Out cross-country running on the farm in Kenya recently, I came face-to-face with a gang of bull elephants. I zigzagged away from them, keeping downwind, jogged on for a bit, then found myself following the tracks and fresh dung of a herd of buffalo. I paused my stopwatch, had a think then continued at a timid pace while looking around fearfully. The night before I had heard lion and hyena, so as I ran I imagined the yellow eyes that might be following the form of a 50-year-old man huffing, puffing and advancing at a stumble — easy prey, but chewy old meat. I studied the ground ahead of me, checking for the camouflaged signature of a puff adder or the coiled spring of a cobra. And all the time, like Robinson Crusoe on the beach, I scanned the dust for the footprint of a human, a red blanket lurking in the undergrowth, the glint of gunmetal or flash of spear blade.
All this apparent risk for the half-marathon I am about to run in Shrewsbury, where my daughter Eve goes to school. When I started training, my aim was just to complete the course without suffering a heart attack. The farm is at 6,000 feet, while Shropshire is at around only 250 feet above sea level. I had hoped that training at altitude, together with the turbocharge of fleeing megafauna, would make me fit enough to avoid shaming my poor daughter, who will have to watch me as I wheeze around the school grounds.
Shrewsbury is one of the great running schools. The Royal Shrewsbury School Hunt is a society founded by boys in the early 19th century who were prevented from hunting foxes, so resorted to cross-country instead. To this day, the RSSH is captained by a pink-coated huntsman, who begins races by crying, ‘All hounds who wish to run, run hard, run true and may the Devil take the hindmost!’ He then blows a cornet and sets off running with his silver-topped hunting crop to spur on younger boys, assisted by his senior whips and gentlemen of the runs.
When I first put Eve into Shrewsbury last year, I was so interested in the Hunt’s history that I asked the master in charge, Peter Middleton, if he could take me and my son Rider around two historic school runs, the Benjy, a dash of two kilometres around Shrewsbury’s grounds — and the Tucks, which is five kilometres and arguably the oldest cross-country course in the world.
Not long before the morning that we started the Benjy from the statue of Charles Darwin, an old Salopian, I had inhaled poisonous agricultural chemicals. At least that was my excuse — as I trailed into the finish several minutes after Rider and Peter. We then moved straight on to the Tucks, which very nearly killed me. Competing in this way, I felt, was much more lethal than dodging pachyderms in the African bush.
Amazingly, Peter brought the Shrewsbury Hunt out to East Africa for a running safari at high altitude. They trained at Iten in the Rift Valley, alongside Kenya’s Olympic champions — and they later went to the highlands of Ethiopia. They came to stay on the farm for two days and did a bush run where I avoided taking any chances by deploying a platoon of heavily-armed wildlife rangers to act as course marshals so that the Devil did not indeed take the hindmost of the teenage runners.
In the past couple of weeks my last-ditch training programme has been given a boost by the arrival on the farm of former RSSH huntsman Rory Fraser, who is taking his gap year before going up to Oxford. Rory is much kinder to me than my Rider, a potential future RSSH member when he follows his sister (who doesn’t care for running) to Shrewsbury this September. Whereas Rider sprints ahead, stops and shouts, ‘oh, come on, dad!’ at me, Rory hangs back to jog alongside me with great patience, like a boy scout helping an elderly lady to cross the road.
While staying with us Rory has been giving me lots of useful advice. What I do find a little off-putting is that he brings his iPhone along with him on our runs and reads out lists that he’s compiled for me on the best Shropshire pubs, crusader churches with alabaster tombs that survived the Reformation — and so on. He talks about his Oxford reading list, about Jane Eyre and Bleak House, all without any hint of getting out of breath, while I wheeze and cough and stumble, unable to talk at all. I did once manage to get my own back, though, when I saw a dark form in the long grass and yelled, ‘Rory, watch out — there’s a buffalo!’
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