Monday, 23 January 2012

14 miles of pain: what my daughter taught me

I woke feeling uneasy. Something wasn't right.

Under the soft, heavy pressure of the duvet I wiggled my toes experimentally and cudgelled my brain into thought. Around me the dim shapes of bedroom furniture came into focus as the light outside the windows diluted darkness into grey grain.

It was Saturday. A 14-mile run beckoned. I swallowed hard, and realised what else had been troubling me: a seam of pain down the back of my throat and between my ears, that tell-tale singe that spells the start of a cold. I sat up and felt my chest tighten, my head thump uncomfortably.

There was no question of not running. This was the start of the next leg up; the move into marathon running, the advance from the known of 13 miles into the unknown of 14 and the first real test of my stamina for several months.

I pulled on my clothes and ate breakfast with my ears ringing, the porridge sticking in claggy lumps to my tender stomach lining.

From the moment I set foot outside I knew it was going to be all, all wrong.

I set off along the road on which I live, avoiding the wobbly paving slabs without conscious thought now, then turned right past the bus stop, down the hill under the railway bridge and then up and up and over the crest, a two-minute climb that usually defrosts my joints and sets my blood singing. This time it was as though I had swallowed a press of angry wasps that teemed and chafed in my chest, buzzing in my throat with every huff. Arriving at the top of the hill in agony, I paced on for a couple of moments with no heed to my surroundings as my thoughts fought each other. The urge to give up was immense. The fear of the psychological impact this could have on me was equally huge. I have never given up on a run before. I have never stopped running during a run before: just to slow to a walk would be admitting defeat and creating a dangerous template for the following attempt and the one after that and the one after that and so on..

So I continued. I had planned an eight-mile route with a three-mile loop at each end, drawn in my head like a weightlifter's bar and discs. The weight of it was crushing.

I had gone two miles and was round the path into the woods when a small white terrier dashed out of a thicket 50 yards ahead and made for me. I slowed my already treacly pace and feinted left to dodge the dog. It bobbed briefly the wrong way then bounced back, barking shrilly, and came straight for me, leaping up onto my thighs and aiming a nip at my face. I reeled back, stumbled, then tried to run faster, only to entice it further. The dog chased me for the next ten or twenty paces while I, like a drunk, aimed ineffective blows and curses at it. Its owner stood watching, carefully blank-faced, a way off. I gritted my teeth, put my head down, and produced a spurt of speed that was enough to break the game and leave the mutt behind. Turning to check it had given up, I ran backwards briefly, aiming a last volley of abuse at the owner, then headed into the next stretch of path.

I had run three miles and my legs felt like water. I was dressed for the cold and soaked in sweat: over the next three miles I removed my hat, then my gloves and my coat, which I tied around my waist. I must have looked like a stumbling mad woman, scarlet and wild-eyed among sedate Saturday joggers and couples out for an amble in the unseasonal sunshine. The pain in my chest was like a saw.

At seven miles I emerged from a park and began the slow climb up the next hill, a very public torture along a path at the side of a busy road. I had timed my arrival at this section with the return of the ten o'clock riding lesson to the stables on the other side of the road and found myself at the end of a line of horses and riders, a swaying single-file column stretching for ten or twelve steeds which proceeded with regal slowness in front of me. I did not have the strength or space to speed up and overtake them in the narrow gap between path and traffic, so for five minutes I staggered behind, skipping steaming piles of horse shit and acknowledging toots from drivers like the clown at the end of a carnival parade.

Finally they were gone, I was at the top of the hill and a mile of downhill rural joy via scenic fields awaited. I had reached the eight-mile point, the magic gateway at which I usually get my second wind and enjoy several miles of easy loose-limbed running. This time nothing happened. I crawled on.

I spent the following four miles drifting in and out of consciousness and marvelling through the pain at my marvellous legs and their marvellous ability to somehow keep going, albeit at a granny-stagger. At one point I was tempted to take a photograph of my feet in their filthy, mud-caked trainers. Such dear, comfortable trainers. I was like a first-year student taking hallucinogens for the first time and goggling at the sudden quotidian wonders that revealed themselves.

At twelve miles it started to rain.

At thirteen-point-three miles a hiccup of self-pity escaped me and I cried, briefly.

I flailed through the next point-seven miles with my wrist in front of my face, willing the blinking digital numbers on my watch to reach their final sum more quickly.

And then it was done. My legs were in agony, my chest was on fire, my scalp and hair were sodden. With shaking hands I turned the key in my front door, staggered into the kitchen and started to cry. It was over, but I knew I had to do it again and again, whether or not it got easier, which right now seemed entirely impossible.

Gracie my darling, I have often wondered what your days are like: how you summon such reserves of courage and grit to keep going when everything seems difficult and the barriers constant, one after another.

On Saturday I got a closer glimpse and daughter, I salute you. You are again and forever my inspiration.

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