Saturday, 27 September 2008

Running in the cold dark night

The heading is meant literally. But before I go there, let me mention Grunty Fen. If you're not local there are a lot of fens around here. They are flat, farmed, not very interesting pieces of land. They were rescued from the sea by imported dutchmen in the C17th, and therefore saved for maybe 400 years. People won't be terribly sad when that process is reversed later this century.Except their owners, perhaps, though I think they're very prone to suicide in any case. Fenland is ugly. It breathes that permeability between boredom and despair.

The weekend before last, that is, 14 September, was the Grunty Fen Half Marathon. Two laps of Grunty Fen and the spur of the start and finish. I didn't have high hopes, but I started manfully hoping to make about 1:26. After a couple of miles I found myself running with my club mates Ish and Simon and David (who runs with the club but hasn't signed up, and hence runs with a shirt from his old Midlands club ... and he, incidentally, beat me by two minutes in the last 5k I raced). That was nice. I felt like a real runner. I was at the front. We were a club. Then it all fell apart ... David pulled off, I held onto him, and the rest of the team drifted back. And all around us was fenland.

The wind was hard, but it's a flat course. I sheltered in others' lee until the field was too disparate, then made my own headway. I was pleased when David came back in sight, and doubly pleased when he came within reach as we turned off the fen into the village, and towards the finish. I engaged in a sprint for the line with the guy in front of me, and was surprised when we passed the said David. 1.24 something. That was just fine. But I was 35th, which wasn't good, and, it turned out, there were a lot of old men in front of me. No second vet this time. Nonetheless the reward was a lovely lunch in Ely with my support team, sitting by the river on a perfect English sunny autumn afternoon.

Now for the Round Norfolk Relay. Norfolk is a county in England. If Britain is shaped like a bunny rabbit (ok, a pregnant one), Norfolk is the tail. It is about 193 miles around. On 20 September this year, at 10:30 am, a relay began. It finished about 23.5 hours later. Seventeen stages, tracing the boundary of Norfolk, through the night. And, unlike the Hereward relay, there is an actual baton that needs to be carried ("in the hand" specify the race instructions -- you are explicitly not permitted to stuff it down your shorts).

I arrive at my start, in Scole, which is three miles east of Diss, a name which has always amused me as it's a metonym for Hell (Proserpine "herself a fairer flower / By gloomy Diss was gathered", or something like that, from somewhere in Paradise Lost, probably book 9). It's a dark field, fragmentally lit by uplights. The race has been in progress for about 14 hours, and this, coupled with the staggered start, means that most of the rest of the 48 teams have already passed, and it's going to be a long, lonely night for me. I meet up with the co-ordinators for my team, Andy and Carmel, who are asleep in a car with the number '30' on the back. In the corner of the field there's a van selling hot tea, and the survivors gather around it. Andy gives me and my support team, Nicky, a flashing orange light to go on top of my support car, and tapes another "30" on the back. I load the passenger seat with gels and water bottles. I'm freezing at this point, shivering and bewildered after an hour's nap earlier. It's about 2:15 in the morning and a mist is settling. A couple of cars with flashing orange lights pass, and a couple of other runners take off. I'm waiting for Adam, who is due in at about 2:30.

He arrives on cue, and I set off into the depths of Norfolk oblivion, Nicky driving a few metres behind me. I pass through Diss and hit the A1066, and run along it for about 16 miles ... almost nothing happens. I run for 2 hours and fourteen minutes and see 2 other runners. I run a thin pool of light, the rest of the night obscure to me. Deprived of your senses it's hard to stay motivated. Deprived of competition, it's hard to race. I run a very modest pace of about 4'20" per kilometre, occasionally up to 4'09". I try to push, but there's no adrenaline on tap to help me along. There's a learning experience smothered in this.

I see another runner a mile or so ahead. It's had to tell in the dark ... the other runner is a flashing yellow light, of course. It takes me about 40 minutes to catch him up. Then I steam past him, suddenly invigorated. And then I'm a little regretful. He might be the only runner I'll see all night. Learning that there will be no glory in this run is a hard lesson.

There's a lot of roadkill. That's the thing I notice most. Pigeons, squirrels, rabbits, pheasants, indecipherable entrails ground into the tarmac, casting black and white silhouettes. At one point I hear a chorus of crickets. That's the highlight of the run. A chorus of insomniac crickets in the narcotic Norfolk night.

And who said Norfolk was flat? I have GPS proof that it is not. There's at least one mountain between Scole and Thetford. I listen to Nicky shifting between first and second, and second anf first, and first and second. Her car isn't particularly happy at 9 mph. We work out hand signals when I want a gel or a drink. The air varies between a disdainful cold and oddly humid warmth. The hours pass, as does a guy from another nameless athletic club (plus his car and his accompanying cyclist, is coaching him along). He stays with me for a while, turns a corner, and then is gone with suspicious acceleration.

Finally I hit a roundabout, turn left, and begin a 3k ascent to the handover. It's the loneliest approach to a finish I've ever known. I hand over to Brian, whom I've never met, but identify through his shirt and because there's hardly anyone else there anyway. Assuming that this will be like an Olympic 4x400 handover I shout 'go' and keep running and hold the baton out to his hand -- he starts up but has difficulty keeping up, and I pull him along for a couple of metres before I realise that the time probably doesn't matter anyway. At least we don't drop the baton. Another support car takes over. And there at the finish are Andy and Carmel. Nicky gives them the flashing light. And it's over. It's a quarter to five in the morning and the dawn is still some time away.

My team arrives at King's Lynn - where the race also started - after 23:38:28, and is placed 13th overall. I don't see this because I've gone back to Cambridgeshire to nap, though at the moment they finish I'm chasing a dog with separation anxiety through the streets of a Cambridgeshire village, though that is another story. The night has passed. And, no doubt, I'm mentally stronger for it. I'd post some photos, but they'd be black on black.


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