Yesterday was the first time in ages that I woke up not particularly wanting to go for a run. Nothing tangible in terms of injury; more just opening the curtains to a grubby-looking sky and the beginnings of a light, slanting drizzle; that almost imperceptible kind that somehow gets you much wetter than a proper downpour. Also, my legs were complaining, and it’s now the last week of the summer holidays, meaning the kids are keeping up an incessant bickering related largely to Haribo (the sharing of), Octonauts (the watching of) and guinea pigs (the holding of, and how long it will be until one of them does a poo on your lap). Ordinarily this would represent an excellent excuse to get out of the house, but the bickering has reached critical mass and seems to fuel itself by sapping parental life force. I’m grumpy and sleepy and suddenly running doesn’t seem noble and pioneering, it seems like a daft thing to be doing, and I want to get back into bed and surface only if someone makes me a Sunday roast, even though it’s Wednesday and I’m supposed to be a vegan.
Before I started training for Project Trail, I had similar ideas about it to the ones I had about being a dad, pre- kids. Back then I thought: Oh, ok, we’ll get pregnant, and then we’ll have the baby, and then… that’ll all be sorted. People had banged on so much about childbirth itself that I forgot – as ridiculous as it sounds – that it isn’t a big, one-off event followed by a return to normality. The whole birth thing happens and then… you still have the baby, and you continue to have it for the next eighteen years or so.
It’s the same with training. I imagined that I’d start off unfit, and that I’d get fit with roughly the same warp-speed intensity as Rocky when you see a lot of spliced-together clips of him drinking egg yolks and chasing chickens and running up steps, and then that’d be it: I’d be a runner. Job done.
The thing is that running isn’t like that at all. Obviously. It is seeming more than usually obvious now, in the near-horizontal drizzle up on the tops near Stoodley Pike, our underwhelming local landmark. There is no moment during training when you suddenly gain the ability to run the way people do in sportswear adverts; with easy grace, feeling the wind on your face, your mind filled with nothing but the joy of being alive and all that. I’ve had amazing dietary advice from a top nutritionist and elite-level coaching from someone who sprints up mountains on his elbows for fun, but right now I can’t get on with the business of running because I’m unable to stop my calf muscles from shouting at me, or my brain from asking itself stupid questions. Would I be running faster if I’d had slightly less porridge for breakfast? Or slightly more porridge, with less nuts? What does Robbie (the coach) mean by ‘half marathon pace’? His, or mine? My half marathon pace is probably the speed he would run at if he had no legs. Is running slowly uphill more valuable than running downhill fast?
I wonder if people who run are united by a common gene – one that allows you to look outside at the lousy weather, think about how great it would be to get back into bed, and then put your trainers on and head out anyway. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I read something about a sports performance gene; one that’s quite rare in the general population, a lot less rare in the armed forces, and unbelievably prevalent amongst mountaineers. A gene whose sole function is to say ‘sod it; I’ve started so I might as well finish’, even when you’re half way up K2 and have fallen into a crevasse and are going to have to climb out using only your teeth, because your fingers have all frozen and fallen off.
Once this idea takes hold, I find I’m actually enjoying myself again. I’ve shaken off the sleepiness and the grumpiness. I’m not a mountaineer or anything, and it’s fairly unlikely I have the genetic code of an all-terrain hero, but I am doing something I would never have been capable of this time last year, and so far I’m fairly sure no body parts have fallen off. Except toenails.