Last weekend was spent trying to get as high as possible, but I didn’t need the services of the local dealer. Kent AC continued their series of virtual, physically distanced running challenges for the 13th week of lockdown with a south-London based version of the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), which in reality will not be going ahead this summer.
The UTMB is a 106-mile trail run, with 10,000 metres of elevation gain. Our challenge, those of us who chose to accept it, was to complete that distance and height as a team. We were divided and matched up according to speed, age and hill-friendliness, into 10 fair teams of 10 and undertook to complete our runs between Friday morning and Sunday afternoon.
Each member was committed to achieving 1000m. Efficient running machines chose the steepest hill in the area (this was either one of the steeps of Greenwich Park or the knackering inclines between Sydenham Hill and Dulwich). Then they ran up and down them many, many times. I overthought it, and decided it would be pleasant to cycle to a more bucolic hill for my first efforts. The problem with hill repeats, though, is that they’re boring after the first few, wherever they take place, and you don’t want to waste too much time going from one hill to another. Although you do have to complete the mileage. I did too much mileage (21 miles) and too little height. Amateur.
The effort I put into it was noted by my Garmin GPS watch, and I became pretty fascinated by the statistics it helpfully furnished me with. I’d never really explored the stuff about VO2 max and maximum heart rates, but the technology on my wrist kept me informed, and in one category described me as ‘overreaching’ and in another congratulated me on my ‘superior’ fitness. There’s no denying that I held these stats to my heart and smugly rejoiced in my superiority.
Granted, the effort rendered me pretty limp and useless for a couple of days afterwards. I kept falling asleep and raiding the larder. Still, recovery is key to the elderly athlete. We need double the amount of it. I took four days off.
Early nights with the latest book by Vinegar Lil herself – Lionel Shriver – soon wiped the smile off my face. I am this contrarian author’s Number One Fan, yet I know if we were ever to meet she’d chew me up and spit me out. We’re pretty diametrically opposed politically, yet her arguments are persuasive and against the politically correct grain, to the extent that she’s been dropped by her Swedish publisher and is, these days, persona non grata among much of the liberal elite. Her contentious pronouncements on Brexit and Covid-19 have seen to that. Yet we love her books and want her to keep writing them.
Shriver’s latest novel is The Motion of the Body Through Space, and it pulls no punches in its relentless mockery of Weekend Warriors, endurance runners, amateur triathletes with all the gear no idea, and the whole idea of team spirit. People who really care about times and VO2s and mileage in late middle age come in for particular scorn. I imagine her reading the first three paragraphs of this piece and sneering ‘why the hell would you do that?’ I imagine her taking down Marathon Gran with a few excoriating paragraphs of her own. She is fearsome, eccentric and fascinating.
Shriver is 63, and her hero, in this book, is Serenata Terpsichore, whose relationship with her husband, Remington Alabaster (Lionel Shriver delights in bonkers names), both in their 60s, has always been based on comradely, whip-smart repartee and a sense of their superior intellect against the stodgy, herd-like masses. Running was always Serenata’s thing, but she did it quietly , before it was fashionable, and never entered mass road races. She ran punishing distances for 47 years, until the cartilage in her knees wore out and she was forced to stop. Now Remington has announced he is going to run a marathon, and his waspish wife is vocal in her distaste for his running with the herd of wealthy boomers. Running is, she says:
‘…dull and hard, as in effortful but not as in difficult to master. It’s repetitive. It doesn’t open the floodgates of revelation, as I’m sure you’ve been led to expect. I’m probably grateful for an excuse to quit. Maybe that’s what I can’t forgive myself. Though at least I’ve finally escaped the great mass of morons chugging alongside who all think they’re so fucking special.’
Ouch. It gets harsher and more compelling as Remington staggers through his marathon in just under the generous cut-off time, then decides to dive into triathlon. Shriver, given free voice by the belligerent and horribly hurt Serenata, relishes her description of elderly endurance runners ‘stringy and weathered with cropped hair…at least fifty-five, she doubtless imagined that she didn’t look anywhere near that old, though her bony, sinuous frame advertised every year…’
Double ouch. My mind wanders back to last week’s self-congratulatory blog. I am guilty of thinking myself part spring chicken and part mountain goat. And therefore superior. Shriver takes superiority to the next level. She’s looking at folks like me with her ‘been there, done that’ curl of the lip and laughing behind her gloved hand. She carefully dissects her subjects and reveals their ridiculous vanities, and just for a minute I feel flayed and moronic.
Then I remember my knees still work and yes, actually, I do find running revelatory. But I find Lionel revelatory, too, and I finished her book in three early nights.