My Last Healthy Summer?

There’s something inherently magnificent about summer.  The British one, anyway.  Perhaps it’s the contrast with a drearily bleak midwinter that requires the mother of all festival feast days to make it half tolerable.  Maybe it’s the long days and likelihood of sun that makes up for the lack of available vitamin D the rest of the year.  After all, when the summer sun casts its shining rays on our gleaming shores, a good number of us can be found right by them, giddy with the modest but noticeable increase in serotonin levels.  Those more used to hotter environs might associate this time of year with dust, thirst and even unendurable hardship but (with the odd exceptional heatwave) climate change hasn’t ravaged through the UK to the point that the arrival of summer isn’t blissfully welcome.

And for someone like me, having spent most of my life in educational settings, summer really gets going in August.  Yes – the two preceding months provide more light and, often, better weather, but being unencumbered by the pressures of school and work life for such a time simply sets one free.  It could be argued that I’ve enjoyed an extra long summer, what with the extended sick leave without many cancer symptoms to get in the way.  But at no point did my conscience let me relax in the way it does in August.  The uncertainty and need to be ‘ready’ whenever the time would come kept me decidedly in work mode, with any enforced rest being decidedly agitated.

But the summer holidays are mine – all mine!  So what’ll it be – time to hit the beach, sink a few cocktails and enjoy all those lavish indulgences life has to offer?  If you know me at all, you’ll know that this isn’t remotely my style.  Because I’ve got this mountain ultramarathon to train for, called UTMB.  So [what might well be my last healthy] summer has been spent charging up and down mountains.  With a dodgy knee.  And a colostomy bag that keeps coming unstuck in the heat.

Pre-injury, I’d taken up offers from a couple of friends to come and enjoy their more elevated surroundings.  First up were Maud and Peter, who are in the process of uprooting to nest near Todmorden in the Calder Valley.  There’s nothing like having someone visit you twice in hospital to believe their offer of a place to stay in a stunningly beautiful part of the country is genuine and I spent most of a week in a lovely large old mill owner’s house positioned in between a river and canal.  The presence of the canal was a blessing as – unable to bend my knee without pain – hills weren’t at all fun.  Maud was incredibly patient as we embarked on a couple of run-hikes that would at least keep the legs moving and take in some views, including stretches of the Pennine Way I’d wandered through a few years before.  We went for one run, which involved some significant wincing as we painstakingly ran/trotted a few flat twelve minute miles along the tow path.  We’d both been here before – for different iterations of the 100k canalathon. I’m not sure which of the two experiences was more painful but It was certainly better than nothing. I wasn’t making this mountain training very easy for myself.

In between the attempts at activity, we ended up embarking on a kind of cafe tour of Yorkshire, with plentiful cake around the Hebden Bridge area.  In retrospect, this isn’t the best way to manage caloric balance when your training load has been drastically cut but, well, there are some situations that just call for cake.  I was also there at an exciting point for the family, with builders coming in to start gutting the place in order for it to be reborn as their family’s dream home.  I was pleased to have made it up at this point and before the works really got going – the room I’d slept in no longer exists!

It’s possible that I needed a holiday to recover from my holiday, but when you’re a dying man with a mountain mission and on a roll, rest doesn’t come into it.  So after a lovely little wedding gig on the other side of London, 

I flew to Austurias in Northern Spain to hit the Picos de Europa and catch the tail end of Nacho’s family holiday.  Well – I use the term ‘holiday’ quite lightly, because each of the three days we spent together involved hours of ‘running,’ travel, local food and hospitality.  To my pleasant surprise, everything had been taken care of.  I stayed at their friends’ house – located high on a hill overlooking the sea, which we ran to.  We enjoyed tapas (including cheese that’s stored in caves!) late into the night as children played and played well past everyone’s bedtime.

We drove to some seriously lumpy mountain scenery to take in a load of vert as we adventured through technical trails that included a Roman road and some idyllic but remote mountain refuges.  The run-hiking here was really really tough.  Short distances took ages and I became well acquainted with lung pain as we ascended and knee pain on the way down.  Needless to say – I was very slow and Nacho (being race winningly fast) literally ran rings round me, taking photos etc. as I strode the hard yards.  He was brilliant company – but there’s something about being a slower runner in a group that makes things difficult.  No matter how many times you hear that there’s absolutely no problem going at your pedestrian pace, it’s impossible to ignore.  This is illogical – I’ve been the faster runner and meant it genuinely as I’ve promised the same – but it’s nonetheless an inescapable feeling.  But we got through a good deal of mountain and ended up with three days of beautifully scenic adventure.

On my last day, I met up with very old friends Felix and Henri for a wander round the coastal town of Gijón and more coffee/cake.  We didn’t particularly do anything, but it was just really nice conversing with two expert linguists who lead such interesting lives – they have a farmstead in Galicia that will soon be an eco retreat – I know where I’m going on my next writing holiday!!

One more night in my bed and I was off for another two out of it.  In fact, ‘out of it’ is an apt description for that weekend as I experienced – for perhaps the last time – what it’s like to be a professional touring musician.  This is a life I’ve often coveted and hoped would land in my lap.  For one brief weekend, it did and it was spectacular… apart from the copious amounts of travel.  The first gig of the weekend was a festival down in Newquay called Boardmaster.  The drive with Babel Brass Band was pleasant enough but nonetheless very very long. Being a Thursday, the entire site seemed to be populated with teenagers as – well – everyone else was working.  But the teenagers were all rather energetic, intoxicated and up for a good time, so our two cliff side sets made light of the intermittent drizzle and we found ourselves in front of around a thousand revellers playing pop covers with suitably blasty solos.  I thought I played pretty well here but was bluntly reminded that sometimes it’s the simple things that are most effective in music and pretty much everything else.  What really got the crowd going? Something really flashy and technically proficient? A few tritone substitute and metric modulations? No. A few repetitions of the Seven Nation Army riff sent the kids into their revelry.  There’s no accounting for taste eh!  But I have to admit it felt amazing getting this response out of a crowd.

A chance encounter with the stage MC bagged me an overnight lift to the next festival – boomtown in Winchester.  This was a much bigger affair with tens of thousands of people amassed in a few fields.  Upon arrival at about 6am, I flung my little popup tent into a spare patch of ground in artist camping and managed at least 2 1/2 hours of weary slumber before the camp began to stir.  Eventually I found my band – the excellent Filthy Militia, who haven’t just taken me on as a dep for a couple of gigs but made me feel most welcome and even helped me fundraise for Macmillan. Up until our midnight set, I wandered through the festival watching bands, eating and feeling really really old as the noise gave me a headache.  But when the time came for our midnight set in a mocked up Irish pub, the performance instincts kicked and (although I didn’t feel hugely prepared for this one) the band really put on a show with a great atmosphere.  It didn’t matter that we had to carry all our gear right across the festival site – in this moment, we were rockstars and nothing else mattered.

The next day could have been an anticlimax after traipsing back across the site to leave the independent state of Boomtown and head back to London.  But on the way, I had another gig – this time at the smaller scale Brentford Project on a bandstand, opposite a ferris wheel and to a lovely family crowd.  I’m pretty sure that by this point, my smell preceded me, but that’s the glamour of festival life for you! After so much enforced junk food, I devoured a load of nutrients from Itsu and – at last – found my bed to sleep the kind of sleep that comes when you’re so tired you can barely see straight.

Some ultra running plans recommend getting used to sleep deprivation, so I’d say that weekend of living like a rock star counts as resilience training.  But I had to do some real training too.  The knee was a little better by this point but not great.  The act of standing still seemed to be problematic and I was barely able to hobble off stage after playing a short set, even if I’d walked up fine.  But these diversions from the training plan hadn’t really replaced it and the next day, I had a 30-40km run to get through.  Unusually for me, I opted for the 30 and, despite a little pain, was surprisingly able to get myself through this afterthought of a run.  Ok – it’s likely that by this point, I was wobbling like a twelfth round boxer about to be delivered a knockout punch, but this time I didn’t end up on the canvas.

One more night in my bed and it was time to re-pack up my high end running gear along with a few meagre positions and head back out on the road … to catch a bus …  Then onto a train, then two more … and an airplane … and another bus … and here I found myself in the most picturesque surroundings my short life has afforded me.  I’ve been around the world.  I’ve spent time in the mountains of Asia, Australasia, North and South America … But there’s something special about the Alps and perhaps these alps.  I don’t know – it could be contextual.  I might have found such particular beauty in my newfound Chamonix surroundings because I’ve got this big race coming up or because I’m dying and every bit of breathtaking scenery is a beautiful bonus when compared to the confines of a hospital bed.  But as soon as I saw those snow capped mountaintops, I fell head over heels in love with the Alps.  No matter how badly this race goes or how rocky the relationship turns out to be in the near future, we’ll always have that first breathtaking glimpse.

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