This year has brought me ample opportunity to practice acceptance. Plans have collided with facts. Stories have taken unforeseen turns. I didn't expect to be where I am now.
At the end of 2015, I felt fulfilled and optimistic. I'd reached a dreamed-of marathon record, sub 3:30 in the late Spring, and then surprised myself by surpassing it with sub 3:20 on a hilly course in Autumn. To mark my fiftieth birthday in April 2016, I planned to run my first ultra marathon, and embarked on training over the preceding Christmas.
As I've found at the piano, autodidactic development has its limits. I was guessing, really, what sort of training was needed to become capable of a 55 mile race, and arrived at a programme of 90 training runs over 18 weeks. I suspect that I did myself damage over that period. As I plodded through the long slow winter training runs I consoled myself with the thought that when it was over, I could return to shorter, faster runs and resume the journey of successive marathon records.
It hasn't worked out that way. The next race, an Autumn 2016 half marathon, took me a frustrating 1:31:30, the first time I'd missed a target in several years. And the training for it had been punishing. The technique I use, based on a jargon-heavy self-promoting American training guide, demands specific high speeds, which I'd been failing to reach.
Then, I think, I made a strategic error. I entered 2017 on a wave of good intention. I'd used two techniques to increase my speed, shifting from carbs to fat to lose weight, and adopting this run-less-run-faster technique. The next obvious approach seemed to be to train with other people. I'd found that in the gym I always gave a bit more if I trained in a group, so why not do the same outside?
I went to a couple of ParkRuns. But only a couple. I'm glad to have sampled this wonderfully accessible communal free timed race movement. But it highlighed the price of group exercise - you have to be at a certain place at a certain time. And coming in as near the front of a 5K as I had in marathons required a pace that was beyond me.
I also tagged along with a friend who's a member of a running club. They go out for a medium-distance run near to my home every Sunday morning. The pack would typically split into ability-based sub-groups. The pace was closer to my edge. I really hoped that this would be the driver I needed to gain speed.
I really didn't enjoy it. The paces were punishing. There was no option to stop for a call of nature. The social pressure of being surrounded by people I didn't know, who were all far far better than me at something that I had previously derived self-worth from being good at was challenging. I found myself going out for a two-mile solo warm up before each Sunday morning run just in order to be able to set off with the rest of them (and, yes, to pre-empt any of those calls of nature). It was leaving me so worn out that I didn't do much running during the rest of the week. I secretly wished I had an excuse to bow out.
That excuse came in April. I was working in London, and our client had put me up at Tower Bridge. One night after work, I ran east, along the North bank of the Thames, through Shadwell, Wapping, Canarh Wharf and the Isle of Dogs, under the foot tunnel to Greenwich and up to the observatory, and then all the way back into the glorious sunset over the City. It was an athletic shambles and an aesthetic delight. The following day I could barely walk. My left ankle was injured and I knew I needed physiotherapy.
Mhari, who I see at such times, concluded that I hadn't really recovered from the ultra marathon, and that the muscles supporting the joint weren't doing their job. My recoverey would involve specific strengthening exercises, and getting my cardio fix from stationary cycling classes. These are a form of punishment specifically tailored to torture me. They take place in a "studio" (room) where lots of people sit and stand on exercise bikes and respond to the bellowed orders of an instructor leading the way and wearing a headset in order to match the sound level of the anodyne musical accompaniment. Something about speaking in this context makes people apply arbitrary emphasis to their words. I'm an Aspie, and this dissonance, along with the baffling way that much of the music has vocals makes for a disorienting session.
Eventually, it came to an end. Mhari advised that i could tentatively start running again. I did. It felt fantastic. It was like stumbling on a favourite toy that had been placed on a high shelf and taking it down again. And I was deliberately allowed not to push the pace. I could stop and appreciate my surroundings. I realised how much I really need to exercise alone. It's what I do when company gets too much.
We agreed that I could probably run the next race I had entered, the Chester marathon in October. I had twelve weeks to prepare. That meant that I didn't have the sixteen weeks that the self-styled US professors of runology mandated. And that was fine. I wasn't going to aim for a record, just get round, and treat the race as part of the rehabilitation. In order to run 20 miles two weeks before the race (it's not necessary to train to the full race distance) and not increase my overall mileage by 10% per week, I knew where I had to start from, and it was manageable.
Now, the day before the race, I feel as though I've overtrained. Mostly, my left ankle has remained functional, and at times as even felt normal. That's been a mixed blessing. It's meant that I have sometimes overreached myself. In particular, I've been drawn to 400m intervals, because it's a distance I can attach without reaching exhaustion. After about eight weeks of progressive improvement, my performance waned. I felt exhausted. I hadn't been sleeping well, at all, getting five hours a night at most. Some of this was due to a critical professional exam which I'm had to prepare for around my day job, failed, and then had to resist on a draining day trip to Manchester. I needed the runs to clear my head after all the cramming.
After my peak individual run distance, a 20 miler at two weeks ago, I've more radically tapered by training than I'd planed and only covered five miles this week.
I feel lousy. My joints ache when I lift heavy things, or start cycling up a hill, and I'm flagging earlier than usual in gym classes. I have a cold-like infection and systemic inflammation - I've no doubt that the ache in my joints has the same root cause as the puffiness round my eyes and the itch in my throat. I wake up with a headache. My back hurts, upper and lower.
This isn't where I want to be.
It casts a shadow over the whole undertaking. I was shaking with nerves as I finished my packing this morning. Getting to the start of the race is a Heath Robinson exercise which has involved bringing my folding bike down to Liverpool on the train, so I can cycle from my Mum's house to the car hire place at the airport and collect a car just so that I can drive to Chester in the morning. I've been as anxious about the logistics of this as I usually am about my performance.
The thing to do is to accept this. To welcome these feelings in. Explore them. Yes, this isn't the triumphant return to speed I was anticipating. I am perversely travelling to Chester to run this race precisely because the course is millpond-flat, a bed for a personal best. That's a rather sharp reminded that this isn't going to happen. So let me then revel in this turn of events. I am about to run my slowest marathon in years. The jeopardy is not "Will I better my previous record?" but "Will I be chaperoned off the course wearing a space blanket?"
What have I already learned from this?
Easy: I love running. Especially after a lay off. I hate spin cycling. it will never be my thing. Avoiding injury can involve keeping the muscles that support my joints strong. The muscles I need for running aren't the same ones that I develop by running. I need to keep tuning in to how I'm feeling and stop stressing myself simultaneously on different fronts: I can prepare for an exam or work on an election campaign, but not at the same time as I'm training for a race. I can train for a race but not at the same time as I'm pursuing regular high intensity intermittent training. I can lose weight by radically cutting carbs and fasting, but not at the same time as I'm stressing myself in training.
What can I now learn from this?
Harder: I can stop regarding mindfulness and acceptance as only something I do when I'm meditating each morning, or in response to actions external to me. I can direct this interest to my own dynamic ensemble of needs and urges, attachments and aversions. This can be the year that I ran a terrible marathon. And I can be OK with that. I can see the path that brought me here. It's an instructive path.
I realise that although I've had a long lay-off, a few blind alleys, and in stark figures, am a less competitive runner than I was two years ago when I seemed unstoppable, I've nonetheless had a great year for running. I've rediscovered it, I've run through Canary Wharf and in the foothills outside Aix-en-Provence, and deepened my love for the linear parks on my doorstep, the Union Canal towpath and the Water of Leith walkway.
That means I can set off on my heroically doomed enterprise tomorrow morning, with my cold, my aching joints, my nippy tendon, and my sleep-deprived fatigue and know that it's still part of something good.
Thanks for reading. It has helped massively to get these words out of me.