Reflections

Reflections

On Friday I headed out for a run in advance of a get together with my folks. It was my Mum’s 81st birthday the day before and as I began running I was thinking of the influence she has on my life. She is a formidable woman in every sense, from humble beginnings she worked most of her life as a barmaid before going back to school in her fifties. College and university followed from which she became a dyslexia specialist which she still works as full time. I won’t lie, we’ve had a very complicated relationship but in our own way we get on and as different as we are that doesn’t alter the fact that her strength of character and resilience is a huge inspiration to me. As I ran through Bootle where she was brought up I thought about how much she had seen and achieved and I felt very grateful to have such a bold figure in my life.

As I approached Bootle Strand I thought about another mother, Denise Fergus (formerly Bulger). It’s 25 years since James was abducted and murdered from pretty much the exact spot I ran past. I’m not going to be macabre, it was sunny and peaceful there and the canal was aglow with sunlight as the Canada Geese sailed by and it was hard to believe that anything bad could happen amidst such beauty despite the urban setting. I thought of Denise (and her family and James’ Dad, Ralph) and of what she’s had to go through. Then I thought of Cleo, my daughter, fast approaching 17 and full of excitement and hope for the future.

As I stared at the reflections on the moving water I considered how incredibly fortunate I have been in my life. Yes, I’ve had my share of ups and downs but when you get down to it I have a brilliant partner, a fantastic kid and a lovely home. We’re not loaded but we don’t want for much we don’t already have and what we do have in bucketloads is happiness. Any crap in my life I’ve had to live with is balanced out by the freedom, love, joy and damn good fortune I have.

In that moment I was reminded of one of the things I love most about running, the thinking space. I’ve found this world to be chaotic and scary and confusing at times but when I run it gives me space in the middle and whilst it hasn’t always answered my questions it’s given me room to breathe. I’ve met loads of runners over the years and my general finding is that they’re amongst the best of people. Ok, you get a few monumental bellends but you’ll get that in any strata of society. On the whole, runners are fun, kind, supportive people with a love of nature and a dark sense of humour. I believe that the main reason for this amiability is because of the opportunity for thought. Yes, it’s often rambling, disjointed bollocks but that doesn’t matter. It’s meditation, reflection, prayer, whatever you want to call it and it’s so good for the soul.

What isn’t good for the soul is ill fitting pants and I feel you should know that amidst my musings I became aware I’d come out in my civilian knickers. Normally this wouldn’t present anything more than a vpl situation but today I was in something rather more frou frou than my usual utilitarian trollies. Maybe it’s because Valentines Day is on the horizon that I had ended up in an abundance of lace frills but in reality I’d just thrown on the first to hand that morning and forgotten to change them before I ran. Either way they I felt they were attempting to amputate both my legs at the join.

You’d think that on a blowy day on an urban canal there’d be ample opportunity to whizz your kecks off but not today my friend, today every bleeding person in Merseyside was walking on that sodding towpath. So I trundled along in seven shades of agony until the figure of Marc running towards me created a temporary distraction. He was on the return leg of a half marathon and looking relaxed.

After a brief but ludicrous discussion about the possibility of me running a mile in the opposite direction then catching up with him, we parted ways. As he went off in the distance I shouted him to put the kettle on and he retorted with something about wind but I didn’t quite catch it.

After escaping every soul in Liverpool I found a quiet side road at my halfway point and unceremoniously disposed of the offending underwear amidst much profanity as I surveyed the raft of chafe lines. Then I turned for home. Within nano seconds I joined the dots between the fast moving canal water by The Strand and Marc’s muffled warning. There was a insane headwind which was bad enough but it was also ass crackingly cold.

The return leg of my run was spent in a similarly contemplative mood, this time wondering how I was going to run six more miles in shorts without dying of hypothermia. By the end of the 13.1 miles my face had frozen into a desperate grin and I feared my thumbs would forever remain pointing upwards. Both thighs had turned into corned beef.

I ran again today, this time with Marc and considerably slower and more reluctantly. I was dealing with a self induced case of amoebic dysentery last night and neither my stomach nor ass was in the mood. It was also horizontal hailstones, minus three degrees and 45mph winds but I’m an easily led idiot. He said ‘go on’ and I said ‘ffs’ and that was it. We headed out once again along the canal and rumbled out another steady half marathon, again into the bastard of all homeward bound headwinds. This time I thought largely about food, but we also chatted about our different niggling injuries, how we’re crap at checking the weather properly and the importance of helping people when we can. We came across a bunch of people far worse off than we have ever been and it reminded us of our warm house, full fridge (full of shit, arguably, but still full) and comfortable lives.

Over the past couple of runs I’ve thought about so much; happiness, wonder, grief, sadness, hope, the past, the future, pain, love and peace. These thoughts encourage me to not only appreciate what I have, but to cast my eyes and heart out beyond myself to the world and those around me. I’m so glad that running gifts me with the time and space to allow this. I think the closing thought of any of my runs though, no matter how difficult or painful, has to be of only one thing that dominates my thoughts, my days and my life.

Gratitude.

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Psycho

This morning I woke up with an urge to run. I wouldn’t say a desire because in all honesty I desired it about as much as I desired a case of the clap. I really, really didn’t want to run but nonetheless I had this overwhelming feeling inside that I should. Bleeding typical then that this mystical urge didn’t come on Tuesday when the forecast is considerably more favourable but rather this morning when it was tipping down, snowing and blowing a gale in equal measures.

Fuck my life.

I think this urge has been creeping up on me all week if I’m honest. I’ve been using the weather as an excuse not to run all week but looking at the Met Office last night I realised that if I continued to do that I may not run again until some time in May. And then there’s these bloody role models sneaking into my consciousness. I’m helping out in a Couch to 5K group and their resilience and bravery has inspired me. I know for a fact that they won’t let the weather hold them back. Then there’s my friend Tracey who’s training for her first half, I know she’ll be out in all weathers with her indomitable spirit. There’s Tony, my running pal who is living with cancer, enduring treatment and yet running a tough half this morning (in a vest because he’s a lunatic). All of their faces loomed before me pointing to my running shoes. Utter bastards.

But still I was justifying not going out. I didn’t need to, I’m fit, it’s snowing, I’ll go tomorrow, it’s snowing, I should go easy on myself, it’s snowing. The weather was so bad it was totally justifiable to not run, in honesty it was madness to even bother. Finally I resorted to my last resort decider ‘what would Marc do?’

Marc is an insane Geordie so of course he would bloody run, wouldn’t he? Fuck.

So grudgingly out I went, I decided 10 miles would be more than enough today and the canal was my only sensible option given the conditions. I wasn’t going to pay any attention to pace, this was to be a relaxed run, I’d made it out and that was the important thing. The minute I got out I was glad, I knew I’d made the right decision. Yes it was mad windy, sleeting in torrents and effing freezing but I didn’t seem to care, I just felt glad to be out. It’s amazing how wearing appropriate clothing can affect things too. I had toyed with the idea of wearing shorts but even for me that was bloody mindedness gone mad at minus five so I did the clever thing and wore tights, a very dependable waterproof and a cap. It made all the difference. Sure the canal turned into a wind tunnel at times and I was practically throwing myself just to move forwards but I knew it wouldn’t last forever and there would be some shelter on the way home.

Everything was going really well until I ran past a slightly odd looking bloke with his dog and I decided he wanted to kill me.

Now I’m not one for drama and I’m certainly not easily spooked. I generally if recklessly assume that everyone is a lovely fluffy bunny who just wants to make friends with me and wish me well. And in my experience for the vast majority of times this is true. Ok you get the occasional clever gobshite, this is Liverpool, it goes with the territory but generally it’s good natured bants and that’s all good. In fact just this week in the C25K group during a walk section a couple of smartarse blokes shouted ‘is this a running club or a walking club?’ to which one of the most senior ladies responded ‘its a fuck off club’. I have never felt more compelled to high five a person in my life. But that’s how it works round here, we give and we get and we all laugh and that’s ok. But today I stared into the cold eyes of a psychopath serial killer and he saw my soul.

In truth what happened was I ran past a bloke in shorts and hi viz top who was walking his dog in the rain. This bloke stared at me intently for a little longer than is polite (probably because I’d been shouting show tunes at the top of my voice and breathing like a steam train) and so I naturally assumed he wanted to kill me. I frantically ran looking behind me every few seconds despite the wind holding me back. In my head I imagined he’d hot footed it along the dock road to meet me at the next bridge where I would meet my doom. He looked like a runner, was he a faster runner than me? Given the amount of mince pies I’ve eaten lately I’d say that was a certainty. I debated ringing Marc or the police but then I ran past a few more blokes who stared at me and decided that they probably didn’t all want to kill me either and that I was a paranoid freak so I stopped being a knobhead.

Problem was by then I’d overshot myself and was at 6.3 miles so this was going to be a 12 Mile run instead of 10. Thankfully on my return leg I had a pleasant tailwind and a distinct lack of serial killers. There were some quite mardy looking geese but I didn’t feel my life in immediate danger. Apart from the towpath having turned into several lakes separated by inch intervals of mud which I had to leap and slide through I made it home relatively unscathed.

Sometimes it’s good to to give into yourself and stay home and eat the pie and sometimes it’s good to do the thing you don’t want to because the fear can be bigger than the reality. Unless you encounter a dangerous assailant of course. Long story short, putting your expectations aside and just seeing how things pan out can be a liberating thing. I might try it more often.

Some things you can only learn in a storm.

Slap

Slap

So I thought I’d take advantage of the not completely shit weather early this morning and head out for a long one. The thinking was that I’d run ten miles out then see how I felt. Turns out that ten miles is a very fucking long way from home (ten miles precisely for all you pedants out there) when you have in fact already run ten miles.

At 11 miles whilst running on the endless Liverpool waterfront (anyone who has run Liverpool R&R will understand) I said out loud ‘well this was a fucking stupid idea Nicky’.

And it was. Despite distractions from what seemed to be a gigantic maritime hoo har on the river involving helicopters, boats and a lot of police, I was in effect dying as I staggered towards Albert Dock with still over six miles left to run. A fellow female runner trotted alongside me for a minute or two, I really wanted to tell her to fuck off but it seemed impolite. As it was she passed some faintly bitchy comment about not understanding how anyone could be bothered to wear as much make up as I was for a run then turned off. Hopefully directly into the pathway of a heavy goods vehicle.

At 15 miles I paused the Garmin, had a Vimto and a stern word with myself about badassery and pie. I also had a protein ball. Now, I don’t have much experience with proper running food, I usually find a Vimto and some starburst or a double decker does the job, but I thought I’d try something less nutritionally bereft.

Enter the protein ball.

This is a dense ball of goo coated with some healthy looking shit that purports to nourish and revitalise the weary runner. Sounded bloody perfect. The thing is that after running 15 miles I was so massively parched and drastically tired I was physically incapable of chewing, and these bad boys definitely need a chomp. I macerated on a ball until my jaw hurt but alas it would not crumble. In the end I swallowed chunks whole and hoped for the best. But I’d had a brief respite and so marched on with a renewed spirit.

This physical and emotional epiphany lasted a good nine minutes at which point I lost all sense and reason (and feeling in my legs). I decided the best course of action was to call Marc to come rescue me. After all, I’d run 16 miles and that was more than respectable. The plan seemed to be a flyer until Marc uttered the words ‘I think you can do this’. You see Marc is my inspiration, he does epic stuff and then it makes me want to do epic stuff. Added to that I’m always secretly thinking how proud he is of me if when I conquer a fear or do something out of my comfort zone and this spurs me on.

And then there’s you guys, I watch what you do and how brave and strong you are. And I mean all of you, those running ultras along with those starting couch to 5k, you guys who are fighting through injury and those of you who are hitting top form. I see what you do and it encourages me towards overcoming my own self imposed obstacles. So yes, I’m blaming you for all this shit.

Anyway I had no choice because he knew that I’d be so pissed with myself for giving in with just four miles to go. For God’s sake I could drag my arse four more miles.

And that’s basically what I did, I hauled my behind along the bustling dock road looking terrifyingly demented as my mad hair broke free in the wind from its tethers and gave me that much sought after Mad Scientist look. And bugger me with a marrow it hurt, not so much my legs but my feet and my shoulders. I felt comprehensively knackered and with one mile to go, actually delirious. I was singing (screeching) Taylor Swift songs demonically at the top of my voice (one of which was a bit sinister which I thoroughly enjoyed) and staring wildly and desperately into the cold eyes of strangers. Panic rose in my throat as I realised I may have misjudged the distance and so be slightly short which would involve the impossibility of running past my own house but with mere metres to go the Garmin buzzed.

Thank fuck.

Twenty miles is a long ass way, it definitely takes more than balls.

Preacher

Preacher

Cleo got her GCSE results last week and despite doing incredibly well, she wasn’t happy. After a long and emotional day she said she felt she’d let herself down, she hadn’t performed as well as she’d hoped and she was bitterly disappointed in the results. Cue annoying Mom with a litany of running based analogies to try to give her some perspective…

You see running is in itself an education, you not only learn the physical and mechanical process but also you get continual and often brutal lessons about the psychological aspects. I explained to her that if I had a bit of an off run in two weeks at the Great North Run and came in at a slower time than usual it wouldn’t negate my previous PBs. In the same way her GCSE results did not represent the entirety of her abilities but rather her performance on one particular day. She shouldn’t define her abilities or intelligence by these results any more than I would define my running by the results of one isolated run.

We also talked about the problems with using other people’s marks as your own benchmark of success or failure. Cleo said she hadn’t done as well as her friends and boyfriend (who did phenomenally well and we’re genuinely delighted for him because he’s a brilliant guy) but that was only partially true, she was only comparing herself to people who had achieved higher than her. If I judged my achievements in relation to those of Mo Farah I’d be permanently depressed. You have to look at where you are in the field as a whole, not just those who finished in front of you. In truth it’s best not to look at the field at all, as Marc often reminds the two of us ‘comparison is the thief of joy’.

I felt that I’d made wise and brilliant analogies, the kind that she would cling to and take comfort from, hell she’ll probably recount them to her own children and grandchildren one day and my genius will be revered and remembered throughout the ages as my legacy.

Then I went for a run and realised I was a massive hypocrite.

It was late and I hadn’t planned to run but Marc had gone out after work to do 10 miles and the itch had set in my legs. I decided to do a 10k, I’ve been mixing up my running a bit more lately and throwing in this new, shorter distance when time has been tight. It also gave me the opportunity to pick my pace up a little which has been a nice contrast to my usual steady plods. So out I went into the Friday night darkness through intermittent clouds of perfume, food, tobacco and aftershave from the clutch of local bars and restaurants that fringe our home. I was aware it was prohibitively late to make immediately for the coast as the path would be way too dark for safety so I tore through the surrounding streets until I had gathered enough distance for the final stretch along the beach.

But it was hard. It was butt shudderingly tough.

I pushed and stretched but my legs were unresponsive in the warm night air and the wind in my stomach was causing crippling ripples of pain. Long story short it was a suck ass run that I berated myself for all the rest of the evening. What sort of runner was I if I couldn’t even bash out an unremarkable 10k? I looked on Facebook and Insta and saw post after post of my friends all running faster and longer and I regretted ever heading out. Then Cleo texted me and I instantly felt ashamed. Every last thing I had told her not to do I had done to myself in the space of an hour. Way to set a good example Lopez.

Last night I set out into the evening air again with no real notion of distance, I’m getting better at seeing how the mood takes me. I’d spent the day thinking about two people, one of whom is no longer with us who would have given anything to be able to run in her lifetime and the other, a friend who has recently had a tough diagnosis and is discovering the physical and mental implications of running through treatment. It was mid evening so early enough to head to the sea although the ghosts of pain from the night before were still fresh in both my mind and my ribcage. I felt different though, there was a quiet intention in my heart even though I wasn’t quite sure what it was. As I moved along the coastal path I felt steadily comfortable and allowed myself to settle in, by the four mile point where the path tails off away from the coast and follows the train line along the army training camp I had committed myself to a half marathon. My usual method is to run just over 7 miles out which allows me a mile cool down walk at the end and there’s a well placed shop in case I need juice, cake or drugs. All was going pretty plain sailing until i stopped being a complete dickhead and realised that the sun had set and I wasn’t even halfway in. This presented me with a conundrum – keep running and risk having a return journey down a lonely, overgrown footpath in the dark or cut my losses and turn now which would result in a good solid ten miles along what would undoubtedly be a stunning sunset coastal path.

Obviously I took the first option, once a dickhead always a dickhead. This somewhat idiotic decision committed me to firstly having to pick up my slightly trundly pace and secondly to not having enough time to stop for a drink. It was becoming noticeably cooler as I ran past the open fields in vest and shorts but I was enjoying the fresher air of dusk on my skin.

As I hit the seven mile point a familiar burn seared under my ribs and my pace suddenly dropped. The wind that had wrecked my run the previous night had returned with a vengeance.

Fuck my life.

I debated the options in my head, I could get the train home (Formby station was less than a half mile away), I could call my Dad whom I knew would be passing by soon or I could stop and walk a little. I thought about Cleo, about Audrey and about Anthony and I decided to suck it up and run. And I wouldn’t stop.

It hurt so badly, I can’t adequately explain how much but somewhere inside I knew that stopping wouldn’t help, this was as good as it would get. I thought back to what Marc had said last year about running often being very difficult and how easy that is to forget, when we find a rhythm we can fool ourselves it’s always felt that was but that’s a lie. The truth is that it’s never been easy and that’s why we do it, that’s what makes it great and that’s what gives us the sense of self belief that we can overcome the difficulties and this spills into our daily lives. Running confirms within us the belief that we can endure, we can adapt and survive, we can do hard things.

And in that moment when we’re struggling against hardship whether it be because it’s the first week of C25K, or a blister or wind in your stomach or whether it’s the 90th mile of an Ultra or cancer treatment or just an inexplicably bad run it’s there that we no longer look to compare our performance to another but find victory in our own triumph. And our triumphs become measured in different terms, not in distance or pace but in our ability to overcome fatigue, to tolerate pain or simply to endure. It sounds awful but it’s also wonderful – majestic misery, a terrible beauty. And that’s why we do it.

I can’t tell you that the pain abated and the rest of my run was breezy bliss. It was an frantic struggle along a lonely, dark path I had no business being on at that time of night. I grit my teeth and ground the miles out. And yes, I completely lost my shit when a train hammered past and screamed like a bitch…twice. There was also the moment though when I rose uphill onto the coastal path and the whole of Liverpool Bay twinkled before my eyes under an inky sky illuminated by a thumbnail of silver that made my heart pump that little bit harder and my grimace turn to a smile.

In the final mile I wanted to stop so badly and continuously but I was determined to not let a great run turn into something I could beat myself up with for the sake of minutes. And it was a great run, not because it was easy or fast or particularly beautiful, it was a great run because it was so hard and painful and long. It reminded me that I can be gritty, that I can do the tough ones as well as the strong ones and that in itself is a triumph.

A few weeks ago a great friend of mine passed away, his name was Fr. Pat Harnett and I had the pleasure of his presence in my life from my schooldays through to my now middle age. He was also one of the kindest, holiest people I ever met. He knew me well and he knew my tendencies for overthinking and stressing myself about the future. A typical dyed in the wool Irish priest he would rib me endlessly about pretty much everything and took great pleasure in reminding my pupils about my less than exemplary teenage exploits. Whenever he could he would tell them of my first day at Senior School when he asked me how it had gone I’d replied ‘It wasn’t as bad as I thought’ he seemed to think that summed me up in a nutshell. He was a wise guy too, he’d been around and he gave great advice ‘moderation in all things’ was one of his favourite sound bites which I have tried (often unsuccessfully!) to apply to my own life. But on every parting including our last he would say the same thing and it has become one of my mantras, there is no better advice I could pass onto Cleo or Anthony than the simple words of a wonderful man who graced this earth with his presence…

‘Keep on keeping on’

Fr Pat Harnett 22.5.29-17.7.17

Bottom

Bottom

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. 


Until yesterday.

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. 

Wee

Wee

A wise man once said that in order to successfully recover from a half marathon one must run till ones legs are numb…Actually no wise man ever said that because it’s a fucking ridiculous proposition but once a fool, always a fool. 

It started out this morning with Marc and I both wanting to run but not necessarily together. Marc has much less opportunity to run these days with long and unsociable working hours so his runs tend to be heavy on the distance to make the most of the chance. I’m working my way back from surgery just before Christmas and despite having run a brill half marathon, my first since September, on Monday I’m still trying to regain my stamina and endurance. Ten would be more than enough for me today while Marc would try to get a half or longer in. This of course was before we discovered we had a new housemate in the form of the tiniest fieldmouse imaginable called Winston (I’m not sure if this is his actual name but he definitely responded to it so we went with it). Living next to a park it’s no surprise but rather a privilege to be visited by the local wildlife but in our hearts we knew that Winston had to be returned to his abode. This was no easy feat, despite being small the little fucker was faster than Paula Radcliffe needing a dump, he had us run ragged for the best part of an hour whilst we effectively ransacked the house. Eventually and not without incident (we nearly maimed some unsuspecting park strollers with a flying bin) we got Winston back from whence he came. Now knackered and frazzled we decided to run together, just the ten miles and nice and easy paced. 

It was a gorgeous day and to mix things up a bit we decided to drive to nearby Hightown from where we would take the trail that Marc has been running recently through the Pinewoods. As we headed off past the rifle range it felt weird to be so fresh at a point where I’m usually about to turn for home. But the conditions were perfect and I was so excited to run paths I hadn’t seen since London Marathon training days just on two years ago. 


Historically I’ve never been much of a trail runner, I like the comfortable predictability of concrete and inclines were my enemies but over the past year or two my attitude to running has changed and with it has come a love of trails. We talked between us as we ran about how funny it was to see my splashing through muddy puddles and clambering up Sandy dunes with a grin on my face, one time of day this would have been a preposterous notion but these days I’m just glad to be alive and nowhere makes me feel more so than when I’m out, pounding my feet and feeling my heart beat strong and steady with the wind in my face. 

Marc said that it felt more spiritual in a way to be in places more removed from civilisation and closer to nature, I had to agree. As hard as it was on my legs it was feeding my soul and yeah I know, I sound like a twat, but it felt something like grace to be out there on an amazing day amidst majestic pine trees hearing the rush of the ocean and seeing miles of rolling beauty heading out before us. As we neared the five mile turning point I had already prepared my reply for Marc’s inevitable question and I heard myself say ‘let’s just keep going’. 


Now, if you know anything about me then you know that the aforementioned words usually precede a run going tits up in the most catastrophic of proportions but I felt deep down today that this would not be the case, my legs felt strong and my heart felt full. I have developed a habit of measuring distance in foodstuffs and I was smugly racking up an extra flake and bag of doritos. As we staggered up increasingly sandy and steep dunes we would soar down the other side, our arms outstretched like aeroplanes shrieking and guffawing like idiots. You should have days like this, especially as you get older, you should remember the stuff that made you happy when you were a kid and you should do it. I spent so long being so sick and so scared and now I see my mum feeling the same that it’s reminded me to just be ecstatically joyful for the goddamn honour of walking the earth. 

My legs pushed hard up tough hills and on unstable ground and they hurt and my face was hot but I was laughing hard because not everyone gets to do what we do on a Tuesday afternoon and I just felt lucky. 


And then we got lost. I mean proper fucking lost. Not amusingly ‘oops we’re going in the wrong direction’ lost but rather ‘I’m no longer sure what fucking county we’re in’ lost. And with that ghastly realisation my legs began to hurt. And I needed a wee. 


Long story short I had a wee and it was lovely and Marc took a photo of me because he’s a bastard. My legs continued to hurt as the grass on the dunes became thousands of tiny daggers but still, my spirit didn’t fade. It didn’t fade when we ran to a beach we didn’t recognise despite knowing pretty much all of the north west coast (Marc took a pic of me at that point and admittedly I looked a bit like I was dead inside)

it didn’t fade when we eventually saw the forest which was so far away from us we thought it might be a mirage, it didn’t even fade when I realised just how far from home we’d actually come (ok so I may have had a small but significant panic attack but I hid it well). I just felt blessed to be there.


Yes, we may have had to jump over a fence and illegally run through a nature reserve and then wee in it and yes I almost cried a little when we tried to run on the beach and my feet sunk into the sand as the wind tried to hold us back but still, I felt lucky. 


In the final two miles my legs became numb and the hurt became an old familiar friend as the path moved beneath our feet and we pretty much silently ran each of us facing our own demons. For my part I know mine had already been slain as ten miles had become over fifteen and still we were running.


Over the past year I’ve become a very different runner. Once I was an angry runner; a bald, sick, scared, frustrated runner who battled the weather, fought the hills and conquered distances. These days I run with gratitude, a total feeling of relief that I’m still here, a need to thank the universe for every single step I take and an unutterable joy in the beauty of this planet. Does this make me a better runner? Fuck no. When I was angry I was fast, I cared about pace, times were important and improvement needed to be measured. Gratitude makes me a lazy runner, it makes me stop when I feel like it and stretch my arms out, it makes me slow down because it’s easier and it just feels better. But it also makes me a happy runner who can find ecstasy in hailstorms and hilarity in hills. Do I need to say it one more time? I just feel lucky. 
And with Marc at my side I’ll keep saying ‘let’s keep going’ because I know that recovery along with happiness can be found in every single step. In every possible way, distance makes the heart grow stronger. 

Blow

Blow

It took all I had to get out yesterday; I just absolutely, totally didn’t want to go and every inch of me was looking for an excuse to stay home. It was windy on a scale that I hadn’t run in since last winter and I was scared it would dash my spirits. 

Deep down though I knew how I’d feel after I’d finished and I really needed that, I needed the sense of pride in myself and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I also needed cake and this was my only justification, our new house is opposite one of the most celebrated bakers in the area and the struggle is arse fatteningly real. Besides, we have the MadDog 10k on Sunday, a notoriously exposed course which although I did brilliantly on last year in insane conditions I have no confidence in now. I was three times fitter and faster then, my spirits and self esteem have dented a little since along with my body.


So I went out and the second I did I was glad of it. The wind was hilariously strong and so I opted to run straight into it, that way I could benefit from a tailwind on my way home. I also had a vague plan in my mind to run 7 miles, my longest distance since my surgery. It made sense, the wind would slow me down and I would take a breather halfway in before I turned for home. 

Anyone with a heart condition who runs will tell you that running in the wind is amongst the most challenging of conditions (second only to heat) as breathing is tough and effort is doubled. I’m fortunate that living on the north west coast ensures that I get to practice running in the wind around 97% of the fucking year. I swear to god we get about 10 still days and I’m usually not able to run on any of them. My hair has now adjusted to life on the outside and permanently stands on end and coupled with the recent drunken hair dye disaster I now strikingly resemble the love child of Janet Street Porter and Ken Dodd. 

Anyway it was sodding windy but pleasantly warm which kind of made it all tolerable. I made for the canal where I hoped I’d be afforded a little shelter as the beach would have been insanity on a level even I don’t aspire to. It felt soul soothingly happy to be running my old route and my confidence settled in a little. It was hard going but I knew that a break was imminent and I was enjoying the challenge despite the now familiar achy twinge on my left side. At times the canal was nothing more than a wind amplifier but I laughed as the gusts tried to stop me dead and plodded on regardless. 


At the turning point I stopped briefly and was knocked practically off my tits by the searching clouds of dope smoke that were billowing from under the bridge. Aware of how my performance over the next few miles might be adversely affected by being mashed out of my head on skunk I prudently opted to head for home. 

The return leg was initially tough, the bloody wind was in my face again. Seriously, what the actual fuck? I started to feel myself making death noises over the sound of my music and I started to wish that Ed Sheeran would stop fucking whinging, he didn’t know what pain was, the soft ginger bastard. The Weeknd came on and saved the day, it reminded me of Marc (the three of us share a complicated love triangle) and I began to think of Marc’s precious advice about running the mile I was in instead of thinking ahead of myself and wishing it over. I let my arms relax and allowed the wind to cool my hot face and found my groove. Yeah it was hard but that’s the thing, you’ve got to not give a shit about whether it’s hard or far, you’ve just got to be proud you’re doing it because it was never easy and that’s what makes it so bloody amazing. 


The final mile brought with it a kind of magic and misery that I’ve come to love so much, I was so tired but my heart was so full. I ran downhill with my arms outstretched while ‘Defying Gravity’ blared in my good ear and I laughed because I’m a dickhead and I don’t care. 


The bangle I was wearing said ‘With brave wings…she flies. I’m not brave but I was slightly deranged (and arguably slightly high from passive drug ingestion) and for that moment at least I soared. With crazy, wobbly legs I bolted across the road into the park and my watch buzzed right next to the outside gym which I made a mental note to try under the heavy influence of alcohol at my next possible convenience. 

And I resolved to remember the next time I didn’t want to run how I felt at that moment. Hot, exhausted, pained but with wide open eyes and smiling so hard my face stung. Utterly exhausted and utterly alive all at the same time. Because it was always this hard only now I remember that we can do hard things. And if the wind can’t hold me back then nothing can.