Sunday, 19 September 2010

No Regrets

Last week, in a fug of self pity because I have a haematoma the size of a fist on my left hip meaning I can't sleep, and because I've been cycling around with a suspected broken wrist, I read an email from my friend Dean Johnson. I was overwhelmed not only with the news but the lesson therein, so I asked him to write it up for the blog. J 

My affliction seemed as well timed as it could be.  I would go out on top.  One week before the onset of symptoms, I had my best finish ever (third fastest) in a six hour adventure race where we competed in 37 deg. C heat.  The day after symptom onset, I was in full denial mode and won my team classification in a six hour orienteering race.  At almost 52, finishing uninjured by the cut off time is a realistic goal.  Finishing near the top or winning is out of the question.

On my nightstand, the latest New Yorker magazine contained an article detailing the lack of benefit from massive intervention to advanced stage cancer.  Many medical professionals agreed that hospice care resulted in no diminishment in life remaining and certainly a far more comfortable decline.  This finding corroborated my belief that my time left, to the extent I could control it, would be marked by vibrancy and not a drug addled struggle to prolong breathing.

Admittedly, no one thought that I was going to die.  I had a disk between C4 and C5 in my cervical spine that was severely bulging into my spinal cord.  In several places, my spinal cord was compressed into ribbon.  

I am not the first person in the world with this condition, but the consulting neurosurgeon stunned me within the first 15 seconds of his entering the exam room.  He had been fully briefed by his resident and Fellow who had each evaluated my current symptoms (numbness in hands, arms, torso and back and gradual loss of fine motor skills) and closely consulted my MRI.  In the manner of a man accustomed to dealing with gruesome spinal conditions on a daily basis, he matter-of-factly stated that I was one strong  sneeze, bad cough, minor auto accident or fall away from serious spinal cord injury.  The kind of spinal cord injury that could lead to quadriplegia...

You could have pushed me over with a feather.

He reckoned that normally I would want to research procedures, doctors and medical centers, but in my place, he would not wait an instant.  He consulted his next day’s surgery schedule and offered to cancel the morning operation and substitute my case.  His canceling another neurosurgery operation forced reality on a previously surreal situation.  Medical consumerism would never outweigh the potential harm from spinal cord injury.  

Scarily enough, the precise condition that was so concerning to the neurosurgeon had already been acute for a month.  It took that long to weave my way though the US insurance-driven necessity of a GP visit, physical therapy, another GP visit, an MRI and another GP appointment.   On top of that, I had to enlist the help of a neurosurgeon friend to get a neurosurgery consultation in less than two months.  During this time, I had sneezed, coughed, driven, had kids hanging around my neck and orienteered.  Ignorance had been bliss (with a healthy chance of paralysis).

I took him up on this offer for next day surgery.  The procedure involves making an incision in the neck, moving the esophagus and trachea to the side and getting to the cervical vertebrae from the front.   The surgeon remove the bulging disk, replaces it with cadaverous bone and screws a bracket to the surrounding vertebrae to secure them while bone forms and the vertebrae fuse.  In my case, they removed two disks and bracketed three vertebrae.  One loses the flexibility of the joints, but there is still much movement available elsewhere in the cervical spine.

The physical recovery has been pain and trouble free.  The "flirting with death" part has been the larger matter.  My current work/family/leisure balance results in my physical vitality being the key to all other happiness. I crave serious exercise and have taken up endurance bike rides as my next physical challenge. 

Not only was all that extraordinary activity in danger from my impaired condition, but also I was slowly losing my fine motor skills -- like buttoning shirts, tying shoes and typing.  When the activities of daily living become a challenge, this condition risks becoming the defining event in one’s life.  The traumatic realization that I had a “near miss” with life defining quadriplegia was pretty terrifying and is only starting to fade.

I am now three weeks post surgery.  My numbness has gradually declined and fine motor skills are coming back.  While I am making progress, it has been at a slow enough rate to appreciate the unfortunate alternative.  I do not want to over dramatize, yet this is precisely the physical condition I mean when I, lightheartedly, had hypothetically balanced my quality of life versus euthanasia.

I joke with my 8 year younger wife and 42 year younger kids that they will not need to pick out a nursing home for me because I will have topped myself before moving in.  I have an agreement with a friend that if I am on a respirator, he will pull the plug when the nurse is not looking.  I promised to do the same for him.

Perhaps my life has been so worry free that I am excessively self absorbed with this close call.  Maybe.  However, my principal learning from counseling has been that my problems do not amount to a hill of beans in this world, but my problems are my problems.

As the old people say, “If you have your health, you have everything.”  More germane to vibrant souls like ours is not to waste a day, an hour, or a minute.  Shorten your time horizon.  Take that day off, do that bike ride, do an extra push up because you can and for heaven’s sake, take nothing, not a walk, a jump, a ride, a lift, even shoe tying, for granted.  God forbid the "time coming," but at least you will have no regrets.


Wednesday, 8 September 2010

a blow upon a bruise

The drive down was nice, as was breakfast. I listened to John Lee Anderson's biography of Che Guevara, and I thought about many things. In the afternoon sun, and with the roof down, I found my way to the hotel in Dunster, a couple of miles from Minehead, where the Tour Ride started. There I bumped into Matt and Ned and John unloading the gear from their car. Ned, who had produced some utterly implausible excuse for being unable to ride his own, crap bike, happened to have borrowed a brand-new Pinarello from an importer ... unridden and worth six or seven grand. It was a thing of great beauty. Who'd have thunk that the notorious scrounger would have somehow found himself riding a carbon-fibre jet?

I nonchalantly threw the wheels on my bianchi, checked the shifting, and we cycled into Minehead. There we met the crew, Team Real Peloton, and recorded material for a podcast which should go out sometime this week (ignore my undistinguished comments on why Contador should have waited for Schleck). There were some good people there and we drank some. Minehead was full of wired eyes, expectant, tremulous hands holding the saddles of yellow bikes.

I slept appallingly and woke to rain. I hate it when it rains on a Sunday morning. It reminds me of almost drowning in Istanbul and of those mornings when I can't get out of bed because I know my jacket is only water-resistant, not waterproof. I oiled my chain, checked the brakes, loaded my pockets with flapjacks, my water bottles with electrolyte, and put my brand new jacket in my back pocket. Ned, Matt and John were in the breakfast room, wearing the Real Peloton team shirts (above) that Matt had had brought over from Columbia, and of which we were duly proud. At seven, ready for the unknown we mounted our bikes in the pouring rain and headed out.

It wasn't going to go well. Over wet tarmac we hammered our way to the start, where we were going to meet the team. Ready for mountains, I forgot that it was the start of the day and hugged someone's wheel close. For some unseen reason up front brakes were applied, my wheel caught, and I went bouncing over the tarmac.

After sitting by the side of the road and a few exclamations of 'F**k', 'f**k', 'f**k' - I suppose I could have called out that bit about waking on the burning lake, poetry never seems to work in these circumstances - I climbed back on the bike. But my left brake head was almost broken off, I couldn't do anything with my right hand, and there was blood running down both legs and blood on the handlebar tape. I couldn't see my chin, though Ned pointed out that my rain jacket was torn across the front. It looked like a bullethole. 'Was there anywhere you didn't land on?' he asked.

I started with the team, rode the first couple of miles, and then headed straight into the hotel where I showered (they still had about 105 miles to go at that point). But not before I'd been displayed to Ned's motorbike camera crew: the event will feature in the ITV4 coverage of Stage 4 of the Tour of Britain on September 14. As I watched the blood run down the plughole I decided I had done the right thing.

And that was my ride. I drove to the finish, in Teignmouth, and saw a paramedic, who patched me off and showed the worst of the bruising to his assistant, thinking she might find it instructive. I had bruising and cuts on the front and back of my right knee, grazing on my right shoulder, a big graze on my chin, a knock on my forehead where my helmet had protected me, bruising on both wrists, an inoperable right thumb, a big cut and swelling on my left ankle,grazes on the inside and outside of my left knee, a swelling the size of a golfball on my left elbow, grazes and a swelling the size of half a cricket ball on my right shoulder, and something indescribable on my right hip.

So I missed all the fun. I missed seeing Ned fly up the first mountain, and then have the freewheel on his brand new Pinarello bike freeze. It was an hour and a half before it was fixed. I missed Rob's rear derailleur snap (he also had to abandon). I missed crashes. I missed watching Matt pushing his bike up hills. I missed eight plus hours of cycling and several of standing around. Instead I limped to a bar and had a roast dinner and some wine and re-read a PhD thesis. It was all about how spirit is inseparable from matter, which seemed self-evident at that point. Then I went to the finish and saw individual members of team Real Peloton finish in better-than-respectable times. And finally I saw the Lanternes Rouge roll up -- Ned, Matt, team captain Steve Trice and Chris with the supportive girlfriend -- and finish side by side at the end of an honest days work slogging over the unforgiving hills and through the uncompromising winds of Somerset and Devon, navigating the incommunicable chemistry of camaraderie and isolation that is cycling.

We went out drinking in Torquay. This is how some of it looked the next day (don't look if you're faint at heart). As my friend Sarah said: so much for cycling being easier on the body. 


Friday, 3 September 2010

On the back seat of my convertible

Few people who do not own them know how practical a car a convertible is. The phrase "a practical, sensible car" probably evokes an image of an estate or a 7-seater family car. Not so. In the past I have placed six trees on the back seat of my Saab 9-3 convertible (with the roof down). And today my bianchi is sitting on the back seat. Though I did have to take the wheels off.

This is because I'm taking part in the Tour Ride this Sunday, 175k and 10,000 feet of climbing across Somerset and Devon. Having survived the London to Cambridge ride --

ok, a little more on that. It was pleasant. At least once my lost bike had been relocated at the start it was pleasant. I started off gently and admired the London morning. Then a group of racers flew past me. I couldn't bear it, so I hung onto the back. We churned through London and the southern parts of Essex at some pace. For a moment i thought: this is going to be fast. Then they pulled over for lunch. I kid you not. Half way through, they just pulled over to a pub. So I kept on going. And then I began to worry that they'd catch me up, so I pushed it all the way, over the hills of Essex.

I made it to the finish. The banner was so high that I failed to notice it, and I shot right past it into the drinks tent on Midsummer Common and almost crashed into a marshall. The whole experience took three hours, which is perfectly respectable for 59 miles. Then I went for a beer (belgian) at the Fort St George.

So, back to the present. I signed up to ride with the Real Peloton team in the Tour Ride, 175k and 10,000 feet of climbing, with my friends Ned Boulting and John Beech, with whom I've run marathons. In fact John was there in New York in November 2006, meaning that he's the other man who beat Lance Armstrong. Also Matt Rendell, who's written some interesting books on cycling. These are people who talk about cycling, and are sometimes paid for it. And then there are some other people signed up for the team who actually train and so on. We will be wearing matching shirts, but the bodies underneath will be very various.

Let's be clear: having learned to cycle I love it. It's less hard on the body, you go faster, get to see more, and can drink more the night before. But 10,000 feet is like going up Mont Ventoux one and a half times, and then cycling another seventy or so miles. And I'm not allowed to do it with my bike in the back of the car -- I have to take it out and ride it. Together with the new gears that I personally fixed on when I heard about the 20% gradient (thanks to Howard Zinn [Zinn & the Art of Road Bike Maintenance -- great book] I managed to do this with zero knowledge). The petty hills around Cambs and Suffolk are no preparation for the ravenous pit of suffering that awaits us.

And what's worse, I hear from Ned that the whole thing is going to be filmed for the Tour of Britain TV coverage, and that there'll be a motocam on him the entire way. You may be able to watch eight hours (?) of self-inflicted pain on TV when the proper Tour of Britain rides through a few days later. Perhaps if I get in front of him I can ride in the slipstream of the motorbike.


Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Sponsored cycle ride

Cycling is not, alas, my true vocation. I would like to report that I had taken to the bike like a fish to water, but honesty would demand otherwise: more like a fish to a bicycle perhaps. A lantern fish, or a herring. It's not that I don't love the bike - I do - it's just that I'm not very good at it. Cycling is technical. The fact that I only learned to ride a few years ago (my mother never let me near a bicycle as a child ...) evidently doesn't help, but it's also emerging that whatever constitution I had that enabled me to run - reasonably well - does not transfer to the bike. I am slow. Don't ask me about my one time trial.

This is all by way of preface, seeking to capture your goodwill, before asking for your sponsorship. I have just signed up as part of the Cambridge and Coleridge team to do the London to Cambridge cycle ride on Sunday 25th July. Yes, that's not much notice (someone dropped out), but fortunately it's only 57 miles. Excepting the 10 miles that I have to cycle to the start, and the 10 miles I will have to cycle home afterwards.

The charities are important and valuable ones:
Talk to the Stars
Breakthrough in Breast Cancer
Charlotte Cox

I appreciate that many of  you were generous in your sponsorship some years ago when I ran the London Marathon for World Cancer Research Fund, so this time around I am adopting a different approach -- I would like sponsors to pledge just a modest amount, just £2 or £5 -- I am seeking to raise less, but would also like more sponsors to pledge. Because I am running for a team, and we are raising sponsorship for four charities, I don't have a donations webpage: just pledge as a comment below, and I will sort out collecting later ... thank you for your attention.


Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Virgin London Marathon 2010

I was ambushed, caught off guard. After a splendid and wine-intensive meal at Polpo in Soho the previous night, I wandered out of the hotel near Tower Bridge into the overcast morning in search of coffee. After a few steps I spotted an 'Eat' and headed towards it, only to find myself on a familiar road. Barriers on either side, a pulsating vaccuum pulling me west ... I was crossing the route of the London Marathon. I fell to my knees and wept. Then I moved quickly to avoid the cyclists who were following the route long before the race started.

After breakfast we headed back to the route to watch, and found a good spot where we could see the runners after they turned right after Tower Bridge, at 13 miles, and then again as they headed back, at 22 miles, towards the finish. My hamstring felt just fine, and I wondered if I could have done it. But it was a nice spot to watch from, and a good way to spend a morning.

We saw the wheelchair race, then the elite women, then the elite men, then the masses; then we saw them all again, their journey almost done. I spoke to a guy leaning on the barrier next to me, with a fold-up bicycle. His PB was 2:52.

I saw Tsegaye Kebede, with a pack at 13 miles, running alone and strong at 22 (he won in 2:05.19). I saw, amidst the mass runners, Fergie, Simon, Pietro, Alessandro, all former training partners. I saw a giraffe, a mosquito, and many superheroes. Then we wandered off and had lunch in the shadow of the gherkin.

I walked across London, faster than the tail enders. The Cambridge and Coleridge Athletic Club (which has a fancy new website) met at Chandos, a pub near the Mall, and I drank some beers with the runners, all pretty gloomy except Fergie who'd knocked five minutes off his PB, running 2:52. Then I walked some more, the sun now out, and London felt very small.

And that was the 2010 London Marathon. I found myself empty of words, no longer able to turn running into them. Perhaps the blog has reached its natural end. I wanted to find a way of writing about something that was not about language, about a feeling that was hard to translate into ideas (and all the more so when I read Murukami's disappointing What I talk about ... which didn't seem to describe it at all). I still do: I would like to write a book about running, not the history of running (like John Bryant's various books), not the stats and the practice (ever read The Lore of Running? it's been done), but a book that used the culture of running as a way into describing the experience, the raw thing of what it feels like when you're lost inside a long run on the road, along the river, over a hill. But here I am, not running, but riding instead, and learning the much more material and mechanical business of how to realign your derailleur when, on a long ride, your gear keeps slipping, learning about riding in a group, learning about clothing to protect against the wind, and learning about a very different kind of loneliness.


Saturday, 24 April 2010

Did Not Start

I've been carrying around a manila envelope for a few days, avoiding postboxes. On Thursday evening I carried it around London, when I went to an Esquire party. Yesterday morning I knew I had to post it, so I decided to cycle the 200 metres to the postbox. Of course that involved fixing my bike, because last weekend in the middle of an 80 mile ride I lost the use of the top two gears (necessary of course on those 200 metres), and the chain kept slipping. So I eased the chain off and cleaned the cogs and the derailleur, tightened the cables, washed the rest of the bike. And then I had to do some work. Eventually by mid afternoon I was still holding that manila envelope, and I knew that if I didn't post it before the end of the day I would be putting next year's marathon schedule in jeopardy.

The envelope contained, of course, my withdrawal from this year's Virgin London Marathon. By withdrawing this year I would be guaranteed a place next year, and a place, importantly, in the special fancy pen for fast people. Alternatively I could jog around, abandoning all notion of being a real runner, and try to enjoy myself. It couldn't be so bad, could it, a nice jog around London on a sunny day with lots of cheering people ... while my alter ego was an hour in front. I tried to think: 'What would Milton do?' No answer came, but then Deuteronomy spoke: 'neither shall the sole of thy foot have rest: but the LORD shall give thee there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and sorrow of mind'. Dismissing all thoughts that I might never run a decent race again, I resolved that next year I will hold my head high.

So today they descend on London, the mad multitudes in their brightly coloured thoughts. Sean will not be among them: he's in Kuala Lumpur, stranded without a flight. Sophie will be there, albeit not at the peak of her fitness, disguised as a small furry mammal or something. And some of the C&C crowd will be there, while others, like me, are nursing niggles and full-blown injuries. Don't despair: one of the thieves was saved. Don't presume: one of the thieves was damned. They're fair odds, I suppose.

Nicky pushed my hand into the mailbox, and the manila envelope started its journey. I will be among those travelling to London, but only to eat and drink at Polpo, enjoy a night in a hotel, and watch the race on Sunday morning. And out of the bitterly clenched teeth of dejection and envy I say: good luck, start easy, run strong, remember your vaseline, and run a good time, because this year the odds are with you.


Thursday, 15 April 2010

Fear and Loathing in Barton In Fabis

There is a Barton In Fabis in every man's life. There is always a road that leads to it, and you had better hope there is another that leads out. I ran in to it with my friend Sean, on a long Sunday run, and did not know what would happen next. The energy reserves were empty (Fabis is Latin for beans, and I was not full of them), and my left leg was going numb. Yes numb. If you've never lost feeling in a leg while running, it is a very worrying thing. Especially when you've seen an MRI of the inside of your back (remember The Vapors' 'Turning Japanese': I asked the doctor to take your picture, / So I can look at you from inside as well ...?), and it looks like a gravel pond from the post-Industrial wastes of North Wales. There is nothing good about this picture.

So how did I find myself on this road? Ten months ago I tore my hamstring while running the Edinburgh Marathon. The road to recovery has been long and inconclusive. I lost all fitness and speed while resting, and while I can still run it is painful, and the pain does not seem to be diminishing, while I am not getting any faster. I've been puzzled about this, very puzzled. It's taken much of the joy out of running, and most of the life out of this blog. And all the time I've been anticipating the London Marathon, now days away. Would I be able to run?

This is my training schedule, in its entirety, excluding all short, slow and probably physiologically pointless runs.

28 Feb: Long run, 16 miles
7 March: Race .... Boundary Run, 13.1 miles
13 March: Race ... Roman Road Run. Missed start.
14 March: Race: Muddy Mucky Marvel (at Lode, Cambridgeshire), 5 miles, turned out to be 5.25. Felt ok
17 March: Race: 800 m university sports. 2.40. Very slow but it did not affect outcome as I started an hour before everyone else owing to a meeting.
17 March: Race: 100 m, 13 s. See above.
21 March: Long run. Felt unwell, so did it on 22nd instead. Bailed at 13 because the weather was too bad and I was underdressed. Etc.
4 April: First long run -- in the sense of long run as I would have understood it when I was a proper runner -- with Sean in Long Eaton, 20 miles.

That's it, my training schedule. London beckons on 25 April, and I have a place at the Exclusive Start for Very Fast People. Everyone else at that start will be fine tuned, pure aerodynamic muscle, and have a shaved head (every man that is -- only some of the women).

So on Sunday 4 April we set off from Sean's house in Long Eaton along the Erewash canal to the Trent, and then along the Trent to Sawley Marina and over some fields towards the river Soar. The Radcliffe on Soar Power Station beckoned from ahead. Local are very proud of this landmark: seven cooling towers, symbols of Nottinghamshire's proud industrial heritage, which from the A50 look like a dose of molluscum contagiosum. They will return, from all sides, throughout this exquisitely-planned run. But now the Soar is flooded. I like nothing better than running along rivers. I am more diffident about running through them. We try to find a way around the floodwaters (and remember, my old back trouble began with my carrying my little boy from a car in a flash flood ...), but there is none, except for a path through the middle of a firing range which is currently in use ...

So we run through waters up to our ankles, and feel the exclusive joy of completely sodden socks and shoes. A bridge takes us over the canal and through the shipyards and soon we pass the power station and run on into Radcliffe on Trent and then up some very old hills. I am still feeling human at this point. I have been in pain for many miles, however, unsure whether I should tell Sean. The hillside fields are newly plowed, and our wet shoes are now heavy with the farming soil.

Medieval Thrumpton follows, and then down to Barton in Fabis. Barton in Fabis is a nice kind of place, and its denizens are village-proud. You can tell by the sound of hand-pushed lawnmowers, the clean streets, and the fact that the Parish Council website begins by announcing its opposition to local building. (As a matter of historical interest, it is around here that Ken Clarke MP owns a house, though, until recently, he claimed to the local authority that he doesn't spend enough time here to pay council tax, while claiming to the parliamentary expenses office that it was indeed his main home, thus enabling him to claim mortgage payments and council tax for his London 'second home'. The landscape we run through is one of medieval buildings, ancient fields, ancient greed and modern instruments of self-reward. He knows his jazz though.)

Then we followed the south bank of the Trent through parklands and woods, all beautiful, and all telling me that I had to stop, that I was empty, in pain, and without sensation in my left leg. I had to hobble over all gates and other obstacles, always leading with my right. London never seemed so far away.

When it came to the steps leading up to the A52 I didn't know if I was going to be able to finish. Sean nobly offered to call the ladies (on my phone) so they could collect us in the car a few miles ahead, but this steeled my resolve ...

Having crossed the Trent we descended to river level once again, and found ourselves just behind Sat Bains' restaurant. I've never been there, but I'm told it is one of the finest in the country. I was very hungry. I thought about knocking on the back door and begging for a slow cooked egg, or at least some dahl. Or some porridge. Or even a sandwich. But he would probably not be there, and anyway it would take too long to explain about my leg, and the car accident and everything. So instead I consumed the one gel I had brought with me.

We passed the windowless Imperial Tobacco bunker on our right, and then a Boots building, like an aircraft hangar, and I thought about D.H. Lawrence's poem about the University of Nottingham ('In Nottingham, that dismal town ...'), then an under-12s rugby festival on our left, and then followed the Nottingham to Beeston Canal to the Trent.

I was beyond hope at this point. The sensation had come back in my leg, only to disappear again. And now there were people around, while I feared being dropped, like a domestique on the last climb of the day ... Sean offered some hope by talking through T.S. Eliot's very complicated and capricious relationship to Lawrence. It was a plaster for my suffering, but by now I was counting the miles. We arrived at a marina and there were only another four to go. Through the Attenborough Nature Reserve -- the sun had replaced the earlier rain and occasional shower -- and still the towers loomed, though not perhaps now so large, or at least further away.

On the far side of the nature reserve was Long Eaton. We stepped lightly over protruding roots, skipped along past dogs and their walkers and children watching toy sailboats in the river. Then Long Eaton, then Tamworth Road, and then the finish line. No one cheered, no one wept, no one said a word. Twenty miles and three and a half hours.

And so now I think: do I run London? What do you think? I could plod around it in 4 hours, perhaps, slower for sure than that day -- it seems more than a lifetime ago -- when I paced minor-celebrity Ned around, still living on old fitness. Or I could save myself for the autumn, and hope that I can run properly then. Numbness in the leg means that the problem is probably less muscular than neural, which would demand a different road to recovery.

Why do we do this? I could say that we do it to stay honest (see under Ken Clarke, above). That we do it to put Barton In Fabis behind us. That we do it to understand friendships. That we do it in order not to be humiliated at the London Marathon. But in truth none of these would be sufficient: we do it because we're runners, and why we're runners no one knows.


Thursday, 11 March 2010

Half a boundary

It was not like it used to be in the old days. I couldn't find any safety pins. I wasn't sure what to wear. I'd been drinking the night before. I couldn't find my drinks bottle, and my energy drink powder was musty anyway. I almost forgot to put my contact lenses in. I forgot everything. The deceptively effortless suavity of the race morning routine had disappeared without trace.

Sean was impatient. That much was just like the old days. "Just how slow are we going to do this?" I asked him, aware that I could barely run. "I'd be happy averaging between 7'45"s and 8'00"s." Fair enough: 8'00"s I could probably manage. But these days running for more than an hour would be running into the unknown. "Nothing silly," says Sean, "you're not going to go haring off?" "Unlikely," I say, "you?"

It was my first race since the Edinburgh Marathon in May 2009, when I tore my hamstring. I've yet to recover: I can run, but very, very slowly, and always with discomfort. I've lost endurance, of course, and my speed has entirely disappeared. And I've put on about a stone. I've been working harder at it over the past few weeks, and have gone out maybe three times a week, running up and down the hill in Swaffham Prior in the dark, past the mobile fish and chip van that parks at the bottom of Cage Hill.

I used to think that in order to be a runner, a real runner, you needed to race. Whether or not you were in the top 2% or the top 50%, you needed to experience the excitement of a start, the logistics of bodily functions, and you needed to confront the gravityless moment when you push beyond the boundaries of comfort or even common sense, and enter the vertiginous clouds of the darkness.

I used to think that. These days it seems I manage to race without even really running.

So, on Sunday 7 March Sean and I eventually made it to the start of this year's Cambridge Boundary Run, hosted by Cambridge University Hare and Hounds. We did it last year, when we were actually fit. I saw some of the old chaps there: Simon, Fergie, Andy. They're training for London and were planning to run the whole thing. I muttered something about jogging the half.

"Text Meike for me, tell her everything's fine," said Sean. "You do it," I said. "No you, just do it quickly."

I was doing it of course when the horn sounded, and spent the first few seconds of the race trying to text Sean's Mrs, while forgetting to start my watch.

And actually it feels ok. It feels fine to be surrounded by these back-of-the-pack types, all enjoying themselves. And it's a glorious beautiful, sunny day, the perfect day to follow the notional boundary of the City of Cambridge, starting at the David Lloyd gym on Coldham's Lane, and finishing near Coton, in a field at the Park Farm. Real runners carry on and finish where they start. But I think I can finish a half, and it's all feeling just fine. I like running. I like races. I remember how to do this.

We're running towards the Victorian silhouette of the mental hospital when Sean says "I need to pee". I'm overwhelmed by nostalgia. "Ok, catch me up." And I add as an afterthought, "we'll always have Milan," alluding to a former occasion when we ran slowly owing to injury and stupor. That was the only race I've ever heard of someone throwing up before, during and after a race (not me). I slowed down, and waited. And waited. I stopped to pee myself. I carried on running slowly, and waited. And waited. So after a while I decide to just carry on, and catch up with the Cambridge & Coleridge chaps, chatting with greater facility than I can manage. But then they take off (they're running the full distance, remember), and I'm alone again, plodding away at a jogging pace, though I'm slowly and surely passing people, and it could almost be old days.

The course at first follows pavements and roads, but the real joy comes in the fields around Addenbrooke's Hospital.

Here, if you squint, you can just see the runners ahead, circumnavigating a large field. It really brings out the pointless joy of running, I think.

I finished without seeing Sean again, averaging a little under eight-minute miles, and taking about 23 minutes more than it used to take me to run this distance. By the end my hamstring hurts like hell.

Sean shows up a couple of minutes later, puffing. We eat some pieces of banana and chunks of a peculiar chocolate bar. It's no surprise when, instead of jogging the five or six miles across town to the start, as we had planned, he proposes catching the bus; and I don't object because it's hurting, and another few miles might be imprudent.

The bus is abuzz with talkative runners, talking numbers, talking clothing, talking the next race.

It's good to be back on the road again. But it's a slow road, and London is five or six weeks away (it's in my diary somewhere), and I've yet to do a 20 mile training run.

Meanwhile there are rumours up north of Chanti having run a 1:19.04 half, and he has London in his sights. It's like Jacob and Esau: one has to be damned for the other to be elect. We are locked in a seesaw. I'd be happy just to eat with the angels.

We drive home from the gym with the roof down, and go to the pub. Sean recovers with sausages and beer, and I do something similar.

Monday, 11 January 2010

The day came by my window dressed in snow

A brief hiatus in the marathoning tips, to write about an actual run ...

This is the weather to run in. I'm not running much at the moment, just two or three times a week, not even thirty miles, which is no distance for someone planning to run the London marathon in April, but this is the weather to do it in, especially facing day in the barrenness of the winter fens.

I've moved house, a few miles away from Cambridge. The Cam is now five miles north of here, and sometimes I run there and back, between the farms and the cold storage warehouses. Cambridge was flat, but here it is really flat, the slightest elevation being a source of wonder. Here is the view from the road that heads north from my new house, towards Reach. The rise is the size of a nipple, and breaks the horizontal tedium like a bird's cry.

I went for a run one morning last week, through the snow and ice. It was slow, but the slowness of the snow, and the careful footing you have to take, concealed the appalling weakness of the body. While at the same time footprints in the unbroken snow cannot lie about your decreasing stride length.

I crossed a nameless lode and entered White Fen.

I passed humming pylons, scarcely witnessed by man. I passed frozen craters that might have been from Tarkovsky's Stalker, footprints of a greater civilisation, purposelessly left for us humans to wonder at. Or perhaps some fennish landscaping conceived and designed in Peterborough, just big ice-shallows in the scrub.

I arrived at nowhere, turned around, and came back again.

When you see a white-snow road like this, winding away from you, whispering of the miles ahead, it's hard not to feel that it's yours, that you have something in your empty, double-gloved hands no one else does. Runners know about this, but it's easy to forget when you're accepting injury as a reason to stay at home.