From The Cold

Entry by: Alex Fleet

26th December 2014
Two hours ago, Emily had been tucked up warm in bed with her husband and two small children. They had dozed together in the waking hour, arms round each other, warm and safe. The morning before, the bed had been strewn with presents from an over-generous Father Christmas.

Now, Emily struggled to control a panic attack as she desperately held onto her breath, wanting so much to scream and get out from the freezing water she was engulfed in, submerged in, trapped in. On all sides around her were cold concrete walls: painful grit beneath her knees. She felt the flailing legs of the person in front: they nearly kicked her in the face as they levered up out of the water and left her free to move forwards. She wanted desperately to raise her head out the water, draw precious breath, but knew she had to surface with her hands raised above her head to warn her of the barbed wire. Further back along the tunnel she could feel the hands of the person close behind her and knew she had to get out their way quickly. She surfaced, gasped for air and at the same time cleared her eyes of the brown muddy water, reached forward for the rough timber edge and pulled herself upwards out the water. The shards of ice cut her bare legs and for a moment she paused to pull her t-shirt off a barb of wire she had moved too close to.

Then she was free of the frigid water and running again, the forest around her loud with the sound of the pursuit, shouts amongst the trees, the sound of running feet, her own feet stumbling through the mud, across the tree roots, in one place running on the slippery ridges alongside the ruts in the track created by the heavy lorries that would occasionally heave themselves along through the trees. A few yards further on, she was back amongst the undergrowth, running hard, her breath laboured but in control. A figure was in front, their breath clouds of mist like a steam train. Behind her a line of muddied figures disappeared into the distance, but she was focused on those in front, bobbing heads, appearing and disappearing in the dips and turns of the path.

Emily focused on a figure thirty feet ahead - Neal, a squat figure with chunky muscles and a determined, relentless pace. There were a half dozen other runners between Emily and Neal. As the person directly in front stepped to one side to avoid a muddy spot, Emily sloshed straight through and was then up behind the next person. One by one she squeezed past other runners and was nearly at Neal when they arrived at a wall of logs. Emily hit the log wall the same time as Neal lifted up and they reached the top together.

They jumped down the ten feet on the other side and ran abreast across a broad field, a steady upwards slope for two hundred yards. Inevitably it was now a race. Emily had run with Neil before and knew his pace. She matched it, they spared a sideways grin at each other, both knew there was no breath left for greetings. Sure enough, Neil didn't slacken. But Emily knew she had a little left in the pot and as they approached the fence beneath the trees she gently opened the lid a bit more and accelerated away. She could hear Neil's footsteps close behind as she jumped down beyond the fence and turned briefly to grin at Neil. He returned with a breathless laugh and smile and she knew she could not stop. He must not now catch her up.

This is what drove her. Take the challenge. Take the risk. Know that once she was past Neil she must not slacken. She ran with a smile. She looked for the next victim to overhaul and there on the skyline a hundred yards ahead, a hundred feet above her, was her next target.

Up the slippery slope, pausing only to help her friend as she started sliding back down a bare part of the hill, her trainers scrabbling for a grip.

In the slowness of the ascent Emily could smell the smoke from the woodfire she had just run through and the stench of the mud she had waded through a couple of yards after that. This time it had come up above her knees and she had fallen forward into it, floundering in the gooey muck. As she paused for a quick breath at the top, she could scent her own scent, heavy with the hard running. Then she was running once more, feeling light and effortless, her breathing controlled, the chill air refreshing and tingling. Her hands were almost warm, too. She always had problems with her hands but the gloves she wore seemed to be adequate. Her feet were surprisingly not too uncomfortable, albeit wet and muddy.

She had never enjoyed cross country at school and found it strange that now it was something she got a great adrenalin kick out of. She looked forward to a respectable time today. The course took her towards a great beech tree, brought down in the recent gales and now put to good use as yet another obstacle. She scrambled through the great limbs, under, over, round, past slower runners who opted for a slightly different route past the upper sections of the tree. Then monkey bars across yet another muddy pond and finally electric alley. Bare wires hanging down from wood battens. They brushed against her bare arms as she walked carefully through. Then, an unseen finger tripped the switch and she screamed despite herself then laughed as the zizzles of zaps leapt down her bare arms and legs. Another dip in a deep cold stream had made sure she was well and truly wet, to ensure an ecstatic electric experience.

Ahead of her was her next target: Annie. The respected Annie who always was first in. But not today. Today was going to be Emily's day. There was a half mile to go. Gradually she mad ground on the last tortuous uphill grind. At the haybales she was five yards behind. Emily didn't slacken her pace as she leapt to bales to the top and down the other side. They hit the ground at the same time. Annie glanced sideways at Emily, a look half-annoyed and half surprised. Emily knew Annie would not let her win. It was a sprint. Rasping tearing breath. The chill air felt like an ice saw being forced in and out of her mouth. Emily's legs screamed at her. Her arms were heavy. She wanted to stop. But she was a hair's breadth ahead of Respected Annie. Today would be her day.

Three minutes later she was clutching her sister and her kids, a big family hug. Mud all over them, but they didn't care. Lovely warm arms around her. Warm, warm smiles. Emily looked around: her husband Mark was just coming in through the water slide before the finish line. They headed for the car. Her Mum was sitting there and slid the door open as Emily arrived and a waft of warm air slid out from the car to greet her, envelope her. Emily grinned as they sat down on the floor and peeled off her muddy trainers and socks and compared mud levels with Mark.

"Shower, I think" she laughed, at Mark. "A long hot soak" he replied, "In hot water this time. Then back to a warm bed!"

"Yes, Come in from the cold, dear" her mum fussed at Emily. "You must be frozen. Poor dear," she said, glaring at grinning Mark as if it was his fault.