The Tump and the tree

I’ve just finished a short run to Maes Knoll Tump from our holiday cottage. The Tump is a huge earthen wall nearly eight metres taller than the surrounding land, built to defend an Iron Age hillfort. It offers a panoramic view of Somerset including views to Bath and Bristol had there been no mist. As it was, there was nary a soul in sight. The sound of the birds was as arresting as the sight of the hills. As with many ancient sites, perhaps keenest was the sense of my own transience within the landscape. This is exacerbated when you think that what we consider ‘ancient’ really is not so old at all.

After sitting for a while I saw a grey tree standing in a green sward and decided to make my way down the steep sides of the hill to it. Tiny birds popped out of the grass and darted in the mist. As I was walking past a bush a muntjack startled, running under the fence and into the next field before flattering itself by stopping to see if I’d given chase. I might have shown it who’s boss but I was trying to keep my heart rate in zone two…

The dead tree was entirely hollow and open on one side. It was strange to stand inside. Bird calls were made dull. The air was completely still. There was a small echo, a closeness. The tree branches seemed to have small buds at their tips and were completely still against the grey sky. There was a metal spike in the back of the tree, perhaps what killed – or nearly killed – it. There was no evidence of the spike on the outside so bark must have grown over the wound.

After regaining the hill I made a quick descent back to the cottage to appraise my uneven split times.

 

The art of running slowly

I’m getting back into running after a few months’ break. In the meantime, my fitness has evaporated and I’m carrying some extra pounds. Not only that, but my Achilles tendon has been sore for a while, probably due to overtraining on these beautiful but brutal coastal trails. For example, last summer, my brother and I put together a half marathon training run that ended up with a total elevation of 2,500ft. It was a fantastic run. A sea fret filled the precipice off the coast path and only the faintest ghost of the rocks below could be seen through the fog. But the terrain is hard. I remember feeling broken two weeks into my last training cycle.

Dan suggested running with a heart rate monitor. The plan is not to overreach by keeping my exertion within training zones 2 and 3. In my current state of fitness, that means occasional walking, especially on hills, and crawling along at what should be an embarrassingly slow pace. Except I don’t find it a chore at all. In fact, the first run was a minor revelation. It wasn’t a slog or a struggle, I got to stop and admire the view frequently. It helps that I was running down to the beach, I suppose, but there are lots of other details to enjoy. Birds didn’t startle as soon as I came near them… I’m not saying that small woodland creatures flocked to me as I ran, like some kind of Disney princess. It’s just that there’s time to notice what’s there: whitecaps, sunlight in the branches, bitingly cold wind. At least, there is when I’m not compulsively checking my wrist monitor. Hopefully I’ll develop a better inuitive sense of what I can sustain in the long run, so to speak.

There is a method in this moderation, however. The idea is that by running slowly, you train type I (endurance) muscle fibres which are more fuel efficient and help to remove lactic acid. When you run hard, you’re relying on high power, low efficiency type II muscle fibres. This is fine for a while but you can only store so much high energy fuel in your legs. So this might be why I usually ‘bonk’ in the last three miles of a half marathon (…and why beer and a burger is always so appetising post-race). It will be interesting to see whether a gentle way can accomplish more than my usual ‘all or nothing’ approach.

In any case, there’s a nice contradiction in the idea of running slowly. It brings to mind festina lente (‘hurry slowly’ / ‘make haste slowly’), the old motto of the Medici’s and something Shakespeare riffed on from time to time. In English we say, ‘more haste, less speed’… but the lack of paradox makes our saying comparatively flat. Festina lente, to me, is the idea that the best way to accomplish something is to do it slowly, deliberately (but not by charging at it head-on) and perhaps persistently: by working with your fate rather than rashly against it; or perhaps to do something bold in a leisurely fashion. Hey, it worked for Augustus.

Running as creativity

I’m never sure what exactly is meant by ‘creativity’. The word brings to mind an off-hand, highly-strung activity: the artist thrashing out a masterpiece in one sitting before settling back into their neuroses. While they start with inspiration, most creative pursuits involve a process of continual craft and re-evaluation. In this respect, they resemble a lot of seemingly very ordinary things we do. Is it that creative tasks are actually very natural, or perhaps the ordinary things we do are fundamentally creative?

To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.

— Henry David Thoreau.

Take running. When you head out your door for a run, you’re crafting an experience. You choose the route, the time of day, whether you run alone or with friends, the effort, whether you push on a hill or amble up it, whether you stop to admire a view or maintain the flow. But as with all creative acts, there are many elements that will be decided for us: who we meet along the way, and – to some degree – how we perform: whether our Achilles tendon will be sore; whether the heavens will open up at the furthest point from home. The art is in balancing our intentions with what arrives.

Run

Across the beach at low tide. Wet trainers on shining sand. Around the back of the island, sharing the view where people block the path. Catching breath against the granite when cars inch by. Past the bowling green, onto the coast path. Over rubble, up hills. Round the headland, into a new bay. Uphill to the boulders, clambering with fingers and toes. Just sitting on the rock, watching thoughts and the boat halfway between the lighthouse and this weathered, lichened rock and me.

So long, Thomas Warton

As we’re about to leave Basingstoke after nearly seven happy years, it might be appropriate to mention Thomas Warton who was born on the site of Glebe Gardens, not far from here. Warton was poet laureate between 1785–1790. This sonnet is dedicated to the River Loddon, which, now culverted in places, is said to run below ground at the rear of our house.

To the River Loddon

Ah! what a weary race my feet have run
Since first I trod thy banks with alders crowned,
And thought my way was all thro’ fairy ground,
Beneath thy azure sky and golden sun;
Where first my muse to lisp her notes begun!
While pensive Memory traces back the round,
Which fills the varied interval between;
Much pleasure, more of sorrow, marks the scene.
Sweet native stream! those skies and suns so pure
No more return, to cheer my evening road!
Yet still one joy remains, that, not obscure,
Nor useless, all my vacant days have flowed,
From youth’s gay dawn to manhood’s prime mature;
Nor with the muse’s laurel unbestowed.

— Thomas Warton

I’ve run all over Basingstoke after work and on weekends. I’ll particularly miss jogging through Manydown Farm, where the fields begin, on summer evenings. My friends and I racked up some miles here. We ran the hills of Farleigh Wallop in the Basingstoke half marathon, so the first line at least rings true.

Warton’s long poem, ‘The Pleasures of Melancholy’, is an anthem for introverts and recluses. I quite like it.

These are delights unknown to minds profane,
And which alone the pensive soul can taste.

— Thomas Warton

Runner’s High

Probably the fittest I’ve been was in my middle teens when we would play tracker in Somers’ park, chasing and fleeing from each other from morning until teatime. Exercise is easy when you don’t even know you’re doing it. We’d run miles in a day and much of this was at a full sprint as we tried to put as many corners between us and the pursuer. I didn’t often hide in the tunnels of bushes or in the large oak (christened the No Rope, No Hope Tree) preferring to have as many escape routes as possible. It was basically fartlekking all day. When we wanted a larger game, we’d move to Uffmoor Woods. Sometimes we wouldn’t see each other for an hour. The chases could go on and on until the runner managed to get out of sight and earshot. I’d stop running when I wanted to and then sprint off without complaint. There was no set route: I took each turn as it came. By day this seemed like the only natural thing to do; in my night thoughts I’d worry that anything could happen to one of us whilst we were separated.

Somewhere along the way running became exercise for me. It was tied to ideas of getting fitter and, lately, of posting better times in organised races. One of the pleasures of the last few years has been running with my friends in an amiable, mild-mannered wolf pack of thirty-somethings. I’m not as fit as I could be and there have been periods when I’ve let it slide but I’ve managed some regular miles every year since.

This year I entered my first races. The first big one was the Edinburgh Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathon, running with Dan and Jenny at the start of this year. It was wet and windy but invigorating to have bands playing by the side of the course. The locals were cheering too: I saw a mother and son banging pots and pans on their doorstep in Leith. For most of the race I was trying to catch up to Dan. We’d started (too quickly) together but he began to outpace me. It wasn’t until two thirds of the race in after a portaloo pitstop that I gave up trying to catch sight of him and decided to run (survive) my own race.

As I approached the ‘1 mile to go’ DJ booth, Mr. Brightside started playing. Something about the familiar intro gave me THE SHIVERS as Owen Meany would say. A runner’s high. In Eat and Run, ultramarathoner Scott Jurek describes this as ‘satori’, ‘the sudden, Zen-like clarity that comes when you least expect it, often when your body is pushed to the limit’. Scott Jurek’s limit is clearly way, way beyond my own. I found this concept the most interesting in his book. Satori means ‘consciousness’ in Japanese… perhaps as if you were experiencing consciousness itself.

What brings on a runner’s high? I’ve only felt it that once while running. It was a kind of elation, hard to describe. Running naturally calls you back to the moment. Even as your mind wanders over the day or what you’re going to eat after you’ve showered, your awareness is brought back to your footing, deciding which turn to take, slowing your pace to conserve energy. This is very similar to the aim of mindfulness meditation: returning your awareness to the present moment by focusing on the breath. When I had my runner’s high in Edinburgh, I’d been keeping a close eye on my breathing and pace. Why that song? Perhaps my body was briefly tricked into thinking I was in my early 20s and dancing in Subculture again. The beat and arpeggio are uplifting. It’d fill the dancefloor at 1am but it’s never been a personal favourite. Even though I’d dance along with everyone else on a night out it’s not something I’d choose to listen to on my own. Maybe the appeal of ‘Mr. Brightside’ at that moment was that it helped me to feel that I was just one of the other runners losing myself in a collective experience. Maybe it was simply the atmosphere of the city and the race. I finished in 1:48.

I ran the Basingstoke half marathon in October. This course is more scenic than most town or city-based courses and the countryside is spectacular and… undulating. It was a hot race. Old ladies manned water stands at the end of their driveways. Kids squirted us with super soakers as we ran through a village. Their dads trained hosepipes on us. All magically refreshing but there was no runner’s high this time. After the category four hill at Farleigh and the big dipper my legs were fairly dead. I tried to capitalise on the last three downhill miles but it was all I could do to keep going. My legs wobbled as soon as I was on the other side of the finish line. I had to sit in a chair for a minute or two. We’d spent several weeks training on the course and had seen deer and kites as the autumn sun went down and we grew increasingly and happily depleted. My time on the day was 1:45.

The half marathon distance appeals to me: long enough to be demanding, requiring training and commitment; short enough to be manageable and inclusive. I’ve signed up to two more and a 20 miler at the start of next year. I’m hoping to improve on my times not by training ridiculously hard – life is busy at the moment – but naturally: by eating a bit better, running regularly and having a bit more race experience. I want to get back to that playful approach to running that I had when I was younger. I’m trying not to worry about times too much, focusing on enjoying the training and the race itself. I have a bit more to say about running and time but I’ll leave that for now.

What to make of all this? I suppose I’m turning towards wholesome pleasures. It should help that I don’t drink as much as I used to, certainly not as much as a 26 year old who’d just started working in academic publishing. Back then I might have left the office on a Friday and drank from 5:30 until the bar staff were putting tables on chairs. Training was consistently inconsistent. I’d run 5k every night at times, then nothing for months. Now we’re all a bit older, we’re more likely to socialise by jogging for a few miles after work or going for dinner and ordering green tea, perhaps a beer or two. That’s usually enough these days… apart from recently at Pete’s wedding where I got blotto on golden ale and smoked a Cuban.