Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Why I hate Scotland (i)

This is the first time I've been back to Scotland in several years. I used to live in the north east of the country, the land of the midnight sun and midday eclipse, depending on the time of year. Things have changed a little. For a start, it's a beautiful hot day, and the granite looks almost like marble in the bleaching sunlight. And since I left I became a runner, and now I'm standing at the start of the Edinburgh marathon, sweating in the morning sun, and I haven't yet started running.

Edinburgh is crowded with tourists spilling in and out of the discount cashmere and rent-a-kilt and full-rugby-kit (cheap kilt, rugby shirt, sporran, box of tissues) shops; and with runners too, some putting in a final run on the morning before the race, all complaining about the prospective heat. Boots is running out of suncream, which no one thought to pack. Come to Edinburgh for a spring marathon and ... bake?!? I'm a Welshman, of course - indeed a Welsh Icon, as I read this week, though I appear in the list of writers, rather than athletes - and this just doesn't seem right.

I'm relaxed, notwithstanding a sleepless night. The previous evening Nicky and I had watched cyclists tear around a small, hilly loop on the other side of the city. I thought, once again, about taking up cycling as another sport, with all of the spare time I have. I like the idea of a non-impact sport (except I'd probably be coming off all the time), and the nice bike, not to speak of the lycra. We walked past Greyfriar's Kirk, home of Greyfriars Bobby.

Thinking about it, Greyfriars Bobby is a useful cultural point of reference, so I should unpack just what I intend by alluding to him. He was a Skye Terrier, whose master John Gray, a policeman, died in 1858, leaving Bobby alone. So poor Bobby sat on his master's grave for fourteen years, a sign of unerring devotion. References to, and statues of him, are scattered across Edinburgh. The cycle race whizzed around one, opposite the Greyfriars Bobby Pub, the tightest bend of the circuit, just before the big downhill. You can buy miniatures and brooches. Wikipedia says this: "A red granite stone was erected on Bobby's grave by The Dog Aid Society of Scotland, and unveiled by the Duke of Gloucester on 13 May 1981. It reads: "Greyfriars Bobby — died 14th January 1872 — aged 16 years — Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to us all.""

Me, I feel sorry for the terrier. After all, why did he sit there for 14 years? Because this two-year old watched his master be put under the ground and no one explained he wouldn't be coming back again. No one advised him to move on. Instead Bobby sat there waiting for his master to climb out of the soil, when he could have been off having a life - chasing balls, sniffing other dog's bottoms, making puppies, the things that dogs do. And I think to really grasp the nature of Edinburgh I think you need not only to see this, but to appreciate the fact that they turned him into an unwitting local hero for doing this, and then sell keyrings.

Then I'd lain awake half the night, and watched the sun slowly burn through the darkness and the tall curtains. The hotel room has the feel of expansive Scottish architecture: big proportions, high ceiling, square and uncomplicated. Breakfast at the hotel was too late - I passed the puzzled runners getting anxious, standing outside the cafe - so I went around the corner to starbucks and bought a large coffee, a breakfast muffin, a granola bar, and tea for Nicky. I've given up on doing these things properly: surely by now I must have enough glycogen stored. I drank my coffee, ate as much as I can, then lay in bed, listened the shower, read the newspaper.

We walk down to the start, with hundreds of runners. There are about three portaloos, and a queue for them a mile long. The race information pack tells us that there are CCTV cameras everywhere, and that if we're caught on one we'll be disqualified. But they can't keep runners down: there's a little copse of shrubs and trees right near the start, and runners pile in without gender discrimination.

At the start I'm calm and still. I don't stretch or warm up. These are the closing moments of my short and deep taper. From pen no. 2 (sub elite, 2:30 to 3:15) I'm led to the start line. It begins, in the usual way.

Except there's no music, no chariots of fire, no bagpipes even. We just run, down the hill, through streets and parkland and it's all very pleasant. And then, between two and three miles in, my left hamstring begins to hurt. It's not a stabbing pain, nor a tearing pain (which is hard to describe, but distinctive if you've experienced it), but a harsh and unforgiving ache. Despite the heat, which is a clean, dry heat with a fresh breeze, I'm feeling pretty good. The first few k have passed in sub 4'00" pace (because it's downhill), and I'm up for a PB. But the pain won't go away. It begins to spread up and down the leg. I think to myself that it will ease off as the muscles warms and stretches. But the pain doesn't go away: it intensifies. I can do this, I tell myself, I know pain, I know it intimately, and this is just pain. But it gradually clouds my mind, even as I pass people, one after another, with my relentless plodding marathon pace. I'm now hitting the target pace of 4'06" - though I'm not watching my watch, which would tell me this, because I have decided to run zen - a pace that would bring me in with a new PB of around 2:52. But I am deluding myself, because you can't run with this pain for so long. Gulls circle and call mockery.

We turn onto the coastal path. In a way I'm running well: I can feel the miles tick away underneath my feet, and my heart maintains its consoled pace. But by the time I hit 8 miles I know that it's over, and I decide that I will run until I see Nicky, and then abandon. By now my pace has drifted down to a shoddy 4'30", which wouldn't even earn me a sub-3-hour marathon. The pain has spread to my ankle, and I understand that I must be limping as I run. People begin to pass me. I'm not used to this, and I'm not sure what to do. I am inhabiting a cloud of pain that shuts me off from other sensations: it's ceased to be an obstacle, and has become the environment.

At ten miles I haven't seen Nicky, so I stop anyway. I can hardly walk. As soon as the adrenaline's gone I am hobbling and stumbling. Other runners flood by, more and more slowly. A very kind family of spectators, concerned, offer me water, ice spray, and lend me a phone. With a struggle, because I can't bend over, I remove the tag from my shoe so I can read Nicky's number. I call her, and she's half a mile back, delayed on the bus. We walk towards each other and when we meet we head to the finish area at Musselborough racecourse.

There a race official explains that they need to keep track of all the runners, and all the chips, and he takes me to the finish line. "You need to cross it," he says. "You want me to walk over the finish line?" He nods. It's unbelievably embarrassing. In front of a gathering crowd of spectators I hobble to the finish line, look up at the gantry clock and, half an hour before the winner, cross the line, the first runner to do so.

Then I eat two bananas and watch the end of the race with Nicky. I've never not finished a race before, never, as I had hubristically said (in answer to a question - I didn't ask for it that much) the day before. The emotions are strange.

At the end of a marathon you'll often see runners having a moment. They'll sit by the side of the road, head in hands (somewhere between Rodin's Thinker and Munch's Scream), coming to terms with something about themselves they've just learned. It's an intense, delicious, impenetrable emotion, a release of wordless experiences accumulated over the preceding few hours. They flush through you, breaking down your rational soul. That's after a good race too: the moment precedes the beatific calm that follows and stays with you for a week or so. After my first dnf ("did not finish") I had one of these, but in a different form: it was a moment of hopelessness, in which those half-formed emotions found no outlet, and simply fell to the ground, passing through muscles as their uncooperative conduit. For a while I couldn't speak.

A Scot won, in 2:18. As he crossed the line he gestured to the crowd to lend him more voice. A pipe band played him in: you can see them in green tartan in the picture. Then an Englishman followed. We watched them, light on their feet, carrying no fat.

Then we went to catch the race bus back to the hotel, and learned another reason (beyond the lack of mile markers and clocks, and infrequency of water stops) why the Edinburgh Marathon has a reputation for appalling organisation. Let's put that to one side for now.

In the taxi to the hotel pictures of what just happened come back to me. I visualise my watch at ten miles, just after I'd hit 'stop'. It say 1:07. Even after slowing down for a couple of miles I'd been running quickly. I think about this, and why it had happened. Perhaps the taper had been too deep, perhaps I'd needed to stretch before running downhill. It could have been one or more of a number of things. But it could have been the lightning strike of providence, and provided no lesson and nothing to be learned. I could be Greyfriars Bobby perched mournfully on the flinty soil, and I wouldn't know it.

I hobble to a great lunch in the sun, and we take the train home. The pain keeps coming back, and my balance is poor. I won't be running for a couple of weeks, or longer. So does anyone want to sell me a racing bike? I need a 58cm frame and I like interesting colours.



  1. Don't hate Scotland!

    After two weeks of searching for an extra-small second-hand bike I just broke and bought one on monthly payments... She is very pretty though :)

  2. The very best thing to do in Scotland is drink whisky. This is incompatible with running. If you're ever in Scotland again, try the former and not the latter.

  3. Hate Scotland, hate small foolishly loyal dogs, hate unusually hot weather, hate ill-timed hotel breakfasts - just don't ever begin to hate running.

  4. It is not the winning that counts...

    Stick with the writing.

    Hope all is well with a true Welsh Icons.

  5. Surely the way to be an iconic Welsh athlete is to produce fewer books? Or maybe books about running rather than bookish things? Or a book about the athletics of printing?

    sorry about the running pain--