Last summer, I would get up early so that, before work, I could scamper about, high up on the South Downs, a range of chalk hills in the South East of England.
Climbing the many steep cattle paths and narrow tracks on the Northern slopes of the downs, as the moon disappeared to one side of you, and the sun emerged on the other was the perfect way to clear your mind and focus on the oncoming day (whilst also gaining some decent ‘elevation’ in the otherwise relatively flat lowlands).
The added bonus, was the relative cool of the morning- running in which was a pleasure that could be carried throughout my working day of climbing trees and removing branches with a chainsaw.
Climbing up trees I find easy, and using a chainsaw is a piece of cake... Spending hot summer days, working in layers of thick protective clothing??? Not so good.
Alas, as is so often the case, the end of the summer combined with a change in work patterns, which resulted in the 'pre-work 10k' petering out.
For a few months I have hardly run at all.
Last weekend, with the zeal of self-improvement driving me on, I cut out a few of my vices, with the intention of replacing them with a touch of running (or shuffling, as most ‘real’ runners would probably describe it).
This is the story of ‘The run of Day 3’.
The South Downs, Firle and Firle Beacon.
The contrast from August morning, to December evening could not have been greater. I parked the truck in the usual spot in the village of Firle, but there the similarities ended.
The night was dark, but illuminated by a fullish looking moon, fading and disappearing behind low banks of thick mist and cloud. The wind was strong, and the air, although unseasonably warm, felt damp.
As I ran through the streets of the village, the head torch that I had borrowed earlier seemed somewhat unnecessary, with light of the occasional streetlamp being more than amply supported by the many un-curtained windows.
Lesson #1 for ‘Running with a head torch’: Although it is quite rude to snatch a look through an un-curtained window as you pass by, it is FAR ruder whilst you are wearing a head torch!
The village pavement soon gave way to wide farm tracks, and here, only the head torch, and the guttering moonlight lit the route. Seeing clearly where to plant your feet proved essential, with tracks that may have been smooth, hard and dry in the summer, now turned to deep, sloppy, sticky clay, interspersed with machinery wheel marks and cow muck.
As I left the farm tracks and took to the steep, narrow, wet chalk paths that lead up the hillside, running (or even shuffling) became too much for the grip of my footwear, and I was forced to maintain progress upwards by striding as fast as grip would allow, pressing down heavily on my knees, whilst a hardy heard of cattle looked on, their surprisingly widely spaced eyes reflecting torchlight that was otherwise swallowed up by the dark.
Once in the open downland of leggy grass, stunted thorn trees and windblown gorse, the mist thickened and the moon disappeared completely. I was now enveloped in the low cloud. The moon was obscured, and only the knowledge gained back in the summer helped in avoiding losing my way amongst the low tufts of grass, and countless sheep and rabbit tracks.
Lesson#2 for ‘running with a head torch’: It don’t matter how good your head torch is, it ain’t much use in the fog (unless all you want to see is more fog).
With the torch on my head, there was nothing to see but a wall of white. Switching the torch off, made an improvement, with the faintest silhouette of trees, fences and gateways emerging from the mist. Unfortunately, the faint ambient light was not good enough to ensure the right path was followed.
Removing the head torch, and running with it held low, provided an acceptable compromise, and soon my goal, Firle Beacon loomed from the darkness. Originally the beacon, located at the very highest point of this section of the Downs, was the location of one of the many signalling fires used to spread word of invasion across the South of England.
Later, it became the location of a concrete triangulation pillar, used by the Ordinance Survey to accurately map the British Isles. Now, even the pillar is obsolete, and its primary function now is an object for kids to climb, or for walkers to photograph.
Firle Triangulation Pillar, in last summer's dawn
At the Beacon, having reached the heady altitude of 217 metres (712 feet), the fog cleared, to reveal the very top of the bank of cloud, now below me, brilliantly illuminated by the strong moonlight.
I must admit, it would have made a classic photo, and (not for the first time) I regretted having had my phone run over by a car a few days ago.
My expectation that I would enjoy the spectacle of looking down on the moon lit clouds as I ran along the ridge of the Downs was short lived, with the fog rolling back in relentlessly, and the torch being carried at waste height once again.
The moon had disappeared for good now, and did not re-emerge to illuminate me as I carefully located the narrow, slippery and steep path that would take me off the ridge, nor did it shine on me as I amused myself slipping and skidding my way down the path, to join the wide farm track at the base of the hills, that would return me safely back to the village.