I was fit in my thirties, fitter than I had ever been, and certainly fitter than I am now. Physically, I was at my peak.
A strange thing happened when I was about thirty. I became interested in running. Not reading about it, or watching it, but actually doing it.
Barry told me he was running in faraway London, and that it was fantastic.
I just thought it was funny. At school, cross country running was the final humiliation, the ultimate torture thought up by the Physical Education gestapo sadists.
So, for a joke, I bought him a cheap, remaindered paperback by Donald Porter, called Inner Running.
Now for a confession. Everybody does it, but no-one admits to it. I read it before I gave it to him. In fact, it was such a brilliant book that it never got to Barry.
It became my bible and my addiction.
The premise of the book is that running is a natural activity, and can be as easy as walking. He believes that, at first, we should run like dogs. In other words, we should walk a bit, look a bit, and run a bit. No need to get out of breath, no need for stitch, no need for humiliation, no need even for running shoes and shorts.
This is how it started. When I took the dog for a walk, which was every day, I would run a bit with him. He loved it. We both had great fun. My heart beat faster for the first time in years, and, what’s more, I was really enjoying it.
Of course, at this stage, I wasn’t a runner, nor even a jogger. I had no special gear, no stopwatch, no drinks bottle. I just had a good time and a shower when I got home.
It got easier to run after a couple of weeks, and I progressed to a cheap pair of trainers, an old pair of football shorts and a dirty tee shirt. I still refused to have anything at all to do with stopwatches. Stopwatches are instruments of the devil.
Slowly, the amount of time spent running started to outweigh the time spent walking. I bought new trainers and read some articles about cardiovascular fitness. I started to monitor my resting heart beat.
I was hooked.
The serotonin highs associated with running became addictive. Steady running became a form of meditation, and it was the first thing I wanted to do when I got up and the first thing I wanted to do when I got home from work. I even tried to run every day on holidays. I felt bad if I couldn’t run.
I was becoming fitter and leaner and happier, although maybe a little obsessed.
I think I managed to avoid the haunted, skeletal look that many distance runners get, but I did put the miles in, as they say. I would run every other day, and go for long, long canters across the moors every Sunday..
It was changing my self-image to such an extent that it was changing my perception of personal risk.
One time, running along a busy road with a neighbour, we saw a group of young people smashing bottles in a bus shelter. In the past, all my reason and instincts would have been screaming, “Turn round, don’t look at them, remember the weedy boy on the beach with the girl and the sand in his eyes, remember you wear glasses”, and so on.
But no, not this time. I was a running superhero.
As I set off for the bus shelter, my neighbour followed me, convinced I must be a karate black belt, or something.
It wasn’t a long fight. I think my neighbour gave a creditable account of himself, but I was wiped out by the first blow. I had somehow thought we would have a chat (probably more like a shout – I wasn’t stupid), the gang would apologise and we would go our separate ways.
To say I was inexperienced in these matters is to massively miss the point. I was actually in a dream state, brought on by running, in which I must have thought I was in the Lion comic.
If it came to fisticuffs, I thought, there would be the usual schoolboy pushing and shoving, but I would be spared anything worse, because I wore glasses!
How I laugh to think about it now!
The leader of the gang, to whom I had addressed my speeches, had obviously studied Napoleon’s campaigns and understood the value of a surprise, massive, knock-out blow with vastly superior force.
Before I could see his hand move, he smashed me full in the face, breaking my glasses and rendering me blind. We retreated in some disorder, lucky that the broken bottles hadn’t been used or that no-one had a knife.
I am a physical coward, I know my limitations. What was I doing? Who was I trying to impress?
I wouldn’t do it again.
The moral of this story is that prolonged serious exercise is bad for you.