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.