Missing In Action

If the ‘World’s Toughest Foot Race’ was merely a race to develop the world’s toughest foot, I’d be laughing. I’d spend a couple of weeks firewalking in Haiti, soak the old plates of meat in permanganate, and bingo! – I’d be quaffing my Special Brew from the Jordan Desert Cup by Christmas.

However, there’s rather more to the event than the description suggests. The most alarming of its many alarming features is that it’s non-stop. So within a few hours, the runners will be strung out sparsely across the desert – and instead of simply following the bunch in front, I shall be forced to navigate for myself.

This would be fine if I weren’t directionally dyslexic. I couldn’t land a kite on Africa. If I’d been Captain Cook, I’d have tried to colonise the Isle of Sheppey. Don’t wave your maps at me – you might as well show me hieroglyphs from the Rosetta Stone.

So, profoundly insecure in this knowledge, I decided to practise with a modest orienteering event. Twelve miles through the tame, gently undulating heathlands of Surrey, I decided, might just awaken the migrating bird in me, fan into life the primitive homing instincts that must surely smoulder in the bowels of even the most city-softened among us.

I directed a confident, cheery wave to the loved ones as we trotted away from the prosperous little commuter town into the leafy lanes and neatly manicured paddocks of the Green Belt. The sun smiled down. Martins darted under eves of immaculate thatch. Dragonflies sported over serene streams, caressed by the fronds of stately willows.

This was going to be a doddle.

Eight hours later I was crashing, wide-eyed and breathless, through a thicket of malevolent brambles. My arms and legs were ripped by thorns, spotted with the burning Braille of nettles.

The sun, apparently, had smiled on Surrey enough for one day. There was a damp chill in the air and a malicious breeze was rattling the dry sticks of the coppice.

Something stirred, off to the left in a dense stand of birch. “Hello?” I called. “Is that Checkpoint Three?” It wasn’t. It was a Muntjac – a dwarf deer imported recklessly from exotic parts and now bent on devouring the rare plants and treelets that your decent, British deer wouldn’t stoop to.

Exhausted, I slumped against a tree and rummaged in my rucksack for the map. I stared at it with my most rugged and eagle-eyed outdoor look. It smirked back at me and stuck its tongue out. I turned it upside down – or was it downside up?

I refuse to be intimidated by a pattern of wiggly, coloured lines. So I smoothed the map over a log, and with my index finger traced random routes across it. I thought it might make more sense if I frowned and bit my lower lip, the way the professionals do. Eventually, I picked it up and tore it into approximately 300 pieces. Then I stuffed it down a rat hole.

Now in my view, The Blair Witch Project doesn’t have a great deal to tell us. But it’s right about one thing: when you’re lost in a wood, it’s not a good idea to throw away the map.

It was dark now, and I was very, very edgy. Don’t believe the conservationists when they tell you all the interesting animals are extinct. The woods are crawling with stuff. Stuff that bites you, stuff that stings you, and stuff that just crashes around and scares the shit out of you.

(It’s a fact that many thousands of wild animals have escaped from the private zoos of Surrey’s obscenely rich. When out on a cycle ride once, my friend John Mundy nearly ran over a wallaby.)

And here’s another thing: given that you can’t organise a test match or even a bloody barbecue without it getting rained off, how come, when you’re really up against it, you can’t find a single cubic centimetre of water to drink?

By the time morning began to filter through the birch trees and the wolves had retreated to their secret Surrey lairs, I was almost dead from thirst. Still, as I reasoned later to my distraught wife, there are no woods in the Jordan desert.

Strangely, she was not reassured.