I nearly closed this blog at the turn of the year. Not because I don’t have things to say, but rather because I don’t have the bandwidth these days to set it down. In the end I renewed the fee just before midnight; maybe one more year. I am typing this on London Marathon morning, the race on the tv in the background as I repeatedly click the refresh button on the tracker.
Last year – 2016 – was generally recognised as a bad year, full of deaths of special people from David Bowie onwards, and sad, troubled world events. For me too. In 2015 I had run strongly and was even tempted to look at an autumn marathon, but in the end took the prudent decision not to risk it. But I entered 2016 very positive and primed for a big year. I ran a strong Harewood House Half (trails, tough) in February and then just a couple of weeks later the complete contrast of the flat fast Silverstone Half on the F1 circuit. I was entered for a repeat of my home Leeds Half in May followed immediately by the Liverpool Rock & Roll Half which promised to be fun, and by then I would be just a couple of runs short of my 50th Half. I had also begun to seriously consider an autumn marathon and ponder whether to repeat my favourite Robin Hood, or enter Chester as a first. And I even pondered whether it might be feasible to run two back-to-back. That’s how positive I was feeling. In March; a year ago.
Then Mum became ill. Actually she had been ill for some time but there had been no visible sign of her ovarian cancer; and by mid-April after an incredibly intense and draining few weeks, she passed away in a care home close to us, her funeral finally taking place on our wedding anniversary at the end of April. I was exhausted, physically and emotionally. (There is a positive – and life-changing – aspect to this, but I will write of that separately.)
So I lined up for Leeds Half having had only a few 20-30 minute runs in weeks. But I needed to run; I needed to cling on.
Leeds Half, and a ‘muscle strain’
I have enough base fitness, and started ok. But at about 6 miles or so I first felt it. A dull ache in my upper-left chest. And then a sharper pain down the inside of my left arm.
Yes, that; and you don’t need to be a paramedic to know what it means. In any case I have felt this before. I had a small heart-attack four years ago: it wasn’t serious, but that’s what it was. Ever since, I have had my cornflakes sprinkled with beta-blockers, aspirin, statins and blood-pressure meds; but the doctors have encouraged me to continue running, safely, including the York full marathon in September 2014, eighteen months after my episode. And, allowing for an adjustment to my pace and an acceptance that I can no longer race, I have continued to run reasonably well.
So, back at Leeds, I eased off and the pain went. I processed what I was feeling and continued to run. We do that, don’t we, we runners: we continue to run though we know we are hurting ourselves. As I continued to run and felt ok my pace picked back up… and so did the pains. So I eased off, and repeated that cycle a few times to the finish. Ironically the official race pic of me is my best ever: taken from low down with Leeds Town Hall in bright spring sunshine behind, both feet off the floor and great form. But inside I was distraught, as I collected my medal in my own gathering darkness.
Not dealing with it
I fully understood the implications well enough. It’s not just the immediate risk to me (and my family) of running too hard on any given day, there’s a wider issue: running isn’t something I ‘do’ it is a fundamental component of who I am. It is my escape, and a lifeline where I am ‘ok’, where I am ‘good enough’, amidst so much other chaos and failure. And was I about to be told to stop? For good? This thought filled me with dread, with a shattering loss which hadn’t even happened, yet.
I told myself it was because of the circumstances and would not be a permanent problem; all I needed to do was train properly, build up again gently, and get back to normal. It was a one-off, I would be fine. I ran gently in the week, and then again the following weekend and after. And whenever I pushed, I felt it again. I gave up on Liverpool.
Summer, Autumn, Winter
We moved house in July which ruined any structured training during the summer, and whenever I ran and tried to pick up in advance of the autumn, the same pains returned. At a slower pace I began to build the mileage for Robin Hood in September until ironically I was an out-of-the-blue Achilles injury which made me miss only my second run there in twenty years. And there was my year, over.
It wasn’t just my pump which was hurting, but also the real heart, the big red one which is often too deep and passionate for its own good. (Like Dr Who, me, with my two hearts.) I hadn’t told anyone about Leeds. I internalise this kind of thing, turn it over and over and over in thought and emotion; I often keep things below the surface, where they grow and spread and weigh me down. There is no-one I can talk it out with, because there is no-one who understands, and it can become very lonely, and exhausting, living with a dark weight inside which no-one else sees.
There was the recognition that my heart (the pump) was in distress and a deep sense of the possible consequences. But also the loss of the year’s hopes and an even more profound dread that I was about to be told I could no longer run, or at best be reduced to a Saturday-morning park jogger. I began to wonder how I would replace it – for either exercise or the emotional/spiritual aspects (the deep red one) – and realised that nothing adequately could. Yes I could cycle, or swim, or join a gym or all of the above, and I could determine to get to the mountains more often. But nothing could replace the practicality and simplicity and exhilaration of a muddy run in the woods in the brittle sunshine of autumn. Over the weeks, and with the reminder-pains of every run, I was painting myself into something like bereavement.
Needle in the red
I continued to run, once or twice a week; always short, always slow, barely a jog or trot; but always devoid of any energy and labouring. And with the permanent but very real sensation that I was running with the needle hovering just below the red on the dial… or into it, and then the pain inevitably came.
Other things were happening elsewhere in life and by Christmas/New Year I wasn’t in a good place at all, and the loneliness and loss were becoming overwhelming. In the end I resolved to confront it and booked an appointment for the new year with the doctor. I also told my daughter, and she persuaded me to admit the problem to my wife so that when the eventual answer came, it would be less of a shock.
To my surprise (and by now confusion, for I had already persuaded myself of the worst) the doctor was fairly relaxed and didn’t confiscate my trainers straight away. It seems the pain isn’t my pump itself but the rest of my body complaining at the oxygen-deficit (and my moderate heart-rate not a sign of good fitness but of the beta-blockers doing their job). The doc said that surgery might be an option but couldn’t be guaranteed to work, and different medication was the first option: we agreed the goal was to keep me running but with enough protection to keep me safe. We even agreed that once I had adapted to the new meds I could try to build up for another Half – endurance if not pace at least. So long as I stuck to the rule of keeping the needle below the red, and pain-free.
The meds were awful to begin with, and at first didn’t solve the problem… so back to the docs for an increase in dosage. But I was running, and in the period between February and Easter I gradually picked up, in the sense that it very gradually became less labourious, and I have eventually found an adjusted pace, even adapted my form.
A year ago my (already slower-paced) Half-marathon plan would be something like 3 miles at 9-min/mile pace followed by 3 at 8:45, maybe 8:30s to 12 miles and then let the finish take care of itself (and sometimes on a good day I would be cruising at 8:15 or even less). Now though, I am struggling to keep to 10-10:30 min/mile pace. All of my runs now take 20% longer than before. And I can’t reach that state where the pump and lungs and legs are all cruising at an elevated rate and the adrenaline and endorphins are flowing… and you find you are running with your deep red heart glowing. I still plod, trudge. But I am running, and as long as I keep the needle below the red, I am safe.
Spring, and running into my fourth age
So. I have booked my place at Leeds Half. This will be my 48th Half Marathon. And it will come a year after my last: a year of doubt, fear and darkness, dominated amongst other things by the fear of the loss of running. For good. Losing some of the essence of me, for good.
As I type here on London Marathon day I am still not sure I will make the start-line. I haven’t even reached the longest-run distance I need and am running out of weekends to reach it; plus, last September’s achilles is snarling again. But I do believe now that – albeit much slower – if I can complete the training and arrive healthy at the startline – I can run the distance. I am running, and building up: for the first time in a year I have crossed that line from running to ‘training’.
I have no goal, no target time. Just to reach the startline safely; and to run it, safely.
Not for the first time I am investing a run with a huge weight of significance. This feels like a deeply important moment, a milestone in my running-as-life.
The first age of my running was in my teens and twenties: I just ran, no structure or plan, just ran.
My second age was in my thirties to mid-forties: late, I know, but serious running built on planning, pace, training and split times, and measured in races and PBs.
In my late forties and early fifties came my third age: an acceptance that as I was ageing I couldn’t keep pushing my body to extremes and chase times, but by easing off I could liberate myself, avoid (or limit) injury, run for its own joy and extend my time. The Art of Running Slowly.
We will find out over the next few weeks whether my Fourth Age is going to be slower and even more measured but – critically – still running. Or the end of running; the end of part of me.
This has been a year coming; and may be the most significant run of my life.
Update 13-05-17: Well I made it to the startline. I have run enough, with a couple of 12-milers (back round Eccup reservoir, which made me happy after a long absence), and some circuits including the first hills of the course. I have found a new pace and rhythm, and can (generally) keep that at the level where the pains don’t come.
So tomorrow morning I will line up for my first race in a year, knowing that I will record a lifetime personal-worst, by close to half an hour probably. But for this one, the time doesn’t matter.
My 48th half-marathon. And I am as nervous as if it were my first. Which, in a way, it is.