I’ve started reading Michael Hutchinson’s The Hour, a treatise, albeit a light-hearted one, of the hour cycling record. This gold-standard cycling event is en velo at its purest: a rider, a track, a single-speed racing cycle and the clock.
The book opens with author demonstrating fabulous form tearing around Manchester’s velodrome. Outside it’s February and cold and bleak as this Northwest city can be, but inside the home of British Cycling (for now, at least) Hutchinson is following a sublime line on the track’s steep banks.
Despite being near the limits of his physical capabilities, Hutchinson talks of a state of ‘almost concentration’. He claims never to have found ‘any other way of fully engaging mind and body’ and notes that it’s a very personal sensation: ‘It’s all about you, and even if others can understand it, they can’t feel it.’
It’s a rather lovely passage and struck a chord with me.
Let me be clear, I am no athlete, never have been. I dabbled with rugby for a while in accordance with my premature and ungainly heft. I ran 100 and 200 metres before the physiological advantages of my youth (lanky limbs) were thwarted by shoddy fitness.
Despite this, I do understand that deeply uplifting sensation of fitness and physical ability. To be in possession of it, and currently I am not, leads to a more profound enjoyment of the outdoors.
Yes, one can drive, park, walk a few hundred yards and enjoy a sense of isolation and connection with surroundings, certainly in Scotland. But this is an incomplete experience for me: Much better to gain that solitude by foot or cycle and develop a keener perspective of your surroundings. All senses are tuned in to the environment.
To lack fitness hampers this state of ‘almost-concentration’. I’m not talking about feeling a bit out of puff, either, but the constant ‘reminder’ of injury. Pain can be the great inhibitor.
Accordingly, pain provides a valuable focal point: Living with it crystallises those experiences when you are without it.
A few years ago, and three months after back surgery, I went to Lakes. It was June, before the summer holidays and I drove to Langdale midweek and pitched the big tent in at the National Trust site.
The weather was stunning and, bottle of malt to hand, I had a wonderful evening watching the sky redden and (repeatedly) toasting my good health.
The previous six months had been branded in my memory, leaving scars. I may have been heavily dosed on Codeine or fuggy surviving on an average of on hour’s sleep a night, but I could still recall the searing agony of my lower back and the electric shock shooting down my right leg. No position was comfortable. I lost four-and-a-half stone.
The following day I climbed the Pikes. I flew up Mickleden, my body perfectly balanced, my limbs moving effortlessly. I danced across the bog of Martcrag Moor, clambered to the top of Pike O’ Stickle and sat cross-legged to absorb the scene.
The busy Lakeland valley was quiet. I could hear the sheep in the fields far below, I heard the bus trundling up the valley before I saw it. I started to cry (what a wuss!)… Tears of joy.
I dropped from my perch and visited all the Pikes, simply because I could. Off Pavey Ark I carried on walking, revelling in the freedom of movement. Absorbed in unhindered activity, I started off down the wrong path to Grasmere along Easedale Gill. After a few moments I realised my error but rather than turn back, I ran down the valley to a path junction and, hitting a right, headed up to Easedale Tarn. Now losing the light, I skirted the tarn and climbed the steep path up to Blea Rigg.
With Stickle Tarn now in view, I found a familiar path and headed back to Langdale at dusk. I grabbed a couple of pints of Black Sheep in the ODG and sat outside, alone, smiling.