42. Twenty six times two – marathon dreams in the Surrey Hills

A familiar sense of anticipation, and a race at last. The last few weeks of training have gone by in a flash, and it’ll be good to see how I fare on the road again. After weeks and weeks of running into the dusk, at last a bright and sunny morning. I’m feeling pretty good today as I open the curtains and look out. Spring seems to have arrived at last, and I can feel it in my step as I bound down the stairs for a big breakfast.

sunken-lane-surrey-hills-and-st-johns-church-wotton.jpg

My mother makes me a mountain of toast and marmite, the sun streaming now through the kitchen window of my youth. It’s a perfect day, and time to get ready. I pull on my favourite racing kit and try to imagine the race, how it will feel. I focus on the good feelings – calm, cool running through the early miles, feeling the distance kick in, but staying with it. For as long as it takes.

‘Marathon running, marathon training – it’s all about control,’ says Hal Higdon, and he’s absolutely right. Ration the energy resources, and all will go well, whether you’ve 5 miles around the village, a succession of speedwork intervals, or a 2 mile tempo cruise. And if the latter stages of any race are tough, the trick is to reach them in good physical shape, with undaunted spirit.

The same will hold true today, through all of my 26.2 miles. I’ve been working towards this for a long time, and here it is, all ahead of me. Visualisation is helping me now, helping to suppress those unwelcome doubts lurking deep within my conscience. Sure, something inside is telling me that maybe I’m not ready. But I’m going the full distance today. It’s time.

My Dad sees me to the gate, and I start warming up. It’s a break from my usual routine. Before my first marathon, the sight of hundreds of runners sprinting earnestly alongside the barriers in London made me wonder. But then we stood motionless for 15 minutes and shuffled forwards another ten, vindicating my minimalists’ assessment. The next few hours would give us plenty of warm-up on the road. But today I feel like a loosener, so I pace a few gentle strides up and down the pavement.

Frankly, it’s a bit of a surprise to find myself here for another try at this race so soon, in Stratford-upon-Avon. In the recesses of my mind, I’d thought of lining up at that Greenwich start again, but the best laid plans…, and what the hell. If you feel ready on the day, or more or less, just do it.

I turn back to finish my strides, still fresh and eager. The wind is getting up a bit now, and the grey and blue clouds are scurrying past in the sunshine. Actually, it’s quite strong, now I think of it, and it’s bound to slow me later. All those months of training can be undone by so many things – a freak storm, a pulled muscle, a cold, or a dodgy stomach. The weather doesn’t look ideal, but it’s wonderfully warm, and besides, you just have to go with what you’re given.

My father wishes me luck, and it’s time to go. I hate hanging around before the gun, but perhaps I am a little late today. If I walk briskly, I’ll make it. But as I wave to my Dad at the gate, I’m a mile away from Waterside, and I’m going to have to jog. If I’m still reluctant to rush, that feeling of relaxed anticipation is subsiding towards anxiety. I’ve got five minutes left when I cross the river, and half a mile to the start. I’ll be breathless, that’s all, but I’ll be fine.

Whatever was I thinking of, warming up so long ? And why on Earth was my Dad standing at the gate of the old house, when they moved nearer in to town once I’d moved away, over twenty years ago ?

It’s troubling me now, and I can’t work out what’s gone wrong. All those miles in training, and this poor planning, to run further than I need. The wind is whistling through the flags on Bridge Street as I reach the start. Just in time. Maybe it’s not exactly how I’d have liked it, but at least I’m here, and suddenly I’m……

…… awake.

It’s not that imagined race day, but another morning, here in Guildford. The sun’s not up, though it’s almost light as I pad around, not wanting to wake the snoring house. It’s good to have the day to myself for a while. My legs are a little stiff from the hill last night, but it’s a great day for a good long run. A solid bowl of muesli today, some steaming tea, orange juice and a banana. The perfect runner’s breakfast.

I lace up my shoes and head out of the door at sunrise. The roads are quiet, and there’s no wait at the lights on Epsom Road. Slowly through the suburbs, and out into the countryside. It’s what I love most about this old market town – the green fields and hills all around it. There’s a river and a theatre, too. The unspoken similarities with Stratford, where I grew up, had remained lost on me for several years, until I realised just why I felt at home.

It’s hard to keep my speed, going up the Downs to Newlands Corner, but the crest rewards me with the usual wonders of the Surrey Hills. Mist lurking in the folds of the fields today, oak trees floating in the far distance.

My long road takes me past the village of Shere, then Gomshall with its fisheries beside the Tillingbourne Stream. The valley landscape was settled after the Downlands, the boggy, wooded ground attractive only to charcoal burners that long ago. Nearby, the stream and charcoal drove the gunpowder mills of Chilworth, set deep in the forest and the scene of many disastrous explosions through the centuries until they closed a hundred years ago.

Amidst the farmland now, I pass the beautiful church of St John the Evangelist in Wotton, its tower framed by the contours, and a match for any Austrian postcard. Down into Westcott, and over a ridge to a glimpse of Box Hill. Through the old sunken lane from Dorking, and across Stane Street at North Holmwood. This Roman highway from London to Chichester skirts the forested slopes of Leith Hill here as they rise high above the road. The tree cover hides a tower the Victorians built, topping 1 000 feet to make southeast England’s only mountain. Sometimes there are deer beside the road, but today it’s a school bus which startles me on the curve at Beare Green. Then Newdigate, strung out all along the lanes. We’re still in Surrey, but the farmhouses here are built in the red tile-clad, Sussex style.

Charlwood next, its village green and football pitch deserted. There’s still no clue of what lies beyond, but the doubt doesn’t linger when a huge shadow, inbound from Karachi, crosses the Perimeter Road just before the jumbo’s deafening roar. The plane thunders fifty feet above my head and down onto Gatwick’s runway. I pass the Flight Tavern, then the warehouses of Lowfield Heath, a shiny but still unrented skyscraper and a roundabout or two.

I’m nearly there now, slower than I’d have liked (what’s new ?) as I burn too fast down the closing stretch. A relieved halt at last, and I’m three minutes over schedule for this run (that’s good, for me).

8.33. As I pull the key from the ignition and walk across the car park, it’s been twenty six miles, and just fifty two minutes today. A commuter’s daily journey, of twenty days each month. The marathon’s course, run just once a year on foot, yet a thousand times within my mind.

Related articles:
112. Forests of fire and iron – Surrey Hills 1
138. A winter Sunday on the North Downs
83. Seven Bridges Road – the Wey floodplain
113. The Pilgrim’s Progress – Surrey Hills 2
23. The uncertain glory of an April day: Shakespeare Marathon 2003
123. Bridge on the River Wey

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