Death March

Towards the end of a long ultramarathon, there sometimes comes a point known as the ‘death march’.  This isn’t quite as dramatic as it sounds – it describes the state of exhaustion where any pretence of running is abandoned and you walk however many miles you’ve got left, hoping to stay within the cutoff time.

Last Saturday, an unexpected opportunity arose and I lined up at the start of a 25k race up and down Mt Snowdon.  This was my first official race since the Broadway marathon, which I just about got round in a show of mutual determination with my brother Jon last November – it was quite a muddy slog.  That was also the last race which could be described as remotely hilly, let alone mountainous.  But, given the beautiful Welsh scenery and glorious weather, this promised to be a grand day out and not even a full on train strike would get in our way – Jon dropped everything to drive me a very long distance!

Pre-race, we’d decided to just run at our own respective paces.  Post surgery, it’s a lottery with how fast I’ll be these days, but I tend to make good going on the ups and Jon’s faster descending, so I ‘enjoyed’ the five mile 1,000m (ish) climb to the top, where I took a moment to record a rather defiant video that was received with a resounding cheer from the numerous tourists milling around the Snowdon summit.

Downhill was a completely different matter and it was either a case of tentatively picking my way along steep rocky paths or virtually losing control of my legs as I gained giddying momentum on the runnable bits.  This resulted in serious deterioration in quad strength and, by the time I reached the bottom with 12k or so to go, my legs were, to say the least, a bit wobbly.  I’m not sure how much strength I’ve lost in recent months, but surely I wouldn’t have been quite so done in by the descent previously!  Regardless, as I squelched my way through a few miles of boggy ground, I thought the ‘death March’ was well and truly upon me.  But terrain is such a factor and, to my surprise, I regained the ability to run (ish) when the path became flatter and the ground more even in the last stretch.  It also kind of helped to be overtaken by a 100 mile runner about to finish.  If his death march hadn’t arrived after about 97 miles, I could hardly settle into it after 12!

I couldn’t help comparing the journey of this run to my current situation – it kind of fits.  Arduous, yet triumphant ascent to peak achievement (like the before times), humbling and debilitating fall (well – cancer), then a slow and and painful return (recovery from surgery) to some kind of second wind (now).  Hopefully the comparison ends with the abrupt arrival of the finish line.

But that finish line is never far from my thoughts these days.

And when words words fail, music speaks.

Hans Christian Andersen has a point there, and on the following Wednesday night I found myself at the Royal Festival Hall to see one of the most sentimentally emotive pieces of music ever penned or played – Mahler’s 9th symphony.  It’s often cited as the work in which the composer anticipated his own death.  Although that’s not completely certain, it followed the death of his four year old daughter and the diagnosis of a fatal heart condition, so there’s a good chance it was on his mind.

Reading the programme pre-concert, it was on my mind too.  There wasn’t a lot new to me in the notes, but being reminded of the piece’s context put me in a rather pensive mood.  It would be completely inaccurate to claim I haven’t considered my own demise; I’ve pretty much planned my funeral and farewell concert after all.  But conscious thought and base emotion are completely different.  It doesn’t matter either that I’m most familiar with a piece that, to me, represents the epitome of the late romantic to expressionist cusp.  Before hearing to a single note, some kind of situational gravity hit me and suddenly my circumstances felt really very real indeed.

I’ve been so good at living recently.  By that, I don’t mean continuing to breathe or seeing to the needs of basic survival.  I mean words and deeds that show I’m very much alive and taking as much as possible from every experience granted to me by continued existence. In connecting with friends and family, running further and further, performing and creating music and undertaking all manner of writing – I’ve embraced all manner of self expression.  As I recover and reset, I live at least as fully as I ever have and arguably more so, now I really have something to say.  But now I had eighty two minutes of death music in which to essentially contemplate my own.

As with the race, comparison came quite easily to me.  A turbulent first movement brought to mind so many conflicting emotions – triumphant bursts of energy mixed with wistful yearning for a life so interrupted at its zenith. Echoes of past glories through frequent self quotation, but always met with tragic juxtaposition.  Like a mind determined to continue striving despite mounting difficulties.  An almost demonic dance in a second movement waltz reminiscent of the march of nature from his third symphony, but descending into frustration as negative forces take hold of the spritely folkish melodies.  The third movement a skittish scherzo with melodic fragments colliding like the thoughts in my mind – so much to fit into such little time.

But that finale! There can’t be a more evocative emotional description of decline and death.  The dignified yet sorrowful opening sends shivers down my spine every time I hear it.  Twenty five solid minutes in which the composer knows the end is close whilst somehow clinging mournfully onto hope, not of longevity but of those few precious moments that might remain.  I imagine bittersweet reminiscence and final visits from loved ones.  Clinging onto life becomes ever more desperate and as the inevitable end draws near, intensity builds until a final climax leaves behind nothing but resigned acceptance.  From here, the music literally dies away as if the drugs are kicking in and an uneasy calm takes hold.  The comfort of ever present company remains in a few warm chords and melodic fragments as the last breaths become fainter and peace preludes the silence of the very end.

In this performance, there was a considerable silence before a sustained and deserved round of applause.  This felt fitting too because, when someone dies, no matter how much it affects a believed few, life moves on and everyone takes the train home and goes about their business.  Given the thought provoking nature of the night’s performance, I delayed the bustling normality a little to walk along the South Bank to St Paul’s lost in thought.  Well – perhaps not really ‘thought’.  Words were still failing me, the emotion indefinable yet overwhelming.  The gravity of that night is still with me, but (well – see above) coherent thoughts around it have gradually emerged.

So what does all that experience and emotion amount to? I’m determinedly hopeful that this won’t be my last meaningful musical experience or indeed my final mountain summit.

I’m not done.
Not even close.


  1. I’m not listened to Mahler’s 9th before, but am doing so now! I hope your legs have recovered from UTS25; yesterday one of my toe-nails partially came off 😭

    Would you be up for doing a Camino’s Blueway soon? I’ve so many to catchup on…

    • None have completely come off but one’s looking a little black!
      Absolutely – I’m still on zero.


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