16 April 2022

What's love got to do with it

The Travelodge in Llanelli smells like you would expect, like a suspended, accidental moment of sadness, with no mobile phone service and a 30 inch flat-screen TV bolted to the wall. When I checked in, with my two bags and Hoka One One Carbon X shoes in my right hand, the receptionist told me that I needed to pay for parking if I was staying later than eight on Sunday morning. I said I would be out earlier, I was running the marathon the next day, and she laughed and said, I think everyone here is. I had not wanted to stay in the Travelodge and had in fact booked and cancelled and rebooked an AirBnB room on three occasions over the last two years as the marathon was scheduled and cancelled again and again due to Covid. This time, two days before, the woman whom I have been messaging since March of 2020 told me that she had tested positive for Covid and said, 'I suppose you'll want to cancel now' but I didn't want to, I wanted to go anyway, who cared at that point. I thought better of it and the Llanelli Travelodge had a room open still, so I booked it and decided it was better than my other options.

When I was finishing my PhD some ten years ago now, I got in my mind that I wanted to run the Milton Keynes marathon. I trained for twelve weeks on some beginner plan I found online and trained early in the mornings, running around the redways and up and down the long Railway Walk. The rain was terrible the day of the race, but the kids were young and energetic, and Yoko took them around the course to cheer me on — they had signs and sweets to give me. When I finished ahead of the time I thought I would get, they found me wandering around in the rain looking for then, shaking from the cold. Yoko was noticeably disappointed in herself like she had let me down by not being at the finish line like she planned. I remember trying to make sense of what had just happened, the way you have to make sense of things when you run a marathon. We ate at McDonald's and I had a Big Mac, and the kids had happy meals, and we went home to the house in Bradwell Common. I had a PhD supervision the next day, I remember, and it was like it hadn't happened, I just went back to things. 

While the Milton Keynes marathon followed all the paths I normally ran, the Great Welsh Marathon course was only what I could project it to be from our camping trips to Wales over the last few years. The course goes up the coast from Pembrey, into Llanelli, and back, with the turnaround at fifteen miles rather than the halfway point, so most of the race was into the wind. I had worried about the wind, and assumed it would be part of the recriminations for whatever failure was coming. The morning of the race though it didn't feel bad, and as we did the first mile on a closed circuit in the park, I thought maybe I would be fine. Then the course reached the water, and we were properly exposed for the first time, a mile of beach at least in front of us and I felt it hit my body hard and thought, Well, this should be manageable, and then wondered if it actually would be. After working alone in it for few miles, I came up behind two men in matching jerseys from the same club and I said we should work together in a pack of three to break it, each taking the lead for a bit, and they agreed, but one of them quickly fell behind. Greg from Somerset and I ran together for a couple of miles, keeping each other company before he too fell back. He yelled up to me, after I looked back to check on him, Run your own race, mate, and with that, I was alone for the next seventeen miles, passing slower runners and moving up, place by place as I kept to the plan. I hit the half marathon mark just ahead of the time I wanted, despite the wind, and I worried that I had gone out too hot, that I had already lost the chance to succeed. At mile fourteen I suddenly felt tired, but then the first runners started coming back the other way and I realised I was close to the turn and then like magic, the wind suddenly disappeared, the way the wind disappears when it's at your back — it feels like nothing, it feels as if there is no wind at all. 

I don't remember what plan I had when I ran my first marathon, what I thought about precisely, or what I was trying to do: I must have just been trying to finish. I ran on the same shoes I trained in, and I can see in the video, I was inexplicably wearing a coat when I started, which I peeled off and gave to Yoko at the three-mile marker. I don't remember taking gels, I just remember how badly it was raining and how cold I was at the end. I remember buying cookies before the race and eating and eating and eating and being nervous and afraid the way I was that whole year, not sure what the future was, how I was going to finish my thesis and support my family. How the visas were going to work out and how any of what I had started would be viable. 

Ten years later, now all I can think about is love and how much energy Yoko must have put into that day. I remember feeling guilty, not feeling like I was worth it, the whole thing was just my dumb hobby, my distraction from everything I should actually be working on. As I look at these pictures and video, at how I behave when I run past them, when I give them my coat or whatever piece of clothing I needed to shed, that I must have still believed in unconditional love, in the insolubility of love, that love would survive anything, any argument, that you could forgive and forget endlessly, that seven times seventy was a metaphor, not a precise number of occasions on which you could be forgiven, that you could use them up like tokens. I didn't know that all love is conditional, and you don't know those conditions until you contravene one and love turns out to be soluble. I didn't know any of this, putting on the marathon running medal the girls had made for me, that Yoko had helped them make for me. I didn't know that this was temporary, that it would go away, that in ten years I would watch the video and this, of all things, would be what I found so amazing. 

On the Great Welsh run, sometime around mile eighteen or nineteen, I thought I gave up. My watch kept chirping with the disappointment that I wasn't going at the speed I had told it I wanted to go at this point in the race. I came up behind someone who was much fitter than me walking up a hill, and I thought that I too would end up walking. Before the race, as I visualised the ending, I thought by mile twenty-two I would know definitively whether I would finish in under three hours, but I couldn't bring myself to check my overall average pace. Instead, the doubt hung on me and I thought again and again that I had failed, that I had gotten close, but I had ultimately failed. I did the self-talk and imagined as I do when I am running and I am tired, that I am commentating on the run after I have finished, that I am writing about it, but I don't remember any of the things I said to myself. Then, the last two miles, I realised I was physically close to the finish line, that the course was going to take a sharp right and I would be back in the park and indeed, I could hear people, the announcer, and I was back on the track that we started on with a sharp uphill and downhill and as I rounded the corner, I could see the gun time still under three hours and it was clear then, finally then, that I was going to make it. 

I'm a much better runner than I was ten years ago. I'm much fitter, I'm much more aware of my body and what it needs. I know I can do seven High5 gels in the course of a race, and I don't need to drink water unless I am thirsty. I know that the doubt will start at mile sixteen, but it is a temporary doubt. I know that I don't need to eat nonstop for ten days before a race, that I don't need to feel bloated. I know that I will shake uncontrollably at the end, that I need to drink water and let the feeling pass. I know that my body is capable of a two-hour fifty-nine-minute thirty-four-second marathon, or it was when I was thirty-nine years and two hundred and eighty-seven days old. It's needlessly precise, but needless precision is the foundation of much of my success as a runner. My success, not anyone else's. I don't know what anyone else should do to run faster. I don't know what love is, if it can come back after it has gone, if you can be forgiven four hundred and ninety-one times, or if you need to start again with someone else and hope you've learned enough lessons to not run out of forgiveness. I know you need to be kind when you can though, and appreciate the homemade running medals when you get them. You need to remember that love — not negative splits, or low resting heart rates, or strong finishes, or low body fate percentages — love is the thing to marvel at, the real impossibility I keep chasing.

07 April 2022

Non-player character

The wind has picked up in a troubling way again, and the top of the house on Victoria Road is back to the same set of eerie sounds and shuddering that kept us up in February. I've been watching weather reports closely as I am planning to run the Great Welsh Marathon on Sunday in Burry Port in Wales and knowing how the wind can come off the water on the Welsh coast, I am concerned I will be blown over, or worse: the wind will stop me from achieving whatever I've convinced myself my nearly 40-year-old body is capable of achieving. The report changes regularly although the closer we get to the day, the more accurate I imagine it's getting. The wind now is forecast to be between ten and twenty miles per hour out of the southeast, which I've searched online with the childlike question: what does a ten mile per hour wind feel like. Ten miles per hour is a faster pace than I hope to run. A ten-mile per hour wind easily completes a marathon in three hours. The charts I found don't discuss it that way, but instead tell you what the leaves and branches behave like under different wind conditions, and feeling slightly more confident, I lie down in bed and close my eyes and imagine what the gentle swaying of the tree branches means in terms of headwind.

Obsessions with wind speeds and other race variables are inevitable for almost forty-year-old men who are deep into marathon preparations and whose sixty-mile peak running weeks get halved. The best way to deal with concerns about the wind is to just go run if you're a runner. However, the YouTube videos and everyone around you will tell you how important it is to rest before a race, how important it is to cut down to almost nothing in the week before a marathon and do things like think about your race mantra and plan your race day schedule and sleep. The race mantras people suggest are things like I can and I will but these are counter-intuitive to me, because I am a natural pessimist and don't like telling myself that I'm capable of something I'm not sure I'm capable of. I wonder if it could be something less ambitious like, I won't die today. Or, I run to find the void, my favourite Murakami quote from when I could stomach Murakami's writing. The YouTube non-elite runners making Top 8 Tips for Marathon Preparation videos don't seem to address this. Perhaps my mantra will just be silence — these middle-class runners have appropriated the concept of the mantra anyway, so why insist on even using that word. Just run. Stop thinking about it and just run.

Obsessions are not healthy, but more importantly, they quickly bore your audience. You can only sustain interest in navel-gazing about running for two paragraphs, tops. Maybe two and a half if you can stretch it into a larger point about ageing, or self-awareness, or mental health. I talk about running at the dinner table and can only get three turns of a conversation before we are talking about something some teacher at school has said or done, or the rats that we have now, that my daughter got after waiting four years, that we went to pick up in a community centre in a part of Birmingham I knew of but had never been to, where the Midlands Rat Club was having a competition. The stories where I am not the protagonist: far from it, I'm the dad wandering around in the background trying to buy a Coke Zero or finding the toilet or fidgeting on his phone. The non-player character in someone else's game, my daughter's or my wife's, or someone whom I have only met once or twice. I've got one dimension: I talk about running early in the morning and the weather, particularly the wind speeds. In the game, you need to speak to me briefly so I can tell you which way to go to find the kidnapped princess, or whatever goals there are in video games these days, which of course I don't know because the whole of my specialist knowledge is limited to sale prices for Ciele running hats and marathon strategies for men of a certain age.

I can and I will. When I got on the scale last Saturday morning, the number was one and four-tenths of a point too high and I was immediately depressed. Against my better judgment, I went out to do a Parkrun, thinking that I should try to get a PB when I was in such good shape so that even if I bottle the marathon next week, I'll have a good 5k time to my name. The parkrun was hard, and a teenager drifted behind me and overtook me in the last straightaway and I finished, upset that I'd been too weak to hold her off in the end. But then I looked at my watch and couldn't believe it: I said to the man scanning the runner barcodes, I ran a minute faster than my PB. I was shocked. How had that been possible, I hadn't really thought of my speed at all beyond a glance at my watch every mile — I'd tried, but I'd not really felt like I tried. I'd just run. Whatever that number was doesn't matter, of course, it's just a number, but I couldn't help looking at it again and again. I jogged back home forgetting about everything else as the sun came out and I had nothing to do for a moment. The protagonists are off doing something else, but in this part of the game, I'm running around the Edgbaston Reservoir, being chased and overtaken by a young woman twenty years younger than me, and I'm elated. I'm telling the story to myself, I'm looking in the mirror and saying, The wind will be strong this week, the branches will be gently swaying — you can run as fast as you can.