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The contentment of the long distance runner / Ultra

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I first discovered long distance running whilst working at a difficult school in northern England. The borstal-like institution was a brick and glass new-build on the top of an exposed and windy hill. The kids weren’t sent there because they had done anything wrong. They just grew up in the wrong postcode and had no other choice.

Everyday the high-grilled gate rolled back and the children trickled in with a truancy-officer tailgate. For the next seven hours I was to pump them with Steinbeck, George and Lennie, The American Dream and the old Strive and Achieve. Occasionally they listened suspiciously – a snatched hiatus between Monster energy drink breakfast, plans for the evening and under-desk sales of pilfered aftershave and perfume.

Two summers came and went. It was the longest time I’d spent working in one place. Longest time I’d done anything. Here was a time in life when you could release the brakes. Five, ten years might slip past. Sometimes you would feel like you were making a difference. But at the end of each day the kids would drift away again, back down the hill.

Autumn came hard and cold in the second year. The light was quickly sucked out of any evening escapes to rock climb in the Peak District. Instead I would listen to hammering Daft Punk on repeat as I penned through graffitied exercise books. On the day we read how Lennie killed Curley’s wife, there was a big red smudge across the afternoon sky. Later that week a child left an upturned drawing pin on my teacher’s chair. Creativity seemed dead. Simple-minded Lennie soon took his bullet.

The city contracted that winter. I wasn’t sleeping much anymore. When I did sleep, time jumped forward and the high-grilled gate would be rolling back almost immediately. So instead I would stay awake, my mind raging on the last seven hours I’d spent on the hill. Occasionally on a school night an acquaintance would invite me to a party. Drinking didn’t work though and I would excuse myself early – only to go home and pace the landing. Slowly during those claustrophobic evenings, a feeling grew that I needed to get out. Out into the night. Out into the hardening knot of frozen earth on the city limits and beyond. This was the time I began to run.

I lived at this time as the lone lodger in a spacious family townhouse. I occupied half of a hot attic, whilst the other room was taken by a heavy-sleeping two-month old baby. It must have been after nine on the first night that I decided to run because my floor-mate was already asleep. Out on the frosty streets I turned the opposite direction from my daily commute to the hill, running towards the Peak District.

It was darkness I needed. A private quietness. The dampening of light and the sharpening of thought. After 30minutes of gentle uphill running, I approached the entrance to the national park and the end of the suburbs. Street lights disappeared with the abruptness of a lone candle blown out.

In the darkness, gentler senses take over. I ran past a long rustling line of leaves. I ran past startled damp horse. I ran into rising wind until high above the city. Entanglements of mind began to be unpicked. An order was found as if waking from deep sleep.

And yet, if you do go into the night to examine a disquieted mind, there is another kind of darkness that you could also expect to find. As I turned and headed back, I began to recognise the darkness I’d been feeling all that long winter on the hill. It was the darkness behind the eyes of energy drinking children. The darkness of Steinbeck’s 1920s. The darkness of high-grilled gates, shop lifted perfume, shit decisions and incompetence. Out here, looking back down on the city I lived in, there was enough space now to put a name to it. This darkness on the hill was loneliness.

Well after midnight I crept back into my room just as the baby started crying through the wall.

There were more runs after that. They weren’t always at the dead of night, but it was good to know that clarity and calm waited out there on the long lanes. I began to tease out this sensation of loneliness a little more, chipping away at the daily violence of words and actions encountered on the hill. So often what emerged at the end of each run was the same shrivelled kernel of loneliness. But at least now it had a name.

In the last term we changed to non-fiction. We read adventure stories – escapist uplifting stuff –  penned well beyond the high-grilled gate and the limits of the northern city. Instead of zoning out to Daft Punk I now listened to Dylan before running. Mainly the angry protest stuff like “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and “Hurricane,” but also sober tracks too like “Don’t think twice, it’s all right.” It was my own time now to be travelling on.

Late that final school term, near the turn-around on one of my increasingly long runs, I thought about the drawing pin incident. I remembered the kids laughing. I remembered the blood stained paper towel in the waste bin. Yet most of all I reflected on the lone child who approached me quietly in the corridor some days later. “Did you know it was me?” he asked hopefully. That was my last long run in the northern city.

I moved around a lot over the next few years but I took running with me. I discovered that the long run was a place where I could unpack all sorts of other feelings, not just loneliness. I took my frustrations and restlessness regularly to this workbench. Here I would knock the blunt edges off noisy life – sometimes uncovering negativity that needed addressing. Sometimes revealing joy.

These days as a long distance runner, I rarely blow open any great feelings like I found during that winter in the northern city. If I return home with just a small truth about the way I’m feeling – there’s contentment in that. No great euphoria or sadness. Just a contentment in having found a way of living that feels better than standing still.

For all teachers who stick it out on hilltops

Issue 7 of Ultra magazine available now,

photo by Renato Cabral and not by me as incorrectly credited

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Cover shot issue 4 / Ultra

Cover shot for issue 4 of Ultra magazine accompanied my “Full Circle Patagonia” article, describing our attempt to run the classic 100km O Trek in one big wild day out – complete with pumas and glaciers and some rather spectacular scenery.

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The story behind the cover shot / Ultra magazine

Front cover Ultra mag

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Larking around with issue 2 of Ultra on day 4 of our recce. Kindly supplied by Ultra ed. Andy Nuttall

When you get your copy of the superlative independent UK running magazine, Ultra (issue 4) – you’ll read how we fastpacked a four day recce of the circuit before attempting the run. Torres del Paine was named the 8th Wonder of The World in 2013 and we wanted to experience it in all its mystery and majesty before attempting to push rudely round in just one day.

On the second day of the fastpack, we reached the top of the John Gardner pass – the highest point of the trek that usually takes 8 days to complete. Here we had our first view down to Glacier Grey – a leviathan of ice that runs hundreds of miles, swallowing mountains in its path. The temperature hovered around zero, and for about the fifth time that day I asked James:

“Mate, whip off your trousers and we’ll get a shot in our running shorts!”

“You can F*** right off if you think I’m stripping off for you here…”

There would be no time on the run to stop here, and I certainly wouldn’t be carrying any decent camera gear during the attempt. It was now or never.

Just at that moment, a porter emerged on the pass. I set the camera to continuous shooting mode, wacked up the F-Stop to pull the glacier in and got the poor chap squatting at an angle where the composition was right. We dropped our heavy rucksacks, grabbed the vests we would use for the 1 day push and started jogging with that comically high knee style that can help imply movement in running shots. The porter clearly thought we were lunatics – but fired away.

So, no man leaning out of a helicopter in a harness – just a couple of guys trying to share the adventure they were about to set out on – round one of the most spectacular trails on Earth.

And when we really did begin, it was 2am Patagonia time. Out there, on those moonlit trails, there was an even more shocking surprise than that great glacier – It was waiting for us, silently in the dark….

Here’s where you can read more.matt full circle (1)

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Running the 100km Patagonia O loop in 17hours / Ultra

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James and Me Idiots (1)On a miserable winter’s morning in Marshfield, England at around 10am in early 2014 our friendship was sealed.

We’d been running through driving rain and sodden trails since before dawn. Soaked to the skin, we’d been flexing our fingers back and forth to keep the circulation going since the first climb by moonlight onto Little Solsbury Hill. On reaching Marshfield High Street we were at the furthest outpost of our very long run.

Just then a delivery van came splashing down the deserted street, windscreen wipers raging, parking just in front of us. A small man lowered a misted window,  and with a wide grin spoke but one word:

Idiots

Taken aback at first; we soon laughed it off. Over the next three hours back to Bath Spa we tossed the phrase between ourselves. We discovered it was a generous fit for many situations in times past or escapades planned when the logic seems absent, but the experience so fulfilling.

In six days’ time my friend James will arrive here in Chile from the UK.

We planned the trip in February over Skype. Back then the South American summer was in full rage and it was more than 34°C on the cactus studded trails near my home at foot of the Andes. James punched in his passport details online then waited for his winter to warm up, spring to come and go and summer run its course.

Here in South America it’s getting warmer again now: the clouds are lifting from the summits; the bean plants are pushing through the soil of our vegetable patch once more and it’s time to go on an adventure…

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Photo © Graciela Zanitti | iloverunn.com.ar

At the very bottom of the South American continent – where the land draws thin, and the fiords wind two hundred mile tendrils into the mountains – that’s where they found Patagonia. There is no other land further south on the planet besides Antarctica. Adventurous travellers have long since travelled here – to the end of the world – to tackle the infamous Torres del Paine trek. There are swooping condors, glaciers the size of European countries and the black monolith towers after which the park is named. The 77mile hike is a full loop of the TDP massif and has over 6,000m of elevation gain. It usually takes 8-10 days. This November, James and I are going to give it a crack – hoping to run it all in one push.

Both now in our thirties, the trip can’t be filed away as a Gap Year adventure nor as a mid life crisis. It is just a frivolous trip where two friends have cleaved out some time from seemingly hectic lives to have a long run together in the mountains. And when we look back on it one day – we’ll hope we can we say we were idiots.

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