In a bit of a break from the norm, sort of, I want to post up what is technically, I guess, an old running story. I thought I'd share as it's a chapter from the book I've written about how I went from not-running to running pretty far - I'm virtually ready to publish now, so I guess if anyone is interested in reading the whole thing, then it'll be around soon enough :)

I hope it's ok posting it here as a kind of toe-in-the-water to see if you guys like it. Anyway, here goes:

3

Two Beaches

Lessons #11-15

Sometimes, the most unassuming reasons to try something are also the best.

Preparation is not always a bad thing.

At some point, I’m going to go the wrong way. Suck it up and run.

Clean clothes are overrated.

Being mental might be quite fun.

"Hello Joe, it's me, uh and as you might be able to see, ah, I'm at Saunton. I just got here, ah... because the sky's pretty dark, maybe that you can see, it's just about five in the morning and I've beaten the sun here; the sun's coming up over that way in about two minutes. There's a lot of rain coming from that way that I'm going back to, um, but I wanted to send you the video because I think we can look back on this as the point where me, ah, where I lost it. This is the bit where Ben went round the bend..."

This is from the short mobile-phone video that I sent to my brother from a very windy, cold, Saunton Beach at, as I mention, about five in the morning of 15th July 2012. This was only around two or three months after I'd decided to start running a bit more, but I think that run ended up being a pivotal one in my mental growth as a runner.
Rewind around one week from that early-morning jaunt to Saunton and you find me on what had been my longest (and most prepared-for) run so far – 28km roughly following the nearby coastline from Barnstaple to another local beach at Woolacombe for their annual sandcastle competition. I say 'for' the sandcastle competition, and that's the reason I gave at the time, but I almost don't want to sully the memory of my real intentions by attaching such a just-about-socially-acceptable reasoning to the trip. Pretty simply, I ran there because I thought I might be able to.

Lesson #11
Sometimes, the most unassuming reasons to try something are also the best.

I'd been toying with the idea of pushing my distances up from the now-standard 12-15ish kilometres I'd been happily running. Since I'd been without even mild injury for a while, I'd started to feel more confident in my abilities—maybe even a combination of cocky at having 'beaten' these distances and just bored with feeling like I wasn't trying anything new any more. In spite of this, I was still firmly resisting the title of 'runner' to both myself and other people; I was still just casually running from place to place, as far as I was concerned.
However, the French have an expression that says 'love, a cough, smoke and money can never long be hid'; I'd add 'wanting to run a long way' to that. When a few of my friends had been talking about going to the sandcastle competition which was then in a couple of days' time, I almost didn't think before saying that I'd go and meet them there, on foot. Announcing my plan—so casually, too—unfortunately couldn't be ignored and this was the first time that I had to fit together my own insistence that what I was suggesting was perfectly normal with other people's reactions of disbelief. I also, with hindsight, see them almost looking at me differently as I unintentionally took the stage from being just a friend who casually runs to... something slightly different.
Of course, this initial reaction passed quickly (I seem to remember we were enjoying a few beers at the time) and conversation moved on with my plan back under the radar, until I showed up at one of my friends, Sophie's, house with a bag packed with clean clothes for me to wear after arriving at the competition. Dropping that bag off was probably more significant than I'd realised it was going to be—this would be the first time I'd committed, to myself or to anyone else, that I was going to run at a definite time, with a definite plan. Dropping that bag off meant that turning back on my decision would be a lot harder to do (maybe not exactly insurmountable should I have really wanted to back out, but compare that with the difficulty of just saying to myself "I'm not going out today").
This commitment wasn't the end of my preparation, it turned out. Of course, I had to let my friends know what sort of time I'd be arriving—this meant not only planning out my route and calculating the distance, but then putting some thought into how long it would take me to run that far. Even when I realised I'd have to think about this, before I sat down to hash it out, I started to feel naïvely uneasy at this requirement to start doing things that I'd heard and seen 'proper runners' doing. Even something as simple as figuring out an unfamiliar route seemed restrictive, although looking back, I see I was close to being a bit childish about this desire to under-prepare.
Eventually I brought myself to do it all, though, and found an online running site that would let me plan out a route and then send it to my phone, so I could follow it by GPS. I also bought a small running water bottle, to add to my begrudgingly-growing collection of runner's paraphernalia, and filled it with a free sample of electrolyte drink that I'd received with my FiveFingers (I remember I was only taking the drink to use it up, though—who needed in-run electrolyte refuelling?). With that and some cash in my pocket, I was set. It makes me smile now to think about how that between clean clothes, a sports drink and a few quid, I was the most prepared I'd ever been for a run; it almost makes me think that there's some kind of genuine Zen lesson in that statement somewhere.

Lesson #12
Preparation is not always a bad thing.

I didn't need to start particularly early in the day to get to the competition on time, so I had a nice mid-morning start to the run, which started out covering the same section of cycle path between my home and work, that I’d covered many times before. Although I didn't have any real strategy for the run to speak of, I did try to keep my pace reasonably slow on this first, flat portion—so far, so good. I ate up the first 10km without really even thinking about it. Unfortunately, that's where things started to get a little more interesting.
As I hadn't been used to running with my phone for a GPS before, I was still enjoying the novelty of following my progress as a thin red line on a screen, following the blue of my planned route. Although it probably wasn't healthy for my running to be frequently fiddling with the display and checking my inexorably slow progress across the map, it at least meant that I noticed fairly quickly when the GPS signal got lost—the first moment of what would turn out to be it staying lost for the remainder of the run. On the plus side, I knew the general direction I was supposed to be heading in (the fact that the route could be summed up by 'keep the sea on your left' for most of the later parts helped), but unfortunately there were a fair number of winding country roads to negotiate before I got to the easy part of the directions, which I could at least remember as 'golf course, footpath, coastal path' when I got there.
Not so much worried as exasperated, I carried on in what I assumed to be the right direction, being forced to think less about my running itself and more about which way I was supposed to be turning at each junction. After about twenty minutes of this, I (rather anticlimactically) found the golf course.
It had turned out that the more difficult-to-guess part of the route, the part I was most concerned about, was fairly straightforward; unfortunately, the easy-to-remember next part was also easy-to-get-wrong. I arrived at Saunton Golf Course, which sits nestled inbetween the nearby marshland, fields and dunes from Saunton Beach, and immediately saw footpath signs. Stupidly, I ignored or didn't even notice that the footpath in question was heading west, towards the sea, when I wanted to be heading north, parallel to the beach.
Although I didn't realise my mistake at first, I soon started to think that something was up by the fact this 'footpath' had started to turn into a twisting, sandy track cut through distinctly beachy-looking flora. My error was sealed when I eventually crested a particularly tall bump in the path to emerge from the dunes and find myself on the long, sandy expanse that is Saunton Beach—around 2km south from where I wanted to be!

Lesson #13
At some point, I’m going to go the wrong way. Suck it up and run.

Undeterred, I gathered myself and started running along the beach to where I knew I could rejoin the main road and (hopefully) get back onto the coastal path fairly easily. Fairly sure now that I was behind time to meet my friends, I started to push my pace a little, just hoping that the extra bit of exertion wouldn't have too much of a negative effect on how I was feeling. In fact, I found myself enjoying the feeling of pushing myself on the damp sand's forgiving surface.
From the beach I found my way up onto the main road fairly easily, but the traffic on its several blind corners meant that it was unsafe to follow for too far. Mentally, it was on to the next task—figure out a way up onto the next stretch of coastal path and away from the main road as soon as possible.
Again, what I thought would be the difficult part of the plan ended up being fairly straightforward—from the main road, it was only a short distance to another footpath that led up onto a hilly set of fields overlooking the danger of the cars and linking up with the actual coastal path a way ahead. And, again, the easy part—actually following the fotpath—turned out tough as it ascended into a nightmare of boggy mud, herds of overly-inquisitive cows and finished with sliding down a final muddy slope on my backside after losing my footing on the slick surface. Just to top it off, as soon as I slid to a halt, a perfectly-friendly and well-meaning pair of hikers came around a corner just ahead of me and took great interest in what my FiveFingers were like to run in. I told them what I knew and gave them what was even by then becoming a somewhat-rehearsed short version of my reasons for minimalist running... they seemed genuinely interested and talked about how they were both considering trying it, but I'm not sure whether they would have had the same enthusiasm if they'd have seen my preceding tumble!
From there, though, luckily the run was fairly straightforward. I paused at another beach, adjacent to Woolacombe, to pick up my first ever mid-run scavenging refuel: a chocolate bar and juice to replace my now-empty bottle of electrolyte potion. Pleasantly re-energised by the food and by the rest I took to eat it, I set off at an easy, fresh pace around the final cliff-top point and along another seemingly-endless beach to where the competition was being held. Since then, when I've been out running with a friend of mine, Luke, along beaches, we've contemplated the pros and cons of running along the shoreline like this—on the one hand, the sand feels great, is conducive to great running form and helps build fitness brilliantly; on the other, it's so hard to tell how far you've come or got to go due to the featureless sand. Running the final stretch of beach into Woolacombe almost started to feel like an empty limbo—peaceful, sure, but as there were no points of reference aside from a very-distant town becoming gradually a bit less-very-distant, it was also getting perilously close to being soul-destroying!

When I eventually reached the sandcastle competition, which was being held in the vicinity of the main town part of Woolacombe, I didn't immediately reflect on it being any kind of achievement—I just felt great. I had a few minutes before my friends arrived, which I spent wandering around the town, not feeling particularly hard-done by the run there. My legs still felt fairly fresh, but more pleasingly I didn't feel like my breathing was laboured or my heart was bursting out of my chest—score one for moderate pacing! Although I knew I'd run further than I'd ever run before, the naïve part of me that shucked anything too prepared or complicated was also satisfied that I'd done it with only a little extra preparatory effort to accompany the actual 'putting one foot in front of the other'.
Eventually, my friends arrived, sporting bigger smiles than I'd been expecting (if I'd been expecting anything) and full of congratulations. It took me the rest of our time there, pacing around the sandcastles and eating ferociously hot beach-side prawns, until the thought started to work its way into my head that the reason they were smiling and asking me so many questions about the run there—'how long did it take?', 'don't your feet hurt?'—was that I'd done something more out of the ordinary than I believed. I certainly didn't think I warranted too much praise—I hadn't even run a marathon distance, I'd stopped for fuel along the way, I'd gotten horrendously lost and had had to explain a perfectly-positioned dirty brown smear on the back of my shorts from my muddy slide (as is perfect and unavoidable in this kind of situation, Sophie had forgotten the bag with my clean clothes in).

Lesson #14
Clean clothes are overrated.

In spite of my rationalisations, something had clicked inside me. Well, a few things—I knew I could run further than I'd previously been trying to without too much difficulty and still have enough reserve energy in the tank to tackle problems along the way that might make the going longer or more taxing. My desire for simplicity in my running had been introduced to the idea that just a little bit of preparation could make for a very good, fun run and so maybe planning wasn't that bad. I'd also been given positive reinforcement that going out and running not for the running itself, but for the idea of getting somewhere, could be very rewarding.
I hadn't had a problem with nailing my colours to the mast about doing something a bit unusual and committing to doing it, so what else, I wondered, could I do using running as a tool to get there?

After a couple of days of recovery from the run to Woolacombe on the Sunday, I was itching to get out again. I ran a couple of shorter-length runs around the park near my house, but I kept coming back to thinking about the enjoyment I'd had from my excursion around the coast (this was shortly before I pretty much stopped running anything less than 5km at a time, as I started to feel like it was a bit pointless to even go out the door otherwise). It came to Saturday afternoon before I had the next idea for a run, which was to watch the sun rise on the beach. Since it was summer, the sun would be rising pretty much at the earliest it was going to through the year (around 5am), meaning that I would rarely have to rise as early to do it. Almost because of this extra aspect, I must have figured I couldn't make the plan any more difficult – so I decided there was no time like the present and settled on going out that night.
I traced out the route from the previous Sunday's run and estimated that it would take me around an hour and a half to get to the beach at Saunton again, followed by a different route home that would come back partly along the main road (which I hoped would be a lot quieter at that time of the morning) and through another nearby village for a route that was around 25km in total.
With literally a few hours to go before I would have to set off, this time constraint happily forced me into minimal preparation. I decided on taking just a handheld water bottle, torch, a phone and some cash, knowing that I'd be able to pick up some food from a small newsagents along the way back if I desperately needed to.
That evening, I had a 'social engagement' already planned with a few friends and although I didn't exactly party hard (it also being the first time I had to explain this sobriety using running as a reason, getting some fairly quizzical looks from my friends), I didn't get to bed until about 11.30pm. Once there, the act of setting my phone's alarm for 3am was the first thing to actually give me pause over what I was plotting to do; the screen helpfully pointing out that this alarm would go off in around three and a half hours' time. Thanks for that.
A little doubt started to creep in at this point, not about whether I could do such an early morning jaunt, but over whether there was any point. Afterwards, when people asked me why I went, the answer of 'to watch the sun rise' seemed to make less sense, almost raising more questions; luckily at 11.30pm on that Saturday, this answer was enough to renew my faith and get me off to sleep.
It felt like approximately five seconds had gone by before my alarm started going off. Although I'm normally a snooze-button addict, I've fortunately always been able to at least remember I'm supposed to be getting out of bed for something especially important. Thanks to this, I was up and tackling my 'preparation pile' (easily mistaken for a pile of clothes slung on my bedroom floor) within a few minutes and blearily made my way to the kitchen. Here, I was greeted by the first stark reminder that I was doing something a little strange – my flatmate, Ben, getting in from the same night out that I'd joined him on a few short hours before.
In the classic manner of two very sleepy or very drunk men, we exchanged a few mumbled greetings and 'good luck's before he dove into bed and I dove into a cup of strong, black, sugary coffee. I stupored my way through a couple of slices of toast and, pretty much on autopilot, found myself standing on my front step a few minutes later.
There, I took a few moments to mentally centre myself. The coffee and food was already starting to wake me up a bit and it did feel good to be breathing in some cold fresh air. The dark briskness of the air was only stopped from being completely tranquil by the residual noises of people making their way home through the town after various nights out, but if anything this helped me to visualise a personal deception: I wasn't going for a run at 3.30 in the morning, it was simply an evening run after a day at work. I took a final heavy breath to watch it hang in the air and then I set off.
The simple act of running soon warmed me up against the chill of the night and I was thankfully distracted further from the cold by the local 'social wildlife'. I've never been much of a clubber anyway, but it was an experience to be running, stone cold sober, through groups of the local clubs' clientèle, who ranged from stumbling around drunk, to fumbling around with each other in the dark shadows that lined the path, apparently far from normal people's eyes. I chuckled to myself that I was only (reluctantly) privy to these trysts because that night, I wasn't a 'normal' person.
Soon, I was running along the cycle path out of town – my first time running in near-complete darkness – and I'd never felt so alone. My own steady breathing was the only sound now and my eyes kept darting to every movement by the side of the path. Oddly, I wasn't particularly afraid of having to deal with possible unfriendly acquaintances along the way, but the darkness gave my more primal instincts a firmer grip on the reins, keeping me overly alert to any moving shadows.
Constantly running into the small pool of torchlight ahead of me was a novel experience in itself – because I couldn't see much more than a few feet in front of me, it helped me to very much focus in the present. The effect was almost meditative and I found it very easy to fall into a rhythmic loop of placing one foot after the other, not worrying about how far I'd come, or had left to go. I was able to find good form and run not only fairly quickly, but fairly easily too – it almost became as if I was a passenger on this journey, just 'sitting tight' until I got there.
The first few kilometres were over before I'd really begun to think about it and because of the time of night, I'd been virtually undisturbed, other than by a couple of people making their way home who were equal parts merry and terrified when I came padding out of the darkness.
I came to the spot where my GPS had given up the ghost the week before and allowed myself a smile as I checked my watch to get an idea of my pace (this was in my pre-Garmin days). I was still on track to get to Saunton for 5am. Good. I knew the route, knew it was flat and I was feeling very strong. I pressed on and started to really relax into my running. Because the sun was starting its final approach towards rising, I was gradually able to see around me more easily and take in more of the scenery as it started to get a little lighter. As the pre-dawn light began to cast fields and buildings in slate and navy, I started to remember why I enjoyed running in the first place; I enjoy seeing things I wouldn't have seen otherwise, or seeing them in a different or unusual way.
I got to the golf course in what seemed like no time at all and I was soon making my way beyond it along the foot-rollercoaster that was the undulating sandy path through the dunes. Soon, it was light enough for me to ditch the torch and as I did, 'Natural-runner Ben' came out to play – dispensing with even this basic bit of technology made me feel a burst of freedom and I started quickening my pace.
At that point, it all came together. Both physically and mentally, everything clicked: my breathing was comfortable; my pace, form and cadence all felt great and inside, I knew at this point that I'd made it—the sun was still a way from rising and I wasn't far from the beach. All of this together filled me with a great sense of joy and I was soon starting to laugh as I ran, almost sprinting up each mini-ascent and virtually bounding down each downhill.
I reached the larger rise that bordered the beach and it was there that I became aware of my own exuberance, which spilled over when I hit record to send Joe the video message. Sure, the run back home was beautiful, passing lone surfers on their way to catch an early wave, passing a couple out training a nervous pair of young huskies to pull a wheeled sled and enjoying the misty beauty of the early morning; it was that moment of watching the sun rise at Saunton, though, that was by far the most important to me. Right then, I realised that I'd achieved something that I thought was on the limits of my physical ability, dreamt up by something towards the edge of my mental attitude. If I could do something like this after only a few weeks of making an effort with running, what other more incredible things might I be able to do?

Lesson #15
Being mental might be quite fun.

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Comment by Ben Brewer on May 26, 2014 at 3:56pm

Jacbo, that's fantastic - it feels pretty good, right? You are very welcome, I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

Comment by Jacob Cossairt on May 25, 2014 at 2:32pm

This post inspired me to walk/run to and from a 5K race that I ran Saturday instead of driving the 1.5 miles each way.  Thanks!

Comment by Ben Brewer on April 27, 2014 at 11:44am

You're all too kind guys, thanks - Eric no worries at all man, I figured that'd be the case :) Publication deadline can be flexible over the next couple of months, if we can figure something out then that'd be awesome.

Comment by Lori Enlow on April 26, 2014 at 2:32pm
great read! I plodded right along with you just like I were there ;) Thank you for sharing!
Comment by Eric Orton on April 26, 2014 at 12:26pm

Awesome.  Sorry I have been MIA, much to do for my Chinese edition.  When is your pub deadline?

Comment by Ben Brewer on April 26, 2014 at 8:02am

Thanks Robert, that means a lot :)

Pretty close, the body of the book is finished, so it's now about getting it together for publication; probably self-published or similar to start with, but I'll put out a small post when it's done to let everyone know... I'm never one for pushing things like this into people's faces too hard, but I'll make sure everyone knows :)

Comment by Robert Burpee on April 26, 2014 at 4:53am

Ben, well done in my minds eye I know the topography, colours, light, plant life, in fact the whole run to the sunrise through your writting. Lesson #14, "Clean clothes are overrated" in particular bought your run on that early morning completely to life, I was with you as you ran, my senses atuned to the dark progressing along the path towards the sunrise.

Thank you for sharing, how close are you to putting the book together?

Best of luck with the book. Robert

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The Cool Impossible: Run Beyond Limits

 
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