Up on the South Downs Way you can jog along a 160km trail up and down almost 4,000m of altitude as it follows the old routes and droveways Winchester to Eastbourne in Southern England. You can break it down into bits and stay in inns and pubs along the way.
Thinking that sounded like a Good Idea, I’ve taken off after lunch so that I can get a chunk in on Friday and then a good long stretch on Saturday and Sunday. I’m not running the whole way this weekend. There’s some walking involved. And a train.
By Friday evening the steep hills and loose flint surface have been challenging me the whole afternoon. The multiple farm gates have given me occasions to rest, and the cows with their sad eyes have kept me company. After weeks of busy busy busy I’ve got the sun on my back and the crunch under my barefoot Merrells, and it feels fine to run a long trail alone like this.
Just so you understand, flint is hard, sharp shiny stones that slip and slide when dry. Wet they are like ice. That’s the thing about barefoot shoes - it’s a bit like running barefoot. Did I mention that flint is hard and sharp?
When I began this long run I thought that we trail runners are like flint. In my dreams, I realise, as the stuff exposes my puny humanity.
One particular hill reminds me, deep in my quads, of the Vlakkenberg on the return leg of the Tuffer Puffer, and Mavis Bank on any Rhodes Run. I’m determined to run over the top but don’t make it. Yes, just like Vlakkenberg and Mavis. I think up some names for this hill …
Today one can still see signs of occupation from the Neolithic, or New Stone Age, period when settled farming took over from hunting and gathering. I suppose that’s when our trail running forebears started doing out and back runs rather than massive end to end ones. So for the last six thousand years our ancestors have had to answer to, “When will you be home from your run?” As if a real trail runner ever knows.
As I get to the top of the hill I finally admit that I’m out of water. To my right is a farm gate and, on the other side, a woman sits on an upturned crate chatting to a man washing down a horse. He wanders over with the hose and fills my bottles. Hospitable people they are, and they send me down the hill to the Pub of the Rising Sun. I muse on the strange name – surely people go to a pub in the setting sun? I order one hot shower, two cold beers, three tasty courses and, leaving the partridge in a pear tree, I prepare to
Then I get to understand the name of the pub – the good folk of this hamlet keep it open until the sun rises. And the particular tactic of a Friday is Open Mike. A young fella wearing a rugby jersey with cut off sleeves begins screaming at the crowd with an occasional bash on the electric guitar he’s brandishing. He’s so sharp and hard I decide to call him Flint. Soon I’m begging Flint to stop. An elderly farmer takes over and croons at a large Polish person serving behind the bar.
The next morning, after the Polish person has served the South African a good Irish Breakfast in England, I run on into the early mist. Soon I pass some Bronze Age Tumuli. These rounded burial mounds date back to about three thousand five hundred years ago when bronze began to replace flint. On the ends of spears anyway – flint continued to be used in building, and spreading on the trail. Iron followed about one thousand years later. But of course the flint survived. The more war-prone Iron Age peoples built impressive hill forts, many of which can still be seen today. Their material of choice was of course flint stone because it is hard, sharp and slippery when wet (like when you’re running along in the mist).
The next night I sleep in the cute village of Alfriston. Its old buildings, dating back to the fourteenth century, have a familiar white, shiny glint. You know why. As I quench my thirst and tuck into a thick steak, I reflect on this wonderful sport of ours:
Shoes, shorts, T-shirt, go! This minimalist encounter of body against trail makes us tough – sharp and hard. We are the flint people.
But we are not flint. We are very human. Vulnerable. There is a boy in the man running alone on this long trail. He is about five and he is searching for what is his.
I am reminded of an old song which recently has been retreaded a bit, “Inzima lendlela, inameva, iyahlaba, guqu thandaze.” I first learned it in the market in Durban when packing fruit and vegetables onto trucks as part of how I worked my way through my first degree. It means, “This path is heavy, it rains, it hurts, kneel and pray.”
Maybe that’s why we go out onto trails - hard, sharp, slippery places. There we are reminded that not everything depends on us. There we can admit that we carry wounds. There we pray, each in our own way, for perspective, and courage. As our legs climb and our arms pump and our skin sweats into the hard trails of the earth, we breathe and live. We wear off our hard, sharp edges and return more human.