A sonnet on what we talk about when we talk about running
19th September 2015, the day I ran my first 5k Parkrun in Bushy Park. Six months before my 40th Heart swelling, legs pounding, me asking, “Are we there yet?” to anyone and everyone. Two and a half years later, I’m running the London Marathon for the Samaritans.
New acronym. PB. It means Personal Best. It means every second counts. It means I had no idea I’d care so much about shaving off three minutes to reach 1:59 in my second half-marathon. M takes a picture of me on the final sprint. Now I know what my face will look like the day I die.
New jokes. M’s favourite: “If you find yourself surrounded by Kenyans you’ve gone off too fast.”
Murakami’s book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running says: “To keep on running you have to clear your mind and keep up the rhythm.” It’s the same with writing. When I’m running, I plot scenes, invent characters, write poetry. The trick is remembering it all.
Kevin, my son’s school coach looks like a gazelle when he runs. I ask him for help. He tells me to run up a hill in Richmond Park six times. When I can see again and talk again and know for sure I won’t be sick, we talk about him. He was Mo Farah’s pacer. Kevin makes me think I can do anything. He sends me Whatsapp messages that look like this: 21/1 – 16m 28/1 – 16m 4/2 – 18m 11/2 – 15m 18/2 – 18m 25/2 – 16m 03/03 – 20 m 10/03 – 16m 17/3 – 22 m 24/3 – 20 m 01/04 – 16m 08/04 – 14m 15/04 – 8m 22/04 – Race. I stick it on the wall.
My neighbour stops me in the playground. “Did you go for two runs on Saturday?” “No, just the one. 14 miles.” “It takes that long?” she asks. “It takes that long.” I sigh.
Dad writes on my Justgiving fundraising page. “Good luck Elen, we remember you coming last in the junior school sports. What an improvement!!!! You’ll do it. All love Mum&Dad xx”
Yesterday, I ran 16 miles in the sleet and rain. It’s the longest I’ve ever run. 2:45:42 1,909 calories. I listened to Sigrid’s Don’t Kill My Vibe 13 times. My sister met me on her bike at 12.8 miles and gave me orange squash. I cried but she didn’t know because of the rain.
On April 10th 1997, my friend Sarah Napuk killed herself six weeks before our Oxford finals. They found a sheet of A4 paper with a revision schedule by her body. She’d just won a Kennedy scholarship to study at Harvard.
It was Thursday afternoon. The Easter holidays, so college was empty. I was unlocking my bike on the way to the Bodleian library to revise. I could stay there till 10pm. Sarah and I lived next door to each other in the second year. She was bright and brilliant.
The college flag flew at half-mast. There were flowers in the road. Police and journalists swarming. I called friends before they saw the news. A tutor summoned me. She wondered if I felt under pressure. If we all did. I wish she’d asked earlier. Wish someone had asked Sarah earlier.
The Samaritans says there are are four questions you can ask somebody in trouble. Do you need any help? What’s your name? It’s a warm evening, isn’t it? What train are you going to get?
When I’m running I think about Sarah. I think about everyone I know who struggles. I think about being at the end of your tether. I remember that when I got divorced and the kids were tiny I thought I might dissolve. But the longer I run, the more I think of nothing at all. The curve in the sky, the clouds shaped like swans, the way the sun splinters on the surface of the river.
I keep running for as long as it takes to reach 26.2 miles. I’m running for Sarah, I’m running for me, I’m running for everyone who’s ever felt they can’t keep putting one foot in front of the other.