Making pig tracks – how to get to your destination by the shortest path

Box Hill pig track

Heading up the west face of Box Hill in Surrey, running in between the zig zag road and the Burford slope is a track, half made and half mud called the ‘pig track’. Not being a native to Surrey, I had heard the track referred to as such, and as is the way of fitting in, I adopted the name and never asked why it was so called. Privately I wondered about the history of the name. I assumed it was an old farm track for herding animals – there are a number of ancient paths that criss-cross Box Hill. It was not an unreasonable assumption, although the escarpment these days is more usually home to fluffy black and white belted Galloway cattle with ne’er a pig in sight.

Then, very recently, I have been researching a phenomenon called ‘Psychogeography’ for another project and learned the following. A pig track is a common name for a ‘desire line’, and a desire line is a path created as a consequence of use caused by animal or human footfall. The path usually represents the shortest or most easily navigated route between origin and destination. Desire paths are often a rebellion agains the will of the planner, as creators deviate from the path designed for them.

So it turned out that this was not the first time I had heard of pig tracks – although in my defence I had never heard them referred to as such. My old geography tutor used to say that a sensible urban planner would delay setting official paths until the end users had time to explore the space. As people would naturally take the most advantageous routes, plotting paths that planners could then formalise in the more permanent way. When it comes to travel, the path of least resistance appears to be the most favourable.

But then I wondered if the concept of ‘least resistance’ is applicable elsewhere in life, so I had a scout round all the usual media channels. And well, it’s every where. We lay our own pig tracks everywhere we go, both physically and metaphorically. They’re called habits.

In a recent blog post I talked about the problem of waiting for inspiration to drive you out the door. The problem with inspiration, is that the couch is mighty comfortable, and it’s dark and cold outside and there’s an important television program you want to catch up on and there’s always another reason not to do what you would like to do. The trick is to remove enough barriers to get your shoes on.

#thedoorstepmile

You don’t need to do any of this on your own. There is a lot of help out there for people who want to realise dreams – no matter what they are. But in my opinion, the best two to start with are:

James Clear has written a wonderful book on how to break destructive habits and build constructive ones. Start here to get the basics.

Adventurer Alastair Humphreys has devoted an entire website to help you remove the barriers to allow you to take the first step.

Building habits is repetitive but not difficult. You just need to be consistent and improve by 1% each time. Take the path, see how it feels, it takes a couple of weeks to trample the grass down, if it works then great, keep ploughing. If it doesn’t then identify the barrier and either move it or go round it. Make your own personal pig track.

Going wild

When I was a girl we lived in a house. It was a compact terraced house situated on the fringes of Station Town in County Durham. The station – actually located in the adjoining village of Wingate – was no longer there (although my father could remember it) and was built to serve the local mining villages surrounding it. The line was no longer there either, ultimately a victim of Beeching in the 1960’s although declining before then, but evidence of its existence was all around us. Not only in the place names, but also in the miles of reclaimed railway lines now bridleways that cross cross their way through the villages to the coast.

When I lived there, Station Town was in the middle of the countryside in the middle of the 1970’s. Woodchip paper adorned the walls of our little house. The window frames were rotten enough to remove and climb through if you had forgotten your keys (true story) and the lino on the passageway floors was bumpy and cold to a bare foot. Heating and hot water were provided courtesy of a coal fire, chilblains were a real threat and if the wind was blowing the right way (thanks to a broken vent) it would snow on you in the bath. Life up North could be grim.

Nevertheless, there is a certain kind of being ‘alive’ when you have to embrace the seasons without the buffer of mod cons. And it wasn’t all bad. Being in the countryside as a child was a blessing. It provided places to explore and fish and hills perfect for sledging. A glorious freedom where we could stay out all night and watch the stars with an innocence not yet coloured by life.

My childhood experiences left me with a preference for cooler temperatures, a desire for exploration and a constant love of nature in all its forms. Living an adventurous life becomes much harder when you become an adult. Burdens such as responsibility, lack of time and lack of money hang around the neck of freedom. And the biggest burden of all, fear.

As a child, although cautious and risk averse, I was also reasonable fearless when it came to adventure. Not afraid of making difficult decisions, my life has taken many twists and turns over the years. But the older I get (and the increased comfort that comes with financial security) the more I seem to have to fear.

And I don’t like it.

There are many roads in life I would love to travel down. One of those is reducing the cocoon of modern life in order to experience the elemental wonders this planet has to offer. I’m talking about being in the weather, in wilderness, travelling without mod cons and allowing my body to feel, to be without the five star support. Well, realistically it’s more like three star, tea but no biscuits kind of support but you get my drift.

I want to feel alive rather than comfortably numb.

Our first micro adventures have already been completed. We loved throwing ourselves in Bude sea pool in November and the Atlantic on New Years Day. They have given us a little taste of the possibilities. So G and I have reviewed the things that are currently stopping us from seeking adventure and we’ve started to dismantle those barriers. Our next slightly bigger challenge is to wild camp. It’s been a hearts desire for a long time and now we live close enough to Dartmoor – where it’s legally permitted – its eminently doable. As soon as these bloody storms stop, we’re out there.

Ironman Austria – the supporters view

It’s widely acknowledge that when you don’t succeed at your first attempt, it takes guts to go back to the start and try again. But what about if you have a recent history that’s littered with non starts or starts that don’t result in a desired outcome?

In essence, that was the view G faced when he lined up at Ironman Austria in Klagenfurt a couple of weeks ago. G has already written about his endeavours here and so I’m not about to tell his story other than, in the interest of spoilers, the picture above shows the happy outcome of this attempt. I guess it’s just nice to put something down for posterity for when we’re old and reduced to racing bath chairs instead.

G signed up for Ironman Austria the Monday after the event last year. His failure to finish due to going off course burned bright and after a heart felt chat he decided to give it one more go. Once he’d entered, our friend Lee decided she would come back to support too. Klagenfurt is so beautiful, you can’t help but fall in love with it (and Lee was determined to upgrade rooms to experience the coffee machine and umbrellas we’d all been raving about 😂).

Ironman is hard and I felt for G. When I was training for my first attempt at Ironman Switzerland in 2009, a friend of mine, on his return from Nice a couple of weeks, before, burst into the shop and said ‘prepare for the possibility that you might fail’. It was almost laughable at the time. I had considered the possibility many times. But hidden underneath the self doubt was a glimmer of something stronger, hope that I was tough enough to get through it. My friend, the ultra runner it seems had not considered failure may be an option. It had come to him half way up the mountain climb on the cycle leg.

Plenty before and after had not finished their events either. I figured that was kind of the point of Ironman. Not the guarantee of success rather the possibility of failure. It was my motivation anyhow. But no matter how determined you are, you also require a dose of luck. And in previous attempts, G had been short of luck.

G and I were celebrating our first wedding anniversary just before heading out to Klagenfurt. We managed to squeeze in a couple of nights in Vienna before making our way over. It was beautiful, and a real highlight was swimming in the Danube launching ourselves, from one of the purpose built pontoons on the river.

Eventually, we made our way by train and bus to the Plattenwirt, our usual resting place for race week and fell into a routine, while we counted down days until the race.

On race morning, once we’d completed the domestic duties we headed over to the race start slightly earlier than normal. The race had dispensed with the mass and wave starts of the previous year and now operated a rolling start of athletes drip fed into the Worthersee.

In an attempt to given himself plenty of time at the interim bike cut off (where he had fallen foul at Hamburg, when the swim start had taken much longer than they had forecast) G decided to start further up the self seeding field. As he made his way, Lee and I took up residency on one of the piers and waited the start of the pro field. They use a cannon to announce the start, and although I know it’s coming, it really makes me jump. It’s really loud. Lee laughed so hard, three times the bloody thing got me.

Even seeding higher up the field, it still took G over 30 minutes to get in the water. Once safely in we headed back to the hotel from breakfast.

We then headed down to the swim exit and waited for G. He had predicted a time of 1.45. It came and went and nothing. But no surprises there. After days of speculation, the swim had formally been announced as no wetsuit at the race briefing. 1.50 came and went, 1.55 and then I started to worry. Nothing at 2 hours and then finally, a few minutes later he popped up at the other side of the bridge and ran towards us. It was tight but he had time if he got a shufty on. He shook his head while Lee and I screamed at him to get going. Which happily with T1 taking 7 minutes and shrapnel, he did. As he headed back towards us, this time on his bike, he had his game face on.

It was a new bike course for 2019 and would head back past the hotel at around 54 miles. Until then, the tracker watching started in earnest. Lee and I headed back to the hotel and discussed whether it for too early for alcohol.

We cheered as G crossed each timing mat and it registered his time and pace. Most importantly, the tracker also predicted finish time based on average speed. It was gratifying to show G comfortably under the interim cut off and with an hour in hand of the final T2 time. We headed out to cheer again when he came back past the hotel. He looked comfortable and was still wearing his game face as he headed out on the more familiar southern loop.

We returned back to the bar, relieved to get out of the hot sun. It was humid as well as hot and it would be tough for the athletes out there. We knew G would probably lose some time against the tracker prediction as he hit the hills early in that loop. But he would definitely gain in the later stages as the last 10 miles or so, I knew from experience, were a fast descent into T2.

Storms had been forecast for early in the afternoon. As the first of the runners started to come past the hotel, Lee and I watched in dismay as clouds started to build in the mountains to the east. The hotel was suddenly swamped with people, many of whom had been in the finish area, which had been evacuated for safety because of the suspected high winds. The first rumble of thunder growled from the dark clouds on the horizon. The crescendo built until around 10 minutes later we were consumed by the storm.

Poor G, out in the mountains, the clock ticking and no protection from the storm. We had no way of knowing where he had got to, or whether there was any shelter. I felt sick with worry. Hoping he was ok and obsessively refreshing the tracker as the clock ticked down towards his predicted 121km time.

The predicted time came and went. Five minutes, 10 minutes then 15. Each minute felt like an hour. Texts and messages started to come in. ‘Where was he? Did we have any news?’ Well, no we didn’t!

And then finally, blissfully his 121k time appeared on the app.

He was ok but he’d lost around 20 minutes to the storm. Combined with a couple of other slippages, the race to T2 was now on. More time slipped by to the next check point. This was not unexpected as it contained the climb up Rupertsberg, the biggest climb on the route. But the slip was not as big as expected, he must be flying.

The storm had now totally cleared, almost like it had never happened and I could only hope that roads were dry enough for him to welly it.

Well he did welly it and squeaked into T2 with just three minutes to spare. He had a reasonably quick turn around in transition and then headed out on to the run. Conveniently competitors came past the hotel five times before heading to the finish. We would see him first around 3km into the run, a great place to assess and see what frame of mind he was in.

Soon enough he appeared into view. He stopped and we hugged and shared tears as he expressed his fatigue at having to chase cut offs all day. It was emotionally draining. He looked well though and was in no distress. He knew what he had to do and was now calm and in control. With plenty of time to march it, barring disaster he would get to the finish.

We embraced again and then he set off. The timing mats were plentiful and he crossed them almost metronomically within a minute of his predicted time. It was a masterclass of pacing. I was so proud of him. It was great to see him pass each time, growing in confidence and smiling.

Once he’d passed the final time to head out towards the town in the final 10k, Lee and I made our way to the finish line. We danced and cheered as we waited for G watching others make their way down the magic carpet after a long day.

When G passed the timing mat just up from the hotel, he had a kilometre or so to go and we waited expectantly, trying to glimpse him through the gaps in the banner on the approach to the finish chute.

Compare Paul Kaye announced that Daniela Ryf, the female champion had made her way to the finish line to hand out medals. How cool was that and a great honour for G when he got there.

And then he was there, loving the crowd as he made his way into the chute. Lee and I were screaming at him. He almost missed us but at the last minute turned to see us and stumbled over for hugs and more tears. Then he made his way to the finish line to get his medal from Daniela. He had done it, he was an Ironman.

Clean

Puerto del Carmen – 2019

A few months ago I finally managed to realise a dream to write for the Mass Observation. Mass Observation are a social group that specialise in material that records every day life. I’ve had a life long passion in anthropology and love the work they do. They’ve been in existence since 1937 documenting the mundane in peoples lives. That’s what I love about it most – the beauty in the collection of trivial stories around a theme.

The last set of tasks involved a discussion around plastic and the first task was to list the amount of single use plastic encountered in a day. A suggestion made was to document room by room in the house. I started with the bathroom and initially entered into this task thinking it would be easy. It wasn’t long before it dawned on me how many items we use involving plastic. It was horrifying.

The next task involved thinking back to what we used to do before plastic truely started to dominate our lives. Ironically, my Dad used to work in the plastics and polymers division in ICI Wilton, in the North East. He was a perspex advocate – so much so he glazed his greenhouse with the stuff (and some of the windows in our house). But that aside, the use of plastics was definitely less. We used soap instead of bottles and bottles of unguents. Fruit and veg was either grown or bought in brown paper bags and since we would buy half a beast at a time, meat was delivered on a tray ready for prepping and freezing.

I mentioned it to G and we decided together that we would start to tackle our use of plastics with am aim to reduce as much as possible.

Last week we headed to Lanzarote for our annual trip to support Ironman Lanzarote. After the last few months of hectic living in two places and not quite in either we were due a few days of sunshine and R&R and the island didn’t disappoint. There we managed to catch up with many of our friends, old and new. The simplicity of life on holiday is compelling and what I really love is the chance to research and talk through ideas and concepts with people. Our friend, Lee, is already miles ahead of us in the environmentally friendly game and we chatted about alternatives, especially soaps. Fully sold, we got a few bits in Lanza and when we returned to Devon, sourced a community owned co-operative committed to reducing plastics use.

Soap!

One of the other topics for consideration out in Lanza was health. G and I have been implementing our ‘move more’ philosophy to great success. Already we’re feeling a lot better and G has been running and cycling amazingly well at the moment. Perfect for his trip to Ironman Austria next month.

We’ve been trying to find a lifestyle diet that will help with weight loss but be sustainable. For the last few months I’d been getting increasingly contradictory advice regarding between keto, LCHF and paleo healthy eating – which was leading to confusion.

Lee had told me that one of the pirates had been eating paleo for a while now. He’d had incredible success with it, reversing his Type II diabetes diagnosis and competing in Ironman Lanzarote (which he successfuly completed in one of the toughest years to date). Just as we were chatting about him, he appeared beside us and we took the opportunity to ask him about his lifestyle. He said he had been through the whole gamut of paleo/keto related approaches and now focussed on just four rules:

  1. Eat clean – nothing out of a packet
  2. No seed oils
  3. Swap all ‘beige’ food for vegetables
  4. Take in magnesium

It sounded completely do-able and really fired me with excitement. So, the next stage will follow these rules and add a little more structure to the ‘move more’ around swim, bike, run and weight training.

Hopefully the above will lead to us being cleaner inside and out and is one more step towards a much simpler way of life.