31 October 2019

Value for Money


Marathon 2012

I woke up on Sunday morning and changed all of the clocks in the house that hadn't automatically ticked back to Greenwich Mean Time. When you do this well as a father, there is naturally some kind of confusion when people start to wake up as to what time it really is — surely not all of the clocks had changed themselves overnight. Like all the other magical things that happen at night, Santa or the tooth fairy, you wake in the morning and something good has somehow came and went unnoticed. Dad sitting on the sofa with his phone to greet you; good morning, a whole world of things happened while you were sleeping.

I started running when I was 23, that year when everything was changing for me. In the autumn of 2005 when Yoko and I started going out, Neal showed me the cheap prefectural gym down by Ogata, by the Jusco, by the elementary school I used to work at every Friday. There was a teacher at that school I had a crush on the year before, the kind of woman who had everything sorted out, a Japanese Mary Poppins who made you think, I should probably dress better. That sense that I should probably dress better is my abiding memory of my early twenties. I had been fighting through a constant corn syrup hangover, my life essentially being organised like I was ten year old with cashflow. I bought sleeves of cookies for 100 yen because I could. But the incongruity of the life I wanted to live and life I was living became more pronounced as I found myself regularly stood next to Yoko, dressed smartly in her white pressed blouses and skirts that sat perfectly on the knee. It was time to grow up.

Getting healthy was key to my attempt at self improvement, and I remember awkwardly getting on the gym scale for the first time after someone had barated me for not taking my shoes off, and not knowing what to make of the number. The prefectural gym experience was always slightly awkward because there were no other foreigners there, just Neal and I sticking out like AAA baseball team mascots. This meant we had regular conversations around exercise equipment with old Japanese men and women who, long retired, were both healthier and more confident in their own bodies than me. I remember a very strong man in his late seventies, shockingly fluent in English, telling me that I was fat around the back and had a lot of potential for growing my upper body strength. I started running on the treadmill and then outside, in the rice paddies early on Saturday mornings, and by the time I had married and Naomi was born, it was two years later and I transformed into something unrecognisable, the sort of guy who got up at five in the morning to ride my bicycle in the hills around Shiibata to be back by eight to cook eggs for the girls, my wife and daughter, whenever they woke up. 

Somehow, after some time, all of that managed to turn dark, the way you reveal the spirits within you when you tinker around with the structure of your body — genetic spirits, the obsessive ones, that tell you what you may and may not eat. The ones that come to you through your mother's side of the family, the letters your Grandfather wrote to your Grandmother when he was deployed in Korea, warning her not to get fat. You get the first taste of control, of realising that after 27 years of being fat, you could be thin, actually people could call you thin. You tick off a day and another day of a calorie deficit and strip down to weigh yourself in the early morning and you are actually thin.

I run much faster now than I did when I was younger — when I was younger I believed I had limits to how fast I could run, but those limits had no basis in the physiology of my body. Now, I know the numbers, can plan to run eight kilometers tomorrow in thirty four minutes, because that is the pace I need as a baseline to reach whatever goal I've set out. I don't feel much magic when I run, not like I did, but it does come sometimes and I have become the quintessential middle-aged runner, the kind who hopes to feel the way I did when I was younger, when the sun came up over the mountains east of Niigata. That feeling when you're somewhere out there in the world, but you're not entirely sure where. A rice paddy on the Agano River, a stone bridge in rural Buckinghamshire. You stand in the morning mist and feel something of which you can't conceive, so you can't name it. You just feel it. 

I'll be fat or thin the rest of my life, I realise. It's just the way it is now. There are better days than other days. I can run fast and then eat secretly at night, the ice cream that I bought and since there is only a little left, I can eat it without feeling like I need to explain it to the girls who keep close tabs on the amount of ice cream in the house, whenever there is some. It's a Pihlaja problem, eating ice cream at night, I tell myself. It's a genetic thing.  Everything is physiological — that both comforts and unsettles me. There are metrics you can put against whatever you want. Spreadsheets for budgets, value for money, sure, but also for weight. Here is a spreadsheet of numbers — it tells me how fast my body can run. The eighty nine kilogram version of me climbs on the scale for the first time and shrugs, not knowing what he's gotten himself into.
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