There are those who consider periods of acute suffering essential for appreciating the beauty of life and for knowing what happiness is. Macolytes queue through the night in front of the Apple store, though the could buy the gadget they so desire much more comfortably on the internet. Muslim fast during Ramadan, in part to avoid taking food for granted. And outdoor enthusiasts often forgo the most basic elements of comfort like a soft chair or a warm lighter to experience nature more intensely. I don't describe to this philosophy. I know that life is good, and I don't need the deepest lows to appreciate the highest highs. A succession of different highs will suffice. Nevertheless, quite regularly and to my never-ending bafflement I find myself deep in the swamps of suffering.
In March of 2003, I went to Saint George for the season opener of the Intermountain Cup mountain bike race series. Southern Utah is all but guaranteed to be sunny and mild early in spring. On that occasion it was cold and snowing. At the start of the race, the red of the desert was hidden underneath a thin blanket of powder, which the first rider of the day churned into icy crimson mud that splashed mercilessly on those behind. I was behind, and soon indistinguishable from a soldier in Qin Shi Huang's terracotta army, if they had mountain bikes. Gushing desert streams washed the soil off again, instead turning me into an icicle on a bicycle. It wasn't pretty.
A few years later, I was half a world away, living a leisurely life at the foot of the French Alps. Most weekends would start with coffee and croissants, and maybe a stroll to the market. Life was good, which is why the second of June, 2007, is forever burned into my memory. On that day, I drove up into the Vercors to take part in a cyclotouristic event, basically a race for non-racers that's supposed to combine serious riding with extreme fun. As it turned out, the day combined serious suffering with extreme pain. After five hours in freezing rain, I was stiff as a poker and more exhausted than I'd ever been. I couldn't use my hands properly for about a month. The day taught me nothing about how good life is.
Yesterday, I woke to the BBC predicting a comparatively nice day, with showers interspersed with moments of sunshine. Sunday, however, they warned, would be grim. After living here for nearly three years, I know that the infamous one-word weather forecasts portend meteorological catastrophe. They are lacking detail for the sanity of the listener: The full truth would be unbearable early in the morning.
So when I rolled out of bed at a quarter past six this morning, I wasn't surprised about the pounding rain, and I wasn't fazed. I put my gear on, grabbed a water bottle and, in a moment of brilliance, even stuffed an extra pair of trainers into my backpack. It would be good to change into something dry after the race, I thought.
The race I ran was the Roding Valley Half Marathon. I had done it two years ago and have good memories. Back then, it was warm and sunny, and my time as good as expected. Today, it was cold and rainy, torrents of misery pelting from the low grey sky. Leaving the track that housed the start involved crossing a ten-meter puddle of ankle-deep water, icy and black with filth. It was good to start this way because obviously it couldn't get much worse.
It could have got better, but it didn't. It never stopped raining. The course was riddled with constantly replenished puddles, and there were many more encroaching on the roads that the course skirted. I was lucky not to get a power shower from a passing car but others got drenched. They also got angry and ran fast, whereas I just stumbled sluggishly. I've never before ran with such a lack of inspiration.
As cold as it was, it was no surprise that I didn't break a sweat, but I didn't get my heart rate up either, except at the two climbs, and kept my breath under strict control until the very end. At the same time, my watch announced splits that hinted at a good time, and half a mile before the finish line, my left calf was on the verge of cramping.
How these observations fit together I don't know. What I know is that I finished a minute and a half slower than two years ago but pretty fast considering the conditions. If I can stretch that speed to twice the distance I'll run a glorious marathon indeed. I was running on water (on the course and in my shoes) most of the time, but I didn't get too cold. Moreover, the knee that had been biting me a bit over the last week didn't give me any trouble.
After crossing the line and receiving my finisher medal, I dashed straight over to the changing room and took a nice hot shower. I had a big towel and was looking forward to dry shoes, shoes I would have appreciated even more, had I remembered to bring a change of clothes as well. I didn't, and I had to slip back into wet synthetics. But even that dark cloud couldn't dim the overall impression.
I'm sitting in my warm living room a few hours after the race. I have finished a huge bowl of fusilli and an appropriately sized tankard of ale. The soothing veil of retrospection is starting to waft over this morning. The harsh memories have softened, and the suffering seems less stark than it felt five hours ago. Let the good times continue.