It really is a simple question. But I’d be lying if I said the answer was equally as untaxing. That said, it’s still a query I’ve continually asked myself time and time again since I returned to running - not that I ever hung my trainers up for good. It’s just now I’m taking things as seriously as I did long, long before I sported a patch of grey in the front of my barnet which, thankfully, continues to decrease with every step I make across the back roads of the Fens.
Photo Credit: Tim Smith
When I told my wife last summer that I wanted to have a proper crack at GEAR in 2017 you could forgive her for asking ‘what the hell is going to happen next?’ Thankfully she knew I wasn’t about to enter a narcotic-fuelled first year of our marriage. GEAR is an annual 10k race in the town I work in, King’s Lynn, and one I hadn’t tackled since 2011.
Unfortunately she knew what was coming next once I’d decided to sign up for it. It meant I wasn’t going to be happy just completing it. I was going to obsess about GEAR for the whole 42 weeks until I’d crossed the line. It’s what I’ve always done - regardless of the hobby. I guess it’s a bloody good job that my interest in GEAR focuses on my feet rather than my hooter after all.
Photo Credit: Ian Burt/Archant
It wasn’t even enough to just start training back in July. I enlisted the help of a former journalism contact, Great Britain duathlete Steven Barnes, to guide me - a man, aged 29, who was never going to come close to winning GEAR. It was almost embarrassing how serious it had all become. Several texts, emails and ‘programmes later’ ‘Coach’ was probably wishing he’d rather have said no when I asked for a favour. As the ‘what nexts’ kept coming his answer was to push myself harder and do some pre-GEAR races.
One, a March Parkrun, saw me replicate the same feat as a memorable day in West Winch back in the 1990s. And no, I didn’t start playing kiss chase in the playground again - that’s frowned upon once you pass 10. My achievement was crossing the line first at a running race for the first time in about 20 years. I was that ecstatic I could have done a knee slide.
The ‘what nexts’ kept coming for ‘Coach’ as I pushed myself harder and harder. For 12 weeks, six days a week, I had one running goal as GEAR approached. And that goal was to smash it. It consumed me. Anything that happened in the meantime barely mattered. A new 5k PB of 18:16 was just numbers that meant I was, ahem, GEARing up nicely.
Photo Credit: Ian Burt/Archant
The day I’d been working towards finally arrived on April 30. And while I didn’t quite smash it, finishing 50th in a new 10k PB of 38:52 while running in a style that makes my dad dancing look fluid felt pretty decent. The pain was all worth it once I realised the latest ‘what next’ didn’t involve collapsing at the finishing line.
Once I’d caught my breath the reality quickly hit that it was all over. Everything I’d trained for and drove myself crazy about had been and gone. Now it was time to go it alone and stop asking questions of Steven - who I can’t thank enough. Was I looking forward to a break? Yes. I was knackered. But because there’s no definitive answer to ‘what next’ when it comes to my running it sort of scares me.
Grey areas don’t sit well with me ever since I had a brush with anxiety in 2014. It’s why after one week off I’ll start running again on Monday (May 8). I’m looking forward to it - especially since it dawned on me that I hadn’t started to run again in search of sporting glory. It had all been about finding a release and a way of gaining some control in a world where you often feel you don’t have any. It had all been a coping mechanism during a life-changing 42 weeks where the ‘what next’ running questions allowed me to actually deal with the other and more important ‘what nexts’ that were floating about in my brain.
‘Now we’re married, what happens next?’ ‘I’m changing career, what next?’ ‘Will I fit in at work? If I don’t, what next?’ ‘Now my wife is pregnant, what next?’ ‘A loved one is ill, what next?’ ‘That loved one has passed away, what next?’ ‘My car has broken down again, what next?’ I’ve been able to face all of those worries that would usually send me off into the mother of all tailspins because I cleared my mind every time I went running.
Even when I wasn’t running it enabled me to switch my mind to numbers and splits to settle myself down when things got daunting. It took the edge off everything and allowed me to create the right amount of mental space to cope and deal with my own fears while making me able to support my wife in a better way than I’d have been able to. While her world and body was being turned upside down, my only changes were going on in my head - differences dealt with once I’d donned my running gear. Our pregnancy has been an amazing, but bizarre time. Like all expectant fathers, it didn’t take long before I felt like a passenger - which strangely pushed me back towards running. So I could be in the driving seat.
There isn’t much space for thinking now in terms of parenthood mind. We’re just waiting for June 3 and wondering when our son will arrive. The serious ‘what next’ questions are taking over, and so they should. They’re far more important than running. And yet they’re more worrying because I can’t control them. Which makes me want to run. Because when I lace my trainers up the only person who can shape what unfolds in front of me is myself - unlike most things over the last eight months.
Football is my first sporting love but running is close to overtaking it, although it’s too soon for ‘what next’ to see me swapping the beautiful game for running competitively for a club. It will happen though as I’m not getting any younger. I guess it all depends on what materialises when our son, and more questions arrive - and of course I’m not going to discuss the serious ones. Will I have the energy to run? Will I want to run? Maybe I’ll run and focus more on enjoyment than times? I wouldn’t count on the last one happening.
While I want to push myself all the way it’s everything else about the sport that’s appealing to me these days. The vibe, the community spirit and the overwhelming sense of collective achievement. It’s everything football isn’t. We all have different goals when we take to the road and that allows us to revel in each other’s glory. I enjoy the successes of my friends, work colleagues and another Steven who I’m now trying to guide using the same advice that ‘Coach’ gave me more than I do my own. They’re not my rivals. We’re running alongside each other against only ourselves.
It’s exactly those reasons that make me believe ‘what next’ won’t be the end of running again for me. I know I’ll never be the best runner but I’ll never give up trying to beat myself. ‘What next’ can always mean ‘go harder’ and I’ve become hooked on the pain. But more importantly while life keeps throwing serious ‘what nexts’ at us at least I know I can provide answers in one aspect without too much concern - and that’s every time I go for a run.
Blog post written on 7th May.
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