The samurai in autumn


It’s Tuesday evening and I’m already late for a Zoom meeting. Just before it’s about to start, I hear a howl of protest from my daughter who is blankly staring at her phone, exclaiming that the internet won’t work. It won’t and it doesn’t until I’ve gone through the process of turning the router off and then back on again.

It takes two minutes; it feels like an age.

As I wait for my laptop to connect I’m ruminating on the false starts that my training has had of late. In fact, to call it training is, indeed, asking a lot of the verb ‘training’. I’ve been shuffling, walking, limping, suffering. I’ve not really been running. Injury, illness, injury, busy work, then a horrendous stomach bug have all put paid to any chance of training over the last few months. False starts…I’ve had a few. And so, in my first week of being an ambassador for the Bolton Marathon it seems only fitting that I can’t actually get on to Zoom to meet everyone on time. I hate being late too.

I eventually do manage to meet everyone and what a great bunch we all appear to be. I’m already enjoying the community that has built up around this event and I’m really looking forward to watching everyone progress and to learning from them all. We have a Facebook training group and some of the names and faces are already familiar to me. Come and join us!

I spend the rest of the week trying to cut out some time each evening to do some running. Everything is around 9 – 10 minute mile pace and it feels much harder than it should be. I can feel the 14 pounds that I have put on since we first went into lockdown. They are under my ribs, round my neck, on my chest. I know that, when I get my act together and start to eat like a responsible adult again, they will go. As someone who spent a lot of his life eating like Homer Simpson (and looking like him too), I’m always aware of how easy it is to fall back into destructive habits. On Saturday I make a mental note to actually do something about it again. I’ll start on Monday, I make the mistake of thinking.

I get to the weekend feeling full of optimism. Last weekend I was full of a stomach bug, so it’s great to be up and out to watch the little one play football. In the afternoon, we watch BWFC lose and even that can’t dampen the feeling that it’s ok not be where I thought I would be. Yes, I’m really unfit compared to where I was at the start of the year, and that’s ok. I jog round Leverhulme and make a film about why it’s all alright.

The highlight of the week is running with Chris.  It’s months since we’ve been able to. I manage 8 miles. We’re both chatting away, both taking some comfort from the fact that although this year hasn’t really worked out for us, with a change of perspective, perhaps it’s all meant to be. We are where we are and that’s ok. I’m thinking of my friend Shay. He can’t run with us today and I’m hoping that he’s ok too.

In the afternoon I walk another couple of miles with the dog. I stop and take a photo of a tree. It’s a habit I’ve got into this year and I’m finding it relaxing to take a little time out and observe nature do its thing.

The first shot is awful and half of a branch is missing. I have to twist a bit round a puddle that’s formed on the grass. As I do, I’m reminded of the lines in a Pet Shop Boys song, ‘Its not as easy as it was, or as difficult as it could be/For the Samurai in autumn’. It’s not. It’s not as easy as it was or as difficult as it could be. That’s running. That’s life. And, mostly, that’s ok.

Week one: 32 miles

Another short jog

A short run


I held her hand as she slipped in and out of consciousness.

My mum died 16 years ago today; my grief has almost come of age.

No longer does it wake me up screaming through the silence of the night. No longer does it unexpectedly disturb my thoughts during the day, creeping around like a silent intruder. At 16 years old it’s matured into something that just is. It is present in my life, but no longer is it my life. I never thought I’d get here. The road has been hard.

I’m glad that I hung on. There were times when I didn’t want to. I’d sit in a confusion of anguish trying to understand how it is that absence can be such an immense presence. When we grieve we feel the presence of absence. It hurts and it’s confusing. It is the price we pay for love.

I miss her still. I think of her each day. But I have also accepted, finally, that she is gone. I had chance to say goodbye all of those years ago, but it is only really in the last few years that I’ve understood what that means. I held her hand as she slipped in and out of consciousness. The gentle buzz of the syringe driver occasionally delivering morphine, a softly spoken word, the June sun creeping through the trees outside. We said goodbye. And we also said how much we loved her.

We walk from the beach to the car. The late evening sun is dropping to the horizon and as it does the shadows from the bridge’s steel make intricate shadows on the road. It’s the night before I write these words and I’m thinking of what life was like those 16 years ago. I don’t muse for long because my own children are pushing each other, playing, running, attempting to climb the concrete foundations of the bridge. Children are the embodiment of the present tense. I stop to take a photo for the sky is as it was all that time ago: it’s a beautiful vivid blue. I capture a gull hovering over us, framed by the concrete, steel, and the faintest wisp of cloud. She would have liked that picture, I think to myself.

I take hold of my son’s hand and cross the road. 

Bolton Marathon 2021 – weeks 3 and 4

The pavements of Bolton sparkle at times.

(01/06/20 – 14/06/20)

One of the abiding images from my childhood is glue-sniffing. I didn’t do it, but plenty of people did. I’d see them on a boundary wall of an abandoned cricket club near to where we lived. They were easy enough to spot with their faces submerged in polythene bags; when they emerged it was often with the telltale sores and scabs adorning edges of their mouths and the tips of their noses.

For far too many the mid 1980s was a grim time. It’s easy to see why so many who felt hopeless or disempowered felt the need to get out of it. I certainly did – but my own escape was not in solvents but in books, stories, narratives and my own imagination. Many were not so lucky.

The pavements of Bolton sparkle at times. You notice it frequently while running. A sudden glint, a shine, a sparkle that catches the corner of your eye. Invariably it’s from a used canister of nitrous oxide. Any association with a potentially bejeweled pavement evaporates quickly when you see them for what they are. Litter. The leftovers from an attempt to disassociate. The refuse of a desperate escapologist.

The irony is that I seem to notice them more when I’m running. I run not because I want to escape the present, but rather because I want a better future. It seems to me that these ubiquitous canisters are symbols of lives lived the other way round: a desire to get out of the present with scant regard for the future.

As I build for the future Bolton Marathon I feel that it’s been a positive two weeks. I’ve run 118 miles. I’ve completed two sessions and also two long runs. Saturday’s long run came in under 8 minute miles, which considering I’d run a hard 10 mile hill session the evening before was pleasing progress. I’ve lost 4 pounds too. It’s been great to run with friends after a long period of not being able to. As we dodge the used silver canisters littering the pavements on our routes, I hope we can continue to push on to better times.

Bolton Marathon 2021 – week 2

I’ve felt like a runner again for the first time in a while.

(WC 25/05/20)

I bought a pair of Saucony Jazz this week. I’ve had a pair before and liked the lightness of them. Great for parkruns and faster tempo runs where you want to be up on your toes a little bit more.

I took them out for a short run early one morning before quickly realising that I’m not at the stage of being up on my toes just yet. They felt hard underfoot and whatever the Everrun foam is, they didn’t inspire any confidence that I could run forever. I’m still too heavy. I’m looking forward to the day when parkrun returns and when at least a stone of my middle has disappeared again. I think the shoes will be just fine then.

I ran 58 miles this week. Longest run was 17 miles at a very sedate 8:30 m/m and I also did a session in the heat. It felt fantastic to dip under 5 minute miling for part of the 400 metre reps. I’ve felt like a runner again for the first time in a while and although it’s clear where I need to develop, it’s also clear to me that my motivation is high and my willingness to get stuck in is likewise.

Bolton Marathon 2021 – week 1

I’ll be out on the trails while the sun shines.

(WC 18/05/20)

As I tap away, the sun shines. As I write, the disappointment that I felt last week at not running the Bolton Marathon has been replaced by a determination to make next year’s event a personal success. I will go boldly over the next twelve months.

A year is a long time in running. The time has to be broken down into phases and those periods into weeks, into days, into runs.

The aim this week has simply been to run very easily. After observing a period of self-isolation I’ve now completed six weeks of building up my mileage slowly to fifty-three mostly slow, easy miles. I’m back to running every day and have done for the last four weeks. Clearly this is just base building. The marathon demands a huge aerobic base and the results reward those who successfully train to push the range of their aerobic fitness.

So the aim for next week is to run sixty miles. I’ll do some form of session in there too. Calling it a session maybe a bit of a push, because in all honesty it’ll simply be something like 8 x 1 minute of quicker running. But this will be the start of explicitly addressing the notion that I will need to be running much, much quicker over the marathon next year.

The other area that I am going to concentrate on this next week is nutrition. I’ve put twelve pounds on during lockdown: partly due to a decrease in running; partly due to the fact that I’m not as active during the day; partly due to the fact that through that unhealthy mixture of stress and anxiety, I have lapsed back into eating too much. I started training for the marathon at 172 pounds. By the time that we had to isolate I was 168. I am now 182 pounds. Oh dear!

I’ll be out on the trails while the sun shines. We’ve had some very warm days recently. They have been a lovely counterpoint to some dark times.

I’m just not good enough, my son

I’m already explaining to him why I can’t win a marathon. Not now, not ever. I’m just not good enough, my son.

I go running with my 8 year old son. We walk, jog, run, sprint. We talk as we make our way down ‘secret’ paths and trails with the spring sun on our faces.

He asks me about the Bolton Marathon an event which he knows I am training for. Was training for.

I explain to him that the event has been cancelled because of the coronavirus and that it won’t be on until next year. I tell him that although I’m disappointed, I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. The health of him, his sister, my wife, our family. It’s a difficult time I tell him, but it’s just a race.

He looks at me earnestly and tells me that with an extra year I should be able to win it. I smile at his innocence and away we trot. He sprints ahead and wins the imaginary race that he’s now placed himself in. It is, however, a race of one because I falter and stop with his words ringing in my ears: you should be able to win it dad.

He’s only just turned 8. The world is still a bit win or lose for him. I find myself assessing my own position in a marathon that will not take place. I’m certainly not first. I default to the monologue that plays out at times like this: you’re just not good enough. Before I know it I’ve imagined myself on the finish line with a dull feeling of disappointment hovering somewhere between my head and stomach. I’ve been OK. I’ve not been bad. I’ve had a decent run. I’m in the results, somewhere. I’m already explaining to him why I can’t win a marathon. Not now, not ever. I’m just not good enough, my son.

Before I know it I’ve made a list of reasons why I can’t win a marathon. It’s a great list: I’m too old; I’ve not got the genetic potential; I’ve done too much damage to my body through previously smoking, drinking, being overweight; I’m just not that type of runner; I’m just not good enough; my work is too time demanding; I’m too busy; I’m just not good enough; I’m scared of really trying; I’m just not good enough; I’m frightened of having a go. It’s all true. It’s all lies. And it’s all true.

Ahead of me the path opens out on to a field and it is to this that my son and dog now charge on to. Before I take another step, habit forces me to scan the edges. I’m a careful parent and imagined danger lurks behind each bush and besides every tree. The field is expansive. It stretches away to my left. I’ve run on it many times and in the summer the dark, densely bladed green somehow feels cooler than the road that edges one side. With his arms raised in victory and his eyes raised to the sky my son proclaims that he is the winner. He’s done it. In his mind he’s already collected his medal and is busy celebrating his victory with the dog.

In that moment I know that I have to get out of my own way. I understand that I have to stop asking for permission. I have to promise to myself to stop making excuses however reasonable they may seem. I have to make this next year count. I have to make all this running mean something. I have to win my own race.

But mostly, I have to get off this well-trodden path and join him.