I have said many times that running transformed my life………….but is that true?
Did it just change my habits, my fitness and the way that I exercised?
As a child of the Fifties, I was brought up playing in the street with the neighbouring kids, exploring fields and bombsites, climbing trees and spending as much active time outdoors as possible.
From twelve years old, my schoolmates and I went Youth Hostelling in the Lake District, becoming awestruck with the glories of those mountains and stretching our bodies physically to conquer the great heights of Helvellyn, The Old Man of Coniston and so many other iconic peaks that left an indelible mark on our impressionable souls. I was no sportsman, so my physicality was directed away from team sports. I only ever ran when I was taking the dog for a walk.
When I moved to my wife’s native county, Devon, I learned to appreciate a gentler inland landscape, surrounded by the gloriously rugged coastlines to both North and South.
With our children we continued to walk, but also to cycle, belly board and windsurf.
The outdoors has always been my environment of choice, with its richness of flora, fauna and natural wonders.
When I did start to run, at the age of 57, I was already in love with the natural world that I live in and so running just regularised my exercise regime. Three runs per week became the norm. It gave me the opportunity to intimately observe the changes in my locality as the seasons passed. I watched the swallows leave for Africa in the Autumn and smiled to myself as they returned faithfully in the Spring, along with the swifts and martins to their old feeding grounds in our skies.
I recognised the seasonal progression of plants too, trying to ascertain whether the old adage “Oak before ash, we’re in for a splash. Ash before oak, we're in for a soak” was true, one way or another……………I am still not convinced.
So while my running helped me to appreciate my natural environment, it also focused me enough to be concerned for its future.The effects of modern farming practices also impacted on my running routes. They were waterlogged at times, drying out to a dusty rutted, unstructured pan and then being washed away as silt, simply because many farmers are not paying attention to the structure and health of the soils. They are destroying the very life-giving tilth of the planet to maximise the return, by poor practices and overuse of chemicals. The brutal hacking back of hedgerows, often unnecessarily destroying habitat for insects, birds and mammals is also evident.
Had I just been a very regular walker along those same routes, then I would have experienced the landscape in a similar way, but I believe that having fully oxygenated blood heightens the senses and the emotions, so that the communing with nature took on a more profound aspect. Nature was to the fore in my running experiences. Not chasing performance numbers.
I have the good fortune to live in a small rural town, where I can be beyond housing in any direction within a few minutes, so my "home" runs are all on familiar footpaths. These routes are deeply imprinted on my psyche and one particular ridge, down which I have run literally hundreds of times on 5k runs, is open to the view to the West of Cosdon Hill dominating the Northern flank of Dartmoor. This view changes through the days and years and is probably where I started to smile as I ran, through the sheer joy of being part of this beautiful scenery.
Did I ever mention that I smiled when I ran?
Especially after my cancer diagnosis, I eased back on trying to improve speed when running and most of my runs became gentle jogs, which increased my appreciation of my natural surroundings. Runs became more meditative in their nature. My thought processes became deeper and more involved. Running became more cerebral than physical in many respects. All this helped me to rationalise and come to terms with my diagnosis and life in general. I even gave myself permission to stop whilst running and observe in greater detail. I remember, one day, spotting a wren who was about six feet from me, hopping through some cut brashwood. I am sure that our awareness of one another was mutual and for a good three minutes we observed one another with curiosity and in my case wonder. A delightful privilege that I could have so easily overlooked……………but it made my day.
While running was the activity driving the process, it was the fact that I was so deeply entwined in my natural surroundings that helped produce the healing balm. It is well known that just being in a natural environment, as opposed to a man-made one, is good for the spirit and the soul. The same result is unlikely to occur in the sweaty atmosphere of a gym.
When, in May 2022, I had to hang up my running shoes, because the cancer had made my spine too fragile to risk the impact, I still kept walking, cycling and swimming, immersing myself in the natural world as much as I could. I still appreciated the song of a blackbird as much as the awesome power of a thunderstorm, as my mobility has slowly diminished.
That continues, but this week my highlight was the sight of a perfect brand new Red Admiral butterfly, browsing on the startlingly white, sun soaked flowers of a white buddleia in our garden, viewed from a sitting position on the ground, where I arrived after my legs gave way under me. That day was a milestone in my disease. I have been losing leg strength quite rapidly over the last couple of weeks, but today they effectively have no strength in them.
I have been walking in recent weeks with the aid of a rollator (a four wheeled walker with a seat and brakes) but the distance that I could cover has diminished very rapidly. With help of OTs, nurses and physios I still maintain the ability to cross a room, if the muscles will obey the commands, but to all intents and purposes I am losing that too.
Most of our skyline view is beautiful fields and trees which cover the hills surrounding my home town. The wonderful NHS have provided me with a hospital bed and I am fortunate enough to be able to elevate it so that I can appreciate that which still surrounds and inspires me. While not yet totally bedbound, I am effectively housebound, since we have steep steps out to the road, so I will have to be satisfied with our views, which fortunately I maximised when we built our extension.
I will watch the crows on the next door roof, patiently waiting………for what?
Skeins of Canada geese will fly overhead, urging one another on with their humorous honks. (That always makes me smile, just like running.)
The skies will provide a never ending show of light and dark and I will have the wonderful memories of all the runs that I have had during my, all too brief, running career.
These will always be my runs……
the brush of the cool autumn dew on my legs
grey oaks, silhouetted against the lightening, misty morning sky
a full moonset and the first warming rays of sunrise, all on one run
the raucous call of the morning rooks
beady eyed herons stalk the riverbank
distant Dartmoor ….. an island in the mists
the smile on my face, the breeze in my hair
the winding run up Posbury Hill
a moorland run through heather, to the cry of the curlews
a Dorset ridge run, accompanied by larks, the sun on my face
a splash though the woods, my wife by my side, mud up our shins
the smile in our hearts
bemused security guards as I run through WOMAD festival at dawn
the seasons come, the seasons go
at one with the balm of nature
confidence in my strong runner’s body
the glow of satisfaction from a target met
these will always be my runs
run while you can
keep running, keep smiling.
Gosh that is so beautiful, made me smile and cry x