A ponderous performance in last month’s Berlin marathon has left me pondering my relationship with that particular distance. Some bodies are not cut out for it. Have I been deluding myself these past eight years that my uncomplaining knees and natural stamina will yield ever more encouraging times over the 26.2 miles, despite my advancing years?
Perhaps, though, it’s not just somatic disorders that scuppered the run. Sure, a dodgy ankle and attendant Achilles pain, coupled with ferocious runner’s trots (after four Immodium!) and incipient nausea didn’t help, but perhaps everything, mentally and physically was out of kilter that day.
Every body strives for balance: this has been the overriding principle of physicians throughout history. The lure of over-the-counter quick fixes and received dietary opinion had me eschewing, then quaffing, caffeine, popping gut pluggers and ibuprofen, enduring fat-then-carbo loading, sucking on high carb gels…and the results of my preparations and race strategy were not pretty. I was, in retrospect, profoundly unbalanced in my approach, and my bowels told me so, in no uncertain terms.
Mentally, I was no better prepared. Weeks of unfinished scheduled runs, resentful episodes on elliptical trainers and fretting over a puffball of an ankle had made a moaner of me. After the race, my responses to well-meaning running friends who WhatsApped their congratulations were an outpouring of self-loathing, self-loving bile.
When I’d got over myself, debriefing in my training diary about the various bodily functions that had created such distress, I was reminded of the medieval literature I’d studied back in the Dark Ages. The Greeks established that the body has many humours – liquids that either give us life (blood, water) or rear their ugly heads when we’re ill (diarrhoea, mucus). Galen (the Roman Empire’s celebrity doctor) identified the four main humours that gave us various characteristics. They are:
- Blood, the humour of happiness, youth, springtime and lollipops
- Yellow bile, a more summery, humour but apt to make us hotheaded and sometimes tetchy
- Black bile, the autumnal, sluggish humour that makes grumpy, curmudgeonly tossers of us
- Phlegm, associated with winter, old age and melancholy, the moany humour
Recognition of an excess of one type of humour dominating the body, at the expense of other, led to treatments such a bloodletting, purging and the laying of leaves and leeches on the area that’s giving you gyp.
These days we’re sceptical about the benefits of leeches, favouring statins, antibiotics and 26p packs of ibuprofen if we cannot see a doctor for the next three weeks (ah, Lewisham surgeries, you’re breeding us tough!), but many people are aware of medicine’s humoral roots, and see the logic behind it.
As the bad race receded into the past, my choleric yellow bile of bitterness drained out to its rightful place in my gallbladder, and a melancholic, phlegmatic sense of doom washed over me. I talked of hanging up my trainers and changing this blog name to Granny’s Gentle Ramblings or somesuch.
A load of high-fiving on my Twitter feed, from those who bagged PBs at Berlin and Chicago, contributed to a wave of despondence and hopelessness as black bile engulfed my sense of reason.
Yes, my humours were out of kilter, and producing unseemly symptoms and disobliging thoughts, but there was one that could save the day, lift me out of my slough of self absorption and bring some balance. About bloody time.
It has become a habit to give blood as soon as possible after running a marathon. It’s a great way to check haemoglobin levels, it depletes your energies long enough to force you take a break from training, you get a free chocolate biscuit and it gives you an enormous sense of wellbeing.
The whole experience makes a sanguine woman of me. My competitive nature is also assuaged, as I Tweet out the time it takes me to give away a pint or so of my finest B- (four minutes 39 seconds this time) and my mate David tries to beat it. It’s all good clean fun.
I come away from my donation session with NHS Blood and Transplant a better person. Not self absorbed, grumpy, bitter or melancholic but wearily heroic, revelling in the knowledge I have helped save a life, happy to rest up, take stock and live to run another day.