It’s only mud, get over it!
We were running around the edges of Coppy Plantation when we met a dog walker by a stile. The dog was paddling happily in a hollow by a tree, and then, tail wagging, waddled over to say hello. ‘Watch out,’ said the owner, ‘he’s covered in mud,’ but compared to our mud-plastered state, the dog was still very presentable.
It wasn’t surprising that this was a route with plenty of the proper squelchy stuff underfoot. It had spent a couple of days pouring with rain and had only decided to brighten up at 8.55 am immediately prior to our run. (Either Tomasz Schafernaker has become very pessimistic, or we’ve been remarkably lucky with the weather recently. But hey, by mentioning that, I’ve just jinxed it).
Things were still blowy. Storm Erik had been busy breaking bits off trees, the fields could absorb no more water and the River Calder was swollen and brown, but even so, conditions were pretty good for February. We were out in nature’s elements, windblown and grubby but feeling very alive.
I know that some will disagree but this, I believe, is how running should be. A natural activity in a natural environment, and who cares if the pace slows while your feet sink into the ruts left by a tractor’s tyres. It’s only mud, get over it.
A couple of hundred years ago, few people ran just for fun. There were footraces, but they weren’t as formalised as they are now. Instead of a prescribed route and measured distance, those taking part would fix their eyes on the spire of a distant church and set off towards it, picking a route, leaping walls and streams as they went. Then, towards the end of the 19th century, Oxford University brought a version onto the track. The modern steeplechase is a scrubbed-up and sanitised version of a wonderful romp through the countryside. Its water jumps are our streams. Its barriers are our walls and fences.
We might not be capable of covering 3,000 metres of obstacles in a mind-blowing 8 minutes, but we’ve kept the fun and importantly, we’ve kept the variety. Every one of those barriers in the men’s event is a standard 36 inches in height. Every stile we crossed yesterday was unique. One, by Hodgeon Stone Plantation, had developed a significant lean to right and built in a crawl through as an alternative. Others had dispensed with anything useful on which to plant your feet. Some had taken the Jenga route – lots of wood, but most of it toppled over. The stile below Horse Bowers needed a bit of upper body strength and good reach. One stile, below Wiswell Moor, incorporated a rare but challenging try-me-and-I’ll-self-destruct mode, which sent us looking for alternatives. The steeplechase is every man for himself, but without the pressure of a ticking clock or a potential place on the podium, we were able to stick with a team approach to our mixed bag of barriers.
The track specialists rarely keep their feet dry, but they know when the water jumps are coming up. They don’t have the joy of discovering that there’s enough run-off coming from the high ground to create a brand-new stream that can be hopped across. They don’t test their balance on rounded stepping stones or pause in the middle of a shallow brook and feel the delicious chill of fresh water flooding into their shoes. Do they run down from Nab Wood on a path where the water flow is matching their pace and where daffodils are beginning to push up through the earth? I bet they have never seen snowdrops at the side of the track.
Do steeplechasers potter around the edges of long-disused quarries and see views that stretch for miles? Do they run on steeply cambered slopes beneath bare branches high above Dean Wood? Do they stop for a few sweets and a biscuit at the halfway point and try to name the distant hills? They might have more fun if they did.
The track is uniform, flat polyurethane with a precise amount of springiness. Our surfaces change, challenging the whole body. The sodden field that works every muscle. The woodland track that sees you up on your toes and needs delicate footwork around slippery roots. There are short stretches of rubble-filled track, slabs of stone, coniferous woodland with a deep cushioned floor and a scent of pine. Away from the stadium, you might not hear the roar of the crowd, but there is wind and birdsong and an agile grey squirrel glimpsed from the corner of your eye.
There are no slopes on the running track. Maybe there should be? Wait for the bell, then produce the sting in the tail – a surprise hill for the athletes, who thought they were only a few more barriers away from the finish line. I wonder what the reaction would be. Would the athletes protest, drop out of the race or would they gamely take it on?
We did. The car park was a mere toddle away, when we hung a left, trotted through the trees of Spring Wood and arrived at the foot of the steepest slope of the day. We make it to the top, of course – Whalley way below us, the sun filtering through the trees– and then after pausing to recover, we charged back down the hill. and, like the world’s elite athletes, after a hard effort, we always pay attention to our hydration and nutrition. We went to Tastebuds in Whalley for a monster breakfast: a perfect balance of protein, carbs and brown sauce.
Few of us have what it takes to be a steeplechaser in the modern sense of the word, but lots of us can enjoy something akin to the original events. We don’t need to compete. We don’t need to race. We do, however, need to embrace a bit of mud.