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. 

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

Choose towards

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.

Another short jog

Every time I’ve been injured I’ve messed up my recovery by doing too much too quickly. While I’m on holiday it’s been good to jog about and film some scenery while taking it very easy.

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.