Two years ago I was exhausted, injured, overworked and suffering my fourth cold in six weeks. I was grumpy a lot of the time and don’t imagine I succeeded in hiding this from my kids.
Though there was a touch too much of it, I was excited by all the work and wanted to be able to bring my best self to it. I also had big running goals and wanted to be able to fully commit to training, but 50+ mile weeks make big energy demands, while my energy levels were through the floor. Something had to give.
I spent hours scanning everything on my plate trying to figure out what could be taken off it, and when the answer came it was obvious: if I cut out booze for a few months, I’ll get better sleep, recover from exercise better, preserve energy, and generally remove an unnecessary stress from my system. Like everyone, I’ve cut out the booze loads of times before, and although I think I once managed a month, most of those times it’s lasted less than a week.
This was different. It wasn’t “I ought to”, it was “I want to”. It was “if I do this, I might be able to manage everything else”. It might sound daft to excise such a pleasure from life in order to work and exercise harder, but these things, when I can do them well, they’re what bring me pleasure. If I didn’t do what I do for my job, I’d want to make space in my life to do it anyway for my hobby. I’m privileged to get to do what I do full-time, and I don’t want to piss away that privilege in hangovers. And I don’t know about you, but when exhausted, injured, hungover and ill I struggle to be good-humoured when the kids get me up at 6am.
So I was all-in, but after a week I was still knackered, and turning down drinks after gigs felt like I was hosting an alien. Three weeks in I caught another cold, which turned into a migraine, but I’d committed to this and I was going to give it a go and miracle cures probably don’t happen overnight.
I couldn’t tell you exactly when I started to feel better, but I do know that I ran a decent half marathon that December, then a week later won a race for the first time since school sports day 1996 (Hartlepool ParkRun, 19:something, not a stellar time but you can only race the people who show up, right?). Until March 2020 came along and detonated everyone’s plans, I was doing all the things I wanted to and giving them my best. Through that time I wasn’t always buzzing with energy – it comes and goes – but I was never ill or injured.
The plan had been to stay sober until June 3rd 2020, my fortieth birthday. When that date rolled around, instead of gathering in the function room of a pub with all my nearest and dearest, I was at home on a zoom quiz. Having a drink just seemed daft. Why not see if I can manage a year? When November 11th 2020 duly rolled around, an awful Wednesday in an awful month in an awful, when I was as unhappy as I’ve ever been, there was nothing whatever to celebrate and having a drink seemed totally absurd. So I quietly went from “I’m not drinking” to “I don’t drink”.
Two years on, my life feels eerily similar to November 2019. I’m at full capacity and fully committed. But I’m not exhausted, I’m not injured, I’m seldom grumpy, and I’ve had one cold in two years. The evidence is in. Two years, no beers: bring on the next two.
Two weeks ago saw a new record at Big’s Backyard Ultra. This most exquisitely sadistic of race formats goes as follows. At 8am, the competitors set out on a 4.1667 mile loop. At 9am, assuming they’re back in time, they do it again. And at 10am, 11am, 12pm, and every hour, on the hour - until there’s only one runner left. That person, having completed a final loop solo, is then declared the winner.
Four and a bit miles in an hour sounds easy. Doing it again: also fairly easy. A third time shouldn’t be too hard. But how long will it remain easy until it becomes difficult? When does a pile become a heap? The peculiar loop length means that after 24 hours, the remaining competitors will have completed exactly 100 miles. And counting.
The maxim of “a little and often” is applied, by the authors of books to be found for sale in railway stations, to almost every endeavour in life. Write for 4.1667 miles a day and before you know it you’ll have finished the first draft. Sip regularly from a glass of water and before you know it you’ll have drunk a hundred miles.
Run for half an hour four or five times a week and before you know it you’ll be entering races that will break you open and have you weeping in public. It’s no different to writing plays, really.
Before the recent Big’s Backyard Ultra, the record for most loops completed was 81, a total distance of well over 300 miles. On Tuesday afternoon, having begun running on Sunday morning, three runners set off on that record-equalling 81st loop. But halfway round, Terumichi Morishita fell, and blacked out. I’m pretty sure his brain, finding his body prone at last, simply overrode his declared wishes and enforced sleep.
You imagine the remaining runners willing their competitors to stop, the sooner for the suffering to be over. But that’s not how records get broken here. Once you’re the last one standing, you only get one more loop whether it’s the 2nd or the 82nd. To break the record, you need someone else to go all the way with you. Until just before the end, it takes teamwork. Only after that does it become Squid Game.
The record broken, Harvey Lewis and Chris Roberts were clearly hanging on by less than a thread. On the 84th loop, Roberts turned back, leaving Lewis only a solo 85th loop to complete in order to be declared the winner. A little and often, and before you know it you’ve covered 350 miles.
This race is obviously extreme, but the writers of the railway station WHSmith books aren’t completely daft. If you ran 4.1667 miles a day every day except Sunday, you’d cover a hundred miles a month - even in February. It doesn’t need to be National Novel Writing Month (although I think it probably is; it usually seems to be) to write 500 words a day. That’s 10,000 a month: no-one needs to write that much, just turn up every day and do something, just get round the block, just do enough to stay fit.
Often I have thoughts or feelings that I want to document on here, but it seems bizarre to post this or that having written nothing whatsoever for months. Why is this the thing that got me to break the silence? So I’m writing this post to start forming the habit. I’ve taken this idea out for a jog and after 4.1667 miles I'm back at the start line, but at least it’s exercise, and at least you now know about this stupid race. I’m not planning on posting every hour on the hour, but a little and often. Before you know it my stride will have smoothed out and I’ll look like I write prose all the time, and I’ll have written 86 loops.
It’s only another four and a bit miles.
Running with an idea
Running commentary on: