An accidental run to Smalley Green – part one

Something stirs

It all began with an empty space.

I’d noticed it take form in my diary. A run of blank pages, cleaned of life as it should be. The weeks leading up to and after this time were messy with scribbled reminders of tasks and presentations, shifts in A&E, meet-ups with mates. I wasn’t sure how this void came about, but sometimes I wondered if I’d made it happen.

Half-consciously, perhaps I’d cultivated a little nest of free time, meticulously positioning my life outside of it. Perhaps I needed to journey again. Perhaps I was straining to hear the call of a new adventure, like everybody warned me I would.

It had been eight months since I’d got back from cycling around the world, and the journey itself felt more like a single place than a string of them; a place now fenced off and unreachable, with a shimmery and yearnful quality. It’s extraordinary how divorced I feel from those years, considering they’ve only just passed. I get a misty-eyed, hollow feeling when a trawl through my photos on flickr. I feel oddly bereft.

Back home, the sense of physical pursuit faded as the mental pursuit of authorship heaved into its place. I’ve tried to embrace the writing life. Mainly by living on bland food and being broke. But my new flat is not quite a garret, and I’m not suicidal. So there’s still some way to go on these fronts.

I go to writing circles. I browse second hand book shops, often when I should be writing. But there’s something about motion that really helps my mind carve through the din and create, so I still go for bike rides, whipping through the bridleways around Oxford, leafy tunnels of green light, dank air, slapping stems.

It was something Sarah Outen said at Basecamp festival that got me into a dangerous frame of mind. She talked about the unpredictability of life on the road, and how crucial this was to her concept of adventure. I sat there nodding, an idea easing half-noticed into my mind. Hmmm… unpredictability….

After the festival, I found myself watching a facebook video of a pig on a surfboard. ‘Weeee!’ I exclaimed inanely, guffawing like a simpleton. This, coupled with the word ‘wow!’ exiting my lips when I heard of the Angelina and Brad split, cemented a very strong feeling that I needed to get the fuck out of here.

I eyeballed that space in my diary again, it sparkled now, shivered with potential energy. I felt something stirring: a need to stretch my muscles, light out for somewhere new and wide-open, somewhere to be wind-rushed and lonely, and fired up again by the challenge of wilderness and the insecurity of a challenge.

So I’d go away. But how could I reclaim this feeling of uncertainty, the blustering soul of any adventure? Perhaps I could set out on a journey that was almost entirely unplanned?
But not by bike. It’s hard to find adventure on a bicycle in the UK, when my benchmarks for exhilaration are Mongolia and Afghanistan. Something more simple then. Maybe I could run?

And that was that. A light flared up the dark. It was obvious now: I’d run. No plan. No destination. No time frame. No idea of places to sleep or miles to cover each day. No training, because there was no time. No explanations. No social media. No idea whether I’d make it further than half a day. Wherever I ended up, it would be more or less by accident. I felt suddenly excited, having peeled off any purpose other than movement. My mum didn’t agree. She needed my journey to have some sort of blueprint.

‘Where are you going?’ she asked, as I tried on my new rucksack and trotted around the table to check it was comfy enough.
‘Dunno’ I said, hurdling the coffee table.
‘How long will you be gone?’
‘Honestly, I can’t say’ sipping then on the tube to my camel bak.
‘Where will you sleep?’
‘No idea’. Grinning.
And then, because she was looking anxious, I thought I’d better give her something.
‘Mum… I can tell you this much. I’ll be going vaguely north’
She looked more worried than ever.

It’s amazing how unnerved people are when you admit to having no idea what you’re up to. This conversation would repeat itself in pubs in five counties over the next few days, as bar staff and locals asked the same questions and I offered shrugs in return.

I realised that a run through the UK would have some happy side effects. It would help me become reacquainted with a place I’d absented for so long. It was a chance to explore the vast maze of bridleways and byways and towpaths and footpaths and backroads I’d spotted winding away to nothingness on my bicycle.

But there was a problem. Actually there were several problems: my knees, my ankles, my feet, my hips and my lower back. Musculoskeletally, I’m a disaster. Born of stock crippled by arthritis in their 50s, requiring joint replacements, and having undergone knee surgery once already, I knew my body could deal with the less stressful pursuits of cycling and swimming, but that running was not a particularly good idea. In the few days between deciding to leave and leaving, my knees ached when I climbed the stairs. My back was giving me jip. But I couldn’t wait, the weather would turn, this was my chance. And anyway, it only added to the unpredictability I craved: I had no idea which part of body would fail me first. How exciting!

But I knew that if I had any chance of making it far, considering I’d never run more than 10km in a stretch in my life, I’d better get the right kit.

Everyone knows the best way to prepare for run longer and tougher than you’ve ever attempted before, is to buy a pair of trainers named after an Ancient Greek Horse God.

My Nike Pegasus would easily compensate for the fact that during my life to date, running had mostly been a spectator sport, and not something to actually do. Mo Farah was a poxy dilettante compared to me. This was also confirmed by the local running shop (not, I should say, in so many words) when they put me on a treadmill and filmed my feet as I ran to check my running style. Some people are heal runners, some toe, I am neutral. In other words, bloody perfect, born to skip ultramarathons whilst others suffer on the sidelines. Nothing could stop me.

I always get excited at the prospect of taking off with the absolute minimum of kit, only to pack it all up and realise that the absolute minimum is quite a lot less minimal than I’d anticipated. But somehow I stashed 5kg of kit, none of which I could do without, into an 8 litre rucksack. My down jacket was the Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer. Exactly what would need on an expedition, because as well as the cold, ghosts are frequently a problem, and it’s great that I now own an item of clothing apparently invented for those who are keen on whispering to them. Very practical.

I left on the Autumnal equinox, when night and day are mirrored in length. The moon was a waning gibbous, just shy of the harvest moon. Then morning came, I stood at my front door, my rucksack hard against my shoulder blades, momentarily overwhelmed by the simplicity of what I hadn’t planned at all.

I narrowed my sight onto this moment. I moved off, one pace, two, a spring in my step. I was running, and that’s all I hoped to know. Off, though blissfully unaware, to Smalley Green.


I know what you’re thinking. That man is made for leggings.


To be continued…

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