So yes, there’s been something of a lull in my writing lately. As to whether this is of great injury to the universe or of inordinate relief, history will decide. Either way I’m back. It’s not like I haven’t had much to say, during the past couple of months I had some truly great runs, the kind that reaffirm your faith in running and remind you what a glorious torture we have condemned ourselves to.
During one particular run I had started out badly, the feeling just wasn’t there and I’d told myself to keep battling on. It occurred to me though that running shouldn’t be about seeing how much I can put my body through or to what limit I can push it but rather a way of honouring my body. It sounds odd I know but bear with me, I don’t always talk bollocks.
I was chatting to my good friend and fellow gobshite Joni Thrush recently, she’s going through a malaise in terms of running and has documented it with honesty, good humour and a disproportionate amount of bitching in her really rather wonderful blog The Reluctant Triathlete. I was reminiscing about my days of running through my early treatment and how I’d never really, truly enjoyed running. Yes, I loved the feeling of triumph after a run and I totally adored the social aspect-my friends in the running community have become my brothers in arms, my extended family. But the actual action of running itself was a dread filled and harrowing experience. There was so much expectation both from myself and from other people, I don’t mean pressure or unkindness but simple expectation that I would finish races and go the distance. And I desperately wanted to live up to the person that everyone believed I was, so I ran and ran. And it hurt and hurt. There were times I felt physically broken and emotionally destroyed. It wasn’t really until the summer after my third London Marathon that I started to learn to enjoy running just for the hell of it. Maybe I felt I’d proved enough by then or I’d just been through enough.
So I finished treatment and it turns out that I’m a reasonably crap runner anyway. I strongly suspect some people were expecting that without the destructive force of chemo I would be free to reach giddy new levels of athleticism. Not so, in reality I’m a bit shit and I’m ok with that.
I had harboured concerns about how I and everyone else would feel if I didn’t turn out to be a sporting superhero, as it happens I didn’t give a crap and neither did anyone else. Being brilliantly mediocre has been my saviour because now there is no expectation. If I don’t run a sub two half or a sub 50 10k no one is surprised and no one gives a shit, least of all me.
And that’s an indescribable release.
So there I was with this revelation about how running wasn’t a test for my body but rather a reward, allowing my physical self to build, grow, strengthen and improve. And it helped, it helped to feel my legs lengthen and the wind in my hair, it felt like a celebration and not a fight and it lightened and carried me through. And after that I had a few runs that were pretty fantastic, not fast or anything spectacular in terms of distance or pace but just really satisfying. Yes I had a 16 miler that was around five miles too far on no food and drink and a half marathon that put me very steadfastly in my place but regardless, I was loving running and how it was making me feel.
Now I know I can have a penchant for overstatement, I once referred to a 10 foot elevation climb as ‘monolithic’ (in my defence it is a deceptively steep 10 foot climb) so I know there may be an element of disbelief when I describe the horror of this run but trust me, it was nothing short of a twat of gargantuan proportions. The annoying thing is that it was a no pressure ten miler, the kind of run I knock out three times during the week after work before cooking dinner in prep for a harder, longer weekend run. But this was a lesson of a run; a strict and bitingly harsh tutorial into how not to get cocky and to appreciate my body and mind are so much easier to get out of my control than I realise.
Ok, in hindsight there were factors that suggested this wasn’t going to be a majestic run. I’d been ill for a week, the menopausal symptoms that had plagued my late thirties since losing my reproductive abilities to chemo (this was a bittersweet blessing, I would have loved more children but if they inherited the same predisposition to spending money as Cleo we would have undoubtedly had to sell our bodies into slavery to support them) have mysteriously reappeared and my nights are wakeful and ludicrously sweaty. I’d felt nauseous, headachy, dizzy and my digestive system was distinctly unhappy with me. I hadn’t eaten anything as I was worried about repeating mid run the mass rectal evacuation event that had occurred yesterday. But it was the first day I’d felt even slightly capable of running since returning from London last weekend.
And there was London in my head. We’d spent last weekend there at the marathon, not to run it but to spend the weekend supporting our friends and partying because it was Marc’s birthday. Tim and Helen Christoni, our friends from LA had come over to run along with a bunch of our running friends whom we’ve become so close to, our lives so intertwined over the years.
It was a joyful weekend during which we all ran with Cleo along the Thames on an unforgettable sunny Saturday afternoon.
On the Sunday, Marc and I stood by Big Ben at around mile 25 for over six hours cheering the heroic runners and clapping until our hands were actually bleeding.
And it lit a fire in us, it reminded us that we weren’t done with London yet, we wanted back in. (As I write this it’s 1am and I just entered us both in the ballot again, I never fucking learn do I?) After all the pain, all the sacrifice and the damage that three years of marathon running during treatment did to me here I am asking for more. But it felt right, it felt like something we should do. I want us to run it again, because the storm has passed and we made it out to the other side and I want to go back and say thank you, to God, to the universe, to every single soul who carried me through and to London for saving our lives, three times.
But 1 mile in yesterday as we reached the canal a demon had crawled into my ear and started to whisper. I had a stitch that wouldn’t move and my right side was creasing with pain making it hard to breathe and a voice in my head started to ask me questions about who the hell I thought I was to think I could run a marathon. You see when I was in chemo I had sickness and pain of course but I also had an arsenal of sophisticated drugs all designed to make me feel stronger, fitter and more resilient. Now all I have is a dodgy heart, a temperamental Achilles and a propensity for severe wind, hardly a recipe for athletic prowess. I’m also two years older and much more aware of my own mortality, human frailty is something I know a whole lot about.
Marc had decided to join me, a fortunate move as it was him alone that got me home. Motioning me ahead so I could set my own pace he kept an eye on me from behind, he knew even that early on that he would need to keep watch on me and he couldn’t do that from the front. I started to slog from just after the first mile and a half, I mean really dragging my arse, and the pain intensified. If you’ve never suffered from severe wind then you won’t believe how something so innocuous sounding can cause such crushing pain. The feeling is nothing short of agonising, like a vice grabbing you from the inside and squeezing hard. And it hurt me, so badly. I kept telling myself it was just pain, it wouldn’t kill me and I would get through it but it was travelling across my shoulder blades, over my chest and into my groin, it was overwhelming. There was also a constant and sturdy headwind which was doing little to help.
Any sensible person would have decided at two miles that this malady was not abating and it was therefore most definitely not their day. Any sane person would have turned for home. But I am not equipped with either sense or sanity and I carried on, not heroically but stupidly, because nothing good was ever going to come of putting my body through such needless torture. At five miles in I was spent, every last part of me hurt.
Wind does a weird thing to the body when running in that it saps you of energy and stamina leaving you quickly and effectively exhausted. I was only halfway through. Marc did every possible thing he could to help, he was kind, supportive and encouraging. He praised me for how far I’d come and reassured me we could run/walk home, he even attempted a Heimlich type manoeuvre on me that nearly got us arrested for indecency on a previous run which was no less grossly lewd looking and sounding this time.
On the way home the wind was no longer in our faces and as much as I felt the benefit of less resistance I also felt the heat. Things were getting worse in my head, we have Liverpool Rock and Roll Half in four weeks and here I was run walking and dying on my arse at 10k. I had to get a grip of my girl balls.
Marc did a valiant job of distracting me with chat and pointing out the natural beauty of our surroundings and for the larger part it worked. I told myself this was one day, not every day. I don’t always feel like this, just sometimes. This run neither represented nor defined me as a runner, it was a glitch but it was also a lesson. I resolved to crack on and keep going, pain and difficulty can teach you to endure and strengthen and I reminded myself that I’ve survived worse runs than this. Believe it or not in the final two miles I began to count the seconds, I counted 1200 steps before I admitted to myself that I was a fucking lunatic. I was desperate to keep going though.
About a mile from home Marc stopped me and pointed across the canal bank to where Colin the Cormorant stood. I crouched and stared at him, I thought back to how I’d felt the first time I’d seen a heron on the canal take flight, how mounting to the sky took such strength and effort. I reminded myself that the climb is hard, it takes power and energy and fortitude and sometimes it involves hardship. I stared and Colin stared back at me, holding my gaze for longer than I’d expected this shy bird to. And he didn’t move, maybe today wasn’t his day either, maybe he just wasn’t feeling it, maybe he didn’t have the oomph to get himself up there today. Either way he seemed good with it.
So on we went and yes, I had to walk a bit more in the final mile but I was so far gone it didn’t seem to matter any more. Ten miles had devastated me more than a hot and hilly 13.1, more than a tough and waterless 16 had. Ten miles had whipped my arse and reminded me I’m extremely human, and my body like anyone’s is extremely unpredictable.
I staggered into Marc’s arms and thanked him so sincerely for being with me, without him I’d have ended up in tears on the towpath phoning him to bring me home. He brought me home in every possible way, he kept me safe and sane (just about).
When I got home I was exhausted, properly done in. I was dizzy, sleepy and aching all over. I felt like I’d run a marathon and it was a timely reminder of how running isn’t easy, it’s anything but. Some days it’s wonderful and smooth and automatic but it’s never easy, it’s always an effort and it always requires something of us whether it be commitment, strength, tenacity or just simple bravery. I think yesterday required faith from me, and although I grappled with it I think somewhere deep inside I did give it what faith I had. And in return it gave me something, it gave me humility and along with it a very pertinent lesson. If I’m going to run a marathon again then expectations may well rise but my own of myself should be the ones that rise highest.
And rock bottom is as good a place as any to begin the climb.