Sunday, 30 September 2012

Corners (A Tale Of Two Doctors)

'I'm not running away...but this is one corner of one country on one continent on one planet, that's a corner of a galaxy that's a corner of a universe that's forever growing and shrinking and creating and destroying and never remaining the same for a single millisecond, and there is so much, so much to see, Amy, as it goes so fast.

'I'm not running away. I'm running towards them before they flare and fade forever.'

The Doctor to Amy Pond.
 Doctor Who: The Power Of Three

There's certain things I do. There's certain things I am. There's routine to my days and a pattern in my pastimes. It's comfortable, like my side of the settee.

I work most days. I run most days. I take three week's holiday at Christmas and spend as many weekends as possible on the Lincolnshire footpaths or in the Lake District.

I'm careful. I plan ahead. I say 'no' as often as 'yes'. It's nice here. In my corner. that all there is?

I've spent a couple of months in The Woodshed. My aim was to find The Flow. I've taken inspiration from many sources in that short time - writers, surfers, musicians, as well as runners. People who have refused to believe that everything we're told is right. People who have led, rather than followed, and have continued to press on despite failure or condemnation.

I've experimented with different types of running footwear, running at different times of the day and with a different number of times during the day. I've radically changed my diet and looked into the effects of fringe therapies, such as Earthing.

And, overall, it's been enlightening. The Flow is back, and, I'm sure, what I've learnt will guide my running in the future.

But something else has happened during my time inside. Something that had been unforeseen at the time I closed the door behind me. Something that will not only guide my running, but will shape the whole way I live my life.

The Biotronik Evia DR-T is a small implantible device. It's a dual-lead pacemaker. One lead paces my right atrium and does the job of the sinus node, the heart's natural pacemaker. A second lead is attached to my right ventricle and will pace the lower chambers should the electrical signal lose its way en route from the atrium (heart block). Excessive pacing of the ventricle can lead to possible damage in the long-term, but the information downloaded from my device after two weeks showed only 15% lower lead pacing, which is very encouraging.

Initially, my device has been set with a lower limit of 50bpm and an upper limit of 150bpm. It seems likely that this upper limit might be tweaked upwards in future, but, for the time being, it should more than suffice.

The operation to insert such a gadget is relatively straight-forward, with little risk. The surgeon makes an incision just below the collar bone. He creates a small pocket under the skin using his fingers, and then makes a small incision in a vein. The leads are guided through this vein towards the heart using  overhead X-ray equipment, and, once in place, are connected to the pacing device. When everything has been checked over, the device is positioned into the pocket created earlier, and the wound is stitched up. Job done.

Just before I took the walk, dressed in slippers and a flattering hospital gown, from the ward to the theatre where the show would commence, a kindly nurse came along with the consent forms. She rattled through the procedure, checked I understood what I was going to go through, and then went onto the prickly subject of risks involved. In truth, there's hardly any. But there's alway that chance. I know - I spent many years watching St. Elsewhere and ER. I signed the forms, tried to dismiss the doubts that the '1-in-10,000' risk had planted in my head, but couldn't quite manage it. A few minutes later, after kissing Tammy goodbye, I was sat in the theatre waiting room. The nurse behind the desk was attempting to engage me in a pointless conversation as I tried my best not to listen to Radio 2 being fed through small speakers positioned on a tasteful shelf. The Jeremy Vine Show. An irate woman taking legal action against a major High Street bank, after a counter clerk had made discriminatory remarks by referring to her hair colour as 'ginger'. For just a moment, I thought again of those risks, pictured the scene from outside of myself and couldn't help thinking - wouldn't it be bloody sad if this was the end to it all?

It was one of those moments. But another was waiting in ambush.

Lying on the operating table, Doctor W's given me the necessary injections, made the necessary incisions and pulled the X-ray equipment across. I can't see what he's doing - my head's turned away from him and there's a small screen shielding me from the left side of my chest. I catch the eye of the young nurse standing near. She smiles back with an 'everything will be alright' smile. But what if it's not? Where's George Clooney, just in case things go wrong? You hear it all the time - people going in for a routine operation and never coming out. It happened on St. Elsewhere and ER every few weeks.

Doctor W says, 'You're going to feel a little bit of pushing.' He says it in that way your dentist might before putting his hand on your forehead, holding you down and mustering all the strength he can to yank out a wisdom tooth. Then I feel it. No real pain, but all that pushing and pulling. All that pressure. I'm looking at the bright light above me, the nausea taking over...and I'm a kid again.

I'm running along Anchor Lane towards our house. It's dark. I look back and see headlights approaching. A random car on a random night. And I'm thinking - if that car overtakes me before I reach our house, I'm going to die. I sprint all out, up the road, up the drive, through the front door, push it shut behind me. I'm leant up against it, scared and laughing. Some stupid game that,for some reason, I play all the time.

I look at the light, the nausea taking over, and I can't take my eyes off the light and I want to close my eyes, I want to close my eyes, but the voice inside says, ' Close your eyes. Close your eyes and you'll die.' I'm looking at the light, the nausea taking over, eyes open, eyes open. There's hospital drama playing on the surface of that bright, bright light:

'He's going,' the doctor says, 'We're losing him.'

Eyes are closed.

Eyes open.

Frantic activity, desperately trying, trying desperately. Even George Clooney can't keep me alive. Boy, he tries. Tries so hard, but finally says, 'We've lost him. Time of death 2.41pm.' The theatre goes quiet. The camera closes in on the nurse. She's not smiling now. George Clooney wipes the sweat from his brow, takes off his little green cloth cap and walks, frustrated, towards the exit doors.

The nurse pulls the sheet over my head. She gently shakes her head. Just a routine operation. What on earth went wrong?

I'm looking at the light, the nausea taking over, eyes open, eyes open, the voice saying, 'Close your eyes. Close your eyes and you'll die.' And I'm scared, but I don't say anything. Not scared of dying, but scared of not  finishing living. Of missing out. No more days with Lightning in the hills, no more of Whirlwind's special kisses, no chance of growing old with Tammy. Of no more chances of witnessing wonder. Of going before I'm ready. Of having lived a life marked B minus instead of A star.

Eyes open, eyes open, repeating two words. Over and over. And then, we're done.

On the 1st January, I set out with two friends to start a challenge that was precious to me. In that, I'm afraid, I've failed. But I've succeeded in something much more important.

My eyes have been opened.

A few days after my operation, I find myself at work before anyone else arrives. Paperwork done, I decide to watch the previous weekend's episode of Doctor Who. It's a Saturday night ritual in our house. Doctor Who. Popcorn. Maltesesrs. Four of us together. However, a trip to Yorkshire had scuppered this weekend's show-time.

I crank up the i-player. Doctor Who. The Power Of Three. Of course, the Doctor saves the human race from alien invasion and a most hideous fate - he always does. But there's a more subtle theme running through the show. Amy and Rory, the Doctor's occasional companions, are thinking of stopping. They live their normal lives, complete with all the dramas that normal lives involve. However, now and again, the blue Police box arrives, they travel the galaxies with the timelord, but always, eventually, end up returning to real life. Amy and Rory like real life - it's comfortable in their corner - but, compared to what's out there, unseen and as yet unexperienced, it's just so safe, and they can't resist the lure of the adventures the Doctor's arrival inevitably entails. Maybe - just maybe - they think, it's time to give up the chaos, the spontaneity, those moments of living - and just stick to real life. Maybe, without the alien invasions, far-flung galaxies and the enigmatic Doctor, their real lives might, after a while, not seem just so bloody boring? (It goes without saying that Amy and Rory eventually arrive at the correct decision.)

I'm watching a scene towards the end of the episode. Amy and the Doctor sitting on a wall, the Tower of London floodlit behind them. The Doctor explains to Amy that he'll never stop running. I'll not repeat the words - you've read them already. But when I hear them, something changes. The Doctor speaks not to Amy, but to me. Something has happened that will not just shape my running, but shape the whole way I live my life.

I replay the words. I'm smiling. After the trials of the last year, the months of woodshedding, the implanting of a device that I'll probably die without, my personal revelation has come whilst watching an episode of a kid's TV show.

I'll rate my life so far B minus. 'Pretty good, but could do better'.

I live in my corner with the people I love. I live in my corner doing the things that I do. My corner's pretty good, but I could do better.

For this is just one corner, one tiny speck. But now my eyes are open, and I'm running - not running away, but running towards. Running towards the corners I've not yet found, not yet experienced. Running towards all the corners that I'd shut myself off from. Running and running in this universe that forever grows and shrinks and creates and destroys and never remains the same for a single millisecond.

The Doctor's right.

There's galaxies to explore. So much, so much to see.

I'll choose my companions carefully and I'll run till I'm gone. Not running away, but running towards.

Running towards those corners before they flare and fade forever.   

Friday, 14 September 2012

We Are.

As the blade cuts through my chest, two words appear from nowhere, echoes from a memory of days just gone.

'We are.'

As the surgeon inserts his fingers inside the wound and pulls at my skin with controlled, but forceful, tugs, separating it from the muscle beneath, the mantra I recite to control my fear are two words repeated over and over.

'We are.'

As the electrical leads are guided into my heart - when the giddy rush of nausea rolls over me like a spent wave in the shore-break - it's the image two words contain that I cling to.

'We are.'

As I'm pushed on the hospital bed back to Ward C, freshly 'enabled' and feeling sore, into a bay in which Tammy waits nervously, it's the truth of two words that makes us both tearful.

'We are.'

As I leave Seathwaite, walk through the farm and head steadily along the track to Stockley Bridge, it seems strange to be carrying such a large pack. Recent years in the Lakes have consisted of a certain kind of adventure - long days running across ridges and through valleys - fast and light - enough gear and food for several hours, but little more. This trip, however, is different. The Berghaus on my back is a proper walker's sack, laden with tent, sleeping bags and provisions for two.

I walk beside Grains Gill, look down to the little man next to me, and can't help but feel proud. Lightning's got his own sack - doesn't like to feel left out - and together we're heading for the mountains. I'd promised a night out like this a while ago, but the summer had almost slipped by. The confirmed date of an impending heart operation, however, had squared me up. Tam and I had abandoned existing plans for the last weekend in August and we'd driven up to Keswick with the superheroes on the Friday night, hoping the foul weather would clear so that I could keep the promise I'd made so many months ago.

And now we're heading for the hills, leaving everyone behind, to spend a night together in a one-man tent in the heart of nowhere. Excited beyond belief.

As we stroll down the valley, the day reveals its beauty. The previous night had been horrendous - cold, wet, depressing. The morning had shrouded itself in low-lying mist and dense hill-side fog, but by mid-afternoon the world had come alive.

Crossing Stockley Bridge, we're reminded of what's been before. Water rushes between rocks, agitated, forceful and threatening. We take a moment to look back on where we've been and press on with the steep climb beside Taylorgill Force. We talk about where we're heading and memorable days we've spent in this magical part of the North-West. We talk about getting up early the next morning and heading towards Wasdale to see a friend pass through on his Bob Graham. We talk about everything and nothing. Freed from the distractions of the everyday - television, computers, i-pods, kindles, people - our conversations go everywhere and nowhere, rambling, insightful, stupid. We walk side by side, sitting on the occasional boulder for a rest or a drink, before heading steadily upwards towards Styhead Tarn.

It's a buzz to be going in the opposite direction. All the walkers we pass are heading off the hills, back to their cars, their tents, their B and B's - their day's adventure near an end. But not us. Ours is just beginning.

The sun continues its slow descent, and soon we're at the stretcher box at the top of Styhead Pass. It won't be long before we reach our destination for the night.

Bearing left, we start up the path that rises towards Esk Hause. The indomitable bulk of Great End bears upon us to our right as we make steady progress. I watch, wilting a bit under the unfamiliar weight of my pack, as Lightning zips ahead. He's a good lad, I think, they're both good kids. Lightning takes after me - quiet, thoughtful, with a love of the outdoors. Whirlwind's more like her mum - a blur of energy and attitude. They're both full of life, filled with wonder.

Whilst struggling to catch up, I imagine the days we'll spend together. All our tomorrows. Long days in the mountains, just the four of us. I can't help but smile.

Further up the path, we crest a slight rise and Sprinkling Tarn comes into view for the first time. Although a popular wild camping spot, I'm chuffed that there's no one else there. We look for a good place to pitch the tent and it doesn't take long to choose a broad, flat piece of ground on the far side of the water. Ten minutes later, our home for the night is ready.

I busy myself sorting out the mats and bags while Lightning legs it to the base of a nearby crag. Like a mountain goat, he scrambles up on all fours until he's at the top, standing tall, arms out wide and shouting for my attention. I wave up to him, sit on the grass and just watch him clambering around for ages and ages.

The sun sinks lower. Lightning returns to the tent. We chat for a bit, share a couple of sausage rolls, and he fishes in his sack for his Nintendo.

Meanwhile, I sit in the foyer of the tent and watch the world turn.

Mist rises from the Wasdale valley and the sun starts to disappear. For the next twenty minutes, I sit, enthralled, as the mist rises and falls, one minute dense and thick, one minute will o' the wisp. The fading light paints faint rainbows on the surface of the clouds. I look at Lightning, the Nintendo on his lap, still switched off.

'Wow, Dad!' he says to me. 'That was ace!'

I nod my head and laugh.

'Dad, was that the best thing in the world or what?' he goes on.

I laugh again. 'Yeah,' I say and then copy his current favourite phrase, 'That was ace!'

Sitting together, lost in this, rarely before has a moment been so special.

I awake in the small hours and stare at the roof of the tent. It takes a good time for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Lightning's fast asleep. His long legs are draped over mine, his whole body out of his sleeping bag and curled in a way which means I'm left with a space that's barely a foot wide. Finding it impossible to sleep and without wanting to wake the little man beside me, I lie awake and think of the day we've spent together. My mind wanders, too, towards the other half of who we are, back in the big tent together in Keswick. Whirlwind will be tucked up with Tam in our side of the tent. No doubt she'll have complained all evening about Lightning spending the night out with me - 'It's Not Fair!- but she's still young and her time will come. She'll have stomped her feet and stuck out her bottom lip until Tam would have told her to stop being a little madame. Then she would have cried a couple of tears, before going over, saying, 'Sorry, Mummy,' and giving her a big kiss. I think of my special girls, just a few miles and a world away from where we are. Then, through the darkness, I look at the sleeping boy beside me, his body stretched out, his hair over his face - our little blond boy.

I remember his words from earlier and I smile and shake my head. 'No, mister - you were wrong there,' I say to myself.

The best thing in the world?

We are.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The Church Of The Schedule

'I found I was standing before acres of ploughed earth. There was a fence keeping me from stepping into the field, with two lines of barbed wire, and I could see how this fence and the cluster of three or four trees above me were the only things breaking the wind for miles. All along the fence, especially along the lower line of wire, all sorts of rubbish had caught and tangled. It was like the debris you get on a sea-shore: the wind must have carried some of it for miles before finally coming up against these trees and these two lines of wire. Up in the branches of the trees, too, I could see, flapping about, torn plastic sheeting and bits of old carrier bags. That was the only time, as I stood there, looking at that strange rubbish, feeling the wind coming across those empty fields, that I started to imagine a little fantasy...I was thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half-closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I'd ever lost since my childhood had washed up, and now I was standing here in front of it...'

Kazuo Ishiguro, 'Never Let Me Go'

                    *                    *                    *                     *                    *

There's times when I stand quite still, and remember.

Times when I think of everything I once had. Mountain paths, country trails. Windswept summits. The sun setting over the sea on an evening run across the wet sand.

Before The Church.

There's times when I try to recapture the feeling that running gave me. The glorious sense of freedom. That deep pillow of pure joy.

But it's gone now.

And this is the way it is. The best way. The only way. I know that. My race results show it.

So, after standing at the window, looking out towards the hills of The Wolds, eventually I turn my back and focus on the sheet of instructions I clutch in my hand. This is what's important now, and I accept it.

It's two years since I joined The Church. Before that, I was lost. Directionless. The Elders told me that. Too many empty miles. Hours of junk.

My life is better now. I'm a true disciple. A proper athlete. I no longer run for fun.

The Church comes together every four years. From all corners of the world, they gather, celebrate, compete. Mass euphoria. Religious ecstacy.

It was during The London Gathering that I became part of the coming together. Swept away.

I had no second thoughts. Cleansed and inspired, within weeks I had joined The Church.

I'm climbing Fairfield. The steep path is loose and scratty. The clag's been low all morning, ever since I started the jog up the Newsham House road. Running through clouds. Relying on the compass for summit cairns. Missing, and then chancing upon the broad gravel tracks more by luck than by skillful navigation.

Finding the summit shelter, I huddle into it's walls and dig out a drink and a couple of squares of chocolate. And then I'm ready for the return journey to Threlkeld.

Just minutes later, I'm concentrating hard on the rough terrain at the start of the descent. I'm so wrapped up in the moment that I almost miss the magic.

To my right, the dense mist thins. In a moment, a sweep of blue sky appears. Then the summit of Helvellyn and the zig-zags to Dollywaggon. I stand, transfixed, watching one of Nature's finest movies. Blown by a moderate breeze, curtains of cloud are drawn back to reveal magnificence. In just a few minutes, the whiteness that has obscured and shortened the Lake District peaks has vanished. It's a gorgeous day. I look over to the Eastern fells, down to the shimmer of Grisedale Tarn and over to Steel Fell and the Central fells beyond. It's all here.

I'm alive.

But it's gone now.

The Church has ministries in most towns and cities. I was welcomed with open arms.

From then on, the question, 'What do I want from my running?' became obsolete. Of course, the only possible answer was, 'I want to run faster.'

These, my friends, are the way of The Church.

The Elders bestowed unto me a watch and a Garmin. 'These are the tools of The Church,' they said.

It took a little longer, however, to be introduced to The Church's most sacred document. But I showed willing. I persevered. I showed an acceptance to hand my life over to a sheet of A4 paper. And, soon, the time came. I bowed down to The Schedule.

As I cross the fields behind Partney Primary School, my head-torch beam picks out the faint trod towards the hedgerow by the stream. It's dark. It's raining. It's November. It's beautiful.

My pace is slow, mud clinging in huge clumps to the bottom of my studded shoes.

Through the gap in the hedge, through the field with the long grass that pulls at your stride and reduces you to little more than a stumble. Across the plough and onto the footbridge to the rising path behind Skendleby church.

Alone on a dire night like this, my mind racing with thoughts, dreams, memories, adventure.

It's not until I leave the short road section, away from the village-centre street lamps, that I realise my head-torch has died.

I stand at the three-way fork for a moment or two. Each road will provide me with a safe, but uninspiring, tarmac route to Saleby. I weigh up the options, looking for the lesser of available evils. Then I notice the finger post, partly hidden by the branches of a road-side tree. The moonlight illuminates two words I'm addicted to  - PUBLIC FOOTPATH - white letters, green background. I look up at the sky. There's a big moon, and the rain's stopped. I'm in no hurry to get home. It doesn't take a second for a decision to be made.

As I run by moonlight, I relish the uncertainty that Empty Miling is made of. The times I've passed an unfamiliar footpath sign and just headed that way for the fun of it, simply because I've never been along the path and have little idea where it leads. Sometimes, I'm disappointed. Sometimes, I'm astounded.

After a country mile, I spill out onto the Bluestone Heath road. I jog down into Claxby Psalter and up the grassy bank in the direction of Well Woods. This is always my favourite part of the run home - a slightly downhill section, tunnelled by overhead foliage - a track made for running quickly, skipping over tree roots and hurdling over fallen branches. In the absence of artificial light, tonight brings the promise of exhillaration. I run headlong into the darkness. Faster. Faster still. Smiling crazily, I'm blissfully unaware of unseen obstacles. Sprinting into the night. Revelling in the gloriousness of play, of wild abandon. Until the inevitable happens. My left foot plunges into a shallow hole and it's enough to send me freefalling. I land in a heap in the scrub beside the track. Temporarily winded, I eventually roll over onto my back and rub my hands over the new hole in the knee of my favourite tracksters. Feeling ridiculous, I lay there for a while. Covered in mud, lying amongst rotting leaves in the middle of a wood in the dark, I can't help but start laughing. 'This is running,' I think, 'I'm alive!'

But it's gone now.

I study the piece of paper I hold in my hand. The name of each day is printed in bold type, upper case, Monday through Sunday. Beside each day, my task is outlined in deceptively simple words or phrases. Intervals, fartlek, threshold run, tempo run. Easy run, recovery run, A race, B race, target race, rest day. Planned to sterile perfection. Each task is followed by a precise measurement of distance, miles or metres, and a precise measurement of time and speed. All junk has been stripped. What remains is perfect, soul-less, efficient - a fail-safe blue-print for performance enhancement. The Schedule.

At those times by the window, I stand quite still. I remind myself that I entered The Church of my own free will. I think of what I have now - PB's in 10k, 10 miles and the Half - and I remember the things I've lost, blown like plastic bags against that desolate fence on the last page of a book I love; uncertainty, spontaneity, recklessness, enjoyment, individuality, plain old fun.

The things I surrendered to The Schedule

Sunday, 2 September 2012

No.22: The Gingerbread Way

A circular route around Grantham, The Gingerbread Way passes through the villages of Great Ponton, Harlaxton, Barrowby and Great Gonerby. It joins the Grantham Canal for a short stretch as well as skirting Belton Park.

Saturday 25th August, 25 miles

Narrow jitty out of Grantham

Looking down on the town

Up the grassy slope


A crack in the sky



Following tracks

Railway arch, Little Ponton

Church, Great Ponton

Downhill to Stroxton

Angles, Harlaxton

Canal again

Heavy skies

Track To Barrowby

Getting high

Anyone for rugby?

Bottoms Up!

Under pylons

Rain in the distance

Belton Park folly


Into Londonthorpe Wood

Summer rain, Harrowby Hall

My friend, the rainbow