There’s something inherently dissatisfying about running down the streets where I live. It’s busy – here in London. Noisy too. And the pursuance of any semblance of greenery coerces you into joining countless others treading their own circles around well-trodden parks. This is a world of uniformity in activity; a levelled plane of slowly passing time as we exert ourselves for the sake of topping up a self-prescribed amount of exercise, before going home and then blowing it all on chocolate and beer.
Personally, I think the tarmac’s the party at fault here. Every single step is always the same as the last, every road identical in feel underfoot to its brothers and sisters all across the city. I should know; I’ve now run these pedestrian conveyor belts North, East, South and West of London – all the way to the M25 – as part of the training for my upcoming run across the Betpak-Dala. Situated in southern Kazakhstan, ‘The Starving Steppe’, as it is also known as, is a 300 miles stretch of absolutely uninhabited semi-desert. Luckily, I’ll have a support truck, complete with 200 litres of water to get me and the driver across the featureless, expansive void. But ee-by-gum, is it going to be a tough ol’ project regardless.
One of the most difficult aspects that will have to be accounted for is the terrain. There’s no asphalt this far out, everything will be on sandy trail; every step slightly different from the last. Interesting, yes, but taxing too. Luckily, I’ve recently received the support of an excellent sponsor, Norman Walsh, who’ve provided me with the first serious pair of performance running shoes I’ve ever owned in my life. My 100 mile run in Uzbekistan’s Kyzyl Kum Desert was – by contrast – done on a £3 pair of pumps bought from a Tajik flea market.
But anyhow, coming in at 285 grams Walsh’s PB Ultras offer a minimalist – yet comforting – solution to the problem of varied terrain underfoot. For the first time since moving to urbanity proper, I’ve actively been seeking out the grass, the mud, the uneven surfaces, just to feel the traction of these shoes taking grip underfoot; locking me in place, and then throwing me forward with each reflexive spring of my trained-up muscles. It’s a perfect feeling.
Tarmac is boring now; it sticks to my feet, tries to throw me backwards, keep me still. But this is no time stop. Each relentless step forward takes me closer to the expedition and all the varied adventures that lie just around corner now. Three weeks to go.