It is day 38 of Ironman training. According to my countdown app, there are 300 days to go. That seems like a lot of time. Then I reflect on the fact that 38 days have passed since I entered it. As clichéd as it is, time time and tide wait for no Ironman.
The aim of the first 40 days has been to gently recover from a swollen and painful left Achilles and to gradually get to grips with some swimming and cycling again. In this respect, this mini block of training has been successful. I have completed 11 miles of swimming, about 400 miles of cycling, and around 50 of running. Not an enormous amount, but enough to be able to meet the aim that I had for the first 40 or so days.
Strava tells me that this week I’ve totalled 6 hours 46 minutes of training:
Swim: 2,187 yards
Bike: 59 miles
Run: 16 miles
The target for this week is to simply increase the volume:
Swim: 4000 yards
Bike: 100 miles
Run: 22 miles
Most of this will be easy Z2 stuff. The exceptions will be Wednesday’s track session and one of the bike sessions where I’ll aim to push on towards that all important 20MPH average.
There is nothing particularly glamorous or exciting about these early foundational stages. Now is not the time to push limits, it’s the time to build rock solid foundations.
I first became aware of Ironman in 2009 when the UK version of the event moved from Sherborne Castle to Bolton. It would be three years later, in 2012, when I finally got around to going to the town centre and watching part of the run. I had become more interested in running by this point. I ran as a teenager, and for a while was rather good, particularly over the middle-distance track events. For a while I thought that I would go to university and study something sports related, but bouts of illness which bookended my A-levels put paid to that and I read English. No regrets.
I lapsed into a very sedentary lifestyle, and this became a very unhealthy one. Although I occasionally ran (sometimes ‘training’ for a few weeks for a local 10K), I could never make it stick. I didn’t know why I was doing it.
In 2012, as my thirties were slowly coming to an end, I realised that I needed to do something about my weight, my relationship towards food and alcohol, my anxiety, and my complete lack of fitness. I was, to put it bluntly, a mess. But where to start?
The answer was round the corner. I live close to Leverhulme Park in Bolton. There, each Saturday at 9AM, was this thing called ‘parkrun’. It started on the very running track that as teenager I ran 400 metre reps on, ticking each one off in 57 seconds. Now, at 5K pace, the opening lap would take two minutes. But no matter, each parkrun felt like a tiny step in the right direction. I stopped smoking, stopped drinking, stopped using pizza as a crutch, and generally started to look after myself. The implications of this were more profound than I either realised at the time or have space to write about here. It is another story for another day. But for now, I started the long process of getter better.
By 2014 I was an avid Ironman spectator. On race day I’d be in town with my children, coffee in hand, shouting out to the occasional person that I recognised and generally watching this spectacle of both suffering and celebration go by. I’ll be doing this next year, I thought to myself. I quickly dismissed this idea…
The following morning I drove to the Ironman expo at transition two. At the time you could enter the following year’s event if you signed up in person and, of course, paid the fee. This I did. I was now an entrant for the 2015 Ironman UK. I would by 40 by the time the event came round, it would be a brilliant way to mark the start of a new period of life.
I had one target: to complete it.
In the years after, I still went into town to watch. I would drive out to various parts of the bike course with my daughter too. We’d watch the athletes fly past and my thoughts would be tinged with disappointment that I wasn’t out there on the course pushing myself further. I was also grateful. Grateful to have had the time, space, money and opportunity to do it. It is a brilliant way to push yourself beyond what you think you can do. But so is parkrun. So is the local marathon, and it was to these things that I continued to focus on, all the while remembering that I ran because that was the vehicle through which my belief that we can literally move ourselves towards a better version of ourselves is possible.
This year was no different. I went into town watch the run. I’d been out earlier to see some of the bike course, part of which is conviently within 5 minutes of where I live. I was struck with the thought that I must do it all again. I was sort of hoping that the idea would disappear, but the morning after all I could think about was having another go. Unlike 2014, this year you couldn’t enter in person the morning after, you had to wait until the entries opened towards the end of July. In the intervening weeks I explored all of my thoughts about why I should do it all again and it came down to this: to see how fast I can go. I know I can do one, I thought to myself. In 2022 it has to be for a different reason.
This time it’s all about how fast I can go.
I’m going to use this blog to record my training, my thoughts, and my developing ideas of how we can move towards more fulfilled versions of ourselves.
There is a sticker on a barrier in the park. It reads: resist the new world order.
I’m only walking the dog; acts of resistance seem too far down my list of things to do today. Instead, I’m wondering how I’ve recently ended up saying the wrong things and how can I put them right. Besides, I wouldn’t know where the old world order starts and the new one begins. So I plod on. Poppy, for one, is glad that I do for she is busily sniffing her way back down the path that we’ve walked on, and I’ve run on, hundreds of times.
But that tiny sticker nags away at me: resist.
Shay will have run past it around twenty times on a single run recently. Thirty one miles on a loop around the park. His first ultra distance run. Fifty kilometres in well under four hours. Each mile methodically knocked off in seven and a half minutes. His own act of resistance to fatigue and the inevitable desire to stop.
He’s had a tough year of it. His world old world order has come crashing around his ankles as first his mum died last Easter, followed a few months later by his dad. He’s now selling his parents’ home, tidying away the bits and pieces of lives that have been with him for the whole of his. He also turned fifty. He also went to work. He also cooked. He also looked after his family. If there is resistance to be celebrated, it is exactly in that moment when the old world order ceases to exist and the new version of our world isn’t yet clear. Just getting on with living can be an act of resistance: it is far too easy to crumble.
He didn’t fold or crumble. I know him well and I know this: Shay doesn’t give in.
I can’t really remember how or when I met him. One moment he wasn’t there, the next he was. Soon we were exchanging messages about running and training. I do remember one Sunday morning as I was running down Radcliffe Road. In the distance I could see his distinctive gait coming towards me. When we met, he simply turned around and came with me on my long run without explanation. One minute I was on my own, the next he was there at my side and I at his.
I couldn’t be there for his ultra run though because I had to work. I know how much it meant to him. When we run, we are by definition, neither here nor there. As we move through the landscape and past stickers that exhort us to resist, we simply are. Running is about those moments when we are dislocated from our own lives for a while and it can bring us a moment of peace. It was never about thirty one miles. It was, however, his own way of accepting the last year and resisting the pressure to give in to grief, to give in to the mind crushing, spirit smashing reality that we too will soon cease to be.
Being aware of that and still seeing the point to life is the ultimate act of resistance.
A few weeks ago I fell while I was running. Until that point things had been going well. I was running each day and, finally, the injuries and niggles that have plagued each leg seemed to have settled down.
Then I hit the tarmac. Hard.
It hurt. Nearly knocking myself out on a park bench on the way down didn’t help my mood much either. As I lay there wondering what had happened, the sweat which soaked my top quickly cooled in the February breeze and by the time I’d limped home I was shivering.
As I soaked my misery away in the bath, trying to bring my frozen hands back to life, the only thing that I was really aware of was the dreadful throbbing pain in my ankle and the remorseless ache of my hamstring. I felt utterly defeated. Again.
I struggle to articulate why I run even though I’ve done it on and off for most of my life. At times I feel like the ground is floating by as my breathing and legs fall into a magical synchronisation. At other times it completely disgusts me. I hate it.
I’ve been here many times before. To appreciate anything I think we have to have a sharp awareness that it can be taken away in a heartbeat. Or, in this case, a misplaced step on a very wet and muddy path. Over the years, running has given me the best of times and also the worst. It’s hammered home repeatedly the realisation that however well it all appears to be going nothing lasts forever.
Perhaps running and I should call it quits. My legs would certainly appreciate it and I would like to keep my head away from smacking park benches on wet Sunday mornings. Or any morning. As much as I love it, I have to admit that it never quite gives me what I want or what I think that I need. We’re on speaking terms, but my intentions never quite convince running to give me what I want. A glance at my watch confirms what I already know. If it could talk, I’d love to know what is on running’s mind. It tells me bits and pieces: an aching hip or a frozen hamstring, a sore back, lots of niggles. We don’t speak for days on end and my shoes collect dust rather than miles.
It would be easier to walk away rather than limp on like this. There are lots of other things I could do and enjoy. When I contemplate the time that I would get back it feels like a gift that opens up and leads towards that promised land of having more time. But time is all we have anyway; it’s our choices that matter. Besides, what running has taught me is that the path really does get narrower, and that is certainly no bad thing. At forty-six, I have finally learned that the prospect of having less time ahead really is a lesson in liberation. The constriction brings freedom. When our choices and time narrow, what matters is brought into sharp focus.
As I run through the park I often wonder about all the years we’ve been here. Running and me. Me and running. Each run somehow connects me to my childhood. The track I ran on as a kid, the paths that we’d train on, the fields that we lapped are all still there. Running on them is comforting. As I pass through the landscapes I have come to understand the lesson that life can only be enjoyed as we move through it. We can’t stop it and get off to observe what is happening, only to jump back in when things look a bit more to our suiting. It has to be lived in all of its messy, limping, aching, injured glory if it is to be lived at all.
I sometimes wish that I didn’t think so much. It’s incessant. I don’t write as much as I should because I’d be forced to confront things that I would rather forget. I don’t write because I’m often running. And I run to shut myself up. When I run, I can live with myself. When I don’t run, I have learned to live with a version of myself that thinks too much. Perhaps we all do. Perhaps when we turn our backs away from the things that we do to keep ourselves busy we are all left with our hopes, our dreams, our fears, and the stories that we’ve told ourselves for too long. Perhaps we all use things to distract ourselves from ourselves.
And so I’ll dig out my shoes again later today and have another go. A few laps of the park. Possibly a field. Maybe a path. I love running. The simple act of placing one foot in front of the other has brought me joy, peace, and self-acceptance. It has given me peace of mind and a sense of belonging. It has enriched my life in ways that are unfathomable until that moment when the ground floats by and the awareness of breath is all that exists. Then it all makes sense. Then I know that the injuries and falls, the niggles and aches all are there to learn from.
The release of ‘It’s A Sin’ from the second album by Pet Shop Boys marked the start of their self proclaimed ‘imperial’ phase. They’d entered that period of time when it seemed they could do no wrong. Of course, it went to number one, having been released on 15 June 1987. It seems so long ago now.
The song opens with a sample of a rocket launch countdown, typically fitting for such an overblown production. Everything seems to be thrown at it. The video, directed by Derek Jarman, is equally as arresting. The lyrical themes of the song find direct interpretation as Tennant finds himself in the role of sinner, Lowe as that of his inquisitor.
It is clearly about the perception of rights and wrongs, and it indirectly speaks to the question of how to be a gay man in Thatcher’s Britain. The Catholic Church is never too far away either. The guidance it offers has been of little use as the bridge opens: ‘Father forgive me/I tried not to do it/Turned over a new leaf/Then tore right through it’.
But it is, perhaps, in the strident verses that the full effect of the vocal takes flight: ‘At school they taught me how to be/So pure in thought and word and deed/They didn’t quite succeed.’ As the video outlines, this is hell and there is no escape: ‘Everything I’ve ever done/Everything I ever do/Every place I’ve ever been/Everywhere I’m going to/It’s a sin’.
The song doesn’t reference AIDS; that will be left to the most lyrically complex song on the album. ‘It Couldn’t Happen Here’ is that particular story; a song so beautiful in its orchestration and programming that, some thirty three years after I first heard it, can still reduce me to tears. It’s not sentimental; it’s just the price some people paid for love.
The coda of ‘It’s A Sin’ has Tennant reciting the Confiteor in Latin. He’s occasionally talked about the theatricality of the Catholic Mass, the language, the rituals, the rhythm. The confession to God and the acceptance of fault, and the child Tennant as Altar Boy is finally left behind as the song, bookended as it is by the rocket launch reaches its climax with the sampled ‘zero’. Make of that image what you will.
I haven’t seen the Channel 4 series of the same name yet. It’s had some great reviews. Lots of it was shot in Bolton and, of course, it inhabits the same themes as the song. Olly Alexander of Years and Years, who also plays Ritchie Tozer in the series, has recorded a lovely version of ‘It’s a Sin’ too. Gone is the theatricality. The vocal just lifts and lilts, never really pushing, never over-reaching. The lyrics are haunting and within the start, there is a sense of a conclusion. Devoid of the original production values, it sounds like a song to which we already know the ending: ‘When I look back upon my life/It’s always with a sense of shame/I’ve always been the one to blame.’
I say that I’d love to know how not doing the thing that you want to get better at helps you to get better at doing the thing.
I’ve found myself trying to share my screen many times over the past year. It’s the same routine each time: ‘I’m just going to share my screen. Can you all see the PowerPoint/document/screen/photo/text/my look of quiet despair?’
In essence, as a teacher, what I am trying to say is can you see what I can see? That’s what we do: we show, we tell, we model, we demonstrate. We have something that students want or need. We try and give it to them. That’s how it works.
Of course, in a period of time as politically charged and divisive as this is, ‘seeing what I can see’ has taken on an even greater resonance. The debates around COVID, Brexit, and Trump are all rooted in the idea that we have our own special and individual point of view that we should share. We get frustrated when others don’t or can’t see things as we do. Why can’t you see it? Why won’t you see what I can? What is the problem?
I get involved in an online debate about marathon running. I’m not as good at running as I would like to be. I’m doing something about this by running more. The debate takes a turn for the worse when it is suggested that ‘less running and more stretching will make me faster at the marathon’. I used to think things like this because there is a certain seductive quality to the argument that you can have more by doing less. I don’t believe this anymore; it’s nonsense. I say that I’d love to know how not doing the thing that you want to get better at helps you to get better at doing the thing. Hey kids, you can be a better writer by not writing. Listen up, you can improve your reading skills by not reading. I can get better at running by not running. I say as much. I wish I didn’t because it just sounds rude. It’s still nonsense though.
I know the mistake that I’m making before I manage to stop making it: I’m getting involved in an argument which is futile. Of all the hills to make a stand on, this is probably not the one. I try and tactfully withdraw. Instead I ignore Facebook and simply go running.
It’s a slow start, but after my creaking legs start to warm and my breathing settles I actually find myself bobbing along quite nicely. It’s Friday afternoon and it’s going dark. As the route starts to make the long climb up out of Bury back towards home I inwardly smile to myself that I’ve not wasted time. Instead of trying to win someone round to the idea that running is the sort of thing that we have to consciously work at, I’m consciously working. It doesn’t feel like work though. It feels like action
The things we run away from and the things we run towards, are choices.
It took me a long time to understand that we are the sum of our choices. That’s not to say that things don’t happen to us that are outside of our control. Clearly they do. In fact, a useful exercise for me has been to come to terms with just how little of the external world we can, do, and should control.
However, we are in control of the thoughts that we move towards and the thoughts that we can let go of. This is always within our grasp. It’s not easy to accept this and it’s not easy to live in accordance with this idea. But that doesn’t change the fact that it remains true: we can choose to move towards different thoughts, ideas, beliefs about ourselves.
When I first started running again I really struggled. I was very unfit. I’d been living in a way that was certainly not conducive to any form of athletic performance. I didn’t know how I would get any better and I didn’t have a plan beyond continuing to turn up.
The magic happens when we start showing up in our own lives.
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.