8 April 2014


I recently published this piece for Mosaic magazine. It’s about what happened to me in the run-up to Brighton Marathon, as I tried to get to grips with my own limitations as a human being and a runner, and with the limitations of science to explain them. I want to say a little bit about what I was trying to do with this story and how that influenced the way I wrote it. In writing this story, little pieces of my life became tangled up in the process of my research and my writing. It’s not an overstatement to say that it has changed the way I think about running, about writing and about my life.

It was never my intention to write a straightforward explainer on the science behind marathon running. Yes, I wanted to try to understand what makes a good marathon runner. Yes, I wanted to explore what genetics and physiology and biomechanics and psychology can tell us about what’s going on in the body of someone who is training for a marathon - me. But it was always clear to me that there were going to be no easy answers and the more I looked into the research and the more I talked to experts, the more complex the picture became. I think, actually, people often forget that science doesn't have all the answers. Sometimes answers take years or decades to emerge and sometimes they’re not the answers we want to hear. I tried to bring a sense of this to my writing. It wasn't a piece that was saying: science is brilliant because it’s telling us this, and this. It was a piece that was saying: science is difficult and confusing and frustrating, but hey, so is life.

I also wanted to present the people involved in science in a different light to the one we often see them in. I wanted to show them not as names on a list of study authors but as real people with their own characters and opinions. I could be criticised for thinking too much about people and stories, and not enough about the science. But for me it wasn't about creating some false balance of expert viewpoints. In an area as complicated as this, you can never really speak to enough scientists or read enough papers – and I did read a lot of papers – to reach a reliable consensus. And anyway, what a boring read such a story would make for. What I tried to do was give the reader a sense of the complexities scientists are dealing with and how they feel about them. By interacting as one human to another, I wanted to make people relate, in their own ways, to the questions as I was asking of them.

Finally, I tried to be honest about my own difficulties and confusion and frustration in understanding the science, as well as about everything that was going on in my own life at the same time, as I prepared to run my marathon. In truth, I'm a little uncomfortable with how honest I ended up being, but anything else would have felt wrong. I wrote months of diary entries. If I visited a lab or talked to a scientist I would make sure I sat down that evening to collect my thoughts on the meeting. If there was something I wanted to remember about my run on any particular day, I would write that down too. As I progressed through my research and my training, these entries came more easily to me and I found I was writing for myself as much as the magazine. What is included in the final story is just a fraction of what exists. Some of it has changed very little in the editing process, so it’s as raw as when it happened to me. In other parts, I’ve had to cut chunks of text or insert explanations, but everything that’s there actually happened and I'm pleased with the more intimate, more honest story that this way of writing has led me to tell.

In some ways, this was the easiest story I’ve ever written. In others, it was the hardest. 7,000 words – the longest single piece I’ve ever written – fell onto the page in a matter of two or three days, but they were all the result of long conversations, long hours spent reading or just thinking, long runs and, although no blood was shed, real sweat and tears. It was an epic task. And at the same time I was going through a really hard time in my personal life. I didn't want to talk about that too much in the story, but the story itself was personal so it was impossible to ignore completely, and there was a sense in which writing about it helped.

Anyway, enough. I'm finishing with one diary entry I really wanted to include, but that didn't fit anywhere in the story. It’s just a personal anecdote about running and it’s exactly as I wrote it when it happened – no editing – but I like the way I contrasted all the drudge and the hardship of training for a marathon with the feelings of purpose and satisfaction. There’s absolutely no science in it, but reading it again today, it made me wonder whether maybe doing science can be a bit like this too.
“On New Year’s Day, having slept - to the disbelief of [Mr Hayley] - through our Spanish neighbour’s noisy party, I rise at 10am, still full of sherry trifle, and start rummaging through drawers, searching out running tights and top. There’s no hangover to appease. On account of the 14-week countdown to marathon day, I celebrated with a sip of cava and a single gin and tonic. However, there’s still a soaking to be had. 
As I pad gently to my warm-up spot behind our block of flats, rain is already finding its way into my barely broken-in trainers. At least three or four times on my 15k plod, they fill with water as I trip through a puddle. Usually on an easy-paced run like this, I’d stick to grass, but today Durdham Downs is so soggy that I'm forced to tread the pavements. Tarmac may be more tiring on my calves and thighs but at least it provides something more than sludge for my feet to push against.
At some point on the run, I notice that I can hardly feel my legs and yet, going by my watch, I appear to be striding along at a decent enough pace. I don’t battle or grind against the wind and rain. I just endure it. And keep on. Still, by the time I reach the familiar flat of Sefton Park Road, around 14k, the cold has seeped into my very bones and my pace is tempered by the weight of all the water my clothes are holding. In the last 500m, I pass a yellow-clad man whose only discernible features in the pouring rain are a balding head and a smile. He sees my plight and shouts “Happy New Year!”. Cheered infinitely by this small act of goodwill I quicken my pace just enough to make the last kilometre my fastest and return home to stretch and pack my trainers with newspaper. The steaming hot shower and chicken pie that follow are simple but sublime reward.”
Oh, and also, if you liked this post or the story itself, please direct your enthusiasm at Arthritis Research UK.

Images by Lydia Goldblatt, originally for Mosaic magazine.

2 April 2014

Most of what I know about writing...

"Most of what I know about writing I've learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate - and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? ... How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself?"

Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, p81-82