79. In sickness and in health

One of the great benefits of taking up running is that I rarely get ill. Touch wood.

formigal-spain-and-edinburgh-scotland-winter-2005.jpgIn years of yore, winters were always long, drawn-out, snuffly affairs. I seemed to go from cold to cold. Handkerchiefs were in almost continual use, and it seemed like I was permanently tired. From October to April.

After taking up running, I still was permanently tired, of course, but at least there was good reason, and it was a different kind of tired. And most of the zillions of germs that knock around our offices and schools during the winter months decided I wasn’t worth meddling with. Not only was I fitter, and at times even perhaps slightly thinner, but I was also more resistant to the coughs and sneezes that serve as unwelcome bedfellows to many of us for throughout the darker half of the year.

It was a gradual realisation, this, but once it had dawned, it proved an unusually warm and objectionably smug discovery. Not only could I pity my unfit colleagues, but I could smile knowingly as they spluttered their way through yet another month of midwinter misery. And if the conversation came round to this year’s ‘flu or tales of a ‘nasty bug going the rounds’ then I could offer my calm and entirely unwelcome observation that I was likely to miss it. Unwelcome, but true, since this has been a real benefit of becoming a runner.

Stress, too, has been easier to deal with since I took up running. Dark evenings coincide with long hours at the office, more winters than not, and I can see my colleagues progressively suffer through the winter, winding themselves up like an ever-tightening spring. Whether it’s the regular relaxation afforded by running, the raised endorphin levels, or the opportunity to thrash out tricky issues and office-induced aggression whilst bashing the pavements, I really can’t say, but stress has definitely receded. The only exceptions have been the month before a marathon, and the week after, when all normal signs of productivity and rational thought have run for the nearest exit. But on balance, running has been a help.

All of this has been true for a good while now, and I have made the most of it. Until this year. Or, at least, until this February.

After the solid 115 miles of January, you see, this February has defined a running disaster area just 34 miles long. And yet in other, marathon years, February has seen the cornerstone of my training. Not quite the mileage peaks of March, but often the fastest runs and the most positive training experiences. The burst from a sluggish and reluctant January into a spring-like and positive state of anticipation in the month to follow.

This year, I haven’t been training for a marathon. Perhaps it’s just as well, since the month has gone nowhere. Why, I’m not entirely sure. It’s a worrying thought that maybe it has actually gone nowhere BECAUSE I haven’t been marathon training. But let’s be charitable, and exclude that remote, but distinctly disturbing possibility for a moment. What else went wrong ?

I worked too hard. It wasn’t how I planned it, since the closing stages of a project are theoretically a time for relaxed dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s. But the nearer my deadlines approached, the more obstacles seemed to appear in the way. Even when the project was finished, the ripples and aftershocks of that tricky couple of weeks have continued to shimmer across my personal pond, invading my life and my thoughts in a way far beyond their right or fair capacity to do so. And whilst running is a useful time for the unravelling of business problems, this time the traditional limits were exceeded. I had to admit a couple of times on my lunchtime return to the office, that I’d spent every single step of seven and a half miles thinking about my project. That’s not how life should be.

So I ran a bit less. I was travelling, too, which didn’t help. Then I went ski-ing, in the Pyrenees. Useful exercise and altitude training, especially if you can manage a modest run or two in the midst of all those parallels and chocolates callientes. But whereas in previous years I’ve managed just that, this time I ran not a step. The metre of snow which fell on day one had much to do with that, as did the biting winds, icy streets and risk of injury or frostbite. Then, on my return, I travelled again. To Edinburgh, a place ranking amongst my favourite places of all to run. Again it snowed – just 15 cm, but enough to make it more Siberian than Scottish. No running.

On top of snow and over-work fell illness. I’m hardly ever ill, remember ? But this particular virus, tracking itself within a week from my one-year old nephew to eight other members of our immediate and more distant family, was a startlingly contagious and virulent gastric flu. Stressed and tired, my resistance was down.

As someone who once lived alongside the ravages of terminal disease, in the company of a tragically-doomed but steadfastly rarely complaining patient, I know it’s important to keep things in perspective. To realise that however uncomfortable those late night coughing episodes, or extended and enforced those conversations with the bathroom porcelain, they’re not actually going to kill you.

But I did feel rough, in and out of my bathroom, for a day or two. And after that, I croaked and coughed and crumpled my way through a dozen handkerchiefs. Through work in Scandinavia, on Spanish ski-lifts, and through two days looking at rock cores. Wherever I was, whatever I was doing, I could carry on, more or less, but it wasn’t much good. And I couldn’t run

When at last I did venture out again, last week, some short and dizzy walking breaks re-told that truth, that any illness requires another week or more to regain that strength you’ve lost.

Today was the start of the road beyond. The slowest time I’ve done up Crawley Lane for quite a while. But six miles unbroken, with a hill and without a break. A run which was more important to complete, for confidence, than many another much harder, faster and well-trained run before a race.

It’s been a slow month, running-wise, but that’s not entirely a waste of time. For maybe it’s only through the little setbacks of life that we are reminded of what we have. The good fortune of fitness, and good health. The importance of managing life and stress, however best we find the balance to that equation. The relative trivia of running injuries, as frustrating as they are. And the irrelevance of the figures on the clock when the run is done.

For however cold it was, on this wind-chilled February afternoon, and however slow I was, how fat I felt, or how much I struggled, or for however many minutes my mind drifted back to the office, it’s good to look at the wider scheme of things. To learn to live in good humour, in sickness and in health. And to run, to help us stay alive at all.

Related articles:
73. A rainjacket by any other name …
127. Altiora peto, and other Latin lovers
76. A year of running, rainily
38. At last, the rewards of strife
70. Livin’ on milk and alcohol

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