The finishing line

Wednesday 25 June: 4 miles.

“But you have to choose: to live or to recount.” Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea.

Fourteen months ago, I ran my first and only marathon. It was in Manchester and I completed it in three hours and 52 minutes. This is a respectable, although hardly impressive, time but my main goal was simply to last the 26.2 miles, which I did fairly comfortably. I paced myself well, did not encounter the feared ‘wall’ and ended strongly. In fact, knowing at 23 miles that, barring an accident, I would finish in under four hours, I ran the final three with renewed vigour, even overtaking other runners in the final metres (somewhat comically, in retrospect). I didn’t even feel too bad after the race.

Completing a marathon ranks as one of the happiest moments in my modest life but the elation was very brief and, in the days afterwards, I felt quite depressed. I missed the growing anticipation I had lived with during the preceding weeks, the discipline of the training regime I had quietly followed and the sense of progression as I passed each milestone. I felt sentimental about the incrementally longer weekend runs I had undertaken – 15, 17, 18, 20 twice then 22 miles, three weeks before the event – but lacked any reason to attempt new ones.

As I grow older, I realise that contentment comes from the satisfaction of effort rewarded and tasks completed rather than the diminishing pleasures I spent my youth chasing. Training for, and running, a marathon is a perfect example of this. But, in truth, the happiness is as fleeting as any other and perhaps it is more accurate to say the reward lies in the process of achieving rather than the achievement itself.

Anyway, following the marathon, I was left with an emptiness that I felt I could only fill by signing up for another one straight away. But, for various reasons, I didn’t and then that feeling, too, passed and I fell into the pattern of running I have kept up for the last year and described in this blog. Now I have put my name down for a second marathon and will embark again on a journey which I hope will bring me some joy amidst the inevitable toil.

I won’t be blogging about it, though. This was always intended as a brief exercise, to encourage the habit of writing. Running can be an opportunity both to inwardly reflect and to notice more the world around me (I am normally very unobservant); attempting to articulate and capture these thoughts and perceptions has been rewarding. But it can also be a distraction and I’ve found that it clouds my mind at times and detracts from the purity – the wonderful blankness – of running, which is also one of its attractions for me. Even in a short space of time, I’ve become aware that the decision to describe a small aspect of my life has inevitably changed the actual experience of living it. Simply put, I have become more self-conscious about my running.

So, thanks to my handful of readers. Tomorrow, I’ll be getting up early again and setting out on another run; however, it will have gone back to being a private affair: just between me, my body and my mind. 27:54

Two books on running

Tuesday 24 June: 4 miles. I’ve read only two books about running. A third, by Thor Gotass, sits on my shelves. I’ve glanced at a few pages from it, no more.

The first book I read was Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I came across this shortly after starting to run, the desire to read something about my new hobby a sure sign that I was already hooked. It is written in a cool, literary style (the title is a play on a Raymond Carver short story collection) but is also approachable. Murakami describes the events in his life which led to him taking up the pursuit, various races, and the similarities between the disciplines of running and writing. He also recounts his participation in an ultramarathon, which resulted in an extended episode of what he calls “runner’s blues”. Reading the book as a beginner, I felt pleased that Murakami and I now shared an interest.

Phil Hewitt’s Keep on Running is a different sort of work. Written by the arts editor of a local newspaper, its relentlessly cheerful tone occasionally brings out the literary snob in me (bad organisation at an Italian marathon leaves him reflecting that “ancient Rome surely wouldn’t have offered such a chaotic start to its chariot races”!). But, in many ways, this is the better book. Hewitt gets so much right about the mindset of the runner: the obsession with personal times which are meaningless to everyone else; the mental strategies we use to break down long distances; how running must fit around family commitments; its essential addictiveness. He also writes well about the ‘selfishness’ of running although, conversely, he seems to experience an almost spiritual sense of communion with other marathon runners, which I don’t share. Perhaps that is why he keeps going back for more. One marathon a year is enough for me; Hewitt seems inclined to sign up for anything, from obscure cross-country runs to glamourous city races.

I recognised many aspects of myself in both books, which I recommend to anyone interested in running. 28:44.

Running vs. cycling

Sunday 22 June: 10.5 miles. Reaching the summit of Shooters Hill in the heat, I see a cyclist struggling up the other side and our eyes meet for a second. At that moment, I feel a rare sense of camaraderie. Rare, because cyclists and runners are very different types and we usually have little to do with each other.

There are strong similarities, of course. Cycling and running are both activities that people tend to turn to as they enter their thirties and forties. The attractions – exercise, simplicity, solitude – are the same. But there does seem to be a divide and, thinking of my social circle, I know more cyclists than runners. Actually, I barely know any runners.

Cycling definitely has a hipper image. It is often assumed to be eco-friendly, perhaps anti-car. There is a self-reliant aspect to it as well, which might fit into a practical, ‘hacker’-like worldview. Then there’s the Tour de France: lean men in colourful tops gliding through fields of yellow. Whereas running still has a whiff of the eighties about it: ‘jogging’ and jocks, ambitious, unpleasant people barging their way ahead. Sweatiness, sleeveless vests. Sebastian Coe. Why the hell do I run?

But, hold on! What about those riders who jump lights and shout abuse at passers-by? Lance Armstrong and his extraordinary lack of remorse. Boris bikes. Boris Johnson.

So: think instead of considerate runners who step into the road to overtake pedestrians or slow down to walking pace to circumnavigate push chairs. Of all that money raised for good causes. Of Haruki Murakami. And imagine, too, bookish types who run ten miles and later write a few, carefully-chosen words about their experience. Before diligently noting their time, which today was a leisurely 1:34.

Red Barracks

Friday 20 June: 4 miles. On Frances Street a stately arched gatehouse frames unattractive modern housing. Inside, two cannons point at the new buildings. Further on, a brick wall and a street name are all that remain of the military hospital built during the Crimean War which later became known as Red Barracks. These relics stand largely unnoticed in a scruffy civilian wasteland, secret clues for those prepared to look for them. 27:20.

Missing

Wednesday 18 June: 4 miles. It’s chilly in the early morning and there is a diaphanous rain. As I run past curtained houses, cheerless England flags and a series of ‘missing dog’ posters, I think about: a mistake I made at work; a cousin who has turned up at his parents’ front door after ten years and is sleeping rough; whether I need new trainers; how long to continue with this blog; and lost pets. 27:48.

Running within myself

Friday 13 June: 6.3 miles. I deliberately set out at a more leisurely speed in the heat, a pace I can imagine maintaining over 26 miles. Because I am running within myself, I enjoy my run, which takes me towards Deptford and then back around the edge of the heath. 50:17

Cemetery Lane

Tuesday 10 June: 4 miles. On Cemetery Lane, the west side of the graveyard is overgrown and headstones peer out of tall grass; the east side is freshly shorn. Further on, in the early morning quiet, I hear the sound of retching from a tower block on Frances Street.