County Sligo, Ireland, November
For the third time in a week, I am yomping through a sodden, stinking bog, a compass glued to my left hand and a carefully-folded map in a ziplock sandwich bag clasped in my right. I can’t see more than thirty metres through the slate-grey, drizzle-flecked fog as it screams horizontally past me on the relentless wind. As my eyes dart between the featureless gloom ahead of me and the compass needle spinning at my side, I constantly scan the ground for holes: the big ones are easy to spot, the labyrinth networks of steep-sided trenches are up to three metres deep and twenty long, they are tedious and time-consuming to navigate through and the black muck oozes and sucks underfoot, begging you to stay. But the small ones are worse, they are hidden completely by the scrubby heather and a poorly-placed foot would easily end with a knee snapped forwards. Everywhere around there are mossy craters, collapsed sinkholes formed as the constant rain tunnels through the ancient limestone below. People sometimes disappear into them, never to be seen again. The shrouded, torn, pockmarked landscape feels like the battlefields of Ypres.
A knee-high cairn materialises through the murk, the third summit on a day with many, and after a few seconds it has disappeared without ceremony into the mist behind me. But barely a kilometre later, I can feel the faintest glow of the sun’s warmth on my face as the clouds above me thin out a little. Even if there was anyone within a few miles distance from me, they wouldn’t hear my sudden, ecstatic shrieking over the bellowing wind, for as it howls in my ears it tears a brief but revealing window through the impenetrable fog, and for the first time in nine kilometres I can drop the compass into a pocket. In front of me, wisps of cloud streaming from its gaping mouth, a steep-sided and narrowing couloir plummets for two hundred metres through the cliffs of Annacoona down to the Gleniff Horseshoe, its crumbling limestone walls seemingly held together by nothing but seeping moss. As I carry on north to the summit of Benwisken, the swirling skies throw me the occasional glimpse of the coast in the distance – the tiny, desolate island of Inishmurray, dotted with the remains of a fortified monastery established by some hardcore hermit-monks in the 6th century; the crashing waves around Mullaghmore Head, home to some of the best big-wave surfing on Earth; and lurking in the haze of the far horizon across Donegal Bay, the towering sea cliffs of the six hundred metre Slieve League. From the summit of Benwisken, I turn back to the south as the world is once again swallowed by malevolent churning clouds. Out comes the compass.
Dorset, UK, December
I’d be the first to admit it: for someone who – I swear – still doesn’t like running, since the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges at the end of the summer, I seem to be doing an awful lot of it. Other than rolling around in foggy bogs on the Irish Atlantic coast, I’ve spent hours plodding towards a distant horizon over the flattest bits of England, I’ve stumbled hand-and-knee across the slickest quagmires of red Warwickshire clay, and I’ve left dripping trails of blood and torn clothing through dense thickets of briar and bramble. With the first winter storms back in Chamonix, I’ve shuffled blindly with frozen toes up through blankets of deep, fresh snow, and on bumbling, coccyx-crushing descents the resulting hot-aches have brought me to yelps of glee, grateful for the painful proof that my feet are still alive. Why I choose to be spending my time doing this is confusing enough, but perhaps most perplexing of all is that on top of all the pointless masochism that I’ve been enjoying for free, I have, once again, actually paid for the privilege of going running, down at the Endurancelife CTS in Dorset, with around 3000m of elevation spread over a 72km route.
As far as quaint little English villages go, Lulworth Cove is nearly up there (but not quite) with the likes of Bibury in the Cotswolds or Wiltshire’s Castle Combe: a single narrow road winds its way down to the cove, flanked either side by little stone cottages topped with thatched roofs. The gardens and ponds behind their adorable picket fences overflow with leeks and watercress, thriving on the alkaline waters cutting through the chalky soil. The cove itself, carved over hundreds of thousands of years by a very patient tide, is dotted with a dozen tiny fishing boats bobbing languidly on Caribbean-clear blue water. A modest brick shack sells fresh fish at the weekends. It is all just so ridiculously charming.
We aren’t in the mood to appreciate all of that right now, though. Nearly two hundred of us are huddled in a marquee tent for the pre-race briefing, stamping our feet and rubbing blood into our arms, our running tights and windproofs scant protection against the freezing dawn. A cloud of steaming breath congeals on the canvas ceiling, and as the hi-vis jacket at the front of the room explains the tediously complex route to us, we are being steadily dripped on, Chinese water torture. “Now, who’s going to be leading the pack today?” he asks. There is no reply, except a ripple of polite laughter a few seconds later. These seem like my kind of people. Briefing complete, there is a frenzied rush to the portaloos as people make one last attempt to reach race weight, and we shuffle over to the start line. Our first climb stares down at us – the convoluted route means that we’ll be going up this hill three times before the day is out.
With a countdown from five and a cluster of tepid cheers, we are off. As the rustle and shuffle of running shoes on car park gravel tears west towards the first climb of the day, the sun creeps over the hills to the east, and suddenly we are in bright light, the orange glow a welcome sensation on our cold shoulders. But the limestone cobbles beneath our feet are still covered with last night’s frost, and we all struggle to find purchase on the slick, worn-smooth path. I can hear feet slipping and people cursing, and as the gradient steepens, I change pace to a brisk walk and place each foot carefully, keeping level with the girl next to me who is almost jogging on the spot, wasting precious energy as she flaps along. As we crest the first rise, the stunning beauty of the Jurassic Coast becomes apparent – the Isle of Portland floats lazily in the early morning sun across the glinting waters of Weymouth Bay, its waves lapping at the base of the sheer chalk sea cliffs that drop terrifyingly down to our left. Fridge-sized blocks of freshly-fallen snow-white rock stud the sandy beaches, looking like lost ice bergs with the constant gentle surf pooling around them.
The cliffs rise and fall under our feet and the kilometres gradually tick away, and as we turn inland, plodding along over rolling hills and grassy fields, I take care to try and memorise every bit of the terrain possible, not looking forward to the second and third times I’ll be seeing it in the not-too-distant future. After just under 20km we arrive back into Lulworth Cove, the first visit of four until we eventually finish, where my family swap the wrappers and rubbish I thrust into their hands for new cereal bars, energy gels, and pouches of honey, and after quickly refilling my platypus with another litre of lemon-flavoured sports gunk, I rejoin the runners and head down to the cove. As we run towards the sun and into our eastwards loop, the rocky shoreline is cruel to my feet through their thin-soled shoes, but then we are climbing yet another monumental chalk cliff on soft grass and springy earth. Soon enough we are deep into the Lulworth Ranges, and the rusted shells of target-practice tanks peer out at us from behind clumps of tall grass. Frequent signs enthusiastically suggest that we stay on the marked paths, hinting at the possibility of being scattered over a wide area thanks to unexploded ordnance.
Absorbed in my surroundings and quite alone, I am struck with a vaguely lost feeling. My track has dropped me at a locked gate, and I am surrounded by patchy brown-and-white cattle. One of them nudges my shoulder. “Excuse me,” he says, as I turn to face him. “No-one else has come this way. They all went over there…” and he nods towards the other end of the field, where another runner is waving his arms at me. I must have missed a turn, and this is the jolt I need to switch my brain on and start concentrating. After a perfunctory health check, I decide that I’ve got the energy to spare to speed things up a little. I catch up to the guy who waved me back on track, and after sharing a few pleasantries and agreeing on how much we are looking forward to seeing the westwards loop again, I gradually pull away from him and focus on getting closer to the next rucksack and pair of piston-like legs, two hundred metres up the path.
I play this game for the next few kilometres, and eventually we arrive in Tyneham village, a cluster of tumbledown stone cottages requisitioned by the army in the Second World War for training and target practice, which they must have just forgotten to give back to the people who lived there at the end of hostilities. There are information plaques dotted around everywhere and the whole place is bursting at the seams with history. I wish for nothing more than to stop and poke around, but barely thirty seconds after arriving, I have left, the path climbs another hill and turns back towards the sea again, and Tyneham is but a fleeting memory.
We find ourselves back on the coast atop soaring chalk cliffs, and the peculiarities of our meandering route start to be felt – near the end of our eastwards circuit as I am running back to Lulworth Cove for the second time, for a couple of miles the path rejoins that of the runners still coming out from the village, first a scattered handful of those bringing up the rear on the ultra-marathon, but then a dense crowd of the hundreds of people running the half-marathon. I’ve done nearly 40km by this point, and my legs are screaming at me for a walking break, but as the wide, grassy path drops away into a steep descent down to Arish Mell, I’m being clapped and congratulated by dozens of strangers as they labour uphill towards me, and I break into an open, bounding stride, the fear of fucking up overcome by a surge of optimism and confidence drawn from these people who I’ll never see again. As the path climbs once again up Bindon Hill, I catch sight of my friend Oli trotting towards me on the half-marathon and, desperately grateful for any human contact, I stop for a split-second man-hug and wish him well, before turning once again for Lulworth Cove.
The same story: at the checkpoint I swap the empties for fresh fuel, refill my platypus with another litre of liquid, and grab the extra weight of a headtorch, muttering a prayer that I’m not out late enough to need it. With the cheers of my family fading behind me I set off once again on our westwards circuit, the coastline’s incredible geology – the colossal white cliffs, Durdle Door, the natural arch of Bat’s Hole – now glowing under the brilliant midday sun. It does nothing for my mood though: I am plagued by fatigue, doubt, and loneliness, and the combination saps my strength. For mile after mile, it is hard to break out of a shuffling jog, but inexplicably I catch up with another runner, who I quickly realise is as eager for some company as I am, then soon enough we catch up with someone else, and the three of us gladly match pace. Just before a steady climb for three kilometres on a narrow country road, we agree that we hate tarmac and slow down to a walk, chattering about races, shoes, and what we’d rather be doing. As we reach the summit and the path underfoot turns once again to grass, we cease conversation and, unbidden, break into a run, but I am unable to maintain the pace, and they gradually pull away into the distance.
A few miles later and for the fourth time today, I am back in Lulworth Cove, then after a few brief seconds I am leaving again, and headed once more for the top of those chalk cliffs. The route setters are cruel people; I can visualise them hunched around a table by candlelight as a raging storm rattles the thin windows, they are cackling and leaping around and rubbing their hands with glee as they imagine us limping up this hill for the third time. Muttering the most obscene curses imaginable at each climb as they drift away behind me and only half not-meaning them, the remaining distance shrinks painfully slowly as the skies grow noticeably darker over my head. At checkpoint three, just five kilometres from the finish line, the impossibly-cheerful girl with whom I have fallen slightly in love with over the last eight hours waves me on for the last time today, and, tired and emotional, I am struck with a pang of sadness, but by the time I’ve decided to abandon the race and start a new life with a stranger in a field in Dorest, she is three hundred metres behind me, so I press on instead.
Then I realise, quite suddenly, that each step I take over this now-familiar ground is another that I won’t have to make ever again, and the revelation provides me with a great surge of energy, so I silence my constantly-whinging inner monologue, inform my aching legs that I’m just not interested in the many complaints they have, and break into a steady run. Barely a thousand metres from our journey’s end, I hear his breathing long before a very determined runner pulls up behind me: as the sweat pours from his face, he’s sucking in every single atom of oxygen that he can through his mouth, nostrils and ears in noisy, hungry gulps. Wow, I think to myself as he claws away from me, he wants this more than I do, so I breathlessly shout my encouragements to his dripping back, and I follow him over the finish line barely twenty seconds later, as we place sixteenth and seventeenth. “Strong finish dude!” I gasp to him in a half-hug as we are handed a protein bar and a shiny medal, a decent-enough reward for eight and a half hours of absolute agony.
The rest of the evening is spent mopping beer and steak juices up with chips, and melting away slowly in a hot bath. Every now and then until late into the night, I hobble to the window to check on the near-constant stream of head torches as they make their way down the final hill to the finish. I don’t envy them one bit.
The next day, my legs don’t bend and I’m amused to discover that one of my toes has turned black. It is a week before I can walk normally without groaning and creaking. People go out of their way to do little things for me, which is nice, but slightly humiliating. But then as soon as I can use the stairs without whimpering too loudly, I start searching online, quite inexplicably, for the next possible race. It seems that I have not yet finished with this, my least-favourite of hobbies.
A thousand thank yous have to be said to absolutely everyone who helped me on this ridiculous venture, most obviously my support crew of Aine and my parents, Paul and Bobbie, who had to endure a whole weekend of strolling around the beautiful Dorset countryside; and also the Endurance Life staff, stewards, and volunteers for setting the whole thing up. But, as I found whilst running the TAR back in September, a unique kind of gratitude has be given to the other runners you meet out on the route; you might only know them for a half-dozen strides and a throwaway remark, or you could share a few miles and your life story, but the whole day would be near-impossible without them.