Part 2 of my confessional about how I’ve become a less interesting person over the years and it is time to focus on a perennial lie on my CV – the claim that I enjoy long distance running. To reflect that fact, this is a longer-than-usual post. A marathon of a post if you will. Don’t say you weren’t warned…
I’ve never enjoyed long distance running. I can’t think of anything I’d rather avoid than running of any description to be honest.
I’m not built for it for one thing. Until settling in the town of Reading in 2013, I led something of a nomadic existence. I’ve lived in a few places in the UK and I even lived for a few years in Paris (more of which later). The one thing that moving around means is changing GPs. And every time you change GP you have to go and have a medical. Consequently, no-one is more aware than me that I am, according to my BMI score, obese.
It’s a horrible word, obese. I often wonder if it’s specifically designed to make you feel bad about yourself. Cos if someone describes you as obese, then you’re going to want to do something about it aren’t you?
And I would, but I think it’s fair to say I’m also quite fit.
I’m no Olympian but I do exercise a reasonable amount.
And I have done so of all of my adult life.
Well most of my adult life anyway.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no paragon of virtue. I’ve done loads of irresponsible and unhealthy things too.
Much of my early twenties have been lost to an alcoholic haze. Or the weekends of my early twenties and several key birthdays have at any rate.
I’ve never been averse to a takeaway, I rarely say no to a second slice of cake and my feelings about the merits of ice-cream are well-documented.
On the other hand, I also keep myself pretty fit and I think, on balance, I’m not in bad shape.
But that BMI thing keeps coming back to haunt me.
Nonetheless there is a massive flaw in the whole Body Mass Index system. It’s a well-documented fact that it doesn’t apply to people who carry a lot of muscle. Now I don’t want to be ‘that guy’, the guy who is patently a bit overweight and tells you that it’s not fat, but muscle. It sounds quite boastful and possibly a bit delusional. I’m far more comfortable with self-deprecation than misplaced boastfulness.
But I have to boast a little because otherwise you, dear reader, are going to have a disproportionate view of me.
I’m quite big and I could stand to lose a few pounds. Maybe even a stone.
But I’m not really obese.
I don’t think that’s generally how people see me anyway.
Except the company who sold me my mortgage life assurance policy. They were quite happy to take the BMI at face value and add an extra few quid to my premiums.
But my GP generally tells me I’m in pretty good shape. That is if I ever have need to see him. Which I rarely do, because aside from the occasional cold, I’m generally in fine fettle. I’m not without my ‘health problems’. Year around allergic rhinitis and asthma certainly render me both sneezy and wheezy more often that I would like, and hay fever season is always an ordeal, but I hardly ever darken the doorstep of healthcare professionals, except to pick up my repeat prescription for the aforementioned allergies.
Generally, I think I probably look like a rugby player, or a wrestler, but maybe one who’s seen better days.
I look like I work out but also like I enjoy a good meal.
I look like that because that is who I am.
And a rugby player/wrestler has a very different build to a long distance runner.
Yet the lie about ‘enjoying long distance running’ on my CV is only a lie in the sense that I have deigned to use the word ‘enjoy’. Otherwise it’s entirely true.
Or was true.
That’s kind of the point of this little series.
Stuff I used to do but don’t do any more.
And at one point, despite an entirely inappropriate build and an antipathy for long-distance running, I was out pounding the streets on a pretty regular basis.
I even have three whole marathons and a number of half marathons under my belt.
Which sounds quite impressive I think.
Which is why long-distance running often makes the cut on my CV.
But if it’s not a hobby now, it’s pretty hard to make a compelling argument that it ever was really.
To explain my relationship with running it’s probably pertinent to return to my childhood.
Time to meet ‘Little James’.
That’s not an inappropriate nickname for a certain ‘male appendage’. This really isn’t ‘that kind’ of blog.
No, ‘Little James’ was what I was once known as. On account of the older child who lived across the street who was also called James and known to all as ‘Big James’. It was quite a sophisticated system so people could tell us apart.
Anyway ‘Big James’ has no reason to feature further in this piece. Except to say it would be quite cool and ironic, now that I am quite a large full grown man, if ‘Big James’ had grown up to be smaller than me. But that wouldn’t be true, ‘Big James’ grew up to be ‘Even Bigger James’.
So in many ways I’m still ‘Little James’. But if people still called me that, other people would assume that it was an ironic nickname, like ‘Little John’ of ‘Robin Hood’ fame. Although maybe there was an ‘Even Bigger John’ in the original legends that has now been lost to the mists of time.
Anyway, back to ‘Little James’. ‘Little James’ was never much good at sport. He enjoyed running around like most kids but when it came to organised sport he was always a little lost.
When his dad used to kick a football around with him, ‘Little James’ was perplexed, found himself kicking thin air rather than leather and would regularly pick the ball up in frustration (for the benefit my American readers, I’m talking about the game you refer to as soccer, where picking the ball up is very much frowned upon).
He fared little better with other ball-based sports. He lacked the hand-eye coordination for bat and ball sports, he couldn’t catch, he couldn’t throw, he couldn’t really understand the point either.
His lack of motor skills extended to other activities. Riding a bike was problematic and best avoided, he couldn’t climb trees and if an activity required any kind of balance he would be the first to fall over.
Years later, when Little James was older he would be diagnosed with a condition called Dyspraxia. It’s a real thing, not entirely unrelated to Dyslexia (but whereas Dyslexia relates to reading, Dyspraxia relates to coordination). I should know. I work in special needs so I know about this kind of thing. Also Little James is me.
Dyspraxia is an annoying thing to have. It means many sports will always be difficult. It also impacts in other ways – I find organising myself perplexingly difficult. But there are strategies to help with that, strategies I’ve learnt over time. But the sad truth is I’ll never be good at football.
But not all sports are out of the question.
And even before I was diagnosed I’d kind of worked this out. So while PE lessons were basically a form of organised torture for me as a child, I did find solace in sports outside of school.
Mainly martial arts.
I did karate for quite a few years as a teen, taekwondo for a few years in my early twenties and these days I do kung fu.
The practising of martial arts is another thing which appears on my CV, which could frequently be described as a lie insofar as I’ve done a lot of them over the years, but there have also been quite long periods when I haven’t and it’s still been something I’ve happily included in the ‘hobbies and interests’ section. But actually at the moment it is something that I do and so my CV currently reads true in that respect.
Running isn’t something I really did much as a child. There was the time, as an infant, when I was out with my parents by the seaside and I had a race with my sister, which being two years older I easily won, (although she turned the tables on me when we were in our teens as she, unlike me, was very sporty). The race won, I kept on running. I looked back to see my parents waving at me. Waving encouragingly. I waved back and kept on running. This went on for some time until my father, breathless, appeared behind me, having sprinted to catch up with me before I disappeared over the side of a cliff or some other calamity befell me. It turns out their encouraging waves were for me to turn around and come back, not for me to keep on running ‘Forrest Gump’ style.
Another childhood memory of running was when my father and I entered the local ‘fun run’. A bizarre notion in many ways, as running is rarely fun, and, actually, it was quite a taxing four miles for both pre-teen me and my ‘definitely-not-known-for-running’ pater. Still we completed it, the whole four miles together, until about a hundred metres from the end, when I destroyed my dad’s images of a glorious father and son moment of us crossing the finish line together. Instead, encouraged by some of my parents’ friends, I sprinted ahead leaving him to finish in my wake.
Those memories aside, I was never much of a runner.
I had notions of running being a way to get fit during the early days of adulthood, when my discovery of beer had, in many ways, rendered me a less than prime specimen.
Admittedly such ideas were less about health and more about getting in shape so I could impress girls. And that, as it turned out, was never reason enough to endure the pain of running for more than a few weeks.
I’m not sure I ever achieved my goal of impressing girls with my physique (Mrs Proclaims is often complimentary but she signed a contract some years ago and I’m holding her to it), but I did find other ways to get fit. Swimming was something I did quite a lot of and then, as previously mentioned, I got into taekwondo in quite a big way.
And it was through taekwondo, and more significantly a bloke that started at the same time as me, who was in many ways a friend, but also someone with whom I developed a competitive rivalry, that I got into running for a time.
When it came to taekwondo, I was never great – it’s a kicking sport that relies on being quite light on your feet and, as I’ve described at length, I’m not that at all. Nonetheless my childhood experiences with karate meant I wasn’t entirely rubbish either and I probably had the edge on my friend, who was not especially gifted either.
There were lots of other people who started after we did who went on to achieve more in less time than either of us ever did but we were close enough in ability to be rivals and a competitive rivalry made the whole thing more enjoyable for both of us. And then one day he announced he was training for a marathon.
“What marathon?” I asked.
“The Cardiff Marathon,” was his reply.
“Cardiff has a marathon?”
Turns out it did. Briefly. This was in 2002. Cardiff did hold a marathon in 2002. And 2003 I believe. Then someone worked out that Cardiff, fine city though it is, wasn’t really big enough to host a full marathon and it’s been a half-marathon ever since.
But back in 2002, my then sporting rival announced he was going to run in the Cardiff Marathon. Which meant, for the sake of pride, I had to enter too.
And enter I did.
It helped to have my friend as a training partner. It quickly transpired though, that he was much more able as a runner than I.
But I think that benefitted me more than him. While a desire to keep up with him fuelled me to run harder and longer than I ever imagined myself capable of, he clearly didn’t benefit at all from my plodding efforts. But I suppose my presence did at least mean he put in the requisite number of training sessions.
Now if you’re reading this and thinking of taking up running, let me state now, for the record, that training for a marathon, without any previous experience of long distance running, is absolutely mental. Particularly when your training partner is just as deluded as you are about what it actually takes to complete the distance.
Because running 26.2 miles is incredibly hard if you’re not really a runner.
It’s particularly hard if the organisers of the marathon decide to hold it at the beginning of September when it’s still basically summer and the weather is outlandishly hot.
It’s made even harder if your first marathon is held in a city that isn’t really big enough to host a marathon so a huge portion of the route is a soul-destroying stretch on a dual carriageway with neither sights to distract you nor crowds to cheer you on.
And if you’ve got no idea what it takes and you set the laudable target of completing the marathon in under four hours, then climbing that mental hill when the four-hour time limit comes and goes and you’re absolutely nowhere near the finish line is really something to overcome.
My friend left me somewhere on that desolate dual carriageway. He was right to do so. I was struggling and looking like I’d never finish. I thought I was going to die. Other people were collapsing by the roadside. There were paramedics on standby for much of the route. It turns out quite a lot of people enter marathons without really knowing quite how horrendously hard they are.
For some reason I kept on going. I’ll admit there were times in the latter stages where I walked.
There was one moment, I recall vividly, when re-entering the city centre with maybe only two miles to go, and I slowed to another walk at a point where there was very little in the way of spectators, that a passer-by, en route to the station, shouted “Come on you lazy bastard!”.
He had a big grin on his face and I burst out laughing. I think that moment saw me home. Minutes later I was back amongst cheering spectators shouting encouraging things, but “Come on you lazy bastard” was the mantra that saw me over the line.
Running the 2002 Cardiff marathon (in just over five hours in the end) was absolute hell. Five soul-destroying, thigh-burning hours of hell. But the second I crossed that finish line, all the pain went away. I’ve never experienced elation like it.
Because it doesn’t matter how hard you find running a marathon and how long it takes you to cross the finish line – you have done something that most people haven’t.
And that feeling is quite addictive.
I didn’t plan on running another marathon particularly. Shortly after that experience I moved to Paris, to become a student and begin a whole new adventure in my life, an adventure I’ll grace these pages with in a few weeks.
But I returned to Cardiff during the following summer, when on a break from my studies, and returned to training with my old taekwondo club and my old rival. He mentioned how there was now a half marathon to go with the Cardiff Marathon (it was the only year they did both before the full marathon was discontinued) and that we should do that instead. That seemed sensible. If we could do a whole marathon we could clearly do half.
And it was true. We did it and it was disproportionately much easier than running a whole marathon, Plus we paced ourselves better, having already got one long distance run under our belts.
My friend still beat me quite comfortably but nonetheless I finished in a reasonable time and this time I was hooked on running. Or so I thought. Certainly I was high enough on adrenaline and a sense of achievement for a few days to investigate whether or not Paris has a marathon. Turns out it does and it’s quite a big deal.
But unlike the London marathon which operates a ballot style entry system, Paris is first come, first served.
So in August of 2003 I entered the 2004 Paris marathon.
I trained properly. I ran the Paris half marathon in March 2004, before running the Paris Marathon on April 4th 2004, which was also my 25th birthday.
It was brutally hard, but so much better than the Cardiff Marathon had been.
And the feeling when I crossed the line, not completely dead from the waist down, in a still-not-at-all fast, but comfortable time, was as good as, if not better than, the first marathon.
I kept up running for a bit after that, but after a while my interest waned. Other stuff was happening in my life and running was never something I loved doing so, although I did the odd half marathon here and there, I pretty much gave it up for a few years.
At some point during that time I met Mrs Proclaims. We met in Paris, during my final year there. We lived in various places together. We both trained to be teachers. Our relationship survived some pretty tough times and it was pretty clear that we were going to stay together.
I wanted to propose and I wanted to do it in style. I’m a romantic like that. We met in Paris and I wanted propose to her in Paris. It seemed like anything else would be ‘phoning it in’.
Unfortunately, we were still training to be teachers and had little money. Certainly not enough to justify a trip to Paris.
Except that I was also about to turn thirty. And turning thirty is kind of an excuse to do anything you want.
So I pretended that I wanted to mirror the experiences of my 25th birthday by running the Paris marathon again. I thought I probably did want to run another marathon but to be honest, my thirtieth birthday was not a convenient time to train for it. Anyone who has done teacher training in the UK will know it’s a ridiculous course that leaves you with no time to do anything let alone train for a marathon. But the romantic in me decided it needed to be done.
So I did. It wasn’t even actually on my thirtieth birthday. It was the day after. My thirtieth birthday was a day of travelling and stressing about whether I was actually fit enough to do this mad thing one more time. My parents met us in Paris on the evening of my birthday and bought us a meal. It was nice but I could not partake in the rather nice red wine available.
No matter, the following morning I got up and ran 26 miles again. I did not enjoy it at all. But once again I made it round without the need for paramedics.
The day after the marathon was the third anniversary of our first date. Our first date had been in Paris and thanks to my endeavours we were in Paris again. I recreated every aspect of our first date until we arrived at the location where we’d had our first kiss. This was where I was going to pop the question.
In fact, there were quite a lot of people around and it didn’t quite have the romantic feel I was looking for so I dragged my then-girlfriend to a quieter spot, whereupon I revealed a ring that I’d spent ages choosing (and which was slightly too big as it turned out because you can’t ask a girl her ring size without giving the game away).
I forgot to get on one knee. I was pretty nervous.
Mrs-Soon-To-Be-Proclaims did not help matters.
Her first response to my question was the immortal phrase “I feel sick.”
Then she said yes.
Then I remembered I should have got on one knee, so I did, belatedly.
I’ve never run another marathon since. Not because I injured my knee when I proposed. I didn’t, my knee is fine. I’ve just never had a compelling reason to run a marathon since that day.
I did, a couple of years back, try running in the Reading half marathon. I made it around the course but the magic was gone.
Maybe I’ll try and run another one when I turn forty. I’m still a couple of years away from that.
Or maybe I should do something else to mark that birthday. I’ll think about that when the time comes.
I’ll probably make it a ‘thing’ on this blog.
But next week all I can offer is another tale of how I used to do something but I don’t anymore.