Saturday, April 24, 2010
The Long Run
Awesome, I thought, this means I'll run the marathon when I'm 38 or so and I put my name down and thought nothing more of it and went back to worrying about the surgery on my arm and whether or not I was going to be healed in time to start the MA in Illustration I still couldn't believe I'd been accepted for with my rubbish drawings of Badger and My Tweaker Mum.
Summer slid by in a wonderful blend of stapled elbows, getting used to living in Chiswick and trying to wean myself off the amazing painkillers I was loving a little bit too much while I sorted out getting ADHD assessments done for college (in plenty of time, I thought, but the stupid funding people still took forever).
Then, just in the middle of a postal strike, came an email which I assumed was telling me I hadn't got in on the Marathon, so didn't open it, then I looked when I got home and saw it was an apology saying that my ballot winner magazine was delayed in the post but it would be with me soon. A cold, strange feeling swam through me and I had to have a little sit down.
My first few tries at running were on treadmills at the gym and they were comical, five or ten-minute affairs like the kind of things you see in montages in movies where the determined heroine stares straight ahead and bounces up and down and then falls flat on her face.
My first outdoor run around Ravenscourt Park was no better. I walked to the park, then jogged a bit, walked a lot, jogged a bit, walked a lot, jogged a bit and walked home then spent almost half an hour coughing so much in the shower I thought I was going to be sick. Jonathan was genuinely worried for me, and so was I - I'd thought I was fit, but here was me hacking like it was a month, not years since I'd stopped smoking.
I was shy about running in public, I'd go late or early and never far from home. I'd wear long tracksuit trousers and a windproof jacket - not least because it was a savage winter, but also because it was a savagely cold winter.
I was terrified. I'd started running in October and by December when I did the 6k Santa Run that still felt like it was an incredibly difficult task and I felt really scared by how good everyone else there was and how puny I was compared to the task ahead.
I did what every geek does and I went online and I read.
Running websites made me balk at the terrifying science that so many runners glibly threw around and had made the meat of Sophie's play When to Run, all "Fast-Twitch Muscles" and "Five K at Race Pace!" and I started following marathon training plans and marathon eating plans and marathon thinking plans and I stopped drinking completely and basically turned into one of those horrifying scary straight-edge runners.
I ran with Simon and Lucy through the winter. I honestly don't know what I would have done without them. Simon would keep pushing me, Lucy would give me excellent advice about holding back, and between them I think I gained so much confidence. Simon and I both turned from wobbly winter joggers sliding around on the ice on new year's day in Hyde Park, laughing while we made food-related puns into people who suddenly hit a run one Sunday morning where we went along the canal we just didn't stop and we kept on running and we loved it.
There were strange marker points along the way for me. The first mile was hell, but the first mile is still horrible, but you get through it. Then for the longest time I'd get to about 45 minutes and I'd want to give up because I'd have a stitch or I'd just feel like shit, but now I get to that point a little later and I just keep going and it passes.
Now, I know that after that first hour or so, I'll find my groove and settle into a steady running pace and then after another half hour or hour it'll turn from being something I have to do consciously into something that's almost meditative, where the rhythm of the road under my feet becomes a steady drum while my mind wanders, almost like the fugue you feel when you're in a good place with knitting or when you're watching the defragmentation visualisation on a Windows PC (the only good thing about those damned things, if you ask me), or perhaps the absence seizures that I'm now taking topiramate to stop.
In any case, I know that if I take it steadily through the first hour and don't worry about the niggling pain in my hip or my knee or wherever, and then if I take it gently into the second hour and make sure I keep my shoulders loose and keep drinking lots of water and whatever else they offer me, I know I'll find that blissful, tranquil place where I'm not on that street at that time in that place, I'm just running, floating in that state where all runs blend into one and I just hope I can stay there for as long as possible.
I know that I can't be there forever. There's things that will drag me back out from that zen singularity, that one long run where all races and all practice runs are one (the singularity of the long-distance runner?) and those things are pain, dehydration and depression. The pain I know I can help to ameliorate if I take the first part of the race as smoothly as possible, but it's the one thing I cannot avoid, so it's the thing that will definitely come and will be the thing I have to overcome. Dehydration will be a horrible challenge tomorrow with the forecast set for a high temperature and a muggy day, so I've got to drink lots today and make sure I arrive hydrated and keep at it through the race, using every drinks station and every gel station I can to keep my energy levels up.
Depression is a strange one, and it's what almost broke me at the Kingston Breakfast Run - the people around me seemed to be so glumly focused on their target time and their goals that there was no joy in the race, no sense of sharing or helping one another, and that felt brutal and cold and I found it so hard to motivate myself through the second lap of the race. It's also the state of mind I was in when I went there that didn't help me, and I know that tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow is the culmination of a long period of hard work and training for me and I'm genuinely excited about it.
When that pain hits me, whether it's that irritating gnaw in my hamstrings I get early on or the jarring pain in my hip late in or the horrible crash of my ankles by the end of a long run or just the burning emptiness of energy by the end of a race, I need to have a barrage of magical things to draw on, not just the jelly babies I'll be snatching from the crowds.
When my hip hurts, I'll think about how far I've come since how helpless I felt when I'd just had surgery on my arm. I couldn't carry my shopping, I couldn't hold a pen, I couldn't dress myself and at the worst points with the trapped nerve in my arm, I couldn't even feed myself. To now be at the stage where although I'll never have full hand strength again, I'm rediscovering ambidexterity, my drawing is better than it's ever been and I'm doing a thousand things that a year ago were impossible every day, then each step where my joints hurt, I'll be able to think about how it's nothing I can't overcome.
When it feels like my hamstrings won't be supple enough to keep snapping back, I'll think about how the race for me is a symbol of survival and recovery, of how every story I've told in comics is true, but I'm still here and that those same legs have kept me going, not running away, but standing through untold horrors and yet I keep running into the wind and swimming into the tide and loving it and never being overwhelmed, never quite giving up, even when all seems hopeless, I've pulled through.
When my ankles feel weak and I feel like there's nothing left in my body to hold me upright, I'll think about the people who support me and who have supported me through all of this, through the training for the race with their inspiration, advice, companionship and kindness and through the horribly difficult times I've had in the last few years and how incredible it's been to feel like the rug was fallen from under my feet when my health failed and my job and my freedom were stolen from me and yet I did not hit the ground because I was caught and held up by the people I love and who love me. So when my ankles feel like they're faltering from the pounding of tens of thousands of paces across twenty-six miles, I will know that for every one of those moments of pain there's been so many times when people have shown me unexpected kindness and overwhelming support and where I should have fallen, I've flown.
So when I have finished the first third of the race in my head, where it's all about logic and holding yourself back with sense and the second third where it's run in my legs and my training will carry me through, the last third will be fuelled, they say, by the heart and what drives you on is the reasons you are running and what the race means to you.
The marathon for me isn't a speed trial, although obviously I'll be delighted if I make a good time. The marathon for me isn't about proving I'm better than other people or even about some arrogant thing of proving how awesome I am, although I'm going to feel incredible about myself when I've finished it.
The marathon for me is about the joy of it, of being a part of something much, much larger than myself and of connecting with a city I've loved all my life and with the people I love and maybe by being able to give a little something back to a charity whose work I believe in.
This time tomorrow, I'll be in that final third of the race and this is the mantra I'll be singing to myself in my head, the song of how far I've come in the last year and the wonder of how many people have been on the road with me along the way.
So, thank you if you've sponsored me and supported Terrence Higgins Trust, but honestly don't worry if you've not been able to; I don't have a minimum I need to raise for them so it isn't like I have to worry about making up the difference or anything like that. What matters far more to me is the wonderful friendship and fun that's been a part of all of this process for me and I just want to be clear that that, and the joy of it is what's made it feel like it's worth doing.
If you want to track my progress tomorrow, there's this thing from Adidas:
My runner number is 4689.
I won't have my phone with me from 9am or so until I finish the race and get out, which will be at about I guess 3pm, so GO ON, HOWARD! texts won't reach me, but if you're in London and if that text alert thing works at all, then a cheer on the route would be amazing, but really, I'm just so excited now I think I'm going to explode anyway. The race starts at 09:45 and I'm hoping to finish in around 4h30 or maybe even a little less, depending on how badly I die.
See you on the other side!