Racing the Reaper Man Introduction: Finding a Reset

Key moments in one’s childhood, those events that permanently etch into one’s memory, are seldom stored in any logical way. I remember 1958 when my brother was born – I was 18 months old, but was demoted from front of pram, to sitting at the pushing end. The pram was coach built in navy blue and cream. I remember the last moment I saw my ailing father: I was just 5, he sitting on his bed, gravely ill. He smiled as I turned to his final kiss. He died 11 days after my 5th birthday on 11th October 1961, at the age of 56. Flashes of moments could fill a chapter, but I have clear memories of 1970 when Ron Hill won the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games marathon in 2:09:28. This slight man in a string vest bouncing into the stadium after covering more than 26 miles! I remember being flabbergasted – I’m not sure I knew what a marathon was at 13 years of age, but it remained in my mind.

By 1981 I had worked for the Ministry of Defence at Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF) Bridgwater for 3 years. Completed in 1941, this square mile had produced high explosives for the British Armed Forces for four decades. Little had changed since the 1950s, even with new processes being introduced and, being Government owned, we still had a bus service for workers from local towns. Old, olive green omnibuses, which cost just £2.40 a week, if I remember correctly. I was 24, married with children. I was also unhappy. I felt I was turning into an old man, the wartime infrastructure around me seemed to be turning me into a monochrome stereotype. It was 1981 that my mind adjusted to my own reality and I chose a way that was hard, different and beyond my self-applied accepted normality.

All-roads-lead-to-the-ROF
ROF Bridgwater

In March 1981, I watched the inaugural London Marathon won by American Dick Beardsley and Norwegian Inge Simonsen, who crossed the finish line holding hands in 2:11:48. Joyce Smith set a new UK record to win the women’s race in 2:29:57. A switch was flipped. The following week, at the end of a night shift, I was washing at the end of a long row of white sinks. I looked left and there was a phalanx of tummies, each beautifully bulging to varying extents, and my nascent gut was on the way to joining the symmetry. That moment is also etched on my mind. I was troubled and wondered why most of my friends and colleagues accepted this slow decline from boozy, smoky adolescence into chronic, standard middle age without being a bit scared. I mentioned running a few times but was always laughed at, with warnings that knees exploded if one was daft enough to take it up.

I bought a bike, paying £1.80 a week to a mail order company, to save 60p and ‘get fit’. The mockery was subdued as 60p was a reasonable saving, then, and rumours were rife that the bus service was being axed. I loved cycling. My bike was a standard 3 speed, but the roads were flat and the 6+ miles to work and back, 6 days out of 8, saw me slim down rapidly. I still smoked. Then, in order to get fit for a trip to America, my brother started running. I joined him a few times, but was left in his wake, gasping for air – 2.5 miles was 25 minutes of torture… but another light came on in my mind. It came to me that I was actually making excuses to get fit! I was apologising to my contemporaries for making them feel bad.

I cycled everywhere. I had always been a birder, so cycled to distant reservoirs, hills and forests looking for various species. It was nothing to cycle a 40-60 mile round trip, with a long walk at my destination. By the start of 1982 I was fit, happier and far more aware of a voice in my head telling me to rebel! Smoking: it was expected and expected. I’d only started at 18, for no good reason but to look tough and fit in. It was an addiction. I had a real hatred of being controlled – after a childhood of being brutalised by religious bigots, I had evolved an inner warrior that could cope with any pain. To live in fear of pain from the age of 5 to 15 can effect one in many ways. Eventually, for me, the mental and physical abuse was nothing and puberty sparked my innate father’s genes into life. If one overcomes pain, the thing inflicting it can do no more than cower in defeat. The control nicotine held was really making me angry; if I didn’t have it, I was a craven mess. It’s hold was nothing more than acceptance of self-defeat. I turned 25 in the September and swore I’d never see another birthday as a smoker.

paul-birding-on-a-bike
1981 aged 24 out on my bike, birdwatching

In February 1982 there was a short news item. At the end of something called the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon at Kona, Julie Moss collapsed 10 yards from the finish and was overtaken by Kathleen McCartney to lose the race. In April I watched the second London Marathon, Hugh Jones won in 2:09:24 and Joyce Smith lowered the women’s record to 2:29:43. At that moment anger changed to an absolute decision: I’d give up smoking and run a marathon! My wife thought I was unhinged. As I was still rather young, impetuous and vocal, I announced this at work with absolute confidence. I knew my inner warrior needed something to feed on, so telling everyone meant there was no going back. I had pressed my ‘reset’.

On the 6th May 1982 I stopped smoking. Anything else but total cessation would be to give in to excuses. I pushed the pedals of my bike harder and ignored the withdrawal symptoms. Then, 10 days later, on 16th May 1982, I measured a 5 mile route on an OS Map, cycled 2 miles to the countryside start (too shy to run from my house) and with cheap, flat training shoes started running. Naïvely I ran, fit-to-burst, out and back, ending with a time of 33:40… My heart pounded in my head, I was shaking, slightly wobbly and delighted. I cycled home in a new, undiscovered country. The comment in that first logged entry reads: ‘Sun 16th: Puriton Road – 5ml – 33:49: Tired. Recovered quickly.’ Since then my weeks have always been Sunday to Saturday, and I’ve logged every mile. That first ever week I ran 26 miles. 

I’ll deal with finding a reset in later posts, but I need to say is that it was not easy. It was not easy because, like all Homo sapiens in modern times, we carry ancient genes that instinctively coax us to store energy. We conserve effort and conserve fat, ready for the lean times. We each carry millions of years of genetic code to survive in a natural, hunter gatherer world. Being thrust into a modern, ostensibly civilised world with those genes have caused major mental and physical issues. The reset rests in understanding this.

This is not the end of the story for me, but the start of running thousands of miles, with success and failure, highs and lows. Yet, there was a terrible crash when I reached my 50s. However, initially I put a lot of distance between me and the relentless Reaper Man, his whispered threnody stolen by the breeze of young, arrogant optimism.