Redemption. A reset. A feeling that I now could forget all the failures that went before and start anew, a runner reborn. That’s what I expected to feel a week after finishing the Transgrancanaria 360. But I don’t.
What I do feel after a year of DNF’s and DNS's is an acceptance that as I head into the twilight of my running career I’ll cherish the successes I have and appreciate them for what they are. In isolation. Take meaning from the time they took and the lessons they taught me and nothing more. They’re not the start or the end of anything. They just are.
I really didn’t expect such introspection post race. I expected to ride on a wave of endorphins for a week or two and use this finish to justify an unrealistic race schedule that almost guaranteed I’d come crashing down to earth sooner rather than later. I expected kudos and congratulations. Banners and headlines. I’d finished a race. Why wasn’t everyone celebrating?
Because in reality it was only really important to me. There was no weight of expectation. There was no baited breath, no hopes and no half made plans to pick me up if I fell to earth. There was just me. I’d assumed that because it was important to me it should be important to all who cared for me. And for the most part they couldn’t give a feck. Which is as it should be.
Now before I completely disappear up my own arse with a resounding and satisfying ‘pop’ let me just say I haven’t always been given to such pointless navel gazing. Sport for me was purely a practical thing. Run faster. Jump higher. Hit harder. Not for me the poetry of the long distance runner but the simplicity of just putting one foot in front of another. The west of Ireland in the seventies wasn’t the place to wax lyrical about the outhalfs sidestep. It was about getting your head down, working hard and giving your all physically. Then getting smashed into the ground and doing it all over again.
But there’s something about spending hours inside your own head on a long run that demands introspection. Five, ten, twenty hours is a long time with only your own footfall to distract you and though I do try to stay in the moment, running through my mental checklist of feet, legs, tummy, head to make sure the machinery is functioning well of course my thoughts wander far and wide.
Family. Work. Life. Love. All the biggies pass through my mind. Problems are digested and solutions drawn up. Past conversations are rehashed with the benefit of hindsight fully employed. Time in the mountains is time to think big. The landscape lends itself to roaming thoughts, the openness encouraging me to stretch my imagination far and wide. Plans are unrestrained by the realities of home, mortgage and responsibility. The possibilities seem endless and ideas boundless. Why shouldn’t I think big for aren’t I now, here, the king of the mountains!
And then I fall. Physically and metaphysically. Reality crowds my thoughts and the doubts creep in from the dark edges. I can’t do this. I’m too weak. Tired. Old. This isn’t my place. I have no right to be here. I was born within a mile of the wild Irish sea, mountains aren’t my home.
Bu I’ll take another step. Just one. Just to show myself I can. And if I can take one I can take another. And then another. And if I can take two then maybe I can just get to that rock. The top of the hill. The next cp. The finish. The highs and lows peak and trough and I try to recognise them for what they are. I try to understand that inevitably one will roll into the other, neither staying long enough to make me feel truly comfortable. But understanding that inevitability makes it easier to cope with. Knowing that comfort and discomfort equally will pass. Like the eternal pessimist I find it easier to cope with the low times, for now I’m equal to the challenge. I find strength knowing I have the mechanisms to deal with it. Run through the checklist. Feet, legs, tummy, head. One step in front of another. Repeat as necessary.
Occasionally I tease myself with thoughts of stopping. I poke dark thoughts to test myself against them. I run through scenarios of what would happen if…
I wonder what the inevitable Facebook post would say. How people would react and could I nail just the perfect tone to indicate no mortal man could have done more. If only the Gods hadn’t conspired against me, success would have been mine. This wasn’t my day. I will be back.
My thoughts ebb and flow with the gradient, drifting away as the slope eases. The tip-tap of my poles connecting me physically as my mind wanders. Feet, legs tummy and head bringing me back to reality.
I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do this for. I don’t know how many years or miles I have left in the mountains but I do know that with each passing year I appreciate the time I have left even more. I lament the time lost but recognise that wasting emotions is pointless. Expectations will need to be adjusted. Allowances made. But as long as I can look up to see peaks above me I’ll be able to find some form of happiness. As long as my head isn’t buried up my arse of course…..
Gary Dalton is a rugby loving, crime fighting, white Irish Muslim ultra runner. Despite all this he's not a complete eejit.
Gary is originally from the west of Ireland and can't actually remember when he moved to London - he blames a heavy diet of being tackled by prop forwards and potatoes for the memory loss. He hates going out for runs, canals and borderline hypothermia and loves ice cream and going out for runs.