Sunday, 25 December 2016

Runner, unattached

It's Christmas, and I'm on my own, without a running club, single, my various offspring variously elsewhere, with a black dog lying in front of my stereo.

I walked a black dog the other day, called Cat. A real dog, not a metaphoric one. But she made me reflect further on the metaphoric one who's been at my heels for a year or more now. Cat's owner is living with cancer, and Cat the dog has been a caring dog, reminding her owner of the actual ongoing meaning of life.

So Cat made me feel foolish, but also reminded me of how great dogs are, and made me think of the meaning provided by my own black dog. Christmas day is a day you really don't want to be on your own, even if you don't actually like Christmas and are an atheist who, like the Pope, also dislikes the consumerism. But everything turns to Christmas, even your safe spaces. Even Radio 6 Music has been engulfed by Christmas for the past week. Even Iggy Pop. Iggy Pop, my harbour in the storm, someone I like to think of as basically the same as me with better trousers. So the black dog was my friend today, because he urged me to block out Christmas by going for a run.

So I headed out down to the Isle of Dogs. It's surprisingly easy to get lost there. It's a proper maze: very few combination will actually get you out. It wasn't quite dead: there were various people, mainly Chinese, out walking, and the Chinese supermarkets were open. And then I found the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, and ran under the Thames. Emerging at Cutty Sark I turned right and followed the river past Surrey Docks, through Rotherhithe to Tower Bridge, where I crossed, and discovered that central London is in fact really crowded on Christmas day. Past the Tower, and back over London Bridge, through Southwark, past the Southbank Centre to Lambeth Palace and then over Lambeth Bridge, along Millbank and around Parliament and back along Victoria Embankment. Then around St Pauls and through the Barbican (which was obviously stupid given the number of stairs that involves, but I don't think my brain was working properly at that point), passing the place of Milton's burial.

Moorgate was interesting. Whereas the more central areas had been quite crowded this was deserted. Most of the area was sealed off with half-hearted fencing and copious quantities of security tape, most of which had half blown away in the day's winds. Signs everywhere read that this private property - because many of the main access routes between the Barbican and Bishopsgate actually cross areas belonging to the prestige buildings that have infested the area - was not a public right of way. I saw a couple of security guards, tired overweight men in uniform. The owners of these landmark buildings clearly feared a terrorist attack on this holiday. I internally laughed at the interest the security were showing in me ... until I remembered I was a tanned skinny guy with a backpack and a haunted look on his face.

Through Spitalfields, Columbia Road, Haggerston Park, London Fields and into Homerton with a little loop around Hackney Marshes. 43.3k. A little more than a marathon.

A day not wasted, a day staring into the unhealthier parts of my soul - and yes, some of the past year fell into place as I passed some of its landmarks and saw things that I had not seen before, all hidden in plain sight - and finding something healing there. And thanks, in part, to that black dog.

And the best thing is that the dog is now utterly exhausted, and won't be waking up for a while.

Friday, 14 October 2016

The loneliness of the middle aged runner

I was once asked to do a photoshoot for Esquire. I agreed with faux reluctance, of course. But there was a snag, which I learned a couple of hours before rolling up at the location: I was with a bunch of athletes, and the idea was that we would sit around a table and be photographed eating while discussing what a sportsperson’s discipline might tell us about financial fitness and the financial crash that had happened the preceding year.

Another snag: there were some proper athletes, such as Roger Black, and Sarah Storey (let’s ignore the mere worldly vanity of titles of honour: she confers dignity on the British state, and not the other way around). There is a photographic record of me waving my arms around trying to explain how derivatives, credit ratings, and the longue durée history of trust had resulted in bankruptcy, plummeting markets, and long holidays on the sands of San Clemente for the villains. Sarah Storey sits patiently to my right, waiting for it all to end. Fortunately pictures don’t speak, and the accompanying record of the conversation in Esquire magazine (and I think the same piece also appeared in Harpers) is in no way an accurate record. Just imagine that: the archive lies.

Anyway, this memory has recently resurfaced for a couple of reasons. First, because I’ve begun to check my body fat percentage once again (and I’m not quite the hollow man that appears in those photographs), and to contemplate the melancholy truths of power-weight ratios. Secondly, because I’ve been wondering whether we learn anything by doing this – by setting out at dawn or dusk, bearing supplies of sugary water, having stared into the skies in order to predict how the weather might change over the next hour or three, whether it will rain, what winds will blow, having chosen a route, and a type of run (long, fast, tempo, fortitude-testing) that more or less suits our training needs and work schedules. Do we learn anything by doing this? The simple answer presents itself in that short list: we learn how to calibrate our weaknesses and to manage an overfull amateur schedule. That much is obvious.


But here I am, at Den Haag Centraal station, waiting for my books to appear at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek for a few hours’ study before returning tonight to Leiden, where I’ve already rummaged through the University Library, and then on to Amsterdam in the morning, where I will pick up my running number at the usual marathon exposition, and then do my best to rest my legs while catching up with Ned and Kath and Brad and John B and Simon and Sean, most of whom are also running the marathon. And I ask: have I learned anything else?

Den Haag Centraal

There’s a kind of friendship too, I guess. The friends you run marathons with live in a slightly different space to other friends. Sometimes you don’t see them for months or years, but you nonetheless share not only large pots of Vaseline, but also rituals, joint stories, the expectation and forgiveness of pained failure, the inevitability of defeat.

And there’s the intimate grasp of the theory of relativity too. With your marathon-running friends you share a perspective on ageing. An improbably beautiful woman told me recently that she thought she had five more good years left, and it made me think about my almost two decades years of declining VO2max, albeit balanced by improved muscle efficiency and increased mental resilience. There’s a way in which when you live with the annual statistical proof of deteriorating physical form you have already mastered time.

Anything else? I have learned that all over the world long-distance runners are more or less the same. It is a religious cult (one that occasionally seeks converts, but one that never started a conflict or harboured territorial ambitions). If in some parallel universe I were to sit down with my hero John Milton it would probably end in elaborate insults. If in another parallel universe I were to sit down with my hero Emil Zatopek, I know we’d get on just fine.

One more thing. First let’s be clear: I’m not thinking about occasional joggers here, or those well-rounded chaps who occasionally do a 10k in a team with their colleagues, or anyone who runs with headphones. At the core of this experience is being out there away from friendship, on a canal towpath somewhere, or in the East Anglian fens, or running through the woods along the Schuylkill River, or in the Blue Ridge Mountains or a New Mexican mesa, along a beach in Aberdeen or the Outer Banks or St Andrews, or just a long country road anywhere from Glamorgan to Derbyshire, when you’re no longer cold or hungry or tired, out there in the place where time is broken. That place there – that’s what makes the hectic scheduling, the sustained but intermittent friendships, the unrelativised time of quotidian life, and the odoriferous bustle of the race’s start pen – that place there makes them all the more full of beauty.

Perhaps the KB will have found my books now.

Monday, 4 July 2016

We might always have had Paris

It was on. For sure. I was all alone in the City of Romance. But I’d quit drinking for nearly a week, I’d eaten well, I’d lost 4 kg since the hideous peak of 2015. The weather was nice. The Zone beckoned: ‘come and hang out with me for a while,’ she said.

I love Paris in the springtime. The light on the stone and all that stuff. I have happy memories of running intervals around the Jardin du Luxembourg to the scornful gaze of children with ice creams; I have happy memories of running along the Seine at dawn, over cobbles and up and down the stairs where the water-level path broke, to the early sounds of a city that refuses to wake; I have happy memories of silently racing against contemptuous footballers training up and down the loop around Buttes Chaumont.

And now I’ve run pretty much everywhere else too. The Paris Marathon starts near the Arc de Triomphe, one of northern Europe’s more notable four-lane roundabouts, heads east down the Champs-Élysées, to the Bois de Vincennes, then back west along the Seine, into the Bois de Boulogne, round a bit, then back to the Arc de Triomphe.

And it was on, for sure. I was staying with my friend near Buttes Chaumont, and to get to the start all I had to do was take the number 2 metro to l’Arc. I slept and rose in a cloud of peaceful resolution. Adrenaline, fine; glycogen stores, fine; frame of mind, perfect. Nothing to lose, everything to gain. Kit on, porridge, banana, metro.

The metro is empty. I sit and scan the platform, legs stretched out. I am reading City of God by Paulo Lins. I board a half empty train and read for the 20 minute ride as the train soon fills with runners wearing frequently inadvisable and often poorly-washed outfits. My legs have that serene pre-race heaviness. I am calm, yawning. It is on, for sure. What could possibly go wrong?

L’Arc is a zoo, the entrance to the bag deposit a good walk away. I walk quickly, absorbing the rising temperature. A vest was the right call, and there will be no gloves. But what unimagined hell is this? An unruly scrum of people, the damned of the earth, cluster thickly around a narrow gate, shouting their sins and their penances in all the languages of babel. This is the entrance to the baggage drop area. Twenty minutes later I am close enough to see two or three uniformed Frenchmen inspecting each bag. Bags come in all shapes and sizes, and each is a wonder to these officials, with so many unexpected pockets and unfamiliar fastenings. They may as well be en grève for all of their efficiency. Twenty minutes later and I have exchanged a few words with and given my bag to a kindly volunteer, which actually takes about fifteen seconds. They have worked out the perfect system for the deposit and retrieval of bags, which is to base the section and the subsection on the two final digits of the running number, thus ensuring that there will be no bottlenecks. Are you listening Budapest?

Then I jog to my start. At the front. The race will soon start, and I am in jeopardy of missing the window within which I can enter my privileged, based on predicted time, start pen. I am far from alone. The toned limbs of faster men than me jog alongside me, stuffing gels in pockets, armwarmers and gloves.

We arrive at the entry. It is closed. An eastern European man with a predicted finish time of 2:45 wrenches it open. A hefty uniformed official tells him to fuck off, and wrenches the gate shut. We are a minute late, and the gate closes at 9:45. We explain in many languages why it’s essential we are allowed into the pen. He doesn’t seem to understand the principle of a staggered start. It’s proper that this gate is shut, and impossible to credit that anyone would wish it to be open at 9:46, any more than anyone might possibly mistake an aubergine for a male vegetable, or expect a reference to un aubergine to be intelligible to a Frenchman. (‘Vous voulez une aubergine? Pourquoi avez-vous pas demandé? Non, bien sûr, nous n’avons pas les aubergines. C’est vendredi.’)

There is much in common between French race organisation and French grammar.

There is a moment when it’s possible that a pan-European assault force will strike and incapacitate this man, but in the moment of hesitation when we look at each other and weigh the loss of adrenaline and strength that this will entail he flourishes from his pocket – from his pocket, mind – a strip of cable ties, and seals the gate. None of us has a penknife in his lycra shorts.

We have to go back. We walk back half a kilometre, and enter a pen of runners who have 4+ hours predicted finish times, many of them optimistically so. I don’t think the woman who started some distance in front of me, and who, after only 200 metres, squatted in the gutter, in front of the crowd barriers, to pee, was likely to run finish before teatime. That’s just an example. I’m saying nothing about body types on this blog, because it’s wrong for all kinds of reasons.

So, I wedge myself in a web of sweaty lycra, hemmed in on all sides by spiritual foie gras, and wait. And wait. And wait. It’s a staggered start. Not only a segregated, seeded start, but a staggered start. Because we wouldn’t want the 4+ hour runners passing the 3+ hour runners would we? And what on earth is une kumquat?

I stand for half an hour in the rising sun.

And eventually it starts. And I dodge, and duck, and dodge, and weave, and dodge, and circumnavigate a continent of slowish-to-middling runners.

And then we arrive at the first drinks station. There is no sign announcing its imminence. It is on a single side of the road. The inevitable consequence: a writhing pile of bodies. Because of course when someone offers you a drink you stop in order to take it. I walk for two or three minutes. And then I start running, and I run and weave and zigzag, until the next drinks station.

The fact is I run quite well, but it’s a very long route around my fellow humanity. And after nearly three hours, while traipsing around the Bois de Boulogne, I give up on running anything like a good time, and canter through the finish line and on to my bag. The woman who gives me a medal is lovely (the medal itself heavy and garish, as though some might be persuaded that it really was gold). The man at the bag stall is chatty again, and we switch between French and English without a single complaint on his part about my deplorable and quite depraved prepositions and articles. And I jog off to a bistro on Canal St Martin, where I eat steak with my Parisian friends, and no one complains about my tracksuit or comments on my goldie-looking medal or the gender of my food.

Now, scarcely more than three months later (I am the world’s worst, most erratic blogger), one of the infinitude of things upon which we might look back in sadness is the European camaraderie taken for granted by any fondista, Langstreckenläufer, coureur – or cyclist for that matter: who is more European than the cyclist? – who thinks it’s a fun weekend to race 42.195 k around a foreign city, eat its food and torture its grammar. The spirit of separation is bad for politics, the economy, the law – but as much as anything it’s bad for the heart.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The Spoils of Time

It has taken me a while to write this. It should be obvious why.

We all know the effects of ageing on a runner. A 2% annual decrease in VO2 max from age 30 onwards means slower times. And then the struggle to accept that you’ll never achieve another PB, and the strategies you implement to minimise the effect of this: different distances, measuring yourself against your age group, or against yourself within this age group. All well known.

I experienced a new one, as my forty-eighth birthday whistled towards me (yes, you’re allowed to say it: in fact, say it aloud, so I can hear you). I don’t have a name for it yet, but I hope to explain it.

A prologue, which I’m afraid contains a spoiler (skip to next paragraph if you don’t want to know): in the unlikely event that my mother is reading this, it has a happy ending, though during the middle section this isn’t evident ...

First some context. I was out on the streets of Paris when the terrorist attack took place in November. I didn’t see any violence or blood, heard no gunshots, only a cacophony of sirens: I just had to get home with a couple of dear friends who were anxious, and, being French and Parisian, grasped what this meant in ways that I couldn’t. We got a taxi, and the taxi driver grew frightened in what was already a very circuitous route. But eventually we got back. That’s just background. I’ve had things on my mind.

A couple of weeks later I am at work, a few days before the said birthday, sitting at my desk doing some routine admin. Which is to say sending emails, which is about a third of my professional life at the moment. Yes, dear student, of course I’ll happily send you a summary of what we talked about in the two hour seminar you missed because you weren’t feeling very well when you woke up. I make a cup of tea (that’s about 3% of my professional life), and as I walk back to my office I notice that, yes, that ache in my left shoulder just isn’t right, is quite painful in fact. Don’t know what that’s about. More emails. I’m not even fancying the run home. Worse, I’m getting short of breath because there is a tightness in my chest. And my left shoulder and arm are aching more. And quite soon I can’t focus on my work any more, because I’m struggling to breathe and my arm hurts.

I think about calling 999, but call 111. I describe to the nice man the symptoms. ‘Any family history?’ he asks. Yes: my mother’s side of the family, many have died of heart attacks while young, possibly linked to high cholesterol levels. Does he think I should go to A&E, I ask. He tells me that he’s already despatched an ambulance and I’m not allowed to move. I have to take some paracetamol, but must stay sitting down.

Fortunately I have a cup of tea, but I have to phone the school office to ask them to tell the porter three floors down that there’s an ambulance on the way. It causes some concern and two solicitous colleagues come and sit with me. We make small talk. B tells me I’m hot (not in a good way: in fact, in rather a bad way if you have the other symptoms of a heart attack).

The paramedics come, Raoul and Gwen. They bring a wheelchair. I plead with them to let me walk, because – isn’t vanity a strange thing – I don’t want my colleagues to see me looking vulnerable. I think of myself as fit and healthy, and as preserving a smidgeon of youth precisely because I’m healthy. It’s one of the small things that can put a wedge between you and the institution that employs you. I run to work, whatever the weather, and sometimes I take a long route. I can always run away again.

I pass a colleague in the corridor. I scowl.

In the ambulance on the Mile End Road Raoul fits me up to an ECG. You look pretty fit, he says. He frowns when he sees the ECG reading, and tells me that he thinks we’ll have to go into hospital. He takes another reading and turns pale. It should be Barts, he tells Gwen and then me. ‘Best facility in the country’. He tells Gwen to put the blue light on, and starts to put a stent in my arm. These people are extraordinary, and I am overwhelmed by the virtue and virtues of paramedics.

Three minutes a couple of pricks and some blood later Raoul asks Gwen to pull over while he finishes putting the stent in. And before long I’m in the heart facility at Barts being prepped for an emergency angiogram. There’s a Houdini-esque routine by which I am assisted in the removal of my suit and into a gown, surrounded by cardiologists at various stages in their careers, a radiologist and various others. They’re at work, and it’s routine. It’s odd to watch people at work as your body moves away from you, into the realm of object.

The insertion of a catheter into the arm presents a cold tickle, not a pain, but a chill internal slither. It wriggles up my arm and then I lose all sense of it. The cardiologist adjusts the big screen, rorschach shapes sly by, and then there is a tree’s roots, static and crisply focussed.

‘Wow. What’s that?’
‘Just passing out of the aorta,’ he says, or something like that. Actually I made that up. I can’t remember. The mood drugs are quite powerful. For a few undefined minutes, lacking beginning or conclusion, I lie on my back and watch the inside of my heart from various angles, and at the same time feel it beating to the psychedelic rhythm in my head.

‘You have the heart of a twenty year old.’ He says. ‘It’s big and powerful and undamaged.’
‘So what’s happening?’
‘I don’t know. We’ll need to do some more tests.’

I’m taken to the ICU. I lie in bed and accept I’m not going to die. Though it’s true I don’t know the way in which I’m not going to die. It’s now early evening. And only then do I turn my phone on and call F and tell her what’s happened. I think the drugs are still in my system, and it helps me be reassuring. I don’t call my mother. She didn’t even know about the scare I had about the rapid rise in my cholesterol levels last year (brought down through a diet of low carbs and high protein), and this would be a more difficult conversation. I call my younger son, who still lives at home. He’s on his way home from a volunteering job. I explain that I’ve had some kind of cardiac event he needs to bring me something to read, and something to snack on, in case I get hungry. He puts up only the faintest resistance.

When you’re going to be in hospital for an unspecified period without a sense of an ending the choice of reading is an important one. I plump for Tom Jones’ autobiography, plus a book I’ll be teaching in a week’s time. The 18-year old is spooked. He puts on 18-year old nonchalance, but there’s a stiffness in his eyes that gives him away. He brings me a sandwich and some chocolate and stays for half an hour. I tell him to cycle home safely. ‘Yeah,’ he says, and is gone.

In the night I am taken, rigid upon a sacrificial trolley, through a tunnel to the ward in the Grace building. I spend the next two days lying in a bed and wired up to an ECG. Three other men are in the room, all seriously unwell. One sleeps. He is much younger than me. Another man is a little older than me. He’s had a heart attack, but is waiting to be discharged. He’s anxious about what’s going to happen to his driving licence. A third is a very old man, who can barely move unassisted. His resting heart rate is about 113, his blood pressure perilously low. I watch my heart rate, I watch and watch. 70. It doesn’t move.

I do not sleep.

The next morning the young man, an American, is moved to another ward. His blood tests show fearful levels of the same hormone for which that morning I am tested, and found to be free. His heart is damaged. There will be consequences. He is replaced by an old man, whose heart rate soars whenever he moves. He has stories of adventure. I spend two days watching heart rates, feeling vulnerable and strong at the same time. The men are pinned to their beds.

I pass various tests until only one more scan remains, but for that I have to wait and wait. I remain connected to various machines by wires that are clipped to me, or pierce my skin. I have 18 patches sticking to me. Both arms are punctured and bruised from elbow to wrist. By a nod the nurse eventually indicates to me that she’s willing for me to disconnect myself in order to visit the bathroom, so I no longer have to ask her to do it. Later she gives me some shower gel. ‘Just don’t get those wet.’ I walk, almost a free man, to the shower. Tom Jones has had his first big hit, and it follows me silently down the corridor.

I am panicking about work. I have an event to do the following evening, an ‘in-conversation’ with an indie rock-musician about the inter-relations between songs and history. No one else can do this. I need to be discharged by the following night. The consultant comes. ‘You look fit,’ he says. I explain that I run marathons, and try not to complicate that with any qualifications or stories. ‘You’re in good shape.’ So what’s wrong? Perhaps nothing. The initial ECG showed a troubling arrhythmia, but that’s not uncommon, and it’s not dangerous until it becomes too frequent.

My heartbeat syncopates. I am hospitalised by listening to too much jazz.

I need an ultrasound scan and then I am free, but the day begins to wane. Tom Jones becomes disillusioned, whiling his days away in Las Vegas shows, eating, drinking, knowing what to expect. He buys one Home Counties property after another, while the green grass of home still grows on him. He discovers meaningful duets and soon it is night.

The woman with the food trolley is solicitous. She keeps on giving me extra food. I’ve not stayed in hospital since I was a small child. It reminds me of aeroplane food, that’s all.

The nurses have begun to look upon me as a fraud. Not just because I am to all appearances brutally healthy, but because I have claimed to have a partner and children, and there have been no visitors. I lie in bed slowing my heart – today it is 62 – and reading. And I think about how I have used my days. This is not a good thought, because half of them are spent, and the books I have not written pile up faster than those I have. I can see the mental furniture know, know what those books are meant to do, but the frailty of the body is vying with my mortgage to be captain of my soul.

I resign myself to sleep. I am a poor sleeper, and the bed is unfamiliar and the room full of murmuring, but somehow this happens. And the alarms go off and the nurse arrives with a crash trolley. I drowsily look at her. She looks back, pauses, presses a button on one of my flashing machines and leaves. It happens throughout the night. After the first few times she doesn’t bother with the trolley, but sticks her head through the curtain and presses the button.

In the morning she explains: I had triggered an alarm on the machine because my heart rate had fallen too low. She couldn’t turn the machine off or recalibrate the level at which the alarm was triggered. ‘What was it?’ I ask. 37 she said, and I feel quite pleased. And a complete fraud, again.

The day withers. Tom Jones did some TV programmes, the book ended. I've always felt a close affinity with Tom. There is talk of a portable ultrasound machine. Then she arrives: a doctor with an ultrasound machine and a shock of red curls. We talk about late-life marriages and her imminent honeymoon. She is the faint odour of life in the unchanging routine of our managed decline.

And I am discharged. The consultant is an irritable Italian. He stands with me at the end of my bed, flicks through the papers and declares: ‘whatever you die of, it’s not going to be a heart attack.’ I put on my crumpled suit, polished shoes, become a different person. And I head straight to work.

Not the right thing to do, however necessary. I took something with me from the hospital without realising it, and it has stayed with me for weeks. I haven’t given it a name, and it would be easy if it were the black dog, because I know him. It stayed with me through, and probably had a hand in, my birthday, which I spent alone and partly with my head down a toilet, an infection probably picked up in hospital. Then it stayed with me, slowly evolving, through Christmas. It bared its fangs when I was listening to the Today programme at about 6:50 one morning, and the presenter said that news was coming through that David Bowie had died.

And it has stayed on. It is one of the effects of ageing. Now, like my much mourned dog Mercury, it runs with me. I don’t think it is going away. I am working to invent a name for it.