Once more, Gordon Bruce checked his digital watch. Still five minutes to go. Surrounded by restless, lightly perspiring bodies, he felt cramped and weak-kneed. Nervously he tried to stretch his hamstrings, touch his toes and test his shoelaces, all in one motion.
As the crowd shuffled forward slightly, he unbent rapidly and had to wait for a sudden giddiness to pass. Surely those were merely ‘butterflies’ in his belly? He just couldn’t need to go to the loo again? Four minutes left. Relax, he told himself. Try the deep breathing, jog on the spot, think of something else – anything. ……………………
How had he got involved in this public display of masochism? His parents certainly wouldn’t approve. He could just imagine his mother’s critical tone. “Grown men – and women too! Prancing about in their underclothes. And on the Sabbath! Just a waste of time and effort!”
They believed in hard work all right, he reflected sourly, but only for money. Behave yourself, he’d been told, pass your exams, wear a tie, cut your hair, polish your shoes, go to church, find employment, settle down.
Even his father, a silent morose man at home after another long day selling expensive cars to ungracious but wealthy businessmen, had nodded approvingly when Gordon had landed his first job with Taxcon Oil. After all, Mr Bruce had expected his boy (a prefect at a fee-paying school, no less) to have no difficulty clearing the hurdle of youth unemployment. ………………………………………………………….
A loud bang jerked Gordon back to the present and the mass of folk around him steadily gained forward momentum. The Aberdeen City Marathon was on its way at last. Mildly startled, he gathered some concentration as everyone wheeled right into the Beach Boulevard and ground smoothly and confidently, like eager lemmings, up the incline into Union Street.
Already the leaders were stretching away fast but Gordon had positioned himself near the back of the field. It was his first marathon and he had been warned to start slowly. More than a thousand ‘athletes’ were in front of him. Glancing round as he found space to run and settled into a rhythm, he smiled wryly at the wide variety of body types participating in the race. They ranged from the frankly obese (such effort for so little pace!) to the near-emaciated whippets of the leading pack. Were they that shape because they ran fast and far – or vice-versa?
By now Union Street (so quiet at 9 a.m. on a Sunday) had been traversed by the tail-enders and most competitors had swept downhill along Holburn Road. As he turned left onto Riverside Drive and passed the Duthie Park, Gordon felt relaxed, calm and free. Already (he knew he had been over-cautious) he was moving gradually through the field, leaving behind the kamikaze starters, publicity seekers and unreasonably optimistic.
There were two theories about how to cope psychologically with the strain of marathon running – one adopted by self-centred masochists (the leaders) and the other by less-obsessed individuals, like himself. The former concentrated hard on their running style, monitoring every muscular complaint, implementing race tactics and ensuring that maximum performance would be achieved [although the plans of mice and (marathon) men……..]
Gordon, on the other hand, preferred to opt out, to disassociate his mind from the discomfort of the body, and make progress while considering something else. During training, he frequently ‘woke up’ several miles further on, his feet keeping to the route (however tortuous) while his mind contemplated romantic possibilities, dreams of the future, or simply what he would like for his evening meal and how good a cool beer was going to taste after he had ‘earned’ it by completing his run. On this occasion, however, he continued explaining to himself exactly how he came to be taking part in the Aberdeen Marathon at all. ……………………………………………….
Young Executive in an Oil Firm sounded glamorous enough. As he discovered in the next few years, the work was repetitive and very tedious. It involved an endless stream of office jobs performed hastily to a tight schedule in a claustrophobic air-conditioned hell. His workmates seemed to have a vocation for such tasks. Certainly they arrived bright-eyed and early and didn’t seem to mind being kept behind after office hours if there was another petty crisis to solve.
Over a series of fattening boozy expense account lunches, Gordon came to realise how keen these people really were – desperately ambitious workaholics who saw themselves as a new breed of dedicated heroes. They talked about their work, possessions and social adventures, compared holidays and hi-fi systems, cars and cocktails, salaries and sex-lives, waistcoats and wigs. Gordon was the odd one out.
When he met Jean, he believed he saw a chance for happiness at last.
A jolt, as his feet stumbled over quayside cobbles, forced him to keep his mind on running for a change. A slight drizzle had made the uneven surface greasy and treacherous. But after slithering about for a moment, he found that shortening stride length, leaning forward a degree or two, and maintaining a faster tempo, enabled him to deal with the stones quite efficiently. He was continuing to pick off stragglers and revelling in the competitive situation.
Gordon was cruising along – the engine seemed in tune, the fuel supply plentiful and the driver well motivated.
At six miles he passed the Beach Ballroom again and received his share of the crowd’s cheerful, envious or insulting comments. The route wound round the Broad Hill and up a narrow tenement-lined avenue to King Street, before plunging down Market Street and back into Riverside Drive. Then came the most testing hill – up Holburn Road, left onto Great Western Road and then out the North Deeside through Cults.
Halfway in one hour thirty-one minutes, Gordon noted as he strode into a slight cooling breeze. A heaviness in the legs was noticeable, but the effort wasn’t too intense, and his movements remained rhythmical and almost automatic.
Jean. An image of her face, animated and smiling under that unruly mass of flaming red hair, passed briefly through his mind. That was the girl he had fallen for – the lively non-conformist who seemed so happy to move into his flat at the first tentative suggestion. She had been even more dissatisfied with her secretarial post (also at Taxcon) than he was with his executive one.
Gordon reasoned glumly that, caught up in those first few weeks of novelty and passion, he had never guessed that Jean’s wildness was superficial. Subconsciously at least, she must have yearned to escape into the conventional role of wife and, above all, mother. Soon she announced that she was going to have his child (which seemed strange, since he thought the Pill was fairly accident-proof). Trustingly he’d arranged a quick Registry wedding – and then the trouble really started.
During the rest of her pregnancy, Jean had been busy preparing for the birth. The flat was redecorated and a box-room transformed into a tiny nursery. She attended ante-natal classes (and insisted he accompany her) with a near-religious fervour. Her diet was planned in scrupulous detail, while he was left to exist on junk food – and her nightly exercise routine would have exhausted Jane Fonda. All good for the baby, and quite normal, he’d supposed, quashing his doubts. But after the birth (natural, straightforward, without drugs) – he’d found it a very emotional occasion – Gordon had begun to realise his true predicament.
Jean had become utterly different from the fun-loving extrovert of only a year before. Getting on with her was very difficult for Gordon by then. She was remote from him, obsessed by her baby girl (Tamsin – her idea). Jean spent her days fussing over the child, and chattering endlessly on the phone or over countless cups of decaffeinated coffee to other ‘young mums’. Then she collapsed grumpily into bed, claiming to have a tension headache and to be totally exhausted because she’s been looking after HIS daughter.
Gordon had been rejected and excluded. He had tried to share domestic chores, help with the baby and give his wife some time of her own. However his efforts were criticised as clumsy and inadequate.
Eventually, he had given up. Once again he felt trapped, having to withstand the strain of an unsatisfactory marriage as well as that of an enervating job. He began to suffer from every clichéd mid-life symptom (at the age of 25) – nervous stress, constant tiredness, depression, and either insomnia or the sleep of the dead.
Sometimes things seemed so bad he had to laugh. Was he a character in a soap opera?
It was when a colleague also laughed, ridiculing Gordon’s expanding waistline, that he started trying to reverse the process of deterioration. At school he had been reasonably adept at rugby, so it seemed a good idea to take part, one Friday evening, in the casual game of football organised by a few of his sportier workmates, before they headed for the pub to celebrate the weekend.
It was hardly a success. After several moments of competence (his co-ordination was still there at least) he found himself blowing hard, and eventually went over an ankle, straining his Achilles tendon. He limped miserably off the pitch, but got some measure of enjoyment from the hot shower and some good-hearted banter in the bar afterwards.
Once the injury healed, he decided to achieve fitness cautiously, in gradual stages. Some of the Taxcon employees were in the habit of jogging two or three miles at lunchtime. He made up his mind to join them after a few tentative solo trials.
It was tough at first. He could hardly run more than 400 metres without gasping helplessly and having to stop. His limbs ached for days. But gradually the muscular pains eased and some breath control returned. Yet his ego suffered when, trying to participate in a group run at work, he discovered that much older men could converse fluently while sailing effortlessly away over the horizon, leaving him speechless in their wake, floundering like a novice in a coracle.
A strange determination made him keep trying. He realised the benefit of gentle, yoga-based stretching exercises, and found physical tiredness much easier to withstand than the nervous exhaustion he had been enduring for so long. He slept much better, his appetite was keener, and yet his weight started to return to normal, pound by pound, as his metabolic rate increased.
Steady jogging seemed to be therapeutic. His other worries were absent while he concentrated on simple forward movement or let his mind wander as his body settled into rhythmical progress. Once he was able to talk during training, he discovered the common bond between all runners – a mutual understanding and sympathy, engendered by a shared pleasure (and sometimes a shared discomfort).
A discussion with a training partner could take on a confessional nature. It was as if the run took place in a time capsule, quite apart from the pressures of normal life. It seemed natural to impart confidences and mention personal problems, secure in the knowledge that the listener would refrain afterwards from malicious gossip.
Gordon had to muster his concentration during the grind up to Milltimber Brae. He was puffing by the top, but seemed in better condition than most in the straggling crocodile of runners stretching before him. Gaining speed on the twisting left-hand bend, he flashed past several other competitors whose legs couldn’t absorb the extra strain of downhill racing.
It had been near the end of the Duthie Park ‘Fun Run’ only six months previously when he had come upon an ability to push himself more fiercely than the average jogger. Half a mile before the end of the four mile trail, which undulated over grassy hills, round tarmac paths past beds of brilliantly coloured flowers, he had noticed a workmate (one of those who had obviously relished running away from him in the early days) plodding along only twenty yards in front.
A rush of competitive energy had given his weary legs new life. Feeling like a fresh thoroughbred racehorse flying past a ponderous broken-winded Clydesdale, he had accelerated hard to the finish, more than thirty seconds in front of his astonished rival. It had been a minor breakthrough and Gordon’s confidence had grown considerably.
Shortly after the fun run, he joined the local athletics club. After listening to advice offered by experienced runners and the distance coach, he mapped out a two-month training programme aimed at a half marathon in June.
The first Wednesday that he took part in the pack run which started down King Street and up the promenade, he got quite a shock. With an effort he hung on until the Bridge of Don, without managing to chat freely like his club-mates.
However the route swung right, then left up the long drag to Balgownie, the talking stopped, the pace increased dramatically, and they seemed to vanish with the casual rapidity of deer escaping over the skyline. He was left a disconsolate straggler. Not knowing the trail he lost contact with the others, and found it awkward to trudge back to Linksfield Stadium, very tired indeed.
Perseverance paid off after a few weeks, though. A longish run at a slow speed on Sundays (15 miles through Hazlehead and Countesswells); a track session on Tuesdays; six repetitions up a steep hill on Thursdays; some steady recovery jogging on the ‘easy’ days; and he found himself keeping up with the main herd during the Wednesday night ‘race’.
Self-respect was his main reward and the esteem of others. His club-mates seemed to admire natural talent, speed and stamina but, most of all, wholehearted effort. Gordon enjoyed their friendship and the harmless mickey-taking in the pub after the Wednesday run.
His general morale was much higher now. He felt stronger and more relaxed, physically and mentally. Not only had he found an escape from the stresses of work and home, but he had also gained resilience, and was better able to deal with such pressures. Alienation was no longer a problem now he had some companionship and shared common goals with others.
And yet, more significantly, he began to develop an independence, a self-reliance, he had not achieved before. Gordon thought of running as a purposeful activity with very real benefits. ……………………………………………………………………
Now these qualities were really being tested. He knew that the size of challenge he faced (in the 26 miles 385 yards of the full classic distance) would be, oddly, more than double any minor trouble endured, while completing the half marathon.
Passing other runners was harder now, since the gaps were greater. At 23 miles, on Riverside Drive once more, he began to experience the symptoms of ‘The Wall’. Scaremongering veterans had done their best to ensure that he knew exactly what could happen if he ‘hit it’, although he has assumed their horror stories were exaggerated.
Yet it worried him, now that the sun had broken through, that he had begun to shiver with cold. His feet and legs were jarred, sore and stiff because of repeated contact with hard tarmac. There was a dryness in his throat, a pounding in his head, and his whole body felt weak and leaden, as if the air he was parting was becoming as resistant as water.
Briefly, Gordon lost control. He doubted if he could keep going. Several acquaintances had been sceptical about his ability to complete the distance. Maybe they’d been accurate in their judgement. He faltered, lost momentum and had to walk for a few yards. But this slight respite was enough – he wasn’t going to quit without a struggle. Grimly he broke into a slow trot and regained rhythm and purpose.
Progress was possible, after all, and he was glad he had eaten properly in the days before the race (potatoes, pasta and white bread, mainly, with only toast and jam four hours before the gun). Drinking a couple of pints of some electrolyte preparation that morning, and topping up with water and a cup of strong black coffee in the last hour, had ensured a good start. Despite heavy perspiration, he had managed to remain well-hydrated, taking frequent sips at the drink stations and enjoying a refreshing sponge when available. His preparation had been sensible and thorough. Now it was paying off.
Over the cobbles for the last time, keeping well away from the harbour’s edge, and he was past the 25 mile point. Up a nasty little hill and round an army cadet (acting as a marker). He ignored the final chance to take in some liquid, because by now he could hear the applause of the crowd at the finish.
Wiping sweat from his face and, with an automatic gesture, passing a hand through his hair, Gordon took a few deep breaths and, turning right onto the boulevard, tried to run powerfully to the banner and the time clock. He overtook a fellow sufferer and crossed the line, with the announcer’s hoarse voice bawling congratulations through the loudspeaker. Two hours, fifty-five minutes exactly. Not bad for a first attempt.
Although his legs were stiff and awkward, he felt as if he were floating, a permanent grin on his face. They were right – just being able to stop WAS great! He demolished three cartons of orange squash, and was chatting eagerly to a club-mate (each attempting, simultaneously, to tell the story of HIS race), when a pram came to a half beside him and he was surprised by a warm embrace.
It was Jean, more vibrant than he’d seen her for ages, saying well done with what sounded like sincerity! She hadn’t expected him so soon, and seemed glad to have a successful (and still healthy) husband. Together, they wheeled Tamsin’s chariot across to the changing tents.
Gordon was tired but content. He recognised that the sensation of strength and control, of achievement and self-respect, was mainly an illusion. This glow would pass, he knew, like all joys (and sorrows), but seemed all the more precious for its transience.
Getting on would always be a struggle, but now he knew that perhaps struggling well was what was important – and he had proved to himself that he was capable of that.
“I’ll show them,” he thought, with a surge of defiance. But first, the beer, the bath, the bed and the sleep – of the truly alive.