Last longer run of 2013, I allow myself the luxury of heading up into the Kilpatricks, for the first hill outing in over a month. As always leaden footed at the outset and then as breathing adjusts and height is gained an increasing feeling of goodwill, till a final trig point is reached and I gulp in the sharp clear air looking out over the ClydeValley bathed in winter sun. Eyes closed I give thanks for everything that has come my way this year, pain, too much work, any fallouts and then all the good things around family and friends and NVA. I acknowledge how lucky I am. A good descent with shoulder/neck still complaining but wholly manageable given what the run is bestowing.
Read the Mo Farah autobiography between Christmas and New Year. An upbringing with lots of upheavals, moving between countries, being separated from his father, then mother, then grandmother and not seeing his twin brother for over a decade when he came to London. He is uncomplicated in the analysis, but whatever gave him the focus and will to achieve what he has done it is still remarkable by anyone’s standard.
Inspired I head out for a final run on Dec 31st, a hard 9.5 miles to Clydebank and back, dodging the dirty puddles and holding to steady 7 min miles on the return leg. Mo attributed his success to hard work as much as talent and being willing to train till he literally couldn’t stand at the end of the day. Thinking on that helps me to keep going knowing in the future I’ll get the odd window to race again and have fine days in the hills when my body allows it. 1,400 miles completed for the year. I’m doing intense physio on my neck, bending it backwards off a bed or a chair every hour to take pressure off a troubled disk. I sense its holding off further degeneration and 2014 will start well again.
First run in January after all-nighter at the house with friends and assorted children on Hogmanay. Still feeling a tad brittle, but a good punishment run in low light and drizzle from Mugdock to home along the West Highland Way via Milngavie. Then a dark damp slog back along the pavements of the Glasgow Road to the city centre.
Next weekend a steep ascent into the snowbound hills, Al in sparkling form, I look forward to our emotionally regressive Saturday morning jaunts. Al is grumpy as partner Julie finished the milk before racing off early for triathlon training. Al’s porridge will remain in the packet this morning.
Bad weather dictates that we head for the Kilpatricks and my favourite loop route to Duncolm via Jaw reservoir, Greenside Reservoir and Loch Humphrey. We laugh at the amount of times (like the in the Campsies recently) we career around ‘in search of the hidden path’, in other words lose our way. But for once we have chosen well with the discovery of an underused track over Cochno hill which has firm sections even after a week of heavy rain.
Whereas last year Al would have been huffing and puffing behind me with the odd stops, his competitive squash playing is paying dividends and he bounds to each summit rise without a break, giving him increased confidence in his stamina. A new waterworks has put a scar of a road across the moor killing off a nice sinuous path that I used to use to circuit back to Greenside. Running further on we find a new line cutting straight east that after a short rise meanders back south to the reservoir following a small water course known as Burnellans. It is great fast running; I stumble a few times but right myself without a pause.
A tough ascent off the beaten track takes us back up over deep moss and exposed stones to the main route home, by this time the wind is whipping some solid rain into to us and it is a cold, quick descent to keep body warmth up. The discovery of that new path made our day, the joy of finding a traverse across what would otherwise be a torturous bog scramble.
An unlikely trip to Braehead and I follow my nose through pristine Clydeside housing estates and find myself dead-ended in a massive scrap yard. The rough textures of metal, and brick, oil and glass still beguile, as they did for the first time with Test Dept 30 years ago. We are working together again for the anniversary of the Miners’ strike with a monumental film intervention on a half kilometre long jetty on the Tyne in Newcastle.
AMF with Kent miner Alan Sutcliffe- Test Dept guest vocalist, Miners’ Strike 1984/5
I spot two cyclists skirting a huge lake of filthy water round a corner of the yard and follow them to discover a hidden cycle path heading along the side of the Clyde out to Renfrew. I drift through decaying warehouses and on past an old lighthouse, the path strewn with flotsam and jetsam washed up by the recent storms. As I pass an abandoned hotel, old nets hanging off pylons in the breezy air, memories flood back that this is where I first came to practice golf 20 years ago with the side barriers there to stop wayward balls flying into the woods and the path I am now running on.
7 miles along the canal in low morning light and persistent drizzle bought me back up to 31 miles for the week equalling my highest mileage for six months. There seems to be a definite pattern that I stake everything building up to a marathon with high intensity and ramping up training to 50 miles a week in spring and then a recoil with physical breakdown for the rest of the year. To break this I have entered the Glencoe marathon (probably as much a hike as a race as it has 1,600 metres of ascent) which takes place in October. By shifting the trouble to later in the year I might theoretically last a bit longer before breakdown.
Winds and pouring rain in this endlessly mild winter, and I’m back out along the West Highland Way with Alan McInnes who has kept my back in shape for many years. Coming back on an old forestry path to Mugdock I vault a fallen tree to pass 4 walkers who kindly step aside coming from the opposite direction. I touch the log mid-flight and my foot slips from underneath and I ingloriously crash down into a big dirty puddle at their feet: a great advert for hill and trail running. Getting up I stave my thumb, but apart from that no major injuries, just the usual loss of dignity. That night at a Burns supper, Ann jokes to Al Smith that I now have a new ‘Running wife’, who is faster and better craic on a long day. Al takes it well but I can see he will get me back the next time we’re out.
Third weekend on the West Highland Way, its really too sodden to get far into the hills just now and there’s a protected route out of Milngavie along Allander Water, through Sunnybraes wood and Boathouse wood, past Craigieallan loch over and down the hill to anon-named treebound knoll and farmhouse. On the return a higher route through Loch wood and Mugdock wood before dropping back down to town and the delights of Morton’s crisp morning rolls with cheddar cheese and jam and a flask of milky coffee. I’m out with NVA lighting designer Phil Supple who is on the journey to his first half marathon and full of determination. The next day the whole family visit the Electric Glen, his light show in Rouken Glen on the Southside. He has achieved exquisite projections of early 19th century local fabric patterns onto the water bound surface of some paths, giving the impression of an image floating on oil.
A run to work and Glasgow never lets you forget its rougher side, starting with a burnt out bike on the canal and then as I stop at the small bas relief of a Buddhist stupa I gasp in silent horror. The sculpture, which has been carved by an anonymous hand onto a stone within a retaining wall along the side of the River Kelvin has had its top intentionally chiselled off. It is such a strange thing to deface and it is so subtle within the wider environment I can only imagine it is the act of a deranged mind. It has been my blessing point for the last 10 years on the way to work. While the carving has no inherent aura it has been a point of reference and focus for me whenever I run past. You cannot of course destroy a belief or an idea, so I will continue to touch my head to the damaged surface and think on making the best of any day and that people are released from suffering wherever they are.
Additional hill photography: ©Al Smith
Speed of Light Ruhr
Setting off to Germany I had a certain amount of trepidation about what was to come over the following weeks. Arne who along with Jessica from Ruhr Tourismus had commissioned us was madder than me when it came to endurance activity. He smoked like a chimney, but was as thin as a skelf and regularly quite effortlessly ran sub 3.15 marathons. His idea of a holiday from the strains of work was to ride a thousand miles in a week over the Alps. We had foolishly got talking about creating an ultra version of Speed of Light after one too many Weiss biers in the summer. He had fanned the flames and soon we were plotting routes over the entire Ruhr. Jessica was luckily counselling sense:
“No we can’t run a marathon everyday, it will destroy those taking part”.
Later as we began to think through the logistics of linking seven locations in different villages, towns and cities over four nights and how my fantasy might have outstripped our ability to deliver. I began to backtrack furiously with Arne, explaining that trying to create so many complex choreographies with 100 runners – with only two visits to each location – might not be achievable. He was relentless in his desire to see the entire Emscher Landscape Park animated from Dortmund to Duisburg and nothing less would do. Exasperated I tried a ‘marmelade und brot’ analogy that if we spread the jam too thin the bread would end up tasting of nothing. My words fell on deaf ears: we were going to take on the scale of the Ruhrgebiet with runners drawn from 35 different districts.
The Ruhr has a population the same size as Scotland, with 400kms of new cycle paths forming green corridors linking some the greatest and biggest industrial heritage in the world. At the old Herten mine, Cristina and Nikki the stalwart NVA team had set up an atmospheric base in the old winding mechanism chamber which had serviced the lifts that took miners straight down a vertical shaft over a kilometre into the earth below. We were staying in a cheap motel, my room a sanctuary for an obsessive Shalke FC fan replete with Astroturf carpet and 3m football headrest on the bed. The owners clearly suffered from terminal taste bypass but they knew the local market.
We would be working with the same group of local runners from the beginning to end. That meant everyone agreeing to run on 13 out of 15 days. It meant staying on their feet for 3-4 hours a night, finishing after 11pm, often driving home up to 50K, getting up to work early the next morning, and then coming back and doing it all over again. It meant giving us their complete trust to push themselves to work individually and as groups (12-15 allocated to a colour within the choreography). They would have to deal with injury and fully commit to the learning required to carry scores of movement patterns in their heads as they raced from location to location.
104 people registered and 95 turned up. Each day the crew took bets as to what the number would be for that rehearsal. I came second four times, screaming blue murder that it was a fix to deny me the 10 euro pot. None of us could imagine after an arduous week of rehearsals that on the opening night we would still have the original number. Not a single runner let us down. Take any marathon and 25-40% of the pre-registered runners will not make it to the start line. Injury, lack of training and the rest of life get in the way. It is unheard of for a 100% attendance to be achieved within an endurance setting and it was through this and many other selfless acts that I fell in love with the Ruhr laufers.
The working day started with company emails, finalising changes for the evening rehearsals, heads of department meeting, choreographic meeting, sound notes and revisions, speech to all runners, bus for first destination, 90 minutes rehearsal, notes with creative team on bus to next location, second 90 minute rehearsal, notes on bus back to base adding new choreographic ideas, soup and beer with whole retinue, cycle home through woods 1am.
It was relentless: there was not one second to spare within any part of the schedule; and with daily trips from city to city and no chance to revisit a site, decisions had to be taken fast and be right. Lighting designer Phil Supple had to squeeze in the hours on top of this to re-programme any changes in highly complex light patterns spread across 100 light suits. He looked pretty ragged after 3 or 4 days and communication became terse. It takes a lot to bring Phil down but I knew the possibility of burnout was real. The cost of agreeing to an ultra was ultimately becoming a human cost.
Cracks began to appear – in the choreographic team which we always recruited locally in each host country, we had Pipo, Ivana and Wiebke. Pipo: lively, eccentric and a great speaker, was tested by the scale of the work; Ivana was leading all the rehearsals and show calling at a furious pitch; while Wiebke supported the run leaders on the ground, producing stunningly well drawn visualisations each day.
Meanwhile David Graham and the technical team of David Evans, Dani and Bridie were doing daily battle with the light suits. GDS the manufacturer had installed a set of faulty LED light strings: the result of a botched batch being foisted onto them by a Chinese manufacturer. With the failure of a Creative Scotland grant to revamp the suits we had to run the equivalent of a sweat shop, with all the tech team working 8 hours a day to cannibalise spare suits to keep them functioning. After the first week over 50% of the suits were damaged and we were only just getting them fixed in time for each evening session. Even so we saw plenty of strange top-body-only or half-leg illuminated bodies as sections failed with bad connectors. It looked more like a procession of the damned than runners displaying perfect form. The pressure was mounting.
It remained vital to keep the runners welfare at heart. We tried to buoy them up through increasing tiredness. Each night I gathered the whole team together to make a short speech which became a ritual as we went on. Part of it was practical, dealing with simple things like how to communicate silently in public, staying detached from the audience and how to help each other through any difficulties.
It also became a philosophical exercise, the search for a set of ideas to guide our collective attitude to the challenge: to understand what the act of running means as a cultural act, as an act of will, as a generator of self knowledge. It was an appeal to each individual to think about what they had chosen to do with their bodies and the powerful relationship between mind and body that governs the majority of endurance activity.
It allowed us to reflect on and understand this joint endeavour we had entered into: to build on a wider sense of self – the emerging mass identity of this collective experience: standing as more than the sum of our parts.
The Ruhr has historically been looked down on by other parts of Germany. It’s a snobbery that affects every industrial area in the world. But the pride here is about honest character. The local production team would move heaven and hell to sort a problem out, quietly letting you know when it was done. ‘Doing what you say’ however much effort it took. There is a belief in social justice and the importance of civic values here. Without modern Germany the principles of a united and peaceful European union would have dissolved in rancour and distrust decades ago.
After the brutal first week we made a breakthrough by the dress rehearsals. The movement began to possess an emotional shape, subtle shifts and shimmers of light passing from runner to runner as the shapes evolved. A reverse loop stemming out of a huge spiral would gradually turn from blue to orange at the exact point each runner hit the turning point. We now had control of pace and programming ensuring that each sequence built at the right moment. The runners had by now developed their own language passing spacing signals and timing information down the lines. Everyone started to smile again, the tensions of the last few days melting as the beauty of what we saw took hold.
On the opening night a long ride on the double deck buses to Dortmund, lightsuits on and already glowing as drivers stared while speeding past us along the autobahn. We arrived at Hansa Kokerei one of our most evocative settings. The site had been expanded massively to serve the war effort; now an extending tangle of rusted machinery rising at dizzy angles into the sky.
The speeches started in a restored turbine hall; the lead planner for the Ruhr stated that Speed of Light was the first artwork that truly resonated with the entire Emscher landscape park in its 25 year history. As darkness fell I concluded my own contribution:
“Many of the places in which we perform Speed of Light are not perfect, like history itself they are in transition and all the more interesting for that. Emscher Landscape Park is one of the world’s greatest and most imaginative reclamation and restoration projects. It shows how things should be done when co-operation takes place over a whole region. The citizens who worked together to make it possible should be rightly proud.
SOL Ruhr set out to connect powerful public art to the experience of people and their surroundings, to articulate the physical relationship between industrial heritage and carefully sculpted green corridors, the invisible asset that connect all the sites into a seamless whole.
If the twentieth century was the time of the combustion engine, then this century might be the time to reassert the ‘human engine’. This calls for progress separate to the technical innovations of the industrial and digital revolutions. It takes the body as a starting point to be more grounded in the real world. SOL Ruhr made an appeal to a specific group; those willing to endure pain and physical discomfort, those willing to push themselves and use running to know themselves better.”
I do tend towards the grandiose on these occasions, but you can feel when you connect, with nods of recognition at the expression of common values. This is my luck to be able to articulate the primary value of what we do. Ellen, NVA co-director approaches things very differently, there would be no company without her, she keeps the ship afloat, on-course and well equipped. I just stand on the prow shouting into the distance.
As the crowd walk out into the cool evening air, Robert Henke’s elegiac ‘Signal to Noise II’ begins, as the runners turn tight corners in the main yard, the colours merging into cold metallic ripples. The pace quickens with ‘Delta’ by Higher Intelligence Agency, the best aural accompaniment to running I have found. White flashes synchronise with sonic pulses; as lines trace the geometry of a long dark pool replete with decorative carp reflecting batteries of rusting ovens above. To the right a vast gas pipe, its colour leached out by years of rain and wind, the underscore to an immense conveyor belt shaft that delivered unrefined coal into the heart of the kokerei.
I stood on the edge of an old railing lost in the image a seemingly limitless line of runners heading to infinity. We finish with a Test Dept track, the first time I had gone to our back catalogue in two decades. I chose ‘Cold Witness’ from the 1984 album ‘Beating the Retreat’. An unsettling slice of industrial ambience it was described at the time as carrying ‘a sense of something primal and totemic, yet inherently violent and degraded, at once mechanical and organic, as if it were the musical conclusion to the rise and fall of man.’
It gave an edge to the performance, touching something of the raw intensity of the location, moving us beyond the purely decorative.
The first public performance took place atop Halde Howeward, a 1,500 foot high artificial mountain on the edge of Herten. Thousands of people had climbed up to watch, cheering and clapping at every curving shift in the choreography. All week I had debated whether to join the runners on the half marathon route to the second show in Bochum that night. I was carrying injuries in both my left shoulder and calf and had only managed two short runs recently. I couldn’t help myself and tore off down the slope to join the surreal band of techno miners looking like they had just completed a shift in some sci-fi pit. Normally Phil leaves everyone in a single colour for the linking runs, but a final random wireless signal had triggered a mass of different shades, which looked exceptional from a distance.
Everybody was high as kites and the pace reflected this with the arrival at the next venue in less than 1 hour and 42 minutes. It was without doubt the fastest 13.2 miles that many of the runners had done with some looking pretty mashed by the end. As we ran I sang songs, talked to everyone and just enjoyed being part of it. We hurtled along old railway tracks and canal sidings, overhanging trees casting shadows onto the ground before us. Suit legs came undone, lights fell out of their holding braces, there was plenty of improvised tying up to be done.
One guy was swearing his head off as his suit waste buckle kept slipping no matter how tight he thought he had set it. He was going mad with frustration trying to keep up. I stopped him and we double knotted the cord ends and he then sprinted off into the darkness to catch up. On the final night he presented me with a piece of coal that had been hewn during the last ever shift in the mine below our production base.
Eventually some of the groups started to quietly sing as we bobbled along. I have never heard Germans expressing something ‘folkish’ from their own culture and it felt like quite a privilege. There is still such sensitivity in this post war generation about what went wrong that they are extremely careful in portraying what they value collectively. The song was about a river that flows nearby. As we ran we would see huddles of people standing at bridges that crossed overhead, bursts of applause rained down and gradually the runners responded with waves of arms in the air as we ran into the underpasses.
As the nights went on in a blur of light and ceaseless movement, the press went from regional to national and hundreds of photographers turned up to document each location. I had tasked Alan McAteer and Henk Vos to make our own film, incorporating the powerful aesthetic of industrial architecture, mixed with an unhinged sci-fi feel. The resulting film has its own definitive aesthetic beyond being a mere representation of a live event. Here- a link to the trailer:
In the immense Duisberg Nord ironworks our last performance transformed the “Charge Bunkers” where coke and iron ores were once stored. Here I broke from the endurance theme to search for a new narrative. The runners appeared trapped within the imposing concrete walls, presenting a metaphor for the human condition. I wanted to express the way we continually strive to break out of physical and political restraints. Whether successful or not that aspiration never changes.
I’m unsure if we would ever attempt to do a Speed of Light on the same scale again; if you come home and the team have used up too much of themselves in making it happen, you simply can’t repeat the exercise. We took it as far as it could go and I will always carry with me the solidarity I experienced with our Ruhr partners.
It’s almost the end of the year and I have finally had to (almost) stop running.
My neck and shoulder have descended into some kind of permanent pain response. No massage or manipulation makes any difference to the daily ache. It’s likely to be a long term reaction to getting flattened on my bike last year and the worry is that it could be disk related at the top of the spine. I can look back on running my fastest marathon and over 1,000 miles of training in seven months, but now I have to accept that something is well and truly wrong. Another scan beckons. Is this the turning point where I’m finally forced to change to a low impact sport? I’ve enjoyed the hills and the challenge and the camaraderie, the feeling of being a runner so much that I hope there is still life in it yet.
Sitting with Al in a café in Luss, the rain is coming down in sheets and we debate whether to head out and do a short circuit round the village or have another coffee.
A gap in the weather and we grudgingly overcome our doubts and set out to tackle Beinn Dubh and one of the classic west Lomond horseshoe routes expecting the worst. It’s a steep haul up skirting the edge of Strone wood. After gaining just a few hundred feet the views back down to Loch Lomond raise our spirits. We plough on, Al has lost some weight playing squash and is light on his feet; by comparison I feel like a plodder today.
At 1,000 feet we hit cloud level and for the next hour are treated to some of the most exciting hill running I have had the luck to experience. The cloud structures form and dissolve before our eyes. The contours of the hill create odd vertical funnels, which are then carried away in horizontal streams by the wind. Every minute the sky and land seems to change, with jaw dropping vistas appearing and disappearing both across the Loch and as we get higher, with tantalising glimpses down into the surrounding glens. There is scarcely a track in sight, so it gives a much wilder impression than the true distance from the nearest road actually indicates.
Following a long fence line to the summit, we have the hills to ourselves and with abandon we decide to complete the 9 mile loop aware that the next round of viscious gale blown rain could come volleying up from the south at any moment. With a good pace we scamper around the steep edges of Glen Striddle, snatching views to the north and the almost luminescent green flanks of Coire Carlaig.
On to the flat summit of Mid Hill, I keep stopping to take pictures, intoxicated by the unfolding visual narrative. Al is a silhouetted on the ridge above me, great storm clouds are swirling and gathering dramatically above looking like they are going to whisk him away to the heavens.
The descent back to Glen Luss is grassy and steep and I let go flying down and trusting that my feet will find a way to keep me balanced. The turnover is extreme but I am so full of adrenaline that falling isn’t an option. Arriving back on tarmac I locate St Micheal’s Chapel in woods just above the road, a low mossy rectangle containing one inscribed stone from 1852 at the south end:
" In Memoriam • Pristinae Pietatis • Super Has Aedes • Olim Deo Sacratas •
Nunc Eheu! Funditus Dilapidatas • Hoc Monumentum • Ponendum curavit •
Jacobus Dominus de Colquhoun et de Luss.” MDCCCLII.
The tiny 14th century chapel forms the end point of a virtual line running across the loch to Duncryne or The ‘Dumpling’, a volcanic plug on the south banks near Gartocharn. This intersects with a transverse line running through the islands that form the Highland boundary fault line, forming a cross. The positioning deep in Glen Luss is no accident, echoing a time when landscapes were marked out and built on using their numinous as well as practical qualities for guidance. NVA are making a photographic work in the national park and the chapel location came to us as a tip from one of the park rangers sharing one of the secret places that he had discovered on his travels.
A week later I’m back up Beinn Dubh in perfect sunshine with the twins, I’ve found a good mushroom spot and even this late in a warm summer there are Chantarelles for the taking. Getting the girls up the hill is hard going, there are lots of ‘sit downs’ and constant low level moaning about the heat and effort required. It’s not going well and I need to turn it around or I’m going to put them off for life. The remedy comes in the blessed form of mud and bog.
I entice them to take their trainers off and suddenly a dull slog becomes messy, dirty and fun. 30 minutes later, we stop to eat crisps and have a drink about two thirds of the way up and then run back down the girls leaping with abandon into a fine range of deep mires.
At the bottom, we find Luss water and a fantastically deep pool which some local lads from Balloch are throwing themselves into from terrifying heights. We all jump and dive into the freezing water a good few times then retire to eat sandwiches and warm up in the late afternoon sunshine, sharing our chocolate with the boys who know no fear.
Re-entering the mayhem of the Edinburgh Festival a year on from Speed of Light is daunting. The unavoidable presence of corporate comedy tents littering the city centre remind me how overblown the fringe has become. It has an undeniable energy but I could live without the rank commercialisation of the ‘super venues’. It’s a relief to head out onto Arthur’s Seat at dusk to meet up with a fine scattering of Run and Walk Leaders and retrace some of the performance routes before meeting on the summit accompanied by the Tattoo fireworks.
We are collectively wrapped in the half the fairy lights in Scotland and cut an eccentric swathe as we jog back down to the High Street for drinks and reminiscence at the Kilderkin pub. Fuelled with rum I enjoy the company and hope we might make it an annual occurrence. The hill never disappoints and remains the perfect antidote the frantic city below.
Out to the Ruhr for the first Speed of Light rehearsals and it feels like an ultra from the outset. We meet the local Run Leaders, who look understandably bemused when I launch into an explanation of the intention behind the work:
“You will learn and run over a hundreds movement patterns in a range of iconic industrial locations individually followed by lines of runners. You will also be linking the main cities of the area by collectively running a full marathon between them in controllable light suits over three nights!”
Everyone introduces themselves and I realise my thoughts especially about my motivations as a runner and the culture of running have connected as they share their own motivations and stories; these are the words of serial blogger Alf Dahl as he remembered the first meeting:
“He talked about what the project will require of you. It will require overexertion, perseverance, quick learning ability, reliability, cooperation and a sense of freedom.
It is done for the love of running and nature itself. Although delivered in English, I have never heard such a passionate and equally striking revelation in so few words. Running is described as a return in itself, bringing attention to body, mind and soul. Frugality and discipline become the sharp swords in the fight against human loss or the effects of age. It is a ubiquitous source of happiness and satisfaction, easily applicable worldwide.
A runner has to deal intimately with their own ego. Not losing the power to overcome, whether during training or in competition, but here we look for a different destination. Within the performance, we reduce ourselves purely to a group identity and synchronicity of movement. There is no interaction with the audience, no smiling and no cheering; instead we jointly offer a synaesthetic symphony of light.”
By the fourth night of manic preparations, the NVA team can hardly stand from exhaustion. We work through 14 separate choreographies racing in a bus from site to site for one hour sessions, eating our food and doing notes on the previous rehearsal as we go. At times I think we have taken on too much and it will be murder to complete, but the new team bond well giving us their full attention and commitment. It being Germany everything is organised to perfection and on return to Scotland I realise that it could be a stunning work and to accept that the act of creating is itself often hard.
On the only two hour break in the schedule I catch Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Big Air Package in the monumental Oberhausen Gasometer. It is phenomenally well crafted public art and simply life-affirming to be inside gazing upwards at an endless immensity of suspended fabric, grading through shades of pale grey to a white corona at the apex. It is full of ordinary people of all ages, marvelling at a subtly modulated sense of space and the understated drama of the work.
I’m into a period of physical breakdown, an unavoidable fact that hits me once of twice a year. It’s the fun of new injuries to my left shoulder and calf. My neck is in a constant low level of pain and the calf muscles break down if I run fast or further than 3-4 miles. So it’s the usual round of osteopathic and chiropractic specialists, pulling back on the mileage and losing some of the weight gained in my post marathon blowout.
I have icepacks on from head to toe, a veritable wreck, but with patience, some good stretching, manipulation and massage I will get out again soon. Looking back it was probably the adrenaline fuelled speed descent from Beinn Dubh that did the damage. Even with years of running in my legs up the pace too dramatically and your body lets you know in no uncertain terms. Two weeks to get fit before going back out to Germany and so for once I will have to rest and accept my fate.
July/August 2013 - Australia
A long haul to Australia, even the bones feel tired for a day or two then you shake it off and head out to explore life on the other side of the world. My first run is out along a coastal path in Adelaide. Steeply raked wooden steps and bridges follow the line of cliffs and beaches. I look out to an endless horizon aware of the curve of the earth as sea meets sky in the immeasurable distance. A few miles from home and an ominous dark cloud formation scuds towards land from miles out to sea. Within minutes a storm batters into the cliffs, a solid curtain of rain racing upwards as it bounces off the swell below.
It’s so wild I can’t open my eyes to see and climb down into the rickety foundations under the boardwalk to try and hide but the wind continues to build. There is a gap in the storm and I sprint back one kilometre to a causeway and a closed café just as another volley of water comes flying in off the Tasmanian Sea. My heart is racing and it is impossible to stand, I end up crawling into the doorway of a closed café and curling up as the wind throws the upper parts of palms and pines from side to side and sends branches and debris flying through the air at 50 to 60 mph. It’s a proper introduction to the outdoors in Australia. The storm stops as quickly as it started and I head for home fast, reaching a promenade, exhilarated but chastened, I’m hit on the head hard by a flying Douglas fir cone as a final warning.
Days later a longer run home along the coast had looked like a relaxed dander, until I realised too late that a whole promontory was fenced off and I would have to detour for 5 miles around a huge quarry and cement works. There was no choice but to run along the narrow reservation of a highway with lorries thundering by less than 1 to 2 metres from my right shoulder. It probably counts as one of my least romantic runs ever. I was reminded of Murakami jumping over dead dogs as he ran a motorway retracing the original route to Marathon in Greece. Adelaide has suburbs that stretch forever, row upon row of American influenced seventies style bungalows with over-neat gardens and high fences. They project a strangely plastic reality making you feel like you are moving through an outtake of a David Lynch film.
Melbourne by contrast is more diverse both in its people and architecture and offered some good running around its bay including a view of the wonderful Luna Park untouched in 90 years with a famous ride that rivalled the original from Coney Island. A visit to the museum of Immigration had me in tears within minutes of seeing a film montage with stories of families from every corner of the world. Those who with little money or support had taken perilous journeys to Australia to make new lives,often being separated from partners and children for decades through war or hard circumstance.
I was left speechless at the white supremacist policies imposed for decades by Westminster and the architects of the British Empire. Racial ideologies which segregated, disempowered and controlled the lives of thousands of Aboriginal peoples, in ways every bit as pernicious as those perpetrated by the Nazis. The fallout from Britain’s almost inconceivably arrogant position will continue to echo throughout Australian society for years to come. It is the damage done that leaves its recent history seeming hollow as people still search for a cohesive national identity.
Where Australians have collectively got it right is in a remarkable level of respect for the natural world. In 5 weeks I did not see one piece of litter in town or countryside. In a place where any visit to river, sea or mountain can be fatal there is a healthy understanding of where humans fit into the natural pecking order. Its strange not just being able to wander off to where you want without having to take a great deal of care to find out what might be under your feet, in the water or hanging down from above. Even the nightly dusk choreography of huge fruit bats clouding the skyline brings a sense of the primeval into the heart of any city setting.
Travelling north (for four hours by plane) to Cooktown and I try my first run into the rainforest hills after passing an ‘outsider’ settlement on the edge of town. In Queensland every high point is covered in the most dense foliage making navigation a challenge as the routes are often tight and claustrophobic, ratcheting up the paranoia as to what you might find round any corner.
Carefully picking my way up Mount Cook, I was relieved to come out onto a high viewing platform cooled by the trade winds which incessantly blow onland from the Coral Sea. The panorama is immense and unchanged in thousands of years. On the way down I feel more relaxed and able to really see the beautiful layering of flora spreading over tumbled rock formations.
Cape Tribulation offers a yet more direct introduction to the rainforest as tropical rainstorms lash down on us for a couple of days. An exploratory run up Mount Sorrow (great name, it being clear that the first colonisers did not have the easiest of times as their ships were driven northwards by the relentless winds). I run for a few miles along the main coastal dirt road, missing the narrow entrance to the hillside. Finding it on the way back I begin pushing up a narrow route crisscrossed with tree roots and shrouded by overhanging vines and ferns.
After 10 minutes I stop suddenly hearing a sound in the forest that I don’t recognise; on for another few minutes and then I pull up stock still and feel the ground move near me with a great ‘thump thump’.
I had seen on road signs earlier that there might be Cassowaries in the area. They are massive birds, reminiscent of ostriches which are generally shy but if surprised can dole out some hefty punishment. That thought was enough for me and senses tingling I hotfoot it back out to the road and the relief from getting a probable thumping by some flightless monster in the woods.
We finish our trip near Port Douglas and a fantasy of coconut strewn beaches and easy running on sand and sculpted pathways. With no race in mind and a need to wind down after the pressures of the Edinburgh marathon, I found a few miles at a time sufficing in the close heat of the tropical environs. My monthly mileage decimated and half a stone back on the midriff, I arrive home happy and refreshed but ready to find some fresh motivation to get back on course. Let it go and the aches and pains that age brings, begin to crowd into the foreground. Only one cure, on with the shoes and out into the Kilpatrick hills, magnificent on a mellow summer’s evening and rivalling the best vistas that I saw in Australia irrespective of the reduction in scale. The body wakes up and I feel alive again.
An interesting statistic that I came across is that you might expect to achieve your fastest distance race times after 13-15 years of continual training. Even if you don’t start out till later in life, in my case when I was 37 years old. If this is true then my recent PB in Edinburgh bears this out but also indicates that it is unlikely as I turn 52 later this year that I will better what I’ve done so far.
It’s Speed of Light time again, with a forthcoming visit to the Ruhr to begin intensive rehearsals on the next iteration. Whether through naivety or ignorance we have persuaded ourselves to produce it as an ultra event with 120 runners creating massed choreographies in 6 cities over 3 nights. We will utilise the green corridors that link each town and city as the routing between signature industrial locations where each performance will take place. The laudable aim is to highlight the region as a whole and the way the visionary design of the vast Emscher Landscape Park breaks reliance on the autobahn and car as the only means of travel.
Well, that’s the end of six months of running starting tentatively in January in Tunisia and via the months of gradual strengthening, returning a happy marathon result in Edinburgh last month. This week I had to grind out a brutal final 38 miles in 4 days to hit the 900 mile mark for no good reason except it looks better than 893 in my running log!
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed letting things go after Edinburgh; I have put half a stone back on (it took about 2 weeks of solid indulgence to get there) having developed a deep love for good quality Venezuelan rum ( Diplomatico) mixed with crushed ice, fresh lime and real ginger beer in a pint glass. On the recent warm days there is no better end to a day sitting out in the late afternoon sun.
My left foot and various muscle groupings have been moaning without pause, but the blue vulcan ice pack continues to work its analgesic magic and I tackled a bad few days hobbling around by succumbing to the anti-barefoot delights of a new pair of the super bouncy Hoka Evo Stinson’s. Long revered on the ultra scene, they are the nearest you can get to running on a pair of firm cushions. They are deeply counter intuitive to maintaining good form; but when a neuroma or various bruised metatarsals are complaining away they certainly help to disperse the pain.
Being incredibly foolhardy, or just stupid, I entered the next 2014 Edinburgh marathon the day after I finished the 2013 race. In truth though I am more excited about the time I can have up and out in the hills over the next year or two. A couple of great outings with Al soon got me back up and functioning again. A hot day in the Kilpatrick’s was anointed by a couple of lads flagging us down on the descent to Cochno farm. At noon they were already half-cut and proffered bottles of Buckfast for our delectation. A good swig and like the altar wine of barely remembered communions it went down very well. We descended, punching the air and waving to boys to thank them for the unexpected gift.
An even more perfect day in Glen Finglas gave us a horseshoe route above 2,000 feet in the west Lomonds with hardly a soul in sight. Our only meeting in over 2 hours, was with a seasoned walker and his grand-daughter who stopped for a chat. He was born in Maryhill (a few hundred yards from where I live) and now resides in Cardross (where we are in the process of attempting to save St Peter’s Seminary): such a typical small country story.
My next install will come from Australia where I am heading with Ann and the girls to see her sister and family who recently emigrated. We will be in the south, west and north, from winter conditions to the tropical and hopefully will find some great landscapes to run through.
with thanks to Al Smith for the photography.
May 2013 - Edinburgh Marathon
3 days after the Edinburgh Marathon and still sleeping in separate beds from Ann so that I don’t endlessly wake her up turning and turning to get comfortable. The marathon is a long haul in many ways; the preceding week involves suppressing the building nerves that during the final breakfast had my porridge spoon shaking in my hand. It’s the fear of pain to come, of what you are going to experience as you push yourself from the relaxed first couple of hours, to the torturous reality of the last miles. The intensity of those few minutes that define happiness or disappointment again. The way your body slowly lets go of the aches and resurfaces as does your ability to engage properly with the outside world when it’s all finished. I’ve read plenty of endurance writing and I’m always struck by the odd mixture of selflessness: the stripping back of the self and ego through the act, mixed with selfishness and self-absorption – what it takes to get through and the degree to which you internalise and are overwhelmed by the experience.
I like this gradual shift: coming back into a world of other people and their problems, hopes and needs; getting some perspective again on the importance or lack of importance of what you have done. I’m not in love with the marathon, the prison sentence of training through the long winter and non-existent spring, the hardness of tarmac, the brutality of the ending. But a test it is, and having not made the ultra scene through foot injuries to date, it is as close as I can get to when your mind and body are in true conflict and you have to decide who or what part of you is going to define each moment.
It might seem ridiculous to treat taking part in such stark terms, but a marathon and especially repeat marathon excursions are mostly about the clock, the time it takes and pressure you put on yourself to reach a self-imposed standard. For me, it has always been about 3 hours and 30 minutes. I first tried to run a marathon in 2006 and came up short with a groin injury. I got to Lochaber for the first time in 2008 and ran 3.38. Ann and the twins came up to support. I was mashed at the end having discovered the joys of paresthesia (over breathing leading to a CO2 imbalance that makes you appear as if you are having a stroke). Ann thought I was dying as I crawled into an ambulance slurring, the twins were shouting “Daddy what’s wrong, what’s wrong?”. In fact it’s quite non-fatal and you recover as your breathing calms. It looks and feels worse than it is, but Ann swore it would be my first and last marathon, and that she wouldn’t watch me again. One part of that statement remains true to this day.
The threat of that breathing issue linked to long term asthma is a big worry. If it kicks in it’s very hard to keep going, but I know I have trained well and hope the fun I’ve had in the hills with my running partner Al will give me the endurance I might have missed on previous outings. My career has a pretty chequered history with the following times over consecutive years - 3.38, 4.07, 3.57, 3.31, 3.38 with a last untimed run in south India before my foot packed in. The slow ones were when I went out too hard, without enough miles and speed in my legs and blew up somewhere after 20 miles. Yet there is a strange pull with marathons – rather than giving up and walking away- many people, minutes after they have crossed the line, commit to avenging the poor performance at the next available opportunity. Rather than make peace with failure their strength is resolved to try again. I saw this as Irish Mark, an old friend crossed the line this Sunday in his first race. With a brilliant effort to get under 4 hours he promptly vowed to better it. Such is the masochistic hold the race has over mortal minds.
For those who know my history, the decision to do Edinburgh was taken only 6 weeks ago, when I realised I could run 18-20 miles without increasing the pain in my left foot. I had a small but perfect window to launch an attempt that last year I couldn’t even have imagined. A number of things were now in my favour: I had lost 18 lbs and was the lightest I had ever been on the start line by at least 5 lbs (that equates to 6 seconds a mile faster per pound lost, so over 26 miles that really adds up). I was running as ‘Brendan Brodie’ on a borrowed ticket and the name sounded lucky. Most importantly Peter Buchanan, an experienced and fast hill runner had offered to pace me, so as well as Mark coming along I was in the unique position of having company for the first time in 7 years. I had no idea if this would be a distraction or difficult, but it felt good to be breaking old patterns.
The race started in London Road; I passed the ‘Gardener’s Cottage’, a great new restaurant which is run by my cousin Edward Murray who came out to the back door to wish us luck. The weather was perfect, sunny but with a good layer of cloud that would slowly evaporate during the race. This meant we started in a very pleasant 13 degrees and at its hottest it never went much above 15-16 degrees. As friends who have run previous years in the 20’s will attest, anything higher than this and your performance and times can be seriously affected as dehydration and heat exhaustion kick in. It’s the hardest thing to do a spring marathon: 80% of your training will have been done in temperatures less than a third of what you might encounter on the day.
Peter offers to carry my nutrition (a few SIS berry caffeine gels and some Clif shot bloks, a kind of square jelly baby). We didn’t talk tactics, Peter had some times written out on his arm and we just limbered up and waited for the starter’s gun. 2 minutes to walk to the line and we’re off. It was very tightly bunched and already we had to do some serious weaving to keep at 7.50 pace. I had pre-designated this as Peter set it as the time we would need to give us 2 minutes grace at the sharp end to still break the 3.30 barrier.
Gradually the mass of runners settled down, and hitting a clear bit of pavement in Holyrood Park, gave me the chance to remember the months of Speed of Light on Arthur’s Seat and the happy memories it brought back. Mark and Peter chatted away and I mostly listened in, just adding the odd question or comment. I had to look at my Garmin watch about every half minute to ensure we were keeping on pace. That focus is all encompassing as it is so easy to drift off and find you are 20 seconds out which you then need to make up, so it’s really important to keep it steady and know you are where you want to be. I felt some pressure in my bladder after a couple of miles and debated whether to hold out or take a break. Running in discomfort is no fun so in Leith Links we nipped into some portaloos losing about 40 seconds. A faster next mile or two running closer to 7 minute miles and we were soon back on track again.
This sense of ‘we’ as opposed to ‘I’ felt both novel and reassuring, as we ran towards Portobello it was obvious that Peter knew just about everyone along the route. Years of running races and training on these very roads with his club demonstrated a real sense of community and the relaxed “hellos” and comments shouted out to him wrapped us in a feeling of bonhomie and localness that was a good counter to the quiet grip of the race. From the start we were moving gently past other runners and this carried on over the entire route.
The views over the Forth were spectacular but I felt strangely disassociated from the wider landscape. In the previous runs in Lochaber marathon it was staring up at the immovable mass of Ben Nevis that had got me through the last part of each race. On every hour I asked ‘Dad’ for a gel, sensing he didn’t appreciate my weak humour I changed the request to ‘Uncle Peter’ which sounded more acceptable. We were steady to a remarkable degree with only 7 seconds variation in the pace over 22 miles. Mark dropped back a bit at the 18 mile turn and we shouted encouragement to him and also at the speeding front runners now passing us in their lonely orbits back to the finish line. A first-timer, Will from Leicester asked to hook in with us, looking ridiculously fresh as we loped through the gentle country fields surrounding Gosforth House. The sun was out now and at every station I poured water onto my head and into my cap to stop overheating.
I tried to break the marathon down into chunks, 10 miles, halfway, 18 miles and 21 miles. It always helps not to think of the whole thing and to just keep it steady in the moment you find yourself in. Despite this the mile markers still take longer and longer to arrive, that’s when you know inside that you are entering the crunch part of the day. At 22 miles I could see that Peter and Will were getting about 5-10 meters in front of me, Peter was looking round occasionally, no worry on his face but he was still looking round. I asked my legs to respond and catch up and its then that the first signs of trouble began to appear. My legs did not respond as asked, in fact it felt as if everything was suddenly closing in. Externally and internally the world starts to ‘tunnel’. Hips tighten, quads tighten, calves tighten, breathing becomes laboured and your whole motion moves from smooth to running through treacle in one horrible moment of realisation. Thoughts that have been waiting, sharpening themselves in the shadows, start to crowd into your mind. As a stream of consciousness it sounded something like:
“Here we are again, its over, everything is shot, you did your best but it has happened again- you simply can’t go on. Shall I walk now? Nobody would mind, there is nothing wrong with having tried. Shall I walk? You can’t keep going, with this feeling your body is going to shut down, the line is a long way off, what time is it? What is your pace, ok still 8.15 that’s not too bad there’s 3 and a half miles to go you have to grit this out for another 27 minutes- can you do it? No, my breathing’s going, my legs are failing, I’m shutting down, I have to walk, I didn’t do enough training, there is no fault here, look down at my feet- its ok everything is still moving, look at watch 8.36, ok I have 2 minutes or so in hand, as long as I can keep going under 9 minutes I just might make it, oh god 24 minutes still left to go, this is going to last forever…”
On and on- the thoughts going round in ever decreasing circles of questions without answers and doubts layered upon doubts. And then Peter’s voice beside me,
“Keep going, just keep going and remember what you do now in this moment you will be proud of for the rest of your life”
I grunt a reply and leap on the words inside: are you fucking joking, do I really care about pride? I don’t need to feel pride- I can just stop at any point, it won’t matter in the long run. Yet I try to focus on all the people I have rashly told that I intend to break 3.30; how I will be letting them down; how good it would be tell Ann and Ava and Calla that I can do this. I look down at my feet, still feeling like hell and I acknowledge somewhere deep below the surface, not it seems in my conscious mind, but in somewhere innate or almost automatic that I am not going to stop. Whatever it takes I will not stop.
That quiet realisation allows the negative flow to keep going in my mind but I don’t listen in the same way. It is not captivating me as I sense the line is coming nearer. The last 15 minutes and Peter is exhorting me to keep my form and keep steady. I can’t really respond, not out of rudeness, but because all my energy is focussed on not cracking, just holding this mass of pain and sensation and intensity together for as long as it takes. I long to smile at the crowds lining the streets during the last mile but I have to stay inside and keep things in check. Peter says we are going to do it and as we round the bend onto the playing field with the finish line in sight a wave of joy comes over me. Those of you who know me well know that given the chance to showboat I will grab that chance with both hands.
Rolling out every goal scoring cliché in the business, I point to the skies, pump the air, blow kisses and generally raise as much noise as I can from the crowds lining the fences to the line. 3.28….. I can’t quite believe it, I have finally toughed it out. It’s a huge sense of relief and I give Peter a hug. Could I have done it without him? It’s possible but nowhere near as likely. Hearing his voice pulled me out of a world of self-doubt and became a vital tool to survive.
Medals clunk round necks. I try and stretch and feel a strong need for sugary tea: it has to be queued for in the hard commercial backcourt of the big race. I start to shiver uncontrollably. Peter gets me back to the bag drop. First I wake up Adrian Stott from Run and Become who is sleeping in his van, to tell him my good news. He almost manages a smile and goes back to sleep, still recovering from last week’s ultra. I try to sit down and get changed when a huge wave of cramp passes up my legs. It looks like aliens are surfing up and down inside my calf muscles. I swear as loudly and violently as I can, to the horror and amusement of the people nearby. Onto my back, and strangers grab my legs and push the toes down from above. The pain is truly indescribable. I ask Peter if it will pass, he says yes but don’t rush moving. After 10 minutes I’m still lying flat out, I can’t even get my trackie bottoms over my shorts. But I’m smiling inside because I know that I’ve done it, that I’ve come within 3 seconds of the time I have dreamt of for years. I call Ann and the girls and I can feel their support pouring down the phone.
It’s done, it’s done, it’s done.
With thanks to Peter Buchanan for photography.
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