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.