Faster, higher, stronger?

No – I’m not going to the olympics.  Cancer seems to be opening doors but, unfortunately not that one.  Nonetheless, after my comeback 50k ultra a few weeks ago, a friend remarked ‘you’re the strongest person I know’.  That’s a really nice thing to say, but it also got me thinking: What exactly does it mean to be ‘strong’?

If we’re talking about the ability to bench press or lift a log above one’s head, I’m going to have to manage expectations here.  For a start, I have a fairly typical runner’s build, which means not much muscle mass, especially around arms and shoulders.  I’m always willing to have a go, but I’m not the best candidate to move a piano and no was ever going to give me a job delivering anvils. So rather than hailing me as the next Terry Hall, they were probably referring to endurance.  For my purposes, this can be defined as the ability to keep going, despite a mounting desire to stop.

I’ve always been pretty good at this, especially when I’ve put my mind to it.  That’s the thing about endurance – it has very little to do with raw strength, because it really kicks in when the muscles start to wobble and protest.  Sure – it’s possible to delay this point through training, but especially if conditions are harsh (as they were that day, due to some pretty brutal early season heat) then things are going to get really tough.  It’s a good thing I’m aware of this through plenty of  ‘uncomfortable’ experiences because it’s safe to say I’m now a shadow of my former self.  This is empirically true as I’m now 1-2 minutes slower per mile for the equivalent effort.  It’s also clear, for example in the last blog, that it takes less to tire me out than it used to.  So I now need to dig deep far sooner than before and spend longer in the ‘pain cave’ in order to get through a long run.

The pain cave is often used to illustrate that point where that desire to stop becomes all consuming.  It’s like memory experts referring to a ‘mind palace’.  Well maybe, like some of the more successful endurance athletes, I’ve spent long enough in the pain cave to fashion it into a well furnished dwelling that I’m not afraid to inhabit.  It’s going to hurt – that’s what happens when you do hard things.  No one runs long ultras expecting to breeze through and especially not if cancer is in the process of – ever so slowly – spreading through their body.

I’m taking the fact I’m thinking like this again as a good sign.  Earlier this year, I spent at least ten days not just in the pain cave but in the cavernous depths of hell.  This pain was far from welcome as it wouldn’t stop and I had no control over it.  I didn’t get a finisher’s medal out of that sorry experience but I like to think the reward for enduring all the gut wrenching agony comes now in the form of a healthy summer, where I can really do some living.  As I take in the news of the latest scan, I’m determined to make the most of this confirmation that chemo can probably wait until autumn – it could easily be my last chance to really put my body to the test.  On reflection, it’s taken months for me to get back to the point of being willing to endure again.  So now I’ve started to regain the ability to put my body through some anguish in order to engage in an activity that makes me feel alive, I’m going big.  A few details need to be worked out, but there is a big ultra coming up and it’s likely to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

This race involves charging up and down a load of mountains, so I’m going to spend much of the summer like the grand old Duke of York giving myself the best chance of getting myself into 100 mile mountain ultra shape.  Given that I’m still alive and well, choosing which mountains to seek out seems a good problem to have.  And just as I’m starting to work out a plan, these problems have gotten even better as a couple of bands may well be inviting me to some festivals this summer to play some of my favourite genres of music.  This musician’s lifestyle is something I really enjoy too and some of my very best performance experiences have been at festivals.  Maybe I can do everything, or at least aim to.

Last winter, when life was looking so bleak, I would have cynically shaken my head at the suggestion that I might be ‘strong’ enough to leave the house, let alone looking forward to an ultra running comeback, return to work and experience my own musical renaissance.  I didn’t dare to dream of anything back then – just hoping I’d merely be alive by now was all that seemed realistic.

I’m regularly reminded that I’m a broken man – take the apathetic tiredness of two short days ago – but technically speaking, the time when the body becomes stronger is when you’re at rest.  Strength coaches talk about ‘tear and repair’.  I’ve experienced this today as I felt so much stronger out on today’s hill session and I was definitely faster on this than I have been recently.  Hard as it was to take an unscheduled rest day, it undoubtedly did me some good!  But maybe that’s happened on a macro scale too.  Chemo and surgery literally and metaphorically tore me apart.  Is it really a surprise that it’s taken me until about now to really feel like I’m mending?  I was a bit sceptical when the doctor kept me signed off for months and when I was told how gradual about my provisional phased return to work plan is.  But maybe the medical professionals have a point – this kind of recovery takes time and it’s pretty much taken until now for me to feel strong again.

Strength also a feeling.  It manifests not just in endurance and determination but in confidence.  Pretty much until this moment, I was a bit tentative about coming back to work, despite desperately wanting to.  How would it work out?  Now I can’t wait, because I’m ready.  It means a lot to feel that, so I’m going to restate it.  I’m ready. For anything.  Whatever challenge lies around the corner, be it extreme heat, mountainous terrain, a class full of children, tumours appearing throughout my body like popcorn, or even alto clef trombone parts – I’m good for it.

Now That is strength.


  1. Hi Nat. Rob here. Just wanted to say that I think you’re incredibly strong for going through what you’re going through and having the clarity to write and articulate your emotions and thoughts so well. I miss ya dood. I am being selfish and want to see you back at work soon. Let me know when you’re playing next. R 🙂

    • That’s lovely Rob!
      Nice to know it’s being read and hopefully I’ll see you next week.


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