I always used to think that my age really didn’t really matter to me, and why the hell should it?
After all, I still feel like a thirteen year old (and probably act like one too). In fact I have often said that I could face any imminent birthday with equanimity, provided I was gifted some form of cheap aftershave or a new pair of socks to celebrate with. But friends, let me tell you, I was wrong. By the time you read this, I have already celebrated my fifty fourth birthday and survived some major surgery along the way. I never thought that I would be worried about turning fifty five: but now that I nearly am, I am… very much so.
Traditionally, getting on for the beginning of the sixth decade of life is a time for a full mind, body & soul review. It is a time for a review of one’s past achievements and review of one’s dwindling potential for the future. And, depending on how honest one is (and living very much in denial at the moment, this one is not very), it is also a time for reviewing the enlarging potential for enlarging upon one’s dwindly past achievements as one looks back and reviews them.
In private I swore to myself that, come the day, I would never fall prey to maudlin introspection but would face the onset of senescence with a spiritual calm and tranquillity. But that was before I recently took part in that damnable mass running / jogging episode.
Now I have nothing against mass jogs in general: several of my best friends are joggers and a few of them even celebrate mass.
I have always said that what a man does in the early morning or later on in the evening, even if it involves dressing up in peculiar clothes and doing a lot of heavy breathing, is his own affair. In fact, like most builders brought up to believe in taking preventative measures rather than curative, I have always thought that a healthy diet and a bit of jogging would be the answer to most twentieth century ills, e.g. heart disease, gallstones, loss of the ozone layer, Lassa fever, diarrhea and global warfare. And of course, just like most builders brought up to believe in taking preventative measures, I fully recommended it to all my friends but never actually tried it myself.
You see I never thought I actually needed to (like most homeowners brought up not to believe in taking preventative measures). As a matter of fact I thought that despite the rugged and manly looking spare tyre, I was pretty god dam fit, thank you very much. I mean, I haven’t really seen a doctor since that good old slapping incident I was given at birth.
I reckoned that during the daily grind of my vigorous and demanding life I got plenty of exercise already: things like humping around my old toolboxes, marching up and down stairs while I install new bathroom suites, carting out the rubbish to the dustbins for wifey (much the same thing as regards weight, content and artistic merit), lifting the dust cover off my computer keyboard, and tearing up the little cards and leaflets that appear through my letter box advertising other, highly suspect looking local tradesmen.
Keeping myself in constant trim this way, I was fairly confident that if I were to be suddenly faced with some kind of James Bond type situation, such as wrestling a giant shark (sorry that was Batman, see Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na) or carrying Ursula Andress up a mountain (much the same thing as regards weight, content and artistic merit again), I would still be able to quite easily cope.
I suppose I thought that I would just snap into it (or them) and that those highly tuned rippling muscles of mine honed and trimmed by years of patient work-outs during coffee making and reading of the Sunday papers (see Hold the press!!), would carry me through the worst of days. But came the day, they didn’t. Came the day after, they wouldn’t even carry me out of bed.
It all seemed like a jolly enough idea at the time. They rang me up and said, look, all these people are going on this jogging thing and isn’t that a good idea? And I said yes, yes, a jolly enough idea (still believing in the idea of taking preventative measures). And they said, it’s a jog not a race and it only lasts thirty minutes and no matter how famous you think you are, you should be able to survive thirty minutes of jogging, shouldn’t you?
And so, still believing in the benefits of preventative measures, I said, yes, yes, count me in, and privately hoped that the whole thing would be cancelled due to an earthquake or a plague of frogs. But, no such luck. So that is why on a crisp Saturday morning, I found myself on the athletics track of the big stadium of my local leisure centre (even the sight of it gives me fibrositis now).
I looked around me and saw three hundred assorted pseudo-athletes dressed in an extraordinary variety of jogging shorts and boardies (ranging from sub-Olympic silk, slit up the side things to ones made of material that I probably last saw on a deckchair). Most of us were trying to preserve the last vestiges of a hopelessly shrivelled dignity by standing around in clumps of three or four as if we were at a cocktail party at which someone had stolen all the drinks, canapés, peanuts and guest’s clothing.
A few of the more professional and athletic gentlemen were warming up, doing press-ups and some manoeuvres that looked a bit like post-natal pelvic floor exercises. I studied these activities from afar and thought that they looked like the sort of thing that I ought to be doing, but then realised I didn’t know how; so I pretended that I didn’t want to. In the end I compromised by limbering up – well more like lumbering up, really – by running 20 yards, followed by an intensive burst of heavy breathing and callisthenic autograph signing.
Let me tell you, after ten minutes of that, I was raring to go; or at least to go and have a lie down.
But then they gathered us all together at the starting line, told us it was a jog and not a race, and, in the unfortunate absence of an earthquake or plague of frogs, fired the gun, and we were away. My first thoughts were to remind myself that this was not a race and that I should pace myself for the whole jog and not burn out too early: even so, we natural athletes are virtually un-restrainable, and within seven seconds of the start I was eleven yards down the track and already being lapped by a fell walker and two marathon runners, not to mention the pensioner with a zimmer frame.
After the first 100 yards, I settled into my accustomed loping stride, or rather something that I hoped would look like my accustomed loping stride, though it was more a variation on a limp. I got into something like a steady rhythm and after the first hour of nerve-wracking gut-splitting effort, I was surprised to hear the announcement over the public address system that we had been running for just under ten minutes.
I took the opportunity to review my current status. My breathing was tortuous and had all the regularity of a drum solo by Phil Collins with a sore wrist. My left leg was undoubtedly developing early signs of rigor mortis. My right pectoral muscles seemed to be developing botulism, and I had a sneaking suspicion that my deltoids had caught Dutch elm disease. Every other part of me was fine except for the insipient rabies.
I noticed a strange white blur to my left and dimly wondered if it was one of those weird visual troubles that Amundsen’s lot had got at the pole; but then I remembered that I hadn’t eaten any Polar bear liver, let alone too much, and that my recent exposure to a horizon white-out was pretty minimal. The white blur was actually caused by a steady stream of runners overtaking me on the inside.
Now I have often heard it said that on a long distance run you have time to listen to the natural tunes and rhythms of your own body.
I listened. And what I heard suggested to me that my pericardium, the fine and delicate wrapping around my heart, was on fire. I could hear my muscles aching. In fact after nine laps I began to develop muscle pains in places I was sure I didn’t even have muscles. Everything hurt, even my toenails and eyelashes. Air suddenly seemed to be a commodity in very short supply, if not actually out of stock. People with smiling faces brushed passed me while I was audibly gasping for what seemed the very last drop of oxygen on the planet.
Old aged pensioners were looking my way like nothing was amiss while wondering to themselves what the hell could possibly be wrong with me as they scratched at their foreheads. Others looked on with sheer concern as volunteers stepped forward to offer the man with a crimson red face, pained expressions and flared nostrils some aid in the guise of isotonic drinks, space blankets and full sleeping facilities for the rest of the month. Sweat was pouring from every inch of my body and my hair was bleeding water down my face…
I seemed to be slowing right down, as if running in treacle, an effect I attributed to the aerodynamic drag caused by the little paper number pinned to my shirt. In review, as I came into the last lap, my summary of the situation was that I was fifty four years old, thoroughly insane and unlikely to live to be fifty five.
A hundred yards from the end, I rallied very slightly (it must have been downhill) and regained my composure; I even saw another group of pensioners who were scarcely twice my age and who had only lapped me six times. Not so bad for 54 after all, I thought. I crossed the finishing line with the style and grace of Landseer’s ‘Stag At Bay’, though most people said it looked more like Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ or even Van Gogh’s ‘Wooden Chair’. Nonetheless, I had jogged and I had survived it; or so I was told.
And in the bar afterwards: my, what bravado and braggadocio there was!
My fellow crucifees were now clustering round, eager with chatter and orders for slim-line tonics, declaring to any onlookers what fun and how bracing it had all been? And then asking me if I would become one of them now?
Would I turn hypocrite and lie through my teeth about how awfully super and jolly easy it had all been? Of course I would. I mean, I don’t mind looking a fool but there’s no point in looking stupid as well, is there?
And at the end of the day’s ‘gig’, it took me eighteen minutes to walk the twenty yards back to my van where having finally got to it, I couldn’t lift my foot high enough to get in it. The next day it took me fifteen minutes just to get down the three steps en-route to my bedroom. Breathing seemed to be an exercise I didn’t have enough breath for anymore and standing up was a luxury I forced myself to do without. Mind you, James Bond might have felt the same the day after hauling Ursula Andress up the mountain. So might that shark. One just doesn’t know.
And now, while facing the bitter truth at 54, I ask myself, whatever next? Am I game for the next physical challenge to this ageing, crumbling frame of mine? Of course I am. Let me make it quite clear that if I am ever invited to join another mass jog, I’ll join up at once.
Provided I’m still 54, that is.