The element of surprise

I spent part of Sunday in the centre of Manchester, supporting a relative who was taking part in the Great Manchester Run. The place was buzzing and if you weren’t pounding the route, the sunshine was a blessing. Those who’d run in the earliest waves were taking advantage of the bars and cafés and talking about their experience. I was listening. The consensus seemed to be that the atmosphere was fantastic but the route itself wasn’t the most exciting. And, by all accounts, the heat coming off the tarmac was a killer. 

Now, I’ve done that event and I enjoyed it, but I’m getting bored with the hype and the bands and the mass warm-ups and the celebrity starters, and I don’t think I’m alone. I saw a great many runners strolling along Deansgate after they’d crossed the finishing line, looking drained rather than exhilarated. Yes, it was hot, very hot for a race, but there was little sense that they’d had any fun at all. Maybe that wasn’t their purpose. Maybe they were raising funds for a good cause. Maybe they were running to prove they could. In which case, good on them, but I’d hate to think that’s how they felt after every run. 

The contrast between Sunday’s event and the one I took part in this morning could hardly have been more marked. We met outside a café in Egerton. No PA system required, no numbers or timing chips, no gun to get us on our way, just a quick safety message about keeping your wits about you, and we were off. No furious pace, no dodging and weaving to get past the runner in front, just a gentle settling into the rhythm of movement while saying hello to someone new or catching up with the exploits of others in the group you might not have seen for a few weeks: How have you been? Where have you been running?

Some people run the same races year after year. They go back to the same places, do the same circular routes or out-and-backs, but none of us – with the exception of our guides – had run in this corner of Lancashire. And I don’t mind admitting that after almost a year running with LTR, I still haven’t got used to the element of surprise. 

Early on this morning’s route, we were following a tiny brook under the cover of trees. We could smell bluebells, hear the birds sing, the water trickling across stones. Later we stood on the side of a moor, with views all the way to Manchester and beyond. Who knew that there was such incredible scenery so close to home? Who knew that there were forests of birch and pine, where the wimberries grow on mounds as big as mattresses? Who knew when they left home this morning that they’d be going through a field with about fifty deer in it, and that the deer would watch our every move, poised and ready to bolt? I didn’t. 

And now, you’ll want to know where we went, but I’m not inclined to say. There was something rather wonderful in having the place to ourselves. Yes, we saw a couple of people out walking with dogs, but that was it. No hordes as you might find in the Lakes or the Peak District. But then again it is Monday. 

Okay, a few clues: a fabulous bit of running around Eagley Brook, parts of it easy, other bits where we slowed to a walk, trying to work out just where to put our feet. We turned onto a lane by clouds of forget-me-nots – I doubt they’re on a map, but they were quite charming. We climbed up to Dingle reservoir, then picked a route back down the bank, back into the shade and back along the brook. Crossing a couple of fields, we headed out to the Delph reservoir, followed the damn as far as the Walmsley Unitarian Chapel and up to Dimple. After Dimple it all becomes a bit of blur, because if you’re like me, when you’re in the woods, you can get a tad confused. Tracks tend to weave about. Trees disguise themselves as other trees, you start wondering why pine needles are such a lovely shade of green when they’re just emerging, and you get distracted by talk of whortleberries. Before you know it, you’re almost crossing a bridge you shouldn’t. 

That’s where we were anyway, somewhere in the woods between Belmont and somewhere else, refreshing ourselves with a drink before we started the hurdle event. 

Yes, I did say hurdling, but you probably can’t call my method of getting over the fallen trees hurdling. Fortunately, one large tree had seen fit to retain the stump of a branch – a useful pommel if you found yourself astride the trunk and not sure how to get your feet back onto the ground. 

Emerging from the woods, the long dry, scrubby grass was a test for the ankles, but as we ran through, tiny butterflies flew up out the rushes. It was simply beautiful. 

Our route home involved a long traverse below Turton Heights, but before we could start the traverse, we had to do the ascent. We took it slow in the heat. Our carpet was yellow moss, our soundtrack a few indignant ewes. We stood atop the remains of a long-gone wall, trying to work out which wind farm was on the horizon, which reservoirs we could see and picking out Dunscar Golf Course which we’d passed an hour before. 

The path meandered, disappeared into dust or dried tractor ruts and reappeared. A herd of Simmental cattle watched us go, but a flock of crows were more interested in playing in a patch of bluebells. Slowly but surely, we headed south, heading back towards our start point. One minute on moorland, the next through deer fencing and finally a quick trot through a couple of ginnels. Seven miles of surprises.

We were definitely hot and sweaty, but unlike in Manchester, there were big grins all round and nobody had complained of the heat coming off the tarmac. But then, we had barely touched any of it.  We popped into Bakers Café for lunch. The food was great, monster sandwiches and good coffee, but there was another surprise in store – Vimto ice-cream. I was in my element.

Kate Woodward