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.

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.

By January the training runs had stretched from four through eight to 16 miles. I was out for long periods, with time to think and to notice things that normally remained unnoticed. How the winter impinged on the lives of animals and birds and plants. How, when snow covered the ground, the stoat was forced into a light-footed scamper to remain safe on its fragile crust. No snowplow stood by to answer his SOS. How the grouse huddled in the leeward side of the peat hag and umbrella'd herself to shed the in sidious rain.

OFTEN the urgent tick of my stopwatch was subjugated by some natural wonder. There was the day that the waterfall froze over and for a handful of hours, the ravine was hushed before the beauty of this "one-time only" ice sculpture, tapering icicles of all sizes set in white, frozen spindrift. The next day it was gone. Liquidated.

Sometimes heavy mist filled the valley and dew'd my track suit, but at 500 feet I would climb out into sunlight, as if emerging through a trapdoor - my feet swathed in the mist, my head in the clear air, and the indigo blue of deep space above....

All that was far from my mind as Richard, a friend whose flat I had shared for the night, drove me in his black BMW, fast across London to the start of the marathon.

Here were miracles fabricated by man - of concrete and glass and chrome and marble and high technology.

I pinched myself through my worn black track suit. Was I really here clutching a running number, a bar of high-carbohydrate food, and a handkerchief? I always took a handkerchief.

There were 26,000 runners taking part, and they all congregated on Greenwich Common - it was a lot busier than Crofthead Hill. They limbered up around me, stretching, checking laces, and passing light-hearted comments about the temperature, the "wall," and whether they should keep on an old T-shirt for the first three miles.

And then we were off.

My number was 22403. I liked its anonymity. No one knew about the "lean and strong and quietly confident" man that sheltered behind its facade - or of his apprehension as he found himself for the first time ever competing for space with other peoples' legs and arms.

As the miles passed, the runners began to space out. The chatter quieted and the only sound was the slap of training shoes beating a rhythm on the unyielding tarmac.

Where heather had cushioned my path on the Crofthead track, history paved these London streets.

The waterfall, the ravine, and the silver birch - my milestones back home - were replaced by the Cutty Sark, Canary Wharf, and Tower bridge.

Down Jamaica Road, the smell of burnt onions wafted from a street stall, an urban alternative to the scent of pine needles squeezed out by a January frost on the forest path.

The hours merged, the miles stacked up, trailing tiredness in their wake. Down the mall we went, passing Buckingham Palace and rounding into Birdcage Walk and up toward Big Ben - running, walking, and hobbling toward our common goal.

The crowds were thick and supportive, shouting encouragement to friends as well as to total strangers.

My family was there somewhere. Miraculously, they picked me out of the ragged ribbon of runners. They called to me, and new vitality flowed into the lean-and-not-so-strong man and impelled him the last few hundred yards across Westminster Bridge to the finish.

And that, I firmly believed, would be the end of it. I had run a marathon. I could tick it off life's list of things to be done, and sit back until some fresh idea surprised me.

But this morning I found myself on the track high up on Crofthead Hill, jogging along, nice and easy with some new Silver Shadow trainers on my feet. They've air-sprung soles, I'm told.

Have I been "hooked" by the running thing? Perhaps. Or it could be that nature's invitation to her spring show, which is opening now with primroses beside the waterfall and abandoned, white cherry blossom along the riverside, constitutes an invitation I cannot refuse.

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