01 January 2012

Ding dong, ding dong

Have you ever thought that somewhere looked as if it would be a great place to run, but you've never actually found yourself there to run it? I have driven a stretch of road many, many times, often seeing runners (many more cyclists) on it, and felt quite envious of them. I've also assessed the woodlands on each side of another stretch of the same road, full of running promise, and admired a grand house in the bottom of a valley there. To increase my yearning, the Ridgeway passes through this piece of countryside - a very different piece of that ancient road from "my" stretch of it, here passing though woodland and not following the higher contours, but part of the same byway and importantly part of the course of the Ridgeway Challenge ...

So I was very excited to find that this year's New Year's Day run was ten miles around this part of Oxfordshire. It's far enough from home that I would never otherwise have reason to be there in my running kit, but today was my opportunity to run in it. And just to be out running at 10 o'clock on New Year's Day is a treat in itself, when much of the world is nursing a hangover in bed. I was, in fact, nursing an ill-considered Indian dinner, but a ten-miler, even at a gentle pace, would be a great way to deal with that.

Sarah, who had devised the route, asked with some concern about my footwear - but there is only one way to find out how huaraches will perform, and that's to give it a try. Mind you, ten miles is one mile further than I had done in them before, and that was in what passes for summer round here - but since we stopped having different seasons there's little to choose between 1 January and mid-July, except the mud. My main concern was sharp rocks, but after a mental run round the course Sarah assured me that it would be OK except perhaps for one short stretch.

Quite a reasonable group of Amblers turned out - about 20, I guess - and off we went over the fields. Apart from having to take a little care descending slopes, I seemed to be suffering no disadvantage as a result of being the only one in the group not wearing heavy-duty trail shoes. A group pulled away after a mile or so, and I certainly wasn't going to try to hang in with the speed merchants today: but they all seemed to stop at a church, and as I caught them Julian told  me there was a tap there. I asked whether he was suggesting I might wash my feet. Actually a drink might have been a good idea, and later in the morning my eyesight became a little erratic making me wonder whether I was dehydrated. But hell, this was only a ten-miler!

At a couple of points of the course we had to follow signs marked "Chiltern Way", which speaks ominously of hills, and sure enough one presented itself at about 2·5 miles. I'd been running with Andrew for a while by this point, and we caught several others on the climb across a meadow - mainly due to the need to stop to pass through a gate at the top, I think. Entering a wood at this point, I saw a large, concealing tree-trunk which would serve a curry-related purpose that was becoming quite pressing so paused to use this facility and ran on alone until I caught Andrew again. Before that, though, leaving those wonderful beechwoods and joining the road I had driven so often, I encountered a man walking his dog, and having lost sight of any other runners (Andrew assured me he was standing at the next turn, waving, but I had not thought it necessary to wear my glasses) I stopped to check my bearings with him. He was anxious to find out the nature of the mass lunacy he was witnessing, as I must have been at least the tenth member of the group to pass him.

A random runner came past, too, but she was intent on a different route and I took the turn Andrew had tried to indicate and caught him soon afterwards (he had, it must be admitted, stopped at another turn to allow me to rejoin him). My right Achilles was now starting to mutter low-level complaints: it had been stiff and a little painful from the start, after which as usual it had loosened up, but a couple of short stops had not been to its taste - note to self: keep it moving! Of course, the huaraches place more strain on it than conventional shoes, and strengthening this part of my running equipment is a key part of what I am trying to do in this phase of my career.

The contours got closer together again on the route map, descending, and we made the most of it - though we both remarked later that, unless the finish line is at the foot of the descent, running downhill almost inevitably presages some uphill running later - and the finish was still six or more miles away. The going was muddy in places, and where possible I planted my feet on convenient fallen leaves to achieve as much certainty as possible, but a few steps into liquid mud introduced an unhelpful lubricating layer between the sole of my foot and the sole of my footwear. It soon worked its way out again, though - or dried out, or something.

Following Ridgeway signs - posts painted with a stylised acorn, and an arrow - we managed to find our way into an unscheduled farmyard (spur on the Garmin map at 6+ miles). "We'll end up in someone's living room" Andrew suggested - and I didn't think they'd welcome us. We hadn't been dressed for for social visiting when we set out, and adding copious mud to our get-up hadn't made us any more presentable.

Back on track we struggled up a long, long, steep hill, pausing to chat to three hikers who were taking a break near the top. They professed to have seen no other runners, which should have sounded a warning, but no, we pressed on until I objected that heading downhill was a bad idea if we were not certain we were going the right way. Shortly after we turned back (a bigger spur on the map, at about 7 miles) a couple came walking towards us, and I engaged them in a little light map-reading - though they were able to confirm that the other runners had turned off the path up the hill and followed the edge of a field, which we then proceeded to do having climbed twice as far as we needed to.

A couple of miles further on, the route rejoined the road so often driven, but only for a few hundred yards before that ominous Chiltern Way headed off in a substantially vertical direction to a point high above Ewelme, the start and finish. A loop through the village was prescribed, though at one point a short-cut seemed to be on offer - as each of us had a witness, and I had a tell-tale Garmin, we rejected any idea of taking it. We greeted everyone we encountered along the whole ten miles, wishing them good morning and a Happy New Year, but a lady who was sweeping outside her house corrected us - it was already afternoon. "And what year?" I asked.

We passed John Buchan's former house, the King's Pool where Henry VIII reportedly bathed, the almshouses, the oldest school building still in use in the country, and a wall belonging to the school which appeared to have come off second-best in an argument with a vehicle. As the Cow Meadow car park came into view I accelerated, and Achilles screamed at me to resume my sedate pace. Some work needed to make him happy again, but a very satisfying outing for the not-so-new sandals. And my feet now attract more attention than any part of my body ever has before, which seems like a good thing though perhaps the opposite is also true. My clubmates seemed genuinely impressed that I'd managed to complete the course without the sort of things they had on their feet. As was I.

A good way to start the year: and a good reason to come home and sign up for some more races. However,  after lunch I began to feel very sleepy, so lay down to listen to Die Meistersinger (or at least some of it, as I didn't imagine I could devote the whole period from 1445 to 2115 to this pursuit). I remember hearing the first few bars of the overture, then later was aware that the batteries in my radio had expired, but that was all until I awoke an hour or so later. I think that serves to indicate how much fitness I need to regain: a sedate ten miler shouldn't be knocking me out in the way that nothing short of a hard Marathon used to do.

Happy New Year!
 

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