It’s a glorious spring Saturday afternoon. I’m walking round the park with my family and dog; we’re all enjoying the first really warm sun of the year.
I’m in a good mood. My hip, so very painful since last weekend’s Manchester Marathon, feels ok. It’s not grinding, not burning, not aching. It’s stiff. Stiff I can cope with. Stiff is ok. Stiff is a gentle reminder to get stuck into the rehabilitation exercises that I started this morning after jogging to parkrun to cheer on my friends. Stiff is the nudge that I need to stretch. Stiff is the alert needed to get my foam roller out and gently roll away at the scar tissue at the top of my left hamstring.
Our walk takes us round the parkrun course and to the bottom of a hill that I must have run up close to a thousand times in my life. Training runs, hills sessions, parkruns – it’s a lot of times that I’ve made the trip from the steps at the bottom to the crest of the hill. My boy, just six, starts to sprint ahead with complete disregard for his clearly unsustainable pace. He turns and shouts back, ‘Is this how you run up here, Daddy? Watch how fast I can go!’ It’s a moment of joy. His face beams with the sheer pleasure of moving forward under his own steam; he really doesn’t care that he’ll have to stop to catch his breath before starting all over again. For that moment in time, all he wants to do is run – and he loves it.
It’s a moment of joy for me too. It’s yet another timely reminder that despite the disappointment of last Sunday’s Manchester Marathon, despite the fact that I will need to devote a long time to rehabilitating my hip, running is a gift. And it’s a gift that I don’t want to take for granted anymore. I don’t want to turn up to races just for the experience of completing them anymore; I want to race and see how fast I can go. I don’t want to waste the gift of running by simply running; I want to train methodically, with an aim, an objective, a purpose. I don’t want to waste the gift of running by doing the same things that I’ve done up to this point: the same runs, the same routes, the same pace. All of these things have left me with a chronic injury that is getting in the way of being able to enjoy the simple gift that is running.
And so, as my boy sprints his way up the hill, and as I walk up behind him, grateful that I’m no longer in pain, I vow to myself that the next time I run up here it will be to find out how fast I can go too. At the bottom of the hill I’m faced with a reminder that I can continue to run in the way that has got me this far, or I can take a step back and learn what I really need to do to get faster, stronger, less prone to injury. I can learn what to takes to become a different type of runner. That’s the gift I choose to give to myself from this point on.
Not exactly the most positive of mantras. But at least it was honest. I really was hurting from the moment that we started until the end of the race some ten miles and 1:13:29 later.
I wanted to a hard run to mark the end of a 60 mile week, and this one delivered a nice dose of tough right from the off. My legs weren’t aching, just heavy and unresponsive. It was everywhere else that was hurting: back, shoulders, and weirdly, my neck. At this stage in marathon training it’s to be expected and it was simply a matter of putting my head down and getting it done.
The miles passed steadily enough and I was rewarded with a solid, hilly, off road ten mile effort at a 7:20 min/mile average. Even better was the fact that I’d spent the morning with two club mates who’d also got out of the race exactly what they were seeking.
I’ve enjoyed my running this week. I’ve trained everyday again for a total of 52 miles. I got back into the habit of running 10 milers in the week. The aim will be to build these up into 15 milers over the course of the next 5 weeks. Thursday’s run was perhaps the most enjoyable of these as the 8 minute miles felt comfortable again and it felt nice to be chipping away along an undulating road route.
On Saturday I ran Bolton parkrun as a steady effort. I was annoyed with myself for getting a bit carried away at the start, I need to remember the purpose of the sessions a bit more. I’m not remotely concerned that a steady effort is now the wrong side of 20 minutes (at least I’m not worried at this stage!)
On Sunday a group of us training for various marathons and an ultra ran a very enjoyable 15 miles on a mixture of roads, paths and trails. It’s great to do these runs without any time or pace pressure. It’s even better to put the world to rights and generally just enjoy the fresh air early on a Sunday morning. It felt great to be home and showered long before 11AM.
The target next week is to continue to chip away at the mileage. I’m planning on a couple of ten milers before running the Four Villages Half Marathon in Helsby on Sunday. On the back of this I’ll put my mind to a target for the Manchester Marathon in April.
My number, alongside a comprehensive race day booklet, arrived exactly on-time. If the Chester Marathon has a reputation, it is for being a slickly organised event that has maintained its human touch in all that it does. While other marathons have opted for exponential growth, Chester has clearly aimed to ensure that all who run experience good times by delivering exactly what it says it will: good times.
I ran the event back in 2012 and, at the time, it was my second marathon. I’d enjoyed the event immensely and as I arrived at the racecourse which dominates the city centre, the warm memory of running 4:16:14 became palpable.
I parked in a car park opposite the race course. It couldn’t have been any closer to the start line. The on-course parking had been cancelled the day before as heavy rain had fallen in the week, and the race course, being so close to the river, is prone to becoming boggy. Not that either rain or dampness was an obvious concern to us runners: the air was mild, still, and without a trace of humidity to be felt.
I made my way into a cafe area to buy coffee. Despite being early, many runners were nervously munching energy bars and drinking from bottles promising electrolytes and various energy forms. Some were going old school and opting for the coffee and banana combination that I favour. Each to their own. I chatted to a first time marathoner who informed me that he’d been training specifically for this event for 9 months. He’d done four twenty-four milers in the build up and yet he still wondered if he could ‘make it round in one piece’. I’m not a gambling man, but I’d like to bet that he did, such was the steely look that he had about him. My brother arrived minutes later. He was in Chester to run the event as training for next year’s Comrades Marathon. And then yet more arrived too. By 7:30 the place was full of the sound of running related chatter as well as the distinct smell of various balms and embrocations being liberally applied to a multitude of aches.
Just before 8AM I left the cafe area and went for a walk. I came across the England team being photographed before a swish looking digital poster. They looked as nervous as I felt. In my twitchy state of mind I’d forgotten to ring my Burnden Road Runners club mate. We’d previously arranged to meet up before the off. Luckily I managed to get in touch, and we too took advantage of the photo opportunity afforded by the digital signage and podium.
On the walk back to the car to get changed I mentally checked in with myself. All felt good. No aches or pains. A quick change of socks and shoes, vest on, warm clothing off, and I was ready to get started.
The start line of a marathon is always a special place to be. I opted for a noisy slot behind the 3:30 pacers. Although my target time was 3:25 I wanted to start deliberately slowly and build through miles 5 – 13 to an average pace that would bring me in at 3:24. A few minutes after carefully positioning myself in an appropriate slot we were off.
The opening miles passed by pleasantly enough. The course winds through the city, under the famous clock, past the Roman amphitheatre, and then it’s out into the countryside for the bulk of the race. By mile four the 3:30 pacers were far away in the distance and I was beginning to wonder if I had made a mistake by starting too cautiously. I had to remind myself several times what my race plan was: start slowly, build through the middle and push on at the end of the race. Mile nine passed in 7:38 and mile ten in 7:38. I ran mile eleven in 7:35 and all felt good. It was on this stretch that the distinctive signs of the 3:30 pacing group became visible, and I relaxed even more as I eventually caught the bus. Although I was pleased to get back to the group, I hadn’t thought that the road would be quite as congested as it was. Put simply: there was no way I could get past the all of the runners. I’d simply have to wait until the road widened.
Miles twelve to twenty-four passed without incident. The miles were being ticked off with the steady consistency that I’d planned on at the outset. Things were progressing nicely. And then… and then I experienced cramp like I’ve never felt before. The whole of my right leg locked rigid and within the space of two strides I found myself shouting out in painful surprise. I thought that the offending area was my hamstring, but to be honest the pain felt so severe that it could have been coming from anywhere in my lower half. My right calf had locked rigid too. I managed to get myself to the side of the road before falling in a heap on the ground. I genuinely couldn’t stand. However, I could get both of my hands round my leg and I instinctively found the energy to squeeze it as hard as I could. For the first time I thought that I would not be able to complete the marathon, such was the way in which my leg refused to unlock itself. With a final squeeze, I resigned myself to the fact that the Chester Marathon was probably over.
And then it went. As quickly as it came, it went. It subsided really quickly and then left, almost without a trace. The whole episode took just over two and a half minutes, but lying there on the pavement it felt like much longer. Oddly, I was able to resume the pace that I was running at before being struck. I just had to hold it all together for the final two miles and I would still be able to sneak in at under three and a half hours. My A target of three hours and twenty-five minutes was now blown, but the B target was very much still on. Right on cue a light drizzle started to fall and the crowds started to thicken. I saw my sister-in-law at somewhere around the mile twenty five mark, just as dark thoughts of cramp were beginning to surface again. I needn’t have worried. Despite the change in surfaces over the last mile, it never returned. I was quickly over the line in 3:28:11, comfortably under 3:30:00, but also comfortably over 3:25:00.
Walking back to the car I reflected on what I’d learned. Obviously, I was delighted to have gained such a large PB. My previous best of 3:42:14 was well and truly smashed. Not only that, I’d managed to do so comfortably and had managed my pace well throughout. I hadn’t hit the wall, and I hadn’t experienced the stomach discomfort that had blighted the Manchester Marathon last year. But I also started to think about my training. It had gone well inasmuch as I had maintained great consistency throughout the summer, but what could I achieve with a rock solid focus on the marathon? It would be a few days later before I could answer this.
Perhaps Ronnie O’Sullivan’s autobiographical account of how running has anchored his life should be called Meandering.Runningseems too simple, too direct as a title for a book that, at times, descends into a disjointed series of tales about periods of his life that have been dominated by snooker, drinking, smoking, and yes, running.
I came to this book with high expectations.I’d listened to him on Marathon Talk a few years back and was intrigued by how he came to run 10K in 34 minutes.Although I know very little about snooker, I knew enough about O’Sullivan to assume that he must have seriously cleaned his life up to enable him to go from being overweight and drinking alcoholically, to someone who could knock off a 10K so robustly.Perhaps that was wishful thinking on my part; perhaps part of my disappointment with Running is the fact that I like tales of redemption, of clearing out the wreckage of the past, and of starting afresh; this autobiography seems a tad reluctant to go beyond the acknowledging of his character flaws into a more considered and mature narrative.
However, it must be said that there are some elements of maturity within the book. O’Sullivan describes periods of his life in which he seems to want to devote his entire time and energy to running.But there is such a lack of detail of either the physical or emotional journey that this entails that the reader is left feeling a little short changed.There is no significant insight into how he achieves such periods of stability.He drops a few names (the sports psychologist Professor Steve Peters is one of them) and he mentions some of the detail of how he accomplished rare periods of calm, but the issue with the book is that it not exactly meticulously or even solidly outlined.In this respect the book lurches from one period where he seems to have it all together…to another in which he quiet clearly hasn’t. The result is an addiction narrative with, ironically,a lack of substance.It’s neither a book about running, or snooker, or drugs, or life, or insight, or psychology…despite touching on all of these topics at various stages it simply meanders along.But, and this is important, it does capture something authentic of O’Sullivan’s mindset as both he and the narrative lurch from episode to episode.Maybe the book is masterful in the way that it’s disjointed; perhaps it’s a transparent depiction of O’Sullivan’s uneven way of understanding the world.Perhaps.
That’s not to say the book is without strengths either.I completely admire the honesty with which he lays bare his demons as he talks about the psychological difficulties that he still encounters.The only way in which mental health issues are ever going to be treated with the same respect as physical difficulties is through such openness and honesty.In this respect the autobiography succeeds as it depicts O’Sullivan as arrogant as he is frail; as masterful on the table as he is feeble; as professional as he is flawed.It reads like a chat with a likeable human; rounded yet throughly imperfect.It’s overwhelmingly clear how much he benefits from the cleansing discipline that running brings to his life.I hope he continues to run more than he drinks.
Casey Neistat is a prodigiously talented film maker.His YouTube channel is testimony to his skill in allowing the everyday and the commonplace to speak.There’s an undoubted truth in his work.His relaxed visuals and humorous approach belie an almost obsessive attention to the details, the patina, and the texture of life.
His latest offering resonated with me on so many levels.Not long ago I wrote a short piece about why I run.Neistat’s film energetically explores a similar question and it’s wonderful.