Tireless Tonky v The Octopus: it’s on and it’s going to be brutal!
There was a familiar sorry start
to our holiday in Croatia this year. Late arrival at destination? Check. Plummeting sugar levels combined with no open food outlets in the vicinity. Check. Long queue to pick up the rental car. Check. The kids stared at me hungrily, circling like alley rats, badgering me for change and hoping (in vain) they’d be able to revive the deceased snack machine.
By the time I’d picked up the car the tension had ratcheted up yet another notch. No, I don’t need any more car insurance!
The first 30 minutes in a hire car usually follow a pattern as two impulses collide – the rush to get to the villa so the holiday can begin versus the manly determination to operate a car with which I am completely unfamiliar. As we weaved down the motorway we noticed other drivers flashing their lights at us. I responded by shouting ‘ WHAT?’ at the flashers and yelling abuse at my own vehicle. It turned out the headlights weren’t on, so those drivers had a point.
After a quick stop at a service station, where a kindly chap showed us how the lights worked, I did a frenzied carb-load. The mood lifted – laughter bubbled round the car as we took a left off the main road and headed into the mountains, twisting and turning up the steep hill to the villa. This hill came to be known in the mythology of the holiday as ‘El Pulpo’ – the Octopus. As I drove us up this beast I thought, I’ll be running you tomorrow.
In the morning the beauty of the surroundings became clear. Ahead of us, clear sea and glorious beaches. Behind, the grandeur and gravity of the mountains. My idea was to loop around the back of the villa, into the mountains and find a way to get back on the main road and up El Pulpo.
I was going to get very fit here: there was no way of avoiding very steep hills, cradled as we were by rubbly, stony mountain paths. I valued the simple joy of it. As others settled in to the first day of the holiday, I found a parallel world. Swooping along the underside of the mountain, I felt gloriously alone, indomitable. The only person I saw was an old, extremely thin shepherd, who nodded at me as I scrambled past him. The hopedfor loop seemed to be materialising. After following my nose and taking every left turn I could, I joined the main road drenched in sweat, my quads burning. After a mile dodging traffic I found a path and turned left into El Pulpo’s sweet embrace.
In the daylight the hill was even more magnificent – two kilometres of uncompromising ascent. At no point was there a straight section; the only respite was to weave from one side of the road to the other – still up, but at least sideways up. There was only one thing for it – lean in, short steps, lift the feet up, pump the arms, not thinking about it, just running. Past the old Croatian fellas playing boules, feeling the heat on my neck, splashing my legs with remnants of my bottle of water. Images drifted past: swimming pools, sun-charred locals hosing down their gardens, tethered scary dogs, chickens running loose.
Then came the sting in the tail – the last 600 metres, a long, absurdly steep finish. I could see the end but every time I lifted my gaze it seemed to get further away. In truth, at times the gap between running and non-running became pretty negligible. If you’d seen me you may well have thought, ‘ Why is that weird bloke jumping in and out of the gutter on his way up the hill?’
Over time I would get to know El Pulpo. I’d break it down into chunks and after a couple of weeks I’d surge that last 600 metres in triumph, but that first morning I ground to a halt by the side of the villa, broken, my face a puce hue. I gulped from a bottle of iced tea as sweat dripped from my brow and my legs trembled.
From her sun lounger, my wife glanced up from her book: ‘ You look a right mess, love! What was it like?’
‘Really lovely. Slightly undulating.’
Runnerpedia Foot strike (n) You wake up and your feet have taken industrial action. You’re going nowhere. Often occurs if your feet are represented by a powerful bunion