Round and round and round and round and round and round. And round. And round. And round some more and more and more. Seemingly ad infinitum (but not quite).
The above opening lines could describe the cyclyical nature of my attempts to become a better runner – indeed my attempts to become a runner capable of knocking out mile-after-mile of 8 minute miles. I get a bit better then take two steps back, then plan a new training regime and start the cycle again.
But the opening lines represent a brief summary of my first attempt at running a marathon.
Looking back (many months now – where has the time gone?) to my previous post, written in the French Alps where I’d run many enjoyable and fitness boosting miles while on holiday (and training for a 50K run), it’s almost annoying how quickly everything changed. Within a few hours of writing the post I was struck down with gastro enteritis – great for weight loss, not so great for running (especially when it lasts for nearly 3 weeks), and definitely not the best thing to have when faced with an 800+ mile return drive home.
Of course, I still believed that I could manage to run 50K another few weeks down the line, but despite a reasonably comfortable 22 mile run and several encouraging outings of slightly less distance, the pressures of a new job and the need to catch up with work finished off my ultra-marathon ambitions (at least for now). Allowing work to continue to decimate my training, what I lost in fitness and pace I gained in apathy.
Then I became touched and inspired by the fight of two little girls aged just 2 and 13 fighting cancer. Sure, my job was showing no imminent signs of getting easier, and I’d need to get training more but without really thinking too much about it I announced that I’d run a marathon round and round our local running track, to raise money to support families of children with cancer. A noble enough gesture but ‘noble’ alone will not complete the necessary 105 and a half laps required for 26.2 miles.
Unfortunately I allowed work to still take precedent but did manage a few important long runs, most notably a pleasing 20 miles around the hills on the edge of the Peak District in less than 3 hours 30 minutes. Even with very little running for three weeks that followed I felt confident that on a flat track I’d be able to manage the marathon in under 4 and a half hours.
When the designated day arrived just before Christmas, the early morning weather map showed ‘amber’ warnings directly above my chosen venue, a local cinder 400m track in the middle of wide open playing fields. As I arrived in the dark and climbed the fence the rain and wind were already more than just a minor irritation. Having not visited the track for at least 20 years, the uneven and already saturated surface not only frightened the hell out of me but also nearly caused me to abort the whole idea. Instead, I threw down my plastic bin liner containing several drinks bottles, jelly babies and some dry clothes, and got on with it. Twice during the next few hours I had need to chase dogs away from that bag and offer a few choice words to their owners!
The first three laps were tentative as I picked a reasonable route around the large puddles, the ankle twisting holes and the softest of the very soft patches which made it like running on a beach (as most of the track would become after three hours). The fourth lap required me to remove one trainer to empty several large pieces of gravel. In the wind, rain and dark I managed to lose my balance and my trainer-less foot splashed into a large muddy puddle. So this was it. This was how it would be then. I was not happy and this caused me to run several laps at a pace I knew I would not be able to maintain. Then it rained harder. I laughed. Then it rained harder. I was now completely soaked. I laughed more and found I was actually enjoying it. Then it rained even harder. Perhaps it wasn’t quite so much fun after all. Then it really hammered it down. “Come on you b*****ds. Is that the best you’ve got,” I shouted at the sky in what would surely have been a legendary cinematic moment had anyone else been around to film it and take it to Hollywood.
A little later a colleague ran six miles with me, my wife then helped me round for a further three, and a couple of friends added their support with shouts of encouragement (quite an achievement from them as an overweight bloke jogging round a windswept track is hardly the most riveting of spectator sports) . By 18 miles though, my left knee began to hurt. By 20 it was clear that the final six miles would require lots of walking. A few metres of hobbling was followed by a few more metres of walking which eventually became just slower hobbling. And so it would be for the final hour and a half it took me to complete the last six miles.
In his book Road to Endorphia, Joe Donnachie suggests that if you want to run, “Run for the hit. Run for the buzz. Run for the rush. Run for the surge. Run for the free drugs. Run for the biochemical bliss. Don’t run for charity. Run for clarity.” I like that piece of advice – for me running at a basic level has to be a very internal, almost private thing. I certainly use running for personal clarity. I need to run for fitness but I also need to run for sanity and pleasure – the hit, buzz, rush, surge and biochemical bliss. However, as I struggled around that track with just a few miles remaining the clarity that hit me was that finishing the run didn’t matter to me as a runner – I knew I wasn’t through with marathons and that I’d be having another go at one although probably not round a track in the worst weather in December. It didn’t matter to me as a runner but it did matter to me as a person doing the run in the name of two terribly poorly little girls. The pain in my knee (undoubtedly caused by going round and round), the wet, the cold, the miserable boredom I was now beginning to feel and the irritating fact that it was going to take me 45 minutes longer than anticipated, all paled into insignificance compared to the plight of children and families suffering infinitely more than I was.
Alone again on the track, my wife having being dispatched to go and run a hot bath for me, the clarity I took from the vast difference between my slightly uncomfortable current predicament and the truly awful situations being faced by friends and their children, spurred me on. I even managed a ‘sprint’ to finish in just under 5 hours and 15 minutes. I’d got a buzz and a refreshed enthusiasm for running, completed my first marathon, learned a little more about how lucky I am in life, and raised over £800.
Run for whatever you want. Clarity. Charity. The buzz. If you can run you’re already far better off than some.