On Saturday 9 November 2019, 11 runners set out together on a 10-mile trail run in the Dart Valley in south Devon. Nine of them were guests on a writing retreat hosted by the other two, running authors Adharanand Finn and Richard Askwith. As part of the retreat, everyone was tasked with writing something short about or inspired by the morning run. We published a number of the pieces in issue #22 of Like the Wind and here we present all the pieces that we could not fit in the magazine itself.
Purpose by Sophie Power
I’m not in control of this run. We’re almost 15 minutes in and only now has my watch buzzed to signal the first mile has passed. The path has been winding up and down muddy stairs, through stiles and gates, each with a concertina effect on the distance between us. We wait again for the last runner to rejoin and I start to shiver. I haven’t reproofed the seams on my rain jacket for too long and the heavy rain has almost made it through to my skin.
Back home I usually run with myself for company, my runs squeezed into gaps in a shape-shifting schedule of meetings, child movements and life admin. Running alone I’m free to choose the terrain, the pace, the distance, the rest stops. But here I’m part of a group that has its own needs. It’s not all about me.
I try to find meaning in every run. It helps me in some way to justify the time I’ve spent away from work or family. Some runs make me a better runner – a tempo session to push my threshold higher, a hill session to build my strength. Others are to clear my mind, think through a problem or simply enjoy the delights of being outside.
I’ve hooked the holes in my sleeve over my thumbs to keep my hands warm. I can’t see my watch anymore and there’s little point stopping and starting it every few minutes as if there was anything to be gained from the data. What then is the purpose today?
Around me are a group of runners I met only the evening before. We start to chat, to explore our desire to connect through the written word. I’m more open when I run, the need to keep eye contact removed and I find myself more confident asking questions and sharing my thoughts.
We’ve long given up teetering around the puddles in single file so we run side by side through them, our conversations occasionally interrupted by a shriek when one is deeper than expected. I learn new ways of training, new ways of recovering and of new adventures to be had on the trails. Before I realise it, I’m charging down the zig-zag hill and we have less than a mile to go. 11.2 miles says the watch. But the run meant much more.
Darting Through by Nigel Harding
First light reveals the hills white with the first deep frost of winter. By nine, however, torrential rain is washing it away. Alas! It’s southern England’s third successive Saturday morning rainstorm.
I can’t find any traction even slithering down the saturated, leaf-strewn, green road to the farm. At my age, one fall will probably put me in traction and end my running career. Anxiety inhibits me. I slip further behind on each downhill. I recall Oscar-winning cinematography, gangsters’ long coats dripping in a hyperbolic Hollywood rainstorm. Am I also on The Road to Perdition?
Regrouping by the high stone wall built to keep deer in Dartington Park, I’ve reached rock bottom. After 75 minutes of sploshing through barely-lit grey-brown woodlands, it can’t get any worse. A spark of optimism follows as we track the rising river. Along the Dart Valley Trail, there will be no more perilous descents.
The day gradually lightens. So does my mood, helped by a fragment of a mind-altering substance. Dieticians may frown at its calories, but Kendal Mint Cake is not on banned doping lists.
For a mile I run with our host Adharanand Finn, before sending him on ahead. Though I miss the camaraderie, running feels easier without the pressure to keep up with the group.
Totnes is much better for a splash of sunlight. Pastel stucco, new-build houses combine well with flat conversions from olden harbour days – Malthouse and Applewharf.
A steep climb, which I don’t attempt to run, takes me high above the forest of masts at the yacht marina. When I resume running, it’s more of a shuffle. The sky’s a blue we could not have wished for an hour earlier. The trees are in full autumnal yellows and browns.
Would I really appreciate this beauty if I hadn’t endured the soaking? How much more have I seen since the group moved ahead? I wouldn’t have seen the dive of the cormorant, nor the surprised fox dashing away up the hill.
Most of my run was a soggy slog. Now though, climbing towards journey’s end, my mind’s soundtrack has switched to Shepherds’ Thanksgiving After the Storm.
There’s just a hint of the estuary towards the horizon. On a nearer reach of the Dart, rowers are belatedly beginning their training. Meanwhile, mine is ending with a runner’s high.
Sure and Steady by Jane Milne
Every running club has them,
the stalwarts, the members who’ve been a member
for more years than they can remember.
Who turn up, year after year,
to train, to compete, to officiate,
often to prevaricate while sitting on the committee
as Treasurer, Secretary, or Chair.
Who young, fresh athletes,
full of beans and foul of knowledge,
see as ‘just the old guy who brings up the rear’.
Poole AC has one. His name is Nigel.
But they don’t have him today.
Today we have Nigel.
We’re a bunch of runners and writers who’ve come together,
retreated from our norms to share time and space and learn from each other.
An unlikely group, but as is common in the world of running,
one that at its heart makes everyone feel welcome, connected and part.
This morning our schedule says eight-mile trail run,
but we’re fast realising that schedules are there to be changed.
So we’re expecting the unexpected.
We’re in the hall, sheltering from the rain, Biblical rain,
and while some of us fuss with our buffs and our gloves,
and wonder if two layers will be enough,
Nigel waits, patiently.
He knows the score, no need for him to fret.
In his shorts and club jacket (from old stock of course) he’s ready and set.
It’s time to go.
In harmony, most of our hands move first.
And while the rest of us are pressing our buttons,
getting watches primed to keep track of our miles and record our times,
Nigel puts one foot in front of the other.
No need for him to keep track, he’s ready, he’s off up the hill, sure and steady.
We all run past at varying pace, some slow, some fast
Nigel keeps going, slow and steady, unperturbed at being last.
We’ve been asked to be mindful during this run,
to soak up the experience,
– appropriate considering the drenching we’re getting –
so that we can write about it later. Run and Write.
It’s why we’re here.
So I’m taking it in as much as I can,
the scenery (sprawling moors, boats on the river, rolling hills. Devon hasn’t disappointed),
the mud (deep and slidey, sooking me in and spitting me out),
the trees (the green, the golden, the amber hues creating a cathedral of colour for us to run through)
and the ever-changing path we’re pounding (puddles, muck, tarmac, stones, rocks, moss and leaves).
We’ve stopped at another gate. Another opportunity for the group to re-group.
Eight miles in and not nearly done. As expected.
I realise, while the rest of us switch from fast, to walk, to run,
to up at the front, to high path or low,
Nigel’s holding his pace, sure and steady as he goes.
I know now that it’s not the scenery, the muck or the woods,
that’s most inspired me today.
The sun’s come out as we run to the end.
Nigel finishes without any fuss.
He smiles and nods at the rest of us while we stop our watches,
pull off our shoes, scrape off the mud and head for the loo.
I watch him go, and think of the years when on runs such as this
He’d have been nearer the front, maybe leading the group,
and I think we’re lucky – and Poole are too – to have people like Nigel,
who still want to run and be willing to share
The things that they’ve learned year upon year.
Thank You Nigel.
Thank you for being you, for your gentle way, for being with us today,
and for being part of the sure and steady foundation
that keeps all our clubs going, all over the nation.
The Fun Run by Ed Price
It’s true, there was weather. At breakfast, we’d looked out of the window and saw the rain coming down in a steady ‘here all day’ type-way and told ourselves not to be negative. The words we use to describe such conditions were unhelpful, we said. It’s not ‘miserable’, we said. A thing is what you call it. Say it’s miserable, and it will be. This was rain. Let’s just call it that.
And so we set off, in an un-miserable way, on our 10-mile run. The path took us down soft, wet, slippery ground to the river, and we followed it into and out of the town. In the woods the rain was coming down harder, so much so that our clothing clung to us. Our attempts at good-humour were weakening. The rain was taking a different shape now. A rounder, colder, harder shape. This was hail. But, let’s not call it that.
We stopped avoiding puddles, there was no point, and instead splashed through icy-pools the colour of milk tea, losing the feeling in our toes as we went. Our route took us into a deeper wood. Tall redwoods stood guard around us, as we wound up and down along dirt paths of reddy mud. A brook – bulbous, fast and unknowably deep – keeping us company as we followed the line of an old wall. We came out on a clearing, framed by the river on one side and a hill on the other, and above us a sky that was starting not to rain. This was … let’s not call it anything yet.
Running alongside the river, we came past a spot so renowned for jumping-in that steps have been carved into the trees so that divers can climb them more easily. Not today. We ran on and didn’t yet dare comment on the fact that we weren’t getting wetter. We ran and mingled, chatting about the runs we’d done, and the words we’d write. But soon the fact was unmistakable and someone had to call it: it’s not raining.
Back through the town and onto the path to the house, our moods lightened, we ran more easily. We split into two groups for the final stretch, one going over, the other going under, and then met at the gate, for the last climb of the day. A run is what you call it. Say it’s hard and it will be. This was fun. Let’s call it that.
The Embodiment of Running by Richmond Stace
There was a moment when everyone was bending over, eleven people tying their running shoes and sharing insights about the forthcoming run. Much of the talk was of the heavy rain and how this would be an impetus not a dampener. Ready, we set off up the steep drive led by one of the hosts sporting an orange headscarf. He would be easy to follow.
Group running is different to running alone. There is a uniqueness of individuals coming together for a common purpose. Not knowing each other adds an element of intrigue together with an opportunity to discover who we all are, including ourselves—the hardest question being, who am I?
We made our way along the waterlogged trail, sloshing through unavoidable puddles, skidding in the mud, all the while conversing. The rain was getting heavier, but everyone was already soaked. Wet from the outside, sweat from within, shoes full of muddy water, it felt like the essence of British trail running.
We all run in our own way, bounded by anatomical restriction to an extent, but driven by the fulfilment of a predictive brain. The master organ makes its best guesses as it has no access to the body or the world, and so infers meaning of the sensory input. These predictions leave room for errors that we update to make better predictions. This is the essence of learning.
The rain continued to pour. We stopped at times to regroup and set off again together. The River Dart was racing towards the sea as we squelched inland, back towards town. By now people were getting a feel for each other, listening to each other’s stories. But it’s not only in the words. The enactment, the tone, together with the movement of running paints a richer picture of the person.
Running is an embodied act. I feel for the ground with not only my feet, but my whole body. I am gathering information to assess the terrain and the environment, partly conscious, mostly subconscious. This seems to be the best approach for downhill. ‘Switch off your brain’, was the advice given, and ‘look six feet ahead’. I duly obeyed. With practice I can now make better predictions and learn where to gather the right information, translating into quicker and more confident descents as I embody those thoughts and intentions.
By the time we returned to the house, we knew each other that much better. Not only from what we had heard, but what we had seen and embodied.
For more information on retreats hosted by author Adharanand Finn visit thewayoftherunner.com