One day, at around the age of fifteen, I found myself spontaneously running a couple of miles to get to a friends’ house. It just seemed too time-consuming to walk, and I found that once I’d begun, I enjoyed the heightened heart rate and what must have been endorphins and adrenaline. I started going out for a run, always by myself, when I needed to get out of the house, and found it a reliable release and de-stresser in the year before my O-levels. I’d even run before school some mornings. I mused that I ought to run the Mersey Marathon, inspired by the fictional sexagenarian Paul Collins on Brookside.
Then, alas, came cans of lager, packets of twenty Embassy Regal, and the pursuit of the seldom-captured Liverpool female sixth-former. Running dropped out of my life to be replaced by hangovers.
Significantly, when I hit financial rock-bottom a few years later as an undergraduate, posted for some work experience to Bracknell, I stopped regularly drinking, gave up smoking for a year, and, hey presto, the urge to run returned. Alas, my future employer sponsored me for my final year and, financially recovered, addiction won again.
Addiction continued to hold its champion title for about another two decades until 2004, and a lucky alignment of events, free gym membership and a new employer who asked for volunteers from the office to participate in a 10k competitive run. I was feeling bold, and found myself, for the first time ever, safety-pinning a number to my shirt and running until someone gave me a medal. A brand new experience coming in my late thirties, it lit up seldom switched-on parts of my brain.
One interpretation of the Winter of 2004/5 is that I finally shook off the most destructive addiction I’ve ever had – alcohol. An equally valid one is that I made my final and permanent relapse into compulsive and addictive running.
I think it’s a fairly common dual diagnosis. I recently read Running Ransom Road by Caleb Daniloff in which he confesses to the same kind of switch, albeit in a far more glamorous and globetrotting way than me. (Coincidentally, we both spent the early eighties drunkenly singing the songs of prog-rock supergroup Asia. As it happens, so did Asia’s frontman, John Wetton, and I’m pleased to report that he’s dried out as well now.)
That first 10k was my gateway drug, that first free spliff at a party. Soon I was mainlining half marathons a couple of times a year and in 2008 actually ran a marathon, in four hours and nine minutes.
My nature is such that I couldn’t let those nine minutes rest, and on the third attempt, got it under four hours. I’ve now run eight marathons, and this year in Manchester, finally beat three-and-a-quarter hours, by some margin, so that for Liverpool next June I’m aiming for three-and-a-half. The route will go past the end of my Mum’s road, so I’ll be running along some of the streets I covered as a fifteen-year-old before this whole horrible business with organic chemistry hijacked my brain for decades.
If you have what simplistic terminology calls an addictive personality, then you can’t simply stop having addictions. This is why attempts to cure addiction by merely sitting around not drinking, or not smoking, or not thinking of a white bear are torture, not to say failure-prone.
I accept that I’m always going to have addictions.
The good news from the last ten years is that I have some choice as to what they’re going to be.
I choose that one of my addictions is running. That choice means I have an addiction I can be proud of. And I am today proud to say that at the end of my final run of 2014, just a couple of miles around Beadnell in Northumbria this morning, I had covered a thousand and two miles this year.
In 2016 I will turn fifty. To mark this I am going to run a race with at least one mile for each year of my life, the Glasgow to Edinburgh double marathon.
The me that used to drink could not conceivably achieve this.
The me that can achieve this can not conceivably drink.