Training in the English Countryside…

Last weekend, I was just itching to get outside of London and explore some new training routes, but given the fact that I just mastered walking down stairs again by Friday, a long run was out of the question… The cankles had disappeared, but the legs were still protesting loudly. Okay, how about a gentle hike then to work out the knots in my muscles?

Having lived and trained in Vancouver, I must admit, I am SPOILT ROTTEN. In Vancouver, I could literally step out my door and be running along the water within a minute or two. I had my pick of routes – interval training on the beach, long runs along the seawall, trail running in the endowment lands by the university or out by Stanley Park… I could catch views of downtown from the Burrard Street bridge and even better sights going over the Lions Gate Bridge into North Van. Sometimes I would take the bus out to Deep Cove and run the 25 mile trail back to the base of Grouse Mountain. One minute I could be immersed in dense redwood forest and then next popping into a starbucks for a mid-run caffeine shot. PARFAIT.

Needless to say, the adjustment to Manhattan last fall was rough. Sure, Central Park is nice… but when half the city is fighting over the same 50 block oasis, a morning run can feel more like a road race.

So how would London measure up?

After a bit of google research, I discovered that there was a trail called the South Downs Way only an hour away from London by train. To Londoners, that may seem monumental, but to this Canadian that sounded practically next door.  The SDW is a 100 mile trail extending from Winchester to Eastbourne and it is primarily used by hikers, mountain bikers, horse riders… so why not ultrarunners?

I decided to take the train to a little place called Lewes and then hike from there to Eastbourne – about 20 miles. Or so I thought. I didn’t think it would be THAT difficult to find the trail from the train station. Surely I could just ask some local country folk? After I got off the train, I stopped to ask the little man at the sandwich shop for directions. He sang me a song (I love country people) and then sent me over to the coffee man, Richard, who used to work for Royal Mail. Surely HE would know how to get to South Downs Way. Richard brought me over to one of the train conductors and I was given a cartoon map of the streets of Lewes… and no sign of the South Downs Way. The train conductor told me I should really just get back on the train and go to Seaford. He said I could have a little stroll and then sit down and enjoy the day – wouldn’t that be much better? Eastbourne was much too far.

Sigh. Next I tried the barber shop. “South Downs Way? Hmmm. Well, if you go up to the roundabout, take a right, you’ll see a little church. Take the path winding down beside the church, past the football field, and towards the bridge. Go under the bridge….” I tuned out. Heavens, I’ll just start walking, I thought. After ploughing through some fields in what I figured was a sensible direction, a local berry picker told me my best bet was to take a left at the cow shed. Thirty minutes later I found myself covered in spiky burrs and stuck with the choice of walking through waist-high grass amongst a field of cows (and bulls??) or crawling through barbed wire to get to a footpath near a river. I choose the barbed wire.

Sure, it looks harmless, but it leaves a nasty trail!!

Thankfully, after just 4 miles, my Spidey sense of direction brought me to the start of the path. Victory! And no more barbed wire!

The SDW path was gorgeous. Great hills – steep at times, but definitely manageable – nice flats, and amazing views of the countryside. At times I could see right down to the water. I could feel my shoulders relax with each step as I walked off the city grime and cleared my lungs of London tube air. It was like the land was inhabited with a rare species of perma-happy people. Each hiker or biker I passed grinned wildly and greeted me cheerfully (unlike the commuters on the tube who respond to any eye contact with a dull, uninterested glare). There was the middle-aged man with the pot belly with sweat pouring down his face, giddy with exercise and glad to admit that he had agreed to accompany his son on this little adventure. Then there was the group of 30-something mountain bikers — probably a group of guys who used to go to school together and were finishing their trip at one of the local pubs for a proper catch up session. The two women in jeans who were more interested in gossiping than hiking. The older couple strolling hand in hand on their regular Saturday walk…

The cows were definitely trying to race me….

I realized at some point that I really hadn’t planned my food very well.  Unlike Vancouver, there wasn’t a Starbucks in sight for refueling! No problem. My survival skills from my Racing the Planet races kicked in and I literally forged for berries for the next 7 miles of trail. When the trail passed through the next town, I walked into the local country shop with stained fingers and a giant purple smile.

All in all, a great day out. I can’t wait to go back and run those hills! Perhaps I’ll pick a different station to start from though…

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