For the first year of my son’s life I hardly ran at all. Amid the chaos of the early months of fatherhood, the furthest I ran was the double London Marathon from Big Ben to the start and back, and I was piled so high with caffeine, since he had not slept for two nights, that when it was over I could barely remember having done it at all.
The reasons were both banal and familiar. I had reached adulthood and every mile had to be stolen against the clock, and when I did go out I would, invariably, cut short the run in case something had happened in my absence. Family life became a tightly choreographed routine – each run was precursored with days of planning: when will you leave? When will you be back? Should we wait for lunch? Places I had come to know intimately with my feet, whose every elevation, texture and contour I could have once recited, were locked away in the attic with the winter running clothes.
To neuter the fear that my running days were over I bought new running shoes and, improbably, I joined the Serpentine Running Club. On Wednesdays after work I would, too rarely, join them by Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park to cover seven miles before heading to the pub. I began to realised how much my centre of gravity had shifted. My balance was off because of the weight that I had put on in the past year, and after an hour I could feel my legs disappearing off at peculiar angles as they tired. I had known, if only fleetingly, what it was like to run with grace. This was not it.
But could some form of that previous life still be captured, however fleetingly? At night I would creep, barefoot, onto the roof of our house while the family were asleep and sit looking out east to the City and the horizon towards St Paul’s and the North Downs, and imagine being out there on the pavements reeling in some mythical finish line. And it was here that I kept the dream of returning to Greece alive.
In the beginning I returned to the maps. They showed London’s postal districts packed out like squares of wheat. With the glimpse of the skyline in front of me I had the second great aesthetic revelation of my life. The maps were sublime. I had never contemplated an object as magnificent, as rich in emotion and meaning as this 1/25,000 representation of the capital. Each borough, every side street, was fully represented down to the direction from which they should be approached. I felt the thrill of human life, of millions of souls, most who would be asleep as I nudged my finger over them, unseen. This was ‘the other place’ that the novelist Haruki Murakami talked of disappearing to. Some nights I would stare at them too long and I would reconcile that the maps were far more interesting than the territory, that I could stay here and live out the adventure simply by tracing my fingers over the contours.
Apart from during races I had never run late into the night and I was tentative when it came to closing the door behind me. It is no coincidence that I started running further and harder the more settled into our new family life we all became, when my teeth no longer felt like they were going to fall out of my head from all the sugar that I was consuming just to stay awake. Over the months, night running became a counter-point to my new daily routine. I ran for hours East and North, past five storeys of empty car parks, echoing the silence of miles of uninhabited streets and dark, locked offices, into suburbs I had grown to know intimately in two-dimension. Towards dawn I would look up and find myself, as if by accident, miles from home. Next came a shift in the city’s distant commotion – the day’s beginning. I had to get off the streets. In the dark I had seen something of the runner I had once been, breath hovering out in front of me, my legs vanished completely from view as, once again, I became the single eye in motion.
What surprised me most was to see just how many people there were on the streets – running at 4am. If we acknowledged each other, it was only briefly, as is always the case. Even though it is a growing phenomenon, each of us is locked into our own reverie. We come here to get away from other people, to enjoy these precious moments of solitude before normal daylight service resumes.
Making for home down Primrose Hill and round Regent’s Park, I would scale the perimeter of Hyde Park, the runner as transgressor, finally liberated. I would turn off my head torch and switch from my fluorescent top to a black disguise to run undetected as the first planes sparkled in along the Heathrow flight path. Out the other side I waited for the traffic and when the moment came, flung each leg over the fence, scared for the first time in a long while at the thought of being caught. Through Vauxhall, Portuguese and Somali families would already be rising to get shutters up and fruit arranged on the pavement stalls. Leaves and litter spewed across the road, apocalyptically. I had reached the end of the world. Back behind the front door I would shower, change and crawl onto the roof to watch the city wake, waiting for the first yelp of the morning to indicate that the day had begun and that the adventure was over for another night.