Continuavano a chiamarlo Trinità

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What is it that makes a man, defines him?

Before you run away this is not going to be some BS blog about the glories of manliness and how the great feminazi conspiracy has kept me from my rightful place as pack leader. I am a white middle class middle-aged bloke living in the South East of one of the most prosperous countries on Earth . There is no glass ceiling based on my chromosome count, more of a glass platter with some rather good cheese on…

What makes a man then or at least what traits are more likely to be evident in men than women? Two things come to mind but this blog concentrates on one – our love of numbers.

To be clear I don’t mean maths. I have two kids. One loves the subject the other abhors it but both love numbers. They love to quantify things. I still chuckle when I remember taking a group of 9 year olds to football practise a while back and listening in to an argument over ‘favorite moons’. They were all compiling verbal lists and collating a winner (Phobos since you ask, my vote for Europa roundly ignored…).

Men tend to love to quantify, to measure, to number. This maybe no more than conditioning. From an early age we look at league tables and memorize sport stats. I don’t believe or pretend this to be an exclusively male trait but it seems heightened within us or within the men and boys I know.

And within me as I am utterly driven by ‘threes’.

Nothing exists until it is repeated, done or measured three times. Once? Pointless, a single point on a curve. Pah. Twice? So what, a simple echo. Three times…..ooooooo….ding dong.

I use to think that this was an affectation of my (failed) training as a biologist. Three is the smallest number any meaningful statistics can be performed on and then only just. My doctorate, written mainly in the alcoholic afterglow from the Jabez Clegg or Mantos, was littered with data points repeated 3 to 5 times. But as I said I think the need to count, to replicate, to quantify runs deeper than that. It is a defining characteristic.

My MS wasn’t real until the third attack. I couldn’t process the spinal tumour until the third scan (which I paid for myself). I could go on.

But the same applies to my running and triathlon. I have run 5k races timed under 20 minutes only twice in my life. But I will not call myself a sub 20 minute runner until I hit it three times. I can retire from half marathons because I ran three under the target I set (90 to 99 minutes). If not, knee problems or not, I would keep trying. In my head all that the Great South Run in 69 minutes means is I now have a target. At least two more 10 mile races that have, just have to be under 70 minutes. I’ve already signed up to Salisbury in April and the Great South again. My MS and comorbidities means I push the pace a little. Get the trinity done. Move on. Tomorrow it may not be possible.

This post was to celebrate but also to explain the last 6 weeks. To fund raise for Asthma UK I set myself three challenges. The Great North, the Barca Sprint and the Great South. It hurt. It was stupid. But if it wasn’t three challenges, it wouldn’t have been a challenge at all.

That’s it till the new season. An early Season’s Greetings and see you at the starting line at Milton Keynes in March.

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Breast(stroke) is best…

It rained, it was cloudy but, by fuck, it was good.

Having changed sponsors from Garmin to Santander apparently mid-stream the organisers had made a number of changes to the triathlon this year. Normally it has been a festival of sorts, lasting three days with the race on the Sunday. But a more subdued organisation prevailed this year, opening quietly on the Saturday to pick up race packs, roads being closed late Saturday night and the dismantling of the course by mid-afternoon Sunday.

In the past they had separate racking areas for those doing the Olympic distance to those doing the Paralympic (sprint) and super sprint races. This year it was all as one which was cosy. Whether that meant that less people had signed up to it I don’t know. It felt smaller and the course slightly different. Add to that pot I couldn’t hire the bike I wanted and had to accept a heavier one and my ongoing knee injuries I approached the day a slightly diminished figure.

But there are certain things that raise a smile. For some it’s the smell of freshly baked bread. For some it’s that first cup of tea in the morning. For me it’s racking the bike (heavy or not) and heading towards the water’s edge.

 

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Second wave. Far too fast for a rusted out bag of scrawn like me. An estimated time based more on a moment of hope than experience as I entered all those months ago. Second wave, expected time between 70-80 minutes for the Paralympic distance. With my bones and based on realistic expectations, 100 minutes made more sense. This was not a moment of self-hate on the sea shore. I remembered that I can’t really swim…

Yup. My eye sight is so bad (minus 10 or so *coughs gently*)  that I have to swim with glasses. You can get prescription googles but at that strength they bend reality as well as light and the one pair I tried (custom made) leaked. Pointless for swimming over any distance. Swimming with glasses means one thing. Breast stroke. Slow, ponderous but gets you there in the end.

In pool triathlons I end up starting way back on the list as, for the uninitiated, pool triathlons have staggered starts with competitors ranked by estimated swim speed and separated by 20 second intervals. Not a problem. I know my place…

But my optimism when I entered the triathlon earlier in the year was coming into sharp relief standing in the sand. Second wave (out of eight I think); would I even finish the sea swim before the last wave?

The sea is a cruel Mistress someone once said (God, I’m eloquent….) but she is also a great leveller. Freestyle may be faster in a flat pool or calm lake but many of the Catalan triathletes ended up attempting to swim through the water whilst end (up to a point) skimmed. I can’t swim, I really can’t but I wasn’t last to get the shore from my wave and only one or two from the wave behind caught me. I actually passed a couple from the first! I fell onto the shore and with little breath and less composure managed to make it into the stadium and pick up the bike.

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I realised two things. Firstly my knees were holding up. Secondly I hadn’t adjusted the bike straps for my trainers making me Dr Twat, Head of Twatology, Cretin University. Having wasted a minute (crucial in a sprint) trying to adjust the pedals with cold non-functioning hands (thank you multiple sclerosis for removing working opposable thumbs when cold) I legged it with the bike to the next stage and pedalled as fast I could without the extra power and speed strapping would have allowed.

Twenty uneventful kilometres later (save for a drafting argument in a language I don’t speak over a rule that makes little sense for this tri) I was off on the final sprint. And, as per normal, passing many of those ‘better’ swimmers earlier. Paced by a young Catalan lad (thank you 1984 your time is most definitely not up) I crossed the finishing line in a personal best of 82 minutes and 15 seconds. With this body, riven with an angry immune system and uncertain spine let alone aged knees this was an excellent result.

 

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What threw me (and still does) was my run time. 5k in 19.47minutes. Formally timed and perfectly formed, only the second time I have run 5k in under 20 minutes in an official race. Maybe I am more second wave than I thought.

Next stop the Great South in under two weeks. Will my knees hold?

Watch this space…

Barcelona or Bust.

On Thursday I go back to Barcelona for the second part of my fundraising for Asthma UK but also to say hello again to a city that has become as much as my psyche as Liverpool, Amsterdam and Boston. There are many triathlons but only one Barcelona, a city that starts with a waterfront and ends with a mountain. A place that hosted my closest friend’s stag weekend and the airport where I sat nursing a beer before returning to bury my father and close that chapter of my life forever. 

Over two years ago, after pulling my back the day before, I ‘stood’ on the beach caught up in the entire stupidity of it all. Dosed up on dicloflex, I gingerly entered the Mediterranean and swam for my own lost cause before somehow getting on a bike and limping over a finishing line so far behind everyone else it was laughable. Well it would have been but I was slightly out of my tree. Dicloflex on an empty stomach….*giggles*

Last year, recognised as that fuckwit English man who fell into the sea, I got it right. A little local knowledge, a lot of proper training and not pulling your back makes all the difference. I sprinted from my multiple sclerosis and passed the finish line. I live I live I live 🙂

And this year? October the 9th? Well I start with one advantage and one problem. I am fitter than I have been since I was 16. I am lighter than a 16 year old too. The problem is I have pushed myself too far and done too much. A wonderful (and for me fast) Great North Run has knackered my knees adding a different element of pain to my life. Not overwhelming by any rational standards and nothing in comparison to so many in my MS tribe but I’ve gone from running half marathons to be limited to 5 miles max. The fun has (temporarily) gone.

I will get round Barca. The crowds will be their normal generous and loud selves. I hope to come back no further diminished and with fun reinstated if not through the triathlon then because of the finest selection of non alcoholic lagers outside Madeira. Oh and a meeting with some clinical researchers at the marvellously named UNIBAPS.

But that is a story for another time. 😕

Wish my knees luck.

Limping with Both Legs

So there it is then. The first leg of my season finale done in fine style. The Great North Run done in 93 minutes allowing me to complete a bucket list wish – three half marathons in the 90 minute range.

Truth be told I have never enjoyed running long distances. The training can be tedious, hours out on the roads and fields. Old injuries from a lifetime away flare up. Warm downs can take longer than the training itself. Preparing for autumn events can break into a summer better spent reading books and lying on the beach. I had been told my right knee was at risk of serious damage and I should consider stopping. I misheard and stopped considering.

The Great North is less of a run for the first kilometer, more of the largest lycra fetish event ever. The crowding in the pens meant I felt real kinship with battery hens and as you literally shuffle out onto the less than open roads your first instinct is to bomb a little, to get some distance between you and the pack. The pack, obviously, has the same idea…

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So even after a kilometer or two you are still sprinting to ‘get away’. My first 5k was as good as the vast majority of my parkrun time. My first 10k the fastest 10k I have ever done. At 15k I was on for a sub 90 minute time. But obviously there was a price to pay.

At 15k I had a twinge. In the left leg. After all that worry and concern the left leg started to complain. Having to slow down was not what was on the agenda but as my body adjusted to ‘protect’ the left, everything began to moan. I am a scrawny old man so I run mainly on empty anyway. With 1.5k to go the 95 minute pacer caught up with me and, stupidly, male pride overtook  human sensibility. Gritting teeth I sprinted home, passing a few of the delirious who had mistimed completely and momentarily enjoying the announcement over the finishing line tannoy that “the first of the charity runners” were coming home.

With little time before my flight home (told you I was stupid) I had little time to warm down. I had to get back to my AirBnB, shower and check in. At this point both knees had gone and I began limping with both legs. The flight, apart from a small crying child and Denise Lewis (no connection) was uneventful. The coach back home survivable. Sadly both my knees were shot.

To this day I have no idea what damage has been done. The pain has subsided but only a fool what suggest I am back to normal whatever normal is for a man with MS and a tumour named Nigel. I have the Barcelona Sprint Triathlon in under two weeks and, for a reason I don’t quite understand, the Great South (a 10 miler) in just under four weeks. I managed a moral boosting 20.28 at the Shrewsbury Parkrun on Saturday but am not so stupid that I don’t know that race was more body memory than new achievement. More wounded animal screaming across the line than anything else. The knees are gone, another clock starts to tick.

So why keep going? Because if it is a choice of letting my body eat itself or running it into the ground then it is no choice at all. As I keep saying, if the MS or Nigel wants me they are either going to have to run faster or risk finding nowt left to feed on.

See you on the beach…

 

MS, Mortality and Me – Rusting For Ever

The Great North is but a few days away. As it stands the forecast looks perfect. Cloudy, 17 degrees etc. My race number has turned up and I’ve been put in the C Pen on the day. For those who don’t run (really?) it is common practise to group runners according to ability so a C ranking is frankly astounding for me considering they pen all the way to group M, I think. Just shows how far I have come over the past year or so.

I’ll be tail running the Harcourt Hill Parkrun on Saturday before getting a train up to Newcastle. I have a room booked and flight back to London on Sunday. The flight is at 3.45pm to encourage me NOT to dawdle during the race. I need to finish in 1 hour 39 mins or less to hit the target I set and retire from Half Marathons. An old knee injury from way back when and the funny way I run have conspired together. The knee pain on longer runs is……unpleasant. So pain or not, I’ll have to run fast or I’ll miss my flight.

The pain today is just an ache. I am doing the accepted routine of tapering, reducing the amount of running before I race. I hit my peak (just over 20K in 1 hour 33mins) early August and yesterday was down to 12.5k. One quick jog on Wednesday (5 miles) and that is the last sweat til Sunday.

Tapering though has not been without its problems. I run everywhere and don’t stop for holidays. Every time I come up off a steroid drip I find it hard to get back into an exercise routine so holidays can’t be a self-defeating excuse. After my peak 20k run we all flew off to a Portuguese volcanic island in the middle of nowhere. Idyllic yes. Flat, erm, not so much.

Before we left I had used MapMyRun, a wonderful little app, to help plot a circuit to minimise the wearing on the knee. I had worked out a course where the elevation was no more than 70m which seemed fine. The first Sunday abroad the kids were occupied at lunch so it seemed a good time to go. Yes it was 27 degrees but I’d run in hotter and the humidity? Pah.

I had to do the circuit six times to hit 17.5k. And that 70m elevation was all front loaded. After one lap I could see, perhaps, on reflection, 1 pm with the sun overhead wasn’t the best time to be doing this. By lap three my eyeballs needed windscreen wipers as the sweat poured forth. As I started lap four I could see six laps was going to be more imaginary than real and as I finished that lap my better self (rarely seen but available on request) decided to intervene and insist on just one more circuit. Even that wasn’t possible.

As I finished the elevation my legs began to fail as did any coherency of thought. I had just enough about me to realise my only friend left was the force of gravity so turned round and head down hill. As I reached back ‘home’ I pissed myself.

Reading that again I understand that sounds bleak. I have always described my condition as Diet MS. When the tumour was then discovered I named it Nigel. When the blackdog returned (in the guise of BDD) I out ran it. It’s not a case of whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Much more you play the hand that is given. With luck you can game that hand and that’s what I have been doing.

My father, before he died of a broken heart, was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had immense difficulty with the consequences. A man of his generation, his lack of bladder control became one of the walls in which he hid from polite society. My MS tribe know this problem well. For women who have given birth, a weakened pelvic floor mean leakage at the end of a race is not unusual and why many such runners prefer black shorts and leggings. However, the loss of bladder control was a new one for me. And I mean loss not leak.

I have heard about hitting a wall when running longer distances but this was the first time I had done so myself. I think, in many ways, this save me from too much introspection. My legs were jelly and I was full on mumblecore. The fact I slightly smelt of a distant dark corner of Paddington Station was neither here nor there. I had run when it was too hot, too humid and without at least a walk around of the circuit beforehand. The consequences were predictable and a reminder that as much as I joke I have to be honest. I have MS. I am mortal. Hear me mumble…

After the obvious shower and lie down I spent some time working out what next. I now realised that I did have a physical endurance limit and actually took some strange comfort knowing what borderline delirium felt like. It IS good to know and better to know in those circumstances with support than finding out half way through a race, God knows where. But I can’t stop. I maybe rusting forever but I cannot stop.

I started from scratch, running four laps a couple of days later, earlier in the morning when the temperature was more conducive to that sort of stupidity. There were no ill effects from the fuck up run and what I drank before had either sweated out or was stored for later (“coughs gently”). A couple of days after that, 8.30 in the morning, I headed off for the full 17.5k.

There was cloud which helped. I took it easy to start with on the elevation and didn’t bomb the downhill part. Any downhill is always hard on the knees and lower legs anyway. The pace gave me time to think. My MS and all its little comorbidities have begun to bite but this doesn’t mean giving up on my targets, just rethinking how to achieve them. Maybe I do need to run a little slower.

But as I turned the corner on the sixth and last circuit and began to run down to the sun rising over the Atlantic Ocean I saw something beautiful. The light was making patterns on the water that Sir Issac Newton would have been proud of and I am with the Issacs. As I approach the Great North Run, slower than I would have hoped, but running still all I can do is repeat my mantra.

“Fuck you MS”.

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Running Up That Hill – Training for the Great North

Standard practise for training for any race above 10 miles is ramping up then ramping down the distances. With the Great North on the 11th of September I am now at the putting in the miles stage. Yesterday I ran 15k.

All runners, training properly, have to be careful. As a man with MS and a number of other co-morbidities I have more rust than most to contend with. Many of my tribe will tell you the effects of heat and humidity on their MS. The pins and needles, the neuropathic pain that no drug ever alleviates, the issues around balance. So what kind of twat goes running with MS during 25ºC and 70%?

That’s Dr Twat to you…

I gave up ‘proper’ running in 2011. I had set myself a target of three 10k in under 50 minutes but I felt my time was coming to a close. My condition meant that after about 8k my left arm and hand began to have a life of their own (better than mine, bastards) and my right knee would shriek in pain from an old football injury when I was 16 or so. Running had become disturbing. I felt the need to stop.

At the Town and Gown that year I just scraped over the finishing line in 49 minutes 58 seconds. I felt like shit, no denying it, but in so many ways I had let myself go, putting a brave face on it, obvs….P1040193

13 stone 9 pounds. Lovely. Anyway I still ran shorter distances. Heat still was a problem but I made sure I never ran over 8k so still had my left arm and hand to myself. Thankfully I had a relapse in 2013.

Yes you can read that again. Thankfully. At the time it was awful. The way your body all of a sudden becomes ever so slightly less yours, more distant, any relapse is a tragedy. By the standards of my tribe it was a reasonably light affair though. Balance, exhaustion, neuropathic pain and confused nerve endings. Months past and remission came but I lost the ability to drink and so a silver lining emerged.

As my weight began to drop Christmas that year I wondered whether my knee might just be up for a longer run. It was. 10k not just once over the holidays but four times cross country. The weight kept falling and I kept running. I started proper training for triathlons. Short ones (I am not mad you know) but the weight kept falling and I kept running. I did the Goring 10k in 47 minutes on a bitterly cold March morning. Nothing hurt or screamed (apart from my lungs).

The MS though abhors a vacuum and as soon as the temperature got to ‘mild’ my nerve endings decided to play thrash metal music as soon as I ran much past 5k. It is such a curious thing. The confusion of the signals coming back (fire pit? ants biting? have I pissed myself?) is, as you can see, difficult to explain. Now I could run longer though, something very odd was happening. After 8k or so the symptoms died down. As if the thrash metal band had finished their set and headed back the Green Room for groupies and hash. *coughs gently at this analogy*

So I pushed it a little more. Then some more. Then my first half marathon in 1 hour 36 minutes. 3 stone lighter and ready to roar.OHAB1825-20x30

So here I am. Training for the Great North. The extra running (even with the lack of weight) means the knee is painfully again. My excellent physiotherapist Andrea (she who must be obeyed) believes I need to learn how to run properly but with the Great North, Barca Tri and Great South this year I don’t have time. Maybe next year 🙂

So I run the hills around where I live. 15k yesterday hurt. My age, my MS, my other comorbidities (a spinal tumour called Nigel, my prehensile tail FFS) mean that my post run routine is longer than the run itself. Getting liquid inside me. Carbing back up. Protein for the muscle damage. Cooling off (which ironically temporarily gets the thrash metal band to lay off the groupies and put the pipes down….) followed by a Andrea mandated stretching session and a long long bath. A 70 minute run morphs into an afternoon. It’s dull.

But I’ll take dull. Dull means normality. Dull means, at least for the moment, I am still out running my fate.

Next week 17.5K. Keep up.

The Truth About Steroids – part 2

Last night I was an ass.

Through a combination of coincidence and bad luck (for the people who had to watch me) I ended up playing Bottom as part of a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of a local acting troupe. I can only marvel at the dedication and ability of all those who surrounded me. The audience too came to laugh, to be part of something bigger. The weather, though cold, decided to be lenient and what prevailed was a throughly English evening as the sun went down on a performance of the original, perhaps the best, of all the Carry On scripts Shakespeare ever wrote.

But tomorrow…

My neurologist just called. Canadian by birth but English by inclination he started the call over apologising for the intrusion on a Sunday. He wanted to confirm my treatment for MS from tomorrow, three days on a steroid drip. I have written about this before but I have lied. I have made merry on the chaos that half a gram of steroids a day creates but not the depression it imbues.

For tomorrow I will go a little mad and a lot dark. My now natural inclination for self hate, normally contained by my own situation and polite society, will be allowed more licence to fuck me over. As the drugs infuse and as I lose the abilities of reason and balance, I will take a good hard look at myself. And the steroidal version of me will weigh and judge and find me wanting.

I have a choice. Steroids are not compulsory. Other treatment regimes are available. But steroids have become my totem of choice. The damage they do both physically and spiritually are balanced against the work they do slapping my immune system so intent on killing me. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. On balance my better, but shrinking self believes this to be something to endure. I run, a lot. I get to be a viable (if occasionally distant) father.

As time goes on however I wonder whether this is just another form of subtle self harm. No logic no reason just punishment so richly deserved for every crime and misdemeanour. I guess I will never know.

I don’t write this particular blog entry for comment. Please don’t. I do write it for the ‘record’ (the arrogance!) and as a marker. I get the comments about being a lucky man, I really do. But, like many people, MS or otherwise, I am worn by the niceties of life and ground down by absurdities of my situation.

Last night I was an ass. Tomorrow an arsehole. That seems about right.