Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Loneliness of the Short Distance Runner

I still find it hard to believe.
One month ago, I was a normal, happy forty–something, drifting happily through life from work to home with the calm insouciance of the relatively content. Now – oh shame! I suppose the neighbours will have to find out eventually – I have taken up jogging.
Not since a lad named Saul was struck down just short of Damascus 2000 years ago, has there been such a reversal of mindset. For I have always been very anti-jogging and anti-fitness in general. Why didn’t people just take the car or the bus, I used to ask, pityingly, as another potential cardiac victim hove into view.
Of course, for years, I was blessed with a digestive system that could cope with any amount of doughnuts, cream cakes and biscuits that I threw at it. This used to annoy my brother who couldn’t pass by a Kylemore on the far side of the street without putting on a couple of pounds. For twenty five years, my weight remained constant at ten and a half stone (I have no idea what this is in kilogrammes and don’t really care. Stones and pounds will be with me till I die)
Then, soldiering blithely into my forties, three things happened in a relatively short space of time that knocked my avoirdupois cockiness for six.
Firstly, I turned forty, as you tend to do at the end of your thirties. Fading family portraits of my father and grandfather both show a rapid expansion of waistline when they hit their middle years, so obviously this is in the genes, as well as being in the jeans.
Secondly, my lifestyle became more sedentary. For years I walked the two miles in and out of work every day. Then I moved jobs, I started driving to work, and found that more and more of my working day is spent behind a computer desk. Lack of exercise is obviously a large contributory factor.
Thirdly, I gave up the fags. Now, I don’t want to give the impression that giving up cigarettes leads to bad health. Kicking the weed is not unhealthy in itself. Its just that I subconsciously replaced my evening cigarettes with something from the fridge. Chocolate bars, choc ices, cheese sandwiches, biscuits – they were all consumed in large quantities between dinner time and bedtime.
I crept past eleven stone, with a whimsical smile. At twelve stone, I told myself that I had always been on the thin side, and a little extra padding wouldn’t go astray. At thirteen stone, I made a mental note that something must be done. When fourteen stone came and went, I decided that nighttime foraging must come to an end. It didn’t.
On holidays during the summer, I was re-christened the evil Fatman, whose dastardly ambition in life was to creep up on children in the pool and throw them with a big splash into the deep end. “Watch out! Here comes the whale!” the cry would go up, from mock-terrified kids that I didn’t even know. “Move away from the edge, Sumo, you’re blocking the sun!” they would yell delightedly as I prepared to jump in, with a splash that left the pool a quarter full. Enjoying a Mexican meal one warm summer’s evening, I could feel the rivulets of sweat trickling down the folds in my stomach.
Thus, returning home, I decided that Something Must Be Done.
Now, I don’t play sports. I’ve had two games of football and one game of Gaelic in the last 25 years, all of which rendered me quite unable to use my legs for a week. I am grossly unfit. I have no squash partner. I have a horror of bouncing up and down to music in a community centre somewhere with a load of other heavyish people. Personally I’d prefer to be hung from the ceiling by my nasal hairs.
No, it all came down to one thing – jogging.
It was strange, but once I had resolved that I needed to do some regular exercise, all my former prejudices against jogging disappeared in a flash. I would be like Harold Abrahams in “Chariots of Fire,” face uplifted to the wind, borne along by the power of my own legs, intoxicated by the drug of speed (or should I say, velocity) breezing past my more pedestrian contemporaries with effortless ease, a smile playing on my boyish face.
It took approximately eighty yards of my first attempt at breaking into a run, to disavow me of my Olympian notions. I ended up leaning against a wall, doubled up in agony, trying to suck deep lungfuls of air into my sweat-ridden body. A small child wandered up and looked up at me concernedly. I hadn’t the breath to speak to him, just spread a palm to indicate I’d be all right.
I hobbled on a bit further, and when my breathing had come down to something approaching normality, I tried again. Fifty yards, this time, and I got a stitch. This was unfair, I thought. Obviously the mind is willing, but the body is weak.
That was three weeks ago. Yesterday, I managed to run as far as Latchford without stopping, a distance of about half a mile (no, I don’t know what that is in kilometers, and I don’t care) Granted, I have absolutely no speed at all, and a snail that was overtaking me on the outside of a bend was forced to cut in and nearly caused a horrific pile-up.
I meet other joggers as I am out. They sail past me effortlessly without a bead of sweat on their foreheads, while I lurch along like a drunken beetroot on legs, perspiring profusely and making strange rasping noises from my throat. I like to feel that a bond of companionship passes between us as we pass, though of course all superfluous movement, such as a nod of the head, is completely out of the question on my part. We are as one. We are the 1924 British Olympic team running along the beach, young, strong and carefree, with that annoying piano clunking away in the background.
The thing that surprises me though is the buzz I am getting out of it. The distances I have been able to keep going have been tangibly greater and this has given me great heart. If things continue at this rate, I will have my sights firmly set on reaching the Ongar roundabout in one go, then the complete circuit, then next year’s Dublin marathon, then perhaps my first triathlon, providing I learn how to swim.
The one downturn to all of this is that despite all the sweat I have pumped out, I have not lost a single ounce (I don’t know how much that is in grammes and I don’t care) of weight. The scales swing resolutely around to the fourteen and a half stone mark every Sunday, and I swear I can hear it giggling as it does so.
But I don’t care. I know the fat will get burned off eventually, though my wife is forever cautioning me about overdoing it, and reminding me how old I am. She obviously sees me as a potential cardiac case and says she would prefer a fat hape to a patient on an operating table.
But there’s no fool like an old fool. I look forward to my runs every second day and am determined to get my body back in shape after twenty years of neglect. If the body is a temple, mine is in severe need of restoration.
But the scaffolding has been erected, the plans drawn up, and an architectural masterpiece is about to be created. Watch this space.

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