Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Epic Run: English Countryside

There are some things in life that no matter how much you try, you just aren't prepared for. Earlier this month, one of those things happened to me.

I knew I was going for a long run with Marino through the English countryside. I'd been looking forward to it for weeks, certain that it would be a great run, but I didn't know just how amazing it was going to be. Amazing. And long. And difficult.

Marino was just 2 weeks removed from a 100 mile race. Let that sink in a bit... 100 miles. 100 miles. That's a rounding error away from 4 marathons, in a row, in 24 hours. That's a long ass way my friends. It was also a good thing for me, because I knew he'd still be recovering and at least a tick off of his best. That meant I had a chance of staying with him, which was good because I didn't know where I was going.

The run started out Marino's front door, on a perfect sunny Sunday morning, on his insanely English street in Milford. Every street in the area, known as Surrey, is a postcard for quaint, with gentle rolls and beckoning curves, flanked with houses built before 1900, each with little English gardens, and little English garden fences.

Milford, yes we are that quaint.

After my habitual jumping jacks and trunk twists, we were off, moving from adorable street to even more adorable street. It felt good to run after a two of days of hard-core touristing. After a quarter of a mile, it felt like any other run.

That didn't last long.

After just half a mile, we were in the country, on a narrow country road. I was leading. Marino said, "We're going left at that sign post up there."

Thing is, the only sign post type thing was a simple wooden pole poking out of a hedge that seemed to mark nothing. It wasn't until I was exactly at the post that I saw the trail.

Marino assuring me that we were indeed hanging a left at the sign post.

For those who don't remember, the UK has something called the Right to Roam (explained by yours truly, here). I'd imagined what it must be like for a runner many times, but I wasn't prepared for the sight of a truly unbroken public footpath. It was glorious.

Trail, as far as the eye can see, and then some.

Kids, this is a sight I will never forget.

Gorgeous, open field, horizon to horizon, green and lush, with a thin brown line tracing the way across, the way to the next unbelievably beautiful view. I was six-year-old-on-Christmas-morning giddy.

This is the way things are meant to be. This is where, and how, we are meant to run, across the land, the best land with the best views, as far as we want.

We have views like this, and fields like this, here in the good ol' US of A. But they're on private land, with rights and liability concerns, and fences. We love our fences. This trail, and hundreds like it all across the UK, are also on private land, but every citizen has the right to use the path. And yes, they have fences, but the fences have "stiles".

Stile:  noun - a series of steps or rungs by means of which
a person may pass over a wall or fence that remains a barrier to sheep or cattle.

Pretty damn ingenious, right? Sturdy, so we roamers don't damage the fence. Can't be left open like a gate. Easy peasy to get up and over. How could this get better?

I was in running heaven. How could anything improve such a glorious run. It would have to be something amazing, like happening upon, and crossing, a mediaeval bridge built by monks in the 13th century. One like, oh, I don't know, this one...

When this bridge was built by monks, Indiana was populated by American Indians.
So was the rest of America

Unforgettable moment #2. Barely 2 miles in, I was running a dream run.

And it was about to get better.

Over another stile or two and Marino and I were in a pasture. Lush and breathtaking in it's beauty and size, and green as green gets... except for a few white specks up in the distance. What are those?

The white specks are sheep. I was running with sheep. Sheep, people!

Not easy to see in the photo, but there were lots, and lots of sheep in this pasture. Just up the path there was a tree. In the shade of the tree were easily 3 dozen sheep, ignoring the rest of the flock, in various stages of an early morning nap. They were not nearly as excited to see me as I was to see them. And honestly, their displeasure, and accompanying sideways glances and irritated "Bahs!" made it even more fun as they lumbered to get to their feet and moved just enough to allow me to pass along the path. They so close I could smell the dirt on their damp wooly coats.

For a while the path wound about other small hamlets, down a little path, over a bit of yet another quaint street, and sometimes between properties, leaving a narrow, but inviting passage of wilderness.

But soon, we left even the tiny towns behind and again found, just over a heavily treed ridge, over a rickety and slightly slippery stile, even more open, magnificent countryside.

Simply took my breath away.

Shortly after crossing this valley, at 11 miles, my breath was taken away again, this time by a brutal climb. After a couple miles of gradual uphill came a brutal, steep, sandy, did I mention steep? climb. Half way up, I actually felt a sharp pain in my chest, sharp enough and painful enough to cause me to imagine the tabloid headline "American Flatlander Drops Dead On English Hill, 15 Meters From Top". Luckily I survived, because at the top was the best view of the day, and one of the best of my life.

Unmatched view of the English countryside from way too far up

Marino and I, on top of the hill, 11 miles in, when I was still chipper

This is a good time to mention how great of a host Marino was. Not only did the man plan and play tour guide for this run of a lifetime, he also carried water and food for both of us. Not many people would do that. Take me, for instance... if we're out for a long-ass rugged trail run, you'll be carrying your own water and cereal bars.

Anyway, after a Marino-supplied snack and some Marino-shlepped water, I took one more minute to soak in the majesty, to let it wash over me, and to appreciate how lucky I was to be financially capable to travel to such a place, and physically able to experience it the best way possible, on foot in shorts and running shoes.

Another view from the church at the top of the unholy hill

From the high, literal and emotional, of the church hill, it was downhill, again literally and figuratively. Eleven miles on rough, rolling, and slippery (did I mention it rained like Queen Elizabeth (reign, rain... sorry) most of Saturday) was taking its toll on my legs and spirit.

Our route took as along a river and a wonderfully winding tow path. I'd love to show you more-attractive-than-average readers some pictures of the wonderfully winding tow path and river, but I wasn't in the mood, and not in any condition, to take many pictures. From mile 15 on, it was head down, left, right, get home.

That is, until the bucolic splendor was interrupted by this...

WWII machine gun bunker, aka pillbox

Marino explained that the British had prepared for what they thought was an impending German invasion from the south. Assuming the Nazis would then make a beeline to London, they noted the natural pinch points in the terrain, and built these defense positions to slow the advance, hopefully allowing the British Navy time to circle around and cut off their supply lines before they made it to London. Imagine being one of two, maybe three guys, each with a machine gun and maybe a couple grenades, ordered to slow down the German advance. These guys wouldn't be winning any battles. They were there to annoy the Germans by not dying too quickly. I'm glad it never came to that. I'm glad the river and its tow path weren't scarred by war.

After the pillbox, I was really feeling the miles. The slippery footing was stealing any momentum I could muster, so I decided to try to pick up the pace a bit. Opening up my stride, using different muscles, felt good. It was tough, but it felt good, and felt like we were making progress. Until we came to another stile.

I didn't know it, but this would be the last stile of our run. I was sore, tired as hell, and my legs, hips, and back were tight and cranky. I thought back to just a couple hours previous, back to that first stile, and how impressed I was by its simplify and utility, and how fun it was. For this last one, having surrendered that hard earned pace and momentum, as I dug deep to find the strength and will to lift one leg, and then the other, I told Marino "These stiles are bullshit." He laughed, noting the irony, and knew, as any long distance runner knows, how mood, perception, and opinion change as the miles pile on.

The path on the other side of the last stile,
unofficially named Bullshit Stile

That last stile took us to about mile 18. Marino confessed that he too was hurting, which was a huge relief to me. But then Marino mentioned that we might be a little longer than the planned 19 miles.
He thought it would be just a bit long, but not more than 20. That is not what you want to hear when you're hurting. When every quarter mile feels like a gargantuan effort, when all you want is to be done, you don't want to contemplate the idea that it might be even a foot farther.

It helped that we got to run the streets of Godalming, the quaintest damn town on the planet. I'm not kidding, I'm sure there's a plaque somewhere.

No, this isn't Epcot's England, this Godalming.

At 19.5 miles, both of us running on fumes and Gummy Bears, it was clear that we were more than half a mile away. In this situation, you have a few choices. You can throw in the towel and walk, or cab, the rest of the way in. You can get pissy, which helps nothing. Or you can put your head down, accept that the goal wasn't a number, it was getting back home, and that home isn't moving away from you on purpose just to mess with you. There is a distance to be covered, and it's best to just get to it.

As we turned onto the street, Marino said "There's my car, right there." I grunted something meant to confirm the car sighting, but in reality, I had no idea where his car was. The distance from the corner to his house seemed so much longer than it ever had, including when the GF and I had walked it two days before.

Yet we managed to cover it. Stopped the watch at 21.25 miles, right at 4 hours (total time including snack breaks). Toughest run of my life, other than Tecumseh Trail Marathon. High-fives and in we went for a glass of water. We had just 15 minutes for a quick shower before heading out to a UK Mother's Day feast. As I sat on the bed, half dressed, I was momentarily overwhelmed. If I'd been even slightly better hydrated I probably would have cried. The immense effort of the run, especially the finish, along with the beauty and grandeur, it was just too much to process. It was more than I could have imagined. And yet I'd just lived it.

I tear up a bit just thinking about it.

I'll say it again... There are some things in life that no matter how much you try, you just aren't prepared for. Though I had looked forward to this run for months, I could never have dreamed how fantastically inspiring, enriching, empowering, enlightening, exhausting, invigorating, and memorable it would be.

I would be a total tool if I didn't thank my guide, sherpa, and running buddy Marino for the running adventure of a lifetime. It will be hard to top this one, but we have an idea that might come close.

Thanks also to Marino's fabulous wife Angie for letting Marino go out and play on Mother's Day. And her sister, the GF, for letting me tag along to England with her.

Oh, and before I forget... many have asked... Yes, fountains were defiled!

Buckingham Fountain, just outside the Palace

Trafalgar Square
Good running,