Another week, and another long run, which this time I’ve scheduled from Crawley. Theoretically it’s possible to fit the miles around ring roads and residential streets, but although that type of running can make for an enjoyable sort of fartlek, I’ve a different kind of excursion in mind today.
The route I’ve planned crosses the suburban landscapes to Three Bridges, where I leave the sixties estates to pick up a cycle track along the Worth Way. Passing Worth church, in part built by the Saxons, my run heads across the M23 Brighton motorway and into the Sussex farmland beyond.
Just four miles into my outing, and I’m standing outside a smelly cowshed with green fields all around me, questioning my sanity. Twelve miles to go, and my legs should be feeling much better than this. But somehow they don’t, and I can see a struggle looming worryingly up ahead.
The track crosses the road to Turners Hill, scene of many an office outing to the Red Lion pub, to rejoin the course of the old railway, for the Worth Way follows the course of an old branch line. This line, from Crawley to East Grinstead, was closed in the 1960’s as part of the railways review under Lord Beeching, and, with a nostalgic if perhaps unintendingly poetic irony, East Grinstead Council decided to name the relief road built along part of the old track into their town as Beeching Way.
But for now I’m still in open country, with this foray past Cowshed Hill just a brief diversion to avoid a longish tunnel. It’s quiet and even running, through fields and woods, cuttings and embankments, with occasional abandoned or converted old station buildings. I just need to keep running, slowly, but today I’m fighting a strong and recurrent urge to walk. It’s ridiculous with so many miles to go. I strike another bargain with my legs, and we agree to take a break at the village of Crawley Down a couple of miles ahead. My legs renege on that deal long before the ink is even dry, but at least they return to work sheepishly soon afterwards.
Rich Tea biscuits are in their contract today, and two more disappear as I top a long but gentle crest under a viaduct coming into the village. It’s worryingly downhill past the Post Office on the other side. Worrying because if I’m walking now, then surely I’ll be crawling on the way back. Thoughts of throwing in the towel abound, and it’s mental turmoil up there in my head. If I turn around now, that’ll be almost twelve miles, or maybe eleven…. but that would still be a good long run, wouldn’t it ? Then I could do a longer one next week instead, couldn’t I ?
These are the thoughts which attack your mind on days like this. It’s the straight out-and-back run of over 15 miles which forms such a dangerous territory, just waiting to transform itself into a mobile mental battleground. It must be the thought of heading ever further from home, knowingly into an abyss which awaits on the return journey, that is the most problematic. But calm analysis like this doesn’t cross the mind at six miles heading for sixteen. Instead, it’s the legs which angrily hold the floor of the debate for long and anguished hours like these.
I get to eight miles, underneath a striking and tall three-arched brick bridge above the old railway line, and I turn around at last. I’ll start running homewards just as soon as I’ve eaten another two Rich Teas, which I successfully allow to while away the first quarter mile homewards. It’s an unethical way of reducing the distance to go – because now there’ll just be seven and three quarter miles left.
I’ve really no idea where (or why?) I am here, immersed in the isolated world of the old railway track. For many months, I trained on another disused railway line along the Downs Link from Guildford to Cranleigh whilst preparing for the Shakespeare Marathon. That race is itself partly run along The Greenway, the old Stratford to Cheltenham railway line.
Tracks like these are smooth and even, with only gentle, if sometimes steady and prolonged, hills. They should be perfect for long runs. But mentally, it’s hard. The scenery just doesn’t seem to change. Like for ever. It’s tough to keep going when you don’t seem to be making progress. Rivers and canals – yes, they’re boggier in winter, and roads are busier, and more dangerous, but at least something happens, or there’s something pretty to look at. In the world of the old railway line long run, time and distance stand still.
It’s sad that each one of these old railway lines certainly represents the tragic waste of a national resource. Of my colleagues at work in Crawley, maybe a third of them come in from East Grinstead, and could use this railway if it were only still open. The same is true in Guildford, where many folk commute in by car from Cranleigh.
Closing the lines was perhaps inevitable in the commercial reality of increasing car use in the sixties, but short-sighted building along the tracks since that time now means that the lines are much less likely ever to open again. And whilst restoring the trackbeds and opening them up as part of the National Cycle Network makes great, if still sporadic, public lease of them for cycling, it is only a partial use of their potential in our overcrowded, congested and undertransported island.
These old railway lines are not the only ones failing to realise their potential today. Trotting mindlessly on, I tetchily decide that if these old railway lines are fine for short runs, then as far as I am concerned, you can jolly well stick them for long ones.
At least the wind is behind me on the way back. The hill in Crawley Down is not quite as bad as I feared it would be, although certainly that’s because I take two more unscheduled Rich Tea breaks as I walk through the new houses which I can now see have indeed been built across the line on the edge of the village. Six miles to go. Hey, shouldn’t I be enjoying this ? I’m supposed to be doing this for pleasure, so surely I shouldn’t be counting down the biscuits until it’s all over ?
Another mile, a bit more walking. I could get home like this, even if it’s slow, but it’s the prosect of a gradual, or worse, a more sudden, decline which worries me. If I’m walking once every mile here, then I’ll be struggling to make a few hundred yards before too long, I know I will. And sure enough, it’s just half a mile to the next Rich Tea biscuit, and I’ve only got two left now, for the last five miles.
But Cowshed Hill is somehow not as awful as I expected, and I’m still jogging when I disconsolately cross the M23 bridge. And although I walk past the old church in Worth this time, a total collapse still seems some way off. There’s a good mile of downhill back to Three Bridges, and, surprising myself, I don’t stop. The lights are red for just long enough for me to catch my breath at the road junction, and the hill on the other side is short and familiar now. The end is in sight and I remind my legs of a day’s rest tomorrow, successfully, if temporarily, distracting them from their impending litigation against me for ritualised abuse. The last mile is the second-fastest of the day, and I complete the run with two biscuits and a gulp of water still in hand.
So what was I worried about ? It’s (only) a mental battle after all. Just two and a half hours of rushing blood, churning guts, and turmoil on the tracks.
39. Woking – from Necropolis to Technology Junction
107. Don’t it make a bad run good ?
112. Forests of fire and iron – Surrey Hills 1
80. Paul Simon – lines from an English railway platform
46. On the front line – Crawley’s echoes of Madrid
109. Happiness, more or less