Thursday, 19 March 2009

Zen and the Art of Extreme White Water

Personally, I'm not much of a white water kayaker. Bobbling down French rivers with a bottle of wine and a slightly damp baguette is about as far as it goes for me.

So as you might imagine, it was all a bit of a surprise to find myself at a lecture by white water kayaker Doug Ammons the other day. I assumed it would be an adrenaline junkie's wet dream, just something to while away a pleasant hour or so. How wrong could I be?

We piled into the lecture theatre, a group of folk neatly split into two halves: the young adrenaline junkies and the older ones with beards, wearing fleeces with a history. As Doug started to speak, it became immediately obvious that this was going to be a very rare gem of a talk, and about as far removed from my expectations as his kayaking experience was to mine.

It's difficult to know where to start describing what Doug's talk was about. Sure, we watched as Doug and his friends kayaked the steepest, most committing Grade VI rivers in the world. Sure, he had pushed the boundaries of his sport in a way very few are privileged to know or understand. But this was only a part of it. What came across was a sense of knowing what it was about on a much deeper level. How the ultimate achievement couldn't be counted with grades, or with first descents. What mattered was being at one with the greater forces of nature, and that this outward journey made possible an inner journey with an unparalleled opportunity for change. Down this deep, there were similarities between these ideas and many other forms of spirituality, eastern philosophies, martial arts.

After the talk finished, I felt like a hand grenade had gone off in my head. In a good way.

But it all left me with a raft of questions. Had anyone else sensed such incredible clarity and depth of of thought, inspiration? I've since asked everyone I know who also saw Doug speak, and very few seemed to be willing to talk about it. I looked on the kayakers' discussion group on the net. There were a few comments about the lecture theatre's sound system, the quality of the photographs, the general facilities, the seats. But nothing about the ideas.

In a copy of his book, Whitewater Philosophy, Doug wrote:

I hope you find these ideas as interesting as me and keep developing your own.

Friday, 6 March 2009


Old Barn, Hartsop

It feels like the days since the Haweswater race have been dark. Somehow, the outside world has been playing along with a sympathetic fallacy, and my running has been a stark reminder of this mood. Bleak snowy runs in brooding Lakeland valleys. Runs along the steepening, dark Edwardian streets of Penrith, muffed up against the biting wind.

Alone, even when in company.

Maybe it is, as a friend summarised it, 'coming down off the ceiling' after Haweswater. Whatever that means. It seems apt enough though.

I followed the little dragging hoofprints of Herdwick sheep into the immense scoop of Threshthwaite Combe and out over the back onto High Street. There were no human prints up here. For the first time in a long while, I stopped and thought about the perversity of where I was, what I was doing. Was I running from something, to feel the need to run up here, of all places? Or what? The crashing sound of ice falling off overhanging rock faces in the combe didn't help in this arid place of the snows.

A squall smudged out the hills farther south in pencil grey, but I climbed on, popping through the snowy crust now and again. In a few moments, the grey smudge was all around me.

In this monochrome world, the surroundings seemed to capture and reflect how I was inside. Maybe this, on a weird level, is what mountain running is all about. A validation of what you feel. A connection between you and this place. A coincidence between worlds, one flesh, one stone.

Running away from something, or running towards it? Who knows. But to be part of this mad chase feels right. Whatever the mood.

The Haweswater Half Marathon...

The agony of Michael Pluckrose in second place

"In the splendid surroundings of the Lake District, any race could be a success without too much effort." 2008 race report for the Haweswater Half Marathon, Runners World

This might have a grain of truth to it, but certainly over the last 4 months or so, there seems to have been a lot of organising to be done. Admittedly, on a good day, with a following wind, the race does just happen. But this year, a series of perfect storms have conspired to make it feel like organising through treacle.

With a slight combination of naivety and arrogance, I blundered into the role of race organiser. After all, how hard could it be? It's true, the race is organised by a team of Eden Runners. But as race organiser, you get to carry the can. Take the flack. Do the worrying.

The first whiff of trouble came when we sleep-walked past a brewing race-number crisis. Of course we needed the race numbers quite early to start sending them off. But we couldn't have predicted how hard it would be to get a print run of numbers done, when we relied on the goodwill of sponsors to provide them.

Then the vagaries of Cumbrian road running in remote locations took over. A matter of weeks before the race, the route had become 13.1 miles of sheet ice and landslides. And not any old landslide, but a really, really big one. Four foot deep. Massive. A 'ready for anything' bunch of Eden Runners had set to with spades (and in one notable case, a hastily grabbed coal shovel), to remove it last year. But this year, it was way too big for that. In the end, the Red Adare of Eden Runners, Andy Walker, managed to pursuade United Utilities to return our race route to its former glory. And thankfully, they did.

There were other laughable hurdles, but the race did, somehow, just happen. Over the years, it's grown from strength to strength, happily existing for most of its life with 300 or so runners. This year, with its pivotal position in the race calendar, 600 runners entered, and more were turned away. In a tiny hamlet like Bampton, this is quite a logistical feat.

It's been a tiring few months, but seeing the runners having had a good race in stunning scenery has got to be worth it.