The Impulse to Get Out and Run
WHAT on earth was I doing in a flat in London at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning, dressed in shorts and vest, stretching my quadriceps? It was unreal. I was not a runner, not an athlete of any kind, and I was as much at home in a city as a badger in a supermarket. Yet here I was making last-minute preparations for the London Marathon.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
It certainly wasn't planned but then, I suppose, few events in my life are. They have a habit of developing from nebulous ideas or throwaway comments and then surprising me by actually happening.
It was that way when I built our house. We were idly commenting one day that an area of our land on which primroses always bloomed early would make a great site for a house, and the next moment I found myself digging the foundation. I suppose the marathon must have been another idea lurking under the surface waiting for a catalyst. The fact that it had waited for 55 years made it all the more unexpected.
My friend James was the catalyst. He is a keen runner. Marathons, fell races, road races, he's done them all, and it was in his study that it all started. That's where I saw his medal for completing the London Marathon.
"I'd love to run a marathon," I said unguardedly, meaning I would love to be able to run a marathon - not that I actually intended to do it.
"Why don't you?" he said looking at me with disconcerting directness.
That it ever got any further is strange because I have always held the view that people who jog are a bit out of kilter. Anyone who gets up at the crack of dawn to tire himself out before starting work needs help, I thought.
But the fact remains that one afternoon last September when I was weeding strawberries in the field by the river, the impulse to get up and run, right there and then, became too strong to ignore. I was wearing gumboots at the time, but that didn't matter.
I covered 75 yards before another impulse overwhelmed me: the impulse to lie down flat on my back on the river bank to recover.
That should have put the whole idea of a marathon out of court, but it didn't. Fantasy took over.
I remembered storybook characters who had been transmuted by open air and exercise from weakly subhumans into fit, lean supermen able "to run tirelessly across desert and mountain." I started to trot for a few minutes each day.
The only people I told were James and my wife. My wife smiled, but James took it seriously as I knew he would. He worked out a training schedule for me and then gave me an old pair of trainers, Reeboks, with "tri-density hy-elvaloy midsoles," whatever that meant. They were certainly much more comfortable than the plimsoles I wore at school.
I had 25 weeks before the London Marathon - 175 days to get from 75 yards to 26 miles; to become "lean and strong" and perhaps "quietly confident with clear blue eyes," if the storybooks were right.
For the first few weeks I took things casually; walking when I got a bit puffed or the sun was warm. But as I found myself able to trot as much as 150 yards without needing to stop and catch my breath, something changed. I was surprised to find I was almost enjoying it. I don't mean that I had any intention of joining the jogging fraternity, but a one-time marathon? ... That had a very real attraction.
November arrived, swirling about in her usual raw, gray mists, and I was still running. Each afternoon I left the warm cocoon of my study and got into my black track suit, pulled the hood over my head, and set out for Crofthead Hill. It became the focus of my day.
There was an elemental appeal about running, alone, in the hills in winter. Often it was raining - cold, hard rain flecked with sleet that stung your face; heartless weather, impartial in its abuse. But in its impartiality was an incorruptible fairness. You knew the score. It was as if nature said, "This is how I am in November, so take note." I liked that.