Hello and welcome back to this blog
It is now Sunday 10th June. I sit on a train on my way out to the north Downs.
I sat down to write about crossing cornwall a month ago, it took me a fortnight to pen my thoughts. It meant a lot – it became a memoir of sorts.
I’ve not been sure how to share this but here goes. If you’re here for something snappy, I’d advise you not to waste any more of your time. If you’re curious and are ready for a long story, put the kettle on.
This is a story for anyone who has ever lost themselves. This is my journey on the saints way. My life and times as a runner…
The sun hung high in the mercilessly blue sky, the weather unusually warm for this early May bank holiday, far beneath a single figure pressed on up the hill and over st Breock Downs. A sweaty hand clutches close a map but it was little use. The sheep in the field weren’t able to provide any guidance on which way to turn, five hours in the tiredness was starting to settle into my muscles, a bead of sweat seeped out from beneath my baseball cap and my mind wandered back to the journey which had taken me here…
To live with my mentality is to walk a constant tightrope between pride and self sabotage. I’ve found myself on many occasions reaching a #lifegoal and feeling disgusted with myself for the pathetic conformity of it all. After two and a half years of carefully whittling down my marathon time to three hours and twenty two minutes it was time for the other side of my personality to take a turn in the driving seat. Out with speed, and time altogether if I could get away with it. Doing away with measured courses, tarmac and conforming to someone else’s plans… from day one this was going to be MY adventure, I was going to do what I wanted on my own and reclaim my running. There was to be no proclaimers, no energy gels, no fanfare and no finishing line. This was to be wildly and flamboyantly my day!
Eight hours earlier the familiar electronic beep demarked the end of sleep and the beginning of the day. Throwing open the roof windows and gazing out it was a truly perfect day by all accounts, a beautiful sunrise was working its way over the horizon and it was going to be a scorcher.
New Year’s Day 2015. A sharp jolt as the 15:17 cross country service pulls out of Birmingham New Street station, I slunk back into my seat, the effects of the night before had me reduced to a wretched state. Cocktails, beers, spirits, jäger bombs, chicken and chips. It was always going to be a big night. Somehow somewhere along the way it had gathered the momentum to become truly apocalyptic. As the train sped through the suburbs through the Worcestershire countryside and into a new dawn the next five hours were going to be difficult. The slow realisation dawned on me. I was trapped. I was doing all that I was supposed to do, working a demanding professional job and socialising with a large group of friends in my limited spare time. On the outside I was the life and soul of the party but inside something was wrong. The last two years I had thrown myself into work, I had moved many times from London to Birmingham and back, life was becoming transient. Where there was pressure or uncertainty I sought to bury it by spending ever more time out, anything to avoid thinking.
Back to the present, after a pickup at the services at Tiverton we had made great progress. cruising down the A road we passed the edge of Dartmoor a thin shroud of fog clung to the edge of the valley in the morning sunshine. The dog rested in the footwell, she was going to undertake the first half of the trail from Fowey north to Lanivet along with The rest of the family. Traffic was light and before long we turned off of the main road and into the car park at St Benets abbey. The building loomed large, a fifteenth century stone masterpiece complete with crumbling belfry, rising out of the sea mist you could almost forget that you were in the 21st century. The atmosphere was thick with the history of those who had come before, a pilgrimage. In some ways this was to be for me too a pilgrimage.
January 2nd 2015. On the banks of the camel a biting wind swept through the hedgerows and fields. We were out for an afternoon walk. After the long train back from Birmingham the previous day, discussion was frank. I wasn’t who I needed to be and things needed to change. I have always thought that there is something in the winter winds that cuts deep to the soul. A bracing walk through a gale in the countryside leaves nowhere to hide ones indiscretions. Inside I was numb to the core. The last 48 hours had dismantled me and the long journey to rebuilding my life was just about to get underway.
After carefully laying out my drop bag at the midway point and a quick switch of cars, we set out for Fowey. As we wound our way through the industrial landscape towards the coast my imagination wondered to think of all those who had worked the land. Cornwall has always been a working landscape, from the early slate miners and quarrymen through to the Victorian tin miners. Hardy men and women who were ostracised from society before Wesley, his Methodist tradition a fitting message with spartan chapels lining the industrial landscape alongside crumbling chimneys from long forgotten industry. Simple values; hard work, self discipline, humbleness and honesty. I am filled with admiration for those hardy men and women whose efforts seem now long forgotten. The Cornish nation their inheritance. It was a pleasure to see this landscape, beneath the ice cream cones and flambards here is a Cornwall that most will never see in their rush to jump back onto the A39
The harbour at Fowey is an idyllic sheltered spot, the wooded banks of the Fowey river rise steeply from sea level providing a myriad of inlets. The harbour town itself a cobbled street toy town with bakeries and shops catering for the tourists. The harbour teemed with activity as hobby sailors set out in their craft. There was time for a quick team photo with the river as our backdrop and then just before 10am we were off. The adventure had begun!
September 2015. Seven months had passed since that painful windswept discussion on the banks of the Camel. I was on the move again this time from West London to Greenwich. After turning up for a viewing I had taken a room with a stranger. A running fanatic, his quiet dedication to the sport was something that I admired greatly. A month later on the 11th October we set out for our first weekend run together. I was still new to the area so was filled with wonder at the new sites as we wound our way around the peninsular and out towards woolwich. We paused for a while at the ferry and I looked back at Canary Wharf. The building where I had spent so much of the last year and a half was a miniature dwarfed by the expanse of the Thames. We turned back on ourselves and finished up in Greenwich park overlooking the city. In the bright autumn sunlight I felt strong and excited at what this new practice could bring to my life.
Back on the Saints Way I crested the first Hill and ran down the other side. The trail turned off road over a couple of farmers fields and into a pretty wooded descent. With the sounds of the birds singing in my ears I skipped over the loose stones and let gravity guide me down to the banks of the Fowey river. At the bottom an idyllic secret boathouse shrouded in the trees. Three miles in to the trail and it was already so very scenic. The trail crossed a wooden bridge and then a short sharp climb up some steps and through a bluebell wood before dropping down into Golant.
April 17th 2016. The streets of Brighton are packed three deep with spectators for the annual marathon. Since the previous autumn training had been going well and I had decided that it was the right time in my life to go for the big 26.2. I had stuck with my training and was consistently including all the right ingredients of a marathon build up; speed work, a long run and plenty of easy paced mid week sessions. The final few miles turns back from shoreham power station past hove lawns and with the pier finish in your sites you know that it is not far to go. I had never run this far before in my life and my legs were starting to give out. Unaccustomed to the mental game I pulled up and started to walk dejectedly. At that moment a stranger in the crowd singled me out. With a roar of enthusiasm he looked me straight in the eye and told me that I could do it. How can you refuse encouragement like that!? I knew what I had to do, put my head down and got the job done.
A steep climb out of Golant and you leave the water behind. For the next 20 miles it was to be a myriad of farmers fields, ancient droves and access points and country lanes. By this point I was an hour and a half in. After a long hot climb up a farmers drove I came across a couple who were looking for the route south in the opposite direction.
“Where have you come from?”
“Fowey, I left an hour and a half ago”
“Where are you stopping tonight?”
Well that was a bit of a shock to them, it turns out that they had left three days to hike the 50km trail, they wished me well with a thinly disguised facial expression indicating that they thought I was completely mad. I have to say I am entirely in agreement.
September 2016. For my parents wedding anniversary they took us all away for a week. We rented out the old lifeboat station on the banks of the camel estuary. A stunning building surrounded by acres of beach at low tide and water at high tide. With the south west coast path running through the back garden this was trail running paradise. Across the other side of the estuary I was now looking back at the lifeboat house. The trail leaves rock through the sand dunes and winds it’s way over the edge of the golf course past st enedoc church. After a dramatic cliff top section you pass through polzeath and start to climb up to pentire point. Finishing up the long climb and coming over the brow of the hill the force of the wind hits you. The great landmass laid out beneath me like the bow of an almighty ship and beyond that the wild North Atlantic Ocean. My breathing still laboured from the climb I laid back on the grass and closed my eyes. In that moment my human concerns melted away. All that remained was the wind on my skin, the sound of guls and waves crashing far below.
I am now almost ten miles into the saints way. After leaving Golant behind, the trail weaves through Milltown and I am now out on the open moor on the approach to Helman Tor. Following the trail along the ridge I think of the geology of the region. The great granite tors a remnant of an ancient granite batholith defining the landscape today by the sheer durability of this ancient igneous rock. Turning left off of the ridge I climb up to the trig point summit. Climbing the tor from the back, the view affords an incredible 360 degree vista. From the rolling fields and villages in the south up to St Breock Downs and the wind farms further north. It is a hot day so I pause a while to take on some extra water. Conscious of the forecast I had picked up an extra soft flask the day before. Dehydration was a major risk and on a self supported route like this I needed to be confident that I could carry all that I needed to see myself through.
It is 2017 now. On a still Wednesday evening in April I round the corner of the royal naval college in Greenwich. I am on my way to Goodgym. Two months prior I found this group of people. A simple concept, run to a task and volunteer in the community before returning back and doing a workout. The group brought together people of all ages and backgrounds. The group huddled in the quadrangle and our leader introduced the task for the evening. Each Goodgym introduction has a set format before getting down to business The leader calls out any news of runners completing events in the week or two before. The group leader mentioned Brighton marathon, my second now in as many years. A round of applause came from the community and from deep within me I felt an upwelling of pride. By this point in my journey I was coming to realise that this journey was bigger than me alone. I had found my community.
The uplands of Helman Tor were now several miles behind. The saints way passes under the main road and you begin the long sweeping descent into Lanivet. Coming back onto tarmac again the ashen mud was drying in the sun and falling from the bottom of my red saloman trail shoes. These shoes had taken me far and wide, adventures from camping out in Dorset last summer, tackling the dramatic fells of the Lake District and most recently carrying me all day across the rolling chalk hills of the South Downs way en route to Eastbourne. All of this had come at a cost. The mesh upper was wearing thin and the mud of the previous miles had seeped into my socks. In a strange way this was no irritation and I was glad of it. Another aspect of the experience that strengthened my link to the landscape that day. Now back at st Benets abbey I said hello to the owner before picking up a quick refill of water and my makeshift lunch from the carefully placed drop bag. As I retraced my steps and then started the steep climb out of Lanivet I laughed to myself. My partner often says that I like ultrarunning because it is basically a day long picnic. Tucking into my sandwiches I had to acknowledge that this is certainly true!
Once at the top of the lane the route takes a sharp right and turns down a farm lane. I proceeded down this track for a mile or so before I was confronted by a huge puddle. From hedge to hedge the trail was swamped and there was no alternative but to wade on through. It was still warm and before long my feet had dried out.
The route wound on through the country lanes before dropping suddenly through a wooded copse and crossing a field at the base of a valley. Shortly after this point the trail fords a river and the official route heads over a stile and through a field of four bullocks. I started up the style and in formation they trotted over to have a look at the stranger entering their territory. As I paused atop the style they snorted and stared at me, not unlike a group of teenagers I thought. After a brief standoff I checked my map, I was going to head up the farmers access lane instead and leave the four boys in the field to their own devices. The lane skirted the edge of the field and through the hedge the four bullocks followed me round just to let me know that they were still there.
My mind wanders back to 2015 again. It is now a week after I ran through south east London. The weather unseasonably warm for the last weekend in September and in the market town of Taunton the annual 10km run is underway. Having worked my way round the first 8 kilometres at my best pace I was now starting to flag just as the unforgiving tarmac road climbed up again towards the motorway bridge. The sting of salt in my eyes and the heat radiated up from the blacktop. I dug deep and finished the race at the blackbrook sports centre. This was the first time I had lined up at the start line since I had taken up running again, although I had done this half a dozen times prior in my life, today it somehow meant something more. Finishing the race, I glugged back a bottle of water and picked up the phone to My partner
She and I met through work way back before this tale begins. A compassionate kind and understanding creature from Northern Ireland, her unassuming demeanour masked a fierce yet quiet determination to be true to herself. We had been friends for two years at this point, initially companions, kindred spirits through tumultuous times and latterly lovers. It was a big day for her too, she had taken the train down from London and was about to meet my family for the first time. As I cleaned myself up after the race, so much in my life felt new and exciting.
And suddenly my consciousness needed to be back in the present. Atop St Breock downs I wound past the fields of lambs, homesteads and onwards through the wind farm. I paused a second for breath and there was nothing. Far below you could hear the distant sound of machinery but all around me and as far as I could see there was calm. I afforded myself some time to sit back and appreciate the environment before pressing on down. I had passed the top of the downs and laid out before me below were the familiar sites of wadebridge, the royal Cornwall show ground and just about discernible in the mist, Padstow.
It was an important moment. The size of the task remaining was still large and yet somewhere far away over the hill was my end destination. I pressed on cross country towards St Issey.
From Trenance you can start to see the tell tale finger like inlets of tributaries to the river camel. It was now by my reckoning only a couple of miles to Little Petherick. I was 40 kilometres in by now and was really enjoying the challenge of spending a day out in the country. One of the Privileges in my view of ultrarunning is getting to experience a day come and go in the great outdoors. “Outside” has become somewhere we visit infrequently, ten minutes out of the car here, perhaps a fifteen minute walk there. We are deeply psychologically connected to the earth as land mammals and despite the fatigue brought on by being out running or hiking all day I always return with a part of my soul somehow recharged. This is something that I let go of as a graduate, my life was played out in its entirety in a number of set scenes, the office cubicle, the bar or my bed! No wonder the malaise I felt, that small boy that once rode on his fathers shoulders through the granite tors of Dartmoor could have shown me the remedy, it just took a little more work for me at 25 to get there for myself.
By now it was mid afternoon the sun was starting to dip in the sky. Following the little Petherick creek the trail went through a number of tree lined fields and wooded sections. After a steep field you climb abruptly to the road and then make a sharp left down to the village of Little Petherick.
It is January 2016. A year since the trip back from Birmingham, we are travelling down the road between Bodmin and padstow. After a train from London, we are bouncing along the roads in Dads 4×4. It had long since gotten dark and the twinkling lights of padstow soon arrived before us out of the night. I have always enjoyed Padstow in the new year. When the Christmas markets close down the first week of January offers up a quieter out of season town. The winter weather comes in sometimes for days at a time and a long country walk is followed by a cosy evening in front of a log fire. We spent the following week down at the lobster pot living simply. Walking, running, pottering about and enjoying some time away from the city. We were joined for the final few days by My brother and his partner, venturing out across the estuary and out into the storm we set out from Rock only to have to admit defeat and find a hot chocolate in the cafe before heading back across the estuary.
Back in 2018 I pass the holiday lets which front the creek at little Petherick and the trail rears up abruptly into a wooded climb. In the peak of the May season the wood was ablaze with colour. A dappled mix of lilacs and whites from the bluebells and wild garlic. I closed my eyes and inhaled. the pungent mix of flora hit the back of my throat. Shortly after this the trail descends and crosses an inlet to the creek on a wooden walkway. Waders and curlews were starting an evenings work ferreting around in the mud for bivalves and grubs.
Leaving the estuary behind you climb steeply to the top of the town memorial. Set out on the summit of the hill over 150 years earlier, the proud stalwart stone monolith stands dour, a sentry looking out to sea and along the river towards wadebridge. I drew myself up to stop here for 20 minutes, it had been on my mind all day and it was important that I made time to stop here. It never ceases to amaze me the power of places to turn back the clock. I sat up on the hillside looking down over the camel trail below. Less than three and a half years before I had sat dejectedly down below in that very spot, a broken soul. Here I was atop the crest of the hill in 2018, so much had changed in me, it felt like another lifetime had passed in that relatively short space of time. I have written in the past of the power of running to be truly transformative in ones life but somehow in that moment this explanation alone was inadequate. This journey may have started and now be ending with running but along the way it became about so much more. It was about compassion, dedication, commitment, resolution and the journey to rediscover myself. Each one of us awakens each day into a world of our own making. We choose each day who we want to be. Through our quiet dedication and commitment to our community, friends and family we can achieve incredible things. It’s not the fact that I’ve completed eight marathons now, or that I’ve run a self navigated ultra marathon through the Lake District. These are all impressive feats alone but they are merely delicately placed strokes on the canvas of life. Looking down on the frame from high on that hillside I came to realise that the value is in the journey. Each one of those experiences taught me something about myself, lessons which I applied to the rest of my life. Running has helped deepen my compassion, improve my focus and become more discerning about the influences I invite into my life. That in and of itself is the true value. Perhaps it’s nothing more than having a positive outlet for my excess energy but deep in me I knew that the man on that hill in May 2018 was living a different existence than than the ghost of the man who shuffled along the trail on that windswept New Years three years prior. Having been able to make that change in my life I know now that anything is possible.
Each one of us retains the power to reinvent ourselves. If I was lost, it was only ever for a little while. A calm came over me and I knew that my journey was over. It was time to come down off of the hill and run the final mile into the town. 20 minutes later I was sat amongst the hubbub of tourists on the harbour side, I laid out my map and my soft flask in the evening sun and took in the vista. I had finished the Saints Way. That day I had run 48km across Cornwall but my mind had run a great deal further. It searched far and wide through the landscape and through time to make sense of the last three and a half years of my life. For the first time it made sense, how the man that had gotten so lost rediscovered himself and found his place in an adult world. Coalescing complete, it was time to order an IPA, sit back in the Cornish sunshine and plan the next adventure.