Is running therapy? Or is therapy, therapy?
Exercise (and in particular running, I find) is good for clearing the head, for keeping an even keel, and staying generally healthy. Perhaps then, running on a regular basis will keep you mentally well but, then again, maybe it won’t. The brain is far too complicated to be solved so simply. As with all things, there is no magic bullet.
But, as much as anyone can ever need a run, I needed this run. I didn’t need therapy. If you need therapy, get it – that would be my wild piece of advice. What I needed, or what I thought I needed, was to get away from work, and away from my usual routes.
I was ground down, emotionally and creatively disengaged.
So I went to the sea, and I went to run.
I started at Pretty Corner Woods, near Sheringham Park in Norfolk. It is a lovely slice of woodland which I was able to cut through on my way to the coastline proper. It was an ideal starting point. When I arrived the red gated car park was empty, save one car. The driver of said car arrived back as I was getting myself ready. He was there with his bike, and had just taken a little ride around the woods, ready to meet some friends early on that Sunday morning to put some miles beneath their wheels.
We concluded that, on a day like that, neither of us had much to complain about.
The wood itself was a pleasant surprise. Tall, sparse trees rose into a blue sky, and the land gently undulated, twisted, distorted the way the distance felt. The wood is home to bullfinches, kingfishers, and woodpeckers, as well as deer and all manner of insect life. Did I see anyway of that? I don’t think so, but the culminative sound of all the wood and it’s occupants washed over me nonetheless.
I had plotted 20 miles, without the intention of running that far. I had a shortcut planned which I thought would bring it closer to 15. I wound up doing 17.4 and this extra distance, I think, was in part due to how after Pretty Corner Woods I’m not entirely sure where I went. There are a lot of trails in this area, and it seemed a waste to rigidly follow my watch, so I let my legs and heart carry me wherever seemed good, knowing that if I ever got lost, I only had to get myself to the sea to find my line again.
I climbed Beeston Regis Heath and got a good look at what I figured I was seeking.
From there it took a little longer to get to the Coastal Path than I imagined. I completed a loop around and up Incleborough Hill, stampeded up the sandy steps which added a little more vertical gain into the adventure and made that vital Strava file all the more impressive. It was busy with caravaners, and who could blame them? Their presence gave me a chance to take a breather as a woman, heading downhill, waited for a man with his particularly slow moving labrador to come up. She noted that I must have been grateful for a reason to pause, and she was quite right, for it was hot, and I had slightly overdressed.
I cruised down to West Runton, went up and over the dunes, and hopped onto the Norfolk Coastal Path. The entire trail is 83 miles, stretching from Hunstanton in the west, to Sea Palling in the north east. There’s a whole lot more of this trail left for me to explore, but this little section which I ran on this trip – from West Runton to past Sheringham – is exceptional, and slowly becoming familiar.
Just before the Coastal Path, I saw a young couple walking a cat. From afar I, of course, presumed the cat to only be a very, very small dog. I barely registered that it was not a dog until it was picked up, and protested with a meow. This is evidence of an internal prejudice which I foresee being hard to shake. Since this run I have seen an immeasurable number of dogs out on walks, and a very measurable zero cats out on leads.
At the top of Beeston Bump – a nice, gnarly climb which looks and feels exactly as it sounds – I paused for another moment as a group had a stranger take their photo in front of a calm North Sea.
It’s no bad place to take a moment. The path here, in any weather, but particularly in the uncommon crystal sunlight that we happened to be blessed with on that day, was awe inspiring.
Into Sheringham, I trundled along the concrete promenade, engaging with some fairly dense crowds. As I ran up the ramp to rejoin the cliff path (you can also run on the beach here for quite some distance, and rejoin the path later on) an elderly man on a zimmer frame declared that I was a ‘show off.’ The speed at which he rattled off this light ribbing suggested he either had it ready and waiting or, perhaps more likely, that he said it to every runner that he saw.
In any case, it made me smile.
You can veer off and dive into Sheringham Park after following the path out of the town, but I was planning on pushing a little further north-west along the path before going inland. This was where I was to take my shortcut, diverting myself via the village of Weybourne. The problem being that I had never been in Weybourne, and did not know which way I was supposed to go to turn my shortcut into a reality. After two short lived wrong turns, I got it right and cut along a lovely bit of country roadto the train station at Weybourne Heath. The trail here is, frankly, the stuff dreams are made of: the trees are tall, the hills are sharp. If anyone has ever watched Hayden Hawk and Zach Miller battling it out in this Run Steep Get High video, it briefly, euphorically, made me feel a bit like that – just, way, way slower.
On that path I spotted a white haired runner moving ahead at a decent clip. Something about his powerful, trail running gait, made me imagine that I was on his territory.
It was here that my shortcut had me back on track with my watch map. I was fatigued, but grinning at the stupid prettiness of it all. The trail was leading me back into Sheringham Park, and as I moved into the heart of the Park, the crowds began to get a little thicker again and then, there he was: the white haired runner. I’m not really the guy to chase people down on a casual run like that, but it seemed that my natural pace was just a bit quicker than his, and I had intended to finish the run at a harder clip anyway. The chase, apparently, was on. I powered upwards through the park, and when I caught up to him we exchanged a few words.
I pushed on and, I think, for a minute or so, he pushed with me. It felt good to sense him there, just off my shoulder, this complete stranger who was probably thirty, maybe forty, years my senior. Fairly soon we went in different directions as I moved to exit the park, but to have that final character make an appearance, to forge a fleeting connection with me, added a final satisfaction to the run.
He was one of many who, as I recall this run, I remember. I don’t remember their names for I never knew them, and I can barely see their faces in my mind, but they were there, and I was there.
Everyone is seeking something, but how often do we know in the moment that we have found it? In those nameless people I found what I was looking for. The loneliness of the long distance runner, new trails, the smell of the sea, yes, yes, I wanted that, but those fleeting interactions, those shared moments, it turns out that was what I really needed.
I can only see that now, though. At the time I was only thinking about full fat, fountain Coke.
Once out of the park I took the road down into Upper Sheringham, and then immediately up again towards Pretty Corner Woods, finishing on a long tarmac uphill. I grasped the red gates of the car park entrance and leaned over, knackered. A family passed by me on the way back to their car. The father explained to the gawking child that I was a runner, as if my presumably awful appearance needed to be explained.
By the time I had picked up that full fat Coke from the drive-thru on the way home, I had got everything that I needed.