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 durĂ©e 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.