Friday, 9 November 2012

The Bigger Picture

There's that phrase. You've all heard it.

'You've got to look at the bigger picture.'

Forget the present. Shrug off the set-backs. Keep your head down, keep doing what you're doing (however unpleasant), blinker yourself to the distractions of everyday life, and at some point in the future, everything will be great.

It's a phrase I heard a lot during the Olympics. In this case, it usually came from a medal winner. Clutching their gold, silver or bronze, they'd stutter through a post-performance interview with John Inverdale or Sue Barker, tears rolling down their sweat-stained cheeks. They'd say something like:

'I'm so happy. So relieved. It's what I've worked towards for the last 8 years. There's so much I've sacrificed, and it's been so tough. All those hours and hours of training. But, everytime I got down, I said to myself, 'You've just got to look at the bigger picture.' And - do you know what - here I am, it's all been worth it!'

We're months on from the Olympics now. The summer's shimmied off to other parts and we're on the cusp of another winter. Something usually happens to me at this time of year. I go all Alf Tupper.

Alf was good at looking at the bigger picture. As he scoffed down another fish and chip supper in his dingy canal boat at the dog-end of another day spent toiling  over a welding iron, he'd no doubt be dreaming of next summer's track meeting at White City. He'd beat those toffs from the University. Maybe even get close to a world record.

The next few months of hard work and hard training would be all be worth it. Those 16 hour days in the welding shop. Those hundreds of miles along the canal bank and through the dark streets of Greystone. All worth it. It would be hard, but he'd focus on the bigger picture.

Finishing off his chips, he'd wipe his lips with an oily rag and picture the scene:

Dipping through the tape to achieve the narrowest of victories. 'Who's a guttersnipe now?' he'd think, and look across at his posh rival lying spent on the cinders. 'He's all swank and wind,' he'd mutter to whoever was listening. 'I expected him to give me a harder race. Still, I've run him. And a new world record to boot!'

I've always been inspired by Alf Tupper. Maybe that's one of the reasons that I do a lot of next year's planning in October. A Spring marathon? One of The Big 3 Rounds? An attempt on the Lincolnshire footpaths in the course of a calendar year? It all goes down in October. Then I look forward to the dark nights, to the winter months of 'training harder than I've ever trained in my life.' At these times, I literally imagine myself as a black and white line drawing from a long-forgotten 50's comic, pounding along the unlit cobbled streets of some northern industrial town. It'll be a tough winter, but it will all be worth it. Come Spring, I'll be flying! There'll be times when I'm tired, beat - but I'll keep going. I'll forget the sacrifice and just concentrate on the bigger picture.

Now, October's been and gone. Running friends have asked me, 'What's on the cards for next year?' I just shrug my shoulders. I sense that Tam has been waiting for The Announcement. But it's never come.

And do you know why?

I'll tell you.

I've had it with the bigger picture. For the time being, I'm enjoying the detail.

Tuesday. 5.55am
It's nearly an hour since the alarm went off. In that time I've got up, travelled to work and got the machines up and running for another busy day in the world of velvet art manufacturing. The printing lads have just shuffled in with a half-awake 'Ey-up', and now I've got two hours before the rest of the gang arrive for an 8 o'clock start.

I push open the shutter doors, switch on my headtorch and step outside. Where will this morning take me? I've a ton of routes between 5 and 8 miles, and I make up my mind whilst I jog out of the yard. Freed from the confines of a schedule, each run becomes a journey in its own right. An experience to savour.

It's dark. The drizzle I'd noticed on the drive-in has turned to proper rain. I pull my jacket's hood over, yank down the sleeves so that my hands are inside the cuffs and head  for the gate.

The first few steps have already spoken to me. My legs feel surprisingly fresh after Sunday's cross-country. I'll head for the farm tracks out the back. The faint red hue of a new day greets me from the horizon as I run down the jitty and make my way towards Spilsby Road.

In the weeks since my pacemaker was fitted, I've eased back into my own way of doing things. Each weekday I'll go out early, running as fast or as slow as I feel like. After a frustrating year, these morning runs have been a revelation. It's no doubt, for me, the best time of the day. As the miles tick by, I come alive. And the day comes alive with me too. Everything is starting again. It's a feeling you only get at dawn.

Sometime during the afternoon or evening, I'll go out again with my wife, a couple of mates or my running club. I'll do at least 5 miles, maybe more, but certainly no more than 10. By running these 'doubles', I'm healing myself, both physically and spiritually. The troublesome groin injury that has plagued me since March has all but disappeared. The arch pain in my left foot that has nagged at me, off, but mostly on, for the last 18 months finally shows signs of saying goodbye for good. For the first time in months, I'm looking forward to each and every run.

How can you be an ultra-runner when no single run is more than an hour in duration? Well, I guess you can't. But by not commiting to an all-consuming challenge for the next year, it also means I can peel away the labels that others are always keen to impose. For the time being, I just travel on foot, each day, every day - not out of compulsion to 'train' for the 'big event', but just because it feels amazing. After several years of setting myself a massive challenge in the forthcoming 12 months, I've gone back to the very ideal that brought me back to running in the first place. I've pushed aside any extrinsic motivation for the time being, and I'm back to what I do best - empty miling.

I turn off the short stretch of road, unhook the gate, and, after fastening it behind me, jog through the farmyard to the stile in the left-hand corner. Hopping over it, I'm on the track that leads to the bottom zig-zags of Peasgate Lane. The steady descent for the next half mile or so makes my running feel effortless. Up ahead, my headtorch beam makes out a pair of eyes in the hedgerow. Glowing yellow, two bright spheres suspended in darkness, they watch me for a while, and then, in an impossibly quick movement, they're gone.

Arriving at the Lane, I tip-toe down the short, steep hill and turn right up the track by the fishing lake. Heavily rutted by tractors and 4x4s, the terrain is rough but interesting. Ankle-breaker territory. I pick my way through the mud and puddles towards the abandoned caravans further along. A couple of years ago I spotted an old lady outside these vans, huddled beneath dirty years of shabby clothing and a coat that was much too big. A friend told me her name was Gloria. She lived in one of the caravans, without electricity, water, or, indeed, any amenities. She'd lived there, illegally, for more years than anyone could remember, whilst the local council turned a blind eye to her dwelling.

I glance over at the vans as I run past. Broken windows are covered over with cardboard and off-cuts of ply, and waist-high grass surrounds them. I haven't seen the lady for a long time. Does she still live here? Is she sleeping as I pass? My mind wanders to how her life ended up here - alone, with nothing, at the end of a dead-end track. Was it her choice? Did mental illness or the shadow of some unspeakable heartbreak lead her here? I'll never know.

'Good morning Gloria,' I whisper under my breath as I creep past. 

Not having a 'bigger picture' to focus on next year has opened up a world that I've sidelined in recent years, arrogantly dismissing it as 'not my thing.' Each Sunday for the last few weeks, I've taken part in a local race. At this time of the year, these have been off-road 'challenge' events or local league cross-countries. I've stuck these into my weekly running without a taper or a recovery. As 'something different', I've returned each day invigorated. Having raced sparingly over recent years, I'd forgotten how much I enjoy them. My quickest days are well behind me, but the elemental joy experienced on a voyage into fast running is hard to beat. To run on the very threshold of fatigue and to arrive at the finish line knowing you've given your all on a particular day is something I'm going to do much more often in the following year.

The next two months are full of opportunities for racing on XC courses all over the county. Once we hit Easter, the summer series runs crank up, and it's possible to race every Wednesday evening for the best part of four months. There's no great commitment involved - all of these runs are enter on the night and cost only a couple of quid. I'm looking forward to getting a few under my belt.

Of course, the longer runs and days in the hills won't be abandoned - it's impossible - they're in me, but next year, these runs will be stand-alone - done for their own enjoyment, not as endless recces for the future's 'big project'. On a recent trip to the Yorkshire 3 Peaks, a couple of my fellrunninmg buddies raised the concept of The Book Of Challenges. Over the last couple of months, they've started to develop a list of things they'd like to do over the next year or two. All these ideas have gone in The Book. As they filled me in, I was struck with the realisation that they would be perfect for my upcoming year of ignoring the bigger picture. Whilst difficult, all the challenges they mentioned were ones that could slip easily into any week, without the need for weeks of extensive preparation or recceing. A night-time trip around the 45 mile Mary Townley Loop. The Welsh 3000s. The Cumbrian Traverse. And more. All of these are do-able in a single day and, assuming a good level
of fitness, can be done ad-hoc on just a couple of day's notice. Without the binds of single-mindedly preparing for one big project, all these adventures are just a drive and a phone call away.

Entering the Toynton end of Peasgate Lane, I'm soon passing Shelley's house and heading towards the opposite end of the Lane at Halton Halgate. Hitting the tarmac and starting on a short, downhill section, I become aware of a cyclist catching me up. Resplendent in hi-viz work wear and with his lunch box secured with bungee straps to the back rack of his old bike, he nods his head in recognition as he passes. In the half-light, it's impossible to gauge his age, but, although he's shifting some on this downhill stretch, he's certainly not built for speed. I watch his flashing red light wind ahead of me.

Reaching the bottom of the hill, I start the last half-mile uphill drag into Spilsby town centre. Sometimes this really does me in, but this morning I'm up for it. Head down. Short strides. I scuttle up easily. Looking up at about half-way, I'm surprised to find that I've pulled back lots of distance on the bike, whose rider seems to be struggling to crank the big gear. From nowhere, an urgent competitiveness takes me over. I'm going to have him. I increase my speed - gaining, gaining. After a moment, he obviously hears my footfall on the pavement adjoining the road. He looks round, astonished that I've nearly caught him up. And then, rather than admit defeat to a morning jogger, he stands up on his pedals and gives it some. We're locked in battle for a minute or two, focusing on the house that marks the top of the hill. One moment, I'm sure I'll pass him. The next, he's pulled away. Eye-balls out now, I try to beat him, but the top comes too soon. I slow right down, knackered, and am treated to the sound of the cyclist laughing as he turns, sticks his thumb up in my direction, and then takes off again.

Running echoes everyday life. If you're constantly striving for a future challenge or event, every run becomes mere 'training' - a means to an end. You lose sight of the subtle treasures that each one of your 'little adventures' reveal. For that's what each run is - an adventure in its own right. Every run will speak to you. Tell you something. You just have to make sure you're listening.

It's the same in life. It's too easy to focus on future goals and forget about the very things that make life worth living.

Three things I've read recently have stuck with me.

The first I stumbled across whilst browsing Nick Bullock's book, 'Echoes', online. I've done very little climbing, but am always fascinated by the stories associated with, and the characters drawn to, this sport. Nick's story is certainly uplifting and romantic. Whilst serving in the prison service in the late 1990's, he discovered climbing and was soon devoting all his free time to the pursuit, quickly establishing himself as one of the UK's top climbers. In 2003, in a search for 'freedom', he quit his job and devoted himself to climbing full-time, living frugally and spending most of his year on audacious expeditions or dossing in North Wales in the back of his small van.

I'd googled the book seeking inspiration, but what affected me more were the words of a certain Alex Robbie, who'd written a customer review of the book. In the midst of praise for both the book and Nick himself, there was a criticism that really struck a chord with me:

'However, I also started to gain the impression at this point that, in his single-minded determination to climb at all costs, Nick failed to see the beauty and meaning in everyday existence. This impression strengthened as I read the book. The type of freedom that 'Echoes' champions is the result of choices most of us will never have the courage to make, but I think his total rejection of a normal life betrays a lack of balance--or perhaps simply a blindness to the wonders that ordinary life can provide.'

The second was a simple Facebook status message from a fellrunning friend:

'The simple pleasures of each new day.....waking up next to my lovely, snoozing wife, a "good morning" lick from Sam the collie, the dawn cloak of mist receding to reveal snowy hills across the loch, the simple pleasure of a morning walk, the bobbing seal in still waters accompanying us on our way, the cormorant gulping down a fish, the playful otter providing a dazzling display only yards away from me. So many people missing out now so that they can live life never know what's around the corner, enjoy it while you can.'

And the third from a running philosopher who's writings mean so much to me - Doctor George Sheehan. Over the years, I've pored over many, many articles and essays, but I'd never come across this one:

'As I took my early morning swim I noticed this runner watching me from the boardwalk. Later as I toweled off on the porch he approached me and introduced himself as a reader of my column.
Then he asked, "What is the most important thing in your life?"
If I were asked that question at 7 in the evening, it would draw a philosophical reply. "What is 'important'?" "What does 'life' mean?" The sort of evasions that come with a day's living with yourself and others leave me full of doubt.
But at 7 in the morning, my answer was simple and direct as the newly risen day.
Without hesitation, my head and heart responded, "My family."
It was the absolutely certain reply of a seventysomething male who has entered the seventh stage in Erik Erikson's eight-stage life cycle. I have attained what Erikson terms "generavity."
I have finally become concerned with the welfare of the next generation to come, particularly my family.
Of the virtues and values I had to acquire in life, generavity was the most difficult to attain. According to Erikson this is a rule of human nature. I doubt it. For males perhaps this is true. But for women generavity is a force from the arrival of their first born.
When our children arrived, I was primarily concerned with my self-development. My wife and family were part of that self only peripherally. They were in intimate association with me. I was responsive for their growth and development. But they were nevertheless external to the self I was making.
In my pursuit of excellence in my profession and later in my associations, my family was relegated to a minimum of my attention and my time. There came periods when I wanted to be free from all the hassle of family life.
This desire to escape and pursue some idyllic life with another person is felt by a large percentage of married men. A very good family practitioner once told me, "If all the men in this town who wanted to leave their homes did so there would be very few families with fathers."
And when families remain intact, that life may be difficult. "The proper word for family is 'strife,'" writes Ortega. The family is kept intact by knowing what can be said and what can't. At times it is like walking on eggshells. This tension and its more overt manifestations has led to the concept of dysfunctional families. My own belief is that all families malfunction at one time or another. An assembly of egos in all stages of development can hardly be expected to operate friction free.
My solution was to more or less absent myself from the group. In that position I was not a positive influence, but at least I wasn't a negative one. I am a loner, a person interested in ideas rather than people. I liked to have people around me, but I preferred to read a book while they were there.
The antithesis of generavity is self-absorption. I was heavily involved in creativity and productivity. But I was more and more self-absorbed. The attraction of any action was what I would personally derive from it. My motivation was my own needs and satisfaction.
I was late in coming to generavity which is no less than the virtue of caring. Its theological counterpart is charity. It is going beyond the self. One theologian described sin as "closing the ring of concern." I had closed it around myself. I now include many people inside the ring and am learning to open that ring more and more.
Growth and the attainment of a new plateau did not come simply because I was in my late 60s. In truth it should have occurred decades back. Reaching a stage in the life cycle does not come automatically.
I came to this love for my family and others through a familiar life giving force, adversity. Cancer, its attendant pain and an awareness of my isolation brought me back to a patient, loving wife and our sons and daughters.
Fortune had smiled on me in giving me cancer. Pain was a key to opening up a new and larger life. The interests of my past are still present, but now finally seen in perspective.
That is why I was able to answer without hesitation when a stranger asked me to put my preset life into one word - family.'

I jog easily into the yard, touch the shutter doors and come to a halt. I take off my headtorch and place it on the floor. Whatever treasures a run might hold, this final part of the adventure is always special. At home, I'll spend a few minutes on the step. At work, I've no step to sit on. So I do something else. Glowing with endorphins and dopamine, I'll stroll to the far end of the yard. At the top, I'll rest against the wooden fence, maybe have a chat with a pensioner out walking their dog along the path on the other side, maybe do a stretch or two. And then I'll walk back.

Sometimes I might just ponder random things. 'Who's idea was it to print L and R on running socks? Does it really make any difference - I mean, obviously you've got to have shoes that fit the left or right feet, but socks?! And if having L and R socks is such a dumb idea, why do I always swap them over if I've put them on the wrong way round?'

Sometimes, I'll reflect on the run I've just enjoyed. 'I wonder what time Gloria gets up in a morning? Will the guy on the bike be up for a rematch tomorrow morning? If I stick to the left side of that bottom track instead of the right, will that prevent me from nearly falling down that ditch?'

Mostly, I'll just enjoy the moment, everything tinted rose by the simple act of movement. The bird song. The daybreak. The vapour trails in the dawn sky.

Today, my mind is on the future. Not on the bigger picture or a forthcoming epic challenge, but something much closer. Lightning's away on a school activity week. He only went yesterday, and although he's back on Friday, it's the longest time he's been away from us, and I can't wait to see him again. He'll be having a great time and I dearly wish that he lives an independent and adventurous life when he's all grown up, but, for the time being, I miss him. We all miss him. He's a part of our family, and with him not here, it just doesn't seem to work as well. We need the small cog of his presence for our machine to be perfect.

I think of all the times in recent years that I've not been around. Off running all day. In the Lakes for the weekend, checking out a route or getting my 10,000 feet in. Is that the way they feel when I'm not around? How many times have their faces told the story but I've been too focused, too self-absorbed to notice?

I remember a conversation with Our Kid a few days ago. He was telling me about a podcast he'd listened to that immediately made him think of me. 'You can love what you do,' he'd said. 'You can love running. You can love being in the hills. But what you've got to ask yourself is, 'Can they love you back?''

Running can't love you back. However much time you spend on trying to get faster, however much effort you spend on preparing for some future endeavour, however much you sacrifice the present for the bigger picture, running will never love you back.

Sometimes it's crucial to remember your friends and your family - the people who can.

As I approach the shutter doors and pick up my headtorch, I'm filled with the feeling of just how much I'm enjoying both my running and non-running life at the moment. For now, I'll stay Here - the future can sort itself out.

I open the doors and then close them on the latest of life's tiny, everyday adventures. George Sheehan's words come to mind once more. We spend so much time and energy chasing the things that we'd like that we sometimes forget the things we've already got. For George it took old age and a terminal illness to recognise the most important thing in his life. Whilst he thanked cancer for finally helping him see this, I'm sure he would have also realised, with a resigned sadness, that it was a little too late. He'd already missed out on so much.

I can't help thinking that although running is so important in my life, it's not the most important. I've seen that. And I'm thankful.

I walk through the factory building towards my empty office and it's ironic that more words spring to mind. A certain phrase. In spite of myself, I smile.

Sometimes it's important to look at the bigger picture.

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