Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Unbearable Art of Suffering.

It's another year and I'm sat in the Fast Good for Age pen at the Red start of the London Marathon. I hadn't seen any signs for a Slow Good for Age pen, but presume that there was one amongst all the madness.. They're giving away free coffee this year, but already having had one, I'm cautious about having anymore. It's not so much the increased chance of wanting a pee or not- I'll go anywhere, crowds or no crowds- it's the thought that it may increase the chance of dehydration. The past couple of weeks I've felt poorly. A couple of weeks previous I'd done my clubs half marathon at Friskney and despite having a few days off before, with what I thought was a cold, had done an ok time, my fastest for a couple of years. The weeks after that and before London had been a nightmare. I'd spent my three days off work, mid week, in bed on a diet of paracetamol and bombay potatoes. I'd felt abit better by the Saturday morning on our trip down, but after a 3 mile jog in the afternoon, had gone to bed once again feeling ropey. I bought a pack of Anadin Extra later in the day, abit stronger stuff than the normal 15p tablets from Morrisons, and as I awoke on race day morning felt ok.

So, another coffee or not? I knew that paracetamol had a dehydration effect on the body. It was one of the few things that I could remember from university- don't take tablets after a night on the ale before bed, it'll make you feel worse. Drink water instead. But I love coffee. I'm no expert on beans or anything. Always buy the cheapest I can find. But I can down a few pints a day. And I mean pints. When I moved into the banger a few years ago I didn't have any cups, but did have some pint glasses. I started drinking pints of coffee and , although I now have several cups and mugs, it's something I've continued to this very day. I drink pints of coffee instead of cups of coffee, and despite concerns from some of my nearest and dearest, I also managed in my jobless phase ( yes, I now have a job. More of that at a later date!), to sleep more than anyone I have ever known.

I decided against it. My pee had a distinct yellow tinge on my first call of nature. I'd have a bottle of water instead. The minutes ticked by and before I knew it I was lined up ready to go. I love the London weekend with our club. It always follows the same routine established over the proceeding 20 years. We set off Saturday morning to the Expo, where we register and have a quick reece round the stalls offering the usual crap. We then have a picnic lunch outside, with a splendid view of London Airport, before driving to the hotel. The afternoon is spent relaxing, before a fish and chip supper and to bed. We're up at 6 the next day, quick breakfast and down to the train station to catch our carriage to the start. It's all that's great about club athletics- a bunch of like minded folks, abit of banter and alot of laughs. The only downside for me the last couple of years is actually running the race! As I stood on the start line I knew it would be the same old routine- concentrate and try to get under 3 hours. I'd managed it for the last two years with a 2.54 and a 2.56 the year before. What would this year bring? To be honest I wasn't really bothered.

Life is constantly changing, and with it ideas and ideals. The past two years had seen a turbulent period of self analysis and self analysation. In a bid to understand the meaning of our journey in this life, I'd realised that some things were more important than others. One thing , of late, that I'd decided was of no importance, was running performance. The act of running was important to me in terms of providing me with a sense of freedom and a connection with the outdoors, but results were not. Since London my views on competition have changed somewhat again. The constant flow of change. I'd began to see performance as a tool to only boost ego, and as I believed ego was essentially a negative thing, it therefore meant that competition was also negative. It took an accusation from a dear friend to alter my view.

I don't like people who boost about what they've done or what they've got. My friend accused me of having the biggest ego of anybody she knew. After alot of thought and self examination, I decided she was probably right. Instead of bragging about what I had or what I had achieved, I was doing the opposite- bragging about what I didn't have or hadn't achieved. This thought lead my to other questions. If I drove around in a nice car, was obsessed with clothes and lived in a big house, I was creating an image for myself. This I viewed as being egotistical. If I didn't have a car, wore simple clothes, and lived in a basic dwelling, then surely that was also creating an image, and was also egotistical. Therefore any statement of personality, which is impossible to escape, is egotistical. This worried me. How on earth was someone supposed to annihilate that dreaded ego?

I searched the web and after reading countless descriptions of eastern religions and the such, I arrived at an explanation that made some sort of sense to me. Ego is not bad. It is a manifestation of human personality, and therefore virtually unavoidable. The important thing to consider is the strength of the ego. Someone who is content with himself and his lot has a strong ego. This individual is content with a basic dwelling, with simple things, knows the fallacy of materialism, has a high sense of self esteem. Someone with a low sense of self esteem feels the need to impress, be it with cars, fashion or whatever. They have a weak ego which needs to be boosted by adoration. The ideal is a strong ego, and within this, show of personality and competition has a part. The thing is not to let it go to your head. Be a good runner, be a good singer etc, but don't get boastful and don't seek praise. Having said that, bragging about having nothing I still consider boastful and indicative of a weak ego. Of that I am aware and I'm working on it!!

The first few miles were easy. I set off on a deliberate ploy of running to exact 3 hour pace. For the first three miles this proved to be difficult. The Red start takes an alternative route for the first 3 or 4 miles of the race, before joining with the main route. Although these miles were marked with the customary mile bridges, they didn't have any clocks on. I didn't have a watch on, so I had no idea what pace I was going. I eventually got to find out at 5 miles. It had took me a minute to get over the line, and as I passed the marker I was 1 1/2 minutes under 3 hour pace. That meant that I was 2 1/2 minutes under 3 hour pace. I felt good. As I neared Tower Bridge and the 12 mile mark, I was beginning to feel abit smug. Bloody Hell! I'd been ill and it was still going to be a doodle to get under the big 3. I decided to get round the bend after the bridge, and step it up some. I smiled. God, I might even get a pb here. Halfway came, then we steered off the main, wide road and into Narrow Street, to begin our jaunt around the Docklands. I normally liked this little bit, enjoyed being cheered on my one of our lads who lived nearby, but I started to sense something was going wrong.

The 16 and 17 miles were reached on the same schedule I'd been on for a while- 2 1/2 minutes under 3 hours, but it was hard. Where I thought I would be gradually increasing pace, I wasn't. At 18miles my fears were confirmed. In all my previous marathons my weak point had been my legs. I'd always felt fine on the breathing side of things, and just had to concentrate on keeping the legs going. This was different. My breathing was becoming laboured, as well as my legs starting to hurt. I'd always dismissed the notion of 'The Wall.' That was something for people who were not fit, or had ran too fast a first half of race. It would never, and had never, reared its head on me. The crunch came at 18 miles. Within 2 miles I had gone from thinking about a potential pb, to seriously doubting if I would be able to keep running to the end. At 20 miles my legs had gone. All expectations of any times had gone. I only had 6 miles to go. In cases like this I always revert back to childhood routes. 6 miles was my mums house on Anchor Lane, onto the main road, past Butlins, follow the path past The Lookout, up the road at Winthorpe, and back on the seafront. It was a route I'd done a thousand times, from 11 years old. It was an easy, easy run. This 6 miler wasn't. It was hard. It was slow. It was painful. Most of all it was deeply, horribly unenjoyable.

I crossed the line in 3hr 11mins, my slowest ever marathon, elated. Glad to finish, thankful I would never put myself through that level of suffering ever again.


As I sat at the first job interview I'd attended in 25 years, and the first 'proper' interview I'd ever attended, I smiled inwardly. One of the men in front of me had asked me a question.

' What are you like working under pressure?'

The proceeding couple of years had crystallised my view on pressure. I hated it, considered it something to be avoided at all costs in the pursuit of happiness and general well being. I'd been on anti depressants for years, broke out in inexplicable skin conditions, even had a patch of hair fall out weeks earlier. Pressure certainly didn't help with any of these.

' Really Shit,' I said in my mind. What sort of pressure is there working as a bloody car park attendant?

' Great,' I replied in reality, ' I thrive under pressure.'

During the last six miles I thought of a conversation I recently had. It was all to do with an epic run that my brother had run.

I read it. Some of my friends read it. Some of my friends asked , 'Why?'. I thought , 'Why?'.

As I ran that last six miles, I thought about suffering. Was suffering a by product of great achievement? Maybe it was.

As I ran that last six miles, I thought that I never again wanted suffering on that level.

Last night I read a great article by the US mountain runner, Rickey Gates, in which he describes  the thoughts of his friend, Martin Cox, the UK mountain legend. Martin's comments on Ultrarunning sum up my thoughts. Ultrarunning is for people who like to suffer.


On the Monday night after London I noticed that I had broken out in spots on my arm. They formed a distinctive lined arrangement. A visit to the doctors confirmed what I had already been advised. I had Shingles. The two weeks or so of feeling ill before the race had been the incubation period.

I've decided that I will race again this year, but no distance over the half marathon . I want no suffering.

I got the job. So far it's been completely free of pressure and I love it.

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