Once I get outside I’m fine. All the nervousness and trepidation disappears in seconds. You just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Focus on the run.
People often ask me why I do it, but I never give them a straight answer. They look at the state I get myself into and shake their heads. But they see only the physical effects. Truth is; I run because it’s the only time I ever feel completely alone. It’s the only time I’m fully separated from the distractions of the phone, the TV, the Internet, and other people. I usually fob them off with all the expected bullshit about keeping in shape and being out in the open, but that’s only half the story. When you’re out running like this, you’re everything and you’re nothing. You can pass a hundred people, and none of them know how far you’ve come or how much you’re hurting. None of them know where you’re from or where you’re going. I tell people I like that isolation. I sometimes tell them I like to clear my mind and think, but I never tell them what I think about.
When I left home about forty minutes ago, there was a bank of grey cloud building up on the horizon. I thought I’d beat the bad weather back but the wind picked up almost as soon as I left the house and now the sky is almost completely black. A moment ago the clouds finally swallowed up the last of the sun, and the sudden drop in temperature was sobering. I’m glad I’m nearly back now. There’s a hell of a storm blowing in, and I can feel the air pressure changing by the minute. My head’s pounding, and it feels almost as if gravity itself is increasing, making it harder to keep lifting my feet. I look up, and above me the clouds have stopped following each other. They’re criss-crossing the sky at random heights and different speeds, uncomfortably erratic.
I can see the war monument at the top of the last climb before home now and I know I’m almost there.
Christ, here comes the rain. A few spots become a deluge in just a couple of seconds, almost like running headlong into a wall of water. Bloody typical – I’ve run miles along footpaths covered by overhanging trees and streets lined with buildings but it’s only now, when I’m out here with absolutely no protection whatsoever, that this torrential downpour begins. The rain is hissing, filling the air with noise, and it’s so hard it hurts. Moments ago this cliff-top tourist track was dry and hard, now it’s dangerously unpredictable. Potholes and ruts are rapidly filling with water, making it almost impossible to see what I’m running through, and yet, somehow, the risk adds to the adrenalin rush. There’s a hundred metre drop just five metres to my left. I’m literally on the edge, but none of that matters because this is the real reason I run. Me, the cliffs, the sea and nothing else.
I dig in and push myself up the last section of steep climb to the monument, my legs having to work twice as hard now to get any traction. It’s downhill all the way home from here. Keep pushing. Don’t stop. Just a few more seconds.
The ground steepens again – the sting in the tail of this bitch of a climb – and the slope turns to steps, worn into the ground by countless ramblers and dog walkers who’ve come this way over the years. I slip, my foot sinking into a rain-filled pit I didn’t see, but I manage to keep my balance and keep myself moving. Can’t afford to lose momentum now.
Almost there. Last few steps.
And then I’ve done it. I pass the needle-shaped stone monument and the ground ahead of me levels out then drops away. My lungs are on fire but I know the pain will ease with the descent. I’ve followed this dirt footpath countless times since I’ve lived in Thatcham, but the view up here still takes my breath away no matter what. Even in the gloom I can see for miles in every direction, and the vastness of the sea and the land stretching away from here is humbling, reminding me in no uncertain terms just how small I am in the scheme of things. The rain is ice-cold, digging into me like needles, but suddenly it doesn’t seem to matter. I don’t feel it. Now I can see the gentle crescent curve of the bay up ahead. From here I can see virtually the whole of the village; a narrow strip of buildings dotted with occasional lights, sandwiched between the crashing waves on one side and endless fields and hills on the other. It looks as prone as I feel. And then I’m distracted as, out on the horizon, miles out to sea, a jagged flash of electric-blue light spits down from the belly of the clouds to the surface of the water. It’s gone in a heartbeat, but I can still see it in negative.
Seconds later, the thunder arrives. A low and ominous warning growl, so deep I can feel it through my pounding legs, followed by an almighty crack so loud it seems to shake the whole world. I slip again and almost fall, and now I’m starting to wonder if I might be in trouble. There’s still another half-mile to home, and I have no protection whatsoever out here, not even a tree. And I think to myself, if I get hit, I’m fucked. My brother knows I’m out, but I didn’t tell him my route. I’m exposed and vulnerable, but I love it.
Another flash of light. This time I’m looking down at my feet when it hits, but the lightning illuminates everything like someone’s taking photographs of the lone idiot out running. I splash through a puddle that’s too big to run around and I’m taken by surprise when it’s deeper than I expect. The ice-cold water soaks my feet, adding to the misery, but I keep going. I fix my eyes dead ahead, trying to pick out the outline of my bungalow on the hillside, aiming for home.
Wait. What was that?
Something’s not right.
There’s another sound now, lighter in pitch than the thunder but just as loud. It builds and builds, refusing to fade. I’ve stopped running before I’ve realised and I stand there, hands on hips, breathing hard and scanning the horizon. The noise is swirling with the wind, constantly changing direction, impossible to place.
There’s a jet. It comes from behind me and flies overhead before I see it. Wait… there’s more than one of them. I regularly see jets around here; there are usually a few each day, flying training missions up and down the valley and occasionally out over the sea, but surely not in atrocious conditions like this? They normally fly much faster and at a considerably higher altitude, reaching such speeds that you have to look way ahead of the noise to stand any chance of seeing them. This is very different. There are four more now, flying in an arrowhead formation behind the first, heading out over the water. They’re getting lower. One by one they drop down through the low cloud cover.
The rain is relentless and I have to shield my eyes to keep watching. The noise is becoming unbearable. There’s another flash of lightning, but the cumulative screaming of jet engines is such that the thunder which follows goes almost unheard.
Is there something else behind them?
Something’s following them out over the ocean.
Whatever this thing is, it’s fucking huge. It’s black, blacker than any of the clouds, and it’s fucking enormous, dwarfing the jets. This thing is immense and yet it’s hardly making a bloody sound. It’s right above me now and seems to be going on forever – hundreds and hundreds of metres of Christ alone knows what, stretching down through the clouds, slicing through the storm with apparent ease. Parts of its surface are smooth and featureless, other areas covered with what look like probes and towers and clusters of pinpricks of light. About a third of the way along its length, its appearance changes drastically. There are a collection of unimaginably long, hexagonal-shaped containers, each of which looks to be miles in length but I can’t even begin to accurately estimate the scale of this thing from here.
There are jets surrounding the entire machine. They look small up against it, like the shadows of scavenging birds. I can finally see the back end of it now as it powers through the sky. There’s a huge ball of brilliant, blue-white light behind the ship. That must be what’s powering it, but how can it be so quiet? I can hear it, but the noise of the jets and even the gusting wind are louder. How can something so huge move so effortlessly and make hardly any sound?
The light’s so powerful that I can’t keep looking at it and I have to turn away. I can feel my skin beginning to prickle and tighten with the heat, and for a moment the rain turns to steam. When the brightness reduces slightly I look up again. The sheer scale of whatever it is overhead is deceptive and the entire convoy is moving with remarkable speed. It feels like just a few seconds have passed since the first jet appeared, now the last one is disappearing from view. And all I can see is the vast ball of light moving out over the water, reflected on the choppy waves like a second sun.
A moment of silence, then the chaos of the storm seems to return with ten times the ferocity it had before. All I can hear is the crashing of the waves on the rocks far below, and I look down and realise I’ve walked away from the footpath closer to the edge of the cliff.
My legs are leaden, heavy with nerves more than effort now. It’s a struggle to start running again, but I dig deep and make myself move.
I’ve got to get home.