Saturday, 31 March 2012
Friday, 23 March 2012
It's the beat that moves me. In the early miles, it was strong. It's rhythm flowed through me. But recently, a white noise has clouded its impact. A frantic hiss of static has made it fuzzy.
One foot in front of the other. The Sixth Statement.
The track through the forest is clear. I run on, but no longer with the previous skip in my stride. My legs are heavy, the weight of my own expectations pushing me down.
Emerging into a clearing, I look ahead and see that the path continues into a railway tunnel. Unquestioning, I continue. It's only when the light has gone that I stop. Stop running. Stand still. Turning back the way I've come, the light from the entrance is just a star in a black sky. Ahead of me, there's no light at the end of the tunnel. Uneasy, I take tentative steps forward. And then I fall.
I open my eyes after however long, but vision's no companion in darkness. I push myself back onto my feet, sensing something's different, but unable to pinpoint what it is. I've walked a few steps when I realise what's changed. The beat is gone.
Then a panic wells up. The beat is gone. And without the beat, I'm nothing.
Tam drops me off by the edge of the A52 out of Grantham. It's 11.30. The rain that has been constant for the hour's drive to this point has subsided somewhat, and the sky shows promise for a decent afternoon.
I've spent the last couple of weekends away from The Sixth Statement. The Viking Way Ultra looms in a couple of weeks - 147 miles with a time limit of 40 hours. 33 of the country's best-known ultra-runners, and me. The idea of a race during this year troubled me - it didn't fit neatly into the purity of my Empty Miling philosophy. But I figured it would be a good way of completing Lincolnshire's longest LDP, absolving me from setting up the potentially complicated logistics that a solo attempt inevitably involves. As a race, however, it's weighed heavy on me. There's a stubborn pride that constantly reminds me that I don't want to show myself up in the presence of such esteemed company. For weeks, therefore, I've knocked off the footpaths at the weekend and kept my mileage high during the week, leaving little time for recovery. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, I've run myself into the ground.
I get out of the car, sort out my pack and check my map. The last leg of The Viking Way from Woolsthorpe to Oakham - just short of 30 miles. For the first time this year, the prospect of a long run doesn't excite me. I'm beat.
I say my goodbyes and get off - slow, heavy-legged, lethargic. My troublesome foot seems fine now, but the ankle ligaments on the other are giving me some right stick. Every step gives a little pain.
More worrying, however, is my lower abdomen. A hernia operation a year ago fixed a problem on my left side, but the tightness on the right side feels all too familiar. Although I've been thinking as positively as I can, over the last two weeks, it's been getting significantly worse. The pain makes me wince in the first mile, but on I go, convinced that things will get better.
A couple of hours later, I'm on the track out of Sewstern. I stop and take off my pack, grab a snack. It's more an excuse to stop moving than a necessary pause for refuelling. Fifteen miles in. I'm done for. I don't know what's up with me. After a couple of minutes I get off, but, before long, I stop again. I take out the old phone and ring Tam.
'I'm about half-way,' I tell her.
'You ok?' she replies.
I moan for a bit and tell her I need to get going. And get going I do. But there's tears in my eyes. I don't give up, I tell myself, I don't give up.
I run for another mile, each step more painful than the previous one. I listen for the beat. Running provides the beat that makes my life work. It's a constant throughout the best and the worst of times. It enables me to make sense out of the glorious mess of our existence. But all I hear is static. Static, then silence. A black hole opens up in front of me. The beat is gone. And without the beat, I'm nothing.
I stop and take out the phone again. I hate myself. I dial Tam's number. I'm nothing. The phone rings, Tam answers. Without the beat, I'm nothing.
'I can't do it,' I tell her. 'You'll have to pick me up. It's beaten me. The whole thing's beaten me.'
I walk despondently along the road towards Thistleton. An overweight elderly woman in a day-glo running jacket jogs past me and smiles. I do my best to smile back.
I'm running through the year in my head. If I drop out of the race, I'll need to reschedule a Viking Way attempt late in the year - a big ask in months when the days are shorter. If I need an operation, like last year, my whole plan - my own statement - the crazy idea that means everything to me right now, will be in tatters. There'll be no way I can squeeze all the long runs in before the end of the year.
The fell-wagon appears and stops on the verge. I slide into the front passenger seat, feeling sorry for myself. We're on our way to a hotel at Ashby where Tam will run her longest race to date - a 20 miler in preparation for the Edinburgh Marathon in May. It's a big weekend for her - a massive weekend - but for the next hour I barely give her race a thought. The big part of me that is a selfish bastard has devoured every other facet of me. All I think about is my own misfortune. The thought of failure makes me feel sick. Without running, even for a while - without the beat - life just seems so less appealing.
I generally deal with things by considering the worst-case scenario before all others. Once I know I can handle that, I'm pretty good at picking up on any scraps of positive.
By dinner-time, therefore, as we waited in the bar for the rest of the Mabo Running Club mob to join us, a cloud had lifted and I'd cheered up a bit. It wasn't to be long, however, before heavy weather threatened.
The others arrived and someone mentioned they'd been held up, watching the FA Cup game in their room, Tottenham vs. Bolton in the quarter-final late kick-off. Had I heard? The match had been abandoned before half-time. A Bolton player had just gone down - no-one near him. A heart attack? A fit? No-one knew, but it looked serious. I hoped the news would be good when we returned to our room after dinner, but feared that it wouldn't.
I've a long history with the cardiology departments of my local hospitals. As a teenager, a couple of episodes of fainting whilst warming up for track races led me to my GP for a check-up. His findings caused enough concern to refer me immediately to hospital for an ECG. Their findings - a very slow heart rate, pronounced arrhythmia and an 'abnormal' ECG - led to me spending a couple of weeks on the heart ward. The suspicion was the presence of hypertyrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). Whilst the heart walls become thicker and stronger with endurance training, thereby causing the heart rate to drop as you become fitter, with this condition the heart walls become dangerously thick and can impede the flow of blood through the heart. In addition, the muscle cells may rearrange themselves in a haphazard fashion, leading to the impairment of the electrical activity through the heart. It is this phenomenon that gives HCM its strong link to 'sudden cardiac death', especially in the young.
At the time - as a young man myself - I was unaware of its potential seriousness. Fortunately, scans and tests failed to confirm the condition, and I was released 'on watch'.
Over the years, I've made the procession from GP's surgery to cardiology department several times. Three years ago, a Holter monitor worn for 24 hours revealed that my heart regularly stopped for 3-5 seconds before continuing to beat. Whilst this was relatively common during sleep in patients with an abnormal heart rate, this also happened often during the day.
Two years ago, a monitor worn constantly for 4 weeks showed similar results. Stress tests showed normal function during exercise (my body, literally, worked better whilst I was running!), but the specialist was convinced of a condition - apical cardiomyopathy - which would almost certainly need my heart to be fitted with a pace-making device. Again, however, fortune smiled. A cardiac MRI scan showed no evidence of the condition, and I was let loose again.
I have an abnormal heart. I've lived with that. But the cause of my dodgy ECG can't be found. Maybe it's because I run a lot - the specialist said he could ask me to 'de-train' (stop running), and he could look at any changes in my heart function, but he was sure I would say 'no'. Maybe that has nothing to do with it.
For the time being, however, I'm healthy. I show no symptoms of dizziness, palpitations or anything else. I'm just abnormal. Maybe that's not so bad.
One thing that has distressed me, with this issue being so salient, is the regularity of 'sudden cardiac death'. A few weeks before I started my first teaching post, an apparently healthy 10-year old boy collapsed in the playground and died before an ambulance arrived. Sudden cardiac death. I worked closely with his dad in the years that followed and watched as, despite his bravery, the tragic incident slowly destroyed him.
It is with unsettling regularity that you read of such deaths. A healthy teenager just falls and dies. Now and again, if the death involves a highly-trained sportsman, it makes headlines.
I joke with Tammy that, as far as I'm concerned, I can't think of a better way to go - dropping dead whilst running - a perfect end! But my black humour carefully covers the helplessness I feel about possibly leaving my loved ones behind. Even worse - unthinkable, unspeakable - is one of them leaving us behind. (Both of the superheroes have been thoroughly checked out, with no evidence of any abnormal asymptomatic heart conditions.)
After a lovely night out with our friends, we traipse back to the hotel room. The headlines on the tele confirm my fears. Fabrice Muamba, a 23 year old Bolton player had collapsed on the pitch. After medical staff from both participating teams had worked frantically for many minutes, they had failed to revive him. Whilst still administering CPR, the medics had stretchered Muamba to a waiting ambulance and rushed him to the London Chest Hospital where he was being kept alive in intensive care. His condition was described as extremely critical.
I watched the 24-hour news channel late into the night, long after Tam and the kids had gone to sleep, and, on waking, the first thing I did was turn the tele back on. There was no news, and, from experience, I knew that in situations like this, no news was usually bad news.
Whilst the day should have been one of celebration - Tammy completed the race in a time she'd not even dared dream of - my pride in her and my own good spirits were smothered in a funk made from the worst of the weekend. Giving up, exhausted, disillusioned, injured on the Saturday. And Fabrice Muamba. Poor Fabrice. I just couldn't get rid of it.
In the silence, I stagger forwards. A part of me longs for dark places, the end of the tunnel, the end of it all.
In a moment, I'm there. I reach and touch the wall in front of me. I push hard and harder still. A single brick dislodges and light shines through. I press my face against the gap and look beyond. A lonely beach.In the distance, an elderly man walks a dog whilst holding a little boy's hand. Over the water, dawn is breaking. There's no-one else. It's the place to which I can never return. Yet its remote beauty is spell-binding. Like pressing my ear against a shell to hear the sound of the sea, I make an effort to listen to what's around me. Waves breaking against the shore. The hiss of a morning breeze. The clitter-clatter of rope against metal on a dune-side flagpole.
And something else.
Gentle, hardly-there, but unmistakeable.
I listen again. Really listen. Tune in. I turn towards the direction it's coming from, the bright star in a black sky, the entrance to the tunnel. Then, before I know it, I'm running towards it.
I'm almost at the entrance before I realise what's there. I slow to a walk and take it all in.
A handful of people. A picnic. Shouting and laughter.
I watch as Tammy makes hot drinks on the portable stove in the back of the fell-wagon. My mum fusses around, helping her, getting in the way, her heart always in the right place. My sister, Alli, leans against the side of the car, eyes closed, head back, taking in the sun while she talks lazily to her husband, Mark, sat sensibly in the shade with a Leeds United cap covering his face.
Behind, friends old and new, messing around, squirting water pistols, sunbathing, reading books on laid-out blankets, playing frisbee.
In front, Our Kid's winding up the superheroes. Whirlwind responds with a slow, steady sweep of an outstretched hand. In a blink, she's bound him up in a force-field made of tornadoes. Lightning finishes off the attack with a kung-fu crane kick faster than the spped of sound. A sonic boom echoes across the valley. When it stops, everyone pauses. As one, they look towards the skinny kid in running gear walking out of the dark railway tunnel.
I'm walking towards them. My friends. My family. My life. A sonic boom echoes across the valley. Once it stops, everyone pauses. They look my way. Smile. And when they do, the beat is deafening.
There's certain times in your life when you are forced to stand back and reassess. Sometimes, you get so caught up in your own schemes that nothing else matters. You forget how to listen. When a plan goes wrong, a silence descends. It's in these times that you have to tune into the things that enable you to survive, the most important things that you could never, ever, do without.
Sure, running's important. My Sixth Statement is important. But not in the grand scheme of things. As I take my last breath, I doubt I'll reminise about the empty miles I have or have not run. No, I'll think of the people I shared my life with and feel blessed. I'll listen to the beat for the final time and remember the ones who created it.
In a North London hospital, a young man's life hangs in the balance. Football has become unimportant.
A 3 year old boy holds his daddy's hand and knows only that he's poorly and asleep.
A young woman looks upon the man she's chosen to share her life with. Her fingers nervously fidget with the ring he gave her on Valentine's Day, when he asked her to become his wife.
A mother and father sit by their son - the son who is worshipped at the Reebok for his outstanding work-rate and genuine humility. The son who is so desperate to make his parents proud of him that, in spite of becoming a footballer - a carreer looked upon with low regard by his father, he is currently studying for a degree in accountancy rather than promoting underpants and aftershave.
Not your typical footballer.
My prayers are for Fabrice Muamba.
* * * * * *
It's a few days since I wrote this blog.
After Fabrice Muamba collapsed during last Saturday's game, it has emerged that medics tried, unsuccessfully, to revive him for 48 minutes before he arrived at the London Chest Hospital. After that, it took another 30 minutes before Muamba's heart started beating again, having received 15 shocks. For nearly 2 hours, Fabrice Muamba was, in effect, dead.
But the beat didn't stop.
Although the player remains in a serious condition, his progress has been remarkable - a miracle. A statement released today - Friday 23rd March - by his father and fiancee, Shauna, reads: 'Even though Fabrice has made great progress over the last couple of days, he is still in intensive care and still has a long period of recovery ahead. He has asked that you please keep him in your prayers.'
It is reported that when Fabrice regained consciousness, he was anxious to have the answers to two questions. He could hear the beat.
He asked if his young son was ok. And he asked if Bolton had won the game.
And me. I've taken an easy week. I feel revived. An appointment with the GP on Monday seemed to confirm an iguinal hernia. An appointment with the surgeon at the end of April will confirm or deny this for certain.
I'll do my best in the Viking Way Ultra. It's all I ever do. My Sixth Statement will continue - maybe, but maybe not, in its original form.
But this is all by-the-by. Tomorrow, whilst Tam's away in Spain, I'll be enjoying a new day with my superheroes. We'll take the bikes down to Mablethorpe North End's lonely, beautiful beach and cycle across the promenade to Sutton-on-Sea. We'll have mugs of sweet tea and a sandwich in a seafront snack bar. We'll play in the dunes, splash about in the cold water. Later, we'll watch a DVD with Saturday night treats of chocolate and popcorn. And at bedtime, I'll read them 'Storm Boy' - a favourite story, before kissing them goodnight.
It's then, perhaps, that I'll become aware of the beat that's been thumping all day. It's then that I'll thank God that I've started to listen again.
Thursday, 8 March 2012
I come to a stop at the side of an old wooden shed at the point where The Viking Way crosses the main road into Bardney. I try, in vain, to find some shelter from the torrential rain that's been falling for the last 5 hours. Taking off my sopping running gloves, I blow on my bare hands, hoping to invite feeling of some sort. I briefly consider pressing on, but, almost immediately, dismiss the idea. I briefly consider packing in, finding shelter in the nearby village centre and waiting for my lift to arrive. But, again, the idea is dismissed. I don't give up.
I experience just a moment of clarity and realise that I have to take some action straight away or things are going to go wrong. I've put myself in some challenging environments in the past, but I've never felt like this. I'm not in danger - I'm in rural Lincolnshire - I'm metres away from someone's house. However, retreat is not an option. I'm shivering uncontrollably. I've never been as cold. I've no idea what hypothermia feels like, but I can't be far off.
For miles, I've been delaying stopping, putting on extra kit, preferring to pick up the speed, keep moving, get to the end more quickly. Now, I know, I've got no choice.
I reach up for the plastic buckle on my pack's chest strap. My fingers won't work. Press the plastic arms together and the buckle will release. It's something I've done thousands of times before - doesn't require thought or strength. But, try as I will, I can't do it. My mind looks back to school day changing rooms, trying to do up shirt buttons after a winter's games lesson. I concentrate, try again, but to no avail. The shivering's taking me over - violent shudders shaking me under their own will.
I put my hands down the front of my tracksters, finding a warm spot between my thighs, and press my legs together. God knows what a passer-by would think if they saw me now!
After a couple of minutes, I pull out my hands and try the chest strap again. Eventually, it clicks open.
I focus my attention on the waist strap now. I've got to get the pack off. Frustration errupts in a string of expletives as I just can't release the plastic buckle. After an eternity, I manage to loosen the strap, buckle still closed. I wiggle my arms free from the shoulder straps and slide the pack down, stepping out of it like a lady steps out of an evening dress.
Picking up the pack, I grip the zip tag between my teeth and manage to open it up. I rest it against the shed wall, trying to keep the contents as dry as possible. It's sheeting down, and the morning breeze has mutated into a late afternoon howl. The day has shed its sheeps' clothing. I stand, afraid, helpless, before a hungry wolf.
I focus on relaxing. My shoulder and back muscles ache from the relentless shivering. I pull my Kamleika jacket over my head and throw it on top of my pack. Then I take off my Merino base layer, leaving my torso naked to the elements. I wring it out, a desperate effort to get rid of its wetness, and put it back on. Digging in my pack, I pull out a technical tee-shirt, put it on. I pull out a lightweight Pertex jacket, put it on. I pull out a beany hat, stick it on my head. I pull out my Goretex over-trousers and ease them over my tracksters. I've no more spare clothes left. A pair of mittens would be heaven, but I never thought to put them in. I pull my Kamleika back over my head, edge the zip to the very top with my dysfunctional fingers and yank the hood over as far as it will go.
I'm unbelievably cold. I need to keep moving. The hungry wolf is snarling. I grab my phone from the front pocket of my pack and manage to press the buttons that allow a call to the only number I've got stored in there. Home.
'Dialling...HOME,' it says on the screen. For a moment, I'm there. It's warm. I'm lying in the bath. I'm drinking a mug of sweet tea. And, in that moment, the wolf pounces, knocks me down, overwhelms me.
'Hi Babe,' Tam answers. 'You ok?'
I feel the saliva from the wolf's jaws.
'Come and get me. I can't go on. I'll be in the tea-room in Bardney village. This weather's done me in!'
I say these words only in my head. I look at the wolf and there's a gleam in its hungry eyes.
I push my feet against the wolf's stomach and press as hard as I can. It falls backward, startled. I sit up quickly, now on the front foot.
'I'm ok, ' I say. 'I'll be at Fiskerton in less than a couple of hours. I'll meet you at that spot I showed you on the map.'
It's hard to talk - the cold's even making speech difficult. The gloves and backpack go back on in a flash. I've little time to lose. I'm almost ready to get going when I hear the angry growl. The weather has deteriorated further - to the point where no sane individual would possibly want to be out in it. I know that and, somehow, in spite of everything, I can't help but smile. I look to the muddy track ahead, and then back at where I've come. I stand, afraid, before the hungry wolf. Afraid, but no longer helpless. Not quite. And then I'm off.
Empty miles are usually run in glorious technicolour. Every shade, every nuance is noted, celebrated. You're 'in it.' Eventually, however, as hours pass, that splendid emptiness starts to be filled up by thoughts that carry only negativity. You become aware of your tiredness. You notice every pain, niggle, sore muscle. The colour of your run starts to seep away. As exhaustion creeps upon you, you may not notice that your world has become monochrome. Black and white. Just two choices - keep going or stop. Go a little further and the black and white merge like messy paint into a single shade of grey. Things are easier now. There are no decisions to make. The idea of stopping simply drops away and you're left with one action that becomes unconsciously automatic - put one foot in front of the other.
An hour and a half after leaving the wooden shed, I arrive at Fiskerton. One foot in front of the other. One front in front of the other. A mantra. A rhythm. Running down a minor road, a car horn wakes me from my hyponosis. I look up from the ground in front of me and realise I've nearly run past Tam and the superheroes waiting for me in the pre-arranged lay-by.
The wolf's made its best efforts. The plunging temperature has turned the rain into snow. The hard-pack of the field paths has softened into unrunnable soup. For a time, it almost had me. Now, it will have to find its sustenance elsewhere.
Tam's got a laundry bag ready in the passenger side of the fell-wagon. I take everything off, dump shoes and clothes into the bag and, standing naked, towel myself down. I pull on a pair of old pants, a jumper and my down jacket and flop into the seat. I'm ravenous. I wolf down a sandwich, a few squares of Mars Bar cake and a chocolate milkshake. Then, while I drift in and out of sleep, Tam drives us all home.
I'm easing myself into a hot bath a bit later. I'm glad that one of the most miserable experiences of my running life has come to an end. I feel done for, totally knackered.
Whatever had possessed me to come up with the idea in the first place? A 'big double' weekend on The Viking Way - 80 odd miles over the Saturday and Sunday to recce the route before I make a non-stop attempt on Lincolnshire's longest Long Distance Path at the start of April. Bad ideas always start out as good plans, I console myself, as I lay back and the soapy water swallows me.
Tam comes in. 'Cup of tea. Two sugars,' she says, places the mug on the side of the bath and goes back downstairs.
I close my eyes for a while, allow myself to fully enjoy my moment of relaxation. Then I reach over for the mug. Sweet tea. My most valuable training tool. I hardly drink it during the week - coffee's my thing - dash of milk, no sugar - but, after a day out running, there's nothing like it.
I take a sip and almost immediately the grey starts to separate. Black and white multiply into muted shades, and by the time I've swigged half a cup, my life is back in technicolour.
I finish the tea and reflect on a great weekend. 42 miles from Barton to Donnington-on-Bain on the Saturday. Gorgeous late-winter sunshine, the delights of the Nettleton Valley, feeling tired but strong at the end of a long day.
Sweet tea's running through my veins. I'm smiling again.
But yesterday wasn't a touch on today. The stunning scenery between Glouceby and Fulletby. The seclusion of the Spa Trail between Horncastle and Woodhall Spa. Battling against the weather from start to finish. Never seen so much rain! The snow as my only companion for the last hour. Rarely have I felt so alive. It seems such a shame that one of the most incredible, hardcore experiences of my running life has come to an end.
Tam pops her head round the door. 'You ok?' she asks.
'You want anything?' she goes on.
I shake my head.
But as she closes the door and starts down the stairs, I realise that such a memorable day deserves celebration.
'Tam!' I call out, and I hear her footsteps coming back to the bathroom.
She comes in and looks at me, eyebrows raised.
'Any chance of another cup of tea?'