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.   


  1. "b minus"? "A plus" I reckon. It's easy to be hard on ourselves and sometimes it can take an "outsider" to objectively assess. From what I've seen and read and heard, you've done more with your years than most do with their lives already. And, most importantly of all, you have enlightenment with regard to your running. You run for the beauty and the love of it all, not because you feel you HAVE to.
    There are always plenty more adventures to be had, always new places to explore, but I also increasingly feel that we should explore the SAME places at different times, to really "feel" those places, connect with them and get to know them more intimately.
    I'm pleased everything has gone ok with the op, myself and Kirsten were only thinking about you last week, as we said goodbye to a fellrunning friend who never got the chance for that "second chance".
    Take care and see you both soon.

  2. Thanks Richard - your words mean a lot.
    I never met the friend you speak of, but his death affected me deeply. I hope his family find some comfort in the fellrunning community's reaction to his passing and that his friends find themselves smiling at the strangest of times,for years to come, as they recall a story told or time spent together.
    The life you're creating for yourselves Up There is inspiring. Best of luck with what you are doing, and look forward to bumping into you both on a camp site, in a NT car park or on top of a mountain.