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?