The aggressive battery of the coffee machine and microwave assaults as they strain to produce breakfast, the cacophony proving they sing from different hymn sheets. Silence engulfs me as I step onto the balcony to gauge the temperature. Clearly no-one woke the song-birds. It’s 05:30 and today I run an ultra-marathon.
Though the walk from home to the start line measures only a mile or so, this journey can be traced back much further. I first laced up my running trainers in anger and self-loathing about two and a half years ago. Initially it was horrific, stumbling through sweaty evenings in Oban. Sunset perfection hampered by clouds of midges. I engulfed them as my lungs burned. Slowly but surely the distances increased from a couple kilometres to ten and beyond. In the intervening years my motivation has deviated from my personal aim of fitness.
There is little fanfare at the start-line. Slender sinewy Saloman-clad stereotypes shuffle uncertainly. The darkness is dissipating slowly, though sun-rise will wait until we hit Arthurs’ Seat Crags, the first of many climbs today. As we continue on our undulating journey the figures either side will become more distant, isolation will be achieved.
Initially the tracks and paths are busy with strained calf muscles adorned with military insignia and Ironman tattoos. Each proud inked emblem carries a story. My own badge stays covered. A penguin with balloons scratched eternally into my shoulder signifying shame, guilt and a fear of forgetting.
As the kilometres grind, I return to reveries. Running has been a release, a crutch, a coping mechanism, a friend. It’s gifted me precious time and space. The immediate aftermath of the death of a family member is a time of deep uncertainty, pain, and introspective reflection. My sister Cat died last August. My reaction has been one of rejection. I no longer see myself as a brother.
It took me seven weeks to shed a tear. Three of those I spent working in Europe’s largest refugee camp. I don’t know who I was crying for by then. I have compartmentalised my previous self. Distance, emotional evasion, lockdown. I’ve been told that’s unwise, by many who have never experienced anything similar. For the most part, their words ring hollow. As empty as I feel. Uncomprehending of the cannonball attached to your ankle, the grapefruit that encloses your windpipe, the deep visceral pain.
Agony wakes me. I float atop Allermuir, today’s summit. Glances to the left gift me scarred ridges over luscious valleys, a scan to the right flaunts the fairy-tale city I call home. Bathed in a late-morning glow, hundreds of millennials will be enjoying brunch. I treat myself to a tropical energy gel.
Descending the trails from the Pentlands keeps me alert, I’ve fallen enough times to have learned caution. Often there are cuts and grazes, sometimes the wounds go unseen.
I have begun to re-examine my motivation for self-annihilation. Challenge brings distraction, and distraction has been very welcome. Vulnerability has never been my forte. Though often able to illicit it, I seldom share my own. The reasons for this should perhaps be subject to further rumination. I have affected small change and with regular reassurance managed to develop some insight into my limitations.
Hours creep by, miles of cycle path wind alongside the waterway of Leith. Though un-inviting, the muddy waters’ progress outstrips mine easily. The autumnal canopy obscures the breeze, the trapped air below is a noxious mix of stagnant water, rotting leaves and sweat.
Physical exhaustion washes over me, the blood that coursed earlier now sludges through my veins. Running has allowed me to punish my body and collect my thoughts. Guilt, hate, anger, grief and relief all percolate below the surface. Vulnerability comes from sharing our darkest moments, our ambitions and hopes, and our failure to realise them. It demands strength when we feel we have none and stretches our capacity to cope.
Training makes you stronger, fitter, more prepared. You can do more than you ever thought possible. Push yourself further. What used to terrify you becomes more normal. These rules are applicable whether it’s cantering many kilometres around Edinburgh or trying to make sense of your emotions. Embracing vulnerability takes true strength but also practice. Emotions, and the way we choose to process and portray them, define us. Far more than our experiences. Never be afraid to feel.
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As well as running for my own physical and emotional health, I’ve been raising money for the Boat Refugee Foundation who I worked with in the Moria Refugee Camp on Lesbos. Any funds you could spare would be hugely appreciated. You can donate here. Thank you.