It’s unusual to find a poem on the side of a building, especially picked out in brick and 15 m high, but that is one of the unique attractions of the Guildford Travel Inn.
It may be one of the few, actually, since its location right beside the booming A3 dual carriageway is nowhere near as lyrical as the inspiration adorning it. But it cheered me to learn that its author Walter de la Mare was born in Maryon Road in Charlton, just a short sprint from mile 4 on the London Marathon course.
Poetry in unlikely places enriches lives, as anyone who has enjoyed the Poems on the Underground campaign will agree. And I have seen these words before. At first I wondered whether they’d been put there to entice the weary traveller, but in fact they’re not really visible from the main highway. You can just about see them from the slip road, if you happen to stop at the traffic lights and glance over your left shoulder. But the best chance to read them comes when you’re headed northwards out of town, on foot. Like me, today.
I don’t know why they’re set up like that. Maybe because the other walls were all full of doors, or windows, or car park signs or something. But the words did seem to resonate yesterday morning. Not because I wanted to stop and take a room at the Travel Inn, you understand, although at a dodgy mile and half into my twelve mile run, maybe that wouldn’t have been such a bad idea. No, it was more because it seemed to address the question which was vexing me then.
‘Why am I doing this ?’
A good question. A dangerous question. And in a week when our friend Seafront Plodder had given up marathons, I knew it was lurking, menacingly, and waiting to be addressed.
Uncannily enough, the absolutely perfect time for some pretty heavy ritual self-examination and motivational analysis is exactly at that place. One a half miles into a twelve mile run. Before you’ve settled into a rhythm, and before you’ve really made any sort of meaningful dent into the distance ahead of you.
‘Is there anybody there ?’
Frankly, the answer is still unknown, at that stage. No clear idea yet, of how the run is going to turn out. Grey, damp and chilly – that much is a given in January. Uninspiring – well, that much is certain as well, heading out on the A320 Woking Road and crossing a bleak traffic intersection with multiple flyovers and feeder lanes.
Last week the attempt to run back-to-back weekend runs caught me out. It’s not a plan I’m comfortable with. But then the same scheduling problem had afflicted me again – a busy week at work, and too many distractions from what I should really be focusing on at this time of year. My running. But that’s how life is at the moment. Six miles run on Saturday may not be the perfect preparation for twelve on Sunday, at least not in my book, but it has to be done. Just deal with it. And so preparations were taken. Or at least – more toast was eaten.
And now, as I knock on the moonlit door of my long weekend run, at least the horse within me can be figuratively munching on the grasses of the forest’s ferny floor which I’ve stuffed inside my stomach for just that purpose. It seems to be working. There isn’t exactly pace, or power, or even much certainty there, but there’s progress, of a sort. The legs are ticking over, slowly, without panache or aplomb, but with just a hint that they might be able to keep doing so a while longer. Promising.
The thundering overpass roars above me, and I’m on my way. Just four miles of suburbs and main Woking road lie ahead, and then I’ll be onto the quieter lanes of Sutton Green and Jacob’s Well, halfway there and heading home for lunch. It’s not too bad a prospect really, if I can just grind through this first bit.
And then I see it. Just across the river bridge, beside the Council Depot. A lamppost, half-hidden in fresh flowers. Bunches. Bouquets. Plastic wrappers. Ribbons. Cards.
I stop to read them, as I always do. ‘To Paul. Sad to see you gone so soon, but you will be missed.’ ‘Dearest Paul. Forever in our hearts and in our prayers.’ ‘From all your mates in the A3 gang.’
And now I know, as I did before really, at least until I’d forgotten. That’s why I run. Because life is short, and there’s a lot to pack in.
I’m out here, on a grim January morning because there’s stuff to see, and things to do. I could be lying in bed at home. The road more travelled, perhaps, but running is so much more than that. In so many ways, it’s a celebration of being alive. It’s a thought that has often struck me, not least at the start line of the Great North Run. Thinking about it again last week, I realised that although it might be a crap race, really, the GNR is a wondrously joyful event. All that humanity, streaming down the road together.
I’m alive. And Paul is not. There’s an injustice there, I know. Why him, not me ? I don’t know the answer to that one. His number came up, I guess, and his luck ran out, poor fellow. It happens. So many times, all around the world, every day and to so many people less fortunate than us.
So what do we have to complain about ? A car, a good job, a house, food to eat, healthy kids, a comfortable life – that looks like good fortune to me, but why should we have it, when others don’t ? I don’t know that one either, as I was reminded in Morocco last year. The human condition in the third world. Millions of people struggling, to find every meal, and just to live another day.
And here I am, well-fed (too well-fed, if truth be known). If my biggest struggle is whether I’m going to have to walk a bit before I get home – is that really a problem ? Am I joking ? Because truly, that’s a gift. There’s just no other way to describe it.
I knuckle down once more. My feet patter on the pavement with a little more speed and resolve than a moment ago. There’s a smile now, too, to meet those visions of the Chicago River and The Embankment which fill my mind. There’s a long way to go along this road, and I may not get there today. But I do know where I’m going.
I’m running to live my life, and I’m living now, right here, today.
147. Eurydice – from this blackened earth
127. Altiora peto, and other Latin lovers
36. The Embankment, inspiration and reality
103. Atlas shrugged – in the mountains of Morocco
4. GO British ! Chicago Marathon 2002
79. In sickness and in health