Strange things happen during a run.
There have been books, documentaries, endless reams of documentation about running, the art of running, the loneliness of a long distance runner, etc, so I wont attempt to top those respected works, but I thought I would take you on a run with me, while it is fresh in my head, so you know how it feels, or at least, how it feels in my head whilst running.
First, I bear the scars of a distance runner. These are branding, far more than any fitness logo on a sweatshirt, or a pair of running shoes, these are the marks of a runner on a deeper level. Before I get the clothes, I strip, and weigh myself, and check myself over in preparation. Its not an egotistical thing, its a progress report. My toes, a couple of them black under the nails where the blood vessels burst from thousands of tiny impact to the toes (they call it ‘joggers toenails’). Its a sign of progress. My left nipple (not the right one, oddly) , still sore from the last run, my sweat and clothes rubbing against it mile after mile.
When I change to my running clothes, the moment I pick them out of the storage room (my running clothes hang in a separate room) thats when the desicion has been made to run. When the clothes are in my room, on the chair, laid out, nothing will stop me running.
As I change, it is like a rite of passage every time I do it. The layers of clothes, their special materials, their expensive logos, branding, their interconnectivity, their technology, it is all part of a mental process that shows, I am a runner. Not just a sunday afternoon casual jogger, or an occasional fitness participant, but I am a runner. These layers brand me like a temporary tattoo, they distinguish me, they separate me, they are like a neon sign above me. I run. I am a runner.
Dressed. gloves and hat on last. A check for the weather. -10 at the moment. A quick look at the schedule, although I dont really need to at the moment, my distances have remained constant for months now. 5 miles, 8 miles, 5 miles, and a long run on sundays. Today is Monday, first of the week.
At the door, slide the trainers on, tight over my feet, layers of gore-tex and plastic and rubber over thick runners socks, sung against my skin. Switch the GPS on, a block of plastic and LCD display heavy on my wrist to remind me, again, I have invested in running, I am a runner. Leave the GPS for a while to find a satellite signal as I walk outside to my local route.
A blast of cold, cold air hits me. The voice in the back of my head starts up its chanting, the voice that is at its loudest when I am at my weakest (You must be crazy, look how cold it is outside, why do you bother, youre better off staying at home, quit while youre ahead, dont do it…)
Walk to my starting position, across a busy road, waiting for the GPS to establish itself. GPS on my left wrist, Nike Plus on my right. Blowing my nose on the left glove, wiping the sweat on my right (do NOT confuse the two, very unpleasant)
GPS clicks into life, now it knows where I am, the zeros line up on my wrist, like a blank canvas, waiting to be filled in with stats, numbers, scrolling text, to record my efforts. It is my only witness on the lonely long runs, my only account of the day to day efforts.
(Dont start, theres still time, turn back home, you dont need to do this, youve proved a point already, you left the house, turn back)
That first step, the shift in gravity from the comfort of walking to the uncertainty of running, falling forward, the first jolt to the system, the horizon tilts, sways and blurs in the vision as your eyes adjust to the movement. The tempo builds to an unsteady rythmn, hit the button on the oversized chunk of technology, the GPS springs into recording life, numbers start to crawl on my wrist, hit the Nike Plus on my right wrist, and watch both gadgets spring into life. Check them to make sure they are recording my effort.
Hands drop to my sides, elbows at a tight 90 degrees, fingers straight, thumbs curled, cutting forwards and back through the air like some automated knife on a chopping block, pushing me forward. The footfalls become a rythmn as the distance begins.
A loop of the old port first, a well-used route that is a short circle in front of the river, out and back almost exactly a mile, so I use it as a long lap timer to increase the distance of my runs if needed. As I pass in front of some offices, the GPS beeps and stops, the signal is lost as I cross behind them, re-establishes a connection once I am out of their shadow. Turn at the end of the road and back around the hotel using another route, on the return leg of my mile loop, closer to the river, and into the wind.
I see a couple of joggers on the same route, it is always my habit, male or female, to smile and wave at other runners, to acknowledge their presence in our special world, the moment we inhabit together that separates us from the public, even the walkers on the same route. Its our special club, our secret handshake for that shared moment. Its funny, because I dont do it to other walkers when I am walking, I dont acknowledge strangers in any other situation, and yet I feel runners should do it.
Feeling the wind buffer my run, interrupting my stride, the voice telling me to stop begins its incessant chatter (ok, youve done it, youre out, that wind is way too strong, way too cold, stop now before it becomes too hard) Breathing deepens. I settled to breathing around once every 4 strides. For me, breathing is the key, breathe slow and steady, keep the heart rate down.
The thing is, whenever youre running, in any situation, its really just you against yourself. It can be a marathon full of runners, thousands of like-minded individuals in a shared experience, or it can be a long lonely trail run at night, in both extremes, the best friend and worst enemy you can have is the one inside your own head. Nobody sets the distance you have set yourself, nobody forces you to finish it, nobody gets you out of bed to slip on your running clothes and leave the house, you do it to yourself.
Occasionally, the heart races, the steps falter, the breathing quickens, and the voice gets louder. However, it usually passes. There are the runs I call my ‘zen’ runs, when it becomes , well, not exactly a pleasure, but a managable experience, sometimes an enjoyable one, where the distance, time, speed, aches and pains all fade into the background; where it feels like I can do this. Alternatively, the shortest, most manageable runs can become one long, painful, breathless nightmare of effort, annoyance, dissapointment. Those are the stop-start runs, where any amount of distance becomes too far.
The circle complete, my timer beeps at me, documenting the time passing, ticking off a mile. The loop leaves me a little out of breath than I should be, I have my moment of doubt, I pass up and around to a small bridge by the water. Its a disorientating bridge, it angles out and over the water of the river, if you look in a certain direction you feel like youre actually running over the water, nothing around you.
A small loop and Im around 2 miles out, checking the timing, but trying to ignore it also. If I get hooked to the clock, it becomes a mind game, about statistics and times and laps, and the voice tells me to quit at this certain time, at the next time. I bargain with it, I fool myself, even though I know its a well-worn trick. Ok, I say to myself, you win, I will stop in two minutes, in 5 minutes, at the next mile, at that signpost over there…anything to keep the voice quieter, but I know I cant really stop there, its too soon.
My runners tricks. I take an explosive breath out from time to time, to clear the system, to give my lungs a chance to catch up. Sometimes I see people looking at me. A couple on a bench, a man walking past, someone over the road. If I am tired, I imagine themselves making mental bets, or joking with their partners about when I will stop running, whether I will stop in their line of vision, or whether I can run until I am far enough away not to be seen by them anymore. I am determined to beat their bets and run onwards. Again, a mental trick to keep me going.
2.5 miles, on towards three now. The tipping point, the half way mark. My lungs feel hot and heavy, breath is a small victory in the battle of composure now. I concentrate on the rythmn, on the form of my steps, maintaining short, steady paces, one footfall and another. I often run next to fences, walls, seeing their shadow fall in front of me, using the lines of shadow as passing marks, evenly spaced points in time to mark my forward process.
The voice of doubt is usually at its loudest at this part, when I have a significant amount of distance left, and the energy drain begins. I bargain with myself a little more, imagine how good it would feel to stop once the distance is complete, how I can treat myself to warmth, a cup of coffee, to the sheer happiness that a lack of forward movement will give me, but only after I finish my total.
The timer beeps, numbers tick on. The end is in sight now. Every mile or so I will run over a checklist, for injury, for pain, for my heartrate, my breathing. I get pains every now and again, it comes with the territory. Knee joint pain, cramps, parts that rub together too much, but it passes.
Last couple of corners now, the doorway marking the end of my run swims into my field of vision, and the pace slows, the arms drop from their rigid pumping action. Left wrist right wrist click the button off, numbers stop scrolling, the run is digitally immortalized. Hot, steam rising from me, aching, heart thumping in the base of my chest, blood pumping at the back of my eyes, a moment crouched over to catch my breath. Check the time, check the distance, recover, breathe deep, stretch to regain movement, stop my joints cramping up.
And thats a run. Do it all over again tomorrow. Repeat. Move forward.