Monday, July 2, 2012

The agony and the ecstasy

Yesterday, after returning from the Run24 24-hour race near Reading, I had a pain in the neck such as I’ve never experienced before. The slightest movement, left or right, up or down, sent paroxysms of pain shooting through my body as bad as anything I’ve ever endured, from broken bones to waking up from the gas while having four teeth extracted. It eased overnight, with the aid of an off-prescription opioid stash – now it just feels like I’ve broken my neck – but for a time I thought I was going to spend the next few months on my back in a body brace.

I’ve been here before (not in the body brace), though without the pain. A little over ten years ago I went to stand up and my left leg gave way beneath me, insensitive to all feeling below the knee. I thought it was pins and needles; it turned out to be a crushed nerve in the lower spine. For a few days I couldn’t walk at all; for a few months I couldn’t walk unaided. When I did, every step involved a tentative placing of the foot on the ground, trying to make sure it was straight enough to provide balance, and that I wasn’t doing unknown damage in the absence of any sensation to warn me otherwise. 

One of the consultants I saw was almost gleefully pessimistic. When we were discussing the possible causes of the problem and I told him I played football regularly, he said only part-jokingly that ‘there is no excuse for grown men playing football’ and complained that it was the cause of more unnecessary injuries than anything else the NHS had to deal with. On the subject of running, he said that if God had intended human beings to pound up and down the pavements of London he’d have given us pneumatic tyres. His general theme was that my chances of a complete recovery were slim and that any activity more vigorous than Zimmer-framing it to the shops (and then only if I kept my spine firmly upright and didn’t twist it) risked total paralysis from the waist down. 

But slowly sensation returned, and eventually – with no small sense of gratitude for being given the full use of all limbs again – I returned, among other things, to playing football and running. Yesterday, for a while, I was reminded of what a blessing it is to be fully mobile and pain free.

That sense of blessing was all the stronger for the fact that Run24 had gone like a dream. I’d entered it at the last minute, largely because I felt I needed more miles in my legs before attempting the Lakeland 100 in four weeks time. Because it involved five-mile laps around a fixed woodland circuit, I’d not only be able to do as much or as little as I felt up to on the day but I could do it without carrying a pack, leaving anything I might need at the start. And because it would be relatively flat (at least compared to the Lake District), on tracks and paths that are reasonably suitable for running, and without any element of self-navigation, I’d be able to go a bit faster than I normally can over ultra distances. I had my eye on doing 100 miles inside the 24 hours.
My race strategy, if you can call it that, was to aim at doing 12 laps – 60 miles – in the first 12 hours, leaving a further eight laps to cover in the next 12 hours. So every lap done in under an hour would be time in the bank towards that first target. I figured that I would slow down dramatically as the race went on anyway, so I may as well cover as many miles as possible early on. 

I did the first 25 miles in under four and a half hours, the first 50 in 8hrs 55mins, and reached 100 in 22hrs 3mins 17secs. With almost two hours still remaining, I then embarked on a personal lap of honour, walking virtually all of it and saying my thankyous and goodbyes to the marshals, trees, shrubs, puddles and ruts that I’d become so familiar with. There was still time left on the clock to start another lap when I finished that 21st circuit. If I’d done it, I’d have finished second overall but I just didn’t have it in me. I was delighted with my times, with the distance covered and with a fourth-place finish. And I dread to think what my neck would have been like if I’d put it through another five miles.

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