Story 7: Downhill


Dawn, in the Grampian Training Centre.

Alan Simpson stifled the insistent beep of his alarm chronograph and slumped back in the lower bunk. He listened to the silence, which was broken only by gentle birdsong. Eventually he prodded the figure above him until Graham stirred mumbled something inaudible and swung his legs over the side before stumbling off to the changing room for his kit. Alan followed more slowly, his limbs stiff as usual.

In the dry stagnant warmth of the changing room, there was no conversation beyond a few meaningful grunts. It was Sunday, a three session day for Graham. Alan would help with two of them – this ten mile preliminary and the pre-lunchtime speed-play on Balmedie Beach (part of the longest stretch of uninterrupted sand in Britain, according to John Merrill, who had walked three thousand miles right round the coast.). Alan loved running, close to the elements on the damp hard-packed sand, the roar of the North Sea breakers in his ears. Then ploughing up and over the yielding golden dunes, before swooping down like a parched cormorant on Newburgh, for a thirst-quenching pint of hand-pulled real ale from the pub. Early morning runs, however, got harder with the years.

With the keenness of youth, Graham was ready first and led the way outside. An unusual tawny glow was fading from the summer sky, and the sun’s disc hung, dazzling, low down to the east. After a few perfunctory stretching exercises, they jogged off down the deserted road.

The Grampian Training Centre had been the inspiration of Jim Simpson, Alan’s father, who had founded it after the IAAF had introduced cash prizes for athletes. Jim intended to spend time and money helping aspiring young runners, like Graham, to earn an honest living from their sport. The immediate target was the New York Marathon (first prize a hundred thousand dollars) – and Alan was helping out during the long summer vacation from his teaching job.

A mile down the road, the pace started increasing. After the usual grumbling and mutual promises to keep it easy, the two athletes were warming up. Sleep-cramped legs were regaining resilience, lungs expanding with fresh conifer-scented air. There were only five buildings on their route through this quiet rural area of North-East Scotland – all farms, one of which was mentioned in a 16th Century map. No human life stirred apart from the runners – Sunday morning means a long lie-in, even for most farmers. The road had a few steep climbs but Alan and Graham eased their way over the crests and relaxed into the dips.

Their run was in three parts: this initial stage; a timed five-mile burst on a hilly forest trail; and three miles steady warming down. Alan knew it wasn’t far to the hard part for him – to where he was meant to act as a pacemaker for Graham. He remembered with distaste an ageing coach who, for two whole years, had retarded the progress of a young runner, by insisting that he ran no faster than his own fading plod – not a precedent to follow. Glancing at Graham, he noted the broad chest, the easy swing of the arms and those elongated legs. It’s like jogging with a giraffe, he thought wryly.

Graham Fraser was just 22 years old and had been running for only four years. His progress had been rapid – to second in the National Cross-Country, 17th in the World Championships and first in the Scottish 10,000 metres. His only marathon had been a casual local affair which he had run as a training session, finishing unruffled in two hours nineteen minutes. Now, however, Graham was deadly serious about his next race – aiming at two hours twelve at the very least. In a couple of years time, old men like Taniguchi and Bordin, not to mention those Africans, had better look out.

Swinging into the forestry car-park, Alan moved in front, asked, “Ready?” without expecting a reply, pressed his stop watch as they passed the noticeboard and stretched immediately into full stride. The slender pathway varied considerably in smoothness: in some places it was carpeted with pine needles, an ideal surface; in others it was criss-crossed by treacherous tree-roots. The ground wasn’t hard, however, and Alan had become used to the undulations. He had never tripped or injured an ankle. It was like running down a long twisting tunnel with bare brown dusty walls and a ceiling of shifting green and blue and white. It was dark, yet light, with a profusion of natural life – wild flowers and mushrooms thriving in the damp atmosphere, birds, squirrels and the occasional roe deer. Alan could even remember hurdling a snake one day – a very high clearance!

Alan was working hard now, his knees lifting as high as they ever did (not a lot – he had always been a shuffler), this fists punching through and breath coming in deep controlled gulps. Behind him he could hear Graham’s light footfall and easy breathing. Still, at least he hadn’t had his heels stepped on yet – the pace must be okay. Gradually the path was meandering up the hillside in a series of little ups and downs to where the trees thinned out and heather took over. He cracked on a little more speed – only a few yards till the bottom of Millstone Hill, where Graham would move into the lead. Really, he was feeling good today, Alan thought – it must be the weather – so still with that pleasant hint of warmth in the air.

Abruptly the path turned right and the incline steepened. Graham cruised past and Alan slipped a couple of yards behind, but then, shortening stride-length, he leaned into the gradient and concentrated on maintaining the right tempo. For a while he managed to keep the same speed as the younger man, until breathing meant gasping, his thighs grew leaden with lactic acid and, against his will, he was forced to slow down a little. Graham’s lean sinewy legs drove remorselessly to the end of the seven-minute uphill stretch. Yet Alan fought on over the weather-beaten granite and black peat of the path, grinding steadily into the rising breeze that lurks on every hilltop, and was no more than ten seconds behind as Graham passed the summit cairn, switched into overdrive and loped away down the others side.

For the next half mile, Alan relaxed his effort slightly for several reasons. He still felt strong and fit, but Graham’s hill-running technique was far sounder than his had ever been – and there might be an accident if they jostled for the lead on that tortuous winding trail. Anyway, Graham would have no difficulty now, in pushing himself to the finish of the timed section.

As well as that, while Alan enjoyed running downhill at a moderate pace, trying to race down always seemed disastrous for his legs. He was 35 years old now, and in his youth had been able to hurtle down hills (road ones at least) but had usually run out of steam on the climbs. By the time he’d acquired the stamina to run uphill as well as anyone, his hamstrings had tightened, and he couldn’t charge down without straining something or other. All the loosening exercises he’d tried (too late) couldn’t compensate for the scar-tissue built up in those overstretched muscles. That was why he’d concentrated on the marathon, which is seldom on really hilly courses. He had raced many, won a few, run for his country (usually in unglamorous places where the ‘big boys’ didn’t want to go, like Holland or Northern Ireland) – and fulfilled most of his potential. He was fairly satisfied that his talent had not been better than his results – although he might have knocked a couple of minutes off his marathon best with the constant attention of a physiotherapist – Leslie Watson, the thinking runner’s pin-up, for instance. But he was past his peak and going downhill, from now on, would have to be taken at a sensible speed. Despite this acceptance of the inevitable, he could not repress some bitterness and a momentary envy of Graham’s more robust youth.

The main reason for slowing, however, was the best one – the scenery was breathtaking: all around the purple heather and the gaunt silhouette of the mountain called Bennachie with its startling shattered crest, a kestrel, wings outspread, hovering effortlessly above it; below, a sea of swaying pine-fronds, stretching down to the familiar patchwork of some of the best farmland in Britain, Donside, the river coiling lazily through the landscape, winding past the strange silver-topped hexagon of a new building, through Paradise Woods, well-named, and out of sight into the blue haze of the distant Cairngorm Mountains. Alan experienced the momentary exhilaration of a man at one with Nature, in harmony with his environment. Aberdeen, the so-called oil capital of Europe, was twenty miles away but could have been a million.

As he re-entered the forest and reached the last mile of broad, gently descending track, Alan found a new zest and vigour, and stretched out purposefully after the distant figure that was now two hundred yards in front. Revelling in the hard exercise, he tested his long-trained body at optimum pace for a few satisfying minutes, even managing to retrieve a few of the lost yards. They were 35 seconds apart when Graham slowed at Donview car-park and stopped his watch. Alan soon caught up and they strode the quiet country road together, down an avenue of luxuriant deciduous trees, along the riverside.

The ‘record’ for the five mile trail had gone to Graham by ten seconds, and Alan too was pleased to have kept going so well. Perhaps when he was 40 he might shake up those ‘veterans’ after all, he exulted. Yet he smiled at his own foolish optimism, reawakened so easily, on the basis of merely a mile or two of decent training. Chattering amicably, they rolled along the last miles. One of them occasionally broke into a sprint to surprise the other, or laughingly tried to imitate the more eccentric gaits of other runners.

They arrived, sweaty and glad to rest, but contented, at the Grampian Centre. There they were greeted by Alan’s father, before heading for a hot shower and a huge carbohydrate-packed breakfast.

Even for Alan, the run had been surprisingly smooth and untroubled – downhill all the way, as the saying goes.