Wednesday, 10 August 2022

Nothing else I was supposed to carry - Why I run

Part One - Shit

In early July I went on a short break to the Eden Valley. As I set off early one morning on a solo walk up to High Cup Nick, despite being in a beautiful place, I realised that I had become fixated on worrying about something 10 days in the future. I was imagining fantastically elaborate things that could and probably would go wrong at this future date.

And the thought occurred to me, that I waste approximately 80% of my mental energy on shit. About 40% on self-recrimination and rumination about things I've done or decisions I've made in the past, and about 40% on things that could go wrong in the future.

That only leaves about 20% of my energy left to run my life. Sometimes I do succeed at focusing on the present. For example, when I'm writing this, or when I get into a flow at work.  But often my thoughts are dominated by past regrets and future fears. 

In times of crisis, that 80% shit can increase all the way up to 100%

I was in a relationship for nearly 8 years which broke up in May. Immediately after the breakup, I couldn’t stand to be me. I felt embarrassed and ashamed of my life, and the decisions I've made which put me where I am. I hated being seen or making eye contact with anyone, in case I was see-through, and the shit inside was visible, For the first few days all I could think about was what I’d lost, and I wished that I didn't exist. I didn’t know what to do next or where to live, and I didn’t know how to fill the big hole in my life where the relationship used to be.  I couldn't switch off from thinking about how and why ‘everything had gone wrong’. I can’t remember a time when I felt worse about who I am.

Part Two – Happiness

Probably the time in my life when I felt best about who I am was when I was 17.

It was 1985 and I was on a German exchange to Hannover with school, with a group of friends. One evening on that trip, we went to the park, and we met some German soldiers, not much older than us doing their national service. We played them at football, they agreed to play in bare feet so they didn't kick us too much with their army boots, and after the game we all shared a crate of beer. It could have been the beer, but afterwards I remember lying on the grass with my eyes closed on that lovely July day, and feeling 'happy enough to die'. As if life would never get any better than this. And in some ways it never has.

At that point, I was probably as full of myself as it's possible to be. All through school I was singled out as a bright student, and I believed my own publicity, that I was better than the average, superior to most. With no sense of irony, I would quite happily lecture grown ups on their life choices, never having made any myself. I regularly told my step dad where he was going wrong. But it was all theory. I didn't feel any responsibility for the past, because I hadn't made any real decisions, and I had no anxiety about the future, because I assumed it was going to be great, because I was great.

At that age I’d never had a serious relationship, or a full-time job, or my own house, or any real money. I'd never been turned down from any jobs, been made redundant, got divorced, or had to arrange any funerals. No real failures, no real responsibilities.

Part Three – Suitcase

I was recently reading a book by Haruki Murakami on running.

He says looking inside himself is like ‘staring down into a deep well… all I see is my own nature. My own individual, stubborn, uncooperative, often self-centred nature that still doubts itself – that, when troubles occur, tries to find something funny, or nearly funny about the situation. I’ve carried this character around like an old suitcase, down a long, dusty path. I’m not carrying it because I like it. The contents are too heavy, and it looks crummy, fraying in spots. I’ve carried it with me because there was nothing else I was supposed to carry. Still, I guess I have grown attached to it. As you might expect….”

I guess it’s part of growing older that you have to look down into that dark well for yourself. Then you have to then carry the weight of what you find there. Including the disappointment of where your life doesn’t measure up to the imaginings of your youth.

Part Four – Running

How do I carry this weight? Well, running helps. One constant which acts as a stabiliser whatever else is going on around me is the routine of going to parkrun on a Saturday. And regularly going to new ones gives me the added distraction of new experiences. I’ve done 12 new ones in the last 12 weeks, including Wetherby, York, Harrogate, Fountains Abbey and Knaresborough. Oh, and Chevin Forest...

Despite my intention to ‘take it steady’, the first 200 metres of Chevin Forest parkrun was a near death experience. Not so much a run as a desperate scramble into a mass of post-earthquake rubble, as if trying to locate a lost dog in a collapsed building. When I was still alive at metre 201 I thought I'd better keep going for the full 5k. At the finish I scanned my barcode and then lay on the grass with my eyes closed, feeling knackered. I wasn’t so much beside myself, as outside myself.

In those 5 minutes of recovery, there was no suitcase to carry. I existed outside my life. I had no awareness if I was in a relationship or not, where I live, whether I'm a success or not. It was just recovery from physical effort. And all the differences between 17 year old me and 54 year old me became irrelevant.

A couple of weeks later I joined a running club (Roundhay Runners). One of their training nights is interval training. The first time, it was just running up hills for 20 to 30 minutes, punctuated by jogging back down to the bottom of the hills to start again.

After the hills session, I realised I hadn't had a single conceptual thought about my life the whole time I was running. Who I am, where I am, who I'm with or not with. There was only room for run, recover, run, recover. 

A week later it was a pyramid session. A similar thing, but basically running in circles instead of up hills. Laps of the cricket pitch, with short gaps in-between. No time for narrative, just run, recover, run, recover. Then lie down.

Part 5 – Numbers

Someone I live with now asked me recently ‘Do you think you might be autistic?’ ‘I don’t know’ I said ‘It’s never been measured.  I know I sometimes like numbers more than people.  I find relationships difficult, and conflict in relationships almost impossible. But I like looking at football results, league tables and cricket averages. When I was a child, a lot of the books I got out of the library were books of facts, about how tall buildings were, or comparing the wingspan of different aircraft. I love learning languages, but sometimes I’m more interested in looking at the rules behind them than I am in using them to actually talk to anyone, I really like maths because the answer is either right or wrong, and my favourite subject at Uni was Syntax. For my job I spend most of my time at work entering data into spreadsheets and databases, and I’m also one of those fruit loops who records everything he does on Strava and who can’t bear to leave the house without his Garmin, who believes that if a run isn’t recorded, it didn’t happen. But other than that, probably not’.

Compared to the sometime brain fog of my internal monologue, running is safe because it can be measured objectively. When I think I'm achieving nothing, or going nowhere in life, having thoughts such as ‘I’m 54, and I’ve got nothing to show for it, I’ve ruined my whole life’, that’s just speculation, but if I can run a bit faster than last week over the same route, that's a fact. Unlike the aftermath of a relationship, trying to figure out what happened, who did what to who and why. I can say that at a certain time and place, this is where I was, this is what I could do, Stats don't lie. I ran, this is how long it took, that's all.

Part Six - Ego

Eckhart Tolle says that. ‘Suffering cracks open the shell of ego’.

When I look back now with at my ‘happy enough to die’ self from 37 years ago and my ‘wish I didn't exist’ self from a few weeks ago, both seem equally ego-centric. In both states I was literally ‘full of myself’. Full of my stories and of my life drama. And not paying much attention to what was actually happening in the moment.

Now, and often in that period of recovery after running I see my thoughts as something not to take too seriously. No longer a source of pride or distress, they seem more like clouds floating by overhead or a TV that's on in another room that I'm not really paying attention to.

Part Seven – Respite

It still depresses me sometimes to consider my faults and failures, my wrong turns in life and the things I've messed up. But when I run, for a short time I can leave those thoughts behind.

At those times of detachment I wonder ‘How could I possibly assess my life objectively from inside my head anyway?’ It’s impossible. It’s more complicated than looking at facts or statistics. Especially when life gets tangled up with other people’s lives in the messiness of relationships.

I didn’t choose to lose the things I’ve lost, and the things I failed at, I wasn’t trying to fail. And if people have been hurt by my actions, it was accidental. And pretty much everything that has gone wrong in my life, I tried to stop it going wrong. But all those things I did imperfectly, and so the results were imperfect too.

Running doesn’t stop me being me, at least not permanently, it’s just a kind of standby mode for my overthinking brain: respite care for the mind. It’s a chance to realise that the suitcase I carry with me, my stubborn and uncooperative nature, I am allowed to take a break from it and put it down once in a while.

Part Eight – Acceptance

Another Eckhart Tolle aphorism:

“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy”

I spend a lot of my time and my mental energy fighting against my life story. Fighting against the circumstances that I find myself in and the events that have happened to me, even though there’s now no way of changing them.

But, when I run, for a short while, where I am is exactly where I need to be. And the contents of my life, I carry them with me because ‘there’s nothing else I was supposed to carry’.

Sunday, 3 July 2022

Missing Persons

 If a tree falls in the forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

If I go for a run, but I forget to take my Garmin and it doesn't get logged on Strava, did it really happen?

If I go for a day out, but I don't take any photos or record it on social media, and no-one I know saw me, was I really there?

I went for a day out in Harrogate a couple of weeks ago. I booked a session at the Turkish Baths, I explored the Valley Gardens, I went there and back on the train. But nobody who would recognise me saw me. I didn't take any photos, and I didn't check myself in anywhere on Facebook. Did I really go?

A lot of my life, experiences I've had have been with someone else there. Someone with who afterwards I can say 'Do you remember the time we went to X, do you remember that old guy in the corner of the pub who was grinning like an idiot at his phone?' It's an adjustment to have experiences that have no other witnesses.

I remember feeling quite vulnerable when my mum died, because large chunks of my childhood were only witnessed by her, me and my brother. Her death seemed to put more pressure on him somehow to be there to verify things that happened. 

When I was married, my wife's grandma (who was in her 80s at the time) told a story of one Christmas, when her father presented her mother with a necklace, which he had saved up for years to buy. At the time of telling the story, she was the only survivor from that day. She would have been describing an event 75 years in the past. At the time it was actually happening it was witnessed by a mum and a dad, and 4 children. But now all of those people are gone. Where did that moment go? Does it still exist because she told me about it? What happens to memories when they're no longer stored in living people?

According to Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse 5, the people of Tralfamadore don't look at time as we do, with moments following each other, as beads on a string, one after the other. They can see all moments past, present and future all at once. As a result, all moments that have existed, have always existed, and always will exist. I hope that's true.

It's an adjustment to have moments, which no one else can see or verify. I think that's why the temptation is always to tell someone, even if it's remotely, via a status update on social media. Not doing that feels a bit like hiding, or living in secret. Maybe that's just because times have changed, and it's more routine now to take photos of everything or to constantly be updating statuses.

I'm pretty sure I went to Harrogate a couple of weeks ago. I could prove it if I wanted by showing you the booking confirmations and the entries through my bank account. I could describe it to you if you like? But you wouldn't remember it. Because you weren't there.

Thursday, 23 July 2020

The Universe I want to be in, is the one where Bielsa is at Leeds

Why do I write? I mean, why do I write anything? Mostly, it’s because I want to, but sometimes it’s because I have to.  Because there’s something in me bursting to get out, which I have to say, which I CAN’T NOT SAY. And today, that thing that I CAN’T NOT SAY is about Leeds United.

Do you believe in parallel universes? Alternative realities? Well, this morning there are three I don’t want to be in.

Firstly, one where this season’s Championship was voided after 37 games, where this season would be all for nothing,

Secondly, another one where Leeds were promoted under Points per Game. And everyone would say that we didn’t really deserve it, and if the season had been finished we would have bottled it, done a Leeds etc, one where we’d have been watching reruns on a loop for all eternity of Ayling’s thunderblaster vs Huddersfield and Roberts goal against Hull, deciding which is the best., and bemoaning that that was as good as it got.

But the worst universe, the one I really don’t want to be in, is the one where Marcelo Bielsa didn’t come to Leeds.

Leaving aside those three realities, there is another one. It’s one I don’t believe in yet, even though I’m in it.  I’ve seen it with my own eyes over the last two weeks, but my brain can’t accept it yet.  One with Ben White channelling James Rodriguez, volleying in from the edge of the box and Illan Meslier tipping the ball over the bar like Gordon Banks. One where we cling on to beat Barnsley on a Thursday, get promoted on a Friday, win the League on Saturday, and beat Derby on Sunday. One where Alioski runs off to celebrate with the crowdies, while Fulham defenders are lying all over the floor. Where a 30 pass move against Stoke is finished with a Bamford stepover and Pablo slotting the ball into the corner, One in which Luke Ayling runs the length of the pitch in 11 seconds in the 89th minute against Swansea and Pablo scores a goal that dug down into my very soul and pulled out a primal scream of joy and relief and release, which may have been heard 15 streets away, also setting off a distant echo of Gordon Strachan vs Leicester in 1990.

In this reality, I keep expecting to wake up in the shower like Bobby Ewing, to find that the whole of Project Restart has been a dream, and that we're still in limbo, stuck permanently on 71 points and 37 games.

I remember when Steve Redgrave won his 5th Gold Medal in a row at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, his first feeling was relief. The expectation and pressure had been so huge, it was relief that came first. I think that's true for me too. In this reality, it was other teams that fell apart, and buckled under the pressure. But Leeds did not. 

My first experience of watching Leeds United was a MASSIVE, MASSIVE DISAPPOINTMENT. A feeling of absolute desolation. It was 1975 and I was 7. The European Cup Final vs Bayern Munich. The first football match I ever watched.  If that experience taught me anything, it’s that losing something as trivial as a football match can rip the heart out of you. Jorge Valdano said ‘Of all the things which do not matter, football is the most important’. And I agree with him.

So, losing to Wigan at home last year, and losing to Derby in the playoffs all seemed quite normal. Nothing extraordinary. Just everyday Leeds United. 

There have been so many grim times at Leeds, which are well documented elsewhere, so much to forget, and so much I don’t need to forget because I wasn’t interested enough to pay attention to it in the first place.

But I have paid attention to Bielsa and to this team. Because they demanded it. They blasted me out of hibernation. My brother has had a season ticket for the last few years, and he came back from the first game of last season against Stoke not quite able to believe what he’d seen.

The following game, away to Derby, I went round to my partner’s parents house while they were away at their caravan, and stole their Sky TV box with their Sky Sports subscription and plugged it into our Sky dish, to see if I could believe it either. It came on just in time for Leeds to be 1-0 up. And even the beginnngs of this team was like nothing I’d ever seen.  Gone was a decade and a half of mediocrity, this was Bielsaball. I’ve watched football my whole damn life, and as far as tactics go, I don’t really know what I’m looking at, but for the last two seasons, watching Leeds play vs watching anyone else has been like the difference between being alive and being dead.

Maybe because results have been so important this season, and the Championship is such an attritional nightmare to get out of, we haven’t been able to enjoy it moment to moment.  It was a lot like that in 1989/90. Similarly, I once cycled  from Land’s End to John o’ Groats and I always say that I managed to cycle the entire length of Britain without seeing any of it, with my head down looking at the map, trying to reach my objective. The last two games of the season, with the title won, the anxiety fell away, and you could actually see with stress-free eyes how good we are.

Those fans who’ve stuck with Leeds unflinchingly through it all, the good times and the bad, and who I admire for their fortitude, sometimes ask ‘Where were you when we were shit?’. Well, a lot of the time I was just doing other things. I have a finite amount of time and money, and sometimes Leeds just wasn’t worth it.

But like when Howard Wilkinson and Gordon Strachan blasted me out of whatever else I was doing in 1989, and demanded I take notice, and I went and bought a season ticket, so it is with Bielsa. You cannot look away. When Leeds are playing, you have to see it. Sometimes it kills you, and you think you won’t get to the end of the 90 minutes, and you’re glad that that shop next door but one has a defibrillator. But you have to see it. Even though you can’t explain why.

I saw Patrick Bamford interviewed on the pitch after the Charlton game, someone who has had his doubters everywhere, except for in Bielsa’s brain, and he was saying that he didn’t know yet what they’ve achieved. Well, I’ll tell you.

I’m 52 years old now. I was 22 when Leeds won the Second Division in 1990. And yet I have never forgotten that team of Strachan, Speed, Batty, Vinnie Jones, Lee Chapman and the rest. And I’ve never forgotten what I went through with them, during the 1989/90 season.

In the same way, these last two seasons under Bielsa will never be forgotten. Anyone who saw them, will remember them for the rest of their lives.  And they won't remember just the winning. They will also remember How They Won. By outrunning, outpassing, out-everything-ing  all the other teams. By being relentlessly persistent, and never stopping. 

Marcelo Bielsa has the nickname 'El loco', but, as Phil Hay, said about him on his podcast yesterday, 'When you get up close to him, there isn't any madness, just obsession and devotion'.  He's a cuddly grandfather like figure, who endlessly and patiently poses for selfies with adoring fans, who has turned perennial Championship mid-table languishers  Leeds United into a ‘Total Machine’  And like 'The Terminator', who would never, ever stop, and who had to be lured into a steel mill and crushed, and shot and melted, and even then, there was enough left over to make 5 sequels, his 2019/20 Leeds United could not be stopped either. Not this time.

And this is my new reality.  I haven’t quite accepted that I'm here yet, but I know one thing for certain.  The Universe where Bielsa came to Leeds, is the one I want to be in.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Running every day in April: for no particular reason - Just like Forrest Gump.

What have we lost since Covid 19? And where did it go?

And how do we spend our days under Lockdown? How do I? 

If February was spent anticipating losses, March was when they actually happened. Maybe the things I was worried about when the virus first hit seem trivial now, when so many people are dying. But in late February, the football season, a summer holiday to Italy, Parkrun, going to the cinema or to a cafe for breakfast, and being able to go to the office to do my job, were all important things that I didn't want to lose, During the month of March all those previously available choices were shut down, most of them in the same week. 

So, what to do in April? What was left? Well, one thing is exercise. The freedom to go outside, to walk, or to run. Once a day. So I did.  A bit like Forrest Gump, without exactly knowing the reason why, I set off running. And during April I ran every day.  The only rules (which I made up as I went along) were that I had to run a minimum of 4 kilometres a day, and that the total had to add up to 100 miles (or 162 km).  I know there are a lot of exercise challenges circulating on Social Media at the moment but this wasn't one of those. It was entirely personal. And because a big part of running for me is recording the data, here is the data.

I take Methotrexate to manage my Arthritis, and I can get sore if I run too much. My joints don't respond well to excessive impact.  Because my symptoms are well controlled I sometimes wonder how much effect the medication has, but during April I found out. For the two or three days following the weekly dose, my knees and ankles hurt less than the rest of the week. Methotrexate has its drawbacks, it can suppress the immune response, and along with having asthma (and being male and getting older all the time) that puts me at higher risk from Covid. On the other hand, keeping fit is supposed to increase your survival chances if you get Covid, so there's a balance to be struck.

Running every day in April was not something that I consciously weighed up the pros and cons of. It was beyond logic. I didn't do it for one specific reason I'm aware of, but when so much of what was previously 'normal life' is out of our control, it was nice to do one thing that was completely up to me.  Also, it made sense because I have been doing a lot less incidental exercise each day, now I am not walking to and from the car morning and night and around the office etc, And, because I live with people who have started doing a lot more baking since lockdown, I am eating more cake than before. As it is, my weight was exactly the same at the beginning of April as it was at the end, so the running has kept me in some sort of equilibrium.

It's easy to concentrate only on losses during lockdown. To think about things that are not allowed, and freedoms taken away.  But it's also important to take account of the things that go right.  And I noticed while I was running how beautiful April is. A beautiful month to be outside. Almost every day has been sunny, with birdsong and blossom everywhere, and some newborn lambs to see along my route. And in 30 days I have never had to run in the rain once. I've also seen a lot of courtesy too. People have moved aside or crossed the road to let me pass, and to maintain social distancing,  Also, the time of day when I have been running (mostly around 8 am) is a time that I would normally be sat in traffic, or in an office. Although the 15 hours I ran for during April made me sore sometimes, their benefit can't be measured.

I was toying with the idea of following up 'Running every day in April' with 'Running every day in May', but I have been advised against it, by Joy, as she says I need a bit of rest, and although I am stubborn, and I don't always listen, I have decided not to be an idiot about it this time. 

Even Forrest Gump stopped eventually.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Bielsa and Leeds United - Playing like you're 3-0 down, whatever the score

My first awareness of being a Leeds United supporter was waking up from a general anaesthetic, after an operation aged 7, to be presented with a colour poster of the 1974/1975 squad.

Shortly after that, I watched them live on TV for the first time. Unfortunately, that was the 1975 European Cup Final (daylight robbery, disallowed goal, penalty not given, heartache, Paris, fans ripping out seats and throwing them onto the pitch etc).  In the 45 years since, my experience of watching Leeds has tended to go in 15 years cycles of boom and bust, or in my case, bust and boom.

My first 15 years of watching Leeds was spent mostly being told how good they used to be. Then under Howard Wilkinson in 1989 everything changed   Looking back, the first time I felt swept along by genuine hope of better days ahead was Gordon Strachan's debut in March 1989. That was the first day when I realised that as a Leeds fan I would be able to stop living in the past. The promotion year of  1989/90 was the one and only year I've ever been a season ticket holder, and a lot of the enjoyment of watching that 1989/90 team was watching them hound and pressurise teams at Elland Road, watching Batty and Vinnie Jones and Speed and Strachan chasing them all over the pitch and boxing them in.

Shortly after that season's promotion, I moved away from the area so I became only an occasional visitor to Elland Road.  For about another 15 years they continued to be a team to be proud of, with new stars like Viduka and Bowyer and Alan Smith, but then after the financial meltdown and relegation in 2004, things went very, very wrong, and stayed that way for almost another 15 years.  After watching teams assembled during that time by Peter Reid and Dennis Wise full of loan signings who didn't seem to care, or even to know who each other were, I stopped caring too, and Leeds once again became a team of past glories, not present ones.  For a lot of years from the mid 2000s onwards, I didn't know the names of any of the players, I'd even stopped checking the results. I would occasionally go with my brother if I found myself in Leeds, but that was it, the one highlight being in January 2010 when they beat Manchester United in the FA Cup.

I suppose I find it harder to care about football in the modern era anyway.  In these times of wall to wall Sky TV, with games on every day, and with billionaire clubs and their millionaire players dominating everything, I find football and footballers harder to relate to than in the 70s and 80s.

A lot of the games I've found most exciting over the years have been games when Leeds have been behind and chasing the game.  Letting in 2, 3 or 4 early goals changes your mindset, and sometimes the most fun games to watch have been those when they've got nothing to lose.  Leeds 2 Ipswich 4 1989, Leeds 4 Liverpool 5 1991 Leeds 4 Stuttgart 1 1992 Leeds 4 Derby 3 1997 Leeds 3 Norwich 3 2017. I mean, watching all those flicks and tricks when they were 7-0 up against Southampton in 1972 is all very well, but sometimes what I've admired most has been them giving it a go in adversity.

The most exciting game I've seen live was Leeds 3 Millwall 4 in 2018. Leeds 2-0 down at half time and down to 10 men. For 20 minutes at the start of the second half they threw absolutely everything at Millwall and had them on the backfoot, scoring 3 goals. But then fatigue set in, and they couldn't hold on.

The best thing about the last two years of watching Leeds under Bielsa, is that now they play every game, whatever the score, as if they're 3-0 down and they've got nothing to lose. And they've got the fitness and the coaching to be able to keep it up for 90 minutes, instead of just 20 minutes running on backs to the wall adrenaline and then running out of steam.

These days, after so long stuck in the Championship, it's understandable that people are fixated on promotion, but sometimes obsessing over getting promoted makes it seem that results are all that matter. There's a danger (and I found this to be true in 1989/90 too), that you don't appreciate what you're seeing, because you're only thinking about the final score, and where that leaves you in the league table.  Now we're all stuck in a Covid 19 no man's land, staring at the league table is all we've got. But for the time being at least, we're on top.

We're on top because of Bielsa, and because of his unswerving devotion, to a meticulously choreographed, running is everything, striving for perfection brand of football madness, And that madness has blasted me out of my apathetic 15 year hibernation. I've never found them more exciting to watch than I have over the last two seasons. And I've never cared more about the team and what happens to them than I do now.  It's very possible I'm what you would call a 'fair weather' supporter. Maybe I only come out of the woodwork when things are going well. But on the other hand, after so much financial mismanagement, and a magic roundabout of not very inspiring managers, maybe I'm just a skeptic. For me 'seeing is believing' and I need to be seeing something 'out of the ordinary' before I can devote my time and attention to it.

So, thank you Bielsa. And thank you also to the players. Who have bought into his methods, and who are prepared to run for every ball, and to give it everything, from the first minute to the last. The current squad is now just as memorable to me, as the team of Bremner and Lorimer that I mostly only learned about in hindsight, and the one of Strachan and Batty and Speed from 1989/90 that I saw with my own eyes.

What I don't know, is how this season will end, or even if it will end. I don't know if we'll ever get promoted. But whatever the record books say, in the end that's just statistics, and statistics don't tell the whole story. Supporting a team is about having something to hope for and to look forward to; a way of playing that you can be proud of and that gets you out of year seat and inspires you, and gives you something to believe in. For a long time with Leeds that had got lost. Thank you Marcelo and the players, for bringing it back.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Closing the loop - 30 years on. Graduating at 51.

Yesterday was my graduation from University of Leeds. And so I wore the customary gown. Here is me with my classmates. The year is 2019.

The last time I wore a gown before that was in 1986, when I was a prefect at Leeds Grammar School. Here is a picture of that too.

There are a couple of obvious differences. At school there were only boys. At Uni, at least on my course, there were only girls. The other main difference is that I'm now 51 and not 18. When I left school at 18, full of promise and potential, with a place at Uni in the bag, I went to see the Senior Master Mr Grainge to say goodbye. He was a very scary man, who commanded absolute respect. He once came into our classroom when the teacher was out of the room, and told us to stop wasting our time. That life was short and that youth doesn't last, and that we should make the most of the time we have. He knew what he was talking about, as not long after that he had to have part of his leg amputated, and by 1989 he had died from whatever illness had caused that. But I never forgot what he said. I also have never forgotten Mr Kino, my inspirational German teacher, who first showed me the beauty that is hidden within language. He died only a few years ago, but no-one who was ever taught by him will forget him.

Here is another picture from yesterday. Of my brother Phil and me. It's my new favourite picture of the two of us.

Here is my previous favourite. From 1973.

As you can see, I am still the one who has to wear a tie. If you look closely you can see that I tried to colour Phil's outfit in with blue biro. Our mum told me off,and so I tried to scrape the biro off.

I generally don't like formal occasions but for me yesterday was perfect. It was everything I could have wanted. Also, joining me on the day was my partner Joy, her daughter Eve and her parents Keith and Christine. Cue more pictures.

As well as my five guests, the other people who made the day special were my teachers, my classmates and their parents. Sadly, my own parents didn't live to see it. In a way I wish I'd have got my act together sooner and done my degree while my mum in particular was still alive to see it. She was always my biggest advocate and like a faithful hound she always thought the best of me even when I was making a mess of everything. But on the other hand it was partly her fault that I didn't take up my original place at Uni in 1986 as her life was in a mess at the time and I got a job instead to help her through it and then before I knew it 30 years had gone by.

Ironically coming back to Leeds in 2014 to be close to mum before she died set off the chain of events that eventually led to me applying to study Linguistics in 2016 so as well as getting in the way of my original plans, she also helped me to close the loop. Ultimately, my two decisions, not to go to Uni at 18 and then deciding to go at 48 were both my own. I cannot blame circumstances for either.

It had been my intention to go up to the Garden of Remembrance at Lawnswood yesterday, to the exact spot where my parents ashes were scattered 40 years apart in 1974 and 2014, to tell them about my day. Not that I believe that they're actually there in that small square of ground, it's just symbolic. But on the day, I decided that yesterday was about the living and not about the dead. It was about Joy and about my brother and about Joy's parents who have been through a lot with health problems in recent years. And it was also about my classmates and their parents, who were there and alive in the present moment. I thought I would feel more sad that mum was missing it but actually I forgot to be sad because it was such a joy to see the happiness and the pride in the parents of my classmates, and that, along with the people I brought with me, was more than good enough.

For 30 years not going to Uni, even for reasons which seemed right at the time, was like an itch I couldn't scratch, but now I've scratched it. Somehow that getting lost for 30 years and wandering off the path made me feel like I wasn't making the most of myself, as if I was wasting my potential. I feel better about that now.
I was a know-it-all aged 18, but being an adult and having to make adult choices turned out to be much harder than I thought.. At that time I thought I had all the answers but the practice of the last 33 years was harder than the theory. Which is my long winded way of saying how much yesterday meant to me. It says somewhere in the Bible (I can't remember where but probably in the book of James which used to be my favourite) that Success covers a Multitude of blunders. I always took that to mean that one good thing can make up for lots of things that have gone wrong. Well for me yesterday, being there with Joy, and her family, and my brother and my classmates and teachers and finally getting that Degree I had first wanted 30 years previously, was my one good thing. My big success. My day in the sun.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Running and remembering - Still trying to be better than my 18 year old self

On Sunday I ran the Leeds Abbey Dash 10K.  It's the 4th time I've done it, but the first time with Joy. It was really nice to stand around with her at the beginning chatting and feeling happy and being in a good mood, because that stopped me being so curmudgeonly about the warm-up aerobics and the chirpiness of the DJ trying to get everyone in the mood. Often when I stand around on my own, I feel quite grumpy about those things. It was also really nice that the official photographer decided to capture the moment. I sometimes find it hard to be both happy and relaxed at the same time, so it's nice to have some evidence of it.

Sunday was the 4th anniversary of my second date with Joy, when we went to Huddersfield for fruit beer and Mexican food, and so it was nice to spend the anniversary together doing the Abbey Dash.

I still have it in my head that, when I was 18, I ran a 10k in 47 minutes (with Fraser Pike in our school rugby shirts that we had borrowed from school and which we should have already handed back). Unfortunately for us, the 10k route went past the kitchen window of our rugby master's house, and he saw that we were wearing the shirts and asked for them back on the following Monday. I'd like to think that we weren't planning to steal them, but just that we were proud of our school, and of playing rugby for it, and that's why we wore them. In truth, the 47 minutes could be just a fake memory, because there were no timing chips in those days, and all I have is a vague recollection of looking at my watch at the finish and it being less than 50 minutes since we'd set off.

Anyway, I keep thinking that it's possible that my now 50 year old self can still run as fast as my 18 year old self, and each year when I do the Abbey Dash I try. So my ultimate goal is to run it faster than 47 minutes, but I'm working on it in increments, so this year I thought I'd aim for 50 minutes.

In my 3 previous attempts I've done it in 57:42, 51:05 and 51:30.  This year I was slightly outside my 50 minute target as I finished in 50:19. But I decided not to be disappointed with that, because I ran as fast as I could on the day. I didn't keep any effort in reserve. I used it all up.

Some people don't care about how fast they run, but for me it's a big motivating factor. And the fact that Parkrun is measured helps to keep me wanting to improve. For a really long time I couldn't run 5K in less than 24 minutes, but then this year I've done it about 15 times. There could be various reasons why I'm running faster this year, but maybe the most important thing is Persistence. I just keep running. And regularly.

I used to run when I was at school, but mostly only when they made us run cross country 3 times a year, and a few other times in the summer each year before the Rugby Season started but I never ran consistently.  Entering that 10k in April 1986 with Fraser was very much a one-off.

In 1994 I took up running briefly, but as was predicted by my wife at the time, I soon gave up. Again, I started briefly in 2002, but gave up then too.  And until I started Parkrun in 2014 I never ran again.  Now it's a really important part of my life.

Last night I got my 100 Parkruns milestone T-shirt in the post. I'm actually up to 143 but they've had a backlog at sending out the T-shirts. I think the fact that I've done 143 suggests it's not just a flash in the pan.

Two years ago the Abbey Dash was on the 2nd anniversary of my mum dying, and it was after moving back to Leeds in 2014 that I started running in the first place, in order to be doing something active in the time that I wasn't stuck inside my mum's house watching gameshows with her.  Her lungs and knees were knackered by then, and even walking to the car would leave her out of breath, so every time I run, then and now, I remember to value the fact that I'm able to do it. I'm not sure if Forrest Gump ran for any particular reason, or if he just set off, but for me, I run because I can.

Lawnswood Garden of Remembrance - Plot H8 180. 
Yesterday was the 4th Anniversary of my mum dying and I went up the Garden of Remembrance, to see the place where the ashes of both my mum and dad are scattered. I like to go up there on the birthdays and the other anniversaries and special days. It's not exactly that I think that my mum and dad are still there, but it helps to have a place to go, to acknowledge that I still remember them. I felt quite peaceful while I was up there yesterday. I spent some time texting Joy and my brother Phil, to tell them how I was feeling, and I ate a banana.

While I was walking round there yesterday, I did feel sad. But I felt happy too. I felt happy that I grew up in the house that I did, where I always felt loved, and where there was always laughter. We were always able to laugh at things, even sometimes awful things. And at each other.  It was the best gift I got as a child, that ability to not take setbacks too much to heart. Some people are so earnest about everything all the time, so outraged and offended at the slightest thing. We managed things by not being like that. In all the stories the three of us used to tell each other, we chose to mostly only remember the funny bits.  We let the sad parts go.

It's a strange feeling being at the Garden of Remembrance. It almost exists outside Time. I was 50 when I was there yesterday, but I could have been any age. I still felt like the child of my parents. Walking around with a rucksack full of books, I could have still been at school.

The crematorium at Lawnswood, where my parents went to rest, is right next door to the old school playing fields, where I first was made to run cross country. In those days I hated it, but who knew that one day I would do it for fun?  When I started running in 2014, it partly grew out of my experience of being indoors for long periods with my mum who couldn't get out much. Her main leisure activities had always been watching TV, going to the pub or going shopping. Getting outside and exercising only happened incidentally while carrying home bags of shopping. I feel lucky that my life isn't like that. That I have so many opportunities that she didn't.

I'm a student now, at Leeds University. I could have gone to Uni when I was 18, but for reasons that made sense at the time, I didn't. So now aged 50 I'm back at the same place in life I could have been then. In terms of Geographical space, I haven't moved very far in 30 odd years. My University is right next door to the school I used to go to.  I didn't know what the future held then, in 1986, I guess if I had any idea at all, it was that I wanted to be a success at something. I still want that now.

As for running, I still want to be a success at that too.  I don't know if I'll ever beat the mythical time of 47 minutes that my 18 year old self may or may not have run, but even if that time never happened, even if it's a fake memory, it's still good to have something to aim for.