What lies beyond the finishing line for local runners?
Training for a Marathon is not, I concede, the most gothic of situations, yet it has afforded me a strange experience that, with I must say a little trepidation, I now wish to share with you.
As you know, the Lethmachen Marathon is two weeks away. I have been training for the best part of a year, spurred on, as I know many are, by the death of a loved one. I fell into a regular pattern of preparation: two short, fast runs in the week and a long run at the weekend. This I really did begin to look forward to, despite the challenge. My route took me through Wayland woods, out across the rolling hills south east the town, then back up along the main road, finishing off with a fair few suburban streets. I knew this 16-mile trek followed the bare bones at least of previous marathon circuits. A month ago, however, the finalized route was displayed on the Lethmachen Running Club website. I don’t think I was alone in being rather shocked at this posting, as the route had been dramatically altered. We now turned away from Waylands, running up past the old quarry, then into the farmland to the southwest. Unlike the agri-business plots to be found to the north, and directly to the south, these are seemingly unplanned affairs. each field takes no more than four or five minutes to cross, and that means there are many styles. The ground is undulating. I love hills as much as the next runner, but as a challenge I work out up to, conquer, then leave behind. These gradients never really break upon one, but for a few miles they never probably level out either. It is tough going. The first few weeks, I began to run a six-mile section of the the route after work, three or four times a week. I saw many other runners at that time, and we would greet each other in the usual way, and, unusually, we would often stop, and complain about the paths. I had a couple of days leave, so I took these, thinking that I could get a bit more experience of running the route in the afternoon sun. It was even harder going, but at least I began to get used to the uneven ground: yellow Lethmachen stone, or impacted dirt paths, with lines of grass often trailing down the middle, dividing it into tracks too narrow for anyone but a child to traverse with any comfort.
One night, a week or so in, I lay in bed going over the work of the afternoon. I found myself thinking especially of small section of the route. It begins with a pretty steep slope, concreted over, as it is used as an access to a farm. This takes it out of you, but in an enjoyable way. You can get real purchase because of the concrete, and I like the feeling of getting my back that extra bit straight, keeping a good technique in the face of the additional effort. At the top of this, the path curls to the left, past the farm, then to the right, and here, in what is always beautiful countryside, there is a site that quite takes the breath away: an old, tree covered path – a hollow-way – heading downhill. It is so very green, and still, and the end of the path cannot be seen, as it dips and then ascends again from its lowest point. Now, as I say, this is a beautiful thing, but in the memory of it, just then as I lay in bed, there was something else, something extra. It was like – and I do find this hard to describe – but it was like an animal had turned and fixed me with its gaze. Not that I recognized some hidden consciousness in the path, but rather, an otherness that was only in the movement and the gaze: a still, silent, surface thing. And as I began to follow, in my mind, the journey that was to come, I was, quite without reason, filled with dread. I had run to the base of the hollow-way, then, before it ascended, as the new map dictated, I took a left, up a little incline, to a field of barley, with a path cut through it, its edges indistinct among the hazy, swaying, golden sheaves. The path ended across the field, in a dark hole within a thin line of trees. The sun had begun to press down upon me. Beyond this field was another, again of barley, and then another brief respite under dark green trees, before a further field, open to pasture, above which sat a farm, seemingly out of time, idiosyncratic, and uncaring as to the judgment of any other, and at the far end of this field, finally a road. But the idea of reaching that seemed very distant.
I don’t know if I had felt terror at the time. Perhaps I had. Certainly, the thought of running that way again is a terrible one to me, and so it remains. I don’t think I could do it. This is greatly depressing. But why? Why does this journey, up the concrete hill, down the hollow-way, left, diagonally, across the fields of barley, with their little wooded locks, and out through the pasture of the old farm, inspire such dread, that I would throw off six months of sweat to put some distance between us?
I suppose the obvious answer is that this was something of a prophesy. Was all my training moving me towards a heart attack at that precise point in the race? This seems unlikely: I am fit, and careful. And anyway, this seems too mundane, too neat an answer. The emptiness of the way, at that hour, may contain a more telling possibility: I had come upon a place that neither I, nor anyone else, was required to see. At that that time, it was a path that did not need to be seen, and this, perhaps, is what an unseen path looks like: it brings into one’s mind, of course, the spectre of one’s own insignificance, and the whole environment, therefore, shimmers with death, or something like it. Finally, and here is a strange thought, it occurs to me that the terror of the place could only ever be felt by one running at something like the pace that I was keeping. At walking pace, or with the speed of a bicycle, there would be no sense of the path before one both still and looming, that feeling of being both enclosed and exposed, of being funnelled towards some strange, uncanny end, and of knowing both human effort, and the stunning indifference of a world that could and would know nothing of this. The haunting nature of the place would only come forth for a runner. It was a trap – perhaps – designed to catch us, realized by our singular activity. What to make of that, I do not know…?