I read a book years ago by Haruki Murakami about the nature of running.
In it, Murakami described how he ran every day, and how it emptied his mind and helped him to focus. He also wrote about what happens when it all goes wrong, about when things just don’t click into place.
That’s happened to me a couple of times before, but never like last Sunday, halfway round a mountainous half marathon course in Keswick, one that I’ve run about a dozen times before without any problem at all.
I started fairly well, ignoring the slight cold I’d felt that morning, knocking out a clutch of steady eight or eight and a half minute miles, feeling alright except for the slight excess of Aphex Twin that seemed to have crept onto my iPod.
The first hill came and went. I sailed up it, and back down the other side.
Then I started to feel a little odd. Something wasn’t right, not quite there. It’s hard to remember in retrospect exactly what the matter was, but I couldn’t get my pace and breathing right, and I found it hard to empty my mind in a Murakami-esque way.
The heaviness in my legs and the labour in my breath bred a doubt in my mind, and I started to fixate on stopping.
I trudged on for about half an hour like this, battling with this demon in the back of my mind, willing me to stop and walk for just a moment or two, until I started to attack the next hill, a real drag of a hill, a gentle slope that goes on for an eternity, gradually flicking upwards into a wall of absolute death.
It’s an insane challenge after five miles of heavy running, but I’m normally able to dig in and grind through it, gasping through the effort out over the cattle grid at the top, onto the short plateau — the fake summit — and then finally onto the real flat, out of breath but still moving towards the water station down the road.
This time, though, not to be. I stopped for an instant halfway up, and as anybody who’s ever run up any hill whatsoever will tell you, stopping is not the thing to do, because starting up again presents a challenge far greater than the one stopping solved in the first place. No good ever comes from stopping on a hill.
And that was it. I was done after five and a half reasonably handy miles. There was to be no more, and I stumbled up the rest of the hill, in the heat, got some directions back to town from a marshal and headed off, sweat pouring down my face and salt stinging my eyes to the extent that I was essentially blinded for the first half a mile of my walk of shame back into Keswick.
I felt immediately better, physically and mentally, and knew I’d made the right choice straight away. I walked for an hour back to the start, and saw people who’d persevered collapsing at the finish line, the St Johns’ Ambulance people in full swing.
I still don’t know how or why it happened. I hadn’t trained especially hard, but I’m generally very fit, and had bagged the distance the week before with a nine and a half mile run in a decent time with no difficulty at all. It was hot, but not excruciatingly so, and I’ve raced harder in hotter conditions. The slight cold was a problem, and probably knocked me off balance mentally as well, but I didn’t feel physically too bad when we set off.
This was the thing Murakami wrote about, the times when nothing works and it’s just impossible to run, the times when body and mind disconnect and work against one another, the times when it just falls apart. There’s no simple explanation and no single reason, just a collection of circumstances, events, feelings, thoughts, aches, pains and frustrations that conspire to mean that putting one foot in front of the other for a total of 13.1 miles just isn’t going to happen.
It might be the end of my running career.
I don’t love it. I don’t have the cultish devotion to the sport that others have. I don’t enjoy the banality of running, the sheer monotony if it, or the unrelenting pain that goes with it, mile after mile after mile.
I like the challenge, and when I’m in the right frame of mind, I know that I’m quite good at it — my personal bests aren’t too shabby at all — yet there’s something that constantly stops me from really grasping it as a sport. I do it, but my heart isn’t in it.
Maybe it’s time for a different sport, perhaps hit the gym harder and actually go to the odd HIIT class instead of cancelling at the last minute, or get a personal trainer to beast me into submission. Perhaps swim more, go for something lower impact that might prove practically useful should I ever find myself on a sinking boat.
But really, I know that I’ll be back in Keswick next May, better prepared, better rested, having drunk more water in advance, lining up to exorcise a demon.