The essence of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is that Arsenal is the author’s constant in life. Amid the flux of education, work, relationships, happiness and sadness, Arsenal and football remain resilient to the vagaries of his existence. Running has been my constant since the age of 18. Through university, through jobs, through seasons, through highs of fitness, through hangovers, through break-ups, through reconciliations. I ran on the day of my graduation and the day I got married.
The need for constancy has been challenged over the years. Habits have slipped, resolve has faded. But, it always returns. Nothing, however, has been as challenging as the past nine weeks. A second place finish at the Steyning Stinger Marathon in early-March was followed three days later by the start of a cold or flu – call it what you will – that travelled from throat to nose to head to ears to chest and back again; it threatened to go, only to linger, then rev again through my sinuses, leaving in its wake an unshakeable lethargy. In the middle of The Cold came a baby, my first child. Constancy? A baby knows no such thing. Gradually, I recovered. Eventually, I began sleeping hours that resembled normality. Crucially, I began to run again. They were snatched minutes on a Sunday morning, swift lunch break sessions, commutes with a bag on my back. I came to yesterday’s Three Forts Marathon (27.2 miles/3450ft of ascent and descent) on the South Downs having run a dozen times in those nine weeks.
A group of five of us led from the off, becoming two, Mark Perkins, the winner of the South Downs Way 50 in April, and I, with a chaser, Paul Sargent, a Burgess Hill Runner and a 2.56 marathoner, as the first hill claimed early victims. That’s how it would stay until mile seven, where we crossed the Steyning bypass and began a long drag uphill towards Devil’s Dyke. Sargent breached the gap and took over the lead, Perkins settled into second, I followed in third. We would finish in this fashion.
Today was not a day for heroics; survival was the best I could hope for (and a suntan such was the radiance of the sky). At mile 15, we crossed the bypass and River Adur again, with the route sending us up high to Chanctonbury Ring. Memories blur. I remember envying a great fat pig that lay happily in the sun. I remember feeling very tired and having to work very hard. I was hot and feared sunstroke; I felt constantly thirsty and a little dizzy. My usual policy of grab-and-run-and-never-stop at feed stations had been scrapped: I was pausing to glug three or four tumblers. The leading two were visible for long stretches, but I had stopped caring. Hold what I have, I told myself, and I had third place. The first half of mile 24 was dreadful, a long, modest climb that grew to be interminable. I crawled past back markers in the half-marathon race. Determined to run nowhere near 10-minute miles, I ruined my legs trying to catch up on lost time, only to run headlong into Cissbury Ring. I ran downhill to Worthing slower than I had run up, counting down every step. When I crossed the finish line some three hours and 21 minutes after leaving it, I have rarely been so happy to stop running.
And so running (and inevitably racing) remains: a constant pre-fatherhood, a constant during fatherhood, a constant as long as my legs allow. What now? Having been second at the Steyning Stinger and third at Three Forts and Beachy Head, I might just win a race in the South Downs one day. I just need a little more constancy.