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