Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Thanks, But No...No Thanks.

After shackling myself to the uncompromising, challenging but unimaginative grind of basing all my running for the next seven months on one event, it was a blessing that I came across a letter by Nick Cave this week.

In 1996, following the success of his band's ninth album, Murder Ballads, words reached Nick Cave that he had been nominated for an MTV Award as Best Male Artist. That nomination was soon withdrawn, however, as a result of the following rejection letter from Cave to the event's organisers:

21 Oct 96

To all those at MTV,

I would like to start by thanking you all for the support you have given me over recent years and I am both grateful and flattered by the nominations that I have received for Best Male Artist. The air play given to both the Kylie Minogue and P. J. Harvey duets from my latest album Murder Ballads has not gone unnoticed and has been greatly appreciated. So again my sincere thanks.

Having said that, I feel that it's necessary for me to request that my nomination for best male artist be withdrawn and furthermore any awards or nominations for such awards that may arise in later years be presented to those who feel more comfortable with the competitive nature of these award ceremonies. I myself, do not. I have always been of the opinion that my music is unique and individual and exists beyond the realms inhabited by those who would reduce things to mere measuring. I am in competition with no-one.

My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times and I feel that it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature.

She comes to me with the gift of song and in return I treat her with the respect I feel she deserves — in this case this means not subjecting her to the indignities of judgement and competition. My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel — this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes. My muse may spook! May bolt! May abandon me completely!

So once again, to the people at MTV, I appreciate the zeal and energy that was put behind my last record, I truly do and say thank you and again I say thank you but no...no thank you.

Yours sincerely,

Nick Cave

I was running when I came across the letter. It was being read out by Shaun Usher, the guy behind the 'Letters Of Note' website and book, on Richard Bacon's 5 Live radio programme. (I was listening to my radio on earphones.) Its effect on me was immediate and felt important. (Strangely enough, it didn't touch me in quite the same way once I tracked down the letter later on the internet and read it - running, it obviously heightens your perception, makes you more receptive to great words, deeds, sights or ideas - although it remains a fine piece of correspondence.) Between hearing the words half-way through my run, and arriving home at the end, I'd thought of little else except where, in the light of the tone of this letter, I was going with this running lark. I'd made a decision too.
I've always regarded my running as a creative act. I don't run to 'keep fit' or to guarantee myself a long and healthy life. I'm no longer driven by a desire to better existing PBs or collect medals. No, I run because I'm an artist, and running is the medium in which I express myself.

Since returning to running the second time around, my endeavours on foot have been shaped, year by year, on the dissatisfaction with standing still and the need to do something different. I spent a year almost exclusively in the hills, pushed by an obsession to complete The Bob Graham Round. I spent a year idly contemplating trying to 'make a name for myself' in the trail ultra scene. I managed a top 5 finish in a fairly prestigious race, but soon became disillusioned, realising I preferred to be invisible. I spent an inspiring, physically exhausting and, ultimately, unsuccessful year chasing a dream - my Sixth Statement - of running all of Lincolnshire's Long Distance Paths within a calendar year. I spent a year where I returned to 'proper running' - competing in more races than I ever had, enjoying it, but honestly getting little out of it.

And this year, I decided to explore the boundaries of work and play by wholly dedicating its first seven months around one solitary performance at the start of August. It seemed a good idea at the time, and it probably is, but I've found it incredibly difficult to keep my mind still.

I've managed a bearable compromise on this year's task. As my event preparations involve little other than moving slowly for long periods, I've become fascinated by the notion of using running as a day-to-day means of transport ('utility running' Our Kid once called it). With no speed sessions to complete, no short races to divert my attention, this idea will work well within the framework of what I need to do, in terms of event preparation, for the first months of this year. By adopting a run-commute to work and back, not only am I achieving my goal of using my feet for my main necessary journeys each week, but I'm also clocking up over 3 hours of running daily, which can only put me in good stead for what I aim to do in August. Either that or break me.
A chance encounter with a water tower in Fulletby luckily also provided me with the idea for another mental distraction from the humdrum of heavy mileage weeks. Mostly Facebook is shit, but sometimes it's great. In this instance it was great. After posting a query about the location of Lincolnshire towers, in no time at all a virtual friend linked me to a map of their whereabouts, and the outlines of a plan were concocted.
I'd already envisaged a long wander on each forthcoming Sunday. Starting with 25 miles, I'd increase this by 5 miles each month, reaching a top limit of 50 by mid-June. What better way to make these journeys on foot more interesting than tying them to a tour of Lincolnshire's water towers? Each trip would include at least 2 different towers. Depending on public transport links, distance between my chosen towers and the willingness of someone to drop me off and pick me up, these runs would either be circular or point-to-point, covering the distance I'd pencilled in for that particular Sunday.
All this stuff is stupid. But running is stupid. Life is stupid. Nothing means anything. All the same, it gives me a buzz. Not only am I 'training' for my particular goal, but I'm making something else at the same time. Come August, not only will I have done loads of long Sundays, but I will have spent hours creating routes, weighing up options, studying timetables, discovering the history of these interesting but overlooked structures. Come August, not only will I be fitter, but, by the act of creativity, I'll be richer.
But, back to Nick Cave and where all this is going.
I'm not against competition, but the way the 'running scene' has evolved, specifically over recent years, has left me cold. It all started to go wrong with the big city marathons. Increasingly corporatized, hijacked by charities, stripped of their soul, the big city marathons are no longer the testing ground of serious athletes. Whilst I'm full of admiration for someone who can run further than they ever have before whilst raising a bucketful of money - you know, the type of people who run these races nowadays - I want no part of it. The London Marathon (or The Virgin Money London Marathon as it's known this year - 'make sure the 'Virgin Money' bit is more predominant on the logo than the 'London Marathon' bit please') encapsulates everything that my running is not about.
Unfortunately, these are the events that runners are judged against by the general public. These races, for the lay man, are what 'running' is. Talk to anyone who knows little about running and the first question they'll ask you is, 'Have you done the London Marathon?' Tell someone - anyone - that you're training for a long race or challenge, and somewhere in the conversation will come that tricky query, 'Are you doing it for charity?' Say no and you'll be greeted by a look of total dumbfoundedness.
The success of the big city marathons set a precedent. Big business saw dollar signs in participation numbers. Corporations saw another opportunity to squeeze more drops of blood. Steadily, business moved from involvement or financial support for races to becoming the race organisers themselves. In an area of athletics that traditionally was the reserve of the local athletic clubs, the creeping tide of companies formed to host races seems unstoppable. And, of course, when a  company runs an event for profit, with the needs of runners secondary, the whole dynamic changes. You're no longer a race entrant, you're a consumer, ripe for ripping off with extortionate entry fees, ripe for being blackmailed with e-mail after e-mail to buy race branded kit, ripe for being treated as a number on an accountant's spreadsheet, a source of revenue, a stinking sheep in a crowded pen.
When coming back to running, it was towards the fell scene that I was pulled. With its long heritage of no nonsense and no frills, it stood out as an area of running that had eschewed all the bollocks that road running had managed to get itself bondaged up with. To its credit, it still largely retains its attractive authenticity, but even here, business and big money have started to encroach. In terms of bad ideas imported from America, Halloween comes a close second to trail running. Now, I love running off-road (we don't have trails in Lincolnshire, we have footpaths - don't forget we're not in Colorado), and the type of people who prefer running up mountains, fells, fields and hillsides are generally closer in outlook to me than those who stick to the road. However, there's something about the 'trail running scene' that really winds me up. Maybe it's the fact that the majority of trail races are being put on by race promotion companies? Maybe it's the fact that 'newbies' seem more interested on forum groups about 'Which Salomon backpack is best for 100 miles?', 'Which is best - Pertex or Goretex?', 'Where can I buy some Hokas?' than they are in 'What do I actually need to do in training to get round 100 miles?' (I know a great proportion of ultra-running is mental strength, but the physical conditioning can never be underestimated. There's a massive DNF element in many trail ultras - people who keep failing again and again. A tip - if you DNF'ed in your last race, do something different next time round, learn from your mistake, turn that negative into a positive. Train harder, train smarter. A new backpack, jacket or pair of shoes isn't going to do that for you.)   
Off-road ultras are the new road marathons. In the last couple of years, companies hosting trail ultras has boomed disproportionately compared to the rest of the running scene. Check Google. There's almost certainly more off-road ultras than road marathons. I reluctantly accept it's possibly a force for good - there's a plethora of opportunities for people who've struggled round a marathon to take things just that one step further. But I can't help  suspect that another familiar foe is at play - and whether we know it or not, the insidious and all-conquering forces of capitalism are rounding up to give us a right-royal shafting.
There's some great races out there, and the odd great company doing a great job in this field. But there's a lot of dross. Log onto any ultra-running forum to be bombarded by tales of woe - extortionate entry fees for shambolically organised events, companies collecting money for races and going bust, leaving nothing behind but holes in innocent runners' pockets.
A ball has started rolling, and I'm not sure where it ends. Last year's Western States 100 was widely lambasted for its too-large field, the utter lack of respect by some competitors to the natural environment (discarded gel wrappers are the modern-day banana skins) and the chaos at remote checkpoints caused by the traffic of supporters and pacers using roads which weren't designed for mass vehicular access. It's only a matter of time before this happens here.
Already, there's mass participation races over ancient routes not best suited for several hundred runners and the ensuing circus of 'race support'. Whilst the Bob Graham Round gets its fair share of foot traffic in a season, it seemed to me, just so recently, too sacred a course for a possible race route. Yet this forthcoming summer, the calendar boosts a race over more or less exactly the same terrain. And what's more unfathomable (or is it?), is that respected stalwarts of the BGR scene actually seem excited by it.
A world inhabited by a few is now the playground for the everyman. (Whether acceptable or not, I can't help but feel the same as I did when I was 17. My teenage years had been shaped by Bowie. There were no other Bowie fans my age around except for Our Kid, Chris Lovely from the secondary school over the way and the mysterious Sean who lived near Woollys and supplied us with US bootleg concert cassette tapes with photocopied covers and untidily typed song listings. Then 'Let's Dance' came out and every uncool kid in school was a Bowie fan. Just like that, everything that was so precious was spoilt.)
The Lakeland 100/50 has grown from underdog upstart to juggernaut in the space of 5 years. Don't get your entry in hours after the race goes online and you're buggered - no chance of getting a place. (Last week, an extra 50 places for the 100, and 100 places for the 50 were released after the original allocation sold out in record time in October. The places became available at 9am. All had sold out by 9.15am.)
The UTMB has gone from being a once-in-a-lifetime grand adventure in the Alps, to a year-long campaign staged with ruthless military efficiency ending with a still-naff-all chance of getting through a ballot at the end. It's harder nowadays to gain entry to the race than actually complete the course. And then there's the fairground carousel spin-off of choosing races simply for their UTMB qualifying points rather than the intrinsic qualities of the races themselves. Don't get me started on that - this blog post is long enough as it is.
When I heard the words of Nick Cave, something became very clear. I realised that above everything else, it was the creativity in my running that I valued the most. The disillusionment over what running was becoming and my increasingly ugly cynicism were symptoms of that. Nick Cave's letter confirmed something that I'd suspected for a while. In order to retain my creativity - to protect it from all the crap surrounding it nowadays; in order to retain my spark, my burning - I must move away from the 'running scene' altogether. I must do something different.
Whilst this 'something different' will revolve around travel on foot, I am unsure, as yet, of what it will entail. I do know, however, that racing will play a minimal part. In the style of Ziggy Stardust, that big race in August will not only be the last race of the year, but it may be the last race I ever do.
I guess I'm announcing my retirement.
Increasingly over recent months, my attention's been seized by the exploits of long-distance hikers, of ultra-pedestrians. My internet hours have focused on thru-hiking, fast-packing, ultra-light, self-sufficient, solo long distance travel. I've devoured articles on the likes of Heather Anderson and Scott Williamson with the same fire that I last experienced on reading 'Feet in the Clouds.'
This, I think, is where the path is leading. And I surrender. This is my direction of travel. This is where I will now create.
I've studiously followed The Spine Race over recent days. An epic race by all accounts, it involves a full traverse of the Pennine Way (268 miles) in the middle of winter. It's been incredibly inspiring to witness the feats of the brave souls who completed the course, but the inspiration I've felt has been slightly different to what I would, perhaps, have imagined. As I've tracked the competitors, I've felt little drive to actually enter the race in the future. Instead, the inspiration has led me down different avenues. How long would it take me to hike the Pennine Way self-supported? 7 days? (Assuming do-able daily distances of 40 miles, it's certainly possible.) How much kit would I need? How little kit could I get away with?
The future holds the rest of my lifetime. I'm anxious to use it wisely. To tread new paths, not revisit old pastures. For the first time in a while, my head's so full of ideas that I don't know where to start (or stop). Speed-hiking the National Trails? Attempting Fastest Known Times on some of the local Long Distance Paths - The Nene Way, the Hereward Way, the Yorkshire Wolds Way? Completing all the Wainwrights in one continuous journey?
Leaving something behind that has always been so important can be a difficult thing to do. And maybe it's because I'm not truly leaving at all that has made my decision all the easier.
My running as I've known it is coming to an end.It's time to say, 'Thank you, but no...no thank you.'
But my running as I've never known it is just about to start.

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