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.
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.
I like using my birthday as an excuse for an adventure. Last year I completed the Bob Graham Round to kick start my 28th year; this year I had originally hoped to have a shot at another one of the UK’s now burgeoning list of long-distance running challenges.
But that was then, pre-covid, when driving long distances and meeting up with others to push yourselves in the mountains was a possibility, a desirable one even.
This is now, in a country where the daily death toll still often runs in double figures, and the thought of driving for hours to meet with others and run around in the mountains seems harebrained, irresponsible, unpatriotic.
A covid-considered adventure
Facing the minefield of covid guidelines and restrictions, it would be easy to rule out adventures altogether. After all, doesn’t adventure require pushing the comfort zone, undertaking something that you might not succeed in, challenging yourself to discover new things? That sort of language just doesn’t seem to fit with the current covid dialogue.
But we don’t have to travel far for an adventure; it doesn’t have to be risky; it doesn’t have to be social. With this in mind, I started thinking about the parameters of what a covid-considered adventure would look like (note that my birthday was on May 24th, so the considerations were based on the guidance and restrictions in place at that time):
The 7 Hills of Edinburgh
And so the idea of running the Edinburgh‘s very own Round came about, providing an enticing loop, ticking off the notorious 7 hills the city has to offer en route. (I should disclose at this point that I am a million miles away from being the first person to have run this route; there is in fact an annual race covering the route, complete with a website seemingly unchanged since the race’s inauguration in 1991, the true mark of any quality race)
The more I think about it, the more I wonder why I hadn’t thought of this route before. I suppose it’s because we neglect exploring what’s in our own backyard in favour of further flung adventures, and the ‘it’ll always be there/ another day’ mindset inevitably leads to it never getting done. But now there was no excuse.
The route starts and finishes at Calton Hill in the city centre of Edinburgh. Jogging up to the start, I embarrassingly realise that I have never actually been to the top before. It would be the first of many new discoveries on the day, the mark of a good adventure.
City of two halves
Running from Calton Hill takes us first up the Royal Mile; this time last year it would have been dog eat dog with swathes of tourists clambering over one another, but today it was tranquil, abandoned, serene.
Heading through the West End and out to Corstorphine takes us past grand Georgian townhouses and wide tree-lined avenues; were it not for the looming Arthur’s Seat behind it would be easy to think you’re in Mayfair.
The feeling of obsequious wealth is however short-lived. Descending from Corstorphine Hill takes us through Carrick Knowe, Stenhouse, Longstone, Craiglockhart. A house in Stenhouse will set you back an average of £151,298, compared to £514, 258 in Murrayfield. That’s over 3 times more in just over a mile. It’s an important reminder that not all of Edinburgh is the postcard perfect property, oozing historical wealth.
The privilege of living in Edinburgh
Reaching the top of Braid Hill provides a beautiful panoramic of the city, with the 6 other hills all visible, and the Firth of Forth looming beyond. Again it’s another hill I’ve shamefully never been to the top of until now, but it definitely won’t be the last time I’m here. Looking out over the city I’m reminded how privileged I am to live here,
how green it is,
the open space,
the sea so close,
the hills of the Pentlands on our doorstep,
and if we cross the Firth and drive north we can reach the Highlands in little over an hour.
Maybe the best adventures are those staring us right in the face.
On the radar
If you’re into trail running, you’ll have heard about Sierre-Zinal. This year marked the 46th edition of the race, and perhaps both the combination of prestige, inclusion in the Golden Trail Series, as well as having the opportunity to battle it out with so many other elite athletes, drew in the most star-studded line-up of trail runners so far this year.
Alongside Kilian Jornet stood a ‘who’s who’ of the running world, including previous champs and a strong African contingent (rare in most trail races)... all the makings for a lightning fast race.
A million miles off the pace
Going for a warm up jog alongside Kilian and a dozen or so other groupies before the race start was fun; lungs burning, mouth parched and crying out for water and electrolytes on the hot, punishing ascent out of the Rhône valley slightly less so. What it lacked in enjoyment, it more than made up for in awe and inspiration, providing a new-found appreciation for the quality of the top trail runners. I had turned up unprepared for trail races previously and managed to perform well, even placing and taking home some swag, but it immediately became apparent that this was not to be the case here.
Spectators passed on the news that Kilian had won in record pace while I was still busy plodding my way up to the Hotel Weisshorn, with still over 11km to go. Maude had already claimed the women’s record 5 minutes before I bundled my way into the aid station, keen to shovel down electrolytes of any form available. Perhaps residing in Scotland has conditioned me to enjoy running in colder, wetter conditions than what we had on Sunday (it was already >20 degrees when we set off from Sierre), but I still find it staggering that such weather was conducive to the ludicrously fast times that were in the making.
Just how fast were they? - The winning times in numbers
Kilian Jornet completed the 31km in 2:25:35, meaning his average pace was 4:42 per km. Maude Mathys won in 2:49:20, making her average 5:28 per km. Now those might not sound like hugely impressive times, but when you throw in 2200m of elevation gain, and frustratingly rocky, tree root-ridden terrain at times, you begin to see just how outrageously fast those times really are. Here they are in a little more detail, with Kilian and Maude’s splits for some of the key aid stations:
Ponchette (7.5km, +1300m): Kilian - 47:10 (6:17/km), Maude - 57:07 (7:37/km)
Hotel Weisshorn (20km, +2000m): Kilian - 1:42:35 (5:08/km), Maude - 2:00:43 (6:02/km)
Final 11km from Weisshorn to Zinal: Kilian - 42:59 (3:54/km), Maude - 48:37 (4:25/km)
A professional sport
Having experienced first-hand just how speedy these times are, it got me thinking about just what it is that Kilian, Maude and the other people at the top of the ultra running game do to be able to run so fast. Trail and ultra running can sometimes feel a touch amateur, where half-decent club runners can turn up and walk away with a victory (I’ve definitely felt this when I’ve placed in races), but there’s now no question at all in my mind that the top players in trail running are professional through and through, with serious training to match.
How to run as fast as Kilian
Much has been written about Kilian’s training, in particular because he’s self-coached and only spends half of the year running (the other half he spends ski-mountaineering). He also does very little strength training, instead focusing on climbing and mountaineering, and other sport-specific training. With that in mind, it’s hard to fathom how someone so at the top of their game can string together such high quality training, and achieve such remarkable results. What most people don’t realise, however, is that Kilian has a strong background in exercise science, having studied Sciences and Techniques of Sports and Physical Exercises at the University of Font-Romeu in the French Pyrenees. So it’s not as if he’s just going out for long runs in the mountains; far from it, here is a bit more detail on the ingredients behind his successes:
Long way off, but inspired
Perhaps the most important part of Kilian’s training is is the enjoyment that he clearly derives from it. He talks about the importance of finding fun and enjoyment in every training session, that it should never feel like an “obligation”. I think this is something that we can all take away and feed into our own running, and movement or any kind in the mountains. After all, training is not just a means to the end of good race results, it is a worthy end in itself. Sierre-Zinal was an eye-opening, at times frustratingly painful experience for me, but one which has provided impetus to approach training with more rigour, focus on specific races and, last but not least, always seek fun and enjoyment from moving in the mountains.