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.