantastically alien by just the moon's light - that no-one I knew had been to before. And it had been wonderful. Our next jolly - The Landlocked Triathlon - couldn't come soon enough.

Fast-forward to the morning of Saturday 29th November and a country lane by a large farm, south-east of the Derbyshire village of Coton-in-the-Elms.

It's a shame that everyday life has a tendency to impinge on our non-everyday pursuits. As a result of this, two good mates had been forced to drop out of the trip in the days leading up to the weekend. That left us a triathlon party of three - a magic number some would have it. Our Kid and myself would aim to complete all of the disciplines, and we'd spend this first cycling day in the company of a little Rainbow, Lightning - still not quite 13, but a veritable veteran of just 'getting out and doing it.' He'd been unfazed by the 95 mile route I'd mapped out ('That's ok, Dad. We do 10 miles every week on the bike at triathlon club!), and was so positive he could do the distance that I'd never have had the heart to turn him down.

It was a mucky start to the day, rain drizzling down as we'd got the bikes out the van. Lightning was lucky - he'd got the cool retro BH road-bike, lightweight and newly-serviced. Our Kid and I were less lucky. However, the rules of The Totally Pointless Challenges had to be adhered to. Our Kid's choice of steed was a cheap mountain-bike that one of the guys he worked with had given him for free after it had sat in a back garden, unused for two years. To this, he'd attached his 'surf-mat surfari' trailer, loaded with all sorts of stuff that he figured he'd need, but probably wouldn't. My ride for the day was Radford - an old friend. Bought for less than £200 over 15 years ago, I'd cycled across Australia on it over the millennium and had recently started re-using it daily for my work commute. It was smooth and trustworthy (good points), and now a single-speed machine (maybe not such a good point). The gears had packed in a couple of years ago and with my local riding being predominantly flat, I'd never bothered to get them fixed.

Having loaded up for the overnight camp, Tam took a couple of corny photos and we were off.

Cycling 95 miles is a tough job. Cycling 95 miles when one of you is 12 years old, one of you is riding an old bike with no gears, and one of you is pulling a trailer full of junk is a very tough job. But memorable too. Indeed, there's moment after moment you know you'll remember for a long, long time even when they're actually happening in real-time:

- getting lost on an alarming frequent basis in the first three hours;

- Our Kid's inspired attempts at educating the 'youth of today'
(Scene: outskirts of Bradgate Park, Leicestershire -
Lightning: 'These houses are amazing, eh Dad? I don't think I've ever seen so many Mercedes cars in one day!'
Me: (rudely interrupted before I can get a word in)
Our Kid: 'These houses, mate - you know what the people do who own them? (No pause for any reply) I'll tell you. The man of the house will have a job in London. He'll leave for work on a Monday morning and get back late on Friday night. At the weekend, he'll be too knackered to get out of bed before dinner, and when he does, all he'll do is yell. The lady of the house might have loved her husband at one time, but, since he's never about, she'll divide her time between shopping for stuff she thinks will impress the neighbours, getting drunk during the day-time, and knocking off the gardener who's younger and cuter than the sad sap she's stuck with. The kids'll be occupied with getting screwed up by a private education, before following in their parents' footsteps. Posh houses? Fancy cars? Better off spending time with your family and living in a caravan, mate! Anyone fancy a banana?);

- sagging spirits towards the half-way point being miraculously revived by the best trays of chips we've ever tasted as we sat on a dirty bench opposite the Millennium Fish Bar in Melton Mowbray;

- as darkness fell, fog so thick between Corby Glen and Dowsby that you could only figure whether you were going uphill or downhill by the pressure you needed to apply on the pedals;

- a long rest for Skittles and pop at Gosberton, Lightning laid out on the grass verge, before embarking on the last 10 miles into Boston
(Me: 'Hey mate - better sit up. These folks passing in cars'll think you're dead!'
Lightning: 'They'd be right Dad!)

- Lightning's version of 'Are we nearly there yet?' on this last stretch: 'Dad, do you think we're a third of the way to Boston?'!

- the smiles on the faces of Tam and Whirlwind as we finally reached Boston McDonald's nearly 12 hours after setting out;

- Lightning's obvious pride at what he'd achieved - a big trip for a little man - even though he was totally shattered (so tired that he even let his younger sister give him a kiss. That never happens!)

We'd stayed in McDonald's a little too long. It looked cold outside. The knowledge that my wife and kids were going home to our warm house suddenly made a night outdoors with Our Kid (of all people) on a deserted seabank on the outskirts of a run-down town seem less attractive than it had days earlier. But, eventually we'd drunk the last dregs of coffee, dunked the last French fries into syrupy red gloop, and had run out of excuses. Two of us had rode a back road to the middle of nowhere, pushed our loaded bikes across a couple of fields and found our secret spot. It hadn't taken long for spirits to rise again. 'This is always the best bit!' Our Kid had said, maybe a touch too enthusiastically, as he'd blown up his sleeping mat and dug out his sleeping bag.

We slow to a walk at the stile. Leverton pumping station. Nearly half-way. The sun as high in the sky as it gets this time of year. An almost-perfect day.

I unzip the front pocket on my back-pack, take out a couple of peanut butter wraps, bandaged in tin foil, and offer one to Our Kid.

'We could sit on that bench for a couple of minutes,' I tell him. In the dozens of times I've been here, I've never noticed it before. Perhaps it's new.

'May as well keep moving,' he replies, but stops when he notices the bench's inscription.

I look too, hands over eyes to shield them from the sun's glare.

'Be still and know that I am God'.

We don't say anything, but I know we're thinking the same thing. A few weeks ago, we'd bounced e-mails between us on the subject of Tom Blake, author of 'Voice of the Atom'. 'Nature = God,' he'd carved onto a rock in Wisconsin. Looking out onto the salt-marsh, it's difficult to deny that this is true.

We sit on the bench anyway. The feeling - it's here again. That same sense of interconnectedness I've been experiencing all too often recently.

Here, on this bench, eating my sandwich, I look upon God.

And a quiet, internal voice speaks to me once more. I listen to what it says, and know that it's the truth. 'This is it,' it says. 'Surely. This is the point.'

We'd met Tam at the Pilgrim Fathers' Memorial car-park at 8am. I think she was surprised we'd survived the night. We'd loaded the bikes, trailer and tent into the van, waffed down the croissants she'd kindly brought along, and changed into running gear. We'd set off jogging just after the sun had appeared over the horizon.

It's rare when you don't have the Seabank to yourself, even on a day as lovely as this one. Today was no different. Enjoying our utter detachment from the modern world, the miles had passed steadily.

Our Kid had been in fine form. Pulled along by threads of conversation, the running seemed effortless. For 20 minutes he'd spun a tale about The Mavericks of The Wash - a secretive, hard-core group of farmer-surfers who rowed out to ride a sand-bar break that was only surfable twice a year when the alchemy of swell, tide and an off-shore wind mixed up a potent potion of awesomeness. Like all of Our Kid's conversational topics, I'd figured the chances of the story being true was about 5%. Nevertheless, it was most entertaining.

He'd then proceeded to lay down his theory of successful marathon running. 'To do well in the Seabank Marathon (he'd run the second fastest time in the race's 30-odd year history, so he was well qualified to offer appropriate advice), you have to become someone else.'


'Well, the year I came third, the weather was crap- rain, strong winds - proper fell-running weather. So in that race I was Billy Bland. Tough bugger. The weather just bounced off me.'

Oh right.

'And the year I won - you know when I ran the second fastest time ever...'

Yeah, ok.

'Well, that year, I was Anton Krupicka. I don't mean I thought I was Anton Krupicka. I actually was Anton Krupicka.'

Things were getting surreal. I was glad to get to the stile at Leverton.

The second half of the Bank is neatly partitioned by a succession of watch-towers. Arriving at the first of these on our recent Moonlight Marathon, we'd been surprised to be greeted by a 'NO ENTRY' sign. The outer bank, it seemed, was now out of bounds. Arriving here in daylight, however, it had been immediately clear why this was the case. Huge chunks have been cut from that outer bank, leaving the sea free to invade. The land between the outer bank and the next inner bank has now been given over to wetland flooding. It's a phenomenon seen across the length of the Seabank. Whereby over the last century banks were built, land reclaimed and a further bank built to keep the North Sea at bay, it's now apparent that Man is no match for Nature. The tide, in its relentless march, is steadily taking back what was once stolen from it, and Man is powerless to resist.

Eventually we'd jumped the Gib Point gate and started on the tarmac run-in to Skegness, my battered trainers squeaking, metronomically hypnotic. I smiled as I recalled the irony of spending Black Friday bolstering them with yet more Shoe Goo. I'll get 3000 miles out of them if it kills me.

Soon, Barbara Road had beckoned - the Seabank Marathon finish line. Our Kid, by his own admission, was as tired as he'd ever been. We ran the last steps towards Tammy and the awaiting fell-wagon, our adventure almost, but not quite, done.

We race out the sea, small waves lapping our backs, big bounds back to the shore. Electric shock cold, yelling, 'Arghh...!' between cartoon deep breaths. Our Kid grinning madly, Tam laughing uncontrollably. She passes me a towel as I start to shiver.

The wind's picked up. Fine, golden sand blows across the beach. Out at sea, storm clouds beckon.

A family walking a dog looks across. 'What're they up to?'

I stand on the shore, look out to the wind turbines. There are voices in the air, muffled by the messy crash of waves. I listen to what they say, and know that it's the truth. 'This is it,' they say. 'Surely. This is the point.' 

I'd asked Our Kid before we arrived in Skeg if he'd packed his wetsuit. He'd replied in his usual direct way. Something like, 'A wetsuit? You fanny!' There was no way, however, that I was going for a swim in November without my winter suit. Not great, then, that when I'd pulled the neoprene package out of my bag, I'd realised it was, in fact, Lightning's summer shorty. We'd bought it from Doncaster services some months back. Funny the stuff they sell at motorway pit-stops nowadays.

It took some doing to squeeze a 6 foot torso into a 12 year old's wetsuit, but I'd managed it somehow, and succeeded in reaching the sea's edge without a complete loss of circulation. The water had looked cold. It had felt even colder. But a triathlon just isn't a triathlon without a swim.

Strictly speaking, our dip could only be called a 'swim' with a stretch of the imagination. But we'd got wet, and that had been enough for us.

The Landlocked Triathlon had come to an end.

If you know Our Kid, you'll know he usually gets the last word. As we'd sat back in the fell-wagon, heater on full-blast, he'd been quiet for a bit, then piped up,' You know the next challenge - that winter solstice run you're on about? I'm bloody glad I'm working that weekend!'

A few years ago, two words became part of me. 'Empty Miles'. I've been banging on about them ever since. That's because, to me at least, they're important. In those 'empty miles' that many dismiss as worthless or pointless, that's where I find the reason for being.

It's the same with The Totally Pointless Challenges. When I mentioned my ideas to certain folks, that was their stock comment - 'What's the point of that?'

Well, there is no point. What I'm doing - what some of us are doing together - is totally pointless.

Or is it?

I've tried for a good while in the writing of this post to articulate what it is that adventures like these Totally Pointless Challenges give to me. Whatever I wrote just didn't seem to do the job. Then I remembered that strange Australian bloke from Byron Bay.

Tommy Franklin dances. Go to the Byron Bay foreshore and you'll see him do just that. I don't know how he earns a living. I don't care. I only know that when I watch him dance, he's feeling what I catch glimpses of on these pointless adventures of mine. The pure joy. The elemental, unfettered sense of freedom. The blending of external surroundings, internal landscapes and the very act of movement into the delicious champagne of Flow.

Watch what Tommy does here. Or here.

Do you get it? Do you know what I'm saying?

Maybe you do.

Maybe you feel it too?

We're conditioned from an early age into thinking that valuable activities must have a point. Work hard at school and you'll get a good job. Get a good job and you'll accumulate the money needed to make you happy, because we all know that spending money on stuff will make us happy. Right? We're bombarded from all sides by advertisements telling us just that.

But look around.

How many people you see are smiling?

Look at them, frantically scrolling through social media on their smart phones in a desperate attempt to connect. To feel less lonely. Less trapped. Less fucking miserable. To feel loved.

How many of your friends are not on anti-depressants?

Perhaps now is the time, like Tommy Franklin, to see the light.

We need to dance. We need to run. To career down a hill on a bike with no brakes, the rain in our faces. We need to plunge into an icy ocean in the middle of winter even though it's fucking freezing. We need to sleep outside, stare at the stars, feel the world turn. We need to sit in silence and feel our hearts squeezed tight by the beauty of our surroundings.

What you find in pointless activities is a Value you no longer feel as much as you should. It's where you find that feeling. The one you get when you hug someone you care about. The one you get when you kiss your kids goodnight. The one you get when someone special says, 'I love you.' The feeling you crave - you need - but which the modern way of living has all but snuffed out.

That feeling is found in pointless activities. In these Totally Pointless Challenges. That's the point. Buried deep within them is the meaning of life.

My main-man, runner and philosopher, George Sheenan would have had a name for these pointless challenges. He'd have just called them 'play.'

So, I'll leave the last words to him, because he can say it better than I ever could:

'In play you realise simultaneously the supreme importance and the utter insignificance of what you are doing.

You accept the paradox of pursuing what is, at once, essential and inconsequential.

Play is the answer to the puzzle of our existence.

Play is where life lives.'

That's it.


That's the point.

That's the point of pointlessness.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Moments Of Weakness (1)

We all have moments of weakness, and I'd just had one.

After banging on to Tammy and Our Kid about 2015 being my 'year of no gear', I'd let myself down badly. The plan I'd concocted was sound enough. In an age where excessive and vulgar consumer spending is encouraged, is normal, I'd attempt to clock up my usual 4000+ miles next year without buying any running gear at all. It wouldn't be difficult, I'd reasoned. I'd got a rack full of shoes that could be coaxed through to 2016 with the help of old cycle inner tubes, duct tape, superglue and ShoeGoo, and enough clothes to keep me comfortable through both the benign heat of an English summer or the worst conditions that a winter weekend in the Lakes or the Peak District could throw at me.

But in spite of the best intentions, I'd let my guard down. My imagination had run away with me, and before I knew it. I'd typed that bloody debit card number into that little box on the computer screen and pressed 'CONFIRM ORDER.' Another pair of trainers. I'd justified the purchase beforehand - tried to ease my guilt over spending more money on shit, and, more importantly, the fact that I have a worrying tendency to often say one thing but do another - by correctly stating to myself that it was fine since it wasn't even 2015 yet. All I was doing was the running equivalent of what all the youngsters do on a Friday and Saturday night nowadays. Instead of getting pissed at home before hitting a club to save money like they did, I was just pre-loading my quiver of shoes to save any unnecessary purchases when my experiment started in earnest on January 1st next year.

Of course, like a great deal of my internal reasoning, this was utter bollocks.

The truth was that I'd been seduced by the dream duo of Rob Krar and Rory Bosio. Weeks of reading about their extra-ordinary performances through the summer had led to me becoming the fawning filling in a tasty North Face sandwich.

It was the beard that had turned me onto Rob. I'd grown my own version in sycophantic homage to him. He'd had an outstanding season, and the 'Depressions' film of his Rim 2 Rim 2 Rim FKT that had done the rounds on social media had only deepened the extent of my man-crush. Although obviously sponsored by The North Face, he had managed to hold onto a little dignity (in contrast to my other main man, Anton Krupicka, who's every Facebook post now seemed to end with a variation of '@newbalance@buffusa@zealoptics@ultimatedirectionusa@petzyl_official'.) This unwillingness to fully prostrate himself to corporate whoredom - whilst being a quality that exalted him in my eyes - was a pain in the arse when trying to ascertain exactly which pair of shoes I was going to splash out on. Type 'What shoes does Rob Krar run in?' into Google, and all you'll unearth is vague soundbites like, 'I like to run in light, minimalist shoes.' Not a great help when you've got a burning desire to spend money on those exact same shoes (whatever the hell they are), the contrary bugger.

Rory Bosio had been a bit more forthcoming, however. In amongst reading about her multi-coloured cruiser bike, her frog shower cap, her love of crosswords and her taste for kale porridge and Cherry Coke, I'd managed to track down an interview where she'd spoken briefly of the shoes she'd worn during this year's UTMB. You know, that race where she'd wupped the women's field for the second year running and beaten AK by, literally, hours (even though he'd been equipped with New Balance trainers, Buff headwear, Zeal Optic sunglasses, an Ultimate Direction backpack and a Petzyl headtorch.) Good enough for super-cute, kooky Rory, I'd reasoned, as I'd found a pair on the internet reduced from £110 to £66, then good enough for a no-mark like me.

Hitting that 'Enter' button on the computer keyboard and seeing that web page spin off into cyber space to be replaced by the 'Your order is being processed' page that always follows hot-on-the-heels, I'd briefly wallowed in the refreshing and invigorating anticipation of how these new shoes would change my life. Firstly, they'd make me a better runner - probably not as fast as uber-speedy Rob, but certainly within touching distance of the delightful, beautiful and dainty Ms. Bosio. Not only that, but just by wearing them, I'd become more like the esteemed duo in other ways. Put on those new shoes and I'd be enveloped by supernatural forces beyond my control, a bit like that young lad in the old Ready Brek adverts. By doing absolute naff-all apart from wear those lovely trainers, I'd become humble, yet ultra-tough like the Krarmeister - able to work a full working week then push through the pain barrier on mega-long runs with a determination that simply made lesser rivals wither and fall by the wayside. Put on those crisp, blue, almost kissable babies, and I'd be unavoidably invaded by the energy of the Bosioster. I'd start listening to crazy podcasts, pulling faces during races, star-jumping at finish lines and getting all my half-arsed opponents to kiss butt big-time in any race I goddamn liked.

It's a con, though, you know.

Sponsorship is just advertising. Advertising is just brainwashing - an incitement to spend money on an object in which you invest, for a moment, magical properties - that makes you happy for a tiny moment - before it becomes, yet again, just an 'object'.

As soon as I'd ordered them, I knew, deep down, that I'd been mugged. I guess, in theory, that I could have cancelled the transaction straight away. But my personality doesn't work like that. In much the same way as I've never DNF'ed a race, once I've started something, I can't turn round and go back. I just have to keep ploughing forwards no matter how bleak my prospects may appear.

Before the advent of mobile phones, the following scenario used to play itself out on occasions:

Lying in the bath before a Saturday night out, swigging from a bottle of the cheapest wine the local shop had on sale, a record would come on the radio that would spark sparkly memories of some girl you'd loved, but had dumped you, fucked you over or just simply fucked off. 'Her loss,' you'd think as you followed up that statement with a stream of derogatory adjectives and unbecoming nouns to describe said girl that are simply too vulgar to repeat in a civilised blog such as this.

Seven or eight pints later, however, after failing dismally, yet again, to woo a young lady - any lady at all - not too choosy - with witty banter or loose-hipped dancefloor devastation, you'd arrive back at your poky flat, try to put together a cup of tea in a drunken stupor and suddenly come up with the idea that calling up an old flame, who clearly wants nothing more to do with you, and telling her you love her, might well be the cleverest thing you've ever done. Two minutes later, when you've done just that and been told in no uncertain terms to piss right off, you sort of realise what a sad tosser you've been.

That feeling -'I'm such a prick but I just couldn't help myself' - well that's exactly how I felt immediately after buying those shoes.

I proceeded to check out a few online reviews (it might have been a decent idea to do this before I'd bought them, not after), and my anguish was salved somewhat by a few glowing ones. I'd read somewhere though that up to 70% of online reviews are fake, planted serreptitiously by the manufacturer or retailer to make that cash slide out of your feeble bank account more easily. That'll be most of the good reviews then, I'd reasoned. Which left only a handful of dire ones, all complaining about the durability of my newly-purchased footwear. 'Fell to bits after only about 40 miles,' one of them said. Proper put a smile on my face that one.

I'll not launch forth now into a rant of apoplectic rage at being ripped off by a company that clearly manufactures goods to fit perfectly with that fine capitalist ethos of 'planned obsolescence.' No, I'll just state simply - and with only a hint of bitterness - that these shoes, bought in a moment of weakness, were, indeed, crap.

After 72 miles on The Cumbria Way, the uppers were trashed, respendent with holes and fabric tears that I'd like to associate with a thousand miles, not a hundred miles, of wear. If I were the CEO of The North Face, I'd be mortified at the abject woefulness of one of my flagship products.

But, of course, I'm not the CEO of The North Face. I'm just the idiot at the end of the chain, who occasionally puts my trust in the promises spewed out by someone in the world of globalised big-business, only to discover, much sooner rather than later, that he's a complete lying bastard.

                                Rory Bosio. Ace.

                                Rob Krar. Ace.

                              The North Face Ultra-Trail. Crap.

Which brings me round, somehow, to what I originally intended to write about when I came up with the title, 'Moments Of Weakness' on this morning's long run...

Saturday, 18 October 2014

A Jog Around The Water Towers (4)


Old Leake - Sibsey - Cowbridge - Boston - Cut End - Freiston Shore - Leverton - Old Leake

After expressing a desire to listen to more music and less news a while back, Tammy bought me an mp3 player for my birthday in June. Put off by the vast black hole that 'synchronisation' means, however, it's sat, unused, in its little, white plastic box until I dug it out last Sunday night and faced my fear of the unknown head-on.

Two frustrating hours later, I'd not managed to add any songs, but I had succeeded in downloading a few free episodes of my favourite podcasts - The Dirtbag Diaries, Answer Me This and Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode's Film Reviews. (I don't tend to watch many films, but I do find their show most entertaining. Any 50-odd year old who can pull off a quiff and Buddy Holly glasses whilst professing a love of skiffle is someone worth listening to in my book.) I'd also stumbled across something new to me - Sodajerker On Songwriting - and added episodes dedicated to Paddy McAloon and Johnny Marr to spice up a couple of my daily 75 minute one-way cycle commutes during the week.

We live in a world where news is omnipresent. It's clear, though, that there's not nearly enough news worth knowing to flesh out 24 hour coverage. My default setting of listening to 5Live, with its rolling programme of repeated news stories, whilst on my bike had begun to do my head in recently. Adding in the fact that most modern news tends to be bad news (and generally not the type of bad news that excites me - stock markets free-falling, Tesco in crisis, a member of the Royal family being accidentally killed by a run-away Range Rover on the Sandringham Estate, etc.- that sort of stuff's fine), I'd begun to find that a constant 75 minute bombardment of it was spoiling the enjoyment of my cycling. An informative, irreverent or interesting podcast, in contrast - I figured - would surely have the opposite effect.

Which, unsurprisingly, it has.

So, what's all this got to do with running between two water towers in the backwaters of rural England? Not a great deal, to be honest, but a little bit.

I'll explain.

In the excellent Sodajerker episode on Paddy McAloon (It really is a superb listen. If you like music and are interested in the craft of creating a song, this podcast will, almost certainly, transform your dreary commute into something worthwhile), he talked, at length, of the prolific amount of work he'd recorded since the general public forgot about Prefab Sprout straight after they'd hot-dogged-jumping-frogged their way into the pop charts at the back end of the '80s. The idea that intrigued me the most was his explanation of the motivation for his songwriting. He worked best, and most creatively, he explained, when he'd an idea to hang a song or a set of songs upon. This might take the shape of a theme, around which he'd compose a series of songs, or, most simply, a title - a single word, a few words perhaps - which would stimulate the creation of three and a bit minutes of beauty.

On listening to this, it immediately struck a chord with me. I've always loved bands who have great song titles. I've always more than loved bands that have great song titles which seemingly have no relevance to the songs themselves. (New Order's 'Technique' LP is a fine example of this.) I've often found, also, that a lot of the time I'll just start with a title when thinking of writing a story or a blog post. 'Good title,' I'll think, 'Better write some old shit to go with it.'

It's a similar habit to my preferred method for creating a long run. To get motivated to do something slightly less monotonous that run the same old roads that I've shuffled down a thousand times before, I'll start with something physical to hang a run around. Usually this will lead me to pastures new. Sometimes it'll transform what could have been a slog into an adventure worth remembering. The 90 mile '50 Chuches' route I put together a couple of years ago for my running club's summer relay started off like this. Earlier this year, I spent a good few hours linking together the pillar trigs in East Lindsey by foot. A few months back, also, inspired by a fine water tower in Fulletby that I seemed to be passing regularly, I'd embarked on a mission to plan a series of runs linking all the existing water towers in Lincolnshire, each run visiting at least two different ones. This project had started promisingly, but once I'd eye-balled the most local ones and the continuation of the task involved more driving and a little more non-running effort, things had waned somewhat.

At the start of last week, having finally decided to shelve The Plogsland Round until longer days grace us again next summer, I was at a loss at what to do on my next Free Friday. Inspired by Paddy McAloon and heart lifted by a smattering of fine Prefab tunes on Wednesday, however, the long-redundant idea of water tower bagging re-emerged. I now had a plan of attack for my day-off that was more appealing than mowing the grass for the final time this year.

Parking by the church at just gone 9, my chosen route takes me out of Old Leake and into the heart of the best agricultural land in the UK. It's warm. Mid October, and still in shorts and T-shirt. 

The Old Leake water tower is a belter - a fine example of a classic design that can be seen for miles around. Having drove the A52 between Skegness and Boston any number of times, it's a tower I'm familiar with. Indeed, when I'd first thought of Lincolnshire water towers all those months ago, this was the one that immediately sprung to mind.

Moghal's Auto's now occupies a commercial unit that sits directly under the tower. I pull out the  phone that I left charging all night, to take a photo, but the display briefly reads 'Battery low', before the phone turns off. 'Never mind,' I console myself, 'There'll be plenty of pictures on the internet.' Without photographic evidence though, I ponder, there goes my proof that I've actually been here. Suffice to say that you'll just have to take my word for it. I'm fond of lying and tend to embellish most of the slightly interesting things I've ever done into something more, but who-on-Earth is going to be bothered whether I really visited a god-forsaken ancient water tower in a dead-end Lincolnshire village, for Christ's sake? 

It's all road till Boston. I'm in Sibsey before too long. A side-street that I've not been down for 21 years revives a lost memory. In the dank and dingy days of 1993, I'd visited a shop here with my Australian fiancee. It had been recommended by my mother's good pal, Janice Sutton - Skegness dancing school impresario - as somewhere we could buy a wedding dress for next to nothing. After walking one drizzly Sunday afternoon in the middle of winter to Sibsey (a trek of a couple of hours - neither of us had a UK driving license, or a car for that matter, we only had one bike between us, and buses didn't run that way at the weekend), we eventually located this tiny, run-down place that specialised in theatrical costumes and fancy dress. Amongst the rails of tat were a couple of passable wedding dresses. Lucky for me - each one was only £50. Not so lucky for my beau - both were a bit old-fashioned, the better of the two being at least a couple of sizes too big. We left the shop with that one. My powers of persuasion had been working a treat that particular afternoon. Mind you, I suppose she got her revenge a few months later. (I noticed that when she returned to Perth after deciding that she didn't want to marry me after all, she didn't take the dress with her.)

Passing the spectacular windmill on the other side of the village, I follow the Sibsey Trader to Boston Golf Club - Jaguars in the car park, bad slacks in the clubhouse - and onto the Horncastle Road at Cowbridge. It must be over 20 years ago too since I'd last run down this road - a staple training route in my Boston days.

The Horncastle Road water tower is slightly set back from the road and as impressive as its Old Leake counterpart, but in a different way. Lose concentration and you'd run straight past it without noticing. Reaching my destination, I take a mental picture - always the longest lasting - and head over the main road, down Windsor Bank and onto the Seabank.

Whilst the majority of my running colleagues hate the Seabank - it's rough underfoot, desolate, lonely and just goes on forever - I find myself constantly drawn to it. In planning this Free Friday run, I'd been keen to get on it. Indeed, the two big adventures I've got planned before Christmas both involve lengthy sections on the bank.

The Seabank had been a big thing when I was a kid. Although never accurately measured, the Seabank Marathon, run over around 26 miles, had captured my 14 year old kid's imagination at the start of the '80s. Roy Marshall - a moustachioed local long-distance legend who was a member of Holbeach AC - was my first big running hero. Regularly trouncing the opposition over the route, he'd become the first person to win the race three times. I often wonder what became of that Goliath of the Seabank.

My first marathon - aged 15 or so - was over the Seabank course. Traditionally, the race was run in different directions on alternate years (a tradition that, sadly, no longer holds true - the race always starting in Boston nowadays), and that particular year, a massive group of us from the Skegness Grammar School set off from the Clock Tower, Boston-bound, ready to do battle with a distance that was unimaginable back then. 5 hours later, Our Kid and I arrived as first back from the school, nearly 2 hours behind the race winner, starting off strongly, but having been reduced to a walk through the long grass of the last 10 miles.

Ending up in Boston at the start of the '90s after a couple of years of doing the global-traveller-thing, the Seabank still held me in its spell. As a club runner, however, participation was frowned upon. Never having possessed an official AAA race license, the threat bandied about was that taking part in the Seabank Marathon could result in severe disciplinary action, such as being banned from competing for your club.

In 1995, though, having just gone under 2.40 for the first (and only) time in the London, and feeling flush with a ton of training miles put in for an up-coming John O'Groats to Land's End run, I decided to throw caution to the wind. Jogging to the start, incognito in yellow T-shirt and Hawaiian shorts, I'd entered on the day, run the race, and jogged the 5 miles from Skegness to my mum's house in Ingoldmells after finishing. Running with Shaun North, who later became a local runner of some note (and still nowadays could whip my butt over most distances), I'd taken advantage of a dog attacking him as we passed the half-way point and put on a surge that lengthened to a gap of 14 minutes by the end. Coming in first at Skeggy's Clock Tower, my winning tme of 2.59 was the first under 3 hours since the heady days of the mid-'80s and my old hero, Roy Marshall. It's still one of my proudest moments.

Fifteen years later, returning to running after a few years of working too hard, raising a family and generally arsing about, I decided to have another go. In a stroke of luck which played straight to my strengths, the weather was bloody awful. Early June felt more like February. After only a handful of runners had finished, the race would later be abandoned over health and safety concerns, with runners and walkers removed from the Seabank and minibused to safety. I'd run the first 17 miles with Mark Sands and the previous year's winner - a gobby bloke from Sheffield who regaled us with constant stories of his distance-running prowess whilst he tucked in at the back as Mark and myself gallantly took it in turns to front up into a particularly vicious head-wind. Mark had eventually conked out at the RAF Wainfleet watch tower at Friskney, and I'd had to endure 6 more miles listening to Yorky telling me how good the winner's cup would look over his fireplace for the second year running. At Gibraltar Point, with 3 miles to go, my ears could take it no more and I took off, feeling both relieved and full of running, to open up a 6 minute gap by the finish. My time of 3.01 was the fastest on the 'new' route, adopted after the flooding of the marsh at Frieston Shore for wading bird habitats had forced the traditional route to be substantially diverted.

 Pleased again with my victory (I've had very, very few in 30 years of running), I was, nevertheless, aware that my finishing time was a soft one compared to the days of yore. The Garmin I wore that year confirmed my gut feelings. The new course was over a mile short of true marathon distance. (The old route had been up to a mile longer than 26.2 miles, depending on the position of the start or finish at the Boston end, which seemed to change every couple of years.) I was sure a decent runner could hammer home well under 3 hours. My suspicions were confirmed the very next year when Our Kid, off the back of his 'Trial of Miles' winter months of 200+ miles a week, clocked the Seabank Marathon's fastest ever time of 2.52 in a run that stands as one of the most impressive in its 30-odd year history. The bastard.

Last year, I was due to be in Scotland for a mate's Ramsey Round  over the Seabank weekend. It was unfortunate that an e-mail pinged through on Thursday lunch-time postponing the attempt, and leaving the forthcoming Sunday free. If I had migrated north, as planned, my unbeaten record in my favourite race would still have stood intact. But, hey-ho. With a sudden rush to the head, I'd told Tam that I'd have a third go at my own personal big-one. Becoming the first person to win the Seabank three times since the days of Roy Marshall was the clincher here. Once I'd done that, I could leave it alone.

Come the Sunday, I did my best to hold onto Mark Sands, who'd won the race the previous year, for a good 19 miles, before he broke me. Not by a lot. But enough. He crossed the line in 3.01 (a change in the start line in Boston had added over a mile to the 'new' course distance, making it a little longer than 26.2 miles again), whilst I arrived in 3.02, knackered but surprisingly upbeat in the knowledge that a better man than me had deservedly won the race that day. Mark added another victory to his belt this summer, to win 3 Seabanks on the bounce. He is now, undeniably, a Seabank legend.

That's the beauty of the Seabank. The wide-open landscape encourages a wide-open mindscape. Lost in reminiscence of past glories, I'm soon at Cut End - the point at which the River Haven joins the sea, and where the bank takes a sharp left in the direction of Skegness. I sit for 5 minutes, back resting against a pillar trig, and enjoy a drink and a sandwich. The wind makes patterns through the long grass. Out at sea, a container ship lurks, bound for King's Lynn perhaps, whilst a fishing boat chugs in the opposite direction closer to land. On the wide, muddy banks of the river, huge flocks of birds I don't know the name of settle and scatter in endless, swooping repeat. I think of my usual working-week lunch-break - sat at a desk, hurried, distracted, scrolling through shite on Facebook - take a final drink of water, and jog off slowly, buoyed by a feeling of freedom and the knowledge that, today, I've got all this to myself.

Pushed by a strong back-wind, the miles pass quickly. And with them, memories, stories and future plans - soaring kites tethered to terra-firma by ropes wove from the recognition of the beauty of Now. 

I drop off the bank at the Leverton pumping station and head inland in the general direction of Old Leake. Carrying no map, I figure I'll just keep running west on the muddy back lanes until the water tower appears and I've something to aim for. It's a section of my run that I'd not been looking forward to, but today I'm courting fortune's favours. Footpath signs keep appearing and I just keep following them. Drain-sides, dyke-edges, heavy tracks through plough - a rights-of-way jigsaw that leads me, by total fluke, straight  to the A52.

A arrive back at the car a couple of minutes later, almost done in, but not quite. At 4 and a half hours, it's my longest run for a while. I change my shoes, walk over to the village shop to buy some pop. Then, sitting on the church wall in the afternoon sun, sipping Irn Bru from a plastic bottle and humming Prefab Sprout's 'Faron Young', I reflect on a perfect and pointless way to spend a day.

Friday, 10 October 2014

More Of This

It's dark on The Terrace. I park up facing the sea, watch the blackness become grey on the horizon, finish the dregs of tea from the old travel flask that someone lent me years ago and I never gave back.

It's 5.50am and I'm alone up here. The fringe-dwellers, motorhome nomads and 'piss-takers' that have made this free beach-side car park home for many of the previous summers are conspicuous only by their absence. Relentless local council harassment, hastily-passed byelaws and draconian measures by the boys-in-blue seem to have achieved their aim. Park through the night now and you'll probably be rewarded with an 'overnight ASBO' and a court appearance.

I turn on the radio and wonder where all these people have gone. Vagrants. Bums. Drop-outs. People who have chosen to live on the edge of this bloated tyrant we call 'normal society'. People who own enough possessions to fill only a couple of cupboards, who have come to the conclusion through first-hand experience that Cameron's glorification of 'strivers' and 'workers' and the admirable folk that 'work all the hours God sends' is hollow, blinkered bullshit. People who have chosen to side-step a modern world where the weak are made weaker, the strong are handed concessions to make them stronger, and the principle of looking after the ones that need looking after is forgotten in favour of lessening the burden on those who have plenty and bombing the fuck out of the Middle East.

Perhaps they've been driven back to soulless bungalows on the outskirts of Leicester and Rotherham? To council tax? Sky TV? A zero-hours contract with B & Q? To the banal mundanity of the way everyone else lives; an annihilation of a life?

But maybe not. I hope so, anyway. As I look out onto the very beginnings of a perfect day, it's painfully obvious just who's got things sussed in this world.

It's nearly light enough now. I pour milk into a plastic tub of sugar puffs and eat them slowly. My spoon has half a handle. Stevie Nick's 'The Dealer' starts playing, and somehow it's so right. I picture the gorgeous girl on the front of the Buckingham Nick's LP - eyes betraying individuality, creativity, energy and a heart that just needs love - and feel lifted somehow. It's a new morning and I'm here to be with it.

It's two months since I stopped playing the role of 'ultra-runner' and started telling myself a different story. Whilst I've still run everyday, it's not the chase for longer, harder, faster that I've pandered to, but rather the pursuit of happiness. By taking off a self-imposed blindfold and opening myself to to new experience, I've come a fair way. By adopting Rory Bosio's mantra of 'fake it until you make it', I'm sure I'll go much further. In changing my internal monologue from negative to positive, I felt an imposter at first. But already things are changing. It's hard work, but tell yourself the same story for long enough and eventually it becomes real.

Which is why, I guess, I'm sitting here.

As the busy summer season draws to a close and work hours return to a more manageable four days a week, I'd vaguely considered plans on this first free Friday for a leisurely jaunt round The Plogsland Round - a 47 mile long-distance route around Lincoln. However, as Thursday had gone on, this particular day-out had seemed less and less appealing, the main downer being the two hour round trip by car to the start and finish point. Talk on the weather forecasts through the day had been of the impending end of the Indian summer. Friday would mark the end of the long spell of unreasonably warm late-season weather with Saturday signalling  a return to the low pressure, strong winds and changeable weather usually associated with autumn. It didn't take me long to make up my mind. If Friday was to be the last day of summer, there could be no better place to spend it.

There's only the sound of the waves lapping the shore as I pull the kayak out the back of the van and carry it the few yards to the beach. After changing into winter wet-suit and neoprene boots, I grab my paddle and start the drag to the sea's edge. In that in-between time between night and morning, the water looks, at once, tantalising and inviting, foreboding and more than a little scary. I hesitate for a moment. But only a moment. Then I push the boat out into the white-water, jump into the seat and make my way into the gloom.

As the seasons change and the nights shorten, the last couple of weeks have seen a return to running in the dark. In much the same way as I hanker for the emergence of light mornings and evenings in March after months of running in darkness, I find myself looking forward during September to morning runs where the sun's not yet risen or evening runs that are impossible to complete before the sun sets. With the use of a decent head-torch, the onset of winter no longer means months of sticking to the roads like it did in my younger days. Instead, the farm-tracks, field-paths and off-road rights-of-way are just as accessible as they are in the lighter summer months. The added bonus is that, in the dark, they take on a new life. They feel different. Indeed, running itself feels different. Senses are heightened, concentration more focused, internal monologues more meaningful. Running through the countryside in the dark, by yourself, I would suggest is an ultimate exercise in meditation.

After reading Alastair Humphrey's account of a walk under a harvest moon a little while back, as the days have shortened this year, I've felt an increasing desire to get rid of any artificial light at all. On the most familiar of my off-road routes, I've simply left the head-torch turned off. Granted, forward progress is often much slower, but is that necessarily a bad thing? The rewards more than compensate. In no time at all, you discover your night-vision is more developed than you would imagine. Feedback loops that are hardly used in the daytime are switched on full. Proprioceptive systems are fully engaged. It's as if even if you can't see your way clearly, you can feel your way. From the start of the run till its end, you're in it, totally absorbed. You're part of everything around you - interconnected - equals. Turn the head-torch on and all that changes. Running's easier, that's for sure, but now something's missing. You're back in the bubble, enclosed, cut off, wrapped in a sphere of lumens against the blackness that makes up out there.

The splish of paddles in the water accompanies me towards the horizon. I hadn't dare go in while total darkness remained. Now, as I head ever-further east, at least I'm able to distinguish where the sea ends and the sky starts. And that feeling's here again. The feeling that I sensed in those recent runs into the night, the one that pulled me, against common sense perhaps, into the sea at this time of day.

I continue paddling, my heart racing, deep breaths to calm myself, until I've reached as far as I want to go. I spin the kayak round and look towards a shore that I can no longer see. Adrift, a quarter-mile from land, invisible, there but not there, I let everything in.

Petrified. Exhilarated.

It all becomes clear.

I need more of this. Not gadgets, gear, three consecutive nights of fucking X-Factor. Not Facebook, Snapchat, sound-bites from self-serving royals, magazines full of the useless, ignorant tossers we label 'celebrities'. No, I need more of this. Times when my senses are alive, my heart's beating up a drum solo and my head's crammed full of Now. Times when I'm unsure if what I'm doing is the worst experience or the best experience of my life. Times spent on the edges of lost maps. Times when I'm tiny, insignificant, a minute cog in the way the natural world turns - not a Master of the Universe, merely a speck within it.

This is where I need to go.

After who-knows-how-much time, it's light enough to make out the shore. At the limit of my distance vision, the white van sits alone on the car terrace. The wind's got up. I spin the kayak round, heading south, into it, against the current. Beginning with a brew, a bit of Stevie and a paddle into the darkness, I'd planned a full day of just being. A trip down the coast to Chapel Point and back. Hot coffee from a Jetboil on the beach, a couple of hours in the sun, finishing my book, snoozing. A short drive to the North End and a long run through the dunes in the direction of Paradise. Maybe finish off with an evening paddle to watch the sun set. All this passes through my mind as I start moving through the water. Then the sun rises and the future just disappears.

More of this.

I turn my kayak to the horizon once more. Watch the orange globe start its daily journey. I take a couple of hasty photographs on a hopelessly-out-of-date phone. I hear the wind, the slap of the sea against my boat, the barking of dogs on an early-morning walk.

Above me - the sky blue, reds, yellow, softened by cloud - a pair of seagulls swoop. The words from the end of Lightning's latest English assignment enter my head. The musings of a man unjustly imprisoned in the last century for a crime he did not commit:

'As I peer between the bars in my window, I see birds flying, gliding and dancing in the sky. They are free. They were me.'

I'd been a bit concerned but more-than-a-bit amused when Tammy had mentioned to my mum earlier in the year, albeit in a light-hearted way, that she thought 'Chris was having a mid-life crisis'. I'd remembered the words of Our Kid when he'd given everything up to go and live in a touring caravan a couple of years ago.

'They call it a mid-life crisis, don't they?' he'd said. 'But it's really a waking up. You spend the first half of your life doing what it is you're supposed to do. Then, when you're old enough to know the score, you can't help but see through it. Everything you've been taught or told since the day you were born is just total bollocks. If you're lucky, you've got the second half of your life to gradually unlearn all that shit.'

It's 8am. A gorgeous September day on the east coast. At this time on any given Friday ten years ago, I'd be two hours into the fifth straight 16 hour day of the working week. Arriving home just before 11pm, I'd kiss the sleeping superheroes goodnight. Lightning under his Liverpool bedspread. Whirlwind - our baby girl who I'd hardly gotten to know - asleep in her cot. I'd fall, exhausted, into bed. After a bad-tempered Saturday, hung-over with tiredness, I'd leave the house at 5am on Sunday to stand all day on Cleethorpes' indoor market. Come Monday, I'd start again.

Work hard. Be successful. Get a good job. Earn good money. Buy a house. Buy a car, an i-phone 6. That's what they say. And that's what we do. But it's wrong. And even if you're doing it now, you still know deep-down that it's wrong. Because you can feel it in your gut. Feel it in that desperate longing for two weeks of freedom on a yearly foreign holiday. Feel it in that Sunday night  sinking feeling, in that brief moment of perfect clarity when the alarm clock goes off ('What the fuck am I doing this for?, before you realise, with a heavy heart, that you do it because it's just what you do.)  Feel it in that constant dissatisfaction with your lot, the gnawing feeling that any amount of spending can't get shut of. Feel it when you fill out another repeat prescription for the tablets that help you cope. Feel it in your hankering for overtime you'd rather not do, but will come in handy to pay off the credit card, of course.

You know the feeling. I did too and still do, but less so now. Slowly, the prison bars are disappearing. And if this is what a mid-life crisis does, then let me have it all. And more.

The sun shines on the water. It's 8am. Friday morning. The last 'work' day of the week. Anderby Creek's skyline in the distance, salt water on my face, shoulder muscles pleasantly burning. With time on my hands, I paddle south. And I keep paddling.

Away from the things that imprisoned me for so long, the life I just got used to living. Away from the 'societal norms', the expectations, the accumulation of stuff we're led to believe we must have to make our lives worthwhile. Away from the way that they tell us we all should be.

Away from all that crap.

And into more of this.


Saturday, 30 August 2014

A Step Forward Or A Kiss?

It had just started raining when the text came through. We were somewhere on the A1, bound for Whitehaven, the starting point of the next day's inaugral Coast 2 Coast Ultra - a 140 mile foot race across the UK.

I'd been quiet on the journey. I'd invested a lot of miles in this race, and although I was looking forward to it, the event had taken on an extra significance. It had become a signpost for change. Having become increasingly disillusioned with the long-distance racing scene (and competition in general), I'd identified the C2C as the date that everything would change. Today I was 'Chris Rainbow, Ultra Runner'. After the weekend was done, I'd be becoming just 'Chris Rainbow'.

Whilst undoubtedly exciting, leaving behind a scene I knew so well - indeed a scene that almost defined me - was a little unnerving. Lost in thought, I knew that what I needed most was a chat with Our Kid. We worked on the same wavelength. He'd know what to say.

He must have known..

As Tam's phone vibrated and played its annoying little jingle, I reached over and grabbed it.

'Text message received. Dennis,' the display read.

I opened it and read it aloud to Tam as she carried on driving...

 I spent an easy day yesterday , amongst other things, reading about travel and adventure. Things like Ali Humphreys microadventures, Sean whateverhisnameis run across Britain etc, etc. I like that Seans attitude about lack of planning. That's always been my way. I think to Australia when the only plan was to make it to Sydney. We could of planned to dive on the barrier reef etc, etc, and probably missed out on the classic things to 'do' in Oz, but the adventure was none the less. The adventures we had there were ones we just stumbled on, like you say in your blog, just because we were in the right place at the right time and because of the circumstances at the time - the van always breaking out, the World surfing your in MR and Burleigh Heads, the weather in Townsville, the roads being cut off. When I went to Mexico the amount of travel preparation I had was non existent compared to some mainly because of the attitude that ' what was the worst that could happen?' I had money and access to money which would get me out of most situations. I remember you saying about my training for the canyons - no structure - but, I guess, that sums me up. Gran Canaria with just a tourist map, until a lad gave me a travel guide when he was going home.
Anyway, all these things got me thinking. Adventure is everywhere. Walk a mile from your house and camp is an adventure ( why don't we organise something like that on a weekend before the kids start back?). Anyway, I know that you know all these things anyway - long running in the country is an adventure etc.

I had a dream last night where I was abroad. It was the bottom of Portugal in my mind, but scenery wise, was Morrocco / Africa. I was walking and was being tagged along by this blonde girl from Germany / Scandinavia. She was the typical type in batik pants, bit disheveled, but totally beautiful, to me at least. We'd heard about this chap who was walking and attracted a bit of a following ( Forrest Gump from earlier in the day?). The press had given a name to these walking people - 'The Nike Hike.' We joined the end of the line. We didn't know where we were going or how long we'd do it for. Nobody did. I laughed as I told the girl that nobody was wearing Nikes and that Nike would probably sue and forbid use of a name which no one at the time cared about, but would do if the mega company told them not too. Anyway, as is the stuff of dreams, I fell in love with her, she fell in love with me and I woke up just after our first kiss.

The upshot of this is that I've just spent a couple of hundred quid on a decent bike trailer, which packs down to nothing. Carrying the SUP to Mabo? Little tours round the Wolds? Few weeks looking for 'The Nike Hike' in Morrocco? Who knows?

You are on an adventure this weekend. Timmy Olsen showed at Hard Rock that the best adventures have nothing to do with results. Keep the ego at bay and the ' I'm having a great adventure,' at the front of your mind and the weekend will be memorable whatever.

Me? I'm having a walk over the fields to your house. Haha!

Love you,
Den xx

Rushed with emotion, I felt like crying. I looked over at Tam and she smiled back at me. 'He's a daft sod, isn't he?' she said.

I stared out the window for a good while and then read it again.

I couldn't help but think of the rambling letters that he used to send me when people wrote letters. Letters that I'd look forward to and cherish when I was thousands of miles away from him.

Picking out points, I started to talk about some of the things he'd mentioned:

- Alastair Humphreys' everyday mini-adventures;

- Sean Conway, who'd swam the length of Britain last year, and had just set out on a Land's End to John O'Groats run sporting a huge beard, red shorts, yellow tee-shirt and a 'Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.' truckers hat;

- the scrapes we got in together in Australia all those years back;

- Timothy Olsen's performance at the Hardrock 100 the previous weekend, where going in as a pre-race favourite, he'd stolen the limelight from eventual winner, Killian Journet, by enduring such a nightmare of suffering that to finish, broken but still moving forwards, had become the stuff of US ultra-running legend.

On and on.

By the time I stopped talking, we'd reached Keswick.

Just then, another text arrived, also from Dennis.

I read it out.

'Oh- I forgot to say. The leader of The Nike Hike was you!!'

As I lined up on the start line on the drizzly Saturday morning, about to undertake one of the longest runs of my life, it was odd how calm I felt. That phrase, 'The Nike Hike', kept meandering into my mind. Somehow Our Kid's text from the day before had transformed this brutal 'race' into something to be enjoyed, savoured and eventually remembered for the experiences it provided, rather than for my position on the results page after the event was over.

At 7am, the horn sounded, and this most strange creation - a race that was no longer a race - began.

Early miles went smoothly. I fell into step with Jason Lewis and ran, slightly too quickly, with him for 10 miles or so. Meeting Tam for the first time at Kirkland, I took a couple of minutes to change my drinks flasks while Jason pushed on. I ran the next 20 miles by myself, enjoying the hills, the Lake District lanes I was discovering for the first time, and the soothing chill of the steadily increasing rainfall.

Just before Portinscale, Jason came back into view, and we ran into the Keswick swimming pool car park together, where Tam had sorted out the first of my four 'big stops'. My plan had been to break the route into 30 mile segments (corresponding to the sections on the Sustrans C2C map we'd been provided with), and take a BG approach, stopping for 10 minutes at the end of each one of these segments, having a sit down, slugging a coffee and getting in a bowl or two of the bean, pepper and cheese stew I'd concocted and used successfully in training over previous months.

Whilst I sat down and chatted with a few good friends who had kindly popped along to offer support, Jason made it clear he was going to keep going (obviously the stew didn't look that good!), and left on the railway path with the words, 'You'll probably catch me up in a bit!' As it turned out, unfortunately, that was the last I'd see of him.

An enjoyable, wet and windy hike over the Old Coach Road followed, after which the weather brightened and the charming rural lanes led me out of the Lake District, through Penrith and beyond to my second 'big stop' on Langwathby village green.

The stew took a bit more getting down this time, but, physically, things were still in pretty good shape. With 60 miles covered, it was at this point in 2012's Viking Way Ultra that things had started to unravel. This time, everything seemed better. The super-cushioned shoes I'd chosen to wear appeared to be keeping my feet in decent nick, even though they'd got over 1000 miles on them and had needed bolstering with the liberal use of superglue and ShoeGoo in recent weeks. My stomach, too, seemed happier. Cutting out all meat and fish from my diet (entirely for ethical reasons rather than health or performance-related ones) seemed to have had no detrimental impact on my running, and my decision to stay off junk and sugar until after 100 miles appeared to be paying dividends. Instead of the jelly sweets, cake, flap jack and gels I'd downed in the early stages of the VW (and which had led to an inability to keep any substantial food down after 81 miles), here I'd grazed on bean tortillas, flat bread with almond butter and mixed fruit and raisins. My strategy seemed to be doing the trick.

Knocking back a coffee, Tam informed me that Jason had been through 10 minutes earlier, but was struggling to eat anything solid and felt rough. Behind me, according to the tracker, she said, Martin Terry seemed to be moving well and was probably 10 or 15 minutes back.

I set off back into the oppressively warm early evening knowing that this stretch, Langwathby to Allenheads, was the crux of this Coast 2 Coast route. I'd ran this section on fresh legs a few months back, and knew it was both the most beautiful and most taxing stretch. After a wildly undulating first 60 miles, now we were to tackle real hills. The next 30 miles would cross the four biggest climbs of the route, including a steep drag up Hartside and a slog over Black Hill, at 609 metres, the highest point of the journey.

I chipped off the miles to the bottom of Hartside, passing through Renwick feeling hot, dehydrated and weary. Dressed in just vest and shorts, the warm weather was taking its toll. By the time I reached the summit cafe, however, things had changed dramatically.

The violent storm hit with full effect on the hairpin, half-way to the top. By the time I'd reached the main road a mile or so from the top, the tarmac was an inch deep in water. Half a mile from the top, I was met by Tam driving down from the cafe car park. Perplexed, I waited till she wound down the window. 'Mark's sent me down too see if you're ok,' she said, 'He doesn't want anyone getting hypothermia.'

'Fuck me,' I thought,'If Mark Cockbain, race organiser and legendary hard man, is worried, things must be bad!'

Arriving at the summit, the storm was still raging. Mark greeted me. 'I've changed the rule about being disqualified if you enter your support vehicle,' he said. 'If you want to get in for a few minutes and warm up, that'll be fine.' He seemed genuinely concerned. He even offered me a cup of coffee.

I didn't fancy the idea of taking cover. Once inside that warm car, I knew it would be hard to get out. Instead, I changed by the tail-door, shed my drenched clothes, replaced them with dry ones and a waterproof coat, and set off again. But the weather had got me, My running action had become jerky and stiff, my upper body had been seized by the shivers. I'd been here before, and knew I needed to take action sooner rather than later. As Tam drove past 5 minutes later, I flagged her down and told her I needed more clothes - loads more clothes. And so it was, as darkness fell on a warm August evening, that I ended up running down to Leadgate clad in full-on winter mountaineering garb - waterproof pants, thick thermal base layer, Buffalo Special Six, Lowe Alpine mountain cap and winter mitts. But a wobble had been averted. By the time I met Tam in the valley near Garrigill, the shakes had subsided and it was time to take all the stuff off again.

In a long journey, the onset of darkness always brings doubt. I actually enjoy running in the dark, but that time when day is being replaced by night is always a dodgy one for me.

The climb out of Garrigill is tough and steep. By the time I'd reached the top, I'd had enough. For many weeks I'd worked hard on running mindfully - emptying my head and existing only in the present moment - now this footstep, now the next. I'd purposefully avoided running this race with any gadgets - no Garmin, music device, radio or earphones - in order to encourage this meditative state. And so far, things had gone perfectly. But now, things were falling apart. '80 miles in,' I kept thinking, '60 miles to go.' Unlike the Viking Way, my collapse wasn't physical - I was tired, for sure, but still felt ok. This time it was a mental one.

Questions appeared out of the shadows. 'What's the point?' 'What have you got to prove?' 'Just who are you doing it for?'

Tammy would be at Nenthead. I'd just get in the car. 'That's it,' I'd tell her. 'Let's go home.'

I jogged on, seemingly happy with my decision. It was then that another phrase appeared. One that I'd not thought of since the start. 'The Nike Hike'. I thought of Our Kid's text and recalled a couple of important sentences:

' You are on an adventure this weekend. Timmy Olsen showed at Hardrock that the best adventures have nothing to do with results. Keep the ego at bay and 'I'm having a great adventure' at the front of your mind and the weekend will be memorable whatever.'

I jogged on. Answers from the darkness. 'There is no point, but does that mean it's not worth doing?' 'I've nothing to prove - I'm just doing this because I want to.' 'I'm doing it for myself, I guess. I need to. To try and make things clearer.'

In the space of ten minutes, I'd gone from running in the C2C Ultra to simply travelling in an easterly direction on The Nike Hike.

My next 'big stop' came at the Northumberland border, a mile or so out of Allenheads. Tam let me know that Jason's tracker had been still for ages. She guessed he might have called it a day. After some grub and a drink, I got ready to leave as Martin's headtorch came into view. I'd no doubt that he'd pass me soon, but for now, as I left the lay-by heading for Rookthorpe, I was - just as Our Kid had seen in his dream - the leader of The Nike Hike.

In the following miles, the darkness allowed me to inhabit my imaginary world.

There were other people with me - I wasn't alone on this trip; a crazy tribe of folks who probably didn't know why they were doing this, but were going from here to there anyway, just following in some bearded guy's tracks.

I didn't look round, but I could hear footsteps, could see the torch light behind me. And uncomfortable, unworthy as I felt to lead these people, to take them with me, I knew that they were on this journey because they wanted to be. We hiked as one.

As the next couple of hours passed, I lived in this world - a world no more real or unreal than the one I usually dwelt in. I led my people and they followed. Lost souls on The Nike Hike. Clueless, hopeful, enlightened. Looking for something (or nothing?) Hoping we could find it in movement from one place to another.

By the time Martin eventually passed me at 103 miles on The Waskerly Way, the daylight had returned and my nocturnal dreamworld began to melt away. I bade farewell to my fellow travellers. Little did I know that they would reappear later, creeping into the fuzzy, warm, hazy bubble that physical exhaustion and sleep deprivation enable you to linger in during such long, continuous journeys. This time they would bring answers that I'd been looking for for ages:

114 miles. The Derwent Walk footpath.

One foot in front of the other. A breath. A heartbeat.

As I pass a pub car park, Tam appears. She puts a thumb up. I reply with the same gesture as I move on. Neither of us says a word.

I'm tired now. It's an effort to carry on. I've that trippy sensation of being slightly detached from my physical body, existing purely as energy. It's wonderful.

Martin Terry must be miles in front now. But that's ok. Because I'm the one leading The Nike Hike. I'm overwhelmed with gratitude. Why didn't I tell Tam how much I love her back there?

I can't help but think, distractedly, of Peter Bakwin, one of my personal heroes. How did he describe that moment - that moment of clarity - that moment of transcendence - during his successful Double Hardrock journey in 2006?

“Walking through the wide meadows above Pole Creek [183 miles into the run] I notice something gnawing at my chest. What is this? There is a softness here, tenderness. Sensing deeper, it is like an ocean of sweetness in my chest. Love. So many people came out to selflessly help me in my quest for the Double Hardrock. No one ever complained, they just did exactly what needed to be done. And, all these volunteers are here to help the runners achieve their dreams, no questions asked. No one says ‘Why?’ No one says these dreams are not worth it. The RD puts in hundreds of hours a year so we can be here in communion with the mountains, so we can challenge our limits and test ourselves to the core.”

“This feeling has grown deeper. There is a universal support, a loving, unconditional support for each and every one of us. I see that the true nature of the universe is tender and compassionate. All we have to do to experience this is open our hearts. There is no need to struggle and fuss. There is no need for fear. We are all one, and that oneness is beauty and love. As we talk, Stephanie feels it too.”

“We are at the Cunningham Gulch aid station [195 miles] before dark! I am astonished by our progress. I have surrendered completely to the loving support that is all around me, all around everyone and everything; it is the true nature of everything. And it’s time to do the last climb.”

I'd read the article so many times, and it always seemed so far-fetched. 

But not any more. Now I feel it. Now I understand it.

It's then that I feel his presence. Not an hallucination, a product of my imagination, a figment of a desperately tired mind. No, an actual physical presence.

Peter Bakwin taps me on the shoulder, and I stop. For the first time since the start of this journey at Whitehaven, I stand dead still. I turn, and together we look back upon the trail. To the people that are following me. A rag-tag line of youthful exhuberance, weathered faces, beards and tangled pony-tails. A winding snake of barefoot dreamers, long-haired chancers and kind faces in worn-out shoes. The people who I choose to surround myself with. These people who always follow me to the finish line. These people who, like me, have no answers. These people who are the answer.

As I stop and stare, I realise that Peter is no longer there. Perhaps he's hiked on. Maybe he's realised he doesn't really belong here. I stand for a while, smiling. And the people traveling with me stop hiking too and do the same. At the back of the line, I spot Our Kid. He stands hand-in-hand with a beautiful, disheveled blonde girl. I suppose he thinks he may as well take advantage of this pause in proceedings. While everyone else is looking in my direction, he turns to the girl and leans in for their first kiss.

I got to the end of the C2C Ultra in 32 hours and 12 minutes. Martin Terry had reached the finish line 14 minutes earlier for a well-deserved victory. If he'd not got lost a couple of times in the last 25 miles, his winning margin would have undoubtedly been much more impressive. Jon Steele finished third to achieve an amazing first-ever Cockbain Events 'Grand Slam'. Three other hardy chaps also finished inside the 38 hour cut-off, and another crazy guy carried on for over 50 miles with a knackered IT band to complete the route just outside of the cut-off time.

You can find the results here.

On the way home, Tam told me of how much she'd enjoyed chatting to the race organisers, Mark and Alex, both over the weekend and at the finish whilst waiting for us to arrive. Tam had commented on how, in spite of racing so infrequently, I found certain Cockbain Events races difficult to resist. That the no-nonsense, low-key style perfectly suited my preferences for running long distances. She then told me of something Mark had said about his vision for what he was doing. Of how he wanted to avoid the crass commercialism of the majority of ultra races, to put on no-frills events where there was little guarantee of everyone, or indeed anyone, finishing - to host races that were so hard that to finish would entail testing your limits, maybe even finding out something about yourself that you'd not stumble across in any less-challenging scenarios.

It's a while now since I completed the C2C Ultra, and the reason for my silence has been due to one question: 'Just what did I find out about myself during that race?'

I look back on The Nike Hike interludes with a certain disbelief, but with the certainty that, however strange, what happened in those moments of absolute clarity contain the answer to what I've been trying to grasp for many, many months.

Now, four weeks after the race, I know what that answer is.

For most of my life, I've been a serious runner. For much of that time, I've pushed myself to achieving results and challenges. There's always been something else. And when I've worked hard to achieve that something else, there's something else still.

To do anything at a high level requires time, effort, sacrifice and selfishness. The time - well that I've stolen from my wife, my children, my family, my friends. Whilst the effort to achieve these things has been mine, the sacrifice involved has been, to the greater degree, just theirs. I've lived my life for myself. In spite of this, the people I love have followed me. For The Nike Hike isn't just a dream or imaginary wanderings conjured from exhaustion, but also a metaphor. The Nike Hike is Life.

Since the start, I've trod my own path. I've gone my own way, unsure of direction, content in the knowledge that I'll come to the finish sometime. And some people, in spite of my selfishness, my perfectionism, my tiredness, moods and all the other baggage that doing the things I've done has entailed, have followed me. There's only one reason why they've done that, and this is it: They love me.

I'm giving up the chase. It's easy to do now, because it's only now that I truely see that whatever it is I'm chasing will never bring me what I want. No, that will only be achieved by cherishing the company of those people who hike with me.

A PB isn't going to make you happy for long. A promotion at work isn't going to make you a better person. A podium finish in an ultra-race is never going to change you, really. Spending time with the people you've gathered around you, however, almost certainly will.

So, for me, there'll be no more big races. My projects will be small, off-the-cuff, spontaneous and inclusive. My fulfillment will come from helping rather than expecting help. By exploring the magical, overlooked adventures of the everyday.

It's going to be difficult - after all, it's hard to change the habits of a lifetime. But I hope I can grow to be as good at returning love as I have at feeding on it for all these years.

And when The Kid starts to whisper his Keep On Burning monologues - as I'm sure he will - and plans for a fast marathon, an all-encompassing challenge or a long ultra begin to occupy my mind, I hope I can return to that moment on The Nike Hike and, looking towards that couple together at the back of the line, ask myself what is most important:

A step forward or a kiss?