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.
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.