Friday, 11 April 2014

A Bit More Than Two Miles

It's Day 43, and if I can run today, I can run any day.

I've just got home. My biggest week ever. 260 miles and 36,000 feet over 7 days.

I'd been buoyed during the trip by how well my body had held out, but when I woke this morning to the hangover of another dream accomplished, it was apparent straight away that things weren't right.

My feet are fucked. The tendons joining the top of the foot to the lower leg are inflamed and sore. Any flexion, up or down, causes a grimace of pain. In addition, my right foot has swollen overnight to a grotesque charicature of its healthy self, whilst my calf and ankle have lost all definition, resembling now a semi-inflated balloon with the texture of play-doh.

Still, I've a promise to keep. And the promises you make to yourself are ones which should never be broken.

I slowly slide on my socks, grab the most cushioned shoes I own and lace them as loosely as I can without them slobbing off. Then I leave the house to start my run. Two miles. That's all I need to do.

By the time I reach the end of the lane, my impossibly awkward gait has regained some semblance of a running action. As I jog up the hill to the crossroads, I ponder - not for the first time this week - how much the human body can take when you give it no choice.

It's a beautiful afternoon - the day still blossoming with the promise that putting the clocks forward always seems to hand over at this time each year. On the way down to the footbridge, I'd usually soak up the splendour of the view before me, breathing in the subtle narcotic of well-being it can't help but provide. Today, however, my mind's elsewhere.

There's four or five of us waiting in a cramped room in the Old Gymnasium building on the Birmingham University campus. Eager 'A' level students looking to secure a place on the almost-prestigious Sports and Exercise Science degree course.

Nervous chit-chat, fake laughter and long silences.

After a while, a woman calls us through together to meet the interviewing panel. I can't help thinking it's an odd arrangement - in the trawl of University interviews so far, I've gotten used to facing the interviewers alone.

We sit on plastic chairs on one side of a long wooden table, whilst the panel face us from the other side. They seem your average University lecturer fare - middle-aged, in decent shape, slightly fusty. Except the old guy at the end. His dishevelled grey, balding, curly hair and his bushy beard give him the look of an eccentric, a weathered hermit, someone who just might be interesting. He wears a white cotton tee-shirt that could do with an iron, and a pair of blue Ron Hill tracksters.

We get asked the same old questions, and we supply the same old answers that the teachers back at school have taught us to provide. Just another interview. Then we're done.

But not quite.

After we've been informed that letters outlining conditional offers of entrance to the degree course would be posted in due time, there's one last question.

'So, what are you going to do this summer?'

There's silence amongst our group, everyone waiting for everyone else to speak first. Eventually, I take the plunge.

Knowing that 'I'm going to work on a caravan site for the summer holidays cleaning toilets and emptying bins' might not strike the right tone, I come out with a complete lie:

'I'd love to walk the Pennine Way.'

At this, the bearded guy's eyes light up. For the next five minutes, he asks me question after question. I reply as best as I can - it was a good job I'd watched that Yorkshire tele documentary over the half-term holidays about a group of youngsters walking the Way - and come out feeling like I've done a right good job.

It so happened that although my intention to walk the Pennine Way that forthcoming summer was a lie, my desire to do it was anything but. That TV programme had stirred something up. A journey like the one it portrayed was challenging, exciting, but - I was sure - totally beyond the reach of my 17-year old self . I'd no money, few organisational skills, zero knowledge of navigation and not a trace of mountaincraft. These issues would all have to be rectified first, but I felt sure that doing the Pennine Way would be something I'd get round to sometime. Probably sooner rather than later.

A few months into the University course, it became obvious why the bearded guy had been so interested in my Pennine Way intentions. For this man turned out to be Mike Cudahy. The now-legendary Mike Cudahy.

During the 80's, Cudahy took off-road ultra-distance running to heights never previously witnessed in the UK. Specialising in obscure routes over moor and mountain, Cudahy was part of the winning team in the first ever High Peak Marathon. He broke the record for the 120 mile route between England's two highest pubs - The Tan Hill Inn and The Cat and Fiddle, and knocked hours off the previous fastest recorded time for the 190 mile Wainwright's Coast to Coast route.

However, more than anything else, Mike Cudahy's life was dominated and defined by just one path. The Pennine Way was something that he couldn't leave alone. His quest to become the first person to complete the Pennine Way in under 3 days took nearly a decade and 8 attempts, but eventually came to fruition in 1984 with a mind-blowing run of 2 days, 21 hours, 54 minutes and 30 seconds. Although since bettered by Mike Hartley ( the only man to run the UK's 3 big Rounds back-to-back), Cudahy's effort remains one of the greatest ever runs in British long distance history. The book that tells its story - 'Wild Trails To Far Horizons' - is, perhaps, the most inspiring book about running that you'll ever read.

I return from a world of reminiscences and realise that my feet don't seem to hurt anymore. As I jog along the Wold Grift, the thought of why I'm in such a state at the present, though, can't fail to make me smile. After thirty years of not quite getting around to it, I've finally made good on my word. I've just run the Pennine Way.

The sun's low over the farm buildings to the west. The rape has yellowed over the week I've been away. The sky is thick with birdsong. There's nowhere else I'd rather be.

I've a blog to write about this, I acknowledge to myself as I move slowly, so slowly in the direction of the windmill, and snapshots of seven days on the PW start to move through my head on a mental slideshow:

- Debbie's smiling face at support stops and end-of-days. A sandwich, a pork pie, a hot coffee and a few words of encouragement;

- joking, piss-taking and the odd serious conversation with Dave and Chris A., two of the best running comrades a man could ever ask for;

- the highs and lows (literally) of Hoka and Adidas Contintental running shoes ('Hoka, Hoka!')

- the awe of experiencing the natural wonder that is High Cup Nick for the first time;

- the sun setting over Dufton on our way down from the high ground;

- slogs over Great Shunner Fell and Cross Fell;

- the amazing standard of the YHA bunkhouse accommodation;

- the joys of being lost in a forest at night;

- the moors, the bogs, the slippery slabs;

- a final, free, pint at Kirk Yeltholm's Border Hotel - the end of a long journey.

Before I know it my two miles are done. But I'm not.

These memories are treasure. I need to go on. Experience them, live them again, hold onto them for just a bit longer before I file them away.

I've a blog to write about this, I acknowledge to myself as I jog on. Or have I? Just as the native Red Indians believe that a photograph steals part of your soul, what if writing about my experiences, sharing them with strangers, takes away a  little piece of each memory's magic?

Maybe I'll just keep them to myself.

Scenes from the last week keep appearing as I carry on. Part of me wants to run forever.

Today, I realise, perhaps I'll do a bit more than two miles.

                                 *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Dave Swift and myself set off on our bid to complete the Pennine Way in a week from The Nag's Head in Edale at 9am on Saturday 29th March. We were superbly supported by Dave's partner, Debbie Sullivan, for the week and joined by Chris Armour (mountain Round superstar, comedian and stat obsessive) on the Tuesday, Thursday and Friday of the trip.

Our schedule was as follows:

Day 1: Edale - White House Inn (Blackstone Edge), 34 miles

Day 2: White House Inn - Malham, 42 miles

Day 3: Malham - Keld, 41 miles

Day 4: Keld - Dufton, 42 miles

Day 5: Dufton - Greenhead, 37 miles

Day 6: Greenhead - Byrness, 38 miles

Day 7: Byrness - Kirk Yeltholm, 26 miles

I extend my heartfelt thanks to both Dave and Debbie. Without either, fulfilling this particular ambition would have taken many more years. xx