I TRIED not to show any pain as I handed over the money for the bottle of wine. The lactic acid had gripped my calf as I waited patiently in the queue, but the agony was over-ridden by a great sense of achievement.
I had run a mile, you see. It was early 2000s and I had been to the pub or stayed in and had a drink every night for about 17 years. I was beginning to feel unhealthy — well, you would — so one evening I waited until it got dark enough for no-one to see me and, prior to the trip to the off-licence, dressed all in black and in an outfit that cleverly disguised me as a non-runner, set off for a jog round Exeter quay.
It felt as if the nine minutes or so I was out there (including a few walks when people were coming the other way just to indicate that I wasn’t really running) were the longest I had ever experienced (research later showed they actually added up to 540 seconds, exactly the same as any other nine minute period since the word seconds was coined).
I crashed through the door of the flat in which I lived and collapsed on the bed, only to realise I had to head back up the road to Thresher’s (other options were available) before it closed. After all, you have to celebrate your achievements.
Within a month or so I was managing around four miles and then someone said: “Why don’t you enter the Great West Run?” “How far’s that?” “13.1 miles, it’s a half marathon.” “When is it?” “In about two months, ages away.” “Sounds good.”
It sounded terrible, but forms were handed over and filled in and I bought actual kit and proper running shoes having discovered I “over pronated”, which I considered gave me some sort of runners’ illness to cling on to should failure beat me to the finishing line.
Of course, by now I was addicted and had even joined a club, the South West Road Runners, learning that I wasn’t the only one to follow pounding the streets with sinking a few drinks. I don’t think the elite runners did that though.
I finished that first half (marathon, not pint) in 1.40.40 and after a disappointing follow-up in which my Achilles’ went on Elvis Road (how could you forget that?) while taking part in the Exmouth Half-Marathon, I got well under 1.30 a few times, not quite making up for a cock-up in Plymouth where I was on target for about 1.27 with two miles to go and somehow managed 1.30.08.
A London Marathon followed in 2004 — 3.32.15 — just after my dad died, him offering me the advice “don’t try and bloody win it” and “at least I’ve got you a charity to run for now”, and after that runs of various distances before a long-term hamstring injury slowed me down.
I wasn’t ever going to enter these things just for fun. I’ve never believed it’s the taking part that counts. It was all about being able to compete and achieving a decent time without giving up on life’s “bad” things.
It’s just running for fitness now. Pass me the bottle.