Train Of Thought

Entry by: Alex Fleet

17th July 2015
Training in the Raining

So here I am, slowly puffing my way up the old track, my piston-arms urging me forwards, upwards, the relentless slope gradually wearing me down, making me push harder as the gradient seems to steadily increase, trying to slow me down.

My breath steams in the cold of the early morning. My rhythm is hypnotic, the noise of my progress the only thing I can hear, the sounds of my laboured breathing and my straining piston-legs reflected from the tree-cloaked slopes of the railway cutting I am slowly making my way along. I know that beyond my own noise there is only the sound of the rain pattering on the track in front of me, pattering down heavy from the leaves of the trees surrounding me. The curve of the track ahead slowly reveals more of itself as I move towards it, the distant trees - faint in the rain and the pre-dawn greyness - become clearer as I near them and then pass by, to then spy further trees and slowly pass them too.

The slow pace gives me time to think. I need to think, to take my mind off the hard, hard work I am doing. Really I want to stop and get my breath back, but I am on the point of finding my pace which I will then be able to maintain for a while. For long enough.

I picture myself not in this lonely quiet place but in the centre of London, amongst the other runners, their warmth and scent surrounding me, jostling me, pushing me towards the start line where I will run for real; not hidden on an old railway track weaving through the deserted countryside, but in the open air under the wide sky as we pass over the Thames, surrounded by hundreds of others, any number of whom are doing exactly the same as I’m doing now.

But here, now, I’m by myself, training in an abandoned railway cutting digging deeper into the countryside as I progress along it, the fields now far above me. I feel that it I am heading into the bowels of the earth itself, and sure enough around the next bend a dark hole appears, a tunnel at the foot of a sheer cliff of stone and scraggy bushes.

As I near the blackness my knowledge that the path continues safely within is overwhelmed by the greater knowledge that as I run into the tunnel’s mouth I will be swallowed by the dark maw and plunged downwards, deep into the earth’s guts, never to see light ever again. I always feel like this. But finally today I stride towards my fate without hesitation and abruptly I am enclosed in the dark, cold dampness.

All is black. And noisy with my own sound. There is only the sound of my feet, relentlessly pounding, the sound echoing and re-echoing around me, bouncing away further down the tunnel and back again. I run in the dark knowing that unless there is a stray branch randomly on the path it is safe to run in my blindness. I close my eyes for the thrill of it, but it actually makes no difference. I am used to the tunnel now: my senses are fine-tuned. I can hear from the echoes if I move from the centre line. But apart from my own relentless noise, there is nothing except the feel of my feet pounding the gravel and the smell of damp mustiness of the stale air. It is just me and my thoughts. It is a strange, surreal experience. Somehow the thoughts seem bigger, amplified. The worrying thoughts are frightening, the frightening thoughts are terrifying. There is no room for nice thoughts in this forgotten tomb where no-one knows that I am running.

Then finally there is dim light from a ventilation shaft a way ahead. Very soon I am beneath it, a tall chimney of ancient brick with ferns hanging from it like a night-time Babylon, at its top a small circle of light. Then into the dark again. Somehow it seems darker now, more final. Eventually, the brickwork far ahead begins to glow, reflecting damp glistens of water. The end of the tunnel. As I near it, I cannot see beyond the black circle of the tunnel end, because of the contrast of the light beyond. Finally though, details become clear, and suddenly I am spat out of the tunnel and it is like being reborn.

There is warmth, cosy dry warmth, and sound. On this other part of the hill the rain has stopped. The sound of the birds in the trees surrounds me, to my sides and above, in this suntrap of the cutting where it now faces the rising sun and its heat, focused into this unseen miniature world. The colours all of a sudden are vivid in the rain-cleansed air. The greens are bright and fresh in the morning light, the leaves fine and healthy, the birds flying among them bright and cheerful. I stop. I look around at the sheer beauty. I feel the breath filling my lungs as I look up at the clear blue sky, I feel my feet solid on the floor supporting my weight, ready to take me further, to carry me for miles if I ask them to.

There is the scent, too. The scent of fresh air charged with unseen ions, the tingle as it brushes past me charged with the freshness of the new day. I can smell the leaves as they dry out in the sun, the smell of the wild flowers next to the track; the earth and gravel beneath my feet.

For a full minute I savour this new world. But it’s the same world as anywhere else. Just without the horribleness. I move on, build up my pace again on lightened feet and soon I am at the old station. It’s a restaurant now, serving hikers and bikers. Too early for it to be open, I have taken my own refreshments.

Like the ancient steam engines who like me worked the long slope from the valley floor, I take on water and fuel. After a few minutes to get my breath, I start off again, back down, retracing my steps. Down through the tunnel, back out into the cutting beyond, the journey taking half the time, my legs clattering down at speed, just like the engines would have cheerfully rattled their way down the slope. This time though the sun is just peeping round the corner of the hill and the cutting on the downhill side is now bright with reflected light from the topmost trees. As the track emerges from the cutting, the view opens out before me and now it is clothed in the gentle morning sun.

I find my thoughts suddenly more positive, the chemicals in my body now surging energetically through my skull, waking me up, making my brain work. Magic!

I turn into the end of my street grinning. At my garden gate I pause and look back up at the hill. An old fella shuffles past. For him, the end of the street is his limit. Far up on the hill, I can just see the line of the cutting, etched into the hillside like a giant’s scratch on its surface. I will never take it for granted, this freedom to run far into the distance.