Tonky Talk


This year’s Paul misses last year’s Paul

It’s the last 600 me­tres of the South Manch­ester parkrun and I’m gear­ing up for a big fin­ish. Over the last quar­ter of a mile or so run­ners have cruised steadily past me; it’s been a liv­ing night­mare. My arms sag in­ef­fec­tu­ally by my side, my legs lost in a lac­tic fog. I’m not very fit at the minute. The con­trast be­tween this year and last is stark. In spring 2017 I was crest­ing my high­est mileage ever, mer­rily do­ing Yasso 800 ses­sions, 22-mile long runs and rack­ing PBS ev­ery week­end. I had a goal, a sub-three-hour marathon; it was magic and all-con­sum­ing. But in spring 2018, Slacker Tonks is do­ing half the mileage, mostly un­able to make track Tues­day ow­ing to work com­mit­ments and post­ing per­sonal worsts at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity.

To­day, for in­stance, I’ll be a minute and a half slower than I nor­mally am. Some of this is phys­i­cal. I had back spasms that lost me two weeks; then the ‘ Beast from the East’ hit me hard and I had ‘that flu’ that ev­ery­one got. I was in bed for a week and, three weeks later, I'm still not quite right. But it goes deeper than that. I’m hav­ing a bit of a cri­sis. Strap in.

In An­thony Trol­lope’s He knew he was right, a char­ac­ter says, ‘They are most happy who have no story to tell.’ I won­der if it’s hard for me to be happy about run­ning un­less I’ve got a race to aim for. I am like a char­ac­ter in search of an au­thor at the mo­ment. The sub-three push was amaz­ing, but I’ve strug­gled to re­place it. I lived, in essence, like a full-time ath­lete for six weeks or so last year, knock­ing back work, sleep­ing dur­ing the day, get­ting mas­sages, chomp­ing over­priced en­ergy balls and vi­su­al­is­ing. It was as com­mit­ted as I’ll ever get, so I’ve had to ac­cept that I’ll prob­a­bly never get faster over the marathon. If noth­ing else, my wife would leave me.

So what now? I fan­ta­sise about an ul­tra but don’t know if my body will take it. My Mor­ton’s toe is an is­sue. Ev­ery run­ner, it seems, gets an in­jury to man­age and this is mine. It seems to flare up if I go over 50 miles a week. Enough, but re­stric­tive and pos­si­bly harm­ful if I push into an ul­tra.

I have an­other fan­tasy about be­ing one of those happy run­ners un­mo­ti­vated by time – just run­ning for ex­pe­ri­ence. You know the type – they wave to all the spec­ta­tors, thank all the mar­shals, talk dur­ing the race and smile through­out. I like this. I can see this be­ing the fu­ture. I do love run­ning and I want to en­cour­age oth­ers.

But in some way I’m wrapped up in the idea of be­ing fast, and I’m an­noy­ing my­self. This morn­ing, for in­stance – I am try­ing my best, it’s just nowhere near enough. And the less fit you are, the less you’re used to re­ally surg­ing into pain. As we ap­proach the track for the last 300 me­tres or so, an old and quite fit bloke high-steps it past me. For some rea­son, he be­comes my tar­get – run­ners of all shapes, men and women, have gone past me this morn­ing, but he’s the bench­mark. I stay in con­tact, tuck in and as we hit the syn­thetic sur­face, a sense mem­ory hits me. I’m back at school, or even last spring, and I pass him (I later find out he is 64) and then some­one else. There’s a run­ner 10 me­tres in front of me. I know I can take him, but I slow down. I feel em­bar­rassed, I feel that I don’t de­serve to go past. Let him have it.

In the chute I am leg-weary and breath­ing hard. There’s a plea­sure in that, cer­tainly, but I’m feel­ing a bit stupid. This isn’t me; it’s an im­per­son­ation. As track sea­son ap­proaches, I know that the only way through this is to run hard. I just haven’t been train­ing hard enough.

Ev­ery­one runs for dif­fer­ent rea­sons and all run­ning is good, but I’ve re­alised there’s still a bit of pride in it for me. My iden­tity is tied up in it. Happy comes later.

TWO YEARS AGO, IDA KEEL­ING RAN THE 100-ME­TRE DASH in 1 minute and 17.33 sec­onds to set the world record for women aged 100-104 – then she dropped to the track to do press-ups as the crowd roared. In her new book, Can’ t noth­ing bring me down, Keel­ing, now 102, talks about thrilling mo­ments such as this, but also her strug­gles: grow­ing up poor in Har­lem, New York, work­ing in fac­to­ries dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion to raise four chil­dren as a sin­gle mother, and los­ing two adult sons to un­solved cases of drug-re­lated vi­o­lence. This last one sank Keel­ing into a de­pres­sion at the age of 67. So her daugh­ter Shel­ley, a track-and-field and cross-coun­try coach, took Keel­ing to a lo­cal 5K. Miss Ida, as she’s known, felt clumsy at first, but ul­ti­mately up­lifted. ‘The good part was that the sad part left,’ she says. ‘Run­ning to me is like medicine.’ Since then, the 4ft 6in, 37.6kg (6st) dy­namo has raced all over the world and set mul­ti­ple world records. ‘Ev­ery day is an­other day for­ward,’ she says. In Fe­bru­ary, she broke the 100-and-older 60-me­tre record, fin­ish­ing in 58.34. Here, she tells Run­ner’s World about her life, her train­ing regime and the im­por­tance of Hen­nessy brandy.

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