In difficult times there are always golden moments and this is one of mine. My oncologist is a marathon runner. In the same conversation where he detailed the side effects of chemotherapy, he also sang the praises of German marathons because of their efficiency. In his letter to my consultant outlining the treatment I will need, he included my marathon PB. I don’t know if that is usual, but it felt like he was acknowledging who I am and what is important to me. When I asked if I could run to my chemotherapy sessions, he said no one had ever asked him that before but there was no reason why I shouldn’t.
Of course my running has changed over the last couple of months. Instead of high mileage weeks with intervals and long runs, I am buzzing from my simple two laps of the common this morning. Even in Ealing, even beside the North Circular, I ran on a trail, through long wet grass, breathing in the cool smell of damp earth after the overnight rain. I am running more slowly and far less far, but look, I am running and it does my soul good.
I still feel the tug of wanting to run fast. At a summer league race a couple of weeks ago, I watched the people I used to compete with get PBs while I trogged round not racing at all, unsure of what my body is now capable of. In The Way of the Runner, Adharanand Finn tells the story of his six months in Japan, discovering the secrets of the ekiden teams who run high profile relay races. He sets up his own ekiden team to compete in a race just before he leaves the country, only to find it is cancelled at the last minute because of heavy snowfall. It’s a huge disappointment but one that gets him thinking. He says:
‘Why do we need the worldly construct of a race? What purpose does it fulfil? It is the completion of a goal, sure, but wasn’t that goal only ever a mechanism to get us out running? Those days of training are not wasted if we don’t run the race… If anything, perhaps the race is what stops us from ever seeing this essential truth. Perhaps our focus on completing the race distracts us so we never see or understand why we run. When the race is taken away at the last moment, however, we’re left hanging in this empty charged space where the questions begin to arise. Why do I run? And in the quiet pause, we know the answer. In every training run, we fill ourselves with the experience of life, the air rushing through our lungs, our hearts pounding… The race is not the end we hold it up to be. Whatever happens, the next day, we need to start all over again.’
This needs to be a season for rediscovering why I run, of running for the simple joy of it. In the past I have run to expand my horizons, to discover what I’m capable of, to give myself headspace, to be my best self. Perhaps now I will run to feel alive, to stay connected to who I’ve been, to find a new normal, to celebrate this imperfect body which is coping with so much.
I was unprepared for how difficult it would be to go into the second round of treatment last week. I think I expected that having done it once, the next one would be a breeze. But in fact having spent a week at work, feeling almost normal and seeing friends, it was hard to go back to hospital for blood tests, to enter ‘cancer world’ again. I’d arranged to run to my second chemo treatment with my friend Lucy and I am so glad I did. I started running weighed down with sorrow, but after a few miles along the river in sunshine and good conversation I arrived feeling lighter and ready for what was ahead. Who knows if I’ll be able to do that next time if fatigue catches up with me? But this time I ran, and it made all the difference.
I have always been a better evangelist for running than I ever was for Jesus, and I feel that even more keenly now. I want to say to everyone I meet, go running while you can (or if running is not your thing, then swim, cycle, walk, box). Get your heart pumping and your lungs working. Use your body, push yourself beyond your limits, feel the sweet ache of muscles that have worked hard and are letting you know about it. Get off the treadmill and out of the gym. Run in the rain, in the shade, in the sun. Run through parks, along canals, beside roads, on trails. Run for your life, and your life will thank you for it.