As I turn left off the main A25, uncharted territory lies ahead. The narrow lane rises in front of me, and I neither walk, nor confidently run, but somehow cobble together an unheroic if effective mix of both until the gradient flattens.
The ancient pasture land of Abinger Roughs lies to my left, that name describing quite well my personal symptoms of oxygen deficit and lingering virus.
It’ll only get harder from here, and so it’s just the ideal time to spy a couple of puzzled walkers standing by the roadside with their map.
The perfect excuse to stop for directions.
I’m looking for the North Downs Way. I know it must head off left, somewhere up the hill ahead. And so I ask.“Ah, yes, it heads off left, somewhere up the hill ahead,” they inform me, helpfully. “Are you running it ?” they enquire.
“Yes, I am,” I cheerfully lie, thrusting out my chest and smiling modestly, whilst trying not to choke, the longed-for part of seasoned hill runner finally falling unexpectedly into my lap at last.
“It gets jolly steep up there, you know,” they confide, their brows furrowing in instant and instinctively accurate assessment of the true capabilities of this dishevelled, heaving-chested and snot-dribbling lunatic who stands before them.
I wave farewell, and trot gamely on, over the railway bridge of the North Downs line, and into the climb. Then when I’m safely out of sight, I walk.
And when I hit the hill, it’s hard – it’s truly hard. The road rounds a hairpin and then ascends in earnest. My head is down now, and I’m looking at defiant black tarmac, rising. The roadsign tells of an 18% gradient, and even walking isn’t easy. I think of my friend Sweder’s repeated recent reconquistas of the South Downs, the mirror images of these hills. And I keep walking.
Four or five minutes go by. I pass the time with panting, and protracted musings on such problematical and pragmatic acceptance of my fallibility. I risk occasional half-hearted glances at the climb, continuing up ahead for ever. I knew it would. It does.
There’s a brick pillbox above the road on my left now, forming part of the defensive line built against the feared German invasion of 1940. If the Second World War Sturmtrüppen were as slow as me, they’d have been dispatched much faster even by the Abinger Home Guard, I’m sure.
Finally I see the footpath. The road ascends further, and I ponder following it to the top, just for the hell of it. And then half a nanosecond later I turn left along the path. That way rises too, but soon descends into a thick pool of squidgy mud, rounds a corner, and starts a more measured climb which more closely follows the contours towards the highest crest above.
I can manage this, I know. Alright then, maybe intermittently. Whenever the path turns right, into the hill, it steepens, and so I walk. When it flattens off again, I run. I always knew this section would be gruelling, but I’ve whimpered my way through too many marathon raceday walls to give up simply because I can’t run any more. It’s inconvenient to plod-walk my way up here, but I know it’ll get me home.
There’s another pillbox just below the path. It’s at least a mile from the road, and must have been placed to catch those invaders who decided not to risk the perils of the sunken lane, taking their chances instead along this muddy path. I can’t imagine anyone forcing a tank up here, and even multiple-marathon running footsoldiers would have made easy pickings for Private Pike at this point.
This modern long-distance path, the North Downs Way, runs close to the crest of the Downs from Farnham to Dover. It more or less follows the ancient course of the much older Pilgrim’s Way which mediaeval travellers used in the middle ages. For hundreds of years, religious folk passed through here from all across England, drawn to pay homage at the altar in Canterbury Cathedral, where Archbishop Thomas à Becket was slain by Henry II’s knights in 1170.
A pilgrimage offered a kind of tourism in those days. It wasn’t all piety and religion – and the romance and risk of travel was certainly laced with occasional debauchery along the way. That combination is precisely how Chaucer paints his picture of a pilgrimage from London in his Canterbury Tales. The more southerly route, running from Winchester along the North Downs here, may likewise have inspired Bunyan’s great allegory about the journey, The Pilgrim’s Progress.
But in fact the path’s romantic name was never used in Bunyan’s day, appearing first on Victorian maps – and in many ways it’s more a concept than a hard and fast reality. And yet the route itself dates back much further still, carrying Stone Age travellers, Celts, Romans and pilgrims across the sands and chalk of these hills since time immemorial. As late as the seventeenth century, many a traveller and pilgrim would have used this maze of criss-crossing paths along the scarp face. And it’s certain that exhausted souls would have sought food and lodgings to break their journey, in each of the villages and hamlets along the route, including Bunyan’s Shalford, if he ever really lived there.
I’ve been climbing slowly for quite a while, and despite my torpor I’ve left the Tilling Bourne some way behind. The drizzle is stronger as the trees open up on Hackhurst Down, the cloud hanging dejectedly on the ridge above my head. The views must be wonderful on a clear day, and even now there’s a kind of gloomy splendour. The green of the valley floor is far away, and all faded out from here, with only the splodges of conifer on St Martha’s Hill to break up the greys with shades of black. Beside me, the scrubby beech has long since given way to ash and wattle fences, hawthorn, gorse, and finally to ancient yew.
There’s a damp and gentle breeze blowing in my face now, and the fine raindrops are melting softly on my face. It’s an elemental kind of feeling, running all alone on this deserted track. As I follow in the footsteps of travellers long ago, not a single road is visible through the murk, no houses or people, no trace of the modern world at all. It’s just me and the hillside.
I look up the muddy slope to the treeline, hoping to glimpse how much further remains to climb. Not that far. Some gorse ahead, a stile, more mud and a sign pointing left and down the hill this time. A brief respite, another short slope up to a crossing of paths, and finally I turn onto a well-made track, blissfully flat as it heads off into the trees. This is the ancient Drove Road, used by herders to move their sheep across the county, to new grazing and to market. And I know it’ll carry me all the way back to Guildford, as yet unglimpsed ahead through six miles more of yew and Down.
I’ve never run this stretch of hillside before. There’s no reason why I should have, lying as it does up this God-forsaken and deserted muddy slope. It’s been hard running, this route of valley, hill and ridgeway home. As I run the final hour back to town, the yew trees drift slowly by, standing and watching silently beside the path, just as they have done for centuries. And I think about it. This journey.
There’ll be more runs ahead, and a climb or two in the Alps next week, I’m sure. A few more gentle plods before London, and a fantastic race to come.
But now, as I near the end of this longest of training runs, across all the pathways of those who have travelled this landscape before me, I can feel a circle closing gently in my mind. Because somewhere deep inside, I’m suddenly and surprisingly sure.
There’ll never be another journey quite like this one – not for me.
112. Forests of fire and iron – Surrey Hills 1
138. A winter Sunday on the North Downs
134. Before the mast: Pewley Down, Guildford
109. Happiness, more or less
97. Only scars carved into stone – a summer 20 miles
I’ve read several of your marathon training articles this morning. Such endurance is needed whatever our field of interest is. I hope my daughter, who is just beginning her journey into marathon running will read some of these articles.
On another note, a friend of mine has read all of your kenyan articles. She really enjoyed them.
Thank you, Nichole.
It takes a certain kind of masochistic gluttony to train for a marathon. It’s uncanny that you’ve picked this report to comment on, from a 20 mile run now almost two years ago.
And yet, with the help of this post, I can remember the footfalls well, as I struggled for four hours and more. This second section of the run included that lethal combination of a killer hill and at least an hour of toil without meeting any other human soul.
It’s the kind of territory which tests the mind as much as the body, but within the low cloud and mizzle of that day I felt at one with the ancient landscape, which had seen so many travellers of a different kind for centuries and even millennia past.
There is a famous book out there about the joys of mountain running – ‘Feet in the Clouds’, it’s called. As a slightly more corpulent than average marathon runner, I’m rarely seduced by the attractions of running uphill.
But on this dull, distinctly damp and elemental day, I could understand a little of that transcendental quality of running which hillside plodders praise so much.
Fortunately, I don’t have to take to the hills for this kind of feeling to strike. For me, the joy of running has always been about being outside, at one with nature and the landscape and in the open air.
I know that’s why the treadmill and even the vanity of faster running has little lure for me (I would say that, of course, because I’m growing ever slower). It’s not really the illusion of performance which spurs me on.
When training, there is in theory a choice to make – to run with friends as a social pastime, or to beat out a long run miserably and painfully entirely on your own.
The truth is that although I love to run with friends, the realities of a busy family life make it hard to schedule a run like this – the miles have to be fitted in more flexibly within a weekend, on an extended (very extended) lunchtime, or (all too rarely) a blissful summer evening after work.
It’s much harder to run alone. And yet, the rewards of rare solitude and some precious super-clarified thinking time (it’s that endorphin narcosis, perhaps) are considerable. On the whole I may even prefer it – at least that way I can keep my fallibilities as a secret between me and the road ahead.
I started writing this column in part because I wanted to document the wonderful experiences I gained whilst running. My Chicago Marathon report was really the first account I wrote – I knew it was going to be the run of a lifetime, and I wanted to remember that day always and to share my story with grandchildren in my dotage.
But as I ran more, and ran less, I slowly realised that it wasn’t necessarily about the running, but rather the views along the way, and perhaps some output from all that thinking time.
The run described here marked something of a watershed since afterwards I felt certain that I couldn’t face the 20 mile training distance again, and hence would never run another marathon.
Two years on, I still haven’t, and still have no plan to do so. Whether this feeling will last I’m not quite sure – some day I’d like to think I might have an NYC in me, or else another London, but that day is not today, and it may never come.
But in taking on the marathon, I learned to run. Although I’d jogged occasionally before, I’d always thought the sport was for other people, and not for me.
I may not run another marathon, then – or perhaps I will, one day. And yet maybe it doesn’t really matter. Because now I’m a runner, and I always will be, even on the day when I can run no more.
It’s a fantastic world out there on the hillsides and muddy trackways.
It’s a lot like life in many ways – a bit of special effort can take you so much further than you think. And as with many dreams, it’s really the journey which is just as important as the destination.
Thank you again, Nichole. I hope your daughter learns to love her running, and that running proves as kind to her as it has to me.
I’m sure it will be.
Nichole, I’m glad your friend enjoyed my Kenya articles.
It was just one trip, but it served to crystallise many thoughts about Africa.
We live such sheltered and fortunate lives in Europe and America, and yet we’re so often depressed and neurotic about them. We need to wake up and look around us at the world a little more, to stop complaining and do something (however small) to help others less fortunate than ourselves.
There is poverty close to home – of course there is, but it’s on such a different scale.
In my opinion, there’s no comparison. And I don’t believe that there any sensible excuses which can be made to justify the systematic and inevitable starvation and early death of so many human beings in the modern age.
There are huge problems in the world. It’s hard to make a difference, but it’s desperately important just to try.
Such beautifully written articles – I wish I had your gift of wordcraft!
I’m a Surrey lad and grew up a bit self-conscious about it – it was a much-maligned area back in the Thatcher era and many of us used to respond “errr…near London” when asked where we were from!
Still, I live near to some great hills now in south Wales, where I have learn’t the hard way about hill running, and I often get a shot at running in Norbury Park (5 mins from my mum’s house in Gt Bookham) when I come back to see the family. So, it’s great to read about your inspiration and enjoy your superb prose about the downs.
Thanks a lot, & all the best,
Thank you, Roger – I’m very grateful for your kind words.
Surrey is much under-rated, I agree, and in the presence of so much commuter belt it’s remarkable to find so much lovely and unspoilt countryside and to discover that it’s the most wooded county for its area in the whole of the UK.
I have friends who live in Bookham, and the cycle ride over the hills by Polesden Lacey to West Humble and then home via Ranmore Common is one of my all-time favourites.
I hope you continue to enjoy your running in South Wales — how I’d love to return to the links at Porthcawl on a fine November day — and many thanks again for writing.
Kind regards from, er… somewhere near London.