Yesterday I was bringing my daughter back from swimming. She pretends that I am really old and uncool (ha, as if!) , but when there is just the two of us she will drop the veneer of teenage disinterest and ask questions. Yesterday, quite unprompted, she asked me "dad, why did you decide to do long distant stuff?" It's a good question and I went down my usual route of explaining how, as a drunk, I didn't want to speak to anyone other than other drinkers. Nobody else interested me apart from one other special group: That group was people who had done the marathon. I was fascinated by them. It astonished me that anyone could physically push their body to run 26 miles. 26 miles! How? A friend we had who was training for the marathon back then in the 90's asked me to imagine running as far as I could see and then running back to give me an idea of the training distances a marathon runner needs to achieve. I got the image and it staggered me in its immensity. It was also that immensity that closed the marathon off from me. I may as well have been on Mars and the London marathon, well, in London. I continued to live in my prison and I can distinctly remember swaying about outside the house, pissed up, smoking a fag, and feeling so sorry for myself (as I frequently did, back then) bemoaning the fact that I would never ever know what it was like to run a full marathon.
So I was explaining all this to Lucy when the car headed out into the open countryside on the way to the village where I lived and there in front of us were miles of fields under a deep blue evening sky. You now what: I bloody love the countryside. I love it with a passion. I could stare at green fields for hours, watching clouds scud across the sky. So I said to Lucy, "See all those fields, well, the reason that I love long distance is because I could park this car now and just run and run and run through those fields and I need never stop. That is why I continue to do endurance events!" (It probably wasn't said with such precision, but you get the idea.) And sometimes I do just take off and run like I told Lucy. The other week I just went out early morning across the fields without any plan. I just knew I wanted to get lost in the Spring countryside. I stuck to small footpaths that threaded through the fields around us of bright yellow rape and took in any Bluebell wood I could find. I ended up running about 18 miles without ever feeling tired. If you follow me on Twitter, there was a barrage of images from that run.
It is on those days that it's possible to slip "into the mystic"; it's a world where miles per hour, heart rate, laps, stroke count, cadence, become meaningless. I think, and this is my opinion only, that if you want to really go long you need to move into a different way of thinking to get the most out of it. Distance and time are irrelevant and all that matters is your own existence in the environment. Every thing needs to be of the moment, and by appreciating that the moment will pass, you can begin to appreciate that the pain or fatigue that your event is causing will pass too. From that, you can begin to understand that the tough times will fade and you will regain some comfort, which in turn will be replaced by pain. And so on. Now, it may sound a bit new age and Guardian to a lot of you post industrial Westerners out there but bear with me. People tell me it's not logical to be able to swim, run and cycle these huge distances. It obviously is, though - I am no athlete, but by rethinking this stuff and living in the moment I know that each moment leading to the next, leading to the next and so on, will eventually see me to the finish line. The countryside is one place I can really feel inspired to put this into practice. I would probably struggle a bit more if the Grimsby marathon was staged around their industrial areas. I find inspiration in pleasant surroundings. A long distance challenge is merely a metaphor for life: it starts out pretty jolly, seems quite easy and after a while you brimming with confidence. But then reality hits. You have the first challenges and the distance doesn't seem quite so easy, but you come through it. And those highs and lows tend to characterise the journey all the way to the finale. But I hope that when you reach the finish line you look back on it all: the highs and the lows, the views with all their contrasts and think that overall it was worthwhile. That's my ambition.
Over the 14 years I have run, cycled and swam long distance here are some of the moments that I can still touch in my mind's eye. None will really translate onto a page, but every one was a privilege to be in the moment with. I treasure them:
The sun coming up over Hertswood on one side of the trail I ran whilst on the other side a bright full moon was setting and I ran between the two spheres.
Cycling through a parade of horse chestnut trees heavily laden with blossom on the way out to St Neots. Spring 2012.
The white frost-blasted hedges on the tiny road behind where I live. The icy wind of the night had frozen everything in one small area a brittle white, whilst everywhere else was dull and brown.
The "ghost ship" rising out of the mist on my relay Channel Swim with the sun rising behind it.
Staring down at fields shrouded with low white mist whilst on my bike. Cycling down into the mist, whooping with joy.
Being caught in storms so heavy that you can only laugh at the sheer intensity of the rain. Laughing out loud.
2am, cycling through the Lincolnshire fens. No sounds apart from the whir of the cycle chain. Totally isolated, totally quiet. As in the moment as it is possible to be.
Toiling up Bison Hill on my bike and being passed by a beautiful red Ferrari . I said to myself that if someone offered to give me that car but I would be prevented from ever cycling again, I would turn down the offer of the car.
This morning; cycling into work. Blue skies above, summer warmth beginning to break through, feeling fit as I have ever felt.
So that's it. If you want to go long, get spiritual.
PS Have I mentioned the flip side of the mystic? So dog tired you want to lie down in any ditch and sleep. You stink, your breath stinks. You started throwing up at mile 30 and you have another 40 miles to go. You can't eat anything but you will stop if you don't. Your head aches. You're scared about your body packing up.
I'll leave that for another day.........