Saturday, 29 October 2011


Dawn comes after darkness.

All this talk of PB's was troubling me. For weeks the atmosphere at the Club had been buoyant - everyone was running well. Forum posts would outline new best times for 10k's, half-marathons. Talk on a Monday would be of tempo runs, interval sessions, efforts along the promenade. And whilst genuinely pleased for everyone involved, proud to be a part of such a special group, I couldn't help but feel left out.

My goal wasn't a PB. My running wasn't geared towards it, but I missed the instant hit that a great performance brings. I guess I was jealous.

I'd try and explain my goals for next year - 'I'm going to run every Long Distance Path that starts, finishes or passes through Lincolnshire. No-one's done it before' - and I'd be greeted by a bemused look.

'Oh right,' would come the inevitable reply, 'but what races are you doing? What are you training towards?'

My faith was waning.

Where were these empty miles taking me? Anywhere? Nowhere? Had I got all of this wrong? Tired of racing the weather, darkness had descended.

Dawn comes after darkness.

Every run was a chore. I began seeking company, unable to envisage another long run by myself, listening to that inner voice that had started prodding me and sneering, 'You don't know what you're doing!'

My moods weren't helped by a constant trial of physical set-backs. My feet hurt - really hurt - so bad that the usually painful first steps across the landing in the morning went from a stagger to a hobble. After taking it easy during September to avoid the chest infections that had knocked me down last winter, no sooner was I upping the miles again then that 'not great' feeling reappeared for the first time in months. No steps forward, two steps back.

So, coming into Alford on a run back from work on a Friday evening, I came up with an idea. Maybe I'll squeeze in a half-marathon before Christmas. Cross-country season was almost on us - plenty of shorter, faster races to get me ready for a big effort. I'd done a 1.20 two or three years back before the London. Hopefully get somewhere near that.

Passing the chemists, I ran straight into the memory of someone I knew years back - an odd kid, but a good runner. I'm sure his PB for a half was 1.12 something. I'd helped him move once - must be a decade or more ago - and stored all his stuff in the garage at the house in Chapel. He'd never bothered to collect it, and, although I often thought about him, I'd made no effort to keep in touch. After I'd met Tam and we'd bought our own place together, most of his stuff went down the tip - I was glad to see the back of it. I'd kept his training diaries though - they were in a blue plastic box in the loft somewhere.

I'd got the house to myself till Sunday - Tam and the kids were down at Jo's for a couple of days. I'll dig it out tomorrow, I resolved, do a bit of research, get a plan together.

Dawn comes after darkness.

I'm lying on the bed. It's early - light through the window where the curtains can't quite reach. I'm lying on the bed, but the tiredness won't translate to sleep. I miss Tam and the superheroes - not used to being here without them. It feels like someone else's house.

Eventually I get up, hobble across the landing, then down to the kitchen, make a cup of tea. I sit at the table in the back room and stare out the patio doors.

I can't face the BBC News, and suddenly remember my plan. Grabbing a chair, I cart it up the stairs with me and position it under the loft hatch outside our bedroom. Lifting  the hatch up and aside, I pull myself up into the loft and, by the light of my headtorch, try to find that blue box. It doesn't take much doing, and, a few minutes later, I'm back at the table, fresh cup of tea, ready to start.

I take a big slurp and step into the tardis.

The box is full of blue, hardbacked books. Each book is crammed with concise, immaculately neat handwriting, chronicling not just miles but a whole life. The inside cover of each book bears a label with the period the writing covers.

I pull one out at random, check the date. 'September 1985- November 1986.' Too early. One afternoon, years earlier, I'd looked through some of these. Throughout the 80's, the writing mostly detailed sessions, times and race reports, self-analysis and training schedules. As the years passed, the writing became more personal. Often, running would only be mentioned in passing or simply not at all. I'd felt ashamed bach then, aware that reading someone's diaries - their deepest thoughts - was a crime I should not be party to. I'd read a few anyway, before the guilt got the better of me.

We'd had a good scene in Boston during the early 90's - a group of us had fallen together and a fierce competitiveness had nurtured an ethic of hard work and gruelling endurance sessions, resulting in some reasonable road times. '93- '94 would be where to look.

Hours seem to pass before I find what I'm looking for:

SUNDAY 26th SEPTEMBER 1993    20.23pm
Robin Hood Half - a really good day. During the run I had the same ups and downs as last year - felt terrible along Castle Boulevard and up to Wollaton Park. I thought I'd got my laces tied too tight - both my feet were aching and heavy - people were passing me. I hit a good spell through the Park - getting it together - and things really started to click once we got up the hill and back to Queens Med at 9 miles.
I was cruising after that. I'd no watch, but I knew there was a clock at 10, and I knew I was moving. I went through when it was ticking through the 55's. I pushed the last 3, and as I came down the finishing funnel, I could see 1.12 something. Out of my dreams - a true breakthrough. I was smiling my head off, punching the air like Steve Ovett. Through the tape in 1.12.36.
It's a sign - this breakthrough - this huge chunk off anything I've run before. I'm being taken care of. Everything will be alright.

I read it through a couple of times, ponder the last sentence, and then flick through the preceeding pages for some training tips. He'd been trying to break 1.15 for the best part of a year, always close but never really there. And then suddenly, this massive chunk off the PB. I search for clues as to the training that led to this race, but there's nothing there. Endless talk of arguments - the breakdown of a relationship - some girl from Australia - but no running whatsoever.

I scan the pages that follow the race, but the writing becomes increasingly inward-looking, self-defeating. Although there's the occasional mention of a club run or a road race, it's only in passing. The words are punk, angry, or cloyingly self-pitying and pathetic. It's uncomfortable reading, but I can't help myself. I shouldn't be here - an intruder into someone else's life - but I can't stop myself.

I spend the afternoon on the couch, one page turning another, volume after volume. There's mentions of big running trips - John o'Groats to Land's End, St Bee's to Robin Hood's Bay - but by now I'm more interested in everything else. All these words. Every emotion. Clouds full of teardrops. And all I can think of is why wasn't there anyone for this kid to talk to? Why is it all here in words? Surely no-one can be that alone?

I make cheese on toast before I open the last volume. The day's disappeared.

There's detailed talk of another adventure - a run across Africa - and running once again dominates each page. Months and months of preparation, 210 mile weeks, the hope of a new beginning. And then, no entries for more than six months.

When the writing begins again, the tone has changed. Something happened in those six months, but there's no talk of it. Not one word.

The running, it's also apparent, has stopped.

The last volume - the final blue book - ends with four entries:

JUNE 9th 1998  02.31am
'Get off!' I told Russ.
'No,' he said, and he was smirking slightly, 'All true.'
I had to think for a while about the story he'd just told me, and I couldn't help but laugh. 'Is there anything you haven't done?' I asked him.
He took a step forward, looked at me, serious all of a sudden. 'I sit in the caravan some nights when there's nothing on the tele, and I think I've done everything. That I've done everything and I might as well kill myself.'
His face was straight. He nodded his head. 'All true,' he said.
I looked away - couldn't look at him.
'I'm alone. We all are.' That's what he said before he walked off.

27th JUNE 1998

I've demons tonight pull me aside
                    pull me down
                    pull my hair out in chunks make lovers leave
                              brothers go away
                              mothers loose belief in me carve their name with razor blades
                on skin made raw from punches

And I wait for their arrival
Curled up tight
Eyes closed, head closed, heart closed
Just too tired to fight.

29th JULY 1998
I'm lying on the bed. It's early - light through the window where the curtains can't quite reach. I'm lying on the bed, desperate to sleep - fall asleep, disappear.
And I think of her - that girl I've never met - that girl who'll save me. And I think if I think hard enough, she'll call. She'll know how much I need her.
Waiting for the phone to ring, willing it to ring. Praying, giving everything. And when she rings, she'll just say, 'You ok?'
But the phone never rings, and I get tired of waiting.
Later, in the darkness, I sit on the edge of the bed. I scatter the pills on the carpet and count them. Twenty. Not enough. I don't want to cry for help.
My heart's being squeezed. I have to stand. I wander around the chalet, lights off, a dull moon, and end up in the bathroom. I need a razor blade, some comfort in all this. I take a disposable razor and pull it apart, prise out the blade

30th JULY
I'll run a long way tonight. I've not run a step since I got back.
Looking forward to it.

And that's that. Nothing else. I rest my head against the cushion, close my eyes, think of the last time I saw him.

I go to close the book, but the pages come to rest with the front cover still open. There's no dates on the label in this volume. All that's written there in small, neat handwriting is the name of its owner. 'Chris Rainbow.'

I put the book down. Step out of the tardis.

It's always darkest before the dawn.

The last time I saw him, we were sitting together on the beach at Mablethorpe's North End Pullover. We watched the sun rise, and he took off his shoes and cried a little. He looked so tired. An elderly man was walking his dog on the beach with his grandson. He came over and talked to us. And he said something that I can still remember. He said, 'Keep it up son.'

I left Chris sitting on the beach. Without even a goodbye, I jogged back to Anderby Creek and just left him there. And I've not seen him since.

It's getting dark outside. I'm just looking at the phone, and it starts ringing. The sudden noise makes me jump. I pick up the handset and say, 'Hello?'

'Hi Babe,' says the girl I always knew was waiting. Even all those years ago. 'You ok?'

'Yeah,' I say, 'I'm ok.'

'What you been up to?' she asks.

'I've been travelling back in time,' I tell her.

'Oh right,' she says, unfazed, 'Anywhere nice?'

'No. Not really. I won't be going back.'

'Listen Babe,' she goes on, 'I'm in a hurry, but don't foget to record Doctor Who for the kids, will you?'

'No, I won't,' I say, smiling.

She's just about to go. 'Ok. Love you,' I say. I never say that first, say it too little full-stop, but I can't help it.

'Love you too,' she replies, 'We'll see you tomorrow.'

After Doctor Who, I make more tea and go into the back room. I'm about to embark on a wonderful running adventure. For some reason, a half-marathon doesn't seem important anymore. I pull out maps, plan routes, mark in dates on my calendar. It's all coming together.

It's empty miles that took me from that beach. Endless empty miles that got me here from there. I've a lifetime's still to run.

The odd kid I was can keep the PB's. I don't want them anymore.

Dawn comes after darkness.

I'm lying on the bed. It's late, but there's light through the window where the curtains can't quite reach. I'm lying on the bed, and soon contentment translates to sleep.

In my dream, I'm running along the beach. Above me, on the promenade, stand a procession of athletes, Easter Island statues, looking out to sea, immobile. Each wears a medal and a smile. Each one looks through me.

Ahead, by the North End Pullover, I see a figure get up from the sand and start walking towards the water. I run up to him and call his name.

He turns and looks at me, genuinely surprised, pleased to see me.

'Chris! Didn't expect this. You ok?' he says.

'I'm good,' I reply.

'What you up to?' he says, 'Still racing?'

'Only against the weather,' I reply.

He laughs.

'I'm going to run every Long Distance Path that starts, finishes or passes through Lincolnshire,' I tell him, 'No-one's done it before.'

I'm greeted by a bemused look. Then he smiles. 'That's just you,' he says. He understands.

'Come with me,' I plead.

'No thanks,' he says, 'Too tired.'

I nod slowly.

'I've got to go,' he says.

I step towards him and we hug for a long time. This is goodbye.

I'm further up the beach when I stop running. I stand for a while and then glance back, desperate for one last look.

But, as wave after wave breaks against the shore, I realise he's no longer there.

There's only me on the beach.

Over the water, dawn is breaking.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

A Race Against The Weather

The clouds had been hanging over me all day. The restlessness inside me had pushed me from one half-finished job to another. My patience had been thin, my temper too quick. I'd got tired of the times Tam had asked me, 'What's wrong?'

'There's nothing wrong,' I'd answered each time, 'I'm just fed up. Sick of it all.'

'Sick of what?' she'd said.

'Sick of it all,' I'd replied.

Driving back from work that evening, I thought the club run at Well Woods might shake the feeling away. But I'd played a part for an hour. Played the part of the way I usually am. I'd laughed and joked, talked rubbish and taken the piss. But when the run was finished, when I'd exited the stage, the feeling I'd had all day remained. As I said my farewells to club mates, I decided a long run home might be the solution. Instead of the three mile jog through Alford and onto Saleby, I'd head up to Jones' Farm, round to Rigsby, Ailby and back along the drain. At six or seven miles, it might give me time to get things right before I got home.

After heading down the dip through the woods, I'm soon on the dirt track to the farm. In the distance, the sky is darkening. A late summer storm - a really big one by the looks of it. Getting caught in that will be just the end to the day that I don't need. Feeling good, I pick up the pace.

These days, my life was generally lived in sunshine. Things couldn't be better. But, occasionally, clouds would block the sun. A feeling that was ever-present in younger days would reappear and squeeze my optimism dry. Today had been a cloudy day. I was glad it was almost at its end.

On the track to Ailby, my thoughts are interrupted by the distant rumble of thunder. Heavy weather. I pick up the pace and head towards the road a half-mile away. In a few minutes, I'm there.

At the stile by the garden centre, I pause, gather thoughts and look back in the direction of the way I've come. The sky is angry, ominous, shades of black. The storm moving closer. And, in the middle distance, rain is falling, grey confetti, obscuring the view beyond. I climb the step, eager to push on, but am compelled to stop and look again. And when I look, the edges blur and focus shifts.

Each raindrop is a teardrop. Every teardrop is a memory. 

I see a scared little boy trying to dry a bedsheet during the night before his mum finds out he's wet the bed again.

I see a drunken teenager, ripped, blood-stained shirt, punching a night-club wall in angry frustration.

I see a young man, tears running down his cheeks, walking slowly towards a hospital bed to kiss his dying dad goodbye.

I see a lonely figure sitting on a lonely beach, deserted except for a dog and an elderly man holding his grandson's hand.

The raindrops falling. The storm moving closer. And I know what I must do. The race has started. I turn and run.

The path by the field edge is overgrown, but my footfall is assured and light. I'm running quickly, skipping over fallen branches, jumping over ditches. I listen for the sound of the steps made by my rival, but, of course, it's not there. A stillness has descended - the calm before the storm - the sky is about to explode. Looking over my shoulder will admit defeat, but, on reaching the road to Tothby Hall, I can't resist. A nuclear sky is approaching, buildings falling, tornadoes, dust clouds, a devastating tsunami of the worst of times. And the raindrops, the inevitable reminders of the events I've done my best to forget.

I run faster, pushing my limits and then pushing more. But not fast enough. As I rush through the gate towards the Grift Wold drain, I feel the first raindrop, and then another. I stop. Stand still. Wait for the words of the hangman. But no words are uttered. Two solitary raindrops, and then nothing. I look back to the sky, my execution delayed, and start running again.

There comes a time in every race when you realise that you've broken your opponent. After chasing you down, you might run side by side for a while, but an increase in pace will put you back in front. The invisible rope might tether you at first, but once that rope is broken - once the gap is ten yards or more - there's no return. The race is mine.

As I leg it up the hill towards the cross-roads, the storm clouds have sucked the daylight away. In the gloom, I can hear the rain falling behind me. In the distance, I can see the lights in the windows of the houses in the village. The finish line is nearly here. Inside our house, Lightning will be watching Top Gear whilst drawing a picture of a dinosaur. Whirlwind will be dancing in front of her bedroom mirror singing 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow'. Tammy will be making tea in the kitchen. She'll hear the door open and shout, 'Oh-about time Chris. I was getting worried.'

I hit Rose Lane and I'm sprinting. The last few steps and I collapse against the door. There's no time for the step tonight - the weather is on my heels. I turn the handle and fall into the light.

As I slip my shoes off in the hallway, Tam comes through from the kitchen and makes her way into the front room. 'About time Chris,' she says as she goes past, 'I was getting worried.' In the back room I can hear Top Gear on the tele. Whirlwind's singing in her bedroom upstairs. I follow Tam into the lounge and stand by the window.

She comes over and wraps her arms around me. 'You're soaking,' she says, 'it's like you've been racing.'

I'm safe. I'm home.

Outside, the sky cracks and rain starts to fall. I watch the raindrops batter the window pane. And I watch as the teardrops and the memories slide down the glass before they're discarded in a puddle on the window sill.

I turn back to Tam.

'I've been racing the weather,' I tell her. 'And I won.'