Journeys and destinations

You often hear the adage “it’s not the destination, but the journey that matters”, or words to that effect. And I often hear runners describe how crossing the finish line can feel like a fleeting experience that, although bursting with an overwhelming sense of achievement does not necessarily endure. Ultrarunner Sam Gash talks about feeling an immense sense of loss and emptiness after completing a major challenge, and other ultrarunners describe how the ‘black dog’ awaits them at the finish line.

Meanwhile Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the Buddhist monk, author and runner advises that we should first determine an “ultimate motivation” in life as well as in running in order to identify our immediate direction and intermediate goals. And I lose count of the runners who say that signing up to a race is the best motivation for sticking with a training plan. I wonder then whether setting an objective is to some extent just a means to an end, to create the opportunity for a ‘journey’? Or can you have a perfectly good journey without first setting a destination? Some might call that freedom, while others would see it as just being aimless. 

I set an objective myself 2 1/2 years ago when I signed up for a 10K race while living in Singapore. It was the the first running event I had entered for a long time and it triggered a journey for me that has since taken in 2 more 10K’s, 13 half marathons, 2 marathons, a 50k ultra, £2,500 raised for charity, 30lbs (13.6kg) lost around the middle, 85% lower intake of alcohol and a blog.

This succession of bucket list ticks has unfolded because as each challenge is met it creates a void, a vacuum that must then be filled by a subsequent challenge, a new goal, a fresh aspiration, the next objective, new destination. It is a self perpetuating and seemingly never ending cycle. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so, not for me anyway; my recent journey has been mind-blowing so far and I am loving every step. So yes, I do think it is the journey that really counts after all, and long may mine continue. But targets are necessary along the way too, you need them to at least signpost your journey.

My next major destination is the 2 day 100K Race To The Stones in July. The journey to this has been under way for a while. Signing up for the Sussex Coastal Trail Marathon on March 19, to increase my experience in trail marathons has meant following a training plan through the cold, dark, wet evenings of January and February. Sure, the journey counts, it’s just not always a picnic!

  

If there’s no destination will there still be a path to follow? 

  

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Cloudy with a Chance of Vegan Meatballs

Squelch squelch squelch squelch splosh squelch splosh squelch squelch squelch slip squelch slip squelch splosh… That was the sound of the first 5K of the Trailscape Rail To Trail South half marathon in Ashurst, (Kent/Sussex border) on Saturday January 10. Trailscape had promised “trails, cross-country and tracks” and they certainly delivered. They also delivered what can best be described simply as farmland; no actual cows and sheep but fields with plenty of evidence they’d been there recently, fields with fresh furrows, and a farmyard… not a big one but an actual farmyard nonetheless. And all with one thing in common… MUD!

Once upon a time this part of England had quite a thriving industry making bricks. Why? Because you don’t have to dig very deep here to find perfect clay for bricks, and also perfect, as it turns out for making your feet feel like lead weights and for sucking your runners right off ’em. So no surprise then really, that a trail run here in mid January after a week of heavy rain is a bit claggy.

But after a tough first 5K we got some respite from the mud, to run up a hill instead. Not too long and not too steep thankfully, and we quickly joined the Forest Way; a disused single track railway line now a country path enjoyed by runners, cyclists and walkers. Tree lined, firm under foot and flat; this section provided some well needed respite and a chance to enjoy the moment and the countryside around us. And fitting too that a stage of this run is made up of what was once rail now literally the trail.

I took the opportunity to pick up the pace a bit on this section and take advantage of the firm going. Probably misguided as I should in hindsight have reserved more in the tank for when the terrain became a little boggy again, which it did before too long.

Then, after what seemed an eternity of more slipping, sliding, squelching and splashing we rejoined the Forest Way on our return journey. One last farmland section that was… you guessed – a bit muddy. And then for a grand finale a climb up a steep muddy hill before a nice gentle descent to the finish.

Did I mention the headwind?

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Looks quite civilised as we set off…

The Trailscape ‘South’ HM was a small-ish field of 92 runners and a crowd that looked like it meant business. There were not too many club shirts and nobody was dressed as a giant kebab which I always think says a lot about a race’s character. There were also lots of lovely woofers running in both the 1/2 and 10K. This is the second Trailscape race I have done in this series (the other being ‘East’ in Cuxton, Kent) and if I had to sum them up in 3 words, I would say:

Fun
Tough
Friendly

The whole event was well organised, and the Trailscape team really find a nice balance between efficient and informal. The course was clearly marked, there were cheery marshalls at key points, no mile markers, and the first fuel station was at 11K; so you needed to plan to look after yourself – which I quite like actually as it feels just a little bit more of an adventure somehow.

Did I mention the mud?

There was a warm welcome on finishing; the Ashurst Village Hall as race HQ had tea and coffee on sale with a wide range of cake. And if you needed something more substantial to refuel there was a ‘Rupert’s Street’ food truck on site selling delicious vegan grub. (which is amazing by the way, check them out here)

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All finishers were awarded a medal and a nice goodie bag with locally sourced treats and a tech T-shirt (for once a contemporary design and a choice of colour!)

Race Directors Hannah and John are evangelists about the joys of trail running and their mission is to share this, spread the word and design races that encourage more people to try trail running by increasing its accessibility. Admirable ambition indeed, one which I believe they will fulfil if my experience is anything to go on. The two Trailscape races I have done both had a really nice vibe about them, which I think will prove a great basis for success. I hope that as they grow in popularity, which they undoubtedly will, they don’t loose this essence which so far makes them a bit special.

A trail run should make you explore and discover; at Trailscape South I discovered new places practically on my own doorstep which is great. And if the first 5K leave you feeling “utterly ruined” as one fellow runner described it, well that’s just a bonus!

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Did I mention the mud?

Simple

“My feet is my only carriage…”

Bob Marley sang this lyric in arguably his most iconic track ‘No Woman No Cry’. In the context of the song life is tough but Bob has to keep going, he has “to push on through…”

For me this lyric speaks of simplicity, and in the context of running it reminds me of the simplicity of our sport and how that is what fundamentally makes it special. “All you need is a pair of trainers” runners will say, and it’s true the necessary kit can be minimal. But there’s more to its simplicity than that; more to its less so to speak.

I’ve taken up many pursuits over the years and learnt it’s often not just the kit you need, but specific environmental conditions too. Surfing for example, yes you need your board and you need to be in the sea, but most important you need waves. Snowboarding is another; once you’re kitted out you need to be up a big hill that’s covered in snow. And not just any snow but the ‘right’ snow, nice soft powdery snow. Windsurfing you need… Well the clue is in the name. And if you don’t need Mother Nature to play ball you might need at least one other person to make your game possible.

Running you can do by yourself, with friends or amongst thousands. You can go out whatever the weather and wherever you are. And as for needing trainers, there’s many would argue that even this minimal concession to kit is superfluous to requirements, that all you really need is two bare feet.

I am gradually becoming an apostle of simplicity, the older I get the more I believe that life really is best when at its most simple. Running embodies that simplicity for me, a moment in the day when life is stripped back to the bare essentials, when the mind can be cleared and the body does nothing more than respond to a primal instinct.

How to make the rest of life as simple is perhaps the real challenge. Maybe a run will help…