Chasing the storm
This newsletter, about a blowy night in Torquay, was originally published on Patreon on 15 February 2021
The last week has seen some extreme winter weather in the UK, with the wind down here in the south-west raging incessantly, and the temperatures barely nudging above freezing. All week it kept threatening to snow but the occasional flurry wasn’t quite enough to gain any traction and we never got more than a dusting here and there. Some snow would have softened the edges somehow, made everything feel less spiky.
Getting out to run required a deep breath and lots of layers of clothing - I was wearing a hat, gloves, long-sleeve top, leggings and a jacket. Saying that, I did occasionally see someone running around in shorts and a T-shirt, so I guess it was possible. But I have the gear, so I figured this was my chance to wear it.
(Incidentally, I have to confess here that I have always loved running in gloves. I’m not sure why. Even as a kid in cross-country races, I’d be in a singlet, shorts and gloves. Maybe it made me feel like some sort of running assassin or something. It became an on-going joke in my family that I’d get a new pair of running gloves for Christmas every year.)
Anyway, on Thursday evening, in the midst of this coldest of cold snaps, I ventured out into the chisel cold night. I almost didn’t go, of course. My body felt stiff from sitting down all day. The fire was on in our cosy cottage, the smell of food cooking on the stove. Why would anyone head out running on a night like this?
But something forced me out. Secretly I was relishing it, the cold, the wind. As it was pitch dark, and I didn’t fancy taking the risk of running through the woods in such strong winds, I took a short drive down to the nearby coastal town of Torquay just a few miles away. I have a set route along the seafront there, but as I approached, the road was blocked off to traffic. I assumed the waves must be splashing in over the seawall. I’d seen them do that before - though I’d never known the road to be actually closed.
I parked up and set off running, down past the ‘Road Closed’ sign, enjoying being able to run on the wide, empty road. But when I turned the corner, overlooking where the road goes right by the sea, I stopped in my tracks. The waves were hitting the wall with such ferocity that they were leaping as high as a house, before being caught by the wind and blown like a storm across the road.
I was about to turn around and look for an alternative route, when I saw a runner coming towards me, emerging from the spray. It was all the encouragement I needed. Keeping to the far opposite side of the road, I hammered on down the hill and ran hard past the sea wall, waiting for the wave to hit. When it did, the spray was surprisingly gentle, fizzing over me like a rain shower. Then another. When I emerged on the other side, I was drenched. And freezing. My forehead felt as though my brain had fused to the inside of my skull.
The only thing to do was to run on. That would warm me up. From there, the road goes up over a hill and then down along the main promenade. As I came down, I realised the waves here were even bigger. The entire road was under two foot of sea water. It was crazy, and despite the cold I just had to stop and watch as the sea bounced and raged like a caged wild animal, lashing out at the wall holding it back. It felt scary and awesome. Bam, came another wave. I wondered how much the wall could take. Bam, spray, fizz. Bam.
I ran wide around the promenade to the other end. Here, the land curves around, and the waves here were rolling in along the side of the wall, towards the seafront. Again I had to stop. As I stood on the top of the wall, holding on to the railings, I looked down at the waves, like rippling muscles, rolling by ominously just under my feet. I don’t think I’ve ever stood so close to something so powerful. It was like there was a wild beast a mile long just out of sight under the water. I could actually feel the wall rumbling as the waves churned by.
It reminded me of the film King Kong, near the end where Kong is chained up on the stage back in New York, railing and roaring, and people are sitting there in the theatre watching him, with complete faith in their little chains. Then suddenly he snaps them like they’re made of paper and all hell breaks loose. It feels like the sea could do this at any moment. That our human walls and defences could be simply crushed if it roused itself even a tiny bit more.
Added to everything we have endured recently - the pandemic, the lockdowns etc - the end-of-the-world feeling was strong. But somehow it was also life affirming, to feel that awesome power under my feet, the wild wind in my face, the taste of sea water on my lips.
My heart pumping, I ran on. The energy of the sea, combined with the eeriness of the car-less streets as I headed away inland, gave me a strange rush of energy that had me racing up the steep hills - especially when I had the wind at my back. I felt like a matchstick in that stormy night.
Up in the quiet backstreets, away from the sea, the only thing moving was the occasional souped-up boy-racer car, its engine growling as it zipped by way too fast.
But otherwise, it was just me, the wind and the occasional lonely passerby. Everyone else was tucked up warm inside. That was the sensible option. The cosy option. But by the time I’d run back along the seafront one final time - a little closer to the waves this time, yelling out as the spray hit me like a blast of salty hail, turning to face it - I felt fully recharged and invigorated.
It’s funny how much those runs in extreme weather, whether it’s driving rain or howling winds, are so much more intense and energising. Afterwards I couldn’t stop smiling. I’m glad we don’t have to run in conditions like that all the time, but just occasionally, it’s a wonderful, wild joyride.