It was while I was washing my coffee cup that I heard the horse. In that moment I understood that this was not going to be a soft training session, no matter how muddy the mountain trail.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First I need to explain that I’m not into clubs and societies. I don’t like churches or cocktail parties. I don’t have hundreds of façade-book friends. I choose to live on the edge of belonging where the houses end and the trees begin.
There you can think for yourself. There you can hold ideas on an open hand and let the wind blow off the bits that aren’t real. There you can engage simple, difficult aspects of yourself, and the world, without too much institutional interference. There you can discover the empowering meaning behind Dire Straits’ classic song, “Telegraph Road.”
It sings of, “A man on a track; walking 30 miles with a sack on his back; he put down his load where he thought it was the best; And made a home in the wilderness.”
That’s what trails can do for us – they invite us to follow a track until we discover what we think is best. Real trail running, not the trending, colour-coordinated version, reconnects us with a deep sense that we can trust ourselves. So we start listening more carefully, thinking more insightfully, and moving more skilfully.
I suppose that’s an important part of why I run trails. When you carry yourself over whatever nature offers, you can encounter a more authentic life. For those few hours of honest sweat and dust, you can be less bullied by bureaucrats, or fenced in by fear-mongers.
Until interrupted by inhibiting institutions. “Then came the churches, then came the schools; then there were the lawyers, then there were the rules.” Soon enough the dirty old track had been civilised into a telegraph road.
Not good. Not if you like the independent thinking space of trails.
So I run trails to escape the thought police. It’s tougher to run trails, to think for yourself, to take full responsibility for your own stuff without excusing or blaming or waiting for the system. But the air is cleaner, and you can respect yourself out there.
Such were my thoughts as I set off to the mountains around Uhliska, Slovakia, to visit my good friend, Sean. There wild boar forage in the forests, deer roam free and people hunt and grow their own food. It’s a good place to develop strength of leg and focus of mind. And with the Marathon des Sables (MdS) just six weeks away, I needed both.
When I told him I was coming to stay in his mountain cottage, Sean said that he would help me train on the muddy trails. That made me nervous. As a Parabat and artillery captain, Sean once played right wing for Defence. Much to my relief on arrival I saw that generous country cooking had left ample deposit on the old campaigner.
That evening we ate fresh forest mushrooms and wild berries and shared deep stories as longstanding friends do when they reconnect.
In an MdS training workshop I’d been told that thick mud is a good replacement for desert sand. The overnight snow certainly obliged. I stepped out of the door, straight into the forest, to breathe in the wonderful world of wet earth and to gawp at the generous gamut of green. Wow! Awesome is an overused word. It should be reserved for moments like that.
Over breakfast Sean announced that he and his young son would both come with me on the tough, technical track elevating fast from the back door. I didn’t understand. I’ve got slow since I ripped my quad, but over 25 km I am quicker than a seven-year-old, even if he is a great guy and I have a pack weighed down with water bottles.
With a little smile they both slipped out while I finished my coffee. It was while I was washing that cup that I heard the horse and understood. The pair was mounted on a steady, Slovak steed.
As I laboured my way under my nine kilo pack, they did the equine amble just behind my left shoulder. The trail climbed consistently and soon we were surrounded by snow-covered trees and towns. Magnificently stunning.
After a good jog for man and mount, the horse tired. Probably more as a result of the handicap of its passengers than my pace.
So they turned back to get the car and I ran on.
I kept climbing, past frozen lakes and fascinated observers. Even a police car slowed to stare. I’m told that for someone to be out running in those conditions is an occasional occurrence. Definitely so if he is dressed for the desert.
After some time I trundled into beautiful Banska Stiavnica. A young couple with impeccable English took my photo overlooking the classically charming citadel. A local hotel owner lent his washroom. A deftly designed deli served the best Americano of my coffee career. And then Sean joined me in the 18th Century ERB brewery. There we dealt with a two kilo joint of spit-roasted wild boar served with mustard and traditional bread, all washed down with a couple of long glasses of Special Dark (13%).
Running clubs, cocktail parties, social media groups? I understand these work for some. But as for this old trail runner, amongst my most preferred training partners are a real friend and his boy on a horse, high trails, kind strangers and space to think for myself. Oh, and wild boar and dark beer are good too.