109. Happiness, more or less

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Happiness – more or less
It’s just a change in me
Something in my liberty
Oh my mind

Happiness – coming and going
I watch you look at me
Watch my fever growing
I know just where I am

Well, how many corners do I have to turn ?
How many times do I have to learn ?
All the love I have is in my mind
The Verve – September 1997

The runner’s high. Goodness knows, I’ve sought it long and hard recently. I’ve waited long enough.

Some would argue that it’s exercise-induced narcosis which keeps us running in the first place. But I know that’s not true. Because whilst I appreciate the benefits of running, and a certain post-run clarity of thought is up there on my list, there really is much more to it. You can’t manufacture those moments – they just happen.

It’s been a long winter, already, and still it’s only January. I’ve struggled with my running these past few months. Don’t tell me why – too fat, too tired, too lethargic, too bored with just running day after day – all of those are true. I run happily in all sorts of weathers (I’m a marathon runner, after all) but grey, cold – January – it gets us all down in the end, I guess.

That monotony spills over sometimes. The classic way to lift yourself from a running trough is to plan a race. But my problem now is really too many races. After Abingdon last October, this year I didn’t really need that place in the London ballot. Which is doubtless why I did get in that way – the first time ever.

The dream of London should do the job. Where else can I compete with world champions, world record holders and Olympic gold medallists, and be cheered on by a million people shouting my name ? Yet somehow, it’s still not enough, not this year.

It shouldn’t surprise me, since I know that every marathon training programme has its own character. Each one carries different thoughts – it’s just the way it is. There’ll never be another first marathon for me, and as for the subsequent ones – maybe you’d think that they would all blend into each other, but they don’t, not at all. So perhaps this one is just special in its own uniquely soul-destroying kind of way.

Maybe I should have run in Almería this weekend, chasing down that hard half marathon. Whatever suffering the course threw at me would have been worth it, I know, just to enjoy the community of runners. But somehow my running just wasn’t up to it. My legs didn’t have the fire; my desire was just too fragile.

This Saturday in southern England it’s bright, but bitterly cold. And I need that lift, so although I never run with music, today I take it with me. Into the wintry sunshine, down through the town centre. Soon I’m at the fateful lamppost from two weeks ago. Those memorial flowers have gone, replaced by stark words: ‘Police – Accident – Can You Help ? Monday 9th January, 0655’. A bleak, dark hour, before dawn and just after Christmas – the pits of winter. That’s where it ended for Paul.

I decide to shun the guilty road this time, and turn beside the River Wey navigation. Maybe I’ll find some solace down there.

And it takes a while. But eventually, I stop to slug a drink, and chomp a biscuit. Here, four miles out, I’m in open, quiet countryside. It’s just me and the riverbank in the sunlight. The village of Send lies hidden amongst the trees which frame the church ahead of me. And it’s true, that I’ve come this way, many times, but I’ve forgotten just how beautiful this landscape really is.

Six miles go by, and then seven. Music is such a big part of my well-being, and always has been. I’ve set my MP3 player on shuffle, and sure enough it’s winding through the soundtrack of my life. Funny how it finds the words on a day like this. ‘The bitterest pill’ from The Jam – perfect for the start of such a long run. Jon Secada’s ‘Otro día más sin verte’ (‘Just another day without you’) also somehow loops into today’s mix, in honour of Antonio and the runners in Almería this weekend. Obscure Europop band Gold reacquaint me with their phlegmatically laconic lyric: ‘C’est la vie qui vient, c’est la vie qui va’ to fill mile 5. Will this be the song of the day – or will it be Madonna’s ‘Frozen’ from mile 7 – surely apt enough for today ?

My planned turning point is at Papercourt Lock, but there I catch a glimpse of an old friend in the distance, and at 8 miles I’m there – Newark Lock, and beside it Newark Priory. Founded in 1189, the Priory was destroyed after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. The story has it that a gun was set up on a nearby hill and the building destroyed with cannon fire. There’s not much more to see than an incomplete shell now, but it’s enchanting all the same.

The scene is restful here in the sunshine, so I take a break, muse on my rising spirits, and resume my trot with a smile. The wind is on my back now, the sun on my face at last, and with the light sparkling on the water between the reflections of the trees, it’s blissful running.

And then it happens. The first really special moment of this entire campaign. The one I instantly know will keep me going through many more grey lunchtime plods ahead. The opening bars of this track from The Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’.

I rarely play this one, but I hear it now, and it grabs my full attention. Nick McCabe’s guitar riff, blasting through my headphones across the Surrey countryside is, quite simply, sublime. Richard Ashcroft’s lyrics – combining the deeply personal and the universal. I’m reminded of Prof Robert Winston last week, when he said that our happiness (more or less) in life depends on whether we’re optimists, or pessimists – and how that disposes us to view the same set of events. It’s the lesson of this song, and it speaks to me loud and clear.

Many years ago, there was a time when my life fell apart. It collapsed all around me, and very slowly I had to build it up again. In those months, I went out to buy a new record collection then, because I just couldn’t listen to all my old music any more, not for a long while. It held too many memories of the past. That time is long behind me now, and I refound my old favourites some while ago. But perhaps it did teach me one thing, that there are times for looking forwards as well as times for looking back.

And now, I have to play this song three or four times over. Miles 10-12 drift by in a glaze of sunlight and reflections. If there were random testing set up here, I’d fail any narcotics test ever devised.

Finally, I let the player move on. ‘Fragile’ by Sting is no longer appropriate, so I stomp through mile 13 to Robbie Williams opening up at Knebworth 2003 (as at Live8) with ‘Let me entertain you’. We didn’t go to the concert, but heard some of it whilst stuck in traffic on the A1 outside. The geologist’s anthem ‘Solid Rock’ by Dire Straits brings me to my final drink at mile 14. The struggle is on here, but at least I’m gazing now at the runway lights of home as they beckon in the distance ahead. BB King and U2 find ‘When Love Comes to Town’ especially to greet the mean streets of Guildford’s suburbs, and then Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ brings me to the High Street shopfronts. Finally I’m home to another recently rediscovered gem – ‘Running’ by No Doubt.

It’s been a great morning. Too late for Almería, perhaps, but I’ve found my muse. The long search is over, at least for now, because I’ve renewed my ticket for the journey. I’ve found that something in my liberty: running happiness – more or less – which has eluded me for so long. Sixteen miles. A run through sunshine, music, narcosis, and renewed self-belief.

I’m off to Houston tomorrow. But look out London – here I come.

Related articles:
107. Don’t it make a bad run good ?
37. Lord Beeching and me – the Worth Way
38. At last, the rewards of strife
83. Seven Bridges Road – the Wey floodplain
79. In sickness and in health

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