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.

In Praise of Parkrun

I know this will be / is one of a million such articles that praises the wonders of parkrun. Its basic concept, a weekly timed 5k, free at the point of use, has been lauded by better people than me. Its basic ethos, “it’s a run not a race”, discussed and debated by many a bar room philosopher. Its impact on health endorsed by no less a person than the Chief Medical Officer (http://www.parkrun.org.uk/news/2016/03/30/chief-medical-officer-endorses-parkrun/).

However I still believe its greatest contribution is to civic society. The day after the referendum result came through we gathered at Cutteslowe and Sunnymead Park, Oxford. I have often bored people with my view that, as an atheist, parkrun is the nearest thing to my church. We gather every Saturday morning just before 9 and running has become a simple act of communion. It is where I feel closest to the world.

There was an unsuprisingly downbeat mood amongst the runners, the majority of whom I would guess voted for Remain. But there was a lack of bile and hatred too, which, on Twitter at least, seems to have become the central part of our body politic for a number of months. Our run celebrated a fun raising effort for dementia, applauded a woman who had volunteered to marshal parkruns twenty five times and clapped and lauded the final runner, number 200 who took over 50 minutes to run 5k but was treated no less important than the man who cross the line over half an hour before. Every runner achieved, every runner counted.

Parkrun may improve the health of the nation but more importantly reminds me, reminds us that civic society matters. We still have to live together.

And this (admittedly rather weak) reflection is not just a comment on where I live. I have been lucky enough to take part in parkruns from Newcastle to Sicily. The same sense of community exists at all, for all. Cameron’s Big Society is dead. Long live parkrun…

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Small is fricking beautiful

I run 10k races and above and now undertake sprint triathlons. So apart from parkruns, which as I am often reminded are runs not races, I never ‘competitively’ enter 5k races. But when my village organises an affiliated race in…..well crawling distance from where I wake up screaming every morning….it seems rude not to. Especially when the charity benefiting from any surplus from the fees is our local British Legion.

When I was a different person (Mark Mk III shall we say) and just before my father died he let slip he had been in Korea. We knew he had been part of National Service, that scheme where terrified young men were enrolled to defend Queen and Country. What we only found out at his end was he was terrified mainly because he spent time in another country whilst people lobed mortar bombs. I wonder why he never spoke of it.

But then again perhaps I do understand. A work colleague, as a Territorial (part time soldier), went to Iraq and came back a different man. And that difference was ground into him by a departing wife and his employer, a major multi national, making him effectively redundant. He didn’t fall to pieces so much as melt, loosing all his points of reference and we all did too little. I hear, from bigger friends than I, that he has endured and settled.

So a local race for a group much tarred with the wrong brush was too much to turn down. The village is over and on a hill so much merriment was caused by the course description as ‘flat’. A 5pm start seemed an odd time but in part down to village politics and manners. The summer fete needed time to clear post cream teas. We are so English.

I have to admit I was bemused by the whole thing, such a small, short race but quite simply ANY race gets my attention by the time we are called to order. Like Ardingly this race seemed to have a dearth of fun runners and I wondered, on my home patch, whether I might finally be revealed as the great wheezing old flatulent fake I am. It’s about time.

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But as the whistle blew my need to fuck my MS, tumour and blackdog fired up too. Never underestimate self hate as a motivational tool. As I often tweet, blog, my body takes a great delight in trying to cripple me. It’s going to have to try harder….

The first turn and hill was a killer and way to burn through the calories. The locals (bar the inhuman 107) paced themselves behind the pack before turning down hill. eighth at that point (I think) the downward turn lead me running against traffic but with enough steam to dance through the metal and gain traction on the bend to Denmans Lane. I was at a lovely when I heard the heavy breathing of another.

Under certain circumstances heavy breathing behind you is a good thing but in a race less so. I had to push a little but my pursuer wouldn’t fuck off. Second lap up the hill and he touched shoulders. He had no shoes.

Fuck it. I was being overtaken by a barefoot runner. Sure he was younger and looked fitter (bastard) but BAREFOOT!!! My enormous ego took over finding every ounce of energy on the downhill playing chicken with oncoming traffic. I am the Man Of Rust you will yield. Oh you’re a car, maybe not.

But a ten metres gap I thought I had disappeared even through the cross country section. Mr Big Foot had soles of steel as he began to create a gap and my limited lung capacity began to tire. I thought I had been outrun not noticing that we had both began to pass other runners in our own little battle.

And there we were, home straight. He seemed too far away…

But I came to race not to run and age has one advantage. Experience. My French friend (as he turned out to be) had spent too much on the cross country. With my lungs screaming I took him with 50 metres to go. Hard?

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What do you think?

My best ever 5k 19 minutes 57 seconds. Fuck you MS.

 

Dead ‘ard at Ardingly

As I sat on the boot lip of my car with a luke warm Erdinger Alcohol Free Wheat Beer in my hand, the sun still rising into the 5th of June, I felt a sense of……achievement. A day of rare triumph in a field in West Sussex in a race that I had probably come last in. What gives?

Just a few hours earlier I drove up to the Europa Hotel Gatwick with very different feelings. A hotel at which hope checked in but never checked out. A hotel that hadn’t just seen better days but better weeks, months and years. And a hotel that mainly smelt of boiled ham.

The White Bird Sprint Triathlon at Ardingly is a boutique race, small in number but perfectly formed. Held in the beautiful West Sussex countryside, all competitors needed to be on site at Ardingly College before 8am. Living in Oxford that meant an overnight stay, being West Sussex that meant expensive. However Gatwick wasn’t more than a 10 minute drive and lots of cheap hotels abound.

TripAdvisor is a little like the current EU referendum. Full of passionate misdirection, bile and opinionated grandstanding. Europa had a terrible write-up but was cheap. So many people are hotel snobs so… However there are times no matter how low your expectations are the reality under shoots. Not so much a hotel with a large car park more a wasteland with rooms. But check in was pleasant, the room airless but functional and I have stayed in worse including one memorable occasion in Cambridge when someone tried to kick the door down post wedding party. I miss the 90s.

I wasn’t going to sit in all night and with the car in one of the last spaces in the ‘hotel’ parking I wasn’t driving either. Rammed against the M23 the nearest place to head was Crawley so out of the frying pan I caught a bus into town. Some places catch your imagination either through their history, culture or the people. My last sprint tri was at York, a city I love for all three. Sadly Crawley is an experience that does not begged to be repeated. Starbucks (sorry) and a film (The Nice Guys) then a taxi back to get my head down.

After a surprisingly good nights sleep, considering I could have crowdsurfed onto the motorway, I was eating my obligatory instant porridge and raisins before waving good-bye to the Europa and driving to Ardingly. Within a few minutes I was deep into the countryside.

Ardingly. Achingly beautiful. Oh my Lord maybe it was the bright sunshine, maybe the contrast with Crawley. Maybe, maybe, maybe but as I drove up to the College and parked in the field for the competitors I felt at peace. Well at least until I had a chance to size up the competition. Then I felt panic.

I am a good runner. On the age related ratings (ARR) systems I now count as ‘elite’ and get pissed at myself if I am not in the top 10% of any race at 10k or below. For super sprint and sprint triathlons my swimming is so poor that if native American my name would be Floats Without Purpose. So I hope to get into the top third but accept that is a push. That is helped by the fact that the world is full of morons who think the word ‘sprint’ means ‘easy’ so there are aways those that fuck themselves into the ground by the time the final discipline starts.

Ardingly though had a smaller, more focussed intake. No fun runners or twatheletes. Novices allowed but, apart from my Asthma UK vest, no evidence of fund raising. Just lean and muscular competitors with a sense of purpose. Very few ridiculous bikes, (always a bad sign when true) but no bone shakers either. This was the lost tribe of serious triathletes and I was the fake in the pack.

As tribes go though they were awfully friendly and as I sat outside the pool block waiting for the race briefing I realised I could out run most, I just needed to ensure the rest of my game was no more than normally horrendous. The race director (Paul from Hedgehog Tri) was funny and constantly interrupted by his radio. A lack of volunteers this year meant they were stretched and using the airwaves more than normal. A reminder we must all make more of an effort to volunteer if we want to compete.

He made a point about the need to switch down to your lowest gear in the final part of the bike race which I did not understand. He then wished us well and we were on our way. The White Bird began to fly 🙂

Queuing for the pool I started to talk to the woman in front of me and swap tri stories. She’d given birth not more than 9 months before and was planning an Ironman. She had that mad look us converts and zealots get and I guess if her man had refused to look after the baby she would have strapped her daughter to her back and done it anyway. I am not criticising. You are looking at the man who scoured the pharmacies of Barca two years ago for a supplier of Dicloflex just to compete and not keel.

It was small pool so, even though it was a small race of just over 40 of us and even at start times of 30 second intervals, the pool soon became human porridge. I passed one person, was passed by more but was soon out in the bright sun, jogging a couple of hundred metres uphill to the bikes. Unlike last time in York I rememered where I racked mine…

Then off to the beautiful countryside on one of the hilliest courses I have even done. And it was beautiful. The fields of England in glorious technicolour. The old houses and estates, a viaduct or two. If it wasn’t for a couple of arsehole drivers it would have been pretty much perfect. One Jag at a junction decided it would be hilarious just to sit there. No traffic coming, no reason to stop but hey. Having lost a minute there my mood darkened. It being a race of few people there were few people to chase which is how I pace myself.

Through pure anger I managed to regain momentum and saw a pack of three riders ahead by about half a click, two I recognised at the brothers who started their swim 3 minutes before me. In my head I had named them the Non Brownlees and had wondered whether they were beatable. Twenty years younger, sure but….

And there they were. Could I catch them on my bike on the straight before the finish? I was so close.

The the race director’s words became flesh. The lowest gear. I turned a corner, went up a hill at speed, quick plateau before hitting a sheer cliff face. Or at least that is what it felt like. I could not drop gears fast enough and almost fell off the bike as the momentum disappeared up my own arrogance.

Just about regaining control, remaining upright and reaching the top gasping for breadth I could see the College just a short distance away. Some dignity retained but the Non Brownlees were obviously long gone and I red faced. Passing the marshal, my feet numb, stumbling to rack the bike I realised I couldn’t find my space. A sort of reverse stupidity to what happened at York. Not the end of the world because you can rack anywhere but I had left a carbohydrate gel knowing that this sprint was longer than York. Too tired to swear I found my space, my gear and a second wind. Time to run.

Achingly beautiful Ardingly was also the arch deceiver. What started out as jog through the green and pleasant playing fields of the college quickly descended into a cross country run with the final stretch of each lap up a muddy hill through a forest. I have two photos. The first at the beginning (“I am a running god, bow beneath me puny running course”) the second on the final lap (“Oh fuck I can’t feel my legs, where’s me Mum?”).

I normally sprint to the finish, this time less so. Passed on the line by a younger, fitter triathlete (bastard) he complimented me on my running style. I was too tired to care. But I had finished, not come last and…..passed the Non Brownlee’s on the final lap 🙂

22nd out of 44 who finished. 6th in the run but *coughs* in the swim.

That was the hardest sprint I have done but I have come to believe that nothing is impossible. The only question is time. With MS, tumour and blackdog how much time do I have?

Tick tock.AE5Q4275-(ZF-9092-22353-1-002)