Resistance

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. 

All the years we’ve been here

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. 

Running does speak. I just need to listen. 

It’s A Sin

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.’

Share screen

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?’

We show, we tell, we model, we demonstrate

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

Strava

Where is it all going?

BOLTON MARATHON 2020 TRAINING, WEEK FIVE

It’s a week ago.

We’re trotting round the park. The sun is bright and in the distance we see lots of runners who, out of habit, have also chosen to get a few miles in at 9AM on a Saturday morning. The air is still and the leaves have fallen, lending the ground various shades of gold, yellow, and in places, red. We’re running at 9 minute miles. Hardly breathing. The whole run has a dream-like quality and we both remark that we could probably run all day.

My friend Shay turns and asks, ‘Where is it all going?’

At first I think that he is talking about the paths and trails, for some twist away to various other open spaces and some hidden places. I realise within the next few steps that he is, of course, talking metaphorically – where is this all leading to?

It’s a question that I often ask. My answer is always the fact that it doesn’t matter. I return home from running in a better frame of mind than when I left. My mind is still. My lungs feel clean. My body tired. All is good. Running is enough. But this marathon has also grabbed my attention in other ways. By how much can I improve? Can I get any better? Where are my limits? Sure, I want to continue to feel grounded and happier after each run. And yet, perhaps, at 45 I also have to face the reality that I won’t have forever in which to improve and in which to really push myself harder than I have before.

So yes, Shay, where is it all going?

The answer is simple. My goal clear; my target unambiguous.

I want to run the Bolton Marathon in under three hours next May.

It’s a proper challenge for a proper marathon. My current PB is on a flat course. My current PB is 3:28. Getting down to this from my slowest marathon of 4:45 has been a hugely rewarding effort. I have no idea if I’m capable of running a marathon in under three hours on any course, let alone on one as hilly as Bolton. I’m about as unsure of whether I can do this as I am certain. I have no idea if I am physically capable. None.

To me, the feeling of challenging ourselves in the hope that we can learn something about where our limits lie is priceless. To me, it is the very stuff of life. To me, the future memory of having run a marathon in under three hours is what is going to get me out on the roads. I’ll be listening, learning, watching, observing as much as I can. I’ll be sharing what I learn on the way. And mostly, I’ll be convincing myself that I can somehow do it.

It’s nothing personal


BOLTON MARATHON TRAINING (2021), WEEK THREE

I was up and out running this morning before anyone really noticed. I returned 13 miles later and nobody particularly cared.

Great!

My children don’t really know about the time before I ran: miserable, overweight, unfit, hopeless. I’m pleased that running has become something so unexceptional that they see it as normal. Perhaps, one day, they too will run because it’s the normal thing to do. It never bothers me that they hardly notice that I’ve been out. It’s nothing personal.

And yet, of course, running is entirely personal. We have our own reasons and our own motivations. Or at least we should have our own reasons; rarely have I met a runner who is doing it solely for someone else. Marathon training seems to be an exercise in continuing to focus on these reasons. I coach and mentor a lot of people (not in running, alas) and the reasons why people want to achieve a particular goal are always interesting – at least they are once they’ve finally been revealed. It can take a while to finally enable people to articulate why they want to do something. The more coherent the ‘why’, the more definitive the ‘why’, the greater chance of them being successful because they have a solid mental framework within which to locate their efforts. Success is always personal and it’s always an inside job.

All of this I’ve thinking about at various points this week. I’ve run 53 miles. Most of these have been really easy, some of them have been steady, a couple have been a bit quicker. It’s still very much the foundation stage of training which really does allow us time to think and ponder why we’re doing it. My ‘why’ is simple: I want to improve over the distance. There’s a ‘why behind the why’ (there always is!): I want to prove to myself that at 46 I can continue to step away from the wreckage that was once my mental and physical health. There are other ‘whys’ there too, but I’ll save those for another blog if you don’t mind. It’s nothing personal.

Lots of easy running…lots of time to think about why

Next week it’s more of the same. The long run will be about 14 miles and the session will be 5 x 2 minutes. It’s nothing too hard, nothing too taxing at this stage. The mini-session I did this week was 3 x 2 minutes and it hurt towards the end. I could get frustrated that this was the sort of thing that I could do in my sleep at the start of the year; but that’s life and injury, that’s lockdown and illness.

Besides, it’s nothing personal!

Week three: 53 miles

The problem with motivation

BOLTON MARATHON TRAINING (2021), WEEK TWO

Running is, at heart, an incredibly simple activity. The fact that so much has been written about it doesn’t take away from this essential truth about running: it’s about putting one foot in front of the other.

If we want to run faster, we have to run, at times, faster. If we want to go longer, we have to run, at times, longer. When we need to recover, we go slower. It’s as basic as that. It’s also an honest sport. Nearly all runners get better through running more. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. But if we look at what the best do, the one thing that I guarantee that they have in common and the thing that sets them apart from me is simply the volume of miles that they run.

I’ve been asking the best runners that I know about how they go about training for a marathon. All have said ‘run more’.

Interestingly, nobody has said work on your motivation. It’s interesting, but not really surprising for me. I’ve worked as a teacher for the last 20 years. I’ve lost count of the the number of teachers I’ve mentored, coached, trained, guided and advised. Successful teachers are the ones who get the work done. Successful students are the ones who get the work done. Like the marathon, successful examination results are based on actions, not motivation. I’m not hugely interested in what people say they are going to do. I am fascinated by what people have done. I explain this to students almost every day for I honestly believe that our fascination with motivation is damaging.

Here’s why:

If I waited until I was motivated, I’d hardly ever run. I’m not motivated to run at 8PM when I’ve been up since 5AM and I’ve already done 12,000 steps at work. How motivated I am at 8PM is utterly irrelevant. What matters is simply getting the work done.

The marathon does not care how motivated I am. How motivated I have been in my training won’t help at all when things get really challenging. What will matter is how well prepared I am. What will matter is the miles that I have run in training. Mental strength in the marathon comes from knowing that I did the work even when I didn’t want to.

Motivation often follows the action. I think that motivation means being in the right frame of mind. This is why I run. It helps my frame of mind. And that’s why I’m not bothered about how motivated I am when I step out the door. It doesn’t matter because I know that I will return home feeling in a better frame of mind. My motivation rises after I’ve been running.

We don’t need to be motivated to do anything. This is a bit of a con. We just need to do it. These days I keep it simple. Do I want to do well I the marathon? Yes. Then I need to get the work done. Adding in to this simple equation the question of how motivated I am or am not risks derailing the whole project.

A proper marathon deserves proper training. Motivation is optional.

I’ve been mulling all of this over this week. It’s been my second week as a Bolton Marathon Ambassador. I’ve covered slightly more than last week and most of it has been really comfortable. This is the foundation stage of the training and the aim is getting fit enough to do the training that I want to do in the final eighteen weeks before the marathon. I have decided that each week I’ll end one of the runs with a mile that is quicker. I ended Tuesday’s run with a mile at 7:10. It dawned on me that this is still over 20 seconds slower than sub 3 hour pace. A 2:45 marathon is a staggering 6:17 minutes per mile. There is a lot to do and yes, I am motivated to do it. If I wasn’t, I’d still be doing it anyway.

I’m also going to start a session each week. Initially this will simply be strides as a way to try and reconnect with the idea of running faster. At the moment I still feel very uncoordinated and I feel like I’m shuffling along.

What isn’t shuffling along is the community that has built up around this event, for good reason too. This will be the first marathon in the world to avoid using single use plastics. There will be a ban on littering the course. Thought has gone into how the water stations will be supplied. It’s going to be a challenge that is significantly different from other road marathons, not least because of the 1800 feet of climbing involved. I need to start thinking about hills.

No I don’t.

I need to start running on them. Keep it simple.

Week two: 34 miles

The samurai in autumn

BOLTON MARATHON TRAINING (2021), WEEK ONE

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

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.