The joy of the new
Saturday afternoon. I’ve scrubbed the mud off the trail shoes, and I’m propping them on the lid of the wheelie bin where they’ll catch the sun. My neighbour is pottering about.
‘Been running again?’ he asks. ‘Grand day for it.’
‘Been up to Earby,’ I say. ‘Cracking ten-miler.’
‘Some wonderful countryside up there, ‘he says. ‘Don’t know why everyone’s always dashing up to The Lakes.’
He starts listing some of his favourite spots. ‘I was up on Parlick the other day,’ he says, ‘the views … ’ He looks a bit wistful for a minute, then lifts the hammer he’s holding and disappears through his gate saying, ‘The shed won’t fix itself.’
As I listen to him banging nails home, it strikes me that I’ve been chatting with him about places that until a few months ago I didn’t know existed. I’ve been raving with him about hills and villages, the fabulous and the surprising bits of the North that most people simply don’t see. And a cracking ten-miler around Earby has just given me and my fellow runners another stack of new things to rave about.
Many runners have a series of regular routes. They know the distance, know where they’re going and where they can expect to be breathing hard and where the running will be easy. There’s often comfort in the familiar, but it can get incredibly dull. And I daresay that if I went back every month and followed the same route from Earby up onto the moors and back though Elslack woods, it would lose some of its magic. I’d see the changing seasons, but I wouldn’t always stop at the top of a climb to marvel at how quickly Earby had shrunk to model-village proportions, nor would I smile with delight at the sight of a group of donkeys. I’d stop noticing the anglers, tiny on the banks of the reservoir because I would come to expect them to be there. And joy isn’t found in the familiar. It’s in the unexpected.
On an LTR run, it’s pretty much guaranteed there will be a surprise or two. It has to be that way because you don’t know where you’re going. The guides know, you don’t. You come to a gate and you could be heading down into the valley or heading up a monster hill. You hear the words “this field is a bit different” but you can’t yet see it, and seconds later you find yourself wading through the trenches of a half-dug drainage scheme and emerging, legs burning, at the other side. One minute you’re on a lane, sunlight sneaking through the emerging leaf canopy, and deep in conversation with someone and the next you’re putting all your concentration into staying upright and ensuring that when you haul your feet out of the mud, your shoes come too.
You run downhill, charging as fast as your legs will go, through the stubble and stickiness of an arable field and, suddenly, a lapwing flies up in front of you and you stop focusing on your goal – the field exit – and look out instead for the nest site. You notice that the brown soil isn’t a solid colour at all, but is speckled with stone, the white stain of bird droppings and the iridescent sheen of oil on the surface water.
Now you’ve charged down that hill, guess what? You’ve got to regain the height. So, you nip through the farmyard, negotiate a stile built by giants – for giants – and work that heart of yours. Get a sweat on, and at the crest of the hill, stop and look across Lothersdale and back towards the steep walls of quarries you passed earlier but didn’t see. You’re at Knot Gill, where the trees seem to be carpeted in moss, where forget-me-nots are just beginning to flower and where nettles are starting to grow. Slurp down a drink, win the last Jaffa cake by knowing the capital of Australia and set off again.
And your day will keep on giving. As you leave Knot Gill, you spot a garden, created on the steepest of banks and a man tending his plot in the warmth of the sun. Head along a short stretch of road, watch a bunch of stray mule sheep panic at your approach before huddling in a gateway. Over the stile, a lamb has just arrived, coated yellow with meconium. Mum is trying to do a clean-up job, but the youngster is already trying to stand. A hundred yards further on, and you stop – how could you not? – to say hello to a pair of huge Newfoundlands and their dwarfed companion, a flat-coated retriever.
Think the fun stops there? Think again. You’re now going to cross the moorland of Ransable hill. You’re going to feel every possible sensation under foot: the snap and crunch of dried heather, the cushion of peat, the shock of a sudden rock, the spring of cropped turf, wet mud, dried fescues. You’ll balance across flattened bog grasses and you’ll smell charred wood of the burnt black heath. And at some point, even though your eyes can’t yet see it, your body will notice you’ve crested the hill and your pelvis will tilt to accommodate the change.
And then there are the woods at Elslack, where you follow a trail through conifers, across tree roots and tangles and then because that was far too easy, try another section where there is no trail, but fallen branches, fallen trees, stumps and brambles and pine cones and thick, thick hazard-hiding moss. It’s marvellous, but your pace will slow. And perhaps that’s how it should be because although fast is fun, slow has its own rewards – too fast and you might not spot just how uniform and blue pine needles are in contrast to the confusion and myriad greens of moss.
Did we catch you slacking? Studying the colours of nature? Well, you can catch up with a blast down a final hill. Fly, let the legs go, forget the brakes, just run. And then for a bit of last-minute enjoyment how about a bit of water sport? This puddle has ambition and is heading towards pond status. It’s unavoidable and you wade across. In its depths lurks the nearest thing Earby can get to an alligator – a hefty looking iron pipe.
One last good thing. You’ll need breakfast. The Humble Pie Café will serve you well. Choose a plate piled with eggs, excellent bacon and sausages. Tuck into proper tasty toast. Add a milkshake, a cake, order a coffee or pot of steaming tea. You’ve been out exploring. You deserve it.