Mr Hamflett was a tall, angular man. He was old and bald. I would never be as old as him. I would never be bald. He had the look of a runner: lean, lithe and long-limbed. If he could run a mile in under four minutes or a marathon in two-and-a-half hours, I would not have known. Teachers were one-dimensional beings, their lives beginning and ending at the school gates. He was a maths teacher who took us running and of whom I was scared. He was nothing greater than that.
Our nickname for Mr Hamflett was no more thoughtful or cruel than the man’s first name, Keith. But rather than use our own voices when uttering ‘Keith’, we spent childish hours honing a brittle, nasal tone, trying to imitate Mr Hamflett, and sought to exaggerate, to perfect the voice.
One of our regular training runs was a four-mile loop around the southern fringes of Bromsgrove. We would trundle up Rock Hill, skirt a housing estate, turn left at The Grasshopper pub, then jog down Buntsford Hill (where there were once fields and is now a Morrison’s), before running through scary Charford and even scarier Pig Alley to school. On one occasion we had reached the bottom of Buntsford Hill when two or three of us started to walk. Whether this was borne out of teenage idleness or genuine tiredness, I cannot recall. Keith was not far behind. This was not a spectacle he wished to witness.
He roared: ‘Don’t… stop… running!’
We did not look back; we did not argue. Without hesitation we picked up our dragging feet and ran, not daring to stop until we had made it alive up Pig Alley, where drug dealers and bullies and teenage smokers hung out, and back to school.
‘Don’t stop running!’ Keith had gifted us a catchphrase to support our mimicry. ‘Don’t stop running!’ Between us, we must have repeated those words a thousand times. How we laughed at the man who gave us running.
Running club happens every Friday afternoon after lessons. Mr Dear and I tell students to arrive by 4pm, but we are lucky if we are running by 4.15pm. In winter it is nearly dark and we must usher the children into garish reflective tops. The club is open to all pupils, aged from 11 to 18. No sixth former has ever come. We get about eight to 10 students on a good night. Sometimes we run off site: across the broad back of the Addington Hills to the viewpoint overlooking Croydon, along the Vanguard Way or up the wooded slopes of Croham Hurst, topped by a stunted tree resembling a sinister folded human. Generally, however, we stay on the school site. Such is the spread of abilities, this is the fallback, foolproof option.
The school’s cross country course is a one-mile loop, the focus of which is the dreaded Devil’s Hill, a steep, slippery plunge that takes runners to the lowest point of the route, dramatically known as The End of the World. Girls (and maybe some boys) have been known to venture down Devil’s Hill holding hands and screaming. Thereafter, it is an unremitting slog along a winding track through woods, under the shadow of the English and maths block, then up a final hill that passes the headmaster’s house before a flat sprint to the finish outside the sport’s hall. Every year, the entire school is given an afternoon off lessons for the School Cross Country. Pupils run; teachers marshal. The heaven of missing lessons is balanced by having to spend the afternoon muddy and miserable. There is no escape. The head of sport is scrupulous. If a pupil is off on the assigned day, by design or by accident, they will have to complete a timed run on another occasion. It should not be like this.
When many adults recall their time in education, the scar of the School Cross Country remains rough and raw. The race – likely to have been the only exposure children will have had to running for a continuous period – is reduced to a contrived exercise of humiliation. That is not the essence of running. I was once jogging the cross country course with a student when a deer flashed across the track before us. The boy was awestruck at the closeness of nature, of wildness. I wanted to tell him about running in the Rough Bounds of Knoydart and seeing a stag on the summit ridge of Ladhair Bheinn silhouetted against the sky. The animal had sniffed the air and fled with urgent grace, leading his hinds away, faster than any descending fell runner. I did not say anything. I did not think the boy would understand.
Children discovering running find continuous running ‘hard’. They have no concept of pace. They dart off, sprinting, chasing, laughing, only to be washed-out and worn-out minutes later. Saying, ‘I told you so,’ does not work. Nor do they have a mechanism to manage discomfort. Why would they? Mine has been acquired over two decades of running. Over many years, experience and understanding of discomfort and pain becomes as significant as physical preparation. I know my limits; children are learning theirs.
Nevertheless, one Friday I resolved to make the ‘hard’ a little easier. I tell the students they are to run for 10 minutes without stopping. They must pace themselves. They must not succumb to the insatiable desire to stop. They agree to the task willingly, although some believe it cannot be done. I made it easier on them by promising to avoid the cross country course and its Devil’s Hill connotations. We jogged down to a road that dissects two fields. To the left is the manicured West Pitch, the preserve of footballers; to the right is a rough, undulating area of grass known affectionately as The Dump. They start running. I start the watch. I position myself roughly in the middle of the fields so I can survey the runners. We have eight out today and they are soon straggled around the fields, running alone apart from two who stick together for moral support.
The ground is heavy. Not waterlogged, but soggy enough for a little spray of water to rise as a foot hits the ground. Some look they are barely moving, but they are running. I am desperate for them to run for 10 minutes, for them to see that this is possible and for them then to aspire to greater things. I am consumed by the need for this to happen. Does this matter more to me than them? It is working, though. With me watching, they either do not want to stop or they are scared of the consequences of stopping. I no longer care what is motivating them. They simply need to know they can do this; it does not matter how. Once they can, they can do it again.
The 10 minutes is up. ‘Two minutes to go,’ I shout. ‘Just two minutes.’ No-one questions me. I see a boy in the distance slowing, stumbling to a halt.
And then, in the next breath, they come, involuntary words from my throat, words I had not formulated in my brain, words that filled me with alarm, words that sent me spinning hopelessly through time. The words poured forth, tumbling into an instinctively-ordered torrent.
‘Don’t stop running!’
This article was originally published in issue 3 of Like the Wind.