Sixteen

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.

Numbers

I didn’t know I had it the wrong way round: I had to provide life with love before it gave me any back. We have to give away what we care about.

I struggle with balance. To my detriment, I can be all or nothing. My personal challenge this week has been to let go of thinking about structure and simply running and stopping when I want. No smart watch, no Strava, no numbers. It’s been the perfect counterbalance to these uncertain times.

There have been times over the last few weeks when I’ve felt despair. As the numbers of dead have increased I have wished I could do more, be more, help more. The grim graphs, charts, facts and numbers fail to capture the human cost that this crisis is charging us all. I look on at the many hundreds of deaths each day and feel nothing other than a dull numbness. Perhaps we all do.

This virus is going to leave its mark on all of our lives. We will be stained by the tragedy of tens of thousands dying. But our lives can still also be coloured by beauty, by love, and by light. I have had a period of my life, some years ago now, where I wanted out. I lived as if life couldn’t provide me with any of those things. I didn’t know I had it the wrong way round: I had to provide life with love before it gave me any back. We have to give away what we care about.

However we are dealing with the uncertainty, the pain, the illness, the numbers, the fear and the need, we shouldn’t lose sight of what we can still give life. Life is beautiful and so astonishingly incomprehensible that, sometimes, all we can give is our commitment to take it one step at a time, continue to remind ourselves how precious it all is, and to look up at the trees.

Turquoise shell suits, sunlight, David Icke

“Let yourself go. Pull out from the depths those thoughts that you do not understand, and spread them out in the sunlight and know the meaning of them.”

E.M. Forster, ‘A Room With A View’

I remember David Icke from his football journalism days. My Saturdays would be spent watching wrestling at lunchtime, football on the Saint and Greavsie show, followed by Grandstand in which Icke would pop up at various points reporting on the various sporting events that, at least in my eyes, Saturday afternoons seemed to revolve around. The world seemed much smaller then, constricted, as it was, by routine, by school, by the fact that everywhere we lived seemed like a copy of the last suburban avenue we’d lived on. Grandstand was a weekly ticket to somewhere different.

David Icke opened a window into another world. He’d pop up in different places. In 1988 he reported on the Olympic Games in Seoul, a place which seemed so impossibly far away that I would devour every last scrap of coverage that I could just to glimpse a setting that my limited imagination struggled to bring into focus. Images were scarce. When my weekly Beano arrived I would stare transfixed at the pictures and the colours in such a way that hours would pass before I’d come back to the realisation that I’d finished the comic hours ago and was now simply reading and rereading. It’s impossible to underestimate just how few images we had in the 80s. All of that sports coverage took me to the places I wanted to visit and to the people I wanted to be like.

Then he started wearing turquoise shell suits and the rest is history.

Except it isn’t.

These are bewildering times. We’re bombarded with images, data, facts, opinions, comments. Who knows? Where to turn? What to do other than stay put? Stay at home, save the NHS, save lives. 

I’m not a conspiracy theorist. History teaches us that we don’t need to be. People can already be messed up enough. Adding an additional story to the depravity that we can, at times, collectively sink to just seems like narrative overkill. Maybe it’s my own shocking lack of curiosity about the world we live in. Maybe it’s the fact that I don’t think that tin-foil hats are a good look. Maybe I just can’t be bothered to peep in to the rabbit holes that conspiracy theorists seem to love. It’s all of those things.

Of course, the David Ickes of the world are pumping out lots of theories about why COVID-19 has struck us at this point. It’s a Chinese plot; it’s the new 5G networks; it’s something to do with how vaccinations control us. Lizards are disguised as bankers. It sounds even better when voiced over an urgently thrumming baseline on a YouTube video. By better, I mean even more bonkers. If you gaze into the abyss…

A few years ago I taught E.M. Forster’s wonderful novel A Room With a View. It’s a coming of age story. At the centre of the novel lies the metaphor of the room. It’s about how we need constriction to frame our lives and about how without such constriction, there is no freedom. The one needs the other, both conceptually and literally. I’ve been thinking about it a lot while we’ve been homebound. Our freedoms seem curtailed, and yet we’re more free than ever to share what we like. What we choose to share should, in Forster’s words, be able to be spread out in the sunlight. It’s the light that we should be drawn to: the evidence, the objective, the science.

Icke now believes that a genetically modified human-hybrid race of reptiles called the ‘Babylonian Brotherhood’ controls us all by manipulating global events. Quite how that stands up to the scrutiny of the sunlight is beyond me. And yet amongst some conspiracy theorists his views have gone viral.

Interestingly, it would appear that the virus is destroyed by sunlight.

Top of the hill

I forget just how far I’ve come sometimes.

It’s never a particularly good sign to be vomiting at just after nine o’clock on a Saturday morning; it’s even worse when you do it repeatedly. Each week, when I first started doing Bolton parkrun, I’d veer off the course at the top of what is affectionately known as Cruella D’Hill and leg it, as fast as my wobbly legs could, to a bush on the left hand side of the path just after it gently curves away. Behind there I’d wretch and writhe, emptying the contents of my stomach on to the ground below.

I’d invariably have had some beer and wine the night before. Perhaps a curry. Definitely more beer; probably more wine. And then more beer. I’d waddle round to parkrun for reasons which, some 8 years later, are only really starting to become clear to me. Then I’d run, or at least I’d attempt to run, round the course before feeling the sucker punch at the base of my stomach extending up through my back and, somehow, into my burning lungs. To say that I was unfit is somewhat of an understatement. I was unfit to run, and unfit to really function properly on a Saturday morning.

All that feels like a long time ago now.

Yesterday, I ran round parkrun. I’ve done nearly 250. But yesterday was special because I felt like I was running. I’ve been quicker. I’ve been much quicker on different courses. But yesterday felt like I was actually running again, and it felt great. Really great. Progress can feel fantastic.

I forget just how far I’ve come sometimes. Today, as I write this, I should be running. I should be running 23 miles as part of my training for the Bolton Marathon which is just 10 weeks away. I didn’t sleep properly last night: writhing and wretching again. This time, not through alcohol, but through one of those pesky stomach bugs that keep you from wandering too far from the bathroom. When I messaged my friend to say that I couldn’t make it, I felt like I’d let him down, and I felt (for the briefest of moments) that I’d also let myself down. My mind can sometimes play tricks on me and convince me that I still drink, still smoke, still eat everything in sight. Running calms me and this morning, for a moment, I really needed to run…but couldn’t. I felt that everything that I’ve managed to somehow do over the last few years had gone simply because I couldn’t make it out of the house.

In psychology we call this ‘catastrophic thinking’. Running has helped me to deal with such a disordered way of viewing the world. I (mostly) no longer think in these terms. The simple act of putting one foot in front of the other has helped to change my life.

Yesterday’s Bolton parkrun was fantastic. I no longer veer off the course to be sick. It is not who I am or what I do anymore. I do nod to the bush at the top of the hill each time I pass it though. Not because I want to dwell on what I used to do, but because I’m grateful that, like the hill I’ve just run up, it’s behind me.

A way with words

I suppose that this is a promise to a mum who I can’t fully remember. She died before the iPhone, she never appeared in any Instagram story.

Although I can’t remember the way that her voice sounded, I do remember her saying, ‘You’ve a way with words, you have.’

One of the most painful of losses is that of memory. I can’t remember the way that my mum talked. It hurts. She died in 2004. I wish that I could still hear her voice.

I do remember some of the things that she said and this offers me moments of consolation, particularly when I want to pick up the phone and talk to her. I remember being a very nervous boy. One day, at around the age of four, I plucked up the courage to try and explain why I didn’t want to go the the playgroup because I’d rather stay in the library that we often visited beforehand. Unless my memory is playing tricks with me the library sat in the shadow of St Botolph’s Church, otherwise known as Boston Stump, and it was here that I’d spend as much time as I could getting my hands on books and getting my head elsewhere. My explanation must have been convincing, ‘You’ve a way with words, you have.’

I never saw it like that. I just wanted to be away with words: elsewhere, somewhere, detached, not here in my own life. Away with words. I still want this.

I’ve written a lot. It’s all hidden away in electronic documents that speak to my haunted sense of my own past. It’s electronic gothic. At some point I know that I’ll need to be away with words if I’m ever going to put them into some sort of order. There’s a book in there alongside notes about running and how I came to terms with my fear of death. There are reflections on teaching and memories that I’d rather stay away from. Of course, there are truths that I’d rather not tell. It’s all humdrum and banal, but it’s all I’ve got to show for my time spent with stiff shoulders staring at a screen.  I know that I need to do something with it all. Perhaps I knew all along and have been too scared to admit it.

I suppose that this is a promise to a mum who I can’t fully remember. She died before the iPhone, she never appeared in any Instagram story. But still… I can still make a promise to her that, yes, reluctantly I may indeed have a way with words and I should do something with them. I should shape, craft and mould them into some sort of order. I can’t promise her that they will be any good, but I’m at that stage of middle age where I’m liberated from all that angst and uncertainty. I might not be able to hear her voice clearly anymore, but I’m finally OK with my own. Perhaps her own endlessly loving words taught me that.

This used to be the future

I’m not crippled with anxiety any more. I have my moments, but I know how to manage it.

It’s Sunday. I’m walking over a shopping precinct in Swinton trying to remember where I’ve parked my car.

I’ve just finished recording the audio to a radio show in which I’ve been interviewed about running, mental health, happiness and, well, life. It’s sunny. It wasn’t when I arrived, but now, some ninety minutes later, the sun is warm enough to feel on my face and bright enough to illuminate the shady corners of this 1960s vision of what the future might be.

I find a Greggs and buy a coffee. I buy some water too as I’m thirsty after a morning of talking, thinking, and nervously worrying about what I’m going to say. Do I admit that I’m really a bundle of nervous anxiety? Do I give voice to the fear that I still succumb to of dying? And then I remember how far I’ve come since I laced up my running shoes and replaced nights on the booze with nights on the road, on the trails, the tracks and the treadmills. I’m not crippled with anxiety any more. I have my moments, but I know how to manage it. I’m not full of fear of the unknown anymore. I sometimes forget this.

I sip my coffee and take a photo. The sun is peeking through the February cloud cover. For the briefest of moments I realise that my anxiety is a relic: I’m not anxious without reason anymore. I’m happy. I’ve no idea what I used to be so fearful of. Many was the Sunday that I simply couldn’t face the world.

This used to be the future.