Haruki Murakami runs in Mizuno. Not because it’s a Japanese brand but because
They have no gimmicks, no sense of style, no catchy slogan…Yet the soles of these shoes have a solid, reliable feel as you run.
I run in Nike Air Pegasus for no good reason other than they fit me and are comfortable. Well, the swoosh is an attractive brand symbol!. I must have had 15 pairs or thereabouts over the years. I own two pairs at the moment, one for running in Birmingham and the other, all weather, for running in Yorkshire. Where Murakami runs 150-180 miles a month, what he calls serious running, and sometimes he does rigorous running. I’m really running if I manage 40 miles a month, including cycling 80 miles at most. This must be “measly” running, if running at all. Maybe I am jogging even though to me it feels very like running. If I dare admit it, it feels murderously close to “rigorous” running from my end. That tells you something about my running. Simply that I’m no elite runner. And that’s an understatement.
Don’t misunderstand me, I have run one Marathon and maybe 6 half Marathons. And when I was training for the 2005 London Marathon, I was running 80-120 miles per week. It was strenuous work. But on the other hand I was the fittest that I had ever been. I thought nothing of going out for a 15 mile run. The photos of the finish line showed not a single bead of sweat after 26 miles. That’s how fit I was. My time was a miserable 5 hours 9 minutes. But I felt glorious, invincible.
I had turned 50, I was still slim and looked fit. But the rust had already set in, as it were, under the bonnet. I discovered to my disquiet one Easter break in Granada that walking uphill was effortful and dreadfully uncomfortable. My heart seemed under strain. I had palpitations, sweated like the legendary pig, and was clearly, ever so clearly unfit. That was my wake up call.
I searched the internet and found a site, from couch potato to basic fitness. All I had to do was retrieve my old Nike, the 1986 version that I had bought to train for and compete in the Great North Run, and set out on a walk-run schedule. A mere 5 minute brisk walk and 1 minute run. And I could just barely manage the run. My chest burnt, it heaved, I was breathless, and my legs were jelly under me. What a shock to self-esteem. After 3 slow months, I was running 3 miles non-stop and I haven’t really stopped since. That was 10 years ago and I am now 60. But Murakami’s 3 and half hours for a Marathon is an inspiration. His total dedication, his will power and inner strength, his pure pursuit of his goals in a single-minded manner are for me absolutely extraordinary.
I usually run down Park Hill into Cannon Hill Park and then along the Rea valley and then along the canal, on the towpath towards Bournville, Selly Oak, University, the railway line to one side of me. Whilst training for the London Marathon, If I was running over 10 miles I might run into town, into Gas Street Basin or if 15 or 20 miles out towards Kings Norton, Redditch or Stratford. In the winter, along the canal, there were alcoholics seated strategically at the bridges, clutching plastic bottles of cider. On my long Sunday runs, the brief exchanges with these men, was a welcome human intercourse in an otherwise silent sojourn in the cold. I ran whether it was wet, freezing, or impossible. When you’re training for the Marathon, like Murakami, focus is everything. The same focus that the Sunday fishermen along the canal seemed to have too, but a more relaxed sitting variety in their case.
That 18 months of training for the London Marathon saw me running in various cities: Birmingham, London, Belfast, Sheffield, New York, Lagos along Queens Drive, Singapore, Muscat Oman, anywhere that work took me was the setting for runs. The trainers went in my travelling bag before anything else. I was a dedicated runner, totally focused and obsessed, you could say. I still run but nowhere as fastidious or committed to running. I wished though that I was still addicted to running. Perhaps the 2015 London Marathon beckons.
That sole (no pun intended) Marathon that I ran 18 months into my return to fitness was more a challenge to mental strength than physical integrity. After 20 miles or shall I say at the 20 mile mark, all glycogen stores exhausted, limbs weak and numb with tiredness, the only sustenance, sips from Glucozade sachets, I relied entirely on moral strength. The ‘Wall’ as it is termed is invisible but no less an obstacle for that. The desire not to fail myself and the kids who were waiting at the finish line, propelled me onwards, that final hour or so. I had to imagine that I was only just setting out on a 6 mile run with fresh legs. The lies and deception that the heart was susceptible to amazed me. Promises and vows, threats and deprecations, sweet charms, all contrived to move one leg after the other. No walking permitted, just running. And I made it, to my surprise and pleasure!
Daniel Kahneman talks about the walking pace that is just right for thinking. The same is true for running. Above this comfortable pace all effort goes towards maintaining pace, staying alive. At the right pace, random thoughts flow, spurt, dart, flash, like the rhythm of the run, easing the tension and the emptiness. It is like a river flowing, eddying, accommodating the hollows and rocks in its path, embracing the terrain, yielding to the hard obstructive matter in its path. That’s what running at its best can be like.
Murakami talks about how writing is an ‘unhealthy type of work’ and for him running is a means of developing the physical body as an antidote to the toxin, the poison that is writing. I’ve never really thought of my running as quite anything like an antidote to anything else in particular. It started merely as a means of recovering my fitness. And has continued as a method for maintaining my fitness. Very boring indeed.
It was the Ethiopian Marathon runner, Abebe Bikila in Rome and again in 1964 in Tokyo who announced the beginning of the African era in middle and long distance running. He ran barefooted in Rome to win the Olympic Marathon in 2 hours 15 minutes and in Tokyo shod and winning by an unimaginable margin of 4 minutes and 7 seconds. He defeated Tsuburaya the great Japanese marathon runner on Tsuburaya’s home stadium breaking his spirit. Tsuburaya later went on to commit suicide. Posters of Bikila were everywhere in Nigeria when I was growing up, selling coca cola, cocoa, etc. His feats were celebrated Africa over. When I run the illusion is that like Bikila or David Rudisha running the 800 metres I am striving on a world stage, a hero. No where near, but that’s the illusion.
Photos by Jan Oyebode