“Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—-and for me, for writing as well.”
― Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
First, a story*.
I don’t always feel good at the end of a run. Sometimes I feel downright awful. My hamstrings bark, my back tightens up, and the rev counter on my internal motor flickers down around zero – barely enough to propel me back up the stairs to my apartment.
On those occasions, I don’t feel sexy either. I go an unpleasant shade of red and my cock shrivels to the size of…well, you get the idea. I’m an assault to the senses: the way I look, feel, taste, smell, and even sound is fundamentally unattractive.
Every now and then though…
Her house was at the top of a hill on the other side of Oxford. I ran there under duress. “Your training plan says you have to do five miles today anyway,” she said. “You might as well come here so I can feed you at the end of it.”
I didn’t really want to be fed – and I certainly didn’t want to cap off a five-mile run with a hilltop finish – but Emma was insistent. As I puffed my way up towards her front door, a sulky, resentful voice started to whisper in my ear. Stupid girlfriend, with her stupid sodding house, on a stupid sodding hill, it muttered.
I was prepared to keep up the self-righteous grumbling for several hours, but the look on Emma’s face when she saw me on the doorstep put an immediate stop to that impulse. She pulled me close and gave me a deep, hungry kiss, her hand on my arse. When she stepped back again, her smart work blouse was dark with the sweat from my t-shirt. To my eyes, she’d rarely looked sexier.
I followed Emma to the kitchen, my aching body struggling to adjust to the unexpected surge of endorphins and the sudden, slightly primal arousal.
“Dinner will be another 20 minutes,” she said. “You want a cup of tea?”
I nodded, and watched as she reached up to the cupboard to fish out a mug. Her top rode up, and I had visions of her naked body under mine on the living room floor, legs wrapped around my waist. I couldn’t wait that long though. Emma half-turned to look back at me, but I was already close behind her, my hand sliding round her throat to hold her head in place.
I kissed her with the same ferocity she’d shown in the doorway. With my other hand, I gripped her wrist and guided her to the bulge in my running shorts. She slid her fingers inside the waistband, peeled my boxers away from hot, damp skin, curled them around my cock and squeezed…
Somewhere upstairs we heard her housemate walk across the landing to the bathroom, but both of us were past caring about social niceties by that point. I yanked down her knickers and pushed her skirt up around her waist. She braced herself against the cupboard, legs spread.
“You want it? Are you wet for m…”
“God, I’ve been wet ever since I looked out of my bedroom window and saw you running up that hill. Just fuck me already.”
I reached under Emma’s top as I nudged the head of my cock inside her. My hand pressed against her stomach, the fingers sweeping out and inching upwards to nestle in the crease under her heavy tits, already slippery with sweat.
Before I could move any higher, she batted my hand aside and pushed back hard onto my cock. Braced against a solid surface like that, she was able to match my thrusts; it was less a smooth fuck than a series of ragged, violent collisions, as I fought a losing battle to hold her in place.
My knees buckled just seconds before hers, nearly sending both of us flying. Instead we collapsed onto the cold granite floor, and she rolled onto her back so I could slide back inside her cunt.
We eventually found our way up to Emma’s bedroom, where everything slowed down. The lactic acid started to work its way into my muscles, and my slightly shaky, adrenaline-fuelled hunger settled into a more normal level of desire.
Emma rode me without breaking eye contact, a half-smile on her face; it faded only as she clenched hard around my cock, and at that point I became entirely too distracted to notice it anyway.
Every now and then, I think of that fuck. I think of it when I run in the buttery sunshine of a midsummer evening, and I feel sexy, regardless of how awful I look.
“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.”
― Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
I was 28 years old when I decided to run a marathon. It was August 2009, and my 30th birthday was 23 months away. “I should have a ‘thing I’m going to do before I’m 30’,” I said to my friend in the pub one night. We batted a few ideas back and forth, and eventually settled on running a marathon because, hey, why not?
The following September, we lined up together in the cool drizzle of an autumnal Sunday morning, ready to join 40,000 other people on a 26.2-mile slog around the streets of Berlin. Neither of us really knew what we were doing – I had trained in a gleefully amateur fashion, while he was there only because I’d bullied him into joining me – but the whole thing felt like an adventure, so excitement broadly outweighed trepidation. Just about.
And until I reached the 34km marker, that remained the case. I’d nearly choked on an energy gel pack after about 15k, but having regained my equanimity I’d floated serenely around the course, swept along by the sense of occasion, and by the crowds of runners and supporters who swarmed together to help shield me from the reality of what I was pushing my body through.
At 34k though, something inside me just crumbled. Long-distance running ultimately boils down to the battle between mind and body; to the tipping point at which your brain waves the white flag, and stops resisting the double whammy of muscle/joint pain and aerobic exhaustion. At 34k, my race was run; I closed my eyes as the final wave swept over me, eroding the last of my willpower and slowing my legs to a begrudging, heartbroken walk.
I don’t remember much about the next 5 kilometres, because even at the time I tried to ignore their passing. I ran and walked in equal measure, setting myself little targets each time I found a new energy reserve. “The next corner,” I’d tell myself. “The next corner – then you can walk again.”
As I went over Potsdamer Platz, with a little under two miles to go, I rallied. Someone in the crowd waved at me, and called out my name (they’re printed under your race number). “Go on, C___!” she shouted. “Not far to go now – you can do it!” I remember looking round to try and see her face, but between my blurred vision and the dense crowds lining the routes the noise seemed to come from every person I passed. It felt for just one moment like the whole of Berlin was cheering me on.
Four hours and nine minutes after crossing the start line, I staggered past the line of volunteers handing out medals, dispensing water, and guiding confused, wobbly finishers towards the changing tents. Even though I was fairly sure I wasn’t going to vomit, I felt nauseated – as much from the disorientation and mental fatigue as from the physical pain.
Heading back to the hotel (without my friend, who finished 20 minutes later) I twice took the wrong line on the U-Bahn; it was as if my brain was struggling to process the 360 degree world around me after four hours spent focusing only on the road ahead, and on my own increasingly fragmented thoughts.
Two days later, I posted this photo on Facebook.
Two days after that, the blackened nail on my right pinkie toe fell off; it would be another six weeks before the same finally happened to the nail on my left pinkie. I flew back to England still in considerable pain, compounded by several days of trudging up and down steps at U-Bahn stations across the city (not sure ‘disabled access’ has a German translation…).
I looked down over the city from my window seat as the plane circled round to the west, and whispered two words.
It was when the numbers disappeared that I started to consider it again in earnest.
People often ask me about my green wristband. They assume I must be showing my support for a particular charity, and I sometimes feel awkward explaining that no, I wear it only because it helps to remind me of that day. Of a time when I said to myself “I’m going to do this thing,” and then went ahead and did it, albeit in slightly half-arsed fashion. That’s been important over the last few years, especially at times when I’ve fallen short of other goals I’ve set myself.
I had the numbers stamped into the wristband the day after the marathon. 04:09:03, they said, and I looked at them most days over the months and years that followed, until they finally faded away. The nine minutes and three seconds nagged at me for a long time. They seemed emblematic of failure; of the 5km in which my body had let me down, sabotaging the loose goal I’d set myself when I woke up on the morning of the race.
That’s the good kind of failure though, because it ultimately inspires you to push past the bad memories and past the awareness of just how much it’ll fucking hurt. Without that sort of infuriating inspiration, most of us wouldn’t achieve half of what we ultimately drive ourselves to do. We wouldn’t explore those outer edges of our individual limits, and we certainly wouldn’t fully exert ourselves within them.
I was 33 years old when I decided to run my second marathon. I’ll be 34 when I line up in Berlin, ready to feel the pain once more and to decide how much I’m willing to suffer. How close I want to get to my limit.
I’m both more and less confident this time. My training will be more structured, and it’s certainly started much earlier. I know my body better, I think, which makes it easier to know when to push and when to ease off. On the other hand I was completely injury-free back in 2010, which feels like a minor miracle in hindsight, given my rather haphazard approach to the whole project. I’m also older, not that five years ought to make such a difference at this point in life. Not physically, at least.
“As I run I tell myself to think of a river. And clouds. But essentially I’m thinking of not a thing. All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.”
― Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Someone asked me recently what I think about when I run. Like Murakami, I enjoy the way ‘nostalgic silence’ often descends upon me as the miles pass under my feet. It feels like a very pure way to achieve total mental relaxation, and there are times when I value that more than just about anything else in life.
I can’t always do it though, and I’ve learned to accept that too. To embrace it, in fact. As I ran around my home town on Saturday morning, I felt restless and twitchy; my attention wandered off every couple of minutes, and became progressively harder to rein back in. Instead of getting anxious, I decided to harness the unexpected hyperactivity. I forced myself to go back to that 34km marker in 2010; to visualise running past it, with strength still in my legs and a clear sense of purpose. I broke down the last 8k almost stride-by-stride. I even allowed myself to see the finish line, and to imagine the relief I’d feel if I crossed it with the number 3 still shining bright on the left-hand side of the electronic clock.
Sometimes we need to open ourselves up to that pain – to the ‘optional suffering’. Without it, we wouldn’t know how much we wanted to go back; to reassess our limits, and find a way to push ourselves out towards them.
* A fundraising expert told me last week that storytelling was an effective tool to use when trying to attract sponsorship. I think this is what she meant.
I’m running the Berlin Marathon for Shelter, which is an AWESOME charity that needs way more love and support than it currently gets. They do great work to help people struggling with housing issues and homelessness, and I’m proud to be doing this on their behalf.
It’s sobering to think that if I hit my target and finish in just under four hours, another 26 families back in Britain will lose their home while I’m out on the marathon course. That fact alone makes me super-motivated not just to hit my £750 fundraising target, but to smash it.
If you’d like to sponsor me – and to contribute to a thoroughly worthwhile cause – you can do so here. Thanks for reading 🙂