It was a run in Yorkshire with my sister the first time I tried to run a little differently.
In the preceding weeks I had got my mileage up to about 15 miles a week, and even on this relatively low mileage, I was starting to get twinges in my illiotibial band. I had only been running for a month or two and my old enemy was beginning to return. The illiotibial band is a tendon (it must be the longest in the body, surely?) that runs from above the thigh, all the way down the lateral part of the leg to attach just below the knee on the lateral side. When things go wrong, it becomes inflamed and ‘twangs’ against the knee as you run. While it is not terribly painful, the effect is more like vice slowly closing in on the knee’s movement. You feel as if the range of motion is dimishing with every step until the knee will only be happy if it is not moving at all. The joint becomes like it has been enclosed with wet cement, and it is slowly drying. You can walk, but the second you start to run, the vice returns.
Almost all the times I have had to stop running (and believe me, it’s many times) it has been because of this illiotibial band, or ITBS (the ‘s’ is for syndrome). So here I was again, getting some momentum going, slowly increasing my mileage, slowly losing some weight so my legs were not having to carry so much hefty lard, and I was being faced with my old enemy.
I had been through treatment for it in the past, seeing both a physio and podiatrist. The physio treated the problem by taking down the inflammation (ice, massage, ultrasound), but the podiatrist had the tougher job. He had to assess my running gait so that he might prescribe some bespoke insoles for me. I was filmed. Watching the footage back in slow motion was horrific. I looked like a tripod. If such a thing existed in nature it would have looked like me. The pod inevitably thought ‘how the hell is an insole going to solve, well, all of this?’ Over the next few months we tried all sorts of insoles. Ones that raised my heel 5mm or so. One that had a wedged heel that helped persuade my left foot to pronate (roll inwards, like they are supposed to). We also tried one that had a raise on the ball of my foot, though I forget why… All this came to nothing. I was writing my PhD at the time and I just could not afford to stay in treatment for such a long time. I gave up going, and I gave up running. My body was broken and in a typically perverse manner I was being drawn towards doing something that my body just could not do. This all seems like it was 3-4 years ago, but I finished my PhD in 2004, so it’s probably more like ten. What the hell have I been doing all this time? Answer: getting slowly fat.
The next decade (from then to now) has seen me running occasionally, but only low mileage and I did other sports that wouldn’t aggravate my ‘particularity’ instead. In this same period, my weight increased, too. I slowly crawled up to about 200lbs (I’m 5ft 8, on a good day). I had been granted leave from work to write a book – which I did, but staying at home all day writing with no exercise, drinking tea and eating a chocolate biscuit every time I hit the ‘comma’ key on my keyboard meant that I got to the point where my clothes began to hurt. My asthma had got worse, I was taking higher doses of my regular inhaler. My diet was terrible. I would finish the day exhausted. The only physical exercise I would have done was to walk from my bedroom across the hallway to my study. Too tired to cook, I would go round the corner to the chippy, stock up and buy some chocolate to finsh the day off. I submitted the first draft of my book. I went away for the weekend to a friend’s birthday, saw the photos and in one of them I didn’t recognise myself. So I began to walk.
I walked and walked. I walked almost everywhere. I fell in love with walking. I talked about it. I read about it (and loved this book). It didn’t matter what the scenery was (walking through some parts of South London, it has to not matter about the scenery), it was the hypnotic rhythm, one in sync with the heartbeat that, once you’ve done a 1000 or so steps, has a real and deep effect on one’s psychology. Once the rhythm is going after a few miles, it ploughs through your mental landscape and clears everything out. The skin off the rice pudding, the fluffy foam off the head of the beer, the dust off the bookshelf, the mini-tumbleweed off the carpet. If I was meeting friends in town, then I walked into London (about 8 miles). I was going to a family barbecue in Chiswick, I walked there (14 miles). I went on a ‘No Cuts’ march, I walked there, walked the march route, popped into the great Holland Park Gate bookshop, and then walked back (20 miles).
Oops, got sidetracked. Back to that run in Yorkshire with my sister…