I've had a pain inside my knee when running for the past few days. M reckons it's coming from the muscle that feeds the knee, and to prove the point last night administered the thumb of death into the soft tissue and then grinned when I shot off the sofa screaming.
Today, mindful of this, I gathered up the mutts and, after dropping L at school, headed off to the open country to run. Ted has decided not to do road runs either as the number of squirrels in the lane-side trees has dropped off annoyingly recently, so he was pleased as punch, so much so that he very enthusiastically sang me the song of his people from the car boot most of the way there.
It was cold. 3 degrees. I dithered about clothing and went for leggings and a long-sleeved top. Half way round I bitterly regretted this and wished I'd opted for a tee shirt instead. I run in a beanie hat and gloves once the weather cools and find this usually negates the need for long sleeves.
The grass was wet and cold, traced through with fine silver lines, evidence of the night time ramblings of badger, bunnies, deer and fox. As we reached the top of the first hill a buzzard flew from the ash stand, floating out silently across the chill air above the Chalk on broad, creamy-brown wings.
Half-way down the hill, a roe buck stood like a sentry staring into the dark heart of the Old Green Lane at something only he could see. Poppy, unable to resist, shot off after him. He remained motionless for a moment longer before springing to life and leaping away.
Ted and I ran more cautiously down the hill - mindful of our knees - and at the bottom where the track swings left into the next field met Pop coming back the other way, deerless and tongue lolling from her efforts to catch up with it. My observation, after living with Poppy for three years, is that Jack Russells have no concept that they are a mere twelve inches off the ground. In their heads they are lions.
The track winds along the base of the field, hugging the hedge which is splashed alternately yellow and green as field maple and hazel burst out of their uniform summer emeralds into the riotous carnival of Autumn. Elder leaves curl upwards here and there along the length of the hedge, pale fingers on thin boughs twisting up in supplication to desiccate in the cooling breath of the dying year and fall crisply to the earth.
The dogs and I run on, negotiating with care the tractor ruts at the edge of the kale field that pull at ankles and threaten injury (or perhaps, with their requirement for vigilance, encourage nimble last-minute leaping). A small, sad, undisturbed pile of soft, dove-grey feathers commemorates the spot where the female Sparrowhawk breakfasted this morning: a pigeon, consumed with efficient economy in the lee of the field.
The track begins to climb slowly now. At present it offers merely a gentle hint of what is to come. My breathing, well-trained, moves up smoothly from three-in, three-out, to a more even in-out-in-out, keeping pace with the land. The thin strip of woodland passing in a joggy blur to our right is all that is left of the huge forest that once spread right across these fields. Until fifty years ago. I've seen the maps that record its heyday and display the terrible aftermath of its destruction. They make for sobering observation and I mourn the loss of the trees every time I come this way.
The wood has been home to badgers for centuries and this morning there are several small, conical pits puncturing the grass along its edge that weren't there yesterday. Little neat piles of disturbed earth lie beside each one, and in the bottom of the pits, ribbons of grassy white roots like single strands of bleached hair. I smile as I run on, imagining the black-and-white bears of the night coming out of their wood into the field to truffle up the roots and earthworms they unearth in their holes. A badger's nose is an implement all by itself.
We leave the sett behind and, turning the corner, see the hill stretching away in front of us. It isn't steep as such but it is relentless; a long, slow, steady incline that goes on and on and on. When you're running, it seems like it will never stop. It isn't all that long ago that I wasn't able to run up its entirety, and I reflect on this as I slow my pace, feel a different muscle group engage (the one I've been working on with all those lunges in the garden) and my breath responds again, shifting gear once more with the gradient as the incline begins to bite and my heart starts working properly: eventually, thunderously.
Poppy, blessed with dynamite in her paws, shoots effortlessly up the hill making it look easy. She disappears into the wood where she has time to put up five or six pheasants before I catch up with her and call her out. Ted, out of kindness and solidarity, tucks in behind me and trots along whispering encouraging words.
When we reach the top my heart is thundering in its cage of ribs. But the sense of achievement as we turn and look back down the hill from where we have come! A rattling heart is a small price to pay. We don't look for long, because the track is at our feet calling us ever on, so we turn, duck through the gap in the blackberry hedge, hop the stile, jump the trunk of the fallen tree and run on down the gravel track, which was once a Roman road but is now the way to a farm.
I am thinking about Roman boots as we peel off right into a field where tall cover crops grow. It is here that Ted got lost in the summer. He emerged half an hour later covered in bits of greenery looking sheepish. Neither of them stop to investigate the crop now - they know we are On A Run and stopping isn't an option. They do, however, pause at the intersection of three fields a little further down, looking right where they know we usually go. Yesterday I took them on into another field and now they aren't Quite Sure which way to go, so they wait for me.
Pop is very quick. She glances over at me and can tell from the way I'm not slackening my pace that we're carrying on. Ted requires a small verbal reassurance before he too is off, heading down the path towards the wood.
We cross over the woodland track, oaks ablaze with Autumn fire, and run on into a second kale field, where a tall woman with long grey hair is drifting through the early morning light following the dewy path. I blink in the sunlight and wonder for a moment if she's a spirit sent for All Soul's Day, but her smile and sturdy Good Morning as we run past, as well as her solid black Lab rootling in the earth by her feet, convince me she's flesh and blood.
Pop and Ted stop for a longer introduction (which I am afraid involves bottoms, in the Way Of Dogs) and then reluctantly leave their new friend whose hackles are bristling in any event at the Dual Terrier Sniff Approach, and career down the path after me. Pain-free in the knee department and now at 4k I figure sufficient warm-up care has been taken to let fly and the three of us race one another to the bottom. Poppy wins and I come a close third.
Steadying the pace I prepare for the almost-final hill, which is a killer. If the ascent wasn't already enough it is also covered in rough grass, broken branches and half-begun rabbit holes. The only thing remotely resembling a path is the Badger Way that wobbles between field and woodland. It is not for the unwary. Once again, my running rhythm shifts, different muscles engage and my breathing alters. I feel, alone in the fields save for the dogs and the Wild Ones, that I am part of the land, sinking into it, and that it is holding me up, carrying me on, helping me when all my bones, muscles, my heart and my lungs are giving loud signals to stop. I make it three quarters of the way up before I give in and walk. Pop glances over, questioning this, and even Ted, already at the top, looks slightly disappointed as he waits for me. Under their gazes I start to run again and so regain a modicum of pride by the time I reach them.
The dogs know the way from here and race on confidently up the earthy track. Pop doesn't bother to glance back to make certain I am following, but Teddy paused briefly, just to be sure. They go on through the wood, over the second Roman road and back along the ancient hedge with its three hundred year old oaks and its hawthorn glittering golden yellow and red in the light.
They are waiting for me at the top of the incline and together we turn left, heading for the Green Lane which is hidden from view and feels like a secret. Ted always likes to run inside the tree-lined tunnel but I prefer the open field edge and so we helter-skelter down the hill racing one another and meet up at the bottom. One more hill to go, which I'm up before I realise I've done it (pausing for another moment's reflection on how that wasn't happening a few weeks ago) and then we're past where the Ivy Bees have their nests in September, past where the Badger Path cuts through the field and disappears into the Green Lane, a few stray silver-grey hairs always caught on the barbs of the wire as an extra clue, ducking beneath the hazel boughs that sweep across the hole in the hedge and flying down the ploughed hill, past the horses behind the hedge who are surprised enough to glance up from their hay piles, bits of hay dropping from their mouths, comically. From here we round the corner of the field where the big oak stands as sentinel, run smoothly now along the field edge and get back to the car in a little under half an hour with another 5k safely under our belts.
My legs are aching, but the dogs have had enough energy left to play their favourite game of chase around the greenhouse this afternoon and to distribute their beds in various surprising places around the house :o)
Hope all are well?