Skip to content

Furrows and fronts

May 18, 2020

You can only fight a battle on so many fronts. Every front requires contact with the enemy, and every contact with the enemy entails friction. Too many fronts and you’re surrounded. Despite the beard-and-abs combo that launched a thousand personal trainers’ promotional efforts in the mid-naughties, we all know how 300 ended.

(I ask myself: Why reach for a military analogy? The physics of the peloton would be more appropriate, the streamlining of effort to maintain maximum forward motion while conserving energy for the final slog. Fewer LOLs, though.)

My work is diverse and wide-ranging, switching between projects and contexts, juggling information and ideas. But my pastimes and interests are narrow and focused. Reading, writing, running, occasionally painting. I seek comfort in and draw energy from mono-tasking. Each is a furrow, that can be ploughed long, and narrow, and deep. (Not a trench. This is where life grows, not where battles are fought.)

Extremes teach us about ourselves, and six (maybe more – who knows at this point) weeks of lockdown would be wasted without some reflection. The thing lockdown has reminded me is that if you want to move fast, embrace the narrow. Whittle down, regather and focus, and don’t be afraid to discard.

The problem of the third act

May 11, 2020

Bill Wilder famously said: ‘If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.’ He was talking about storytelling and the way that the first act has to set up the groundwork for the resolution for the end to be satisfying.

It’s a curiously universal rule.

Any run – whether a race, a training session, or simply those enjoyable junk miles that your Garmin harshly categorises as unproductive – is divided into (potentially unequal) thirds.

The beginning, when you’re easing into the run.

The middle, when you’re cruising.

The end, when you’re finding out whether you could tack on a couple more miles or dear god can’t we just stop now?

More often than not, the dear-god-stop-now runs start with an over-punchy beginning. A good beginning requires control, structure, and pacing. Endings are tricky, but beginnings – particularly in this cooped-up time when this may be the only outlet at the end of a day – are harder.

Lockdown routine

May 4, 2020

We are what we routinely do, and excellence is not an act but a habit. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We know. And if lockdown’s good for nothing else it’s surely a breeding ground for routine excellence.

Back in the day, I’d have probably written some chipper post about how this was like an elite training camp where all the noise and distractions of life were stripped back to allow us to focus on running. And sure, this is just like an altitude camp at Iten. Sure.

So what does my elite training camp in lockdown look like? What is my most excellent routine?

  • Wake, listen to birdsong, think that today will definitely be an early night. Eventually get up, later than planned.
  • Tea.
  • Write – filling a blank page with words feels like an act of radical optimism.
  • Tea.
  • Shower.
  • Fire up the computer and so begin the day’s work. (Tea.) Emails and documents are handled in the office. (Tea.) Meetings are held in a variety of venues dotted around the house, whichever is most out of my partner’s way. (Second-guessing each other’s meeting schedule and lunch window is proving impossible. We are two weeks away from implementing a meeting room booking system.)
  • Tea.
  • Lunch. (Which features a daily side-mission: can I cook a viable meal in one pan to save washing up? Bonus points if it can be eaten from the pan. Power up if it’s good for more than one day.)
  • Back to the computer for the afternoon shift.
  • Tea.
  • Eventually shut down, safe in the knowledge that what I had planned to achieve is at best half-done and that my to-do list has – appropriately enough – increased exponentially.
  • State-sanctioned exercise. On a good day, a run or a cycle. On a middling day, walk to the shop to pick up whatever essential we’re suddenly short of. On a bad day, housework.
  • Dinner.
  • Aim to read, but sometimes find the evening sucked into the vortex of the hell-site.
  • Drink, inevitably.
  • Bed, later than every good intention. Maybe tomorrow.

And when every day looks the same, how do you mark the beginning of the weekend? Go nuts with Netflix and a takeaway. Wild times.

There are good days and bad days, and a very fine line between them. But maybe, if you search for it, there’s a silver lining. I’ve got a more regular running routine than I’ve had in years. I’m appreciating each run more than I have in years. And I’ve taken 5 minutes off my regular running route over the last six weeks.

So, yeah, maybe this is my budget lockdown elite training camp.

Choose your own adventure

April 27, 2020

There are two paths before you, one bleached white and open in the sun, teaming with runners and cyclists and pedestrians, the other weaving narrowly through fecund woodland echoing with the calls of wood pigeon, the occasional growl of a dog. One is busy, but with plenty of open space. The other is quiet, but enclosed and narrow. Which do you choose?

More to the point, when do you choose? Early as the sun is rising? In the mid-morning between breakfast and lunch? In that gap when lunchtime would normally be? In the afternoon – when surely everyone else will be out for their state-sanctioned constitutional? Or early evening, as the sun’s drifting towards the horizon when the evening air shows you its teeth?

Every socially distanced walk or run or cycle is, at its heart, the prisoner’s dilemma. Do you go out in the prime of the day, knowing that it might be busy? Do you go to the best-known spots, or do you try to explore somewhere equally local, but less on the beaten path? And what do you think other people will do? Because if no one goes for the prime spots at the height of the day, well, you’re going to have an uncomfortably busy walk at the fag-end of the day.

A side-effect of the global pandemic is that it will make game theorists of us all.

A month of Sundays

April 20, 2020

When asked, how will we describe what it was really like to live through these strange times?

[These strange times. The phrase concatenates out, reflected and refracted like a hall of mirrors. I hope this email finds you well in these strange times. I hope you’re keeping well in these strange times, but I’d like to check you’re still working to the dates we agreed before The Event. We find ourselves in strange times and I hope you and your family are well, but I’m afraid our deadlines remain unaffected. In these strange times – all best wishes to you and yours – when time’s instrument is an accordion, and minutes are simultaneously months and moments, it is grounding and comforting to gravitate around routines, and processes, and dates, and deadlines, such as yours, which was last Thursday.]

Running through the centre of Cambridge – normally a route to avoid, teaming with shoppers and tourists and students and rickety shoals of bikes – on a sunny afternoon is both refreshingly pleasant and eerie. For a moment it’s like nothing I’ve experienced before, until I remember the riots. Those strange few days in the midst of a London heatwave when curfews drained the roads and shuttered the shops. Running through deserted streets, the sun still in the sky, alert for signs of gathering trouble.

I pass shop displays from another time. ‘Make Mother’s Day!’ ‘Easter Eggstravaganza!’ ‘New Spring Collection!’ The daffodils have passed. Cherry blossom gathers in drifts. We’re in the season of bluebells, irises, tulips, beds brimming with pansies, yellow pools of primula gather on the meadows.

The laminated signs for plays, concerts, lectures, and exhibitions all long cancelled have been stripped from the railings.

The language of cancellation hangs in every window and doorway. Due to unforeseen circumstances. For reasons beyond our control. Following government advice. As a result of the coronavirus. Because of covid-19. Signs written before the house style was established: covid-19 or Covid-19 or COVID-19? Hyphen or no? Close up or space? Coronavirus or corona virus? Crisis or situation? The occasional sign of hope – we look forward to welcoming you back – or defiance – back stronger! – from businesses that must now be looking grimly at their future.

Maybe it’s like Sundays thirty years ago. The roads quiet, the shops shut, nothing new or good on TV, and the bright promise of a summer yet to arrive. Supermarkets and pharmacies open limited hours. People queue to enter same (except socially distanced) as the rare Sunday in the lead-up to Christmas when the Southbourne branch of Gateways would open for a fleeting few hours. But it’s a Narnian Sunday and Monday never arrives. A month of Sundays. At least seven weeks of Sundays.

Maybe it’s the same, except for the lingering existential dread. The way the papers, the radio, the internet shimmers with statistics: the number infected, the number dead, the exponential explosion of exponential graphs. The way it infects every conversation, every email, text, WhatsApp. The way it seems glib and facile to talk or think of anything else. And who’d have thought that lingering existential dread could be so dull?

But to throw up one’s hands and declare the month just passed – the at-least-three weeks to come – as dull is glib and facile. People are dying. Relatives of people I know have died. To be bored is a relative luxury. The word ‘dull’ is written from a position of good fortune. When the crisis was first discussed, the surge in patients needing critical care was described as a wave. The first wave. The coronavirus as a tsunami, then, sucking out the water and exposing the sea bed ahead of a devastating surge, revealing as rock pools and fish slapping against sands the inequalities in society. Bored, but grateful. Horrified, but impotent.

Maybe this will be the summer of baking and jigsaws, Skype and Zoom and Houseparty and Teams and Hangouts, of memes and podcasts and boxsets, of banging pots and pans at 8pm every Thursday, and of a few crackpots setting fire to 5G masts.

And maybe that’s okay if this crisis results in a consensus of what to do about the flaws and fault-lines it has exposed.

And if, when this is over, the water floods back in to conceal what was once exposed, and through muscle memory or inertia or indifference we return to normal, what then? How will we describe what it was really like to live through these strange times?

Now more than ever, it’s vital to notice. To observe. To bear witness. We’re all Melmoth now.

New beginnings

April 13, 2020
tags:

Spring is the season of change. And this strange seasons has brought a surfeit of time to think (when not consumed by existential dread about you-know-what) about what I want to write.

The things that have moved me to write recently have been running adjacent. The kind of thought that slips through the mind three miles in, but not explicitly about the physical act of running.

Which is natural, because my relationship with running has changed. I’m still a runner, but not the runner who spent years relentlessly focusing on running. Go back through this blog and there’s a near-obsessive hunger for statistics and measurements in pursuit of goals. My relationship with running hasn’t become a Murakami-esque chart of age’s downward trajectory, but it’s no longer the superlative-chasing of further, faster, harder, stronger.

To run is to have space to think. It is to have time away from distractions or notifications. It is to let the abstract thoughts that seep through the subconscious like groundwater well to the surface. It is to convene with oneself. It is to lay out everything, press it flat, and see the moment for what it truly is. It is, ultimately, to strip away the veneer of the projected persona and to loop deep within and say ‘This is who I am’.

This is still a running blog. But this is what I think while running, while I no longer chase metronomic miles reading off target paces – 6:26, 6:52 – like Bible passages.

Slow down

April 6, 2020

If nothing else, maybe this strange time is an opportunity to slow down, notice details.

The luminous sheen of sun through new leaves; the hard edges cut by the light of bright spring days that feel like early summer; the unfurling of buds and tight fists of foliage. The roof tiles like Shreddies lined with ring-necked doves; the keystones and cornicing, the patterns of brickwork; the age-warped glass and flaked paint of an open sash window, framing a Tiffany lamp and writing desk.

All the stuff we take for granted, lost amongst the rush to run some errand, be somewhere else, do something else, worry about missing out on the thing that’s happening somewhere else, with someone else, that maybe we missed the email, or WhatsApp, or tweet for.

Nothing else is happening.

There’s nowhere to go.

Everything is cancelled.

Except this, here, which has been under your nose the whole time.

Playing while the ship sinks

April 2, 2020

Famously, the band on the Titanic played while the legendarily ill-fated ocean liner sank to calm the guests. While we’re in extraordinary times – social distancing, one form of lock-down or another, schools closed, working from home, furloughed, or worse – hobbies and pastimes can seem like frivolities from another era, but they’re more needed than ever.

I rediscovered running, what, some fifteen years ago after a period of exceptional busyness at work. Work was thankless, relentless, and multiplied like topsy. Running was something I could control, a pressure valve.

Now, working from home, only discipline can create a proper barrier between work time and home time. There’s even a (slightly crappy) meme doing the rounds at work:

In 1665, the University of Cambridge temporarily closed due to the Bubonic Plague, forcing Isaac Newton to work from home. During that time he developed calculus and the theory of gravity. It was his annus mirabilis! What are you planning to do?

Shitty work inspo meme

Sure, Newton might have made hay while the sun shone, but did he have a thousand-and-one back-to-back Skype, Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Teams meetings? Did he have to homeschool his kids? Did he have the lurching existential dread of the daily death toll and a news update every thirty minutes and the endless churn of doom prophets on social media? Did he have to craft some less-glib form of words than ‘Dear so-and-so, I hope you’re not ill so I can chase you for that thing I asked you for in the absolute eternity ago that was last Tuesday’?

The idea that whatever you’re doing – be it work or home – has to be some kind of great magnum opus of monumental significance is hugely harmful. Now more than ever we should be embracing the little things that we enjoy, whether they’re going to revolutionise the world, or just kill a little of this strange time and give us back a little control.

I’ve been enjoying running for the sake of getting into the fresh air and getting away from my desk. I’ve finally sorted through a box of wires I’ve been carting around for ever, and in the process established the kind of retro video game set-up that would have had my circa-2001 self in awe. I’ve started writing again – a handwritten journal to process all the dark stuff, this long-neglected blog, and an utterly inconsequential fiction about a cafe. I’ve made some time for sketching and doodling.

None of this is groundbreaking; none of this is going to change the world. Probably very little of it will see the light of day. But while the boat’s sinking, the most the majority of us can do is stay safe, stay sane, and play on.

Social distance

March 22, 2020

If anything’s clear at the moment, it’s that we’re going to have to learn to live our day-to-day lives differently. Covid-19 is going to change how we think about things we’ve taken for granted for years.

After much internal wrangling about whether it was socially responsible, I went for a run today. There are mixed message online about whether you should stay at home under all circumstances, or the degree of risk involved in going outside.

As of today, 22 March 2020, the UK government’s guidance to physical exercise is as follows:

At times like these, it can be easy to fall into unhealthy patterns of behaviour which in turn can make you feel worse. There are simple things you can do that may help, to stay mentally and physically active during this time such as:

* look for ideas of exercises you can do at home on the NHS website

* spend time doing things you enjoy – this might include reading, cooking, other indoor hobbies or listening to the radio or watching TV programmes

* try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals, drink enough water and try to avoid smoking, alcohol and drugs

* keep your windows open to let in fresh air, get some natural sunlight if you can, or get outside into the garden

You can also go for a walk or exercise outdoors if you stay more than 2 metres from others.

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-guidance-on-social-distancing-and-for-vulnerable-people/guidance-on-social-distancing-for-everyone-in-the-uk-and-protecting-older-people-and-vulnerable-adults

The guidelines are light on detail for those who go outside to exercise. I thought about this while I was out, and here are some more detailed (probably more runner-specific) guidelines that I followed:

  1. Stick to wide pavements wherever possible. Some of my preferred routes have narrow sections, which mean close passes whenever you meet someone.
  2. Move proactively. Signal your intent to give someone a wider berth early to avoid uncertainty. It feels weird, like you’re worried they’re going to lunge at you, but it avoids anyone thinking you’re putting them at risk.
  3. Time and distance don’t matter. If you’re practising social distancing effectively, your path is going to meander as you avoid people. Maybe just leave your watch at home and enjoy the fresh air.
  4. Pick at time of day that’s likely to be quiet. I went for lunchtime. Mornings or evenings may also be good, but this is mostly guesswork, and probably depends on route.
  5. Don’t take water or fuel, they’ll only lead to you touching your face.
  6. Don’t spit. This shouldn’t be a special guideline for this time of crisis, but especially now, just don’t. If you have a rattle in your chest, just go for a walk. No one needs coughing runners right now.
  7. Be respectful to others. Wave or nod or say ‘Hi’ if you want, but don’t necessarily expect a response. The runners I saw out today all looked like they wanted some headspace, myself included.

Like the government guidelines, I’m sure these will evolve over time. What’s missing? What needs adjusting?

Stay safe. I don’t want to end this with the awful pun ‘we’re in this for the long run’, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Don’t forget your barcode

November 23, 2015

‘Next Saturday, I’m going to get up early and try out the Parkrun,’ I said to my girlfriend as we walked towards town having managed to get out of the house suspiciously early for a weekend.

‘Categorically, definitely, absolutely. No matter what.’

When we lived in London, I’d made it to Finsbury Park Parkrun a few times, using the run to the start line as a warm-up, and the run back as a cool-down. I could do the same here, but with the run to Milton Country Park being a bit longer.

‘Yep,’ I closed confidently, ‘this is happening.’

***

I fumbled with one arm out of the covers to turn off the irritable buzzing alarm. It was 7:30am, and dark.

As if on cue, the wind roared over the roof of our house, pummelling the window with a sharp spray of rain. I could feel the winter chill on my shoulders; I shrugged the covers up to my chin while I stared at the dark ceiling, willing myself to get up.

7:30am on a Saturday is not a time I usually see. There have been occasions where it has made appearances (for example, sitting in an airport tucking into a generally dreadful veggie breakfast with an ineffective stunted cutlery set, while marvelling at the number of people liberally sloshing down a lager or wine since that culturally signifies ‘first day of holiday’), but these are strictly limited. Weekend and lie-in are synonymous.

It’s the best part of five miles to the start line, so I needed to leave maybe 45 minutes to get there. I had to get out the door by 8:15.

Another pebble-dashing of rain blustered against the window.

I needed some breakfast, a hot drink of some sort. I now had 35 minutes to get out the door. The bed was still warm, and comforting, and considerably more inviting than the lashing gale outside.

Barcode, I realised. I’d need to print out a barcode to take with me, have breakfast and a hot beverage. Don’t forget your barcode, hashtag DFYB, and all the other variations you see echo through Twitter on a Friday.

Safe in the knowledge that I would be breaking the cardinal rule of Parkrun, I closed my eyes, settled back in and enjoyed another couple of hours’ sleep.

***

I’m walking towards town with my girlfriend, with the fierce wind dying down and the winter sun setting. ‘Definitely next week. Categorically, absolutely, definitely. No matter what.’

%d bloggers like this: