In Tracksmith’s inaugural quarterly, Meter, there was a fine story about what’s called ‘fell running’ in Northern England, which author Andy Waterman described as “a lot like trail running, only without the trails.”
I found Andy’s article particularly intriguing, because it reminded me of an urban expression of the same free-form philosophy that a few of us back in Boston in the days of yore sought to capture. While we didn’t have Northern England’s bleak desolation, as Andy put it, “all windswept moorland and steep-sided post-industrial valleys” to range over, we did have the serpentine streets and environs of Boston to negotiate, along with cemeteries, college campuses, and even the odd arboretum at our disposal.
Based on the premise that ‘shorts cuts don’t cut it’ in a sport defined by effort, and faced with New England’s wintry clime, we hearty band of running brothers began – without even knowing it at the time – a style of training that took the challenges of our sport and the season head on.
With sight lines reduced in the gray winter haze, and streets narrowed and made treacherous by slushy remnants of the last snowfall, there was risk attached to winter training in the city. We had learned to accommodate it over the years, but never felt totally at ease facing up against the motorized menace, either, especially when the sidewalks had yet to be plowed and the only place to run was out on the street between the line of parked cars and the string of salt-crusted traffic. Accordingly, we would seek refuge as quickly as we could, often pushing hard single-file up Beacon Street out of Cleveland Circle for the first mile plus, before taking a left on Hammond Street opposite the Boston College campus where traffic lightened and adventure awaited.
After decelerating and wiping our noses clean, we’d meander the narrow back roads, lined as they were with fine brick homes, many topped by smoky chimneys spreading a comforting woody aroma over the neighborhood. By the time we made it to the Deer Park section of the Webster Conservation Area, the rhythmic crunch of footfalls and the occasional hocking up of spit were the only sounds to be heard in the muffled surroundings.
As we made our way over the snow covered path twisting through the skeletal trees, conversations had gone silent as the miles added up. But beneath the many layers of clothes and slicks of sweat we developed a strain of rhythmic understanding that translated simple glances and nods into perfectly recognized meanings.
So when we came to the pad-locked gate of a chain link fence blocking our way forward, rather than turning back or looking for a way around, we simply scaled the obstruction and continued. Empowered, we soon recognized that we represented neither threats nor targets, but instead existed in a nether world of continuous flow.
Soon any barrier we came to, be it a fence, a hedge, a wall, a backyard, whatever (other than the Charles River) was meant to halt the sedentary, but not us. At speed we runners existed off the grid where a new set of rules were in play, one in which we ran as the crow flies, straight and true. And for no other reason than it was playful in a way that connected us with the kid that still existed in all of us, and when roused will rise in all its giddy, goofy disregard for the sanctions or warrants of society.
A cousin to our more fartlek-oriented Hate Runs, Hard Cuts saw us scrambling over people’s fences or scratching through thick rows of bushes, brushing off snow, laughing as we went, even welcoming the occasional shouts to “get the hell off my property”, which we always promptly did.
Now, years later, reading about another group’s anarchical sensibility while racing over the fells in the north of England has brought back a renewed appreciation for those Hard Cut runs through the harsh New England winters of our youth.
“Go F yourself”, we all seemed to say to the space-time continuum where everything corrupts and dies, but not this spirit. Thus did our anti-authoritarian Hard Cuts fly in rear guard against the corrosive expectations of acceptance and surrender reflected in the larger society where all the cynics met, the progenitors of a past that we knew could never measure up to their own conceptions much less our simple pleasures and eccentricities.
As we enter another new year, may we wish many a Hard Cut, Hate Run, or Fells Race to all who seek paths that have yet to be cut, routes yet to laid, and ways yet to be accepted.