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

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.

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.

What remains

Projecting into an imaginary future served me badly and I’ve had to learn that lesson very consciously

It’s hot.

Southern Greece in the middle of August hot. The pool is quiet, the crickets are loud, the children are playing. It’s a good day.

It’s a good week. Earlier I wrote about clearing stuff out. The physical stuff is relatively easy to deal with, at least for me as I have few attachments to things.

The harder things to deal with are the patterns of thought that we’ve outgrown. How to rid ourselves of those and what does what remains reveal?

The heat is making me think about running a bit later today. It’s going to be a physically tough one. I can fit it in though. Family will be showering; I’ll run down the hill from where we are staying and find a taverna to eat at later. I’ll be back before they’ve finished getting ready. It works.

What doesn’t work for me is the lousy tactic that I’ve always defaulted to with my running: find a race, set a target, make a plan. I end up obsessing over the end point rather than getting stuck into the mile in front of me. It’s a pressure that I don’t need, don’t respond to, don’t enjoy. Like the physical stuff, it’s time to let it all go. I’ve learned to keep my mind in the day, in the moment. Projecting into an imaginary future served me badly and I’ve had to learn that lesson very consciously. I’m annoyed that it’s taken me so long to learn that, likewise, this is all I need to do with my running: run the mile I’m in.

Most of us know that the marathon originated in Greece. I’ve got one on the horizon: the Chester Marathon in October. Strava tells me that If I run today, and I will, then I’ll have run for 14 consecutive days. All I need to do is keep it up and not worry about times, paces, imaginary finish lines. That’s what remains.

And besides, it’s too hot to obsess.