I wrote this piece back in June of this year. At the time I was working at a care home. Covid-19 caused pain, death and grief like I had never witnessed before. This is how I coped.

This piece was published in Like the Wind Magazine, issue #25.

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They passed away at 08:30 on Monday 22nd June.

Covid wasn’t the only factor, but they had never been the same since. When the wave hit our care home at the end of April, they were one of the many residents to contract it. Some passed quickly, those with the most complicated web of pre-existing conditions, most susceptible and at risk to the virus. At the peak, one morning briefing the agency nurse announced to a room of mostly agency staff two more deaths during the night. Another resident died during the day shift.

Others had a more drawn out fight.

They had been declared palliative the previous weekend. This meant morphine and repositioning in bed were now the main actions to keep them comfortable; if they didn’t want to eat, that was fine. When they stopped swallowing, we used a wet towel to moisten their mouth, and a gel which we put on the back of a spoon and spread onto their tongue. They refused morphine for a time; they had been a doctor in their working life and so knew what it meant to accept it: end of life.

At first their pain was vocalised through hoarse yelps, arms grasping into thin air. Then they were silent and still, but their eyes and mouth told a story of affliction, agony, anguish. We didn’t think they would make it this long, but they fought.

Days passed and still they went on. It’s remarkable what the body is capable of when you have spirit.

But there’s only so much fighting a body is capable of. One day the body turned to cadaver, stiff with a pallor that could only mean one thing. Their face told a story of being at peace, in a better place, free from the torment of bodily pain and mounds of medication to mitigate it.

We all felt the loss. Some cried, others hugged. We all grieve in different ways. I run.

It’s 03:59 and I’m awake. The more abrasive of the two alarms is set for 04:00, so there’s always a large incentive to rise before it (trying not to disturb my partner sleeping alongside me too perhaps being the biggest factor). I allow myself 45 minutes of sun salutations, coffee and reading time before hitting the road.

Today is Sunday so it’s long run day. Shifts at the care home are 12 hours, from 8am to 8pm, so 03:59 is necessary if I’m to cover the 15 or so planned miles before work.

I’ve been keeping a semblance of marathon training going throughout covid and my time spent working at the care home: Tuesdays are for speed work, Thursdays for hill reps, Sundays for long runs; easier less structured runs the other days. I’ve been trying to do the odd ‘virtual parkrun’ too, a 5km max effort on my local parkrun course on Saturday mornings. Not forgetting the wild card rest day, to be deployed when I really need it, when I really need it. I like to use it more on my days off work rather than work days, so that I can maximise the rest and get a full day’s recuperation.

Running requires trade-offs. More running means less sleeping. Some days it’s five hours; other days closer to seven. I’m perpetually in deficit, always playing catch up. I’d prefer to be exhausted and stable than rested and out of kilter; emotional stability at the cost of physical fatigue.

When I run I think about running. I think about my breath, my form, my pace. I set goals such as my target pace for intervals, how many hill reps I’ll do, or my weekly mileage. Fully arbitrary goals, but all-consuming, immersive. Having goals and a structure to my running has given me an outlet for something else to focus on, to give myself time where I’m not thinking about death and covid, to take my mind to a different, altogether more simpler place.

“You’ve got to be good to yourself”

I will never forget these words, the words said to me by their daughter shortly after they passed, as we sat next to their dead body and comforted each other, grieved, discussed coping mechanisms.

This is my way of putting these words into action.

Yesterday I ran the Shakespeare marathon in Stratford-upon-Avon; as the name suggests, it’s a town best known for being the birthplace of William Shakespeare, perhaps less so its marathon. Yet I was there, along with hundreds of others, to run the 26-odd miles put in front of us.

At all stages in both the build up, as well as during the race, I did everything contrary to the perceived wisdom for optimal marathon performance.

Here’s what happened.

Choose an uninspiring course

From experience, road marathons are easiest when there’s lots of distractions. I did my first one in Paris; I remember running past the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, and having thousands of people lining the streets to cheer us on. There were also heaps of bands and radio stations playing music for quick thrills every few miles, providing a welcome distraction from the repetitive pounding of the road, and ever-tiring muscles.

The Shakespeare marathon saw us start in the centre of town, run past Shakespeare’s birthplace within the first few minutes, before heading out onto country roads for the rest of the race. The second lap (two laps is rarely a good thing too, since it sees you seeing the same things twice) saw us run for almost 5 miles on a stretch of track called the “Greenway”, a bridleway through farmland. In marathon runner speak, that roughly translates as “5 miles of grinding monotony with nay support, music, or sites (both man-made and natural) at the time when you must need distraction.”

Lesson learned: Choose a course that inspires, either in a area of outstanding natural beauty, or in an interesting city.

Put in zero structured training

I ran a couple of long races in December, and found myself reeling from an ITB injury for the first 3 months of 2019. This meant very little running in the key months of January to March. The backbone to previous marathons has always been interval and hill sessions midweek, backed up by a race and/or a long run at the weekend. I didn’t manage that for a single week in the run-up to the race.

Lesson learned: Don’t get injured! But if you do get injured, take the time to have sports massage and/or physio and build strength to address the underlying causes of the injury.

Run long the weekends before

I’ve had my eyes firmly set on the Bob Graham Round for months, and with the planned attempt now less than a month away, I put in fairly substantial mileage over the two weekends before the marathon to recce different legs of the route. This amounted to roughly 7 hours on my feet the weekend preceding the race, on top of 13 the weekend before. My legs were tired. I had been stretching and foam rolling all week, but I nonetheless still felt weak. Even in the first few miles I could feel that there was nothing there. As the race progressed, cramp started developing and then spreading all over the different muscles in my legs, to the point where it was like running on wooden stumps. Joyous.

Go out too fast

It’s the classic mistake, made by most runners in most races, but you can blag it more in shorter races; over the marathon distance you really pay the price. Given that I had done no training, I had no idea what sort of shape my legs were in, so decided that I’d go out with the strategy of

“Go as fast as I can for as long as possible.”

A disaster waiting to happen. I was consistently clocking sub- 6:30 miles for the first half, and even upped the pace coming up to the halfway point. There were lots of half-marathon runners about at that point, so I offered to pace a couple of them home to a faster finish. This meant speeding up, burning out faster, and triggering my fast approaching implosion yet sooner. But it was fun.

Ignore the race website information

I had a quick read over the runners’ notes on the website in the week preceding the race to see if there was anything I needed to be aware of, and take account of in my planning. The website said this:

“Drinks Stations are at approximately 2 mile intervals and bottled water will be available at all drinks stations.

Isotonic drinks will not be available.”

Pretty clear cut, right? No food, no iso, just water. Yet this was my interpretation:

”I’m paying for entry into an organised road marathon. OF COURSE there’ll be some electrolytes and something sugary available at some point.”

I’ve never carried anything with me during road marathons, and don’t really carry anything other than water on distances of up to 50 miles. I don’t like planning what I’m going to eat, and instead just plan to go with whatever I’m given. In a road marathon I usually find half a banana and a few glugs of an isotonic drink works well.

But surprise surprise, it quickly became apparent that the race organisers stuck to their word, and provided nothing but water at any of the aid stations. Luckily a little girl gave me a few segments of a satsuma at around mile 15; the sweet taste was pure bliss for the minute or so I was able to drag it out for, but then it was back to nothing. I usually find something sugary can provide a nice boost at around mile 23 or 24 and turbo charge the final run in, but not this time; I was clinging on, with my form becoming increasingly zombie-like as I inched closer to bonking.

Lesson learned: Take heed of what it says on the race website; it’s there for a reason. Add in a few race reviews from fellow runners if you’re unsure about anything. 

If you can’t have fun, what’s the point?

So, with those mistakes and lessons learned in mind, would I do the same thing all over again? You bet.

Given that it wasn’t a target race, I needed to keep it fun, interesting and enjoyable; after all, running a road marathon can be quite dull. Dealing with the fatigue caused by a lack of unstructured training and putting in big mileage in the weeks running up to the race was a fun challenge (I’d never experienced such a lack of feeling in my legs before, but it was reassuring to know I could still keep them ticking over at just under 8 minute miles), speeding up and offering to pace half-marathon runners at the halfway point was great fun and made those 15 minutes highly entertaining, and dealing with the lack of food was superb training for the Bob Graham Round, where it’s almost inevitable that I’ll be famished for long stretches.

Running, after all, should be enjoyable. It’s what I love doing, and if it ever becomes boring or uninspiring, why not mix it up and try new things? Self-destruction can be fun sometimes too.