Fifty shades of grey
This week's offering features an exclusive guest contribution by the brilliant running author Richard Askwith
Over the weekend, I hosted the fourth edition of my Running & Writing retreat together with Feet in the Clouds author Richard Askwith. Each retreat follows a similar format, and part of the weekend involves a group run on Saturday morning. Everyone then has to produce a piece of writing about that same run by Sunday evening, including Richard and me. It's always fascinating when, sitting by the fire on Sunday evening, we get to hear the pieces read out one by one. So many different ways of experiencing, and writing about, the same run. We're all running together, taking in the same landscape, yet in our heads we're each of us - it becomes evident - in a completely different world.
For today's Monday Musings, I thought I'd share Richard's and my takes on the Saturday run. Later in the week, once all the guests have finished tweaking, fine editing and typing up their pieces, and have sent them in, I'll post them all up together on a separate free post on my Patreon page, so look out for that. But for now, here's what Richard and I made of our Saturday morning run on Dartmoor ...
FOLLOW THE LEADER by Adharanand Finn
Mist. Everywhere. I can barely see five feet ahead, and I’m running on Dartmoor, a place notorious for people getting lost in the mist. And I have a group of 10 other runners trailing along behind me, all chatting, joking, and blithely placing their well being in my hands.
I’ve done this run 100 times, I tell myself. I know it like the back of my hand. Which, in truth, I don’t know very well. Cover my eyes and ask me to tell you anything specific about it - the back of my hand, I mean - and I might struggle. I’m hardly a qualified expert.
A bit like guiding a group of runners across a Dartmoor shrouded in swamp-like mist. I’m hardly a qualified expert.
“It’s very atmospheric,” I say to Richard, running next to me, who probably nods in agreement. But where did those rocks come from? They shouldn’t be there.
It takes me a few seconds to realise we should be a little further up the hill. The gate into the old quarry is always tricky to find even on a clear day, so it’s no wonder I missed it. I veer gently up the hill, and up to the gate. Nobody really notices, or cares, but it’s a little warning. I’ve got to keep sharp, keep my nose to the ground.
Being a leader is a position I don’t often find myself in. In my working life I was never forceful enough to gain any position of authority. I was always content to sit in the group, to follow along, observing, taking notes, watching the plot lines around me unfold. Maybe that’s why I became a writer. As a writer, the key thing isn’t asking questions, making decisions or being assertive, but rather paying attention. I can do that.
Paying attention is useful in the mist, where you can quickly find yourself taking the wrong path and heading off to god knows where - into a bog perhaps, or a trail through the bracken that starts tailing off away down the hill you’re trying to run up.
Oh no, we’re doing that now. I’m trying to keep my bearings as we descend through the clad, the undergrowth closing in around us. I know the hill is somewhere to my left, and so I’m searching for a track cutting off to the left. But one doesn’t appear, and eventually I have to accept defeat and tell the group that we’ve gone the wrong way. We’ve got to turn around and go back the way we came.
I’m mad at myself for the slip-up. I’ve always prided myself on having a good sense of direction. I came up with a theory once that eldest children - like me - usually have a good sense of direction because they were more often left in charge when the adults weren’t around, and so they learned to pay more attention. I wonder how many writers are eldest children?
Thoughts percolate and conversation flitters in and out of my earshot. We pass Hound Tor where Bernard tells us he proposed to his wife 21 years ago, on a misty day like today. I wonder what is going on around us in the mist right now. People emerge here and there, in hiking clothes, their dogs scampering around happily, the mist no concern for them with their supersonic noses.
Down by the clapper bridge a family stand around by a rope swing. I’m squinting to read the plaque on a weathered rock, thinking it might hold some useful information a guide like me should know, when I hear a kerfuffle. Unable to resist, Charlie has swung himself across the water on the rope swing, apparently only just making it. He runs back to us grinning sheepishly. Nobody else tries it.
On we go, up towards Haytor, our final climb. The hulking rocks don’t show themselves until we almost run into them. Bam, there they are, looming like some evil villain’s castle. We gather in their shadow, counting heads. I haven’t lost anyone. That’s not too bad; only one wrong turn on a day like today, and nobody got lost. I pat myself on the back, and point everyone in the direction of the car park. Then I let off the brakes and tip myself down the final hill, my legs barrelling away under me as I pick up speed, skipping and juddering and trying not to topple over. I make it to the bottom in one piece, and turn to watch as my charges file in one after the other, safe and happy.
Job done. Now I just have to go home write some fizzing prose about the whole thing.
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY by Richard Askwith
IT’S SAID that eighteen per cent of the world’s population has never seen the Moon. Urbanisation, light pollution and indoor living have left it permanently out of their sight. As someone who often sees the Moon, living and running mainly in rural places, I often think about that statistic. The Moon surprises me with an unexpected glimpse, and makes my world shine briefly with its silver-and-pearl magic; and I remind myself how lucky I am.
But only on this moist Dartmoor morning has it occurred to me that many people never experience fog either. Not proper fog: the kind of thick, muddy clag, damp as mould, that sometimes settles on my part of Northamptonshire like an immense wet blanket for days on end; the kind that has smothered any number of my Cumbrian fell-running adventures; the kind of Devon pumpkin-souper that has reduced visibility this morning to less than the length of a line of eleven runners. This is the kind of fog you can feel with your eyes closed.
I wonder if I’m weird to find that feeling soothing.