Swan Song

(Back in 1992 I published a slim volume of stories about running experiences: “Running Shorts”, which is currently free to read on the website scottishdistancerunninghistory.scot. Now, aged 70, realising that this ‘faction’ sequence only took my lightly fictionalised self from 17 to 40-ish, I decided to write this additional “RS”, which I promise, to the relief of several, will definitely be the last, although I hope to postpone permanent retirement from my favourite sport for a few years yet.)

                                                                                 SWAN SONG

It had been a day full of other days, yet unique, as every day may be, Alastair Taylor mused around midnight, as he lay on the hotel bed.

Running hard was one reason for tiredness, of course, but travelling from the North of Scotland to Northern Ireland had not been straightforward – a long bus journey to Glasgow, overnight there, then bus, plane and taxi to arrive the evening before the event.

In his youth he had merely walked or cycled to a local grass track or parkland and rough trails for cross country. Scottish Schools’ championships had involved bus trips, true, while, at university, subsidised travel was by train and, later, minibus – or, each December, a swaying, dipping ferry to Ireland for two races in Belfast and Dublin, each followed by many pints of black nectar. As a senior athlete, but still young, he cadged lifts from car owners. Planes had only been necessary years afterwards when expenses-paying European marathons beckoned.

During more than fifty years, he had competed in a number of exotic countries: Greece, Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Czech Republic, Australia, USA (the Boston Marathon, with its ten miles of quadricep-mashing descents leading to five miles of wall-inducing heartbreak hills) – plus every part of the British Isles. Yet the actual venues often tended to be less attractive – post-industrial towns or sprawling untidy cities. Never mind, in each place, only the race had mattered.

As usual, Alastair had slept fitfully the previous night, after booking in, chatting lightly with familiar grey-haired team-mates, exchanging ritual complaints about injuries and lack of fitness, marvelling at the athleticism of 35 and 40-year-olds. Old Masters, not! A sensibly small meal – low-fat and easily digested – had been consumed, with not even a beer to wash it down. He recalled that, in his prime, he had avoided alcohol only before marathons or ultras – concerned to avoid dehydration. While in his late 30s, with carefree confidence, the night before one Scottish Senior National Cross-Country Championship, he had downed four pints of real ale – after all, the distance involved had ‘only’ been seven and a half miles – and had almost made the top twenty, considerably better than expected. Nowadays, although M70s were expected to cover a paltry 6 km, he went teetotal for a couple of days beforehand. It would be stupid to add (to the impossibility of quality training and frequent leg niggles) yet another probable cause of failure. Before competition, optimism had never been one of his characteristics, unlike moaning.

Long ago, some self-appointed sage had stated that it was not sleep the night before that mattered – but sleep the night before that. If you could not doze off, between nightmares about missing the start, remember that you were lying down, as calmly as possible, getting plenty of rest. Easy for that guy to say.

On race day he had nibbled breakfast (toast, cereal, banana, fruit juice) a full four hours before the start, leaving plenty of time for digestion, sips of water, changing into kit and nervy repeated visits to the loo. Surely, at this late stage, he should be less twitchy? Yes, wearing a dark blue vest added extra responsibility, but nowadays he could only start slowly, not jet-propelled, so why not age-related wisdom and composure?

At least his pre-race meal had not been steak and chips, which he had chomped an hour before his first marathon back in 1969. Strangely, at the age of 21, that had not caused a problem. However, the pint of cream (in theory, taking on fatty acids as fuel, to go with a ‘fast start’ triple black espresso) half an hour before a Scottish Championship marathon in the late 70s had caused a massive personal worst after so many pukes, plods and pitstops. Curry was best avoided, too.

A brief coach trip to the course, two hours before “Go!” and the build-up began. A walk to inspect at least some of the two-kilometre lap – some tricky mud and rather mossy underfoot but only lightly undulating, thank goodness, and suitable terrain for veterans aged 35 to 80 plus. Steep climbs and drops nowadays? No thank you!

Traumatic memories of ghastly trails passed through his mind with merciful brevity. The 1972 English National XC in Sutton (very) Coldfield (nine miles of mud, sub-zero temperatures, extra wind-chill and snowstorm – on the last desperate lap, a reigning Commonwealth gold medallist had been passed, upside down in a ditch); uphill slurry before clambering over barbed wire fences in Dunbartonshire; near death by hypothermia in Hawick. That one had been a Scottish Masters; the very first he had contested was Clydebank 1988. Some sadist had taken a film of the three laps. First one, pretty snowfall adding enchantment; second, the action totally obscured by a blizzard of heavy, wet, white flakes; the final lap, knackered survivors of a Norwegian notion of hell. Any hat-wearers now sported snow-stacks stuck to their heads. Despite tackling any conditions when forced to, really Alastair had been a bit of a ‘road fairy’, whose favourite cross-country routes traversed firm, dry, grassy, mainly flat golf courses.

Heat exhaustion, Alastair thought, had not been a problem in cross country events; only in long, scorching road runs, especially marathons or ultras. Foreign ordeals where you were shocked yet grateful when spectators sprayed you with garden hoses or chucked buckets of water; that Lairig Ghru 28 miler (80 degrees in mid-glen) when you struggled exhausted past the finish line on the wrong side of the busy main street in Aviemore. Officials hauled you across safely, then left you hanging over a fence in blessed shade. And how long it took before even a vestige of energy returned so you could fumble to untie over-tight running shoes and find something, anything, to drink! A final heatwave moment, was finishing as roasted runner-up in a South of France marathon. A photo in the local newspaper had been published in black and white – despite this, it was obvious his face had been bright scarlet. The report had referred to him as “Taylor, l’epouvantail”. Alastair’s schoolboy French had not included that word. Back in Scotland, a language teacher had cackled as she told him it meant “the scarecrow”.

Photographs were taken on time, an hour and a half before the start. So many grinning male and female team-mates and now, unbelievably, he was in the second-oldest age group. When happy, he still felt like a teenager, as long as he avoided mirrors. However, while cycling a road bike in perfect weather gave an illusion of fitness, running told the truth about damaging impact, physical deterioration and advancing years. Never mind, shut up, too bad, keep trying!

Warming up routine. Alastair recalled that, in earliest days this was merely a five-minute jog; at the peak, an hour of steady running, stretching, strides and sprints; now the process was laughably but necessarily careful. This was no parkrun where, if something hurt before the start, you could simply forget it and get back into the car. Injury might force you to drop out, but it could only be even slightly acceptable if a calf or hamstring ruptured during the actual race.

Start by walking away from the rest to find a quiet area. Don’t be psyched out by superior-looking rivals – Alastair had learned that trick as a teenager, when impressive lads with fancy tracksuits covered with running badges usually proved easy to beat. Very slow jogging, short strides, try to keep upright, stop occasionally for a gentle hamstring stretch. Then five or ten minutes steady; concentrate on smooth progress. A loo check, no problem. Half an hour to go. Steady with a few fifty-yard strides, gradually working up to what passed for race pace. Save any real effort for mid-contest! More stretching, lower back, hamstrings. And, miraculously, muscles and tendons ease a little, permitting increased range of movement. Hope increases, some confidence re-appears. Maybe this might be okay! All you need is just a little luck.

Between 40 and 15 years ago, luck was hardly necessary, since injuries occurred seldom and proper training was normal – 60 to 80 miles each week, sometimes including a twenty miler, plus hill reps, group fartlek, steady runs and a time-trial or a race, in which you were almost certain to run well or even very well. Nowadays, Alastair had to listen to his whingeing body very carefully indeed, and work within those frustrating limits. Still, fortunate to be able to jog at all. No hip or knee replacements yet!

A last, totally unnecessary, loo check. Then the call to the start-line. Alastair was edgy but under control. Not like before long ago high-pressure road relay events – they were the worst. Sometimes he actually stress-retched five minutes before receiving the baton – fairly cleared the tubes, though, for the panting, eyeballs-out charge all the way to the next changeover. Now he took up position near the back of the field, alongside other old fogeys. Injuries usually happen soon after too rapid a start. With some common sense, he might just come through eventually to a decent finishing position. Let young women, fast old guys and idiots go for it! Some might blow up before too long. Experience might count for something, after all.

An officious self-important official bawled irrelevant guff about the course and warned that anyone with even a toe in front of the line would have it amputated. False starters would, deservedly, be executed. Or some such traditional nonsense. Impatient athletes jiggled up and down and ignored him. Alastair had a brief flashback to Nos Galan, the Welsh New Year event through the narrow streets of Mountain Ash, when stars like Dave Bedford used to emerge from shop doorways in front of the start line and took their places seconds before the race commenced. Then there was the English National, when thousands anticipated the gun and started jogging away inexorably before they were ordered to go. No chance of calling them back!

Bang! Release! While speedsters shot off, Alastair focused on getting into a short, pattering rhythm, keeping upright and swinging his arms forcefully. For the next 400 yards or so, the trail was extremely muddy – if this continued throughout the race, it would be horrible. However, they emerged onto the loop and most really sticky patches could be avoided.

Gazing ahead, Alastair noticed without surprise that the leaders were already out of sight. At 41 he had led every step of the Scottish Vets cross country championship – a sequence of photos proved it. In this event at M45 he kept up with the fastest M40 men for quite a while, before winning his age group. Ah well. Occasional nostalgia can be pleasurable; but remember to appreciate the present moment! Although he knew that few in his category had started more slowly, Alastair still felt in control. In front he could see a straggle of individuals and small groups, including men around his age – who were the real targets today.

Taking care to accelerate only slightly, he started to inject more effort, and gradually moved out to pass ‘victims’. If he could just keep working hard, then others might fade. Anyway, overtaking was much more fun than being overtaken.

At his peak, Alastair had loved front-running and also putting in surges mid-race. Road had been his favourite surface, and long uphills where he tried to break away. Not having much of a sprint meant that he had to go for it early, at unexpected moments. Even as a veteran on the track, these tactics had sometimes worked well. Nowadays, grinding away, hopefully at a single semi-decent speed (the only alternative being slower) was the simple strategy. At least it meant that he didn’t have to think much. Just aim for the runner in front or try to hang on to others.

As usual, he seemed to be puffing faster – still testing for possible heart attacks – compared to everyone he plodded past. A team-mate was only fifty yards behind and, when Alastair glanced back, it seemed that they were moving up the field at the very same pace, as if attached by invisible rope. Since this old friend possessed a sprint finish, Alastair would strive to keep clear as long as possible. Being trounced by strangers was much less irritating.

A long shallow downhill was negotiated gingerly. Thirty years earlier, in the British Vets XC, Alastair had been clinging on to the leader and race favourite – a very classy Welshman – when a steep downhill proved his undoing, as a hamstring strain forced him to ease off and (at least he was thoroughly warmed up) concentrate on holding second place. Eventually, still clear of the bronze medallist, but moving with difficulty and discomfort, he approached the finish, to be “congratulated” by a famously-grumpy Scottish blazer-wearer who grated, “Taylor, you’re such an ugly runner!” which, although he had never been a stylish swan, seemed a trifle uncharitable to Alastair, who had rated himself a “brave war-wounded soldier”!

Now, much closer to second-last but trying his best on the day, Alastair entered the third and last lap. He must have moved up thirty places, passing several age group rivals, but had no idea of his current position. Not last anyway, and still making slow progress. With two kilometres to go, he pushed some more, since he could see a few more strugglers coming back. Half a mile left and one more man within reach. At the start of the long finishing straight, Alastair forced himself ahead, but the effort emptied his energy tank, so his rival closed right up and then strode away in the last hundred yards. Knowing he was beaten, Alastair looked over his shoulder for other sprinters. Clear, thank goodness, and over the line. His team-mate was only eleven seconds down – they had both squeezed into the M70 top ten.

On a previous occasion, as a dirty, knackered runner collapsed at the end of a such a race, a bewildered spectator had inquired, “Who are you trying to impress?” Well the answer could hardly be a potential girlfriend, with a warped lust for mire and snotters. Self-respect after trying hard, that was all. A stamina adventure!

One good thing about having dodgy, fragile legs was that they would not permit racing too far or hard, so Alastair recovered quickly, glad that disaster had been avoided. His team definitely wouldn’t be fifth, thank goodness, and he would not be to blame. Quite an enjoyable run, in fact. Winners nowadays punch the air; while respectable also-rans mainly feel relief. Still in the game! And forget the warm-down. Who knew when he would next take part in an important race?

Of course, you could be left in a dreadful state after really tough events: hitting the proverbial in marathons, for example, battering through the final miles gasping, weaving about and groaning aloud. Off normal training, Alastair had once attempted the famous challenging London to Brighton road race (54 miles – and a quarter). Even pacing it perfectly, he had run out of blood sugar at 40 miles but did not drop a place during the last 14, since everyone within range was feeling just as weak. At the longed-for end, he waved away a space blanket and then his legs buckled! Shortly afterwards, he had been deposited in a deep bath, and had to scream for help, since it was far too hot. However, drinking colder water, warm tea and (with difficulty) consuming a few biscuits had encouraged a quick recovery. Since the pace had been steady, his legs hadn’t been destroyed and he managed to take part in a short road relay six days later. Years afterwards, he wished that energy bars and gels had been invented earlier….

The afternoon passed in a contented blur. The showers proved impossible to locate but he found a doorway and changed into dry clothes, while spectators were fascinated by much younger men bounding athletically through their races. A lift to carefully selected Derry pubs – old friends, including all the M70 team, turned up – assured ‘rehydration’, thanks to pints of stout and nips of Irish malt whiskey.

Back to the hotel, shower, change for the banquet – the food was delicious, but Alastair sobered up with water.

The Scots had tables farthest from the stage. As ill-prepared speechmakers droned on and on, Alastair sat back and assessed the British and Irish Masters International XC experience. A decade ago, he had looked through a long running career and tried to order his top ten races. These were fairly easy to list, but somehow he ended up with a top fifty worth remembering. It was not all about ‘lifetime best times’. (When else could you achieve them?) Nor about most significant wins or medals or (badly designed) trophies. As park-runs suggested (with their age-grading of times), any event, even when you were old, could give some sort of satisfaction. Team wins stood out as important. Running was essentially a solo activity, and it was a real bonus when fellow enthusiasts banded together to do well. Like today.

Was that to be his “swan song”? And what did those words mean, anyway? His phone supplied formal research answers.

“Swan Song came from ancient Greek, and was a metaphorical phrase for a final gesture, effort, or performance given just before death or retirement.

However, the common Mute Swan (Cygnus Olor), although not actually mute, was known neither for musicality nor to vocalise as it died. The only sounds it could make were honking, grunting, and hissing – not unlike over-stressed runners, perhaps.

Yet the snow-white Whooper Swan (Cygnus Cygnus), a winter visitor to parts of the eastern Mediterranean – and Scotland – did possess a ‘bugling’ call, and had been noted for issuing a drawn-out series of notes as its lungs collapsed upon expiry, both being a consequence of an additional tracheal loop within its sternum. This was proposed by naturalist Peter Pallas as the basis for the legend.”

So there! Ye ken noo. Well, Alastair had no thought of imminent retirement from his beloved running, or indeed expiry, unless that referred to breathing out before breathing in again.

The medal presentations were nearly complete. Every recipient was applauded generously by folk from all five nations. The Scots were noisiest, as usual.

His M70 team was announced – they had won surprise silver medals!

White-haired Alastair and his three companions, heads high, floated the length of the hall, down a river of shouts, cheers, claps, handshakes and even mistimed high fives.

Alastair tried to maintain dignity and smiling self-control. Yet, although no song came from mute lips, around his mind echoed a silent whoop!