Like meals and marriages, not all runs go well. They can start badly, continue badly, and end badly. As a narrative, this doesn’t work, but life’s not fiction so it doesn’t have to.
I ran today. I wondered how it would go; it was my usual Parkrun but it felt like new territory because during recent hospital shenanigans, I’ve barely slept and lost half a stone. My sense of displacement was heightened when I got there and hardly knew anyone; some friends were running at Eden (I’d been invited but couldn’t make it), two were hobbled by injuries, others were trying a new Parkrun, and the peeing rain probably did away with a few more. Either way, the usual crowd were missing. By the time two bowled up at the start, the crowd was tight and I was wedged under a stranger’s armpit.
The klaxon went off and we started to run. My body felt slow in a way that wasn’t to do with fitness, and cold in a way that wasn’t to do with the rain. My feet were heavy. I revisited every anxiety I’d felt in the last few weeks which messed with my breathing. By the mile point, I just wanted to go home — but not my real home; I wanted to go to yesterday’s home, or tomorrow’s home: a home where my children were the same but everything was mended. No medical worries. No fear.
If I’d had a friend beside me, I’d have cheered up – but I didn’t, so I lumbered on to the halfway point, stopped to watch the other runners for a moment, messed about with Spotify, and trundled back. The whole process was entirely pointless.
If I run with my sons, dog, or friends, it’s to share a moment or a view, not because I’m trying to beat them.
I jogged home in a trance, half asleep, exhausted. It felt restful and painful at once. All I wanted was to cross the finish line, hear my name, see a smile, and collapse onto a friendly shoulder. But the shoulder I wanted wasn’t going to be there today — or, maybe, ever.
The whole thing begged the question, why am I doing this?
In times of stress, it can be surprising who turns up to help – and who doesn’t. People you barely know lend support while self-proclaimed friends stay silent. Personalities shine through. Small kindnesses and absences both feel amplified; suddenly it matters hugely that people show up and talk about rain and beer. Real friends stick their heads through the gates of hell and shout, ‘Poldark’s on!’
On the run back to the finish line, I thought about one friendship that had possibly only existed in my head, and finished the run with a sense of loss. (If a friendship is entirely one-way, will the goodbye even be heard? Ask the cat in the box.)
So the run that started off as lonely became, in the final, gritty section, all about honesty. Who’s in my life? Who will I keep? What am I doing? These questions work well with pounding feet but they can’t all be answered at once; that will take more running. I have mountains to run in the coming weeks; huge, powerful, looming mountains both literally and metaphorically and when I emerge in whatever shape afterwards, I hope I get to keep the people I want.
The finish line brought me back to reality. A couple of running club mates called my name. We said hi. It felt nice.
A runner came up to me and said she always gets a buzz from overtaking me, even if I overtake her again afterwards. I had no idea who she was, could swear I’d never seen her before, and had no idea if she’d been faster or slower than me today. I couldn’t give a crap, but I didn’t say that. Same place, different worlds. I ached so I jogged to the shop for pastries, and ate till I felt fat and strong and well again: pain-aux-raisins, thick with sugar and fat and salt.
At home I washed all the rain, salt and sugar off me. The sun came out. I herded my children, said, we’re going out.
Where? they said.
Just out, I said. Out. Into the breeze, the sunshine, over the earth, into the crowd, we’re going wherever, come on, have a hug, move, we’ll find some fun, have a laugh, and breathe. Always, breathe.