IT’S Saturday, a week before I’m taking part in a local trail relay race and I don’t know the route. All I know is that I start at point A (Cannon Hall) and finish at point B (the Yorkshire Sculpture Park). I know how to get from A to B on the road, but this is an off-road race.
‘If we don’t recce it today, we’re not going to get time,’ I tell Chris, trying not to let my panic show. ‘We could go tonight and take the dogs.’
‘You want to do it with the dogs?’
I look at the dogs, curled up in their basket looking like the calmest, sweetest dogs in the world. The bigger dog lifts his head and wags his tail.
‘See, he wants to come. We’ll go later when no-one’s around.’
The dogs are not good with other dogs or people. After 10 years of trying various training techniques, we’ve given up. Instead we take them out very early or very late, avoiding other dogs and people.
‘It’ll be nice,’ I say, imagining a peaceful walk in the country.
‘Sounds like a plan,’ Chris says.
From his basket, the bigger dog barks.
At seven o’clock we pull into the car park of the Georgian country house and its acres of parkland. Even though it’s Saturday night, it’s busy. My heart sinks.
From the boot of the car, the dogs start going ballistic.
‘It’ll be quieter when we get out of the park,’ Chris says, already marching the bigger dog towards the exit.
I follow with the little dog and soon we’re out of the immaculate gardens and onto the wilderness of the Barnsley boundary. Things are quieter here. We walk in silence, enjoying the peace. And then Chris stops, looks around.
‘You do know the way?’ I say.
‘I think it’s this way.’
‘What do you mean, think? You said you knew it.’
‘I ran it once four years ago,’ Chris says. ‘And you were with me.’
‘Was I?’ I look around. I’ve no recollection of ever having been here before. ‘Well, you’ve got a good memory. You raced it before. You should remember’ My voice is rising. It’s only a few days until race day. If we don’t work out the route, I’m going to get lost.
We carry on, not sure if we’re going the right way or not. And then, on the ground, I see it. A red arrow.
‘Look,’ I point. A running friend mentioned she’d been out on the route and would mark it out to help me. I thought she might drop breadcrumbs or something. I had no idea she was going to spray paint the countryside, but this is a welcome bit of graffiti.
We cross field after field, climbing higher and higher. The little dog is much quicker than me on the climbs, so I let him off the lead. He runs ahead, leaping through the long grass.
‘Bless him,’ I say. And at the exact moment I’m admiring the cuteness of my dog, another even smaller dog, a chihuahua, appears from nowhere, racing towards us, mouth curled in a snarl. A woman on a mobile phone is in hot pursuit.
‘Bloody hell,’ Chris says.
‘Hunter,’ the woman shouts running towards us, still clutching the mobile phone to her ear. ‘Hunter, get back here!’
Hunter takes no notice and inches closer, intent on sniffing my dog’s bum. Surprisingly, the little dog is taking this rather well, but after three sniffs he’s had enough. He turns and growls, ready to pounce. Just in time, the woman snatches her dog and tucks him under her armpit.
Saved from further humiliation our little dog picks up the pace. We enter a wood, climb a bit higher, into another wood and then we’re back on the road, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in sight. There’s another arrow pointing right to the bottom of the hill.
‘Nearly there,’ I say, walking ahead, feeling triumphant that we’ve survived a family walk with only a few hiccups.
At the bottom of the hill, I stop. A herd of cows is heading towards us. Hundreds of them, almost-but-not-quite like a stampede. One of them stands next to the stile, blocking our way into the field.
‘Excuse me,’ I say, tiptoeing closer.
She turns her head, looks at me. She doesn’t budge. Her friends gather round.
‘I’m not going in.’ I turn to Chris. My heart is beating about a million times a minute and I feel very hot.
‘You have to.’ Chris looks as panicked as I feel.
‘How else are we going to get home?’ He looks at his watch. ‘We’ve already been out for two hours and —’
‘I’m not bothered! I am not getting into a field with cows.’
‘If you want to get in that field, then do it.’ I point at the big cow. ‘You hurdle it. I’m not.’
With a determined look on his face, Chris steps closer trying to nudge her away. She stands firm.
‘Stubborn cow,’ he mutters.
‘She’s pissed off,’ I say because without a doubt that is the face of a pissed off cow. I walk away, back up the hill.
‘What about the race?’ Chris says, catching me up.
‘If I have to get into a field of cows, I’m not doing it.’
We take a two-mile de-tour on the road, passing through farms. Not speaking. The sky is clouding, the rain falling. From one of the sheds at the side of the road we hear a deep, menacing, ‘Mooooooo.’
I set off running.