It was the third time that the penance had been paid, the fourth that this particular marathon had been attempted. The hill that led out of the small hamlet (just a couple of houses and a teashop bisected by the main road) was as hard as ever. By the time the top was reached, breath was hard to come by and ragged. The effort stretched every sense; then the lonely trail through the trees opened out before.
The problems had started before the running: a partner whose hobby was undermining self-esteem and body image. A pet name of “Fatty” at first seemed to be fond, but it gradually dawned that it was part of a campaign of control. By then it was too late – lives were bound together and there was no escape. The casual, thoughtless condemnation continued, chipping away at a now fragile and dependent ego until it had shrunk and been buried, then sprouted again as a bitter, resentful shoot. Still, it had been that shoot of resentment against someone who thrived on being relentlessly negative that had got Fatty’s arse off the couch and on a mission to run 5k. This didn’t fix anything of course, just highlighted the problems.
“You won’t be able to keep up.” The words echoed down the hall and the front door opened and shut on the old life, “They’ll only take the piss like everyone else.”
It was true, the humiliation had been hard. When the couple’s friends and family had heard about the running course, jokes were encouraged. Always the first to laugh, Fatty’s other half was mocking and, each occasion the jibes surfaced, they seemed to say ‘you have no control, you gave that up years ago to become a doormat.’ However, instead of further destruction of the ego, things had changed – the shoot was nourished and became a plant looking for anything to support its quest for a new life. That support came from the running club.
Everyone at the group was a stranger: all shapes and sizes, all mysterious and new. Where once this would have been a problem, it now became an opportunity. Fatty was unknown here, just another person taking the chance on making their life better and though not many words were exchanged, everything felt positive. In contrast to home where oppression was palpable in the air, this was fresh and vibrant, stinking slightly of excited sweat and danger. Admittedly it was more walking than running at the first meeting but there was no derision, no attempt to point out failure. Instead there was support. It was understood that the change being made was hard and simply turning up was a success in its own right. The new plant clung to this support and grew further.
Time passed. The contrast increased between domesticity and the dangerous freedom of footfalls. A marathon was planned and while the runners Fatty spent most time with suffered with each other, bound together by a mutual commitment to the difficult, home life became impossible. Trainers and shorts would go missing, there were disasters that coincided with scheduled training and a brooding atmosphere hovered on the edge of violence. And then one evening, when returning from training, Fatty got injured.
It was 3 months before the injury was healed enough for serious training to resume and, during this time, things took a step back. Running companions were banned from the house as a bad influence, strangers from the past encouraged to return. Many evenings were arranged where the derision was intensified and old voices tried to reassert control.
“See, all that running got you injured, glad we’re getting back to normal Fatty. You’re putting on weight again and aren’t you better for it.”
But this was no longer normal. Normal was the twitching under the skin the night after a good run, normal was the breathlessness and pride that came from a good track session. Normal was the friends, with whom everything was shared during the hours spent on long slow runs, where conversations turned eventually into streams of consciousness.
On the first night back at club after the injury, Fatty was welcomed back like a hero and club members listened to the tale of domestic terror resolutely. Quietly, a phone was placed in Fatty’s hand.
“If it happens again call us, we will sort it out.”
It had taken some effort to get out, wading through the renewed enmity of the house and this was what was needed. Hope.
It was the night before the marathon and unsurprisingly something had come up to make tomorrow’s plans difficult. A drinks party had been arranged at the home – no runners were there of course, they were not welcome. Fatty was the butt of collective jokes until enough was enough and an early bed was sought. The absence caused a rage, not seen since the night of the injury.
“Everybody just fuck off! I am not putting up with you treating our friends like shit, Fatty. One of us will be gone by tomorrow – it’s time to quit this running bollocks or else!”
The party broke and left, leaving nothing but boiling anger outside Fatty’s door and a hand clutching the phone.
Four hours later there stood a group of runners at about the 13.1 mile mark of a trail marathon route. There were shovels in hands and a figure carefully replanting a small shrub that had been carefully dug up to make room for a ditch. It was dark and lonely here, not a place your average person would pass by. Set back from a slightly overgrown trail, that was only really used by a strange breed of distance walkers or runners, who shared a special bond in overcoming life’s difficulties. All there knew this simple truth.
Don’t fuck with people who push themselves to the edge of endurance for fun, especially if they have friends, because when all is said and done…
They will bury you.