Ah, pain. I missed you.
It’s a subject close to the heart of every ultra-distance running. Like the Eskimos and their 180 different words for snow, runners categorise pain in multiple ways, and are familiar with all of them.
Last Saturday marked the first ultra of the 2013 calendar. 250 runners lined up at the Shoulder of Mutton pub in Wendover for a 45-mile canter to Little Venice in London. There were many familiar faces, and most talked of grand ambitions for the year – a first hundred-miler here, a double Spartathlon there. This was not idle bragging, but a carefully orchestrated testing of the water: get through the mud, sleet, wind and the pain and the year’s off to the right start.
I did not, though, expect to see someone line up with their arm in plaster. It was not clear whether it was a broken arm, or just the wrist. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. I did hear him fend off one questioning spectator by saying ‘well, I’m not going to run on it, am I?’, Nor did I expect to read later of a runner, who had covered this course more times than I’ve done sit-ups, say that she had been hit by piriformis pains at mile 13 and still finished. (Even without looking it up, it sounds horrific). As I said, pain comes in many guises. And it always gets through. Like water, it finds the weakest spot and whether it takes one hour or ten, it eventually succeeds. And once it has you, it doesn’t leave.
It was in the mud by the aerodrome at 18 miles that it got me last time, and I nearly quit at the 26 mile check-point. I had certainly been undercooked, and this year was determined not to become completely unstuck. Although I hadn’t trained nearly as much as I should have done, having disappeared into something of a black hole over Christmas, this time I kept the mantra ‘go slow, keep moving’ in my head. I also threw every trick I had at the pain when it came calling at about 2pm. Don’t let them fool you – the drugs do work. But, and this is the other reason why pain is so close to the hearts of runners, 6, 7, 8 hours on the hoof is a long time to be doing anything let alone the same thing.
And this is where it gets you. It got to Schopenhauer and it got to Nietzsche – neither of whom knew much about lycra, but who spent a great deal of time alone en plein air contemplating their lot, and what role suffering has to play in it. (If you would like to read my MA thesis on the subject I have spare copies…) By the time of the final turn – 13 miles to go, I was starting to crack up. Shards of pain splintered through my shoulders, abdomen, knees and ankles. I knew it would pass, as it always did, but not before the inevitable thought: ‘bollocks to this, I want to go home’.
In the end, I snuck in under 8 hours, 7:54 to be precise, which was something of a miracle. And then all I wanted was a big mac, which I have not eaten since 2007 in Tel Aviv airport. I can’t say that it made me feel like a morally better person, as the pain was supposed to, but it did stop me falling off my bike and puking up on the way home.
A new kind of pain emerged as soon as I got up from the kitchen floor, where I seem to spend most of my time at the moment, having put the finishing touch to the boy’s Ikea kitchen set. Forget his growing pains, setting first in my quads, the seizure held onto me through most of the weekend, not even abating through the night when, according to Mrs H, I kept ‘turning over like a kebab’. Nothing, though, compares to the jarring, crunching, thundering pain of banging your head against a door frame a full tilt – carrying, of all things, Mrs H’s handbag. Three days later it’s still reverberating down my spine. Or perhaps that the indignity of walking around with an unexplained lump on my head. As someone in the office said: ‘Did you do that when running?’ ‘Er, I didn’t run on my head, did I?’