I started running in late 2010, the result of a drunken bet with myself. At this point I resembled a befuddled grizzly bear lolloping along the seafront, and even the embarrassed encouragement of my 10-year-old son on his bike couldn’t rouse me past the mile mark. In May 2014, I will be running my fourth marathon in Edinburgh.
I need marathons. I need them to tell me what to do. They tell me what to eat, how much to drink, how often to exercise and when to rest myself. Perhaps as a 46-year-old man I should not need such a framework to guide me through life. But I do. I have a bit of a thing for excess. I am the man still standing at the bar when everyone else has their heads on the table; I am the man who orders the impossible man-v-food burger, throws it down his throat and then picks up a cheese baguette on the way home; I am the man who sat on his behind for 10 years and burgeoned to over 18 stone. I am a consumption leviathan. With consumption comes guilt, inertia based depression (and indeed depression based inertia) and myriad physical health issues.
I have tried addressing my need to emotionally eat and drink my way through life’s multiple mishaps through other means; meditation, antidepressants, dancing around the edge of Buddhism, and old fashioned restraint. Meditation has helped in small ways, allowing me the space to point and laugh at my thought processes, but I have yet to perfect making it a mobile resource that I can “take on the road”. Antidepressants did not help, as I was mostly not depressed and when I was, it was probably because I felt lethargic, obese and horrible, something that could only be partially masked by a rearranging of the chemicals in my head. My forays into the Buddhist self help world have given me perspective to some degree, though it does not seem to stop me eating whole boxes of cakes. I seem to have had the restraint DNA stripped from my being in early life, possibly by growing up in a family of emotional eaters, who all still struggle with their weight.
The process of planning how I am going to tackle a new marathon challenge transforms my outlook. Away from spending hours on the internet looking for “top tips” (most of which seem to conflict with each other, but hey they’re TOP TIPS) and downloading training plans that I fastidiously transform into a jungle of colour coded spreadsheets, I become “an athlete” and not just a regular fella. It may look like I sit at a desk all day but I am not like the others. I am The Runner, a man on a semi-secret mission to destroy personal bests whilst honing my body into an approximation of a normal man. The upsides are impressive: I eat a sensible diet, I stop drinking in the main, I exercise four or five times a week and my mental state gains relief from many of the day-to-day anxieties that are usually flailing around my head. The process, from the initial project management through to race day recovery, re-engineers my thought processes, sometimes consumes my mind but always induces a sense of focus that is often lacking. The downside is that after the post-race drinks the zenith of the finish line fades into the nadir of lying in the bath Monday morning with a chest full of nothing.
Last year I read Marshall Ulrich’s Running On Empty, the story of how he ran across the US whilst in his mid 50s. He had begun to run extreme distances when his wife was dying of cancer, the many hours on the road his way of dealing with the grief that was enveloping him. During his time crossing the US, it dawns on him that he has used running as a total escape and that perhaps rather than spending four hours on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of nowhere, he may have been better served by being with his grown up kids who also missed their mum. I too can already see the folly of living my life through a programme of intense exercise rather than dealing with the tangible stuff that is otherwise swirling around inside me. A long run can take you out of your regular head space, but it delivers you right back in the centre of your life, whatever else you choose to believe.
So as I prepare for Edinburgh 2014 I am trying to tread the line carefully between allowing the positive traits of a marathon programme to contribute to my life whilst staying aware that it is essentially a way of tricking my psyche into thinking that my life is inherently different because of it. Perhaps the next finish line will be just the start.
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source: The Guardian by Tim Smillie