Thursday 18 February 2021

a vine that can strangle life from a tree...

I’ve never really been particularly sporty. I quite enjoyed playing team sports when I was at school, but there was never any sign of great talent. I wasn’t being picked last for our playground games of football, but I definitely wasn’t being picked first either. Running, however, I loathed. Every week, I think on a Tuesday or Wednesday, we would be sent out on a cross country run. Whatever the weather, we would run three or four miles across muddy fields and along the footpaths out around the school. I say run, but really, as long as I was fairly sure that there was no one looking, I would walk. I absolutely hated slogging my way through the mud and wanted no part of it. It would have been over more quickly if I’d run, but it all just seemed too difficult and too painful. Far better to trudge along miserably in the rain. If I thought I could have got away with hiding in a bush just out of sight, I probably would have done it. The idea that anyone might do this sort of thing for fun just seemed utterly ridiculous. 

Fast forward thirty years, and now it’s the idea that I might have to stop running that really scares me. I sort of fell into running when I stopped playing organised sport and started drinking beer. Popping out once a week for a rather laboured jog was a purely defensive measure designed to stave off an incipient beer belly. 

I didn’t actually start running more seriously until I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2009. My journey towards that diagnosis began one morning in July 2005, when I woke up with a numb hand. Over the course of the next few weeks, that numbness spread through my body and down through my legs and feet. Running when you can’t really feel your feet is an unnerving experience: you feel with every stride that you might miss your step and break a leg. I thought then that I might have to give up running, but it’s amazing how adaptable the brain is and how quickly you can get used to something that seemed insurmountable. 

As well as a loss of sensation, one of the most common symptoms of MS is fatigue. It sounds counterintuitive, but I discovered that going for a run was incredibly helpful at helping to shake off this fatigue. When you’ve been running, at least you know why you’re tired. Running made me feel better about myself. MS is a chronic illness with no cure and with uncertain outcomes, but running gave me a sense of control. Visiting an MS clinic at the hospital is a sobering experience; to be surrounded by people in wheelchairs, struggling to speak or to swallow is to be confronted by a possible future. I can’t predict or control how my MS might affect me, but I found that to be a powerful motivation to work my body whilst I can. I joined a running group and began to run with other people. I still wasn’t particularly quick, but it’s funny how running with other people makes you run faster than you thought might be possible. 

MS affects everyone differently. In my case, as well as the numbness and pins & needles, I have a loss of strength on my left-hand-side and a loss of dorsiflexion in my left ankle. This didn’t stop me from running, but as I quickly learned as I began to run more often, this changed my gait and made me more susceptible to injury as my body tried to compensate for the loss of strength and power. The further I run, the more I drop my left side and the more susceptible I am to falling over. A sports specialist consultant surgeon told me that I would probably struggle to run much more than 10km and that, although it might not be my MS that stopped me from running, the compromises my body was making probably would. Naturally, I ignored him and kept running. 

In 2015, I ran my first marathon. 

To be honest, the 26.2 miles itself wasn’t my biggest concern: I was worried how my body would hold up to the 500 miles of training and the load of running 5 or 6 times a week. I didn’t set the world on fire, but running side-by-side with my wife, we made it round and raised a pile of cash for the MS Trust (we’ve raised around £40,000 in total, an amount that mainly humbles me because of the support and generosity of our friends). 

Since that day, I’ve run another 5 marathons. At Chester in 2018, I even dipped below the magical 4 hour mark (a 22 minute PB!). I’ve joined an athletics club, picked up my coaching qualifications and taken enormous pride in the achievements of the athletes I coach as they have worked their way from a couch to 5km programme to running competitive cross-country races and half marathons. 

Meanwhile, slowly and remorselessly, my MS has got worse. My legs and left ankle have slowly stiffened; I take a muscle relaxant at night to help me to sleep and I now fall over so often that I run wearing knee pads and wrist guards; my pace has slowed and my shuffling, uneven gait is causing me problems elsewhere in my body (as that specialist predicted). Stopping, you might think, may be the obvious thing to do. 

I’m not going to stop. 

Running is part of who I am. My friends are runners. Running is something that I do together with my wife. It’s vital for my mental wellbeing every bit as much as my physical wellbeing. I’m not just going to stop. 

Sure, I wish I was faster. What runner doesn’t? 

I wish I didn’t fall over so much, but really, what choice do I have? 

Do I want to stop and feel sorry for myself and the things that I’ve lost, or do I want to keep on going as best as I’m able? Is that really even a question? Precisely because it’s become harder for me, I am more aware now than I have ever been of exactly how much running means to me and I cherish every single time I get out. It’s not the falling over that’s the most important thing to consider, it’s the getting back up again. 

I have a tattoo on my weaker left ankle by the Japanese novelist and marathon runner, Haruki Murakami: pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. 

The full quote, from “What I think about when I think about running” is: 

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you think, ‘Man, this hurts, I can’t take it anymore. The ‘hurt’ part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand anymore is up to the runner himself.” 

This runner can stand the pain and isn’t done quite yet.

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