Racing the Reaper Man © Paul Comerford
Here follows the serialisation of the book.
At the very start of this blog, back in January 2016, one of my first posts was entitled, Racing the Reaper Man. It is my metaphor for how we stay ahead of our slowly unwinding existence: by programming, action and choice. Life, after all, is the only countdown that goes up. The use the metaphorical Grim Reaper, that psychopomp of myth and mirth, suits my purpose. In my youth I used the phrase Reaper Man freely, as I was a biker of the less shiny kind, and we all used the term ‘man’ far too much. The best embellishment of this myth was by the late, great Terry Pratchett, where DEATH became a bit of a rock star. I digress. My metaphor is as follows:
When we are born, a starting pistol fires and we set off along the timeline of life. The Reaper Man starts at the same time, but very slowly, at a fixed pace… notwithstanding innate health issues and accident, everything we chose to do to ourselves can affect our progress. To keep ahead of the Reaper Man, health and fitness are an imperative. Anyone who chooses an unhealthy path will be chased down sooner than they should. Life is never that simple, and there are times this dark figure will gain ground, but for me, I aim to stay ahead as long as I can and make sure he’s out of breath when he taps me on the shoulder. In my novel, Mr Gupta goes to the sea, Gupta sees life in a similar way, but as a triptych: we are born, some procreate, we die. He sees only the first and last phases as a definite event, and the central part is an unknown land about which he believes you can only ever say ‘up to now’ with confidence. More famously by far, Douglas Adams wrote in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, that the meaning of life was worked out as being 42. So, in all these rather mixed metaphors, life – that middle bit – and its philosophical meaning is always up for debate, but never, ever certain.
Although I can become philosophical, I am also a stepper-backer. I have found that most debates forever shrink as they focus on the specks of irritation, rather than a logical, progressive overview. Politics, religion and social media are the greatest subjects for speck-focussing, and life can seem like a series of screaming strap-lines as a result. A statement is not factual without proof – proof is not true unless tested – tests are not certain unless repeatable. Opinions are generally strap-lines for lazy thinkers. Humans naturally believe what they want, based on personal bias, so to look at improving one’s life, it becomes necessary to learn to step back. So, for this blog, and its future incarnation as a book, I will step back and write what I know about making life healthier, fitter and better for the more mature person.
Will it be my opinion? To a point, yes, but I will avoid the pitfalls outlined in the previous paragraph by explaining that I have carried out repeatable tests to validate what I write. I am my own experiment. Racing the Reaper Man explains pretty much what I have done to the machine that is my body. I’ll cover my early existence only to set the scene, but will focus on how I allowed the Reaper Man to get within touching distance, then gaining ground from my 50s into my 60s. Feel free to test what I place before you. I will never say “you must” as I’m an old rebel, so if I hear those words I tend to immediately think, “Oh, must I?” followed by, “Feck off!” If I haven’t tested something and then embraced it, why bother droning on to others? As the late, great Christopher Hitchens said, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
What I will say is, one has choice. This is something that has become diluted in recent times. Generally you are, fitness wise, what you choose to be. How you treat your body is pretty well up to you. I often hear people justifying injurious habits, but never hear the same from those who follow a regime for a fuller, healthier life. Commonplace justifications tend to revolve around perceived rights and negative bias towards the healthy. A choice becomes a self-imposed right. How often have you said or heard:
“I deserved that treat, I’ve been good.”
“It’s Christmas, nothing wrong with letting your hair down.”
“I’m cutting down.”
“You’ve got to eat meat. Vegetarians are always ill.”
“I can’t run, I get bored.”
“You’ve gotta die sometime, so just enjoy it.”
There are hundreds more ways to justify personal bias and injurious habits. Therein lies the biggest hurdle to living rather than existing. Like it or not, we all delude ourself on a regular basis. What I have discovered is, it is best to be honest about it. Not to others, but to ourselves. Very often we evoke partially understood personal rights as a catalyst to apply excuses. My aim is to outline why I found it is my duty to seek a healthier way of living. Racing the Reaper Man is personal to me, and is meant to be applied to the individual. And the key is that word choice. That, I will deal with in another part of this Introduction.
To sum up my intentions, I aim to map out a way to proceed from knowing one needs to do something, removing excuses, choosing to embrace change, and keeping ahead of the Reaper Man.
This book is aimed at those of us who are in our 50s and 60s. At the time of writing, with serendipitous synchronisation, it means we came into the world in the 1950s and 1960s. However, with luck and a following breeze, these words may survive and be read by those born later. I hope they have relevance to anyone who wants to get into better shape. Ultimately it is about walking, jogging and running; honesty, desire and application. Thus, after my initial Introduction, this part is a little bit about me. If you don’t know my background, you may think I’m an especially gifted athlete, giving the immediate view that what I show you is beyond any ‘normal’ person’s aspirations. I am just an ordinary fellow with the same frailties of anyone of you. My weaknesses are the same. My desires are the same. My self-justification of injurious habits is the same. Right now I am in my mid-sixties, so I’m also creaking a bit.
I arrived in the world at 29 Woolavington Road, Puriton, Somerset in 1956. The house was demolished back in the 80s, and now that site is a raddled field with a luxurious lacing of briar. Home was an Airey House, a post-war prefab, built on the MoD property of Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF) Bridgwater. After the Second World War several of the ROFs were set up to manufacture these Airey Houses so returning soldiers and their families, had somewhere to live. This set the scene of the most coincidental of conceptions.
My mother worked at the ROF, either in the canteen or stores, and was a war widow. Her first husband, an Irish airman, was killed when his Wellington bomber was shot down. My father, born in 1905, was a career soldier from 1921, serving across the Empire, then had the misfortune to be posted to Singapore a short time before it fell to the Imperial Japanese Army. 3 years and 8 months later, having survived the whole of the Death Railway construction, he was lucky enough to be liberated, then returned home to recuperate in Cornwall, with his Anglo-Irish relatives. Once well enough, he joined the War Department Constabulary and was posted to ROF Bridgwater. There, he met my mother who had a continuing penchant for the Irish, so they fell in love and got married. Married quarters were provided in the form of the flat-topped Airey Houses made in the Factory. I was conceived in that house and was born there. So, I was conceived and born in a house, that was conceived and created in the factory, that provided munitions to win the war, because of which my parents met on the same site. My father died in the house in 1961. That I worked in the same place for 29 years adds to the tale. I wrote a book about the ROF, and after its closure, have become involved in preserving its history, as well as the conception of its new guise as a zero carbon Eco-Park, the Gravity Project. In February 2020 I was in the mind-boggling position of being photographed in building 7/1, in which I often worked, but was also where all the Airey House parts were set and sorted into packs. I had great fun explaining to the people of the Somerset Heritage Trust that they were creating historic pictures of a man who was effectively conceived in what was conceived in that building! 7/1 is to be a heritage building with offices, the walls of which will have the occasional picture of me. How discombobulating is that?
After my father died my, mother and her four children were given a council house in nearby West Huntspill. After her death, when I was but 17, I found I had no idea how to be an adult. She had been sucked in by a cult of religious morons, and my upbringing was very isolationist and dominated by god-bothering mental and physical abusers telling me how awful I was. Thus, as all good teenagers, I rebelled, became a rather grubby looking biker and stumbled into smoking, drinking and various other unheroic pastimes. Although the bikers, including a regular group of Hell’s Angels, were my friends and effectively saved my life, I was not happy. ‘Lost’ is the only word that fits. As I tried to raise myself, being child, parent and mentor, with only a basic binary biker view of the world, attractive though it was, I rebelled again and got married, ending up working at the ROF from 1978 and living, what I thought, was a ‘normal’ life.
By 1981 I was still smoking, getting chubby and was thoroughly miserable with myself. I was fighting conformity, the cultural concept of normality and accepted mores, due to the chaotic authoritarian drivel that had been fed into my developing mind. This I didn’t know at the time, so there I was existing without thinking, living without any idea of how to become myself. At 20 I had children, a delight I never doubted, yet I was but a child myself. And then, in 1981 I bought a bike, my brother started running, the first London Marathon took place and in February 1982, at the end of the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon at Kona, Julie Moss collapsed 10 yards from the finish and was overtaken by Kathleen McCartney to lose the race. By May 1982 my life changed forever as I will explain next time.
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.
In March 1981, I watched the inaugural London Marathon won by American
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.
Introduction: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
I started running on May 16th 1982. The Running Boom had started, fuelled by the arrival of big city marathons, with lesser races appearing to mop up those unsuccessful with entry lotteries. Some years over 100 marathons could be found in the UK alone and, it became obvious to me, lots of people had found their reset button. Of course, there had always been a running community, but they were almost hidden in plain sight. Now those eccentric few were joined by the new wave of uninitiated, naïve dashers, joggers and doddlers. Running footwear improved and new brands hit the market on an almost weekly basis. I read everything I could and subscribed to several running magazines. This new obsession displaced old habits and I moved into the next stage of the reset – making it a life change.
My flat, cheap training shoes gave me blisters, so, with a windfall by selling a vacuum cleaner, I spent the £19 on a pair of blue and yellow Nike Internationalists. The difference was amazing and I ran with nothing in mind, but to run. I never craved a cigarette and couldn’t afford to drink, so I ran and ran and ran. Then I found I had a local running club, gingerly turned up one night, wondering if I was really good enough to be there, was welcomed with open arms and became a member of Burnham-on-Sea Harriers. They had been formed the year before by an old school chum, Graham, and his friend Brian. When I arrived there was a knot of runners of different abilities. I embraced the culture, wore the yellow club vest with pride and turned up on as many Wednesday evening training nights as I could.
I met great people and some very experienced runners. After a few weeks I entered a marathon at Honiton in October 1982. From my first steps to that race would be 5 months. Could I do it? More to the point I wanted to run a 3:30:00 based on various tables I’d misread in magazines, so naïvely aimed at that. I took up the view that Edmund Hillary extolled, ‘Life’s a bit like mountaineering – never look down.’ A friendly chap from Wells, Bernie, scribbled out a training plan for me, which I adhered to religiously, introducing me to such things as intervals and tempo runs. I lost weight, found structure and factored in my first ever races. A sub-37 minute 6 miler followed by a 1:25:45 half marathon debut showed I was in a good place, and I had learned how to conserve energy. Instead of tearing off and gradually slowing down, I quickly developed a metronomic pace judgement.
None of this came easy. I’m no ectomorphic racing snake, but at the compact end of the mesomorphic range. In those early days every training book and magazine had ideal weight charts and I was constantly at the low end of ‘overweight’ even in my best years. So, I ignored the charts and just ran. On October 17th 1982 I lined up at the start of the Honiton Marathon. It was a windy day, post rain and warm. As several hundred people set off, my nerves left me and I stuck to my plan: just under 8 minutes a mile for as long as possible; then, with slowing, I may squeak under that 3:30:00. My memories of the race are sketchy, but I fell in with a chap called Gordon, and we ran in isolation for a long way. I was too quick, but relaxed, so ran in comfort rather than to the watch. At 20 miles I finally experienced that drain of energy heralding ‘The Wall’, but I pushed on, slowing just enough to get to the end. During the final miles I was isolated and anxious. Was some unknown physical issue lurking to strike me down? The final descent into Honiton was bliss and I pushed it hard in the last mile to record 3:22:54! Around 7:45 pace. Wonderful. I couldn’t walk properly for a week.
Over the next few years I tweaked my training: more miles; two speed sessions a week; hills and dunes; and read endless books. In the end I used Ron Hill’s training methods as he described in his autobiography, The Long Hard Road. He hurt himself in training so that he could never experience anything harder in a race. In his prime, no one could inflict pain on him or, at the very least, could only beat him by supreme effort. Ron would give everything. So, that was my model. An example: I would run the 6 miles to work, do a night shift, run 4 miles to a measured course on a trail near the sea. There I would hammer out 6 x 800m in 2:40 average. Run 2 more miles home. Or I may get in from a night shift and get out on a 16 miler. If I could run well as fatigued as that, any race would be easier. I wanted to break 3 hours and managed 2:58:20 in 1984. Using a similar training regime, in 1985 I ran 2:54:12. So, against all the formulas I could find, and all the doubt inside, and having been selected for the 1986 London Marathon, I set sub-2:50 as my goal. I was brutal, and on a couple of weeks topped 100 miles. I ran a 1:18:13 half marathon which blew my mind, then, on the day, had the single, most perfect race ever, finishing in 2:49:15.
Racing the Reaper Man Introduction: “You are finished!”
By now I was as fit as ever I would be and I was wondering how fast I could get. But things were not right. As Edmund Hillary also said, ‘Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain.’ The gradual crumbling of my married life had started and I had not noticed. With my self-built view of how life should be, my naïvety began to warp my vision of domestic bliss. What could possibly go wrong? Well, just about everything.
My slow descent to 20 years in the wilderness started in what could have been my best year ever: 1987. I was 30 and at my peak but, with hindsight, several things happened which, to a wiser, more mature person, would have rung alarm bells. I’d passed my driving test and had a car. For once I had a little spare cash and it was great to be able to take my young family on trips that didn’t involve cycling. I stopped the ride to work as well, so was losing a little training. Yet I followed my successful schedule from the previous year and entered the Amsterdam Marathon. It would be flat! I ambitiously set 2:48:00 as my new goal and set about making it happen. A 1:18:40 half marathon showed I was on course and, even without cycling to work, my endurance seemed fine. Unbeknownst to me, I was using banked credit: effectively carrying the previous year’s conditioning with me.
12 years of shift work in a brutal recurring programme (6 mornings-2 off-6 nights-2 off-6 afternoons-2 off, then on again with mornings) had isolated me from the regular world. Cracks were showing in my marriage and I never recognised the severity of the symptoms. Yet, I arrived at the start of the Amsterdam Marathon and made one small error – on a cold May day, in a country where the wind blows over chilled water, I wore a brief half-mesh vest, shorts and no base layer. I set off at a fast, even pace, and settled in with a few runners who could clip out 6:10 miles. Halfway in 1:21:20 and I was flying! It was around 20 miles that a huge stitch hit me in the upper ribs and, even though I was full of energy, slowed to 8 minutes-a-mile. The chill was to blame; I had cramped in my least active muscles and had to watch runners go by. Then, with 3.5 miles left the stitch went and my pace soared back to 6:15s, but the damage was done and my final time was 2:51:32. I’ve recalculated what could have been over the years. Those 3 8-minute-miles added, probably, 4.5 minutes to what I was in shape to do. That stitch! 2:46 was on the cards, but it was not to be. I never broke 3 hours again.
By the start of the 90s my world fell apart. Divorce and its endless repercussions had pushed running into an unstructured heap in a corner and by the end of the 90s I’d stopped racing at all. What a decade! Traveling and embracing new worlds were heavily tempered by a second divorce, a socialising habit fuelled by drinking and living at 9 different addresses. But I kept running and stayed in reasonable shape. The hardest thing to deal with was my lack of confidence in being true to myself. I constantly tried to adjust to other’s expectations, but I could only maintain such emotional ruses for a few months. From 1992 to 2002 my average relationship lasted less than a year and at the end of that time the fitness I had banked was at an end. In 2001 I ran fewer than 100 miles.
I’d lost everything twice over. My energy, once used for running well, was focussed on rebuilding my life. At one point I was surviving on less than £30 a week after fulfilling my financial responsibilities. During that period I discovered my rather blinkered drive to fitness had caused resentment in some quarters, something that, up to that point, had never really registered. Three words became the crowing triumph from some of those I considered friends. I had the same phrase fired at me several times – “You are finished!” I started to realise my perception of life was not how things really were. Those words stuck.
By now I was commuting to my home county from a new life in West Sussex. My partner was a heavy drinker and my own drinking became exceptional. I even started smoking cigars and, once the drink had really soaked into the relationship, I ballooned to nearly 16 stones (224lbs/101kg). Even so, I still ran sporadically and lifted big weights in my local gym. Yet, by now all the banked fitness had gone. I ran, just to be fit enough to run. There was no joy, just habit. I reached my lowest point in 2008.
In 2007 I had left my job of 29 years and became a Civil Servant in West Sussex. My body was a mess. Health problems appeared and by the end of 2008 I had high blood pressure, a hiatus hernia and struggled lacing up my shoes. I also hated myself. Trying to conform to other people’s ideas, driven by the need to be accepted, had only made me betray what actually is me. “You are finished!” It was used again and again. And, I suppose, if life is judged in the short term, I was. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I can now see clearly what the issue was. If one is fit and healthy, driven and fundamentally prone to laughter, many people resent it. Not even knowingly. When someone like that falls, it justifies personal biases about one’s own lack of self-preservation. But that knowledge was still some years away.
At the very start of 2009, having reached my lowest point, a light came on somewhere in the dusty recesses of my mind. Racing the Reaper Man, as a concept was born and I woke up. Just as well as I was slowly killing myself and my metaphorical Reaper Man was just inches from catching me. Five more years would pass before I found a consistent way back, but even that was full of pitfalls, unseen events and several giant stumbles. I became my own experiment.