Friday, 29 May 2009

On Running and the Weaving of Tiny Baskets

photo by Duncan Richards

Sometimes its easy to take running in beautiful places for granted, but today, I had to pinch myself. In a wild mix of weather that spanned all four seasons at once, I was running over the Langdale Pikes and the Scafell Massif into Wasdale, then on to Honister Pass with Duncan and Karl.

Sometimes runs like this are relatively effortless, flashing by in a blur of measured ascents and crashing descents. At other times, every breath is an alveolar knife-fight where it’s up to the brain to keep it all together. Lately, runs have been tinged with the latter, and although they’re tougher to deal with, they can bring you to perhaps more interesting conclusions.

Why I was reminded of Ray Hudson’s gem of a book I’ll never know, but Moments Rightly Placed is more than just a memoir of life in the Aleutian Islands. Settling into the small community at Unalaska, Ray slowly becomes aware of the ancient Aleutian traditions of weaving very tiny baskets from swathes of grass.

These baskets are a blend of high art and devilish discipline, woven over thousands of years by Aleut women in a constant, ever changing evolution. From the highly exacting ways of harvesting and drying the grass to the intricate and extraordinarily laborious weaving, the process is almost unimaginable in its complexity. A finished basket of only three inches in diameter can contain over 15,000 stitches. There are now only four women in the world who know how to make an Aleut basket.

The tiniest of baskets made by Nina Kiiaikina

In the book, Ray’s mission to learn how to weave a basket becomes intertwined with the culture, people and an overwhelming sense of place into a remarkable impression of how these ancient arts can invisibly transform.


From Bowfell to Great End and beyond to Scafell is a dreamlike landscape of grey slabs of stone. Hopping from tinkling stone to clanking boulder is not running as many people know it, but the landscape lends an impossibly dramatic edge to it. A somber, spiritual place to run through swirling mists. Was it an impossible leap of synaptic misfiring to compare this kind of fell running to those little tiny baskets, slowly weft over months, and years? I don’t really think so. For all of us, out there, it is not just the run, right now, right there. It is an amalgamation of all of our runs, the snakes and ladders of our running highs and time spent facing injuries. It is the painstaking years of disciplined attention to our art. And when running over mountains is not effortless, maybe these things become easier to see.

I think it took Ray about a year to create a first basket which he describes as a worn-looking, uneven specimen with bulging stitches.

Anfesia, his formidable teacher, says nothing but “now start again”.

There are inevitably as many reasons for running as there are runners, but to me, on this day, it seemed to be as precious, as delicate, and as disciplined an art as learning to make a very small basket.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

The Storm Gathering

The 3rd Ravenglass Seaquest- kayak orienteering in a Force 5 gale

...What is he doing...? How can he possibly take so long to punch a checkpoint??

I am on the Ravenglass estuary, and what I thought was going to be a fun kayak event has turned into a battle for survival with Mr. Beaufort's friends. As I acquaint myself with no. 5, gusts of no. 7 muscle in, uninvited, it has to be said.

Unable to stay in one place in the raging wind, I mouth the international symbol for 'I can't stay here, I'll meet you beyond the bridge..' but somehow, I don't think Stu has got the message.

I subsequently learn that Stu was not punching a checkpoint, but emptying his boat after a poorly timed dismount.

Beyond the bridge, I have a chance to collect myself after the frenzied race start. The first gusts have ripped the course map off my deck. The camera, optimistically wedged under a bungee, is deluged in water and isn't going to be recording the event for posterity as I'd hoped.

As Stu wades through the windy glue towards me, I see the next checkpoint in the distance. One half of a double kayak pair has got out onto a grassy bank, but then disappears completely down a hole on the other side. It's a fascinating aspect of estuary orienteering that the checkpoints might be on land one minute, seaborne the next.

Trying to turn the kayak in these conditions requires skill and strength (both of which are lacking) and I stove the bow of my boat into a muddy bank. Stu and I are doing well, speedwise, after our trip to the Aeolian islands. But I'm breathing as hard as I would in a fell race.

The calm before the storm: paddlers large and small

As the estuary opens back out towards its mouth, the wind's fetch is allowed a free rein, and I just can't keep on course. The boat weathercocks wildly and no amount of heaving on my part will make a jot of difference. I resign myself to being shunted unceremoniously several hundred yards to the opposite bank. It's gusting Force 7 now, I subsequently learn.

The gale is picking up steadily, and a spirited pair in a banana yellow double sit-on-top kayak pass by, oblivious to the raging storm.

Back at the village over a well earned pint of Timothy Taylor's Landlord, the pub is crowded with bright red, salt-encrusted, beaming kayakers. We've come second in the mixed pairs, behind the couple in the banana yellow sit on top. An event to remember, to savour for all it's hardships and tribulations.

And you know what? As we sit there in the pub, the wind drops away to nothing. The sea is blue again, and not battleship-coloured. Isn't that just always the way...?

Must be the wreckage of a previous Seaquest...

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

The Big Blue

Kayaking off Milos, Greece

Ramming speed: Stu and Henrik face- on to the wind

As the plane flew out of Athens there was a sensation of flying through an infinite blueness. Blue sea, blue sky. We were headed to Milos for some kayaking with Aussie geologist-turned kayaking supremo, Rod Feldtmann.

It's dark in Rod

As we landed, we could see it was quite windy. White tops whipped across the bay as the taxi sped us to the hill-side village of Triovassalas. A few hours later, we met Rod and the sea kayakers already salty and wind blown from the days' paddling. They'd spent the day in a Force 5, and they looked very alive.

Milos boathouses

Not knowing what to expect, it was a pleasant surprise to find that we were enthusiastically hauled into this group of amazing people from the word go. About as different from each other as you could get, but united in this love of getting close up and personal with the sea in these funny little blobs of plastic. It just worked.

Each day, taking off with a trailer load of plastics, we clambered into the sea to paddle. Each day, a different coastline, and each day a different set of skills. By night, a rapture of food at tavernas hidden in white back streets and Metaxa-fueled discussions about Kayaks, the Universe, and Everything.

"I believe in the elements..." one of our number said, staring into his glass.

Indeed it does

Having had a wet winter, the whole island was knee deep in flowers

Cormorant-filled skerries

Dave admiring the seascapes to rival Fingal's Cave

Stu rockhopping

Looking back on this trip, it's hard to know where the horizon lines are. The boundaries of my paddling experience and skills have been well and truly pushed. I've spent time upside down in the big blue, and upright on the surface, and learnt to enjoy it whichever way up I am. We've looked at amazing rocks with a skilled geologist, and pieced together a volcano in our minds. And I've had my faith in human nature re-plumped, and had a good laugh all the way.

Heavy clapotis, anyone? Photo: Rod

As the plane flew out of Milos, we flew through that intense blue again. Blue sea, blue sky.

Friday, 1 May 2009

A Perfect Day

Ian Charters' Joss Naylor Lakeland Challenge, 20th April

Joss Naylor at Sty Head: inseparable from the landscape

There's something thoroughly unique about long distance mountain running. I can't quite put my finger on what it is, but I think everyone who's a part of it, in some way, feels a profound sense of this without being able to express it.

At the last minute, I took up an offer to help support Ian on his Joss Naylor attempt (77 km, 5100 m of ascent, 30 lakeland summits in around 14 hours). Duncan, Karl and myself were the leg 3 pacers from Dunmail Raise to Sty Head, and the weather was just perfect.

All up, this was, as Ian put it, fell running at its best. From Dunmail Raise we slowly crept up the steep side of Steel Fell and on for another four or so hours till we ran into the huddle of new supporters at Sty Head. I scoured the group just in case Joss had come up from Wasdale as he often does on these attempts. I didn't spot him immediately: he was standing silently at the back, a remote yet intense figure.

Joss Naylor (for those not in the know) is a towering legend in the world of fell running. Dominating the record books for decades, no one could get near him in terms of speed, stamina or mental tenacity. Joss has, over the years, become almost a myth, with a childhood dominated by constant pain from a back condition that left him immobile, to running through injuries that would have literally felled mere mortals.

Joss has come to personify the spirit of fell running not just for these extraordinary facts spilling over into myths. There is an intensity and an alertness that is striking. Talking to him at Sty Head, first about the weather (well, what else..?), it was clear he was not so much observing the landscape as an integral part of it. He had grown into this place as much as the rocks and grass.

But there is also a poignant sense of nostalgia. Modern fell runners, in contrast to many other sports, are just able to grasp the fingertips of the glory days of Lakeland fell running's past. It is a hugely important tradition that we still (just) retain. And Joss is at the heart of this.

Ian made it round in 14 hours and 14 minutes, and you can read a full account of the day on Ian's blog.

I'm no closer to the elusive understanding of why we run up mountains, or what it is that makes it so magical, so rewarding. Even so, I think everyone in Ian's support team that day felt something of it, and this shone out at every turn. And for those of us who got to talk to the great man himself? Well, it was even more special.

Running around the base of Napes Needle to catch the others up, I watched Joss running down the fell into Wasdale. Now in his 70's, he still runs down a mountainside like water in a stream.