Running the Marathon at 61 / The Times
I blame Barney, my 32-year-old son.
Were it not for him the past few months would have been no more or less tolerable than any other English winter - not some sort of purgatory that is now building towards a hellish climax next Sunday [April 22].
It all began with a visit from a young friend who works for Livability, a charity that combats social exclusion by helping the disabled integrate into their communities. She said Livability had two spare places for the London Marathon. I should have thought before opening my big mouth. “I’ll do it if you do it,” I said to Barney, half in jest and never remotely expecting him to say yes.
To my horror he said just that. And so – aged 61 and having never previously run further than ten kilometres, and that was 30 years ago – I was sucked in to what has proved to be the hardest physical challenge of my life; one characterised at different times by extreme boredom, extreme pain or extreme exhaustion, and often by all three together.
I had no idea what I had let myself in for. I played tennis and squash, and was reasonably fit for my age. I knew plenty of other people who had managed to run 42 kilometres (26 miles). I arrogantly assumed that if they could I could, provided I did a moderate amount of training and went slowly enough.
That assumption barely survived our first outing - a simple five-kilometre Saturday morning ‘parkrun’ last November. Barney and I completed it. I even came second in the 60 to 65 age group, though there were probably only two contestants. But as we lay sweating and panting on the grass afterwards, we wondered how on earth we would ever run more than eight times that distance.
A month later, shortly before Christmas, I took part one evening in a 10-kilometre ‘Run in the Dark’ in London’s Battersea Park. I had done some preliminary training by then, but it made little difference. Half way through I developed an acute pain in my right knee, closely followed by an acute pain in my left knee too. Somehow I managed to limp to the finish line, but the idea of running four times as far seemed way beyond the realms of possibility.
On New Year’s Eve, while visiting my daughter in Berlin, I did another 10 kilometre ‘fun run’. Exactly the same thing happened. After six or seven kilometres both my knees seized up and – as my wife gleefully points out – I was beaten by a man wearing a straitjacket as fancy dress.
I feared I was suffering from incipient arthritis. I thought of cutting my losses and giving up, but pride forbade me. I did begin to take the enterprise a whole lot more seriously, though.
I went to a running shop, had my ‘gait’ tested, and bought some very expensive running shoes. I invested in knee braces and padded socks. I purchased assorted sports drinks, energy bars and electrolyte gels (I had no idea that running had become such a big industry).
Barney also downloaded from the internet a three-month training plan that would soon assume a tyrannical control over our lives. It entails four training sessions a week – one weights session to increase our ‘core’ strength and three relatively short runs combining sprints and jogs. The kicker comes on Sundays, when we are supposed to go not just for a seriously long run, but to increase our distance by a distinctly alarming 2.5 kilometres a week. Sundays have thus become not the day of rest that they are supposed to be, but a day to dread - a day of what I can only describe as torture.
For weeks on end we have dragged ourselves out of our beds on Sabbath mornings and set off through the streets of London, braving wind, rain and icy ‘Beasts from the East’.
We start off all right. We try to do a different route each time – up the Thames, down the Thames, through the royal parks – so we always have new sights to look at. We distract ourselves by chatting, usually about Brexit and the lamentable state of British politics. But after an hour or so we run out of breath for talking, and by the end of the second hour Barney begins to pull ahead, leaving me alone in my misery.
The pain in my knees migrates to my toes, my neck, my shoulders, groin and, worst of all, my shins. My calves tighten. My thighs begin to feel like lead. I can feel the energy draining from me. As my pace slows, young, lycra-clad whippersnappers bounce past me like human pogo sticks, and appear to be positively enjoying themselves.
Towards the end I am merely shuffling - the slowest possible form of locomotion that could still be described as running, not walking. I keep going by listening to music on my headphones. I recite poetry to myself - ‘If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew/To serve your turn long after they are gone...’. I tick off targets on the TomTom strapped to my wrist – every five kilometres to begin with, then every kilometre, and towards the end every third of a kilometre, every quarter, every tenth, every step.
By the time I get home I can barely move. I shower, eat, fall asleep on the sofa and remain horizontal for the rest of the day.
Just one surreal interlude has interrupted this long and painful slog. Last month I had to go to Botswana to write an article. Instead of the wet, grey streets of London, I found myself one day pounding on a treadmill in a safari lodge gym, watching a herd of two dozen elephants meander across a lush green floodplain outside the window. Another day I ran up and down a remote dirt airstrip in the Okavango delta, a guard driving beside me in a jeep to ward off wild animals. I like to think that I ran like an impala. The guard thought an elderly giraffe was a more apt comparison.
The marathon now dominates my life. Every day revolves around its mandatory training session. I eat porridge for breakfast, pasta for dinner and plenty of protein. I have more or less cut out alcohol. I go to bed at 10.00pm. To counter my shin splints I hobble around the house with ice packs strapped to my lower legs, a bit like a paroled convict with ankle monitors.
In my desperation to meet the following Sunday’s target, I pay attention to every tiny detail – making sure, for example, that my toe nails are cut short; measuring my progress in kilometres, not miles, because they pass quicker; or tying my laces tight enough that they will not come undone, but loose enough to allow for the inevitable swelling of my feet.
In search of inspiration, I’ve even read books on Emil Zapotek, the Czech who – incredibly - won the 5000 metres, 10,000 metres and marathon at the 1952 Olympics, and a crazed American named Dean Karnazes who once ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days.
“It was when I was out running that I felt most complete,” Karnazes wrote. “Only when I was running could I feel truly liberated from the excruciating heaviness of existence. Oftentimes running would hurt, though nowhere close to the insufferable pain of not running. Not running was death – slow, insipid death.”
I read that with incredulity. To me, right now, long-distance running seems less life-affirming than death-defying, and I yearn to return to a normal, relaxed existence. I consider ultra-marathoners to be completely bonkers.
But Barney and I have kept at it, and here’s the funny thing. We are hardly natural runners, and we will certainly not be causing Sir Mo Farah any undue worry, but slowly, almost imperceptibly, we have improved. One Sunday morning in late February we ran 22.5 kilometres and realised we had run our first half-marathon. At the end of March we broke the 30-kilometre mark for the first time. On Easter Monday (we allowed ourselves Easter Sunday off) we managed 35 kilometres (46,606 steps, according to my TomTom), though it took me four hours and 23 minutes and very nearly killed me.
I confess to feeling a certain sense of achievement: the five and ten kilometre runs with which we began now seem, quite literally, like strolls in the park. Even half-marathons now seem fairly routine.
I have enjoyed a sense of companionship with Barney – albeit one born of shared adversity. I have slept well. I have had the perfect excuse to eat voraciously. I have been fascinated to learn what my ageing body is – and is not – still capable of. I have discovered the paramount importance of willpower, and that I can run through pain. As one young friend and marathon runner told me: “The body can stand almost anything. It’s the mind you must convince.”
But it remains to be seen whether, after the Queen officially starts the London marathon on April 22, Barney and I can run a full seven kilometres further than our last supreme effort, seven kilometres further than we have every run before or will ever run again. As another marathon-running friend helpfully reminded me: “Twenty miles (32 km) is half way. It’s all about the final six!”.
It still seems an impossible feat, but those who have done it assure us that we will be sucked along by the other runners, that the crowds will lift us, and that adrenaline, excitement and the festival atmosphere will carry us home. That and the prospect – with your help, perhaps – of raising thousands of pounds for a very worthy cause.
(To sponsor Martin and Barney Fletcher, please go to: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-portal/fundraiserPage?pageId=916434)