This journal entry is partly about the Coast to Coast, an adventure race in Scotland (to read an actual race review, please see here...). Meantime, here are some other thoughts entirely, with apologies to Kipling… and despite this Journal’s running theme of cake, I don’t mean the confectioner.
So, what’s it all for? This training, this physical endeavour? I ask this despite normally avoiding all mention of actual training in this ‘training journal’. But what’s it for? To work off the day’s frustrations? To help you sleep well? To shake the subconscious for solutions to life’s intractable problems? And by the bye, solve a few cryptic crossword clues that have been bugging you? (Weird, but true. See * below.) To get you out of a rut?
Well, all of the above, and it works particularly well when you set up and the face down a challenge. It gives something to aim for and something then to overcome, and most importantly takes you out of the humdrum of daily life. A challenge brings an energy, an urgency about getting up in the morning, to work the body hard. Er, yes. Training…
But then, after all the preparation, when you’re out there fulfilling the challenge, there’s a moment of intense forgetting. Of the dreariness in everyday life, of small-minded concerns, often of others, of the necessity of being on the train or in the office, with its complicated people and their undeclared agendas. Instead there’s the directness of physical endeavour.
There may be a mountain to climb, a hill to pedal. But you know exactly what’s required, as surely as the sharp wind in your face makes you feel more alive. And there’s the simple satisfaction of the physical endeavour. It comes home strongest when the chips are down, when you pass through exhaustion and approach your limits. It’s the time, in Kipling’s words to :
“…force your heart and nerve and sinew…
And so hold on when there is nothing in you,
Except the Will, which says to them Hold on!”
And it’s good to be reminded that you have reserves you had forgotten were there. And that your limits can be overcome.
The Coast to Coast came with greater significance than normal for me. It was about completing the race with my son. There are Dads who would like to take their son fishing, to show them their joy of whisky or gambling – I heard of one Dad taking his son off to a strip-club not long ago. Perhaps it’s a rite of passage, to show them the world that there is to explore (Can I talk about dads and daughters another time, please.). And for someone who has spent years of his life in desert and jungles, wilderness of one sort or another, often without the benefits of modern comfort, occasionally living on his wits, this seemed like the most suitable thing to do.
I didn’t even bump the lad into it. I just offered a race or physical challenge from time to time, confident that one day a positive response would come. And then it did, in precisely the words I have used so often myself (even written about them, as a clarion call for adventurers):
“Yeah, sure, I’ll have a go at that…”
Except then I realised what I let myself in for... A 55 year old, admittedly with some form, was putting himself up against an 18 year old. Er…er… No, it was too late for that…
We were, as you might say, evenly mis-matched - he was stronger in the running: I was stronger on the bike - until the last 20 minutes of the whole race, that was, when we came off the slither-fest of the final hill to the kayak leg across Loch Leven. And suddenly, there it all came together, and the boat moved faster than I’ve ever managed to paddle a sit-on kayak before. In the sport that neither of us had done any training, our technique and timing was perfect.
But there was plenty of angst and agony before that - you can imagine a certain generational ‘elastic’, a lasso that gathered us together, forcing the weaker one on, as he desperately tried not to let the other down. Actually it wasn’t that bad. We were each pretty happy to wait, and as a team we kept good, honest momentum.
These races become most interesting when you’re tired of course, and my moment came on the final running section, when I was 8 or 10 miles in to the stretch of the West Highland Way. I trotted where I could, downhill and along the flat. But running is clearly not my thing at the moment (particularly with a strained Achilles) and eventually I could only walk.
And his moment? I was waiting for it on the final hill, the course-designer’s final taunt, a thousand foot climb into the mist and rain. The rain was coming in buckets. Not one inch of my body was dry and around us the whole peaty hillside was sliding downhill at one stage. In 35 years of walking in Scotland I have seen worse, but not that often. I was waiting for the moment when he turned to me to ask why the hell he had got him into this, why the hell we were bothering, the moment to turn to the mist-covered mountains and shout:
“Why?!!! What is it all for?!!!”
But, despite the discomfort, in the face of raw prejudice and provocation by the weather, when almost any teenager I know would have been in a rage or the verge of a tantrum … he did…not… flinch…. Not one iota.
The last word’s for Kipling. To be fair his poem If : (If you can keep your head when all about you: are losing their heads and blaming it on you…’) does list other important criteria for life, but here’s the one that makes it all worth it for a mountain-man Dad.
“If you can fill the unforgiving minute…
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run…
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it…
And – which is more - you’ll be a Man my son.”
*Yes, I was quite surprised too, but it has happened a few times. My favourite was one I had been mulling over all afternoon – ‘This sharp old Englishman has a limited number of degrees.’ Just couldn’t get it. But then, after 20 minutes of running, the answer bubbled up into my head – Acute Angle.