Friday, October 21, 2011
What I think about running a marathon.
Contrary to my own expectations I recently completed the Liverpool Marathon. I say against expectation because up until I turned 40 I avoided vigorous physical exercise like the plague. I did some physical work but apart from that I kept strictly to a regime of smoking, drinking and talking rubbish which did not particularly lend itself to cardio-vascular health or physical fitness. Then, toward the end of my thirties, a few things happened to change that. The first was a set of circumstances not at all uncommon - a growing sense of my own mortality coupled with an awareness that certain minor health issues were unlikely to improve unless I made some lifestyle changes. These thoughts and feelings coincided with getting married and the birth of my daughter Eva and maybe a long overdue bit of growing up. Another factor was a really good medical intervention which sorted out some stomach problems and made vigorous physical exercise suddenly possible. I began swimming a few times a week, and before long I found myself able and desiring to run.
And I did so, although slowly and painfully for quite a while. For the first six months I hated every minute of it, but because it made me feel really good for days afterwards, I kept taking the foul medicine. I remember vividly the very moment I started to actually enjoy it. I was running in some woods, struggling as usual, I had been out about half an hour and a track by The Fall came on the iPod at the same time as a slight downward gradient, and it was as if I could fly. This was the thing people talked about who claimed to enjoy running, and it was fantastic, liberating and exhilarating. It was also repeatable, cheap and actually good for you. I now had a hedonistic reason for running as well as a rational one, and as a result I began to run a lot more and enjoy it a lot more.
I ran a couple of half-marathons over the next few years, but always said I would never run a full marathon. For me it was important to enjoy running and I didn't think it would be possible to enjoy that distance. Also I understand that knees have a finite number of miles in them - less if you run on tarmac - and I didn't want to use them all up. I run a lot in parks and woods and stay off hard surfaces to preserve my knees.
But like some kind of much flatter Mount Everest, the marathon was always there. My father ran two marathons in his forties and we had talked a lot about the experience. But he was always a lot fitter and stronger than I would ever be. I had in my mind that having completed two half-marathons in my forties I had proved that I was at least half the man my father was and was quite pleased with that. I neither needed nor wanted to run 26 miles with the inevitable suffering that would entail. So when I got an email about the first Liverpool marathon to be run since the Eighties, I immediately went to the website and signed up for it.
Motivation is an odd thing which I have struggled with over the years and it remains a puzzle. But I have one or two clues as to why I did this. For a start I would definitely not have done it in any other city. I run in Everton Park, where the whole of Liverpool is laid out before you from the cathedrals to the sea. Over time the view began to focus some ideas and feelings about the city and myself in relation to it. It became less abstract, more of a physical thing and the idea grew that I could measure myself against it, that I could run around it. Somehow this process would be more complete if I ran the marathon, I felt, for some reason. Also I liked the idea of a long training period with a clear goal at the end, perhaps because I liked the idea of knowing something would hurt and doing it anyway, of disregarding the voice which says 'stop now, it's getting a bit difficult', of taking one side in the internal war between opposing parts of the self and winning a clear victory. Defiance of death of course is always a factor, and it is no coincidence that I ran a marathon in the last few months of my forties.
I didn’t approach this in a massively scientific way, maybe that’s one of the problems. The only book I have ever read about running is Marukami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” which is brilliant but doesn’t exactly suggest a programme. I just asked my Dad about stuff. I trained on my own. I occasionally thought about finding a group of people to work with but everybody was too young and fast and probably too jolly. I had no set times to run except as early as possible in the day, and always on a Sunday morning, the same day as the race. The only real plan that emerged was to run as much as possible while still preserving my knees. For a long time I thought I would definitely pick up an injury, that something would wear out, that I wouldn't have to go through with it. I was both pleased and secretly disappointed that this never happened. As I got fitter and could run longer distances I had to do more low-impact work in the gym and cycling, to save my knees. As it became apparent that I was actually going to run the thing, a growing fear kept me going. I was really scared of being badly prepared and towards the end was having those classic anxiety dreams where you turn up for exams with no trousers on. For the last month I couldn't really think about anything else but the marathon. And I did put the miles in, I did 4 runs which were half marathon distance or over, the longest one 18 miles, and didn’t have any problems except that I had to give my knees a lot of time to recover. I did some sort of training pretty much every day for the last couple of months and got fitter than I have ever been as a result. Obviously I could have been fitter but I got as fit as I could manage to get.
I chose a charity to support once I began to believe I would actually do it, and that strengthened my resolve a bit. Barefeet is an amazing project in Lusaka, Zambia using theatre to connect with street kids. It is a fantastic bonus to raise a few quid for something so worthwhile but it is a bonus, my motivations for running are primarily selfish and it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise.
Anyway, the day dawned and I found myself standing in Birkenhead Park amongst 5,200 people, tense, cold and anxious while for 45 minutes beyond the scheduled start time the police failed to give the race clearance to run on the roads. Although I have no way of knowing for sure, I think the delayed start was a factor in my having such a bloody awful day. I really stiffened up and after 14 miles my thigh muscles hurt much more than they had after 18 miles in training. Tension was probably another factor, and it was a cold, windy run back from New Brighton, but one way or another I just didn’t have the legs on the day.
There were good things as well - running along the seafront from New Brighton with the city of Liverpool coming into view as the river turns, the sheer weirdness of running in the tunnel, coming up the hill from below the river and hearing Batala Samba band gradually getting louder as they played at the mouth of the tunnel, and seeing my daughters and my granddaughter and various friends on route. Every time there was an uphill grade I felt a bit better. (That is what happens if you train in Everton Park, you come to love hills.)
But by the time I actually got to Liverpool, the city it was supposed to be all about, which had inspired me to run and I had these grandiose ideas about measuring myself against, I was in quite a bad way and wanted to go home. I was still running; that was my race plan, just that, keep running. People around me started walking for sections only a few miles into the race, but those people were younger and would run faster and finish sooner than me. For me, walking would equal defeat, but as my legs got stiffer and more painful I was starting to think defeat was inevitable. The section along the strand was long, straight, cold, windy and very public and I was hating it by then. Upper Parliament Street was uphill and gave me some respite (I know, it is bizarre) but by the time I reached the Avenue, I was not so much having doubts as deciding exactly where would be the best place to abandon. It was unexpected actually. None of the things I thought would be a problem were happening - my knees and ankles were fine, my feet didn't hurt, it was just muscular fatigue, earlier and much greater than I had experienced it before. I thought I might stop running if I got as far as my daughter Elise's flat, that would be quite handy. I considered phoning to see if she was in. Then at the far end of the Avenue, around mile 17 I think, I came across my younger daughter Eva playing with her mates in a samba band from Anfield, along with my friend Tommy Calderbank, and that lifted me more than I thought possible and the painful shamble became a bit more of a run and I thought well, give it another mile, and then suddenly I was in the park.
I pulled the park round me like a blanket, I sent my mind up into the trees and disconnected it from my body and that enabled me to tolerate what I was doing to my legs for a bit longer. Another couple of miles went by. Very slowly and painfully. It started to rain. I was really miserable. Not even pop music could save me now. Another couple of miles went by very slowly. This was my life now, this is what I did, this awkward stumbling sore leg thing. I accepted my fate. I passed my friend Annette at the end of Lark Lane and she told me later I looked OK which I find hard to believe, I felt far from OK, but I was starting to think it might be possible to get to the end. It also occurred to me that rather than outright abandoning in tears at the side of the road, the worst thing that could happen was that I might have to walk for a bit, like practically everybody around me had been doing for ages. But since that represented defeat I wasn't quite ready to do that yet.
A girl running beside me gave me some jelly beans. Every time someone offered me some water or energy gel I took it, it helped and it broke the monotony, although I didn't drink a lot of liquid, it was too sloshy. In Princess Park, just after a water station, I got cramp simultaneously in both calves. I had to stop and stretch, and then I found myself walking for a bit. "Defeated" I said to myself, out loud. I felt a paradoxical sense of triumph. Try again. Fail Again. Fail better. That has long been my motto. Disappointingly, walking hurt just as much as running, so after a hundred yards or so, after a short conversation with a guy about the same age as me during which we shared our woe, I started running again and suddenly I was back on the Avenue, 2 miles from the end, and there was no point in doing anything else but finishing the bloody thing.
Apart from another, briefer bout of cramp I ran the rest of the way. During this section I pretty much left my body although I could still vividly feel everything that was happening to it. And I thought a lot about stuff, about what it was we were all doing here, the strange public sacrifice of it, how important it was to everyone, and how seriously we were all taking it. I thought about how people run for profound personal reasons, for their dead parents and friends, for cancer, for big things. I thought about the poverty and disease and stress of the street kids in Lusaka, and the genuine good will of the people trying to help them. And all the stuff that people care about enough to suffer, publicly and spectacularly in this weird ritual. And I thought about the whole notion of trying to do something to be proud of in a rich country in a messed up world. In an unexpected turn of thought at one point I took ownership of the pain, which by this time had caught up with my thigh muscles and spread through the rest of my body. I thought, "it's taken 6 months training and 25 miles running to feel this shit, it belongs to me, I have earned it." Still not sure what I meant by that. The last stretch down the Strand, although much more painful physically than the earlier stretch going out on the same road, was a lot less emotionally damaging, and I really appreciated the encouragement from the crowd which I had previously found just annoying for some reason.
And then suddenly it was over, and I found something in my legs, not a sprint exactly but something to finish with at least, and people were giving me stuff, a medal, a T-shirt, a milk-shake, a shiny blanket, and actually I didn't feel that bad.
A short while later I found myself on a street in the centre of town waiting for Ellen, my wife, to pick me up, and I realised that it was a street that I must have run down at some point a couple of hours earlier but I had absolutely no memory of doing so. Bits of the day were already fading like a dream.
Obviously it took a while to get over, and nearly two weeks later I can feel some damage to my left knee that probably won't get totally better, along with a slight confusion over the lack of a long term physical goal, having got used to having one to focus on for so long, but I do feel proud of myself for finishing the thing, and proud of everyone else too. We tend to attribute nobility to ourselves a little too easily in a society where the poorest amongst us are still in the top 20% of the richest people in the world. We can afford to expend energy in non-essential ways. We can afford our temporary martyrdom, but we mean well a lot of the time.
And I also felt the need to write this down and put it to bed. I won't be running that distance again, but I don't think I am done with painful physical challenges, they are a lot of fun and I think there are definitely ways in which the suffering makes some kind of sense.