I relish this ‘persona’ a lot, not least because it seems so counter-intuitive for someone like me who ‘couldn’t run for toffee’ as a child to qualify as a runner today.
As a kid, I was short-sighted and didn’t get to wear corrective glasses until I was 11 years old. I remember knocking myself out and being taken to hospital when I misjudged the gap between the wall edge at the back of the house and the passage way to the side-kitchen door and ran straight into the wall, aged around nine. Doh!
The seeds of trying to make the long, thick legs perform more efficiently were there though. Around the ages of 10 to 12 years, I would take myself off to Penhill Place in Blackfen, Kent, close to where I went to primary school, and try to run round this small public park. I did eventually make the full circuit.
At the Grammar school, I was fit enough to play 2nd fifteen rugby for Wilson House and the school occasionally. But once the smoking started on the 6th form Geography field trip, I soon stopped running by choice. And I didn’t start running again until my mid-30s.
In fact it must have been around the time I was trying unsuccessfully to get publishers interested in ‘What’s Wrong with Schools’ that I responded to the zeitgeist and joined in the new national enthusiasm for jogging. The first time I went out from my front-door in Summertown in Oxford, I got half way down the road and pulled up out of breath. It was a big shock to the system. I persevered though. Every evening for the following week I went out on what was becoming my circuit and ran a little further. I even stopped smoking for ever at this time, shamed into finally giving up by some fellow runners who caught me smoking a small cigar as I jogged around my circuit, unwinding.
My new determination to run and keep fit was also linked with a recurrent lower-back problem that meant I needed chiropractic treatment every couple of years or so to deal with disc slippage and muscle spasm. I had undergone surgery in 1979 to free a trapped sciatic nerve, following a couple of car crashes. The operation had been a success but a long-term weakness seemed to have set in. I became convinced that running sensibly kept the body in general and the back in particular well-oiled. I haven’t been proved wrong to-date.
By the time Bob Geldof launched his Ethiopa famine appeal in 1986, I was all set for my first public challenge: – a six mile charity run for Sport Aid in May 1986 based on my local circuit, using the Banbury and Woodstock Roads and the linking roads between them. I had never run so far in my life before. I made it in 56 and a half minutes. Cool.
And I kept on running. It became part of my life, if somewhat irregular. When we left Oxford for a new life by the North Sea in East Anglia it still continued and in 1989 I entered the annual Bungay half-marathon of 13.2 miles organised by the Bungay Black Dog running club. I completed around nine miles before I had to resort to speed-walking, alternating with running, and I returned a time of 02:08:04. Now I could say I was a half-marathon man.
Between 1989 and 2004 I was too involved in academic studies to find the time for training for competitive running but I still relished my irregular jogging. But in 2006, with the doctorate behind me, I ran the Bungay half-marathon again in 02:24:35 having resumed my collection of medals for competing and the recording of finishing-times for local races the year before. 10 kilometres, 20 kilometres, half marathons – one, two or three or more races in nearly every year between 2005 and the present. And in 2012 I trained for and completed the London marathon in 05:40:55. Two years later, I added the Edinburgh marathon to my tally in 05:42:10. For around five years I was a member of the Bungay Black Dog running club and enjoyed all the training benefits and camaraderie that goes with running and being alongside other runners.
Running is one of the ‘personae’ I am most proud of. In my top five ‘Life Moments’, I would definitely include the minutes that passed as I came to realise I had actually become the winner of my running club’s Denton handicap races event in 2008 and was being handed kit vouchers worth £100. The kid who couldn’t run for toffee had made it.