The saga continues
The saga continues
We awoke from a restless slumber. I had been stirred several times during the night by the noises of dogs roaming around a near by estate next to the park we were sleeping in. This was to be the first of many nights sleeping in our new home. A 20 pound tent from Sports World. Lying in my sleeping bag I contemplated the day ahead. A 25 mile march from St Omer to Bethune. Two relatively inconspicuous northern towns. I was always usually first to rise out of Max and me. I unzipped the entrance to our tent and stumbled outside. The remains of the last nights meal still littered the floor. We made a conscious effort to clean up then began to pack our tent into “The Enterprise”. The morning’s weather was consistent with what my predictions would be for the region. And differed very little from the day before. We spent around an hour gathering our things into our backpacks and descended away from our sleeping spot in search of somewhere to bathe before the day of running began. It didn’t take us long to locate the Park lake. We decided to have our morning wash in the furthest corner of the lake, which was the quietest, point however before we relished in its watery depths we had to make our way across a lining of slime encased on some stones. Requiring a measure of balance and finesse. I looked around the area and we began to strip to our Boxers.
We tried to make this scene as discreet as possible. And up until this point the surrounding area was very quite. However just on cue a group of elderly ladies walking their tiny French rat-dog hybrids strolled past as Max was making his way into the Lake. Luckily the ladies were spared there blushes by the impeccable timing of Maxes submersion. I threw him some Radox, he made his way back out a few minutes later and then it was my turn. I walked to the edge in my Boxers then threw them off. This was to be the first of many times I would be naked in a public place. It was very surreal. I made my way into the lake then sunk my body into the water. Immediately the cold hit my sore muscles. It was a fantastic feeling. I really felt in touch with my natural side during the traditional morning dips. In society we become so detached from our natural environment that we forget how interactions with it feel. After out bathes we dried off and wheeled our kit to the road again. Max parked the Enterprise and we began to walk out of the centre of St. Omer. The time was around 10.30AM. We aimed to run 15 miles then eat, then run another 5 miles, then walk to Bethune. Before setting off we indulged in some Carbo Gels and some chocolates from the night before. We began warming up and set off following the road directions out of the town. French roads are pretty straightforward for drivers, but for pedestrians the journey was more difficult. On entry to a town most traffic will be directed towards its centre. It was there where the majority of directional signs would indicate what exit would be best suited towards the direction of the driver (or pedestrians) next destination. I always envisaged the run to be a highlight reel of off road running across the countryside of France. In reality we were hugging the side of roads for the duration of the journey due to my incompetence as a navigator. Looking back I wish I spent more time planning the route to encompass the labyrinths of local roads which connects mainland Europe together.
Spending your whole day walking along a busy road was mentally taxing to say the least. Unfortunately according to my irritated past self the “fucking stupid St Omerians could not tell me directions to Bethune in English”. So we made a logical decision that we should follow directions from St Omer to “Arques” which was located in the general direction of Bethune. We set off at a relative canter along a very long straight road which appeared to be a replica from yesterdays long road from Calais to St Omer. I remember realising at this point that the change in scenery moving at the speed we were moving was going to be incredibly slight. Along the way we received another two or three beeps from the drivers. Roughly two shifts past ( 20 minutes each pushing the Enterprise) until we stopped at a Homebase style Hardware store to check up on our Progress. At this point I got my map out. I wasn’t sure where we were along the road so asked a near by parker driver who after conversing in international grunt and point (IGP) established that we were not travelling in the most economical fashion. Or to put it in simple terms. We had gone the wrong way. It was quicker to walk back along the road we had just ran across then depart from another exit then continuing to walk along the same road. At the time the very thought of turning back on myself disagreed with virtually every moral fibre in my body. It was like the collective consciousness of mankind had single handily dealt me the logistical tool of enlightenment via my collection of maps. I felt so frustrated because the only person I could blame was myself! I turned around and spoke to Max, his eyes sunk with the news. We both knew there was no choice but to turn back on ourselves. We plodded of and walked for nearly 90 minutes, I checked my watch to see the time fast approaching 2pm, we had been walking for 3 and a half hours yet had covered barley any distance. This particularly experience defined by approach to the navigational aspect of the trip. Not only was it a waste of time, but crucially a waste of previous energy. I made a vow that this would never happen again.
Back at our start point we sat down and drafted a revised plan of action. Our original aim was to reach Bethune by sundown. This scenario was out of the question, we were 30 miles from the town and pulling a Ultra out now with minimal calorie intake would finish us. Our second option was to stay in St.Omer get some more carbs, concede a day then head to Bethune tomorrow. This was thrown out also, we both had enough of this town and another night would result in a big drop of morale. Our third option would be to walk the 30 miles and arrive in Bethune sometime in the early morning. Minimalsing energy output yet stil covering a reasonable amount of distance. We both agreed to take the walking option. Simple. Next we rerouted. Taking no chances following the D200 A-road along the “Pas De Calais” to a small town called “Witles” where we would rest off then walk through the evening to “Isbourges” which would lead us onto the D187 all the way to Bethune. We estimated that we would be averaging around 2.5MPH walking pace, taking our total journey 15-17 hours. Simple. This was what we trained for. We set off at a walking pace and began reciting passages from “Man of steel and velvet” to keep us entertained. The book was becoming an effective method of entertainment for the both of us and sat proudly on top of The Enterprise like some kind of holy book. The afternoon dragged on and the temperature slowly crept up. After 30 minutes we got bored of reciting Man of steel and began discussing topics based mainly around Women. People often ask me if I came to some kind of divine intervention undertaking this journey. Whilst I am not now a spiritual teacher I can safely say that from my 60 days of relative isolation a life without women really isn’t a life worth living at all! The first few hours were filled with pleasantries. Anyone who has been involved in some form of endurance event would know that the first section of the race is always filled with a utopian dogma that seems to fool participants that this race will be over sooner then you know it. After conversing we began to get to know our thoughts a bit better. After all we would be spending the next 55 days with them.
The day dragged onwards to the late afternoon. We had been on the move since 10.30 so decided to take a break for a while and eat some more, you guessed it Multipower Bars. It was such a nice feeling to sit down. The afternoon turned out to be hotter then expected and we had consumed more water then we anticipated. We had been walking through reasonably quite roads for a few hours, the calm really enabled me to enter my own thoughts and meditate more effectively. I would dive into a thought and come out of it 40 or 50 minutes later. We continued walking through quieter and quieter roads. The scenery was beautiful. I remember thinking that this was the France I envisioned, endless fields, interrupted by the odd cow covered in the glowing evening sun. Very similar to the fields I used to play in as a child back home. Those days where I would walk in the wilderness for whole afternoons imagining myself on a grand adventure. We stopped at a shrine of the virgin Mary and decided to stay there for a second to reflect on the journey so far. There was something very spiritual about these Catholic Checkpoints even for a non-religious person such as myself. This journey we had embarked on was a pilgrimage of the body and mind, we set off towards Rome on a journey of self discovery carrying the hopes and expectations of our families and friends 80 or so miles away in England. The virgin mary was a representation of humility, one which stopped two students in there tracks for just a few minutes to give thanks to our health even though we didn’t know who or what we were thanking. By now the sun was nearly set as we marched across the French countryside. Our conversations became more sporadic as time went on until they eventually dried up and we once again drifted into our little worlds.
At around 11PM we reached an intersection, which notified us that we were 25KM from Bethune. We parked our buggy up onto a grassy intersection in the middle of the road and sat down. I had never enjoyed sitting down as much as I did then. We reached for another Multi-Power bar and ate it. Not much was said. We arose around five minutes later and began to walk again, our only company now was the roar of lorries as they passed along side us. The night brought with it an overwhelming sense of loneliness and vulnerability. Our morale could normally be gauged by the amount of words we spoke to each other each minute, at this time I remember it was close to zero. Max was pushing the Enterprise along whilst I walked in front with a high visibility jacket to make sure that we were noticed by oncoming traffic. We passed a desolate town at 01.30AM, a sign appeared. 21KM to Bethune. My heat sank, I optimistically thought that the previous sign was a mistake and we soon see the lights of a busy northern French town. We were in a town, but it wasn’t Bethune. Max told me that he was feeling extremely low. I had to say that I felt exactly the same way. We both knew that there were only two options on this trip, give into the pain and quit, or continue marching on. We would always choose the second option so we accepted our suffering and continued marching into the darkness.
At around 3AM we reached a point in the road that had no lights. We were walking blind. Our only source of light was the occasional lorry that would roar past us every 15 or so minutes. I remember seeing the lights in the distance as they approached. My mind was a mess, It was bad walking in low light. But now it was dark I had no reference point to reality, no sense of who I was anymore. I had been walking for 15 hours and my knees were beginning to cry in pain. Another hour passed, the pain in my knees was beginning to get more and more prevalent. Max seemed to be coping better then me and offered to cheer me up, we sat down and had our first conversation for over two hours. He had an idea that we should document this moment because it “would be funny” to watch it back once we got home. So I got my camera out and made a video clip. Now sitting comfortably at home I realised that Max was right, it was hilarious! We set off again. By the time we reached our next roundabout the sun was beginning to rise, it was around 5.30AM. Max had taken a turn for the worse during the previous walking session. His morale had seemed to dive-bomb into oblivion, just like mine did a few hours previously. Perhaps it was luck or perhaps it was just some form of reverse psychology but not once during the trip did we both suffer a crisis in morale to such a point that we considered quitting, I am sure that one of us wanted to quit many times during the trip, but it was always the secondary party that rallied the cause when it seemed that all hope had been lost. We were both starving and had not eaten anything substantial for nearly 24 hours. To make matters worse it began to rain. The next sign said that we were only 13KM from Bethune, I managed to smile as I calculated how slow we were travelling, barley above a snails pace. The sun was rising as we neared our destination. 8KM to Bethune. We marched on, I remember screaming in ecstasy as we saw our first signs for shopping markets, this meant that we were nearing. Our spirits were lifted even higher once we saw a sign for McDonalds. 6KM to Bethune. I was in agony; I just needed to lie down. We approached another roundabout but didn’t stop, we could literally see the town ahead of us. Max was falling behind as cars began to fill the roads again with the rush hour traffic. 4KM’s to Bethune. When would this agony end! I remember seeing a sign for a Hotel, I didn’t care how much it cost,. We needed a good nights sleep after this ordeal, Max was falling well behind now. I stopped and began screaming at him. I cannot recall what I was screaming but it wasn’t coherent English, just pure raw emotion to keep moving our beds were waiting for us. 2KM’S to Bethune, I was hobbling, my whole body wanted an end to the suffering, only a bit further to go now James. You can do it mate. I looked up at a nearby sign for the Hotel we saw advertised earlier on, I decided that enough was enough, we were virtually in Bethune and we needed some rest and some food. I waited for Max. He looked and smelt terrible. There was only one person who looked and smelt worse then him at this time. And that was most likely me. We marched into the Hotel reception. There was a host of guests departing as we arrived, the time 8am. I grunted and pointed towards the double room. She asked me if we had any luggage. Max pointed to the buggy, which looked every single mile of the 100 or so it had covered so far. The lady gave us a key to a holding garage where we placed the buggy. We both bumbled into the room, my bed was waiting but there was still one thing I had to do before we slept. I knew that within 24 hours we had to run a Marathon to Lens, what was needed was food. And fast. Max was already in bed before this decision was made so I bid him farewell, got our wallet then marched once more.
To say that I was in pain at this time was an understatement. I still had 2kms to walk and the sight of the bed seemed to of acted as the call for my body to seize up. I shuffled into town and walked into the first shopping market. I purchased chocolate milkshakes, fruit, chocolate and some croissants (when in Rome!) . I was so dazed that I actually walked out of the shopping centre with the basket still in hand. I only realised what I did when I arrived back in my hotel room at around 9.30AM. I finally crawled, fully clothed into bed. I turned to the left to see Max unconscious on top of his bed. I turned to my right to see a collection of maps which I had thrown on the bedside table in the hunt for our wallet. We would need them again tomorrow. A new day. Another trip to hell.
“Clocks slay time… time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life”-William Faulkner
How much time do we really have?
The truth is that no one knows. Our time on Earth is a but a grain of sand in a cosmic size hourglass. As we become older internal problems and concerns become the centrefold of our existence. Problems which (on the whole) are self constructed and irrelevant in the timeline of our lives, engulf the precious healthy time we have been granted with.
The instinctual fear of the unknown is the crux of this bad habit. If our entire lives were indeed plotted onto a linear timeline from our miraculous conception to our inevitable death, then how relevant would the problems of today be on this scale? The answer is most likely leaning to the irrelevant. Because 99% of our fears are irrational, 99% of our worries are self constructed illusions designed to blind us from the truth. The truth that stares us in the face on every clear night. That we are part of the incomprehensible and beautiful system called the Universe which dwarfs the scale of all of all of mankind. Our lives are acted out on a perfectly formed rock, just near enough to a giant nuclear explosion to heat us which is currently spinning at over a 1000 miles per hour.
(This clip, the beginning of an amazing film called “Contact” highlights just how small our planet is in comparison to the rest of the Universe)
At the same token with the foundations of quantum mechanics we are now able to explore a whole new world of particles. A world where the casual observer can dictate whether such particles form waves or particles just by being present in the room.
I could go on. The simple fact is that with the advancement of Science, we are increasingly becoming humbled. I am fortunate enough to be able to visit an environment with very little light pollution. Whilst sitting on the balcony of my Mothers house in Italy I am able to view the Cosmos in all its glory. I once wrote that “the pollution of light, coincides with the pollution of curiosity” And still believe so. Living in an environment such as cities, it is easy to become distracted by the every day mundane, the Cars,Bars, Billboards and Media create a physical and metaphorical wall of light which blocks the true beauty of the Universe. As Humans we crave answers. Yet we crave control even more so. That is why we have evolved so rapidly. We create realities which we feel we are in control of yet they are realities based on irrational fears installed in us from a young age by failing school systems and warped media machines powered by the engine of consumerism.
As John C Parkin states our want of control can be analysed by observing a children’s car ride in a theme park. Where they are placed into a car fully equipped with steering wheels and gears. The Car begins to move and the children steer when corners come. Sometimes the child will let go of the steering wheel yet the car will still turn. In life we are the children in the cars. We are masters of a reality which is based on the unpredictable and wonderful span of the Universe.
These ideas can form the basis of a new attitude to worry. Instead of forming your life around fears form it on adventure, dream chasing and love. Toil at your true purpose.
In five years time, will this problem I am stressed about still haunt me?