5.30 pm at an exhibition in Earl’s Court, London’s very own suburb of Melbourne. It wasn’t an Australian beer in my hand, this time, even if three of those had slipped down effortlessly the evening before.
One more had disappeared just a moment ago, subsumed in seconds and without a thought. As they always are, at the witching hour which closes any trade show.
It was hard to believe my eyes, really, but it was happening. The bottle, so helpfully handed to me just a moment before, was moving back towards the table. My papers were gathering themselves into my bag.
Time for a decision. I collected my coat, mumbled a few feeble farewells, and headed out into the dusk and the rain, raising my collar and shuffling forwards along the wet pavement towards the tube station.
A rainy evening on West Brompton High Street wasn’t the most auspicious place to find that spark, and it was just the faintest of glimmers that shone in the streets ahead of me then. Two tubes and a train, a walk up the hill – an hour and a half to get home, and another ten minutes to change.
It was half past seven as I closed the front door behind me. Dark, wet, and every bit as uninviting as that second beer had been inviting.
But it had to be done. The first mile or so was easy, as I always knew it would be, down into the valley along the Pilgrim’s Way. Romantically named, this segment of the ancient trackway was now just another stretch of silent suburbia skulking under orange streetlights. A mile or three splashing through the park and the puddled lanes of Shalford. And then the run begins.
The problem with living on the 90 m contour as we do, is that there’s too often a hill to get home. There are different ways of doing it, but from the south there’s just a steady climb up Pilgrim’s Way again, the road pitilessly steepening towards the hairpin on Echo Pit Road, where the flints and clunch for the foundations of Guildford were mined for centuries long forgotten.
From there, it’s a gentler climb up onto Warwick’s Bench, but harder with so much of the hill now behind you. Another 89 rasping breaths, and I know because I always count them, to reach the next corner. And then 46 more, sprinted to the lamppost at the crest, before I gasp more easily down the gentle slope home.
In the beginning, there was a plan. Not any more – not really.
The latest London Marathon pack arrived yesterday, on the day I hit 300 miles for the year. 320 since my 18 weeks began on the lanes of Pitlochry. I ran 12 miles in soft, tiring snow there, and 19 last weekend through the grey Arctic breeze which has for so long replaced that faint dream of a long-awaited Surrey spring.
Six miles around Crawley yesterday lunchtime. Grey, dull, and bitterly cold. Breathlessly tiring. It should be easier than this, I always think. But it never is. Because somehow those six March miles are always four minutes faster than their December forerunners, even if they feel every bit as tough to complete.
The plan, I said – so what is the plan ? Just run until spring, and the plan will be clear. That discarded second bottle of Beck’s, that dark wet front doorstep, those muddy damp socks, and the chill on my chest for three hours and much more of a frozen Sunday afternoon. Those stiff-legged panting lunchtimes, rushed showers before meetings, and that miserable soaking in the late winter nightfall of a West London street.
It may not be a carefully crafted fitness regime. And it certainly isn’t a classically-plotted route to Greenwich.
But they all make a difference. So maybe, just maybe, that must be the plan.
13. A winter night’s fartlek – Guildford town and track
115. A postcard from Greenwich Park
83. Seven Bridges Road – the Wey floodplain
70. Livin’ on milk and alcohol
76. A year of running, rainily