NOTE TO FUTURE SELF: Do not EVER plan anything that involves leaving London during the month of February EVER again. Better still, do not plan anything that involves leaving the house for the month of February ever again.
This weekend, Leyton Orient were scheduled to play Forest Green Rovers, the league’s only all-vegan football team, who play in a solar-powered stadium and munch avocados for breakfast. Obviously, this was one fixture I couldn’t miss. It was a win-win situation: if the Os win, all is well, if they lose, I can just put it down to the power of the vegan diet. And the thought of a vegan hot dog at the match! Football hotdogs are pretty much the only type of meat I have missed (which is ironic because they probably don’t actually contain very much actual meat).
I’ve heard Stroud is a charming place, a collection of country houses nestling on either side of a steep tree-lined valley, but Stroud in February is anything but charming. The heavens opened for my arrival and the water poured down the roads, almost sweeping me away. I tried to navigate to the Premier Inn, but it was raining so hard the touchscreen on my phone had stopped working. The water carried me into town, into streets that were empty except for a wasted looking busker playing an electric guitar and spinning into circles, singing an unintelligible song. I found myself in Poundland desperately trying to dry my phone. Eventually, I found the Premier Inn. I was very glad that it had a hairdryer. But the main problem with Weather is not that it ruins your appearance, thwarts your navigational skills and leaves you damp and prone to Coronavirus, it is that it causes Cancellations. My heart sank when I went to the Leyton Orient Facebook page and saw that Forest Green had planned a pitch inspection for 8am the next day, with the possibility of the game being called off due to waterlogging. Pitch inspections are a bit like penalty shootouts, they never go the way you want them to. It was bad enough that I’d already gone all this way to a stupid little town that had no right to be above water for no football, but it would be the end of the world if there were no parkrun either. Stroud only has the one parkrun, so I spent some time researching the nearest options: Stonehouse (cancelled due to waterlogging), Kingsway (absolute arse end of nowhere), Gloucester North (cancelled due to waterlogging) and Gloucester City (tarmac, city centre). Clearly I had identified my Plan B, but the trouble was that to get to Gloucester I would either have to leave at 7:45am, potentially before I knew whether Stratford Park was going ahead, or spend £££ on a taxi. I drew fifty quid out of the bank to be sure.
I spent Friday evening having a little shuffle around Stratford Park, identifying the start and finish zones and a few slip and trip hazards. I also popped into the little free museum which has all the usual stuff you get in local museums: a few really old pots and coins someone dug up nearby, things you’d find in a Victorian kitchen, a very uncomfortable looking bicycle, some art made out of discarded rubbish, etc etc. My favourite bit was the exhibit on the 1970s ring road protests but this is probably a bit of a niche interest.
I spent a bit of a sleepless night in the Premier Inn worrying about contingencies and checking the Orient/Stratford Park pages for updates, as if someone was likely to start prodding around a park/football pitch at 3am in the pouring rain. Eventually the time came when I needed to leave if I wanted to go to Gloucester and there was still no news and I decided to chance it and potter over to the park. When I looked out of the window and saw a yellow Caution! Runners! sign I could have cried with happiness. Unfortunately, this was followed by the less pleasing but not unexpected news that New Lawn was more of a lake than a lawn and the football was OFF.
I made my way over and chatted to fellow tourist Andrew, who is the only person I’ve met to have bettered my record for Numbers of Times Fallen Over in One Parkrun. (Me: 3, Zielona Gora. Him: 4, King George V Playing Fields). I was slightly concerned to see a fast looking runner with mud on his knees and shorts as if he’d taken a fall just warming up. Maybe you can be clumsy and fast at the same time, I thought. Or maybe he isn’t as fast as he looks.
It was just 59 runners who had come out to brave the weather conditions, which is a low number even for this small parkrun in its early days. I think all of these runners were either certifiably insane, or had missed the train to Gloucester. It wasn’t that Stratford Park wasn’t waterlogged; it was completely and utterly waterlogged and no one seemed to care. In fact I would go as far as to say that they actively like it that way.
“We’re the sixth most difficult parkrun in the country!” beamed one of the volunteers. “Everyone gets a terrible time here!”.
I had set out with the plan of “walk the hard bits and jog the easy bits”. The errors in my thinking were 1) that there would be some easy bits 2) that I would actually have options about how to tackle the hard bits, other than “squelch through attempting to remain upright”. The only bit of the run that is easy is the first 100 metres or so of every lap, which is a flat tarmac path leading to the museum. You then squelch across a bit of mud, and go on to a narrow tarmac path leading uphill behind the museum. The tarmac soon comes to an end, and you are thrust into a big bleak wilderness that expands across the rolling landscape. There’s a great big hill to navigate here, but the ground was so wet I barely noticed the climb as all my energy went into pulling my feet out of the sucking mud before I got swallowed up whole. I did feel a bit smug that I was walking up this hill faster than some people were running it, but this smugness was not to last. The water got deeper and deeper. I felt flippers and a wetsuit would be more appropriate for the terrain than my new trail shoes. Grippy shoes are all well and good but they need something to grip on to! At least at the top of the hill my feet were sinking so deeply it negated the risk of falling over, but when I reached the bottom the watery surface was replaced with ankle deep mud the colour and texture of a sloppy dog poo. I could not understand how it was possible for anyone to run through this when I could barely walk and was slipping and sliding like a cartoon man treading on a banana skin.
This was followed by a short reprieve in the form of a steep downhill woodchip path through some woods, which was flanked with rabbit holes, so I merely had to worry about breaking my ankle instead of losing my feet altogether.
The other side of the woods brings you out near the museum again, in a more formal part of the park. This bit looks deceptively safer and less slippy, but I was soon to learn a lesson. The path takes you sideways along a hill, so you’re at a camber. The higher up the camber you are, the less muddy it is, so of course I veered up the hill as far as I could. This was my big error because gravity has its ways and the further along the path I went the more I started sliding to my left. Realising I had completely lost my grip and was in danger of falling over and rolling down the hill in the style of Humpty Dumpty before eventually falling in the lake. I made a last-ditch desperate grab at a low hanging tree branch, but this just succeeded in separating my legs from my body and I landed in an ungraceful tangle at the root of the tree. Everyone whom I’d overtaken going up the hill passed me as I frantically scrabbled in the mud trying to find my feet. Eventually, the tail walker came along and fished me out of the tree and set me back on course. How mortifying.
The lap ends with a steep tarmac uphill and then back to the museum. On the second lap it started to rain, and people started to lap me. I noticed that a good proportion of them seemed to be caked in the quantities of mud you can only get from falling over or mud wrestling. The first person to lap me was the man who had fallen over whilst warming up. He sploshed effortless through the mud and was gone. My Garmin helpfully informed me that my “Performance Condition” was minus 10.
On the third lap I lost the will to live and became slightly delirious. I ran up the last tarmac uphill even though I’m not supposed to be running any uphills. My finish time was an all time personal worst of 47:11 which is three minutes slower than my previous PW set at Hadleigh two years ago (Hadleigh has the same amount of elevation, thought it felt like more, but is nearly all good trail paths). I enthusiastically told the volunteers about my mishap with the tree, but none of them seemed to find it particularly remarkable and I get the feeling that kind of thing happens there all the time. I posted to Facebook about my plight but I don’t think people realised the gravity of the situation. “Oh yes mine was muddy too” they said, posting pictures. “NO YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND” I screamed inwardly. “That is just a path with some water and mud! This was an ACTUAL BOG. Do you not understand how I have suffered?!”
After an hour or so back at the Premier Inn attempting to get the mud off my new trail shoes (and off me), I googled “Things To Do In Stroud” and basically got the answer “Go to Stratford Park” and “Visit the museum with old things/art/an exhibit about the ring road”. I looked at the stack of “local attractions” leaflets in the Premier Inn but none of the attractions were actually in Stroud. I decided to cut my losses and spend £12 on a lousy National Express Coach back to London, the first and last time I have ever stooped to the indignity of such a mode of transport.
On the whole my trip to Stroud rivalled my visit to Blackpool for “What the fuck am I doing here” factor and the only positive I have to say about it is that it made for a good blog entry.