I love this book; I read it when I was 15 and it’s stuck in my head ever since. In fact I love all Alan Sillitoe’s novels but that’s the one that’s burnt itself indelibly into my head. Running has long been my saviour, I believe it’s the purest form of meditation there is. Don’t get me wrong I love Prozac as much as the next guy but I have no doubt that exercise is fundamental to beating panic and anxiety.
I have my old boarding school housemaster to thank for my love of running. He was a northerner, a tough beady-eyed, no nonsense taskmaster and he whipped us first years into shape very early on. There were hundreds of acres of fields and woodland around the school and we followed his little bald pate across most of them. There were several designated runs with ominous names, the most feared was “The Steeps,” it was 12 miles of wet ploughed fields, short painful climbs and a section of brambles that lacerated your legs. Just hearing its name made our hearts sink and we would sit silently through lunch dreading the thought of afternoon games.
The thing about boarding school was their time management, we had little to no free time. I guess it was their game plan, no time to get up to mischief. For me though there was no time to overthink, to worry about stupid things or to feel sorry for myself. Saturday was a normal school day, lessons and sports. Sunday was chapel followed by a compulsory letter writing hour often followed by some sort of classical music concert. It was interminable
Running gradually became my escape, yes it hurt and yes I cursed that little northern bastard with every step I took across those fields but I grew to love the pain. I grew to love the isolation too, the loneliness; it was then that I was able to order my erratic thoughts. Most of all I loved inclement weather, running against the elements, in the pouring rain, your spikes sodden and your legs covered in mud. Negotiating your way over a stream or barbed-wire fence made it even more challenging but it helped you forget your worries. Running back then made me feel invincible in a way that I’ve never felt since.
This afternoon I took a run along the seafront, the esplanade is flat and runs for miles. It was windy as hell but the sun was shining and sea air smelled beautiful. I took in great lungfuls of the stuff and I thought about my old schoolmaster, I wish I’d thanked him back then but kids never know what’s good for them.