At the end of Wild Conference on Friday, I went for a run around Temple Newsam woods, and while I was out some good funding news landed. I’ve written a bit over the past few months about feeling like it’s been tougher than usual this year, but still, I was astonished by the sense of relief. I could have wept.
Relief is a huge part of our industry, which is constructed around gradually mounting pressure to an extent that is so obviously unhealthy I hardly need talk about it. A few years ago I spent a couple of weeks with agonising toothache, at one point so bad that I had to pull over at the side of the road because I couldn’t drive safely for the pain. Having a woman pull it out with a pair of pliers was a horrendous experience, but I have never felt such a rush of relief. I walked out of the dentists and astonished myself by bursting into tears. I had to have a sit down. After I’d recovered I thought, this feeling is what I used to get at the end of the Edinburgh Fringe.
Wild Conference itself was a relief, too. There's so much that's unhealthy about the way our industry is structured, and a big part of that is the way we talk to each other. Yet here were 500 people in a field, cooking lunch together and talking about the things that mattered in a way that was healthy and constructive. Be kind. Be useful. It's a relief to think that there is at least 500 people's worth of good faith in our industry.
Lots of people have been posting their self-care tips ahead of the Edinburgh Fringe next month. (Victoria Firth’s are good) But they all add up to one key thing: do everything you can to avoid letting the pressure build to the extent that having a tooth pulled would be an improvement. Catch yourself before you start repeatedly hitting refresh on the Scotsman website. This is not a good mental place to be.
I’m not going to add to the tsunami of advice for your self-care routine during your run on the Fringe. Instead I’m going to play to form and talk about running. The main thing that stopped me from mentally disintegrating when I was last at the Festival (Instructions for Border Crossing, 2017) as compared to the time before (Going Viral, 2015) had nothing to do with whether the show was going well. It was running. I know that doctors often patronise people with mental illness by suggesting they go for a run, and I know very well that it’s not as simple as that. BUT. Getting out of the melee and into the green, at whatever speed, is vital to reminding you there’s a world out there. You don’t have to watch every show. The Royal Dick will not miss you for an hour. You cannot affect your show's success every minute of every day.
Most of the people you know will be spotted running round and round The Meadows like hyperventilating goldfish. This is fine, especially if you’re doing some interval work, and I’m sure you’ll catch me at it at some point. But lots of people decide that in the free time they imagine having during the festival, they’ll take up running, and going round and round the Meadows is the perfect way to get bored out of this resolution. So here are a few more diverting possibilities.
There are loads of routes around Holyrood Park. The views are way better than the meadows and a full loop is only about five miles, so most days you’ll only need to go round once. If you fancy a bit of hill work, also in Holyrood Park is Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags. Arthur’s Seat is like a motorway during the Festival, so I’d suggest you mostly stick to the Crags. The panoramic views out to sea and across Edinburgh to the Pentlands are stunning, and give you a chance to get your breath back. And unlike Arthur’s Seat there’s a nice longish ridge line that’s lovely and runnable. Do Arthur’s Seat once though; it is a great workout.
For a slightly longer run, carry on through Holyrood Park along Duddingston Road down to the sea at Portobello. Then turn right and run along the coast for a couple of miles before turning right again at the Booker Wholesale warehouse to run back into town along Brunstane Burn. The whole loop is about fourteen miles and most of it is off-road.
Whether in whole or in part, check out the route of the Seven Hills of Edinburgh. All seven hills – Calton Hill, Castle Hill, Corstorphine Hill, Craiglockart Hill, Braid Hill, Blackford Hill and Arthur’s Seat – provide fantastic views of the city, and even the most adventurous of Festival goers has rarely been up as many as three of them. But they’re all easy to reach from wherever you are, and they’re all set in pockets of green space that I'll be exploring a lot more this Festival. Two years ago I was lucky enough to be taken round the whole loop by David Greig. I won’t remember his route exactly and will make some poor choices on the way, but I would very much like to pass on this gift to someone else. Let me know if that's you.
Finally, just outside Edinburgh, bigger and more imposing than anything in the city itself, are the Pentland Hills. You can get to the foothills via public transport, or indeed on foot: Hillend is only about five miles from the meadows. Once you’re there, you might just fancy getting up one peak. But I’m in training for a big race at the end of August, so my last long run during the Festival will be the route of the Pentland Skyline race. It’s about sixteen miles, with over 6000 feet of ascent, plus the round trip. Let me know if you want in.
I’d be very surprised if anyone accepted that last invitation. But if anyone wants to join me for a morning shakeout during the Festival, let me know. Wednesday is long run day for me, but apart from that, I’ll mostly be doing a gentle 5-7 miles each morning, with maybe one harder session on Saturday or Sunday. Company is very welcome, especially if it gets you running somewhere you wouldn’t otherwise have explored, and even more so if it helps release a bit of the pressure.
Race Report: Lakeland Trails 55K
Saturday 29 June
The numbers on my watch no longer make sense. I can’t be doing 34-minute-mile pace; this bit’s downhill. But nor can I be doing 7:30 pace. It’s a long time since my legs felt fresh enough for that. Then my scrambled brain puts this in some sort of order: I’m not doing a 34-minute mile: I’ve run 34 miles. I’m not doing a 7:30 mile: I’ve been running for seven and a half hours. Numbers on this scale are so unfamiliar that I can’t make sense of them.
The good news is that 34 miles means the finish can’t be far. This is a 55km race, which is just over 34 miles, so the finish can’t be far. It definitely can’t be far. Except it doesn’t feel like we’re coming into Ambleside yet.
I’ve slowed down substantially by this point, but I’m still going. At the half marathon distance I noticed that I was starting to feel tired; at the marathon distance I didn’t notice anything apart from my legs and the heat. My run by now was a shuffle. Even the slightest uphill was a walk. But here’s a dirty secret. On the uphills, most ultra-runners “power-hike”. This is a euphemism, and it means “walk”. So although I’ve slowed down, so has everyone else.
Success in marathons comes to people who sustain their speed, or perhaps even get slightly faster as the race goes on. Success in ultras comes to those who slow down the least. Given how much I’d slowed down, how battered I felt, I was amazed every time I passed someone, but it still kept happening. During the whole second half of the race, only three people passed me, and I took two of them back again soon afterwards. I kept drawing level with people expecting them to pull away, only to find I was leaving them behind.
For the first ten or twelve miles plenty of people had been passing me on the uphills and I let them go. I was trying to take it really conservatively. Trying, but not entirely succeeding: on the downhills I was taking them all back, plus a couple more, because what’s the fun of a race like this if you can’t enjoy the downhills? A little voice in my head occasionally told me that I’d regret blowing my quads to pieces by blazing all the downhills. I let that slow me down a touch, maybe, but if you brake too hard it just makes the quads do more work. This is my first ultra. Might as well have a spectacular detonation and see what that’s like. It’s all experience.
But despite slowing down, that detonation never came. One of the remarkable things about this experience was that, however hard it was, and it was hard, it never occurred to me to doubt that I’d get round. At one point I remembered Hayley Carruthers at the London Marathon earlier this year, collapsing as she crossed the finish line and coming round an hour or so later uncertain of whether she’d finished (she did). That’s going to be me, I thought, as I felt myself get woozier and wobblier. The heat was the worst part. Last Saturday was the hottest day of the year so far, with the kind of humidity where you can’t tell where your sweat stops and the air begins. Whenever we crossed a stream or passed a tarn I would fill my hat with water and put it back on my head. The bliss lasted at most thirty seconds before I started to bake again. But it never got grim enough for me to doubt I’d at least make the finish before keeling over.
But the thing with a race being a different length to advertised is that you don’t know when the finish line will come. Maybe it will be just around the next bend. Maybe it will be another five miles. OK. Make your peace with that. So when I turned the corner and saw the finish funnel, I had a strange mixture of delight and disappointment. Disappointment because although I have no desire to collapse over the line, I want to know what it’s like to push through the sense that it’s impossible to continue. But I could have kept going. If this was about finding my limits, I hadn’t quite done that. I went from “I can barely take another step” to “my big race at the end of August is only another eight miles: EASY” before I’d even crossed the line.
The delight took precedence though. At the end of my last marathon, about twenty people crossed the line around the same time, some charging, some shuffling, all running their separate individual races. The finish was lined with people cheering seemingly at random. It didn’t make any sense, and crossing the line wasn’t a particularly satisfying feeling. On Saturday, during the course of seven and a half hours, the field was sufficiently spread out that there were no other runners within a couple of minutes. So the cheers at the finish were all mine and it is definitely the best feeling I’ve ever had at the end of a race, however well I’ve run. The announcer on the PA: “runner 635 coming down the final straight now, Daniel Bye from Lancaster, with a huge smile on his face…”
Some of that was relief. I’ve done it. The tooth is out. And again, I could have cried. As I came round that last bend, running with a bit of purpose now, a woman joked that I was going to win the race. I guessed I was about 50th, pretty respectable but I’d certainly had to work for it. Two days later I learned I was 23rd, out of about 360 finishers. I’d had no idea I was so far up the field.
I had a couple of hours astonished delight before I learned my result from the Clougha Pike fell race the weekend before: 48th out of about 170. The field in a fell race is much tougher. Fell running is more challenging physically and mentally. My astonished delight is now long gone as I contemplate this weekend’s race. Though shorter, this will be much, much harder than last weekend’s race. The terrain is way rougher. And steeper: despite being 14 miles shorter there’s an extra 3000 feet of climbing. That’s roughly the height of Scafell Pike, which funnily enough the race goes over about two miles from the end. And of course, being a fell race, you have to navigate your own way around. I did a recce of some of the course two days ago: visibility was appalling and although I was never lost, at no point was I on the best line, or even a good line. My strava track looks as though I must have been drunk and if visibility isn’t a little better on Saturday I’ll go from 23/360 to DNF. I’m obsessively checking the weather forecast for Wasdale, and reminding myself of dark places I’ve been in during Edinburgh Festivals passim.
Relief comes, I think, not just when a physical threat has passed, but when a threat to your sense of self has passed. Good reviews are causes not for celebration but relief: the world, or the bit of it that I’m giving prominence today, continues to endorse my sense of myself as someone who is capable of doing this job for a living. Crossing a finish line is a physical relief because it’s over, but much more of a mental relief as the runner is able to sustain a sense of themselves as someone who can struggle through this endurance challenge. For some that’s a parkrun, for some it’s 100 miles, but the feeling is the same. Contemplating Wasdale this weekend, for the first time ever before a race, I find myself genuinely afraid that I may not be able to do it.
This is exactly where I should be, just as it was right to keep submitting applications over the past few months despite a not-that-unusual-actually run of ill luck. Because not only did that funding come in on Friday, but another bit of good news landed yesterday for the same project. And while I was trying to take that screen grab, another, on a different project. From not knowing if I could afford to leave the house this autumn, my dance card is now full. The relief!
Exhibition of the week: It's actually a few weeks ago now that we went to Abbot Hall art gallery in Kendal. But I didn't get round to writing about it at the time and it’s absolutely the best small gallery I’ve been to in years. We went in the last week of the Refuge: The Art of Belonging exhibition, which unfortunately you've now missed. It gathered work by artists who’d fled Nazi Germany for Britain, perhaps most notably Kurt Schwitters and Lucian Freud. As well as being a display of some fantastic portrait and landscape painting, its curation gently but insistently returned to the theme of what cultural riches refugees have brought to Britain. I may have misremembered this, but I think the B-word may even have been mentioned in some of the interpretation. They were careful not to draw direct parallels between contemporary Britain and 1930s Germany, but they did just enough to say: BE CAREFUL.
There are riches elsewhere in the museum too. At first sight I wasn’t particularly taken by any of the room full of George Romney portraits, and but for their brilliant curation I’d have left thinking little of them. But the curation tells a story of Romney’s determination to paint grand landscapes and his need, as a working-class artist, to keep painting commercial portraits to feed himself and his family. He came back home to Kendal and died in poverty, having never achieved his ambition. And what could just be a room full of decent but unremarkable portraits becomes a story about art and the class system, and about a tragic life in the face of that. It becomes a provocation to now. And then you go round and look at the portraits again, knowing that he did one every day with all this pressure telling on every corner of his life, and they appear so much more.
On the way out I spotted a small exhibition by a local artist, no more than ten photographs or collages. by the entrance. The images show young people dressed in clothes with a binary-splintering array of gender significations; clothes also designed by the artist. The images are intense, sharp and vibrant, and they put your pigeonholes in a cocktail shaker and get you drunk on the results. Frustratingly, despite every search term combination I can think of, I can't find the artist's name. I've emailed the gallery and will post here when I get a reply.
Meanwhile, for kids, there were smocks and berets to dress up in. Dot wandered happily around the Refuge exhibition pointing out her favourite things while dressed in a red beret. She’s decided she likes museums.
Small town museums get a bad rep and “local” is often code for “ropey”. This absolutely smashes all that to pieces; it’s a genuinely brilliant little museum. It’s easy to get a bunch of Turners, or a bunch of anything else, and just say, here you go, here’s a load of good pictures. It’s much harder to use those pictures to tell a story about the artist, their world, or the world we live in now. This museum consistently manages to do all three and I can't wait to get back in a couple of weeks for the next exhibition.
SPORTS REPORT: As I write Australia are 37/3. Only a mug would bet against England winning the world cup from here, which is a truly terrible thing to say out loud.
Fringe Tip of the Week: Drone by Harry Josephine Giles. I saw an earlier version of this two or possibly even four years ago and I still think about it. It’s an extraordinary spoken-word text in which the two meanings of the word drone – the remote bombing device and the anonymous office worker – are smashed together and danced between. As well as playing with the meaning of war in the age of phone bank capitalism, it also gloriously dissolves various binaries of gender into a thick soup. And since I saw it Harry has started singing in a punk band, which has got to lend an extra something to their performance.
Job Update: I mentioned last time that I'd put my money where my mouth is and applied for a job in a theatre building. They invited me for an interview and I did a lot of prep. I was ready, and excited by the possibilities of the position. Then the day before the interview the board stepped in to put the recruitment process on hold. I'm not going to say too much about this, because I have some confidences to honour, but it was another factor in my ongoing feeling that I was banging my head against the dead end of a series of blind alleys. Am I done in this industry? Was that it? Do I have any other skills?
The day that would have been the interview was the same day I went for that run round Temple Newsam. I don't believe in karma, but I definitely felt I was due a break.
Read of the Week: as a sort of Harry Josephine Giles bonus, please read this fantastic essay on their blog, Access Means It’s Not For You. It’s wide-ranging and laser-focused and it’s absolutely full of insight and challenge. I particularly love the analysis, drawn from the work of Sarah Ahmed, of the “non-performative access policy” - a piece of language whose purpose in existing is to do the opposite of what it says.
It reminds me of the ongoing tendency, in the world of theatre to having open meetings on this subject or that subject, or urgent and wide-ranging conversations. I went to a (brilliant) one of these a few weeks ago at which a few courses of action were suggested. The convenor of the session suggested that the next stage was to get some people together to talk more about these courses of action. How about you just do one, I said. Pick one, and do it. It might not work, but then you’ll have something to talk about other than talk. Then you can try a different one. As almost all writers know, a meeting is not action. “The policy makes nothing happen, and sometimes by making a policy, you deliberately stop things from happening.” I’m not, by the way, having a go at the people who convened that (brilliant) meeting. The commitment to talk over action is just so deeply baked in that good people mistake the former for the latter. Get me, writing this on my blog, as if it’s action.
To come back to where we started, Wild Conference felt like a healthy shift in this. The talk felt meaningful. It was making things happen. It was performative.
(The word "performative" has shifted in meaning in popular usage, and this makes me a bit sad. I like that language evolves but sometimes the evolution leaves a gap. "Performative" is now more often used to describe an insincere speech act than one that makes something happen, as in the section above. If this is the way the language goes then so be it, but we'll need a new word that means what performative used to mean. See also "reticent" and "mindful".)
Writing Report. Last week was all about structure. Arranging and re-arranging the post-it notes. By the end of the working week I was far from sure I'd got anywhere. The pressure was building, and as often happens at this point in the process, I started to feel that sense of looming dread. Maybe there's no show here after all. Then Sarah brought in a massive new possibility and I re-arranged the post-it notes around that. Did another work-in-progress on Sunday. The work has progressed. The relief!
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will