Monday, 27 October 2008

The happiness of the middling-distance runner

It is a truth universally acknowledged that keeping fit is good for you. And running is particularly good because it doesn’t need much equipment and you can start on your doorstep. It wipes you out, but that must be good, because if the medicine doesn’t taste horrible then it can’t be working. As for enjoyment, running gives you the same pleasure as banging your head against a wall: the relief is wonderful when you stop.

Of course, it’s important not to think of running as a purely physical exercise. It’s principally a moral activity. The first step before you even hit the road is the one your will takes in driving you out at all. Every nerve in your body is screaming at you ‘Going out for a run? In this? What’s wrong with the couch?’ but you go out anyway. A first, moral win.

The next thing is to keep going. Marathon runners talk about the ‘wall’ they meet at about twenty miles. They have to run through an obstacle of light-headedness and unsteadiness to make it to the end of the course. I’ve always admired that courage and determination. From a safe distance.

Well, now that I’ve taken up running myself I know what that wall is like. I meet one at about three minutes, a second at about ten, a third at about twenty. There may be more beyond thirty minutes but I don’t go there very often.

Though it did happen once. On that occasion, I forced myself through my successive walls, much against my body’s insistent protestations, and set myself a new record of running a full hour. Some achievement. Unfortunately I was in the picturesque, enchanting but dense woodland of Cannock Chase, and it took me less than an hour to get lost. And for the sun to set. So I was blundering around in woods in pitch darkness.

When I say ‘lost’ I really mean ‘lost’. I’ve looked at a map since to discover where I went and I’ve never worked it out. All I know is that I must have been travelling at right angles to the proper direction. I’d been going East when I thought I was travelling South. Or possibly travelling North when I thought I was going West.

Fortunately I eventually found my way off the Chase and to a road with a street name. By sheer chance, I had my phone on me, so I rang my stepson David, in Edinburgh. Once he’d stopped laughing at my predicament, made worse by the fact that it was now raining as well as dark, he went on to Google Maps to check out the street I was in and gave me not just directions, but excellent directions. Remote guidance. He knew where I was better than I did, even though I was there and he was three hundred miles away. It was Sat Nav on a mobile phone which I didn’t know had it.

He took me on roads and across open country, even through woodlands, but this time in the right direction. And eventually I breasted a hill and saw the sight I’d longed for: my car.

It was like Cortez seeing the Pacific, Amundsen realising he was at the South Pole, Marco Polo reaching Beijing. Ecstasy.

A trip that I had planned to last an hour had taken three and a half. I was exhausted, my feet hurt and the rain was pouring down my neck. But somehow I felt great. Strangely exhilarated. I went home believing that I’d had a special evening, instead of realising it was just an abnormal one.

But that’s it, you see. Running. It’s about moral achievement not physical.

No wonder my body dislikes it so much.

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