Sweet Sweet Suffering

I can’t claim to have mastered much in my relatively short life.  But I am very good at suffering.  I don’t remember of course, but at 28 weeks gestation, it’s safe to say I was born in pain.  It’s likely that I’ll die in pain.  There’s been plenty of pain along the way and I’m definitely in for more to come.

It’s never really felt like I’ve had a raw deal – I’m a straight white male born into a loving and stable family.  I live in a wealthy and relatively liberal democracy that’s signed up to the Geneva Convention and allowed me to aim for pretty much everything I’ve wanted in life.  I’ve checked my privilege and it’s pretty high.   But I’ve probably had my fair share of suffering to to deal with.  I’ve taken to reminiscing quite a bit recently and (even without the cancer) a few people seem to think so too with responses like ‘that’s too much for a person to deal with in one lifetime’ and ‘Wow – you’ve had a really shit life!’

And, over the years, I’ve gotten better at suffering too.  I’m no stranger to pain – a bit more? Ok – do your worst!  Deliberately or subconsciously, I’ve tended to court adversity when things have gotten a bit too comfortable.  This has come in forms such as overloading my life right to the edge of burnout or somehow finding a way to make everything that bit more difficult for myself. It’s gotten to the point where I can’t have fun unless I’ve striven to earn it.  Most people look forward to their birthday; I absolutely dread it.  What’s there to celebrate about merely surviving another year?  But hey – given my prospects for the year ahead, that attitude may well change.  I’ve even had an entire big band offer to mark the next one with me.

But the most obvious manifestation of my strange association with suffering is definitely in the running.  It’s no surprise that, having discovered this most arduous yet joyfully fulfilling of activities around seven years ago, it ticked all the boxes.  Over those tricky first few months, chronic unfitness made my introduction to running really hard work.  But gradually, round the block progressed to a mile, to two, three, five, 10k, half marathon, marathon, all out marathon PB, 50k, 100k, 100 miles, 100 miles over mountains, 100 mile PB inside 23 hours, to the realistic goal of running 300km coast to coast in one go.  Well I’ve had to to put the last one on indefinite hold now as I’ve got stage 4 bowel cancer, but I’m still very much in love with running.

For a start, there are the endorphins.  These are the body’s natural anaesthetic and my definite drug of choice.  The pursuit of these natural happy chemicals goes a long way towards understanding what’s going on in my little brain most of the time.  I’m not one for tattoos but If I were to choose one, it would be a diagram of the endorphin molecule. Running doesn’t just involve myriad opportunities to bring about the endorphin release that counters the burning lungs and aching muscles. But clear indisputable evidence of improvement, achievement and the self defining ability to get to the finish line, despite every fibre of my being screaming at me to seek comfort and stop.

Nothing alleviates my deep seated imposter syndrome like finishing a race I didn’t think I could, but somehow did. Ultra running superstar Courtney Dauwalter sums this up in a beautifully succinct phrase: ‘The secret is, there is no secret.  You just keep going’.  This mindset has gotten me through some very tough times in running and in life itself. Sooner than I’d prefer, cancer will ultimately force me to give in, but it’s with immense pride that I can say I’ve never failed to finish a race (DNF).  I’m not expected to live long enough to achieve much more now but I hereby promise that my name will never be associated with those unfortunate three letters.  If nothing else, I can and will literally and metaphorically just keep putting one foot in front of the other. That’s all I’ve really got to offer the world at this point but it’s enough.

As I review the last few paragraphs, it occurs to me that today’s blog has turned into a bit of a love letter to the glorious pursuit of running.  That’s hardly surprising as today, that love is very much unrequited.  For I write this having just about found the energy to make it from bed to sofa and wiggle my fingers over a keyboard.  By contrast, a good many friends and fellow endorphin junkies are running the Benfleet 15.  This is one of my absolute favourite sufferfests in the local running calendar and (as the name suggests) involves fifteen solid miles of mud, sweat, hills, wind, rain and maybe even snow.  I’d absolutely love to be there.  I’d also hate it, but that’s kind of the point.