Lost? Well, in a way, philosophically speaking, we’re all a bit lost aren’t we? However, we’re not all stood in the middle of a boggy field at dawn, remonstrating with a hand-drawn map as to why you’re not where you should be whilst fully expecting to be shot by an angry farmer or caught in a stampede of spooked cattle. No, no – such scenarios are the fate of the chosen few. The chosen, idiotic few. Gah.
Driving over to the Lake District this last week we passed a sign for a place called ‘Hard Hills’ – an ominous sign of things to come. We were camping near Ullswater, and as ever an early start to each morning could see me crack out a few miles without impinging on a day full of activities with my wife and children. At least, that was the plan. My infallible marathon training plan indicated that I must, must run 9 miles on the first morning, 4 on the second and a mere 5k on the third. Must.
There’s something about campsites that make people discard social normalcy in a series of unpredictable ways. Why, just because we’re in the middle of the countryside sleeping under a portable shelter made of cloth or in an aluminium box, does it become acceptable for a grown adult to stroll to the communal facilities in the middle of the day wearing a zebra-striped onesie and orange wellies? And a campsite is the only place where a windbreak is not there to shelter anyone from the wind, its there to say ‘THIS BIT OF THE CAMPSITE IS MINE SO PISS OFF.’ Anyway, back to the matter at hand. On arrival, the campsite proprietors handed out a few hand-drawn walking guides. One of these was a four-hour walk that was eight miles long. Immediately the inner monologue spoke up with a ‘Oof, lets run that and just add a mile on…and four hours!? Pfft, lets say we give a conservative estimate of 9 minutes per mile and we’ll be done and dusted in about 80 minutes. No problem, Ben.’
An aunt and uncle of mine once took a holiday to Boston with their two children. As many folk do, they decided to hire a car and drive from the airport to their accommodation. My uncle drove, whilst my aunt navigated. After circling Boston for some considerable time and following my aunt’s somewhat ambiguous directions, my uncle began to grow a tad frustrated. After a while longer, he decided to pull over and have a look at the map for himself. At which point he discovered my aunt had been attempting to navigate from the airport to the accommodation using an A4 map of the entire United States of America. By way of comparison, I would be navigating my way around 8 miles of the Lake District using a hand-drawn A4 map of questionable scale, but surely nothing could go too wrong?
I was up and out around 6:30am. It quickly became apparent that owing to the recent inclement weather many parts of the route were going to be less ‘paths’ more ‘streams’. Both shoes and socks were soaked through by the half-mile mark. Two further things became apparent very quickly too: Firstly, this was going to be fell running. I knew that really, of course. But I’d perhaps naively underestimated the kinds of surface I was running on. And the relative unsuitability of my shoes. Secondly, my predictions regarding speed would need some…recalculations.
But on I plodded. And after a mile or so I encountered the epitome of masculinity: loggers. Logging. Hewing mighty trees. Before 7am. Feel the testosterone. Intimidated, I kept my head down and entered a forest. Now, I’ve noticed the Garmin doesn’t equate ‘tree cover’ with ‘accuracy’ and after plodding on through the forest for quite some time I had a mid-run man-to-watch-to-laminated-map chat and decided I had in fact already run further than the watch was indicating. Surely. Then I almost fell over, with only some unsightly flailing/windmilling keeping me vaguely upright. No one saw. I won the moral victory.
Just as the inner monologue was asking ‘Is this a good idea, moron?’ all doubts were expunged as I exited the forest and took in the view. I’d describe it as breathtaking, but frankly I already had no excess breath left to take owing to the undulating route.
As I progressed, the views just got better and better.
Then it was time for a steep downhill – so steep I could no longer claim to be running, more to be clambering in an attempt to avoid serious injury. But before you could say ‘fall into a cravass and die’ I’d reached the mid-point of the run: Aira Force. Well, the deserted car park and tea room near Aira Force. And this is where it all went nipples north.
Now, what I haven’t mentioned thus far is that another rationale for this run was that later the same day I would be walking the exact same route with my family. If I’d been first to scout it out, I could assess its suitability and the route. So we’d know what to expect and how to get there. What a considerate husband/father I undoubtedly am. The highlight of this walk/run was (supposed to be) the waterfalls of Aira Force. But there was just one problem – owing to being knackered and stupid, I couldn’t find them. And then a calamitous mis-interpretation of the map led me to going off course. Way off course.
Some time later I found myself in the middle of my third boggy field swearing at the map. I wasn’t wrong, of course. The stupid map was. And after a little more mild trespassing I spotted a road. It wasn’t on the map, but it was a road. It would take me where I needed to go. Surely. So I plodged through yet another field and onto the road. The same logic that decreed ‘this road will definitely take me where I want to go’ also insisted that I compensate for the fact that I now didn’t know where I was by upping the pace. After all, if you’re going in completely the wrong direction you might as well go…quickly.
After a mile or so I passed a couple enjoying breakfast in a layby, which sounds a bit like a grimy euphemism but it isn’t. I tried to look calm and not like a man who was by this point both exhausted and increasingly hysterical as I offered a cheery wave. After another mile, I reached a crossroads, both literally and figuratively. I knew the campsite was behind ‘that massive hill over there’ (not to be confused with the other 100s of ‘massive hills over there’, of course) and there was a road that went in that vague direction. By this time, I knew it was a race against the clock – I’d indicated what time I should be due back and I didn’t want my wife worrying/scrambling the air ambulance. Do I a) head yet further into Parts Unknown? Or b) try to retrace my steps and go back the way I came? Or c) head back and ask that breakfasting couple where exactly I was and maybe even blag a lift. I’m not ashamed to admit the bottom lip went a bit as I decided. Option b) was perhaps the most sensible, but I was shattered and I knew the route back would be super-tough. Option a) was stupid…but b) and c) meant admitting defeat and possibly involving the dreaded prospect of Other People. A broken man, I reluctantly opted for c). Then, a miracle. Well, not really. But a stroke of fortune. Well, not really – I just finally used some common sense. As I blundered back towards the breakfasting couple I realised I was going through a village that I knew the name of…but how? Because it was mentioned on the map! It wasn’t part of the route, but it was just off it. And THERE WAS A PATH THAT HAD A SIGN AND THE SIGN IMPLIED IT WOULD PUT ME BACK ON THE RIGHT PATH! And it did. Never has a man been happier to see a sign for Ulcat Row.
Oh man, it felt good to be alive. I was heading home. The pace upped. The smile returned/was sported for the first time. My status as a Running/Navigational God was no longer in doubt. Ahem… Not long afterwards I encountered a shepherd rounding up his sheep with his dog. Yeah! Come-Bye! Walk on! Look back! Down Shep! And so forth. I dithered, keen not to get in the way and well aware of my status as ‘prat in skin-tight yellow pissing about on the side of a hill whilst a man tries to grind out a hard-earned living’, but was waved on through. I overcompensated by saying ‘thanks’ about 8 times to the stony-faced shepherd and powered on.
When I reached the legendary Ulcat Row and I was just about dead on my feet. I’ve underplayed the undulating nature of this route, but I was back on a lengthy incline and it was finishing me off. Eventually it levelled off and as I rounded corner number 700,000 (approx.) I saw a glorious sight a couple of hundred feet below me: the campsite. The temptation to vault the fence and freefall onto the campervan was strong, but in the end I stuck to the road. As I cantered towards the site I composed myself to downplay the whole affair to Mrs T and the kids. Lost? Why, an intentional diversion from the map. To add a few more miles, you know… A glance at the stats shows that I did 10.8 miles (probably closer to 12 in reality) at an average pace of 10.26 mins per mile. Just short of 2 hours on the move. Total elevation? 1,723 feet *dies*
Still, after a shower and a hearty breakfast I was ready to do the whole thing again. I gave my wife the map. We found the waterfalls (it was, ironically, revealed to me that I had in fact been to visit Aira Force before. Whoops. Stupid unmemorable waterfall.) and the correct path and the full extent of my mis-interpretation was revealed in all its technicolour glory. By the time I was looking down on the campsite from 200 feet for the second time that day, I was completely and utterly knackered. Still, all good training *dies*
Amazingly, I didn’t go running the next day. I was a bit sore. But I did manage 4 miles the day after. ‘I’ll stick to a flat route’ I thought. As it happens, there aren’t any flat routes in what is notoriously the most hilly part of England. Gah.
Running this week: I’ve notched up a total of 28.3 miles over 5 runs. After my rural adventures I finished the week at the York 10k. More of that next time.