Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Half a lifetime

Older and Wiser?

I reached seventy today. Instead of lamenting the march of time, I realised that it was exactly half a lifetime ago I took up running to prepare for the Glasgow marathon. I had watched the first Glasgow marathon in 1982 with one child on my shoulders and another in the buggy. As I watched the diverse group of entrants variously race, run, jog and walk past, I thought I could do that. I had been the mile champion at school and usually won cross country races.

After overdosing on too many sports during the 1970s in Glasgow: football, rugby, cricket, golf, skiing, mountain marathons, climbing, hillwalking, sailing, squash as well as a Sunday run; I had settled down to family life. I still played five-a-side every week, ran around Queen's Park every Sunday night in times that were getting quicker. I also kept fit by renovating and decorating an old house, playing with my young daughters - walking, pushing and carrying them everywhere as we lived in the city and I've always refused to use a car for short journeys. I had given up contact sports a few years earlier after breaking a leg, which had to be reset and fixed with five titanium screws. After eighteen months of recovery, the leg had settled down and running gave me no difficulty or pain.

So on my 35th birthday, I bought my first pair of running shoes, Reebok AZIIs, and began to lengthen my runs and increase their frequency. Six months and 500 miles later I completed my first marathon in 3 hours 11minutes, thirty-four minutes ahead of my target time. It had taken 6 minutes to get across the start line after starting in the block of runners aiming for a time of 3 hours 45 minutes, then  I was held up by the annoyingly large posse of runners surrounding Jimmy Saville and finally, I was sick after taking an energy drink at 22 miles. Other than these diversions I had run well and even had the energy for a 5 mile loosening up run later in the afternoon.

It was the start of ten years of competitive running until I was 45 years of age and beginning to lose my speed. I had run a hundred miles every month but seldom managed more than 30 - 40 miles a week because of family and work commitments. After joining a running club in 1985, every run became an attempt at a personal best. I started organising races at my workplace as part of a campaign to obtain workplace shower facilities. It took five years and they were ironically named the KY memorial showers after I left the organisation.

I completed about 120 races over ten years with some reasonable results. I usually made the top 2 or 3% of finishers in most mass start marathons and half marathons. I had a top forty finish in the Snowdonia marathon, which was tagged as 'the agony and ecstasy' marathon. It had 850 metres of ascent in three fearsome climbs as it circumnavigated Snowdon and was the equivalent of a 29.2mile flat marathon. I also managed a couple of victories and quite a few podium finishes in 10k and 10 miles races that kept me in shoes and T-shirts. But most importantly I enjoyed the freedom of running whether in the parks, hills, quieter roads and trails. It was a time to reflect on life, sort out problems, compose reports and trigger the release of endorphins.

After moving from Glasgow to the Trossachs I was persuaded by my mountain marathon partner to switch to hill running. I had the stamina and lung capacity for the ascents but lacked the nerve for fast descents down the rocky ground, always aware of the damage that I might do to the screws in my leg. We had performed well in the Karrimor International Mountain Marathon and he invited me to be his running partner in the Scottish Islands Peaks Race. It remains my most cherished race with 65 miles covered in two and a bit days of sailing and running that included Ben More on Mull, the Paps of Jura and Goat Fell on Arran as well as a 5 mile run around Oban at the start of the race. Along with the three sailors in a relatively small yacht, we finished a creditable sixth out of 57 starters. I wisely decided to refuse future invitations to participate in the race as I knew it would be impossible to repeat the sheer exhilaration of the experience.

In 1994 on the advice of a doctor I reduced my monthly mileage to 50 or 60 miles a month after developing a hip problem during a 24-hour race. I remain sceptical about his advice but it coincided with 15 years of intense pressure at work and has meant that I have largely remained injury free apart from an occasional achilles tendon problem. On retirement, I trained hard and regained both speed and stamina. I was running a hundred miles a month again for four years. However, a couple of years ago I gave up trying to keep to the monthly target, there were other forms of activity and I now run when my mind and body are in the mood.

For my birthday I chose to run my favourite 12-kilometre circuit alongside the river Duchray, through the forest and back via scenic paths alongside a couple of lochs. It was unusually dry with shafts of morning sun warming the limbs. I allowed myself to revisit memories of favourite races as I jogged around at a comfortable pace. I returned home to find cards and messages reminding me that I had entered old age. They were a challenge and I was motivated to do some more exercise in defiance of my age. I cycled into the forest to see if I could the eagle owl that was bred in captivity. I spoke to a ranger who was checking bird boxes nearby, she explained that the eagle owl had never lived in the wild and had been kept originally for research purposes. The owl was caged and looked unsurprisingly grumpy. It was neither wise nor old. I am not ready for that sort of dependency or any loss of freedom just yet.

Looking at my running logs today I have almost reached 30,000 miles over the last 35 years. Running has been the activity that has kept me vaguely sane during the stress of work and the happy and sad events that punctuate life. Hopefully, there is more mileage to come as half a lifetime extends.

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