First long run in nearly a year with a 17 miler from home to Thornliebank in south Glasgow via the BBC, Ibrox, Bellahouston, Pollok park and Giffnock. I felt it from 8 miles- a heaviness and desire to give in. Snow on my face 4 times and sun on my face 4 times, pretty standard for the winterish spring we are having. The veg growing season is going to last for about 3 months this year if we’re lucky. I drank two bottles of cloudy lemon water from shops along the way and ate 3 jelly babies at 11 miles. I noticeably picked up and knocked out the last few miles before rolling into a Greggs for a cheese and onion pasty and a coffee. Drying my running gear over a radiator in the dentist’s waiting room, I finally had a new tooth fitted after the successful sinus lift and jaw reconstruction last year. It’s time to move on. My foot held up well after the run and I’m beginning to fantasize that there might after all be a marathon left in me. That said 17 miles to 26 at speed is a big uplift from the half marathon mileage I’m doing just now.
Two days later and I drag a tired body up to Cochno farm and a classic route through the Kilpatrick hills. Everything feels leaden and during the first ascent I pour with sweat even though the rise is gradual. The going is good with the ground giving slightly under drifts of snow. I’m figuring out how quickly I can let myself turn round and let myself off the hook. A first view out to the white capped highlands lifts the spirits and I plough on determined at least to reach the summit above Greenside reservoir a few miles on. Arriving I spot a sinuous path snaking into the distance, revealing itself etched in the snow far below.
I run on to Humphrey water and come back along the newly discovered path. The quiet focus of doing something unexpected, of exploring on your feet and the day comes alive, as the philosopher Mark Rowland might say, I have found the heartbeat of the run. Trailing back along the narrow path compacted with firm snow, there is not a soul in sight; it is running heaven with an exciting traverse around the steep lower edge of the reservoir. I step carefully as a fall into the icy depths will be near fatal in these conditions. Flooded with endorphins, tiredness in the limbs banished: the sun streams across the great Lanarkshire plain, with Glasgow spreading out at its centre. It’s hard to rationalise the contrast between the beginning and end of the run, with the 9 miles bringing my weekly mileage up to a respectable 46 miles.
Lyme Regis nestles on the coast of south west England, where rolling hills fall down to the sea. It is a moneyed place and probably ripe for UKIP exploitation below its liberal exterior (note* I wrote this before the council election results!) . With no right to roam its always odd running down here, figuring out where you can and can’t go. On first impression you are faced with an impenetrable mesh of high hedgerows, rich farmland and private woods. In reality an ingeniously woven network of tight trails corridor through the landscape, opening up scores of circuitous routes to discover. A 9 mile run follows a winding pot-holed farm track, over old wooden styles, through fields with straying lambs, rough woodland, along a drove road onto a horse bridle path, past a caravan park, up a steep corridor to wild woods, along the edge of a golf course by a coastal path on eroding cliffs. A reverse journey and final cut onto a mill stream past the front doors of stone cottages through acres of ramsons. To finish a brutal 2 mile climb up tightly hedged country lanes to the starting point.
First visit to Dartmoor, I am looking at locations for Speed of Light with the irrepressible Lara from Dartington arts. Haytor Rocks are lost in a dense mist and the moment of arrival after a gently climb up a huge grassy avenue takes my breath away. I have no idea of distance or scale, it is an unutterably alien and beguiling landscape, with the remnants of bubbling volcanic rocks surrounded by dense rolling heath. I can’t believe that somewhere so southerly should feel so northerly. It would be a phenomenal site for a new version of SOL and hopefully the South West can raise the money to do it.
Manorhouse Wildlife Park near Tenby in streaming rain, Colin the owner and my good mate, coaxes me into a zoo vehicle and drives us to Freshwater East then boots me out to find a way home using the sea as a guide and adding extra loops where I can.
I find the Pembrokeshire coastal path and an exquisite few miles of running. The narrow path dips and rises with the contours of the land and every mile or two opens onto a massive view down to deserted beaches and distant headlands with the sound of waves echoing as they crash to the shore. Invigorated I add seven miles to the route. A stop for a pint of lime and water at a small hotel bar in Lamphrey offered for free. There’s no doubting a generosity in the local Welsh population. A long haul up the Ridgeway road is followed by a steep drop to the village of St Florence nestling below. I add a mile running down the side of a little burn and getting tired, trip over hidden tree roots and roll over, but only for a few small bruises- nothing serious. I get back to the park still feeling strong and grab a quick coffee. The sun appears and the temperature guage hits double figures in the UK for the first time in 5 months, I add two more loops of the grounds and clock 18 miles.
I acknowledge that I am now in full marathon training without a race even in sight. It’s a good position as I have got there without expectation building to over 40 miles a week and building up to longer runs over the flat and in the hills. I’m happy to drop back the minute my foot cracks, but it seems to be holding up with just the odd grumble. If I can put another 3 or 4 long runs in, with a couple over 20 miles I should be able to step up again and lay my marathon ghost to rest. I want to break 3.30 (my best time to date is 3.31 at Lochaber in 2010) Then I can concentrate on hill running where the watch has no place and the challenges are more varied.
I just heard about the Boston marathon bombing, hard to believe the images and then thinking of those who have died or have been seriously injured. I am struck by the sheer cowardice of those who perpetrate such acts of random violence. They do not create ‘anarchy’, they create a sadder world where the crassest and most polemic arguments from all sides jostle for attention. Lots of discussions have also surfaced around the death of Thatcher. I felt no emotion when I heard, it is her political legacy that still resonates. The artist Alec Finlay wrote beautifully that the best antidote to a harsh world led by self interest and single-minded wealth creation is to reconsider the ‘values of culture and kindness’. To reiterate a vision of public art as an act of giving.
Another run through endless cold rain, so much water on the roads that moving through Maryhill I have to throw myself behind a bus shelter to avoid being hit by a tidal wave as buses and lorries race by. Eventually I give in to it and laughing splash along the pavement soaked to the skin. I cut through Garscube estate and a field of beautiful daffodils, listening to Desert Island Discs and the formidable Uta Frith. For the second time in a month a dog goes for my legs and again I’m screaming “fuck-off” again and again, at the snarling brute’s face and the shocked owner. The words are out before I’ve even had time to think. As usual I apologise and say that I was bitten two weeks ago, she nods her understanding. Straight home to cover my broccoli, broad beans and brussel sprouts in fleece to keep the worst of the weather at bay.
20 miler from Balloch park to home in 2.45, a steady 8.10 pace the whole way. It’s an internalised run, focussing on speed and careful hydration. After an hour I’m working through a sharp tangle of pain that works it way down the outside right hamstring. I play a mental game to figure out whether it is tightness and just niggle or the start of a proper injury. I decide to run through it and an hour later it has eased, I keep the pace up and know that I am mentally stronger than two years ago. We’ll see if the body holds up over 2 more long runs that will have me ready to try Edinburgh marathon if I can catch a late place for the end of May.
Next 21 miler in light rain round canals and housing schemes ending up at the podiatrist in Drumchapel after 3 hours. A straightforward trog with one surprising moment as a moment of bliss comes over me running through a dreary section of canal near Clydebank. The Battlefield Band’s ‘Lord Haddo’s Favourite’ is playing on my headphones; its a simple and romantic instrumental and I’m smiling with my palms turned upwards to the sky, happy to be alive. My first home was the mains of Haddo house in Aberdeenshire but it is just the delicacy of the song that I’m responding to.
I thank the world for what it has given me and think on everyone I know sending love out through the air.
A couple of days later, a fine spring day, winter’s last trials still coming through in blustering showers that skitter across the sky. Up Dumgoyne (24 mins ascent) then on to Earl’s Seat on a gloriously boggy path with views all the way north to Schiehallion, with Killearn and Balfron unfolding before us to the west. Al is in fine fettle wearing old wraparound glasses and a technicolor bum-bag he has inherited from his father-in-law. We cadge swigs of water from generous walkers while I introduce him as ‘Hans Beetlemayer’, a failed Olympic hill runner from the 1950’s.
The traditional podiatrist in Drumchapel has given me some hardcore half length raised insteps made out of stiff rubber. The arch is so high that you can’t wear other insoles so the front of the foot slopes onto the front of the trainer with no cushioning. She says if it hurts then persevere and give it two weeks before going back to a less supported version. I do one run in them and finding them grotesquely uncomfortable rip them out and throw them into a cupboard where they will remain in a graveyard for rejected soles.
Breaking 50 miles over the last 6 days, I should have realised I was pushing too hard, going over the 10% a week distance increase rule. I can hardly walk, my back is so sore. When things are going well it’s very hard to resist pushing hard. My thinking was that with a trip to Germany coming up, my mileage would be decimated and I should therefore pack more in before leaving. There is a logic to this: but not one founded on commonsense. An emergency McTimoney chiropractic session and I’m moving again.
Two days later I am with Phil Supple riding ‘E’ Bikes, (they use batteries to assist you on ascents), through the Ruhr hinterlands on the Emscher landscape park cycle trail. The scale of everything here is staggering and our hosts Jessica and Arne from the regional tourism office struggle not to qualify everything we see as being ‘the biggest coal bing, mineshaft or coking plant in the world’. Intensive industrialisation in the early 20th century was hugely expanded under National Socialism, so vast steel works managed to double their output in the build up to war in the thirties. The population of the region alone is the same size as Scotland.
The Ruhr valley became one of the most polluted areas in the west, yet over the last 20 years, all its major industrial sites have been saved from demolition. A combination of local conservation groups led by ex-employees and enlightened politicians fought for significant federal budget to be set aside for the preservation of their industrial built heritage. This was a radical and visionary move, by comparison the UK, buffeted by the ill winds of Thatcherism, couldn’t wait to erase every factory or pithead it could, seeing them as symbols of a discredited labour history. In the bright new economic future the ground would be rededicated as homogenised enterprise zones and out-of-town shopping malls. You can’t really say a bigger fuck-off to the recent past.
Germany has its world heritage sites, such as Zollverein in Essen, but other lesser sites were often consolidated on tight budgets working with landscape architects to create belvederes and gantries, sometimes cut at dizzying heights to allow access through the hearts of immense Bessemer convertors or steel furnaces. Slag heaps the size of mountains were reborn as innovative land art and factories re-used as galleries, museums, concert halls and offices.
They also had the wisdom to collide industry with nature, to sculpt long green corridors through the urban hinterlands, revitalising a belief in the region and promoting its sense of difference. The federal government moved collectively beyond a sentimental attachment to the past to find new ways to bring about social and economic change. The Emscher Landscape Park is a permanent collaboration between 52 distinct cities and towns. For us it will form a fascinating canvas on which to produce a new Speed of Light in the autumn using the act of running to connect up centres from west to east, emphasising subtle routes that connect the urban centres without recourse to the overloaded autobahns.
A mouthful of steroids to dislodge a two month hacking cough, the left foot complaining and a metal bar in my mouth awaiting a new tooth, its the joys of the body gradually disintegrating, a catalogue of the unavoidable reminders of age. Yet on a cold damp day, grinding out a 10 miler to Clydebank sums up what running can be. I hit the half way point in the full knowledge that the return journey will be directly into a 30mph gusting wind. Acknowledging that I hate big winds, that they disturb me and that I irrationally personalise their effect as malign, today I vow to love this wind and the hardness of the run back. Battling with the body and rising above the niggles I search for fulfilment through sheer bloody minded effort.
A great walk up conic hill with photographer Alan McAteer and designer James Johnson to begin thinking about what we will shape for an NVA Loch Lomond Island Drift commission with the National Park. A beautiful spine of sinuous ridge and a linear parade of islands perfectly articulate the Highland Boundary Fault line. On the summit it is blowing a full gale and we are so close to cloud base that you can nearly touch the dense wisps whirling and scurrying through the sky at speed. I am stoned on steroids and antibiotics yet the wind up here is also exhilarating with no windows to rattle or bins to overturn.
I invite philosopher Mark Rowlands to do a talk at the Run and Become shop in Edinburgh. His book, Running with the Pack, is an extended and lively essay on the nature of meaning and mortality through the intrinsic value of running. For years he ran with a wolf that he bought from a woman in Alaska. He was forced to run in the first place as Brenin (the wolf) would literally tear his house apart if he left him alone for too long. Over time he realised that the act of running had a core value to itself not just through its ‘instrumental’ capacity to deliver benefits such as weight loss, fitness, stamina or well-being.
These might be desirable side-effects but they are secondary to the purpose of the activity being found in the activity itself. This knowledge might allow you to become fully absorbed in the run. It responds to both a playfulness and quiet concentration that gradually overrides negative thought and pain. At best it helps you to feel fully aware of life and its possibilities. That he uses everyone from Sartre to Aristotle to explain this is what makes the book so approachable.
Increasingly art is being publicly funded not for its intrinsic worth, its central role within human evolution, but through its ability to generate sustainable economic growth subordinating its impact to overarching government policies. Its real meaning is distorted by being used as an instrument to fulfil such additionality and this rarely makes for better art. It does make us better liars as we manipulate and self-censor what we create to fit into an endless parade of funder outcomes. State funding for genuinely independent art and critical thinking should be seen as the pinnacle of democratic achievement and we have a way to go on that front.
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of pragmatic runs to work, with a couple of careful months I’ve lost 20 pounds and feel lighter on my feet. I decide to go out for a longer morning run to some woods in Drumchapel, somewhere I haven’t been for a while. I drop the headphones, getting back to quality over quantity. Out onto my street, I see a dog on a long lead stretched across the pavement, I detour into the middle of the road and see another dog with the same owner bent over picking up poop. I detour wider again to the other pavement and the mutt goes for me, I see a snarl of bared teeth and in a flash they are clamped onto my hip!
I scream and knock the fucking brute away, swearing profusely at the flabbergasted and apologetic owner. I envisage rabies and collapse as I look down at the teeth marks under my leggings. Great start to the new quality run regime.
Mid-March I’m down doing Speed of Light in ‘MediaCityUK’, Salford. The name says it all, a soulless canal dockland regeneration scheme, a manufactured reality with every trace of the original industrial life airbrushed out of existence. The docks are surrounded by lifestyle apartment blocks, a factory outlet mall and pumped-up signature buildings. There are no kids, no real pubs or original restaurants, there is no greenery. It is just what Thatcher dreamed of when she said there was no such thing as ‘society’.
Yet when we send our first lines of illuminated runners out and the public realm lighting is turned off, a subtle alchemy takes place: the hard urban nightscape begins to show signs of life. People live and work here and come out to watch, the Imperial War Museum North puts on thoughtful exhibitions, the BBC relocation shows some sensitivity, and The Lowry fills its auditorium nightly with its breadth of programming. The team who bring us here are trying to change the atmosphere and generate something authentic beyond the banal ‘consumer’ driven vision that currently drives it forward.
On the first tech run, Man U are playing at Old Trafford and hundreds of fans flood past our rehearsal, the lighting pattern is in deep cobalt at the time and a chant goes up, “Who’re the bastards in the blue?”, we instantaneously change the runners to red and a massive cheer goes up. Then we mix the groups up flashing red and blue and there is confusion. Oh the fun you can have with a good lighting desk and instantaneous wireless transmission.
After a few days we are ready to escape from the claustrophobia of the site. Project Director, Cristina and I catch an old train to Hebden Bridge, crossing the border into Yorkshire at Todmorden. Jo, our Event Manager, lives here and has offered to take us out for a fell run. Hebden Bridge is a little stone built oasis nestling in the Calder valley. It is a northern haven for alternative culture with a sizeable lesbian community living alongside more traditional locals. We head out along a winding rive path with Lucy, another hill runner, the trees and stones covered in luxuriously luminous green moss. We pass a stunning mill replete with a series of circular ponds containing the clearest of water. Then slowly up steep worn steps with neat dyke walls coming out on a higher moor. Snow kicks in as we chat our way excitedly onto the Pennine Way, jumping to avoid pools of brackish water and dark mud.
The day is a real and hoped for joy, running through new places in good company. 38 years ago I walked the Pennine Way with a teacher from school. He paid me and three friends money to strip off and jump into icy pools so he could watch us. Looking back, it all seemed so normal, we just took his quiet desperation for granted, laughed it off and got on with our days.
We drop down off the moor and into another stunning valley, staying high up on one side, running on ancient flag stones and through small twisted beeches, oaks and boulder formations before finally dropping back steeply to the village. At the end our feet are wet and freezing so we go to a shop and buy woollen socks and then head to a small Italian café for carbohydrate bliss. Drying out afterwards in a bar, with real ale and a real fire, I think that it was a privilege beyond words to be up there, a proper day off.
Speed of Light has the power to transform the most prosaic of settings into somewhere beautiful. There is a ‘plaza’ outside a shopping mall, next to a roundabout. It is small and poorly designed, but at night surrounded by an audience of hardy souls who have braved snow flurries and arctic gusting winds to come out, 110 runners weave intricate patterns with mesmeric results. Lighting Designer, Phil Supple has discovered subtleties in the kit through layering up 2 or 3 different colours to make strange evanescent composites mixed with gentle pulses that ripple down the lines of moving runners. At a distance it is as if shiny baubles have leapt off Christmas trees, atomised and are trying to put themselves back together.
On the last night I join yellow group as a performer, we are led by a seasoned Run Leader, Vicky Armstrong, who describes our choreography-to-be in perfect detail before we set out into the cold. I am in a line with wonderful Makiko, the original choreographer from Japan, who has come over to take part, and Jessica who will be staging the work in the Ruhr. We make dizzy patterns lacing through the buildings and spaces between them. At the Imperial War Museum, with its metallic curved walls we dim the suits and using head torches and energy-harvesting light sticks, throw distorted shadows of runners and shimmering beams onto the surfaces. As I laugh, running up and down, looking like an extra for an imaginary film of Bowie’s ‘Starman’, I imagine that our actions take us close to madness. A perfectly absurd endeavour done for the sheer pleasure of the imagery it creates for the watching public and cameras.
Sharon and Charis, who jointly choreograph and call the performance, have done well. From conventional dance backgrounds, (Sharon directing Phoenix Dance Theatre), they seamlessly merge the formalism of contemporary dance with my more anarchic tendencies. Speed of Light more than anything is a happiness generator. After the last night run I look on as the Run Leaders, a quiet bunch in mid-January, get caught up in a great group hug. Young volunteers from 10 different countries have kept up the collective spirits of the 600 participating runners. I look at the NVA team who have delivered the work with flawless professionalism and care. Surprisingly iconic images of Salford Quays have begun to circulate worldwide. Helen Skelton has been filmed running and we all sit with Blue Peter badges pinned to our chests, the fulfilment in everyone palpable as a long forgotten childhood ambition is finally achieved. Whatever my doubts about the location, it is the people who make the place.
Forfar multi-terrain half marathon signals a turning point in terms of moving away from road races into off-road territory. It’s an eccentric race taking you along housing estates, farmers’ tracks, quarry culverts, woodland paths, fields, through water features, the side of A-roads: all the while accompanied by tons of mud and thousands of puddles. The pace being easier than a road equivalent took the pressure off me and I really found it enjoyable even with a biggish hill at 10 miles. I didn’t kill myself and came home in 1.44. Peter Buchanan one of the SOL run leaders from Edinburgh, came in a very good 5th place and it was great to be in his company enjoying the post-race Forfar hospitality in the local rugby club, with 5 different soups on offer for every grateful participant.
An inspiring few days with Rolf Roscher,(lead designer on the Invisible College) at Lawson Park with Grizedale Arts and the indefatigable Adam, Alasdair, Maria and Karen. On arrival we hear that a major funding bid has not come through for them. For a small team working in rural Cumbria and internationally, not to be able to expand is a major setback and they are seething with frustration.
(Rolf in his reconditioned VW)
The set-up at Grizedale Arts is special, they are running a self sufficient smallholding 600 feet above Coniston Water, in a converted farmhouse that used to belong to John Ruskin. They have been creating a remarkable body of work that aims to make a complex but surprisingly accessible art form defined primarily by its usefulness. Useful in the sense that through creative thinking and non-indulgent art comissioning they set up imaginative connections that can help serve the needs of the local society they function within.
It’s hard to imagine another significant art practice that works every week of the year with a bunch of 10-12 year old boys in the nearby Coniston Institute which they have rescued from a slow decline to become a hub of social activity. On our visit we collectively prepare and eat crispy duck and pancake rolls, decapitating and gutting the duck and then making the pancakes.
The same organisation recently presented the Coliseum of the Consumed at Frieze art fair : building a great wooden structure that housed events, meals, talks, a shop. In part it transported the north to the south, involving some of the cookery kids and old women who knit obsessively for an Honest shop in the institute. Here the battery of local stars produce cakes, jams, pickles and delights such as hedgehog soap covers, all of which can be bought by taking what you want, logging it in a jotter and paying the given price into a small honesty box. The organisation are refreshingly out of kilter with much of the contemporary art world; their capacity to bring together genuine public service and fine art practice without compromising either is a great model of rural radicalism.
We are here to discuss the future of the Invisible College and Kilmahew/ St Peter’s. I am working hard to develop what the business world likes to call a ‘sustainable programme’ for the next twenty years, while remembering the reasons for taking such a difficult venture on in the first place. It is very rare for people like us (ie. financially poor but rich in ideas) to have the chance to look after such an important landscape. It will release new models of social regeneration, driven by a commitment to collective imagination, horizontal learning and public co-creation.
An early morning run takes me up a forest road high above Lawson park, past Cow Brow coppice, out along stony tracks onto an open ridge and rolling hills. The views across Coniston Water to Dow Crag and the Old Man are exceptional, the compact range of seven mountain peaks forming a small massif that with a dusting of snow are perfectly delineated in the clear morning sunshine. Underfoot it is crisp on the surface of the grass,just giving way slightly, making it a joy to run through sheep fields dotted with sinuously curving broken stone walls.
I dream in the pale sunshine of an opening event for the Invisible College that can run for weeks. It will combine a live animation of the woods and buildings in the evening, with an early arrival that takes in, harvesting food in the walled gardens, walked lectures and a shared meal. It will present a practical manifesto for how the place might be understood, used and interacted with. Phil Supple who has done lighting direction with NVA, since the legendary David Bryant died five years, has just completed a modest lighting commission in Rouken Glen, a historic Glasgow park. I see it on the first evening after wild snow storms melt quickly to give an unbelievable intensity of water. It bodes well for the work we will produce together at Kilmahew.
Cort-ma Law to god knows where…
Up with Al Smith to tackle the Campsies for the first time and a horseshoe run taking in Cort-ma Law. I hand-draw the route on the back of an envelope, copying from an OS map (to save carrying weight) and grab a compass. An hour later we are high in the hills in low mist standing in the middle of a bog with no distinct features in any direction, We are sinking into 8 inches of snow and freezing mud, our feet slowly turning into ice blocks. For the last mile we have been following a single set of footsteps in the vague hope they are leading somewhere. I’m beginning to feel increasingly twitchy. Al is happy to plough on convinced we are heading in the right direction to get back down in 3 or 4 miles to our start point.
My map reading skills are legendary; I have only convinced Ann, my wife, to go up two Munros in her life. One with the late Bobby Paterson, was a fast tromp up the Cobbler. All went well until they found out from a passing climber in dense fog that I was in fact taking them up the neighbouring Ben Narnain; at which point, sweating and swearing profusely, they abandoned me and retreated to a pub in Succoth.
That said if there is one person I would trust slightly less than myself it is Al: his secure knowledge that we should carry on is surely a sign of impending trouble. Playing ‘dad’ I stopped dead again, refusing to take us further as the footprints we were following seemed to peter out and the mist was fast closing in. We retraced our steps to a trig point and happily found a different path off with lots of tracks; with relief we could retrace our steps. We scampered off down and up another hill to a cairn, plunging repeatedly into the freezing bog, only to realise the cairn was different to the one we had passed on our ascent- we were lost again.
Back to the trig point and five paths leading in different directions I studied my rough sketch and tried to use the compass: it showed a route and I plunged down, only to realise that was the one that had led to the moor and the fading footsteps. I could feel panic taking hold, the first tendrils sparking a nervy shudder as I realised we were totally and utterly disorientated. No phone, 4 fruit pastilles to our names and nothing but snow and indecipherable features leading out in all directions. I gathered my wits, swallowed the rising tide of fear and studied the options again.
We came back and traced a faint path, much vaguer than the rest, eventually found footprints and measured our feet into them. A flood of relief – they were ours! Setting the compass for south we quickly headed back towards home in the knowledge that we had taken the right decision to turn back. The first route we were on would eventually have led us into a deep forest in failing light, without any clear way back to the start. Never again, I thought, to be out without spare clothing and food; if one of us broke an ankle we would have been in real trouble, even in this modest range of hills. I’ve done enough winter climbing in Scotland to know how serious things can get even a few miles from a road when the weather closes in. I love running with Al, he has such a positive spirit and unlike me was quite unperturbed by our experience; we chatted like kids scampering back to the car park; as the feeling returned to my feet, the seven miles could have been doubled with our adrenaline and refound high spirits.
I have a mounting sense of dread in the days leading up to the Carnethy 5 hill race in the Pentlands. Those I mention it to talk about it with a mixture of respect, fear and outright loathing. I am under no pressure, but my decision to take part has come about through getting re-involved with the Run Leaders from Speed of Light Edinburgh. This is the hardy bunch that ran 120 miles over a couple of weeks up and down Arthur’s Seat, leading trails of joyfully illuminated runners out last summer. At least 6 RLs are doing Carnethy and I hope if nothing else to go out without embarrassing myself. I’m surprised how much it means. I’ve run a healthy mileage in the last month (averaging 40 a week) and have taken in the odd hill, but there is a nagging and repetitive thought cycle anticipating the pain I suspect I am going to go through .
When I was first dreaming up the ideas for SOL I became fixated on endurance. I had done a few marathons but what really excited me was the notion of what happens if you set out to run and just don’t stop. A run that could just carry on all day and night. Without suffering: body and intent are in harmony and you could just go on and on. I imagine myself running back-to-back half marathons on every day of Speed of Light (21km over 21 days) and medically monitoring its effects. My training builds up through a 2011 season of personal bests aged 49, leading to two marathons in four months, and then my foot disintegrated just at the point I was ready to fly. So I look at the Run leaders as some sort of running demi-gods doing what I could not take forward. Their bodies tuned in that moment to accept their obsessive physical demands.
Instead of running hard last summer I started smoking, put on a stone in weight and stressed at the threat of any of our runners dying falling off Salisbury crags in the darkness. An unbalanced woman was trying with all her might to close us down from the first day of performance, backed up by an unscrupulous local journalist. I lost my way a bit but the threats proved groundless and we delivered everything we hoped to do. So now I’m back, curtailing my greed, getting fit and wanting to join in, but have I got what it takes?
536 of the best hill runners in Scotland and England are lined up in the hills above Penicuik on the south-west side of Edinburgh. A loud gun propels a full throated charge for half a mile across a bog to a narrow gate. On arrival I am half way back in the field and completely out of breath. A sharp turn and then straight into a viciously steep 900 foot ascent: you are bent over double, gasping for breath, head shoved into the backlegs of the person in front. Only four more summits to go. As soon as it levels out to any degree you start running fast again and any downhill leads to a deranged leaping sprint from one side of the path to the other. It as an elite field, Gordon, one of the RL’s reminds me as he cruises past; except I’m not feeling very elite: in fact I think I’m ready to collapse. Looking in from the outside I’m trying to gauge how much my body will take…am I pushing myself hard enough? There are also the powerfully negative thoughts driven by the sheer drama of doing something so masochistic. Even though you know it won’t last forever, each second could represent a minute of suffering when you’re on the steepest ascents. After the third hill, I start to hold my place and nestle in with people who look fifteen years older than me but have clearly been training without pause for 50 years.
(one hour in)
At the start of the final 1,000 feet ascent, I mutter ‘how are doing?’ to the guy next to me, the faintest smile, ‘ I feel like shit’ he fires back in a thick Cumbrian brogue, ‘Just get ready for next 20 minutes of hell!’. By fuck its grim up north, I smile to myself. The ascent is endless, but heads down we all grind it out, its gets colder and I’m growing whacked out but then suddenly you summit and its a mad downwards drive over knee length heather, just praying your feet know where they are taking you as you plunge back to earth and the finish.
I cross the line in I hour 21 minutes, ending somewhere in the 300’s and my god I’m happy it’s over. David Greig the playwright is there and gathers me up at the corral. He is a committed ultra runner and his 1 hour 9 minutes is like a walk in the park as he goes out for over 20 miles the next day to ‘warm down’. He is in a very different place that I can scarcely imagine. We might make work about it together one day.
Two days on and I am in as much pain as if I had run a marathon, it was good to know I had given it all I could. My respect for the RLs who all finished strongly and in fact all hill runners remains undimmed. After a glass or two of wine I was already fantasising about a summer of races in high places. I just have to learn to walk again.
A great run to Clydebank on Christmas Eve, 12 months after the last ,with my twin girls leading the way on bikes. The weather is foul and tempers are slightly frayed, but at the halfway point we dip into the shopping centre café for a shared donut, sausage roll and cup of tea and on the way home our moods are distinctly improved. I’m proud of them. Not many 10 year olds would slog it out on a rough day and be so cheerful; it bears out the observation that with most runs you end up happier than when you started.
2012: An odd year with the foot injury decimating spring into summer. I still managed to hobble out 900 miles, but it didn’t register till I re-found my form by December. Running with a long term injury is intimately linked to state of mind. All endurance sport is to some degree about your relationship with pain and once that is acknowledged it is a question of how much you are willing to bear to keep doing what you love. At this point the damage is done so I’ll hammer on for as long as I can and enjoy keeping it central to my life.
We see in the New Year in Tunisia. A self-catering apartment in the purpose built resort of Yasmine Hamammet tests the boundaries of taste and refinement. We are the only family in an 80 residence block and it feels like walking through a JG Ballard novel, a forlorn holiday centre that extends forever in time and space. Every day we sneak into a nearby hotel so the girls can swim and later I set off to explore the wider landscape with a series of daily runs.
I’m using Podrunner, a podcast download to get me through the winter months. It’s an archive of hundreds of mixes linked to different heart-rates. Anything above 150 b.p.m sounds like it is being made by chipmunks but it does compel you to run faster than you would do otherwise. By the end of the holiday I had done 48 miles, the first decent weekly total in months. I’m buoyed by reading Iron War, a history of the greatest ever race in the Hawaii Ironman triathlon between Dave Scott and Mark Allen. The level of intensity they reach and how far they push themselves is almost unbearable to witness, but it helps to build the resolve and a sense of purpose needed to take my running forward into the year.
Outside the resort the countryside is strewn with rubbish and the side streets are rough and uncared for. Running along the edge of the sea, sparkling into the distance as the town recedes, offers a tantalising sense of space and freedom. Talking to local people you realise that the pride in being the instigators of the first Arab Spring uprising is not leading to any economic changes. The frustration is palpable with most trapped in a cycle of poverty with limited chances for improvement. While the money tourists bring in is useful you couldn’t miss a simmering resentment just under the surface which didn’t make us want to rush back again. The words of the Sex Pistols ring in my ears 30 years on: “Cheap holidays in other people’s misery!”
Early January has an austere feel, a month that drags on as winter plays us out. I’ve lost 10 pounds but still find it hard to smile. The odd rays of sunshine penetrate the gloom; I see beautiful snow and ice patterns on the canal surface during repetitive daily runs to work and then a great 10k up Doughnut Hill in the Kilpatrick’s. The route follows a circular walk above Overtoun House, a forbidding Christian centre set in a converted Victorian baronial mansion. The bridge over the gorge to the house is famous for its propensity to propel long-snouted dogs to suicide jumps on a regular basis. Up high, on a crisp day we are afforded beautiful views out to the western highlands, a reminder to raise your head and still get out in any half decent conditions.
We started work in Salford on the next iteration of Speed of Light on two blustery days. We have a new choreographer, Sharon Watson who runs Phoenix Dance Theatre in Leeds. I like her approach immediately, having taken on board our previously established movement aesthetic. She has 12 run leaders charging up and down the docksides, animating bridges and trying out any ideas that come into our slowly freezing minds. Like Yokohama where we staged the work in November, MediaCity UK has plenty of signature buildings to animate along with open dockland passing between them. For all its regeneration it lacks something as basic as a decent restaurant, how typically British. Places are made by people and thankfully we have found everyone to be patient and open as we mass up demands for black-outs and access across land owned by three different boroughs.
It was hoped we could make something of the windows in the new BBC building, but a test showed the light suits to be malfunctioning, even when pressed tight against the glass. It turned out that a bomb proof layer blocks out all external wireless signals so no-one can hack into their systems. Later in minus 3 we experiment with the suits reflecting against the silvered walls of the Imperial War Museum North, with enigmatic scatterings of light and shadow playing over the surfaces. It bodes well for the future performances which are due in late March. 600 runners places sold out in 48 hours, a sure sign that the format continues to appeal.
The act of running is the act of carrying the mind around, taking it to some new places or repeating the same routes and allowing clear thinking to happen. Another basic use for running is as a mode of transport. I have been running from meeting to meeting, in different towns and locations, the only tedium being, getting cold and hot and wet and dry in repetition and endlessly changing in train or office toilets. There isn’t much dignity and you look like a mess, but it is a good way of getting around. Its funny that in all the years I’ve run, I’ve never acknowledged that most simple integration into daily life and it’s a good one.
I saw the retired politician Tony Benn talk at Celtic Connections, alongside a very personal documentary of his life. Some of the words that he quietly spoke stay in the mind, that ‘History is made by people. We should never give up that enthusiasm for life and hope for social justice; these are the most important things to cherish even when only manifest on a personal level.’ He made plenty of us cry, particularly as he remembered his partner Caroline, who he lost to cancer 12 years ago.
In the 80’s he performed on stage with my band Test Dept, in Voices against Censorship at the ICA in London. It was famous for being Salman Rushdie’s last public appearance for many years after the Satanic Verses fatwa took effect. Tony read a rousing speech at the front of the stage, while we hammered out hard rhythms on miked-up police riot shields in a phalanx behind him. He described it as one of the most frightening events he had done in 50 years of public speaking, saying that it felt like being pushed towards the edge of the cliffs of Dover. I’m proud of that.
En route to Japan
(View to Mount Fuji from Bullet train)
The flight out to Japan goes well; I’m not a great flyer so rarely sleep. The sense of quiet anxiety at least feeds the desire to know where you are and what you are going through. Dawn over Siberia brings stunning vistas far below, frozen lakes and rivers with no signs of habitation for a thousand miles. Later I glimpse the perfect form of Mount Fuji rising in the distance above the cloud line.
We swore after Speed of Light in Edinburgh that we would draw breath before responding to offers to tour the work (which have come in from all corners of the globe). But there was something about the dynamism of the British Council team in Tokyo that made us throw caution to the wind and agree to restage with a Japanese choreographer and local runners less than six weeks after the initial invite.
Yokohama, a port city just south-east of Tokyo was staging a light festival utilising sustainable technologies. The theme reflects the changes the country needs to make following the recent earthquakes and tsunami. It’s hard to imagine living with that sense of uncertainty about the future.
(Final week in Edinburgh)
The few weeks after Edinburgh were a head spin. I had to prepare mentally for an operation which there was no avoiding - ‘Foot and Mouth Disease’ my mate Colin Macdougall had quipped over some lethal navy rum at one late night session during the festival. The whole team had become nocturnal animals over the summer. I put on half a stone and felt my age for the first time in years.
The operation, following a traumatic molar extraction in Spain, involved a sinus lift and the insertion of cow bone into an opened gap in my jaw to rebuild what had been lost in Andalucia. It sounded worse than it was; the dentist and surgeon were so relaxed during the procedure, during which I remained conscious, that there was no panic. A few days looking like a hamster on steroids gave way to a dull ache and within a couple of weeks, restored and now part bovine, I was ready to consider the trip ahead.
Speed of Light Yokohama
Japan takes you by surprise, as if you have been dropped in to spend time with another species, reminding you just what a tough patch we are living through in Britain. It isn’t just that everything is cleaner, brighter, better designed and looked after. It is the way strangers acknowledge each other in public. Centuries of exposure to Buddhist and Shinto philosophy has inculcated a certain level of selflessness in the general population, expressed most clearly as a dedication to public service. People also adhere without surface complaint to a very rule-bound system.
(Mr Yamamoto brings barefoot deity to SOL Yokohama)
Its hard to imagine anywhere else in the world where no-one jumps a pedestrian red man, no matter how long the wait. There is an invisible pressure not to lose face (especially around money matters) allied to an almost repressive respect for authority. It’s therefore a good sign that democracy is being taken to the streets with recent anti-nuclear demonstrations. The structure of the social system means that serious crime is rare outside organised gangs. Most people look fitter and better dressed than their Western equivalents especially among older people; buoyed up by the combination of good diet and a gentle climate.
(NVA’s Speed of Light Yokohama. Photo: Amano Studio)
Pointless wars and unavoidable earthquakes have led to the destruction of whole swathes of the historic fabric of urban Japan; the hard language of 20th century architectural design is ubiquitous. Yet on a quiet back street in any city, you might happen upon a temple or garden and the trappings of modernism melt away as you walk under a torii gate into an older world.
(Yokohama Run leaders in full flow)
We were blessed to be collaborating with a brilliant team from the British Council, led by the irrepressible Manami Yuasa, a human dynamo of focused energy. Within 48 hours of arriving, we were looking at scores of local runners making complex patterns of light, tracing lines of horizontal movement through the Yokohama docks. With only four rehearsals changes were implemented at a manic pace and translated to bewildered Run Leaders by a brilliant Tokyo choreographer Makiko Izu. It was pressurised as hell but each day things improved in leaps and bounds until we felt we had a work worthy of the travel, expense and effort involved.
Our Pacific backdrop included the massive Osanbashi International Ferry Terminal, replete with asymmetrical decking roof walkways brilliantly disguising its internal functions. It is a clever, playful and bold public commission, unthinkable in the UK (can you imagine getting excited over a terminal in Rosyth or Harwich?) Over a series of performances our illuminated runners articulated its sharp edges at a gentle pace; ants receding into the vast blackness of the encroaching sea.
Speed of Light in Scotland played out quietly on a mountainside, the shapes dictated by desire lines which had been etched through a thousand years of activity onto the tilted basin of Salisbury Crags. We soon realised it would require a more varied movement palette to register within the visual complexity of Yokohama.
(NVA’s Speed of Light Yokohama. Photo: Amano Studio)
Patterns were evolved, linked to hiving, chaos, insect movement and marking of boundaries, as well as shapes drawn from basic atomic structures through to their cosmological equivalents. With Phil Supple’s dynamic lighting design capable of randomly flashing incredible speeds of digital interference around static bodies, I let go of my more minimalist tendencies and embraced a world of colour and kinetics.
The Japanese runners were disciplined to a tee, not a word of complaint at anything that was asked of them. My introductory “Genki desu ka?” (“How are you?”), called out with deranged bonhomie, sounded weirdly reminiscent of a famous national wrestling commentator’s catchphrase, thus breaking the ice at the start of each night’s rehearsal. The week went very fast into well attended and received performances and was rounded off by sealing new friendships in a Korean restaurant and the singing out of toasts in Gaelic and Japanese to numerous glasses of warm sake and beeru.
I’ve been running again, nothing like last year’s epic mileage, but am back on my feet and knocking out the odd 20 miles a week. I decided to ignore the surgeon’s total reconstruction advice and carry on for as long as possible managing pain and finding different ways to run and rehabilitate my various foot injuries. If surgery goes wrong there is no way back, so I’d rather wait till I am absolutely forced to take that risk. Daily icing is a pre-requisite to keeping going and I have been taught how to self administer two acupuncture needles between my fourth and fifth toes to stimulate the area. Doing it looks worse than it feels.
I’m using Saucony kinvara trainers which have a 4mm drop at the heel. They are transition shoes to a zero drop (between heel and toe of shoe) and allow the Achilles and calf muscles to adapt to a midfoot strike. Heel striking and rolling increases the pressure on my injuries so I have to adapt or stop running. In mid-October I attempted a first competitive run this year entering the Ben Venue hill race in the Trossachs. A steep route rose through forest to a ridge and plateaux field at 3,000 feet before plunging back down to a waterside trail and home.
I used inov-8 Roclite hill boots, the lightest on the market, figuring a bit of ankle support would do me good, even if they are a bit heavier than normal off-road shoes. Heading up with Edinburgh Run Leader Sandy and running partner Al Smith, it was a total buzz to be out again. We hit a perfect day which meant that even with the lung-busting climb you were rewarded by sparkling views down to Loch Katrine and across the summits of countless Munros resplendent in the autumn haze.
I rolled home in a little over two hours more than ready for tomato soup, cheese rolls and donuts at the finish. It was a proper Scottish experience, a small race informally organised by Bellahouston Runners. In the quietly convivial atmosphere, Al and I must have talked to just about everyone in the car park. Being unable to take involvement in a race for granted made it all the more special.
(Kiyomizu-dera Temple viewing platform)
Travels from Kyoto to Hakone
I stayed out in Japan for a second week with Cristina, Project Manager of Speed of Light. I wanted to catch another side of the country, away from the intensity of the urban sprawl. We travelled to see shrines, gardens and mountain settings of great natural beauty. While Japan is known for its inventiveness in finding solutions for small interior spaces, temples such as Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto were definitely planned for their size and splendour. Huge daily crowds noisily work their way round its various shrines dedicated to local deities who for a financial offering (the bigger the donation, the better the luck) will help you in passing exams, living longer, staying healthy or finding the right love match.
There is a fairground quality; it all feels fun but reminiscent of the favour giving and base superstitions that mired the mediaeval christian church. The idea of a supernatural force interceding in individual lives seems utterly absurd to me. You can argue that it is harmless on this level, especially as Buddhism is not a proselytizing faith system, but I was still surprised by the lack of refinement. In Japan it is perhaps more about national customs than deeply rooted belief for the general visitor. We stand with crowds on a huge wooden platform below the curling eaves of a great hall looking out over a carefully stage-managed woodland scene, carefully pollarded trees merge into the wider ‘borrowed’ landscape. Individual structures and colours melt into the overall picture and soon you begin to forget the surrounding hustle and bustle.
(Kodai-Ji temple garden)
Nipping down a back lane and we are out of the tourist flow, grey sesame ice-cream dripping in the warm autumnal air. A quiet invite up shrouded steps to Kodai-ji temple and we are into the kind of heaven on earth you imagine you might see before coming here. The ceaseless manipulation of natural forms in the historic gardens: rocks, grass, trees and water is brilliantly artificial but paradoxically reveals the innate character of the chosen elements.
(Kodai-Ji temple garden)
At the period this temple and garden were being built, we were mostly hacking lumps out of each other in the sodden glens of Scotland. I can’t shake the notion that the Japanese have evolved at a faster rate than humanity as a whole. This is not to deny how badly they have gone astray in the past or how controlled aspects of life here might be; but where empathetic exchange underpins civil society, sustained by material security, something good comes to the fore.
Fushimiri-Inari Taisha is another powerful experience. Behind a Shinto sanctuary, 10,000 vermilion gates lead up steep stone paths to the summit of a small mountain overlooking the city. The torii as the gates are know, are used as transition points at most major shrines, traditionally marking the threshold into a sacralised space. At New Year over a million people will visit in one long flow of humanity, but on this day it is blissfully relaxed and spacious to walk through. Although dedicated and paid for by individual businesses to wish for luck, the sheer number of gates leads you to a less prosaic reading and the sensation of an archetypal presence. Dappled light works its way down onto the path through the crossbeams, further filtered by the woods to either side.
In Shinto belief natural features are attributed with qualities where something of the essence of external reality is felt more strongly; where material energy somehow feels more present. In Himalayan Buddhism these are known as power places and are often the sites for stupas, shrines and monasteries. They might take in the confluence of two rivers, be near a striking rock formation, by a waterfall or mark the notched entrance to a mountain pass.
I like this way of responding to natural phenomena. I have felt that shift in appreciation a various moments on walks, climbs and runs. When where you are, allows you to become more than yourself; to become part of a greater construct. Shinto recognises and formalises such impulses, while in our landscape that direct relationship is less defined.
(Looking back along the Otome Ridge)
Moving on by bullet train to the region south of Mount Fuji, we were privileged to be taken on a mountain run by two fine endurance runners. Yama is a true follower of the barefoot school, running in anything upwards from single strap sandals (like the Mexican Tarahumara tribe famed in Born to Run). Kei had just failed to complete a 100 mile mountain race the previous week, ( he stopped at 69 miles, freezing in temperatures of minus 10 and starting to hallucinate). It’s only a few days later and he seems none the worse for the experience. Both spend most weekends escaping Tokyo to the surrounding hills, free running on long networks of trails often covering a marathon distance or more in a day. I felt like an elephant trotting behind two mountain goats. I’ve still got stamina, but their agility and ease remind me of the form I have lost since getting injured.
(Ascent to Mount Kintoki)
A steep and fast walk up through dense woods to 1,300 metres brought us out at a wooden cabin, where a lively hostess served noodles in a beef broth to fortify us for what was ahead. The top of Fuji peeked out of a billowing mass of clouds in the distance, as we set off along a high ridgeline which dipped then rose for peak after peak along its 10 mile length. The character of the trail changed around every bend, as twisted beeches dropping red and yellow leaves transited to high lines of bamboo which gradually merged into shaded sinuous hollows. The autumn colours were revealed in tantalising patches of russet, yellow and orange on the mountainside far below us.
(Otome Ridge Trail)
Cristina who had never done more than a 10K before did unbelievably well, the adrenaline of the occasion carrying her through. A steep descent brought us out near a huge cable car and we happily declared it was beer o’clock. Our hosts meanwhile had two more shrines for us to visit involving another 30-40 minutes of running. My foot was starting to seriously hurt but I put my head down and shuffled on as I knew that the locations must be special and it would have been rude not to continue.
(Otome Ridge Descent)
On arriving at the first shrine down the side of the great lake we looked out onto a perfectly rounded outcrop of rock curving out into the water, its surface veined with the gnarled roots of 3 small pine trees. A bright red torii gate was positioned over a small rock rising out of the water 20 metres away. I had to get my foot into the cool depths and saw the big toe joint pulsing, swelling and distorting in front of my eyes. Too remote for a taxi we hobbled on for a couple of miles to a bus stop and the relief of a descent back to our starting point in Hakone. Two hours later sitting in a hot spring the pain had receded. The quiet fulfilment of the day settled into the mind with all memories of the tough last hour fading to insignificance.
We felt honoured to be guided on this day, by two great enthusiasts for their country and the culture of distance running. The next day I taught Cristina to walk downstairs backwards as her legs started to tighten up. It’s clear from my physical response to a 14 miler that I may never get back to marathon training and racing again, but hill runs give a shorter distance intensity and variety of surface and views that more than compensate. I left Japan with a strong feeling we would be back again, glimpsing the summit of Fuji for one last time as we settled into the long haul home over the frozen lands of the Arctic.
The Mount Kintoki Run Team
27 August 2012
Two weeks into the run of Speed of Light I’m sat in a small portacabin looking out on a grey sky over Arthur’s Seat. We have been incredibly lucky over the last 14 days; it has been balmy most nights, the wind has been low and any rain has scurried across the landscape and left it wet but wholly manageable. On some evenings I go up on my own to the Dasses, a set of hummocks that look over the great basin of Salisbury Crags. Each night 200 runners lock into the patterns that reveal the quiet beauty of the work. It is subtle and mesmerising to watch.
In 20 years of practice, Speed of Light is one of those rare moments where the work represents exactly what I set out to do and I am immensely proud of the team who made it happen and the energy and commitment of the thousands of runners taking part. They in particular are having a quite incredible experience, many signing up immediately to run again. Donning a light suit and heading out onto the hill in darkness with the solid support of experienced run leaders is unlike anything else that has ever been done in the history of running.
The opening night was pretty overwhelming, I got up to speak in front of ministers, funders, friends and supporters and suddenly remembered the image of being on the summit of the hill behind me as a five year old boy with my dad and sisters. Beaming smiles carried away in the wind. Time telescoped and I was too choked to speak. Just remembering my dad, Peter, who we all lost too young. Getting back to the speech was like coming back from the edge of an abyss to a safer place again.
For all its monumentality it is a purposefully delicate performance. Those who climb high expecting to be entertained by some spectacular show are likely to be let down or confused. I actually hate the word spectacular and see it as an insult to what we are attempting on the hill. All you see is the light that can be carried by each runner, the level of luminosity that can be honestly sustained for four hours when participants carry their own power supplies.
The sound commission, hundreds of individual micro-processors modulating simple sine waves, works on the same idea as the lighting; that the individual conjoining with others releases the total image or composition. While at times altitude affects the switch on point, it is a simple and radically experimental addition.
We have had a large number of 5 and 4 star reactions, while the odd critical comment has focussed on being underwhelmed by what they see or being alienated by the darkness and terrain or even being guided at all. The suits are intentionally muted against the dark of the hill (we rarely go above 60% of what they are capable of emitting). The combination is perfectly minimal and does not attempt to compete with the orange sodium glow of the surrounding city but borrow it as a wider setting. It would be madness to think of competing.
One good friend noted that as a walking member of the work you require to let the ego dissipate in the same way as all the runners who have taken part. This can be hard for a few people due to the physical discomfort of climbing a steep hill at night. These viewers remain detached and unable to lose themselves in the slow and gentle pace.
This happened on Skye as well in 2006 - for some seeing this it is life enhancing, for some life-threatening and others just don’t get it at all. I know inside that this is the work we wanted to make, so all reactions are equal.
Although the cortisone injection I had has not worked too well and masked the symptoms of the neuroma in my foot (it was probably too big and the damage too established), I am going to run for the first time tonight. I’ve been doing too much late night fags and boozing and as I happily ran off the hill last night after an exquisite half hour on the summit, I realised it was time to cut it all out and give the thing I really love doing a go.
Being on the hill with the runners was special and deeply fulfilling. It was silent as each runner ran in a long line 10 metres apart, just the small circles of head torches highlighting the rocky broken ground along the different paths. Then we gather up into tight hub positions, shared jelly babies and heartbeat movements, eight-some reels, high kicks - anything to keep the shape bubbling away as seen from a distance. Everyone is smiling; cracking jokes and feeling like kids again before it’s back out into the darkness and quiet.
In a constellation sequence all our light suits switch off and we shake our sticks towards the hill, no electricity being used…the audience answers back with the tops of their light poles. Through the darkness two groups acknowledge each other before we disappear back into the running and pattern-making again.
The suits look and feel fantastic; they have a slightly science-fiction otherworldly feel, like you are set somewhere just in the future. We look out as we jog along looking across to the flickering lines of walkers snaking their way up to the summit. It just looks beautiful, simple and beautiful that’s all I can say. The run leaders are quietly encouraging every step of the way and everyone leaves the hill safely and in a good state of mind.
Any average reviews or trivial niggles fade away. This really is an exceptional running experience. I ice my foot for an hour and then it’s a pretty wild all-nighter with whisky and rum chasers. I’m not normally an abuser but it was good to let go of some of the tension and stress of the last few months. It takes a day and a half to recover.
The Culture Show make a short film on Speed of Light for BBC2 and Michael Smith the presenter really gets to the heart of the work with a few carefully crafted comments - he describes the runners as like “wondrous, medieval, angelic creatures but slightly scary” and the piece as “very minimal, stripped back to a meditation on the everyday activity of running and walking, re-imagined as something sublime”.
I’m happy that what we have done is not only recognised UK-wide but has inspired the presenter and film crew to make such an effort to capture it, a time-lapse of the patterns seen from the summit is stunning.
Last night was special as my girls Ava and Calla came to see the work with three girlfriends and the SOL team had organised a little marquee half way up the hill. We walked up the hill to see that they had hung five little half body light suits inside. It was about the best thing you could imagine for a 10 year old and I tried to imagine how it would have felt for me at that age. They all giggled a lot, drank hot chocolate and ate crisps, hummus and carrots. Later they all snuggled into sleeping bags and quietly looked onto the runners floating along on the opposite side of the hill - all that effort looking so effortless from a distance.
The real excitement of the night is the girls donning the light suits and marching off the hill, appearing as a strange addendum as they are seen from a way away by the descending walking audience. We whistle ‘Hiho Hiho it’s off to work we go’, a merry little band coming back to base. We hear about a time-lapse someone has posted up on You Tube, it’s exciting to think that Speed of Light has inspired someone to spend time on the summit and cut a film together and post it up, the way this sort of public art can generate new work is part of its deeper appeal.
Don’t Just Do It
The birth of a conscious runner, I am having to think about every step - how I land, how I push off, how heavy, how light. Am I leaning forward from the ankles? Am I still hitting down onto my heels, pushing off through the toes? It is hard work. A playing field at Garscube, a 400 metre loop, I try out different shoes, my old Asics, with socks and a silicone extension that uses the top of the shoe to push the deviated second toe down into its rightful gap, saying to the big toe with every step ‘move over, move over’.
I can’t sense the ground and after a mile change into a pair of Vivo Barefoot minimal trainers. I run with socks and then without, it feels good. I run the last mile completely barefoot and it is too much, I can begin to the feel the pain across all my toes, my technique isn’t good enough yet to make this stress free. I am trying to lean forward in a straight line, from the ankles, keep everything loose, but of course, everything is complaining, especially calves, ankles, hips and knees. You can’t change fast or without consequence as your body re-adjusts. I keep telling myself I have no choice.
I’ve put five pounds on in a month, I eat for pleasure and I eat to comfort myself, I eat when I am ill and I eat when I have finished a long run. I just love eating. Last year I weighed the same at the end of the year as at the start, but ran 1,500 miles in between. That is the equivalent of running off two and half stone of fat. That is how much bigger I would be if I ate the same and didn’t run. I need to get a handle on this greed - it feels like the last thing in my life I don’t really control or change. Now that I am running less if I don’t sort it then it is a one-way ticket.
Down in Sussex for a few days working on a 30th anniversary Test Dept book, I’ve been looking back at my 1980’s diaries. We were a very politically-committed band, touring throughout the miner’s strike, and I’m proud to say battling against Murdoch and News International at Wapping for nearly a year. My girlfriend at the time was hit by one of the newspaper vans as it sped through the picket line at the entrance. Being in Test Dept was a commitment as well as a creative vocation. One entry in 1985 reads:
There was an intense conviction and compassion with which the miners and their families fought their corner. It affected everyone who became involved in the struggle. So many diverse strands were brought together and the degree of resolve they shared is unbreakable.
Some of my belief in the power of the collective was forged in this period, we were young and ever idealistic but the relationships formed were real and the idea of alternative networks forged through shared values still holds true.
I take a break from the writing and head out into the warm rain of the south of England. I run barefoot through muddy orchards, I try a rough field and spend 10 minutes hopping this way and that to avoid twigs, thistles, nettles and sheep-shit. I try a lower paddock and get rammed by a sheep and have to sprint and vault a fence swearing my head off to get it away from behind me. Barefoot running, it’s nothing if not adventurous - I must have managed about a mile in 30 minutes!
Long train to Scotland, I bailed out of a pendolino at Warrington Quays and straight into a hotel pub to see Andy Murray win the first set of the final at Wimbledon. My god he did his best, there is no one in the bar, but I am in a one-man drama, shouting at the screen, support, disbelief then commiseration. What a performance. He is so close to getting there.
I go to see Jae Krauer, a feldenkrenz movement specialist in Edinburgh. I am hoping that the Chi running style I have adopted will strike a chord. My foot is aching as we go out onto a wide pavement to look at my form. I run in my old style and then change to the new way I have recently been working on. Without pausing for breath she says “Drop the new technique.”
Where I thought I was gracefully leaning forward and cycling my feet under me to create the perfect mid-foot strike, I actually look like a knock-need flapper from the 30’s, doing a weird version of the Charleston. It is a rude awakening to the fact that you cannot analyse and successfully change your running, without outside assistance. What I imagined I was doing well was actually damaging and pointless. It’s important to use the internet for information rather then education, especially as so much of what you read is partial and slanted to either the opinions of the writer or ghosted commercial interests.
I need to start by making subtle adjustments to my original style, which by all accounts is not too bad. If I change to minimal shoes and take smaller strides, that alone will change the strike position. You hardly need to consciously change anything. This is a massive relief as I had been aching in just about every muscle attempting to force it. This is very typical of why further injuries occur. There is, as the best blogs essay, ‘no universal truth’, only the incremental move towards a better style that suits your individual biomechanical imprint.
I ride along the canal to Stobhill Hospital to get an MRI scan. The new building is a surprise like a leftover film set from Lucas’s THX 1138. It is white, pristine and just not very north Glasgow. On hearing that I am going to be put inside the scanner I begin to get palpitations. For some reason I had imagined it was akin to an iron lung and you could not move your body an inch. The reality was infinitely grander but easily manageable. The machine was incredibly loud, like being in an out take for a Test Dept track (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUxoughdYto). I tapped out rhythms on the panic button staring into the white light oblivion of the ceiling above.
It’s not often that a sporting performance can reduce me to tears of joy, but Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France and leading Mark Cavendish on over the last kilometre of the Champs Elysees, is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Meanwhile back in reality, I go to get the results back from the scan. As expected it is a complex picture, there is degenerative and arthritic change under the big toe joint and sesamoid articulations, a hyperextended second toe and a 9mm Morton’s neuroma between the 3rd and 4th metatarsal heads. In ordinary language it means that the tiny pads that cradle the big toe, a runner’s shock absorbers are out of position and worn down, the second toe is on a one-way journey to dislocation and there is a trapped nerve between the other main toe joints. Well that’s a bundle of fun.
There follows an amusing conversation where I ask the surgeon:
Will orthotics make a real difference?
Will daily massage change the conditions?
Will changing my running style reverse any damage?
Will flex exercises bring back movement range?
Will cortisone injections help?
Is surgery inevitable?
No, no, no, no ,no, Yes!
So that’s it, I have to bite the bullet and get surgery as soon as Speed of Light is finished. The irony is that the damage is such that as long as can manage the pain effectively, running now will not make any difference to my condition. The damage is done and probably started when the sesamoid bones were hardening up before I was even ten years old. I feel quite accepting and must be careful not to become hyper-sensitised to sensations in the foot or become a ‘foot-bore’ in public. I can already wax lyrical about the hallux valgus on the MTPJ and the lateral pull on the hallucis brevis tendon. There is a horrified fascination as you go deeper into an injury prognosis.
I will persist with the barefoot work and decreasing heel strike but in the full knowledge that this must be done with gentleness and care. My feet are relatively soft and will need years of retraining. I will not be able to run for three months after the operation. It will involve removal of the bunion, breaking and re-setting the first toe and doing the same with a wire in the second and then taking the offending nerve out to eradicate the neuroma. There is an 80% chance of success.
Speed of Light is progressing well. The Jet stream is moving north and there is the promise of better weather on the horizon. Recently we tested the first batch of micro-processors on the hill that will carry the Resonance Radio Orchestra sound composition (800 portable elements moving to the summit every night with the walked audience). They create a beguiling series of sustained chords affected by height and movement and will be a perfect accompaniment to the waves of light seen far below. Everything, apart from me, is moving in the right direction….
Fuck this, I won’t give up. Surgery is irreversible, form is not. I’ll have Cortisone injections instead, work hard to change my foot strike and spread impact across the toes. The surgeon’s knife can wait.
Sukander tests the first sound prototype on the summit field
Speed of Decline
“You’ve either got the wrong job or the wrong foot” said Dr Kumar, a Glasgow Orthopaedic surgeon. With a wry smile I replied that I’m not changing my work so he might as well cut it off. Minutes earlier he had told me that it was unlikely I could ever run a marathon again and I would not be able to walk in 10 years’ time without surgery. Without exaggeration I can say that the prognosis is not looking too good.
The misalignment of an arthritic big toe from birth has dislocated the first toe and with the gradual pressure pushing it upwards and sideways it has likely torn the capsule that holds it in place with the metatarsal head. We can try cortisone injections for this, as well as the extending neuritis in the second and third toes, but due to the biomechanical problems, there is a 20% chance this will make it worse. Surgery will put everything into the right place (for the first time in 50 years), but as it also makes everything stiffer, it is unlikely the foot could take the impact of long distance running again.
My head is spinning a bit; the news offers such a stark assessment and such a lack of positive outcomes. I’ve heard of this form of blunt medical communication, where the professional doesn’t attempt to sugar-coat the pill; it gets the patient to take the prognosis seriously so that they can prepare themselves for the worst and then anything less might seem better.
I’m trying to separate the fact that it was in many ways the spirit in which you prepared for and ran a marathon that mattered more than the thing itself and I will absolutely be able to transfer that determination and will power into other areas of my life if forced to. A non-runner reading this will probably think, well just get on a bike instead or swim or whatever; but I know those of you who are disciplined to distance will realise how tough this is to take.
When I called myself the Grim Runner, I had no idea of the direction things would take, how ironic, that in the year that I celebrate the joy and fulfilment brought through running, I am well and truly crocked! Over time I will get other less orthodox opinions and I will not give up on finding a way through this. Maybe it will be about a change of distances and surfaces, but the runner I was, is now gone, so it will take some getting used to.
After a melancholy day, a call from Alan MacInnes, a McTimoney chiropractor who has pretty much kept me on the road for the last 7 years. His response was immediate, don’t give up, wait for the results of an MRI scan and immediately consider the benefits of barefoot running and how this might be a solid new direction giving hope for the future. He referred me to Achilles Heel, the independent running shop in Glasgow and Stefan, a staff member who has been testing barefoot shoes for the last year. He also reminded me to re-read Born to Run, Christopher MacDougall’s whirlwind exploration of ultra distance, mythical Mexican barefoot runners and expose of the mass deception promulgated by global sports manufacturers - to sell runners over-cushioned trainers, that have statistically lead to more feet and lower leg injuries than they purport to cure and prevent.
Running shoes exploit a bewildering range of quasi-medical technologies offering fantasy solutions, similar to the hogwash that is employed to sell anti-ageing face creams and rehydrating shampoos. You don’t know you’ve got a problem till an analysis shows it up and the next minute you’re slogging round the block in a pair of moon boot lookalikes to cure your over-pronation.
The fact is your foot is naturally shaped and can be re-adapted to undertake barefoot running. In doing this your style will change, you will run lighter, with smaller steps and higher heel lift (think of Roadrunner). Most significantly the weight of impact with the ground is spread across the whole ball of your foot rather than through outside heel strike transiting across the foot and exiting through the big toe.
There must be some truth in the explosion of interest, because there has been an unseemly rush by all the main companies to bring out “zero drop” shoes and remind us of all the minimalist trainers they punted in the 60’s and 70’s before things got overcomplicated. That said, they are probably onto something worthwhile and with the state of my foot, it would be madness to consider going straight out and running continually without protection.
A thin tread of 4-7 mm should be enough with a great wide front box allowing my toes to spread naturally when they hit the ground. If I can stick as much as possible to grass, trails and hills, taking out the harder impact of pavements and road, I just might rebuild a foot that can propel me into the future. The thought make me feel better already. Nevertheless, its no running for a couple of weeks and I can’t pretend things aren’t sore or in crisis, but at least I have a plan and I will be a guinea-pig to find out if there is truth behind the barefoot running phenomena. The other less palatable reality is that a mashed foot is a mashed foot whatever you do or don’t choose to put it in.
I buy my first barefoot shoes, low-riders with bright green thin soles. Enthusiastically I pull them on at home and head out to cut the grass, promptly slipping over twice and falling flat on my face. Onwards Upwards!
Checking the form at the Speed of Light June trials
Mon 11 June 2012
I’m getting out for a maximum of three or four runs a week now so having to make the most of them, with few over four miles in length. An experienced podiatrist said it’s ok to keep going as long as I’m not increasing the pain in my foot. The pain comes and goes and is manageable, but the causes of the neuritis are complex so the solution may also take time. So be it… I see an orthopaedic surgeon soon. Down to Manchester last week for a summit meeting with Litza Bixler, the SOL choreographer and Brother Phil Supple, the lighting designer.
All of the team had felt a bit twitchy after the difficulties of the last runners’ trial night so it was definitely decision time. I am the sort of director who procrastinates and consults most of the time, keeping options open, and then when needs be can be very decisive. After 6 hours we had agreed a new choreographic map and a clear sense of the flow of running patterns for Speed of Light. Up early the next morning and a gentle run with Phil from the centre of Manchester along the Bridgewater canal towpath to Old Trafford and back. Lots of visual interest, you can tell plenty of money has come into the city in the last couple of decades. Footballers’ fantasy homes in skyscrapers and silhouettes of construction cranes on the horizon, something you don’t see often enough in Glasgow these days. The canal is populated with what look like Canadian Geese along the banks; they hiss threateningly at us eliciting strings of expletives as we scurry past hoping our bare legs aren’t a target for biting.
Two days later and I’m down to the former Garscube estate on my old Dawes Super Galaxy racer. There’s a 5K and 10K University of Glasgow race going on to raise money for a cancer charity. It’s mostly on playing fields and along the sides of woodland across rough grass, so I take my shoes and socks off and begin to run barefoot. It’s a revelation; I can feel everything through the soles of my feet, the fresh coolness of the grass, the odd tree root of twig, the texture of mud and clay. My toes spread out, presumably wider than they could do in a shoe and unbelievably I feel no pain in my left foot, even after 3 miles looping round. I fall in with some of the competitors and pass a number of race stewards on my circular 1 mile route. One catches the attention, a Chinese girl in a rain poncho, who is hopping from foot to foot, with both hands raised, clenched fists punching the empty air above, She smiles and cries out “ Well done - Well done!” without ever stopping her jagged dance. All the participants are cheered up by her. I stop on the third loop to hear her story. Jaiou Jaiou is from Shanghai, on a one year International Business Course, and loving her time here. As I see her smiling open face, I think this country is richer for her fleeting presence.
Running on the Kelvin River walkway to work, I recognise the familiar garb of a young woman I’ve seen running this same route many times over the last year. She is always dressed the same, a Communist style black cap, pulled down over her brow, mud coloured jacket and leggings, I imagine her as a North Korean exile, as I daydream about her past. She always runs at the same pace and always looks 45 degrees down in front of herself with quite astonishing concentration never looking up to acknowledge people going past, something I do without fail. Today we are moving in the same direction. As I draw up beside her I say hello and she laughs, totally surprised, when I tell her how many times I have seen her out, always with that same intense expression. Asami is Japanese, had been a sales assistant in Nagasaki, till she came to Glasgow two years ago because of her love of the independent music scene here and bands like Belle and Sebastian and Mogwai. She had met a Scottish man, got married and was enjoying life here except for the weather. We parted company at the Botanic Gardens, my mystery solved, through a fleeting but fulfilling conversation.
I realise that more than anything running is a better way of getting to know yourself, to spend time with your thoughts and assumptions, whatever is bubbling under the surface on that day. To work things through, not to conclusion; but in a way that at least creates the illusion of perspective on a problem or subject matter.
The weather has finally come good; it’s a must to get up high again, to luxuriate in the density of green against an azure sky. My friend Al Smith coaxes me out, a cheap red wine hangover diminishing the romanticism of the prospect, but I knock back a couple of pints of water and some paracetemol and it’s only a short drive to the Kilpatrick hills. A gentle trot up to Jaw reservoir, the ground springy underfoot dried out by the intense heat. Across an undulating ridge and dropping down to Greenside reservoir, gaining great views to Ben Lomond and the Arrochar alps. We decide to try a loop back by Cochno Loch and quickly lose the paths, forced to jump between huge tufts of heather and dropping into hidden bogs, its hard going but I am forgetting about the hangover and my foot is holding up. A tough couple of miles and we’re at the lochside, the peaty water looks alluring and soon we throw off our kit and jump in. It’s that perfect Scottish experience, the top 6 inches of water heated by the sun and then ice-cold as you sink lower down. Invigorated and fantasising about coffee and donuts, we drop back down to the start. On days like this, I know I will never stop running.
Clockwise from left: Manchester canal, Jaw reservoir, errr….a donut and the River Kelvin
16 May 2012
The clichés go that bad things come in threes - I am living proof that it’s true. A great trip to Granada over Easter, walking in the Sierra Nevada range, pine trees, sinuous paths, dizzy views to the sea, snow above and heat below and everywhere the remarkable acequias, small open irrigation canals that lace the countryside of Andalucia. They often run from a high water source down hillsides and along rural roadsides. They are marked with sluices every few hundred metres which are hand pulled to bring water into an orange orchard or olive grove. What’s most remarkable is that many have been in operation for a thousand years, from the times of the Moorish domination of southern Spain; they have just had to be re-surfaced through the centuries.
Icing my foot everyday I managed some great 5-8 mile runs down the side of a huge lake near our house, weaving my way through wild sets of bamboo and the endless orchards. The tragedy of the area is that the only growth industry is the gradual invasion of the British house-buyer. Whole rural villages are being abandoned as older generations die out. Thousands of acres of mouth-wateringly sharp lemons and sweeter oranges lie rotting. They’re the same ones they charge 50 pence each for in high-end supermarkets. You couldn’t give them away here. The UK presence brings money and energy, but the inevitable dilution of authentic culture. That said the Yorkshire man who led our walk probably knows more about the mountains there than almost any local. The region is just beginning to wake up to what an incredible natural resource and climate for walking they have.
With my foot damaged, every run has to be taken as a gift, especially knowing that I can no longer achieve distance. At the head of the lake before turning for home, I drank from a fast flowing river, unaware that every local farmer above pumps their pesticides into it, and there are signs that ban swimming in the main body of water.
24 hours later I had chronic poisoning through a day and night. I know it was stupid but the water looked enticingly clear and refreshing in the Spanish heat.
Two days later I was out for a special meal to mark twenty years with my partner and wife, Ann. We got together the night Kinnock lost the election. ( I can still hear his voice from the podium at that fated Sheffield stadium victory rally held a few days before the actual vote; “Alright, Alright, ALRIGHT!”)
I suddenly shot up from our table clutching my head; a shard of bone from a chop had penetrated my left molar and gone straight into the nerve. Now that really is pain, it was like a rocket going off inside my head. A traumatic emergency extraction the next day and that was it, half my mouth useless for the next few months. In fact in taking it out the dentist also removed some bone from my jaw, so it looks like I can’t even get an implant. I realise this is what they call a ‘testing time’ and how I choose to come through it will be the making or breaking of this year.
Not happy to rest with this little ‘basket of undesirable occurrences’, a week later I get knocked flat off my bike by a motorbike in Hope St, a busy city centre thoroughfare. He couldn’t see me as I swerved fast to avoid a bus and I clearly didn’t see him. He braked and swerved hitting my leg with his side-mirror, crumpling the front of the bike and hitting the curb and going over himself. I was flat on my back in an instant. I had a helmet on and a laptop in a rucksack, wrapped in a fleece, which saved my back. The motorcyclist was shaken but unhurt. Two inches to the left and it would have been a broken leg and I would have been under a car. It doesn’t really bear thinking about. Lots of arnica internally and externally and apart from some huge bruises I was ok on my feet and could run slowly to work four days later. I’m counting this accident as a blessing as it could have been so much worse.
An incredible moment in Edinburgh at the end of April with the first full ‘Super Sunday’ trial on Arthur’s Seat with the finished light suits. Five days earlier the LEDs had been stuck in Heathrow in customs, but GDS the specialist lighting manufacturers from Bristol, worked through hell and high water to get them tested and stitched into to the suits to be ready for the hill that weekend. After two years of rigorous planning, designing and prototyping it was going to be the first time we would get a feel for how 120 illuminated runners would look on the chosen routes.
The moment of switch-on was electric, even from a distance the tiny ant-like forms of the runners are clearly articulated as they move in sequenced squads along the paths. 15 run leaders lead different coloured groups out on complex timed legs that with 10 meter spacing between each runner coalesce to form beautiful patterns of light shifting over the steep terrain of the hill-side. The paths we are using fan out with an outer lid curving round the heights of Salisbury crags and the iris spreading out on five desire lines at the centre of the network.
It is cold and grey but at 8.30pm the sun sinks low in the watery sky and a stunning deep pink and purpled sunset briefly glows across the city. As it fades the runners’ lights begin to sharpen against the darkening mass of the hill. What I witness bodes very well for August. Yet it is manic watching it, a BBC film crew are following our every move and huddled under a gazebo, high on a ridge, a portable lighting desk and operator are shrouded inside dripping plastic sheets. Show-calling crackling over walkie-talkies, we try and keep the massed runners on track as they attempt to hit exact timings to release the full majesty of the choreography. Easier said than done!
We discover a basic truth about running and self-delusion, plenty of people think they can come out and easily jog round Arthur’s Seat but when it comes to the reality, a few of the runners are clearly neither fit or fast enough to do more than walk even on the easier horizontal routes. If one walks, all have to walk and the sequences quickly go out of sync and the patterns don’t read as clearly as they should. A level of realism is needed and we need to get all the runners for August fully focussed on completing their training including lots of hill runs. Without this the level of commitment the work simply won’t be released in full.
Meanwhile we are also trialling the first energy-harvesting light staffs which are being walked to the summit by the ticketed audience. 800 people a night moving in groups of 100 over 3 hours will create a flickering line of lights swinging forward and backwards as they ascend and descend the hill. On first appearance they look like the legs of primeval animals, the arcing effect is strangely beautiful and unnerving in equal measure. They are astutely designed, drawing on the stark verticality of roadside snow poles rather than conventional walking sticks. They stem from the hands and mind of James Johnson, whose gentle genius currently resides on the Isle of Bute, but whose work takes him to clients all over the world. Like the light suits the poles feel contemporary, like props from a science-fiction film set in the near future. I like these new elements juxtaposed with timeless landscape.
During the latter part of the trial, the wind and rain started coming in with gusto and we became very conscious of having a hundred partially trained runners in very exposed conditions, (sleet was mentioned on a higher path, which sums up how slowly winter lets her grip go in such northern climes). We decided to cut our losses and take everyone off the hill, improvising new lower routes and a mass suit change with 105 replacement runners who will run the second half of each performance. The run leaders have the huge responsibility of bringing their teams safely on and off the hill, keeping to set times as well as keeping slower runners motivated to keep going over long periods, whatever the weather. They did a sterling job and most people came back with rain down their backs and smiles on their faces. It’s just a taster of things to come.
Weds 28 March 2012
Well they say every dog has his day and this dog has definitely had his. A couple of weeks after India I was out on a short run and I noticed that there was a pebble in my shoe. I stopped to shake it out and nothing appeared; back on with the shoe and the pebble was back in there, right on the ball of my foot and then it dawned that it was in my bloody foot! I ran on and did a bit of icing during the week and it didn’t go away. A normal injury you can run through and it often passes, but this had a dull persistence, especially at 3am in the morning. I had an appointment with Dr Google and the self-diagnosis was almost instant: ‘metatarsalgia’. It’s always a good moment when you know what’s wrong but all it really means is pain in your foot. It turns out that tracing the cause is often much harder and the more threatening pages and threads seemed to indicate months and years of problems rather than weeks…..
So, that’s it, marathon hopes for May in Edinburgh out of that window and a zero in my running log for the first time in over two years. I began to trace the causes and effect. It’s blindingly obvious really, I’m 50 years old, ran three marathons and 1,560 miles last year without injury, oh and my first left toe has never touched the ground.
I was born with a squashed foot that was also wide. I wore funny little splints made of foam for six years, which seemed to have no effect but in all honesty the foot hasn’t troubled me too much over the years. Like a lot of people I’ve been ignoring the warning signs, most pains and pulls are down my left hand side, and I’ve had tingling nerves in the second and third toe-ends on and off since 2010. You just think you’ll get through everything and your vitality will go on for ever.
I’m reading Stu Mittleman’s book ‘Slow Burn’, its’ very west coast America, but there is some good insight among the acres of positivity, one little paragraph paraphrases;
“Am I doomed for the rest of my life to bore myself and others with either running stories or injury reports? Who you are, the kind of person you become emerges out of how you respond to the events that happen in your life.”
What he goes on to say is that the acceptance of the fact - of the injury, of plans failing, of life changing - need not be negative if you can be adaptive about what it brings. So for the last couple of weeks I have ridden my bike a bit faster, and I’ve dug, double dug and triple dug my front garden allotment. I miss running but this is going to take as long as it takes and I’ve probably been getting away with it for the last couple of years and should be thankful for what I’ve had. It is only the dream of a sub 3.30 marathon that has kept me on that ceaseless training treadmill and down the line I fantasize more about long hill runs and new vistas and stamina over speed.
A visit to David Gilmour, an excellent sports therapist, confirmed that my toe not touching the ground was leading to a long term imbalance with the full weight of my body pushing off hundreds of thousands of times from too small a pad on the ball of the foot. A bit of tendonitis had acerbated the problem. He ominously said he was going to ‘strip out’ my hamstring, calf and foot and I was left pounding the bench with both hands in time to the relentless pressure being exerted.
In India a week after the Auroville marathon, I had set out to circum-ambulate Govardhan, a long, low sandstone ridged hill in Uttar Pradesh. It is the main pilgrimage site for followers of Krishna and walked by hundreds of thousands of devotees throughout the year. My friend Divya had chosen this route due to the legend associated with hill. Lord Krishna (in human guise) was said to have held up Mount Govardhan with his left hand for seven days and nights, to protect people from a terrible flood sent by the rain god Indra. Our interest was sparked by the additional myth that local people had helped him to keep the mountain up; a merging of the divine and practical. It was this unusually collective act rather than a lone miracle that spoke to my interest in art presented as mass action.
I wanted to find out if the physical hardship experienced by people moving round the site was very different to the intentional movement endured through of a marathon or long run? Whether a spiritual focus changes the way that an arduous pilgrimage (parikrima) is undertaken?
The first thing we noticed was that those doing the 21 kilometre route were in no way fit or ‘prepared’ for what they were about to undertake. There is no special training prior to doing it. With no fanfare, all manner and ages of people were moving along dirty, dusty roads and pavements as well as old and beautiful pathways nearer the hill.
Many did this by kneeling, placing a mat in front of them, lying out full stretch moving a stone forward an arms length and then standing and moving the mat forward again in ceaseless repetition. This way of completing the parikrima can take weeks or months to finish, with the devotee focussing on the stone as an embodiment of the mountain and Krishna. This is done quietly and without ceremony, there is no start or finish and no-one saying how far you should go or how often.
Rather than focussing on the body and the relationship to overcoming pain (typical in running) there is a disregard for the physical form, treating it as a mere ‘covering for the soul’. The consciousness of the devotee becomes heightened and perceived as part of a divine presence (in this case made manifest as Krishna). The movement around the hill joins them with the greater flow of life in which the individual is merged or subsumed into that total reality. This is hard to describe with any authenticity; the words I’m using are like sledgehammers trying to crack a nut.
Before setting off, we spent a night with our guide, Mr Mugdal, a well known poet, who in his seventies was still full of robust energy and loved nothing better than to walk into a shop or restaurant and hold forth on Hindu philosophy to whoever might be there. He said to me after a long discussion about why I was there:
“You know about hills and landscape and running and lights, so let this time be about what you don’t know, see what the mountain does to you, how it effects you and concentrate on having a good death, reflecting on the moment of transition.”
I didn’t undertake this as a believer, but walking barefoot, side by side with Divya, in the warm air, I felt some sense of gentleness that was unlike most other emotional states I’m used to. It didn’t last, it came and went but it was a wonderful feeling and one that will stay with me. The change from a highly individuated view out onto the world to some collective sense of self is quite alien to the traditions I have grown up in; but somewhere between the rigours of long distance running and the silent intensity of the walked pilgrimage is a territory worth inhabiting.
It is the evening before the Auroville marathon, 300 runners are gathered in the ‘experimental township’ set on monsoon plains near Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu on the south east coast of India. We are here to listen to Barefoot Ted, who came to prominence for his part in a now legendary race with the Taruhumara Indians of Mexico as told in Christopher MacDougall’s entertaining book, Born to Run. Ted describes the ultimate footwear - light, responsive, strong, self-healing. It is of course the human foot and he advocates passionately against the multi-billion pound sports shoe industry and the way as runners we are being overcharged to have our feet overprotected for the sake of profit rather than real bio-mechanic efficiency.
In India his words strike a chord as the race organiser notes that less than one or two generations ago it was common practice to walk barefoot all over the country. That said I know what works for me and running in a pair of 4E extra-wide trainers gives me a trouble free ride over long distances, so I guess I’ll stick with what I know till I can try some barefoot trials on lush grass this summer.
At 3am the next night I get up to make some porridge that I’ve brought with me from Scotland, my gear is laid out, my bib number says ‘Angus – run for the joy of running’. There is also a camelback with 2 litres of electrolyte mix and some jelly babies and raisins. It’s a short taxi ride from my accommodation to the start line - a patch of open ground in the forest, marked by hand cut wooden poles strapped together with vines. The atmosphere is lively as we stretch and hop about and then we are quietly away, hundreds of head torches bobbing up and down in the surrounding darkness.
Auroville is a very unusual place. It was established as the heart of a new spiritual community in the mid 1960s guided by visions of ‘the Mother’, a French-born spiritualist, seen by her followers as the manifestation of a divine consciousness (such phrases roll of the tongue in India!). She developed the community in partnership with Sri Aurobindo, a key spiritual teacher of the last century. Both of them have passed on, so what is happening now is organised without the direct transmission of their teaching, only words and memories. This is a problem for many such movements, as it is the inspiration and compassion generated by contact with the real person that is the spur to belief.
The township was established with the grandiose intent of representing humanity as a whole and now contains about 2,000 residents from 50 countries spread over 50,000 acres of reclaimed land. It’s vastly ambitious and mostly unachievable aspirations are to rise collectively and individually above all differences in religion and culture to work ceaselessly towards a fully realised presence of the divine in all aspects of life.
In darkness we set off along dusty red tracks with no sense of direction, just the bobbing, weaving patterns of headlights guiding our way, I quickly settled into my own small world and after 15 minutes turned off my torch, to be immersed into a world of dappled moonlight with shadows of trees cast over the unfolding path. Although the ground was uneven I trusted how my feet would land and lost myself in the beauty of the setting. There was no race, no marathon, just the blessing of being there in that moment, having your health and the luck to witness such simple beauty.
The runners were spaced out along a rough eight mile loop that we would complete three times before heading back to the finish, I was shocked when the sun came up quickly at 6.30am and the heat immediately began to build. The dawn revealed a very different world to the benign place inhabited by my imagination on the previous loop. The shadows had been cast by a tangled matrix of uprooted and snapped trees, hundreds of thousands broken by a violent cyclone that had claimed nearly 50 lives in the area in late December last year. I was overwhelmed with melancholy, at the loss, at the fragility of everything, at the sheer scale of the devastation - what were we doing running through this?
At its heart of our circuit was the Matri Mandir, the Mother’s temple, based on the shape of a golden lotus and one of the most eccentric modernist buildings of India, looking somewhere between a spaceship and world expo exhibit. I had visited it 11 years ago when it was partially constructed. To enter you walk into this huge golden globe and wind up a steep floating double helix staircase which passes through massive cast concrete buttresses, leading to a 12-sided white marble chamber. It is lit with a complex reflecting mirror system that channels a single vertical beam of sunlight onto a huge flawless crystal ball radiating a soft dusk light out from the centre of the space. If you can get the picture it really is madly, irrationally, beguilingly brilliant, the world needs more deranged experiments like this!
Inside, as a visitor, you are asked to move in total silence and a decade ago we were given an hour for a quiet period of concentration (it is not called meditation due to the religious associations). I have never encountered an atmosphere like it, the feeling of intense focus is palpable and it left me with a quiet sense of joy and pleasure at being there. Now completed it is handled in a very different way, it takes four days to gain permission to enter, there are tedious proselytizing videos to be watched, and you are granted a 15 minute ‘taster session’ inside. There is an OCD-like control of access with endless phrases, like ‘Don’t speak, don’t take your time, don’t touch the handrails, leave immediately you have finished, don’t lie down, if you need to cough leave the chamber’. The result is an incredibly tense silence that is still powerful, but insanely overprescribed.
So it was that 300 runners from every part of India were circling round this centrepiece on a warm February morning, padding through jungle, forest and occasional housing zones, knowing that every one of the two million trees around us had been planted by hand over the last 35 years.
It was the first time that I had run a marathon without a watch and it was genuinely liberating; there was no repetitive staring at the wrist, technical adjustment and pushing, pushing, pushing against the limits of muscle tiredness and lung capacity. I was able to smile, take everything in and overcome the negative voices in my head with ease. On the third round, two things changed, firstly the storm damage ceased to impact visually and I began to notice all the new greenery that was already pushing its way through the tangle of trees in all directions. Second was an increasing focus on the three mile water stations and the chance to stand still and pour cup after cup, or if available buckets of water over my full body. A kind woman had given me a handkerchief which I knotted over my head, without that I couldn’t have kept going. It was pushing 32 degrees and after 20 miles I must have passed 30 or 40 runners from all parts of the country, all slowing down and burning out in the increasing heat.
Gently onwards to the line, I couldn’t believe how good my legs felt even though I would be on my feet for at least an hour longer than normal. In the last three miles a nasty little cramp built up in what I can only assume was my bladder and I realised later with a bit of blood passing that I must have been way less hydrated than I thought, even though my shoes had filled with water by this point. The finish came and although the bladder pain doubled me up and took the shine of the next half hour, I was generously supported by my friend Divya Bhatia, who had come from Mumbai to be there. I still find having someone at the line really significant to getting through the first recovery period. The overall feeling was one of fulfilment and happiness at this first non-competitive venture. I hope I can carry some of the spirit of the exercise over into the Edinburgh Marathon this spring and find a way of feeling good under greater strain and speed. We shall see….
24 January - Out with the New, in with the Old
50th birthday, 10pm
‘This is the true joy of life’, wrote George Bernard Shaw, ‘Being a force of nature instead of a feverish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy…’
Well I wish I could break out of this cycle, how do you talk about down times without becoming tedious and self-pitying? A second chest infection in two months has really floored me. ‘Absolutely no running’, said my doctor, and like most runners I don’t do being ill very well. Every day lost becomes over-dramatised. After two weeks off I had to get out, but the result is a dip the next day.
I have a marathon to run in south India in four weeks and missing so much time feels like a gulf is opening up. This is compounded by the fact that in my current state I could no more run that distance than understand the theory of relativity. Patience…patience….
Last year ended well - on 22 December I completed 1,500 miles with a symbolic run to the summit of Arthur’s Seat. A windy day and a great sense of anticipation, with headphones clamped down and iPod on shuffle, I waited to see what song would come up as I reached the top:
Up in the air
Up there, up there in the air
In the air
Come close together
Imagine the peaks
And the stormy weather
Laura Viers, Cloud Room. I had a smile as the lyrics came through. I’m not a huge believer in synchronicity - it was 1 out of 852 possible songs - but it was still a good moment. As soon as I started the descent, I replaced any satisfaction with the completed mileage target with the hope of reaching 1,560 miles by the end of the year. Divided by 52 this would give a weekly average of 30 miles. There was wasn’t a second’s pause as the new target slotted into my mind. I quickly came to the realisation that all the targets I set are meaningless, they are there to create the external excuse to keep you going.
Looking back over my 2011 run diary I saw the shape of the year. My longest, monthly distances came in November and December (166 and 164 miles respectively) even with a virus in the middle. This is a good sign - having finished Loch Ness marathon in a time I wasn’t happy with, I went straight into winter training with a fighting spirit. The following represent some of the more memorable moments:
January, running in the dark and rain through a remote section of Grizedale Forest, high above Conniston Water in the Lake District. I had been given some hazy instructions to find my way to Lawson Park, a farmhouse and artists retreat, and all the turnings to get there looked identical in the gloaming. After an hour I realised I was irrefutably lost, that it was getting pitch black and hard to see and that I was a long way from any discernible point of safety and pretty cold. A good exercise in fear management, I was fantasising about trying to make night nests in the plantation woods, but it looked pretty damp and inhospitable, I ran on and after another 30 minutes was picked out by a set of headlights - my worried friends had come to find me and probably caught me right at the point before I cracked.
February and the Glasgow weather is so grim that my waterproofs start to produce quantities of soap suds locked in from a previous wash. I look like the Michelin man with vast white bubbles emanating from every pore as I splash through the streets.
March and I’m slogging round a favourite local loop and coming up through Dawsholm Woods, part of the old Garscube Estate overgrown with beeches, pines and oaks on the banks of the River Kelvin. I spot a small circle of white on the dark muddy ground. Looking up, a small bird, balancing high on a spindly cherry tree, delicately picks the blossom with its beak in small silent jabs and they float downwards into my upturned hand.
April and two post marathon runs with no watch, no pace, no aim, just the joy of running free in good weather. When you are training for a race, pace and distance can become like a noose or a prison sentence, the endless grip of ‘having to achieve a certain aim’. Perhaps the sheer intensity and relentlessness of training is what tips some professionals and especially cyclists towards the edge. Anyhow I realise how good it is to be up in the Kilpatrick Hills on soft paths weaving through the undulating landscape, just happy to have my fitness, family, friends and work that bring me fulfilment (the four f’s!)
The next day travelling in Mid-Argyll and out onto an exquisite route through ancient Atlantic oaks on the Taynish peninsula. Slowly up hand hewn steps to a gentle ridge, I look out along the length of Loch Sween to the distant Paps of Jura, as my great-grandfather might have done 150 years before.
May and a favourite run from Strathenry by Loch Leven up to West Lomond, a gently rising route over rough moorland and a short steep ascent to a perfect 360 degree panorama. Fife - God’s country they say and you can see why on a day like this.
July and another significant annual pilgrimage up Monte Favolta, the highest point in the eastern fringes of Tuscany before it rolls on gently into Umbia. It is wonderfully, breathlessly hot; heat hazes distorting line after line of fading ridges that fall away below you. Intense work up steep strade bianche, the white roads loved by hunters and foresters that criss-cross the length and breadth of Italy. At the summit I’m gasping for breath below a huge wooden cross built out of the weathered trunk of an old tree violently forked where it has been hit by lightning. I grasp it and remember my Dad and make wishes for what is to come then fast back down the dusty roads, steeply cut into living rock, to a towel and cold beer - truly paradise on earth!
August and the longest training run of 23 miles (3 hours, 20 mins) in a great continuous loop through Lambhill, Torrance, Lennoxtown, Strathblane, Mudock, Milngavie reservoir and home. 80% of the run is off road on canals and tracks which is incredible. I make it as technical as possible with gels, electrolyte drinks and jelly babies in strict rotation. Feeling mentally strong I run it too fast - a bad habit of mine, this is only 10 minutes off race pace which is mad. By all accounts you should do the long slow runs at least one minute a mile slower that your desired race pace. The following day it is straight into the first rehearsals on Arthur’s Seat so there is no time for recovery, but the excitement of seeing the first runners at night on the hill more than compensates for any soreness.
24 December and an incredible bash out to Clydebank and back with my girls battling into a face-on gale and driving rain for the first five miles. It takes every positive mantra I can think of to keep them going, then wild-eyed we burst into the shopping centre and devour a shared sausage roll and donut which become elevated to mythical greatness in their deliciousness! The wind behind us on the way home and the girls fly along so I can scarcely keep up, I am quietly proud of their tenaciousness in the face of the Scottish winter. Just getting out and not backing off is enough for anyone and with that thought I thank all the runners who I have seen out through the year - a wide community who give each other strength just by being there.
50th birthday, 7am
I woke up on 22 January feeling normal for the first time in weeks and thought - three weeks to go to the Auroville marathon in south India, I need a big final run, so why not tackle Ben Lomond? I had tried two years ago only to be repelled by unavoidable ice near the top and so with the forecast looking good I headed out to the start at Rowardennan on the banks of Loch Lomond.
Driftwood was washed up over the road and many trees were broken from recent storms but the hill looked clear and my spirits rose. I had figured on creating a loop by ascending Ptarmigan ridge and coming back down the main route. It was a good call as you were sheltered from the weather for the first two thirds.
My calves and quads complained quite loudly for 30 minutes, then settled into a grudging acquiescence as I hopped from step to step. Beautiful views appeared from the west as the island dotted form of the Loch came into view. Looking up the route, I saw the first snow storms being blown in on huge horizontal gusts of wind on the ridge line. Even the thought of them left me shivering and I stopped and put on a hat, winter gloves and gilet. It was no mistake, at 2,000 feet the path disappeared into drifts of snow and ice and the visibility closed right down with a vicious wind blowing in from the north.
Very quickly the benign but testing adventure was turning into something more serious, there I was in thin running gear and 1960’s Walsh’s fell shoes, in a blizzard trying to figure out if I should take on the final steep scramble to the summit or do the right thing and turn on my heels and flee!
Negative thoughts are a survival mechanism to protect you from yourself but I also knew that if I just concentrated on the path line immediately in front of me, I was capable of a winter climb. I couldn’t figure out if the fear and sense of aloneness was irrational or sending the right signals to my body, so I moved carefully upwards.
Through the gloom two figures emerged from above carrying mountain bikes, one looked me up and down saying “Well we’re not the only maddies on the hill then”…advice was that it was icy on the steep summit path but you could find a way round it and be up in 15 minutes. I slowly moved off and then in a matter of seconds the whole world opened up. The snowstorm passed overhead and turning round I could see the snow capped peaks of the southern highlands for a 30 to 40 mile radius. It was enough to stop your breath. A sharp blueness above the deep brown of heather and grass in midwinter and peak after white peak sharply etched into the distance. My heart racing with effort and adrenaline I shot upwards scrambling with hands and knees to get purchase on the slippery rocks.
At the summit a woman was clinging onto the trig point, I touched it, a quick blessing for my dad a shout out into the ether and then I advised her to get down from there like me as quickly as possible! The top of Ben Lomond is a well know wind tunnel and has a couple of slippery sections with steep drops to the eastern flank. I got down and crawled on the narrow pass where necessary and was soon on crisp snow again happily winding my way downwards.
After 10 minutes all hell let loose and the storm came back with a vengeance. The wind whipped in snow, spindrift and sleet with a ferocity that made you laugh. I couldn’t believe how lucky I had been to get that window on the summit. Being up there at this point would have been no fun at all and I was simultaneously chastened and thankful for my good fortune.
A few years ago I had been doing a winter ascent of Ben Lui by the west ridge. I had an ice axe but no crampons. My easy progress was aided by a beautiful set of ice steps cut into the route. 300 feet below the summit, on a steep section that I realised I had no chance of back climbing, the steps just seemed to run out. I took a blind step to the right as it looked like the path of least resistance. This put me out onto a half metre wide rock plinth with a straight vertiginous drop of 500 feet. At that moment I realised how easy it was to die in the small but challenging Scottish Mountains.
There was not even room to turn, so taking deep breaths with my back to the vertical wall I forced myself to step back round the corner. I made a lunge and crumpled into a foetal position on the marginally wider ledge. At this point I needed to gather my senses and think things through rationally, killing all emotions. I edged painstakingly to the left and after 2 minutes found a hidden cleft and was up and away again safely to the summit.
I can look back and say how exciting it was, but in truth I was cursing myself for my naivety and over-confidence carrying on with wrong equipment and then the thought kicked in that I wouldn’t take risks like this again in the light of having two small children and a life worth living. This time on Ben Lomond was not comparable but the memory of that climb is hardwired into me and I would say that I have a healthy desire for self preservation.
The storm just kept firing in on the Lomond descent. I saw two people sheltering under a rock and we shouted “This is fucking mental- what a tale of two seasons in one!”. Gradually you could see a different day below through the flurries of snow, sunlit islands dotting the loch and suddenly you were out in it again. The chance to stop for a roll and cup of tea, change from sodden clothes into a new shirt, jacket and hat, the deep luxury of such comforts. My legs were becoming pretty leaden from the speed of the whole run and the relief of the danger being over, but I stayed focussed knowing a slip would be easiest in the last half hour. After 2 hours and 20 minutes I was off the hill.
Now three days on I can hardly walk, hobbling to meetings with everything from the thighs down seized, torn and damaged. I can’t regret the day, of course it was too much, too soon but that desire to get out and shake off the restraints of the previous weeks was too much to resist and pain is worth every bloody bit.
3 December - Starting Out
It’s a warm Saturday afternoon in June, Edinburgh, 1977. It’s the school cross- country, I have done minimal training, taking shortcuts on most designated runs and smoking fags behind trees in teen rebel mode over the previous two months. It’s a three to four mile route and I’m 3/4 of the way round and suffering badly. I’ve surprised myself by being about seventh in the field and I can see runners strung out in front of me as we cross Inverleith Park towards the finishing stretch. There are big gates that we have to exit on the opposite side. A teacher stands by the path making sure that no one sneaks through the hedge cutting off a few yards. As I pass him he leans towards me and whispers “You’re finished Farquhar”.
For the last year I had been one of the five school punks and this particular maths master, ‘Oink’ as we called him, had really grown to hate me. He wore ultra establishment Clydesdale checked shirts, a tightly knotted tie, a tweed jacket and he ran the school cadet forces. He was everything I wasn’t and he had a fearsome temper to boot. That’s how I remember him.
I was a real mess, my dad had died recently, I was smoking too much dope and was probably pretty disruptive and hard to teach. But my god did his words get to me. I set my face in a twisted grimace and started sprinting from that point with a mile to go, I reeled runner after runner in, people who were far better athletes than me, but I was screaming my anger out, not just at those words, but at everything in my life. I collapsed over the line in third place and was promptly sick. That moment was the only significant thing I ever really achieved in any sport in ten years of school life.
I went on to run in the Scottish schools cross-country race, placing about 100th out of 400 and that was it, apart from the very occasional jog I did no running for another 20 years.
1998 and I was out in Italy recovering from the toughest commission NVA had taken on, before or since. The ‘National Day for Britain’ at the Lisbon World Expo was presented on behalf of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Robin Cook was Home Secretary and immensely thin-skinned about any bad publicity - he had left his wife following a revealed affair at that time. All his civil servants were extremely jittery and paranoid about their positions.
NVA running a ‘national day’ was seen as a risky proposition. We were staging a pagan fire festival illuminating the Celtic fringes of the UK and Portugal, highlighting the best of British club culture and staging some fairly left field cultural offerings such as Bruce Gilchrist’s ‘Sonic Bloom’which amplified the tortured screams of plants as they were manipulated…you get the picture.
The final dance event had a stage invasion from drunk marines who we had paid in beer for pushing giant fire sculpture across the site earlier in the day.
I was drumming live in a kilt with Twitch of Optimo fame on the decks and continually flashing my bum to the crowd. Unknowingly this was being flashed across the three mile long Expo site on giant Jumbotron screens and was being witnessed by the Ambassador, Prince Charles and assorted VIPs who were taking dinner on HMS Chatham in the harbour.
I was so drunk and stressed that my drumming eventually disintegrated in a paddle and I was switched off on the stage. The poor civil servant whose job it was to co-ordinate governmental support eventually wrestled me to the ground and huckled me off to the sidelines. Needless to say the day was actually seen as lively and a real success.
One week later, overweight and the closest I have been to a nervous shutdown, I started running in the small hill village of Lippiano on the Umbria/Tuscany border. There were only two choices, to go up or to go down. Sweating it out in 30-35 degrees meant that I was shuffling more than running. The steep route went up past a cemetery and I never seemed to get much further than that in those first few attempts. There was little pleasure in those first attempts; the beginning just reminds you how unfit you are.
Then bit by bit you raise your head and realise where you are and how lucky you are and the simple accomplishment that comes from having made any such effort. I haven’t stopped running since. In my mind it is one of the anchors that help me make sense of the world and keep things in perspective. The person I had become that summer was not the one I wanted to be and so running became integral to the idea of personal change over stasis.
22 October 2011
10 miler to Clydebank with my twin girls, Ava and Calla, on bikes. 8.30 pace, a cup of tea and a bun at the halfway point. The threatened rainstorm doesn’t appear which is a nice surprise. Last week in Mallaig we nearly drowned, though I did get a good run down the old coast road to Arisaig, past white beaches and ancient rock formations. I’m going to have to learn to love rain again. The west of Scotland now has only two seasons: the ‘muggy wet’ season and the ‘cold wet’ season, the old definitions of summer and spring et al seem to have morphed into a soggy oblivion. It is officially wet on two out of three days of the year. So, unless you consider moving to the cultural wastelands on the south coast of England, you have to thole it and somehow get positive about what the weather brings.
Its three weeks after the Loch Ness marathon and I’m just getting my legs back. It was a brilliantly organised race, the route weaves through genuinely breathtaking scenery but with its endless rolling hills (2,400 feet of actual ascent and descent) it is a real toughie. I had made the mistake of telling anyone who would listen that I was trying to break 3.30 so set out at a steady 7.40-7.50 pace and slowed a little on the big hills at 18 and 21 miles. I was on track up to 24 miles and then the warning signals started when I heard a familiar voice in my head saying “ummh shall I start walking now or in 100 metres…”
There is a period of checking when you wonder if it is the dark angel of doubt ready to be overcome or you are genuinely fucked. I dropped my pace by 2-3 minutes a mile, hobbling over the line in 3.38 and straight into the arms of Adrian Stott from Run and Become. He got me a space blanket and a quiet spot to recover. Just what I needed, he has been there many times and over much longer distances.
Paresthesia and mild cramp set in. The paresthesia is a weird one, I get pins and needles that run up from my hands to my arms, throat and mouth, if I try and speak it sounds as if I am having a stroke. It’s a result of too little CO2 in the blood caused by rapid and shallow breathing.
Ann, my partner, witnessed it at the end of my first marathon at Lochaber four years ago and never came back to see another. It’s a bit grim for 30 minutes, but once you get any panic under control, you at least know that as quickly as it comes it’s going to pass and you will be back to yourself again. I surprise myself by immediately committing in my mind to breaking the 3.30 mark at the 2012 Edinburgh marathon. I will be 50 years old that year, so it is maybe getting closer to my last chance to improve. This summer I managed a 39 min 10K at Dumbarton and 1.29 half-marathon at Helensburgh. Its proof that as you get older you can still get faster - but the tipping point for the balance between increasing age and loss of speed must come soon. I’ll just go for it for as long as I have the legs and will power.
If you are still reading this, you probably have at least a residual interest in running; the stats are of course only relevant and understood by those who have committed to any long distance training and competition. Running like all sports has its own esoteric language and shorthand which is profoundly baffling and boring to those who do not partake. NVA recently hosted a wine-fuelled Science/Arts summit to investigate ‘why we run?’ and the first point of contention was raised by those (non-runners) who wanted to first to pose the question ‘Why we don’t run’ ( as might be relevant to 98% of the population) such was their ambivalence to the messianic self-belief emanating from the runners round the table!
Where you come in a race is irrelevant to anyone but yourself. The masochistic joy is in attempting to achieve whatever it was you set out to do. I remembered my surprise on hearing that world class distance runners suffer just as much as the mid-pack sloggers in a marathon. Their training just gives them a heightened capacity to deal with phenomenal levels of pain for specific periods of time. Sammy Wanjiru, the 2008 Olympic Marathon gold-medallist, now tragically dead, stated that the pain kicked in around the six mile mark and pretty well lasted to the end of the race. It’s always good to get a bit of perspective on your own travails…
I’ve been running steadily now for the last 12-13 years, building up to about 1,300 miles a year. As most of my work with NVA is based on things I am passionate about I guess it was only a matter of time till I made a work about running. I could never have imagined it would take off quite like Speed of Light but then again NVA is not well-known for half measures.
It has been a real pleasure to put together. Runners, as I realised over the summer when we did our first test rehearsals with 100 volunteers on Arthur’s Seat, occupy a rare constituency. They are often quiet enthusiasts for life and have a great capacity to overcome discomfort. While this relates to a physical reality, it is psychological strengths that are of most importance - realising how to gain happiness from pushing yourself to overcome stress and mind-numbing repetition over the months and years.
While Speed of Light dwells in the realms of visual phenomena (the sheer beauty of seeing hundreds of runners on a mountain like small dots of light within a field of moving energy) - it is the inner state created that interests me equally. For a long time I have pondered what running has done for me and does for people in general and this blog will go some way to sharing some thoughts on that subject.