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.