Life, cheese and trail running

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have a set of standards for cheese. I’ll explain myself with reference to Cheddar. There are bland ones that, frankly, should never be allowed room in the fridge. There are ones that are so strong they make your teeth itch. And there are the ones with the perfect amount of bite. They’re not mild-mannered by any standards, but neither do they pose a serious threat. It’s the wedge you savour with a slice of apple, the one where you really begin to appreciate the cheesemaker’s art. 

But this isn’t about cheese. It’s about running. It’s about a run that has the perfect amount of bite. And although everyone’s definition of perfection is different, I think most runners appreciate the sweet satisfaction that comes from being tested on a run and coming through it. Yes, conditions on this morning’s run were a bit on the wild side, and the hailstorms could have held off, but as the warmth starts to return to my feet (it’s only been a couple of hours, give my circulation a chance) I’m glad that my toes were frozen earlier. I can now sense the genuine pleasure of tingling toes. 

There was a slightly nervy atmosphere as we gathered in the car park at Clough Head Visitor Centre this morning, with people looking skywards at the scudding clouds. Saturday had seen the kind of rainfall that made you think about building an ark, and although there were snatches of blue sky above, many of us had driven through fierce showers. Would we be lucky? Would the sun cosset us in its gentle spring embrace?

In short. No. It tried, and the attempt was fairly convincing at first. Running past Jamestone Quarry on the Rossendale Way, the frigid water reflected the blue sky – not quite tropical lagoon standards, but not bad for Lancashire in March – but we’d barely got through Deep Clough before the sun was swamped by cloud and we were being pelted by hail. Hoods were up and heads were down which wasn’t as bad as it sounds because the grass was bumpy and the shouts of ‘eyes on the trail’ weren’t something you would be wise to ignore. 

The ground over Thirteen Stone Hill was rather soggy. Sometimes you would find a firm footing. Occasionally, you would sink, but while pulling my size fives out of a swamp, I risked glancing upwards and there, in the distance was Pendle Hill, lit by glorious sunlight.  To our left, the moor’s wind turbines turned, stately and resolute. A horse, wearing a rain-sodden coat trotted over to watch us take on the inaugural Skirt-the Edge-of-the-Puddle agility event. 

Then we were descending, crunching down the hailstones on a firm track, Accrington picked out by the sun, which grudgingly returned to shine on us as we made our way down the fields. The ground was saturated, runoff pooling in every depression. Clumps of rushes might – or might not – allow you safe passage across. The uncertainty was a bonus. The uncertainty was part of this route’s bite.

We crossed Tom Dale Clough by a well-concealed footbridge and then ran down towards Baxenden. The sun was getting into its stride, and so were we. The slope was just right, the grass was the ideal shade of green, the hedgerows were beginning to sprout leaves, the clouds were white and fluffy and the theme from the Sound of Music was playing. It was in danger of turning into a mild Cheddar, so when the route became a bit technical again, with tree roots, brambles and the odd slippery descent it was a relief. We followed the old railway line, nipped up through the woods, jumped a couple of newly formed-streams and managed to avoid getting washed away.  

After a trip to the valley bottom, we had to get out of it. The climb was steep and followed by a tussle with the undergrowth. A rarely used path, complete with a random footbridge, crumbling walls, lurking snares (brambles) and a generous patch of watercress slowed our progress. It will no doubt stay long in the memory. It’s a bit like the good cheese that lingers on the palette.

As we crossed the next stile, the hail returned. This time it wasn’t in a pleasant mood. It brought with it a nasty bit of wind and it was lucky that we were on relatively easy ground and could keep moving swiftly. There were rumours of coffee, and sure enough, as we emerged onto a road, there was the LTR car and the welcome waiting brew. 

The pitstop done, the sun back out, we continued, passing through a paddock with three quiet horses and ran down towards Little Moor End. We followed the course of Tinker Brook, along mud-slicked paths and then found firm footing on a stony track that began to climb, leading us into Jackhouse Nature Reserve. 

The path wound its way into the woods, and we picked a route up through, running on the accumulated hailstones and across the tops of waterfalls, clambering over fallen trees, wondering why this was the first time we’d been to this wonderful, exquisite little place. 

We’d been climbing a while, but the bulk of the moor was still in front. The blades of the wind turbines were visible – white against the ominous grey of the skies ahead, and we carried heading uphill, working hard as the trails turned from farm lane to rough path, from rough path to sheep track, finally lost in a foot-numbing combination of heather and hail. And then we were finally passing through the windfarm, listening to the eerie pulse of the blades cutting through the air.

The top of the moor was underwater. Hailstones, still frozen, lay like frog spawn under the surface. The grasses were red and brown, the drowned earth inky black. It wasn’t worth trying to find a dry route. There wasn’t one, but the crossing was short and within just a few minutes we were descending onto the Haslingden side of the moor. The sun returned and we began heading back to our start point on a track too narrow for the frozen feet we were blessed with. There was a bit of slipping and sliding, a lot of splashing and the odd gasp as someone found a last deep pool of the icy wet stuff. 

A quick change of footwear and we piled into the tiny but welcoming Clough Head Café. The essentials were sorted – bacon and sausage butties, teacakes and toast, teas and coffees – and we got to chatting about the bonkers and brilliant weather and how it had added something extra to the route. 

That extra is the bite. It’s essential in cheese, it’s the challenges that make life rewarding, and it’s very satisfying when you find it on a run.

 

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