Saturday 23 April 2016

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up And Switch On

The bloke called out “mile number 21!” on his megaphone. For the first time I had second thoughts about carrying on. Up until then I was confident I could do it but inside my head I was under the impression that I had already reached the twenty-second or twenty-third mile by the time the announcement was made. I stopped to stretch my tired and tense muscles. I also had an impromptu, on-the-spot conversation with myself. Then the miracle happened.

My mind and spirit took over and carried me forward.

For as long as I have been alive I have been exposed to a dichotomy: that of mind and body. Or mind versus body, as others might put it. Yet, dichotomy is the wrong definition for me, as mind and body are not mutually exclusive, nor contradictory. When used in tandem, they support each other.

For a good example of this theory let me go back to my introductory paragraph. In it I was describing my recent marathon run in the beautiful and ever-welcoming city of Brighton and Hove. I had wanted to complete the 42-kilometre challenge for years but I had never plucked up enough courage to do it. An opportunity arose in the autumn last year when I tried to enter the London marathon only to be told that all places had been allocated. However, there was a way to get into the Brighton one through the charity route. I wasted no time and signed up with Cancer Research UK. Along with Women’s Aid, these are two charities that have always been close to my heart. I was over the moon when I got the confirmation e-mail.

My fund-raising target was £550 and I knew I would have trouble reaching it (as I write I have raised exactly half that amount. For details of how you can help me raise the rest, please, e-mail me). That was not the biggest challenge, however. Despite being a runner for more than twenty years I had never trained for a marathon before. My longest distance up until then had been sixteen miles last summer. I had a Sisyphean task ahead of me but knowing myself I was completely certain I would not let the boulder roll down the hill.

Straight away after the first few running sessions I realised that it was not just my body I had to work on, but also my mind. I had gotten used to listening to music while jogging so much that the first mental block appeared when I removed my mp3 player from the equation. According to the event organisers listening to music while running the marathon was banned (erroneous information as it turned out). Nevertheless, I challenged myself to run in silence, or rather accompanied by nature’s soundtrack.

The change was not as drastic as I thought. Being music-free allowed me to concentrate more on my pace, my body and, above all, my mind. I noticed how the latter would intervene in moments of crisis; for instance, when I ran twenty miles for the first time in my life. My legs gave up in mile eighteen or nineteen, yet the mental fortitude I was already developing inside me saw me to the end of the run.

Practice is never the real event. On Sunday 17th April, when I turned at Preston Park I did not know what to expect. On the one hand my body was fine. Physically speaking I was in optimum condition. It helped that my wife and daughter had travelled with me to the coast and that they had given me much-needed encouragement. As I approached the start I realised that this was now in earnest, that the practice had been left behind. It was then that my mind stepped in and, like an old friend, whispered in my ear: “It’s going to be all right. Just focus on your pace”.

Easier said than done. The first thirteen miles (a half-marathon) were good, pace-wise. I had done a lot of work on hills, knowing that Brighton and Hove is full of inclines (I had driven up them before. In fact, some of my better uphill starts have been executed in Brighton). Up until the well-known runner’s fear-inducing “seventeen-mile wall”, I was doing well. Then, we went past the city centre and up New Church Road.

Desert might not be the most apposite description for what greeted me once I turned left on to this road, which, coincidentally, my family and I had crossed the night before on our way to a nearby pub. Yet, the feeling was that of being in a desert (not that I have ever been in one). Only that this desert was full of people, but still, it stretched for miles on end towards a seemingly unreachable urban horizon. Immediately my pace dropped. So far it had been approximately 8 minutes to a mile. Now I was probably doing 10, maybe 11.

As it turned out this was not the biggest challenge. That one came when we returned to the seafront and turned right to carry on towards Hove. It was then that my body forsook me completely. It was then that the bloke with the megaphone called out “mile number 21!” It was then that my mind and spirit took over.

I still remember from one of the parenting courses I did many years ago that human beings have four dimensions: physical, mental, spiritual and emotional. The four play an important role together in our development. Sadly, in our western-centric, globalised world, we pay more attention to the first two and underestimate the power of our spiritual and emotional side. It is easy to see why. The body, including the brain, is more visible. Exercise has become a byword for physical activities with a mental side effect. Brawn and brain work beautifully as alliterations for our fast-paced world. However, it was the combination of my brain, my spiritual side and my emotions that helped me complete the marathon.

After stretching my aching muscles, I decided to carry on. By now I focused more on positive thoughts than on my pace. In fact, as I later found out, the latter had dropped to sixteen minutes to a mile. I turned my thoughts to the reasons why I was putting myself through to what some would be torture. I thought of the people, runners like me, who could not do what I was doing because, through no fault of their own, they had been struck by cancer. I thought of relatives and friends who went too soon. I thought of their offspring and those they left behind. By now I was approaching the seafront again.

This was the moment when my spirituality made a much-welcomed cameo. The sea was placid. A dark grey, mud-looking, flat mass of water kissed the pebbled beach. Amongst my fellow runners, flanked by the cheering crowd, I heard the voice of Yemayá, the orisha of the sea in our Afro-Cuban canon, accompanied by the inseparable batá drums. Her voice was calm and assuring: Sigue. No pares. No te rindas. No te des por vencido. Sigue. So, I carried on.

This was no apparition or religious vision. This was the sum of my experience as a human being and as a Cuban. Those four dimensions I mentioned earlier mean that at any point we can call to a part of us that will help us surmount the obstacle that has been troubling us for so long. In the same way I had my Afro-Cuban drums to fall back on other runners probably had their own spiritual and mental mechanisms of support. Unfortunately, spirituality nowadays can sometimes be confused with the life-affirming balderdash spouted by self-appointed, opportunistic gurus.

There we all were, in mind, body and spirit

In order to understand what happened almost a week ago, I needed to return to that diagram I first saw when my son was a toddler. Only by focusing on all four areas together can we grow both as individuals and as a collective. When we function in those four dimensions, all we are doing is accepting ourselves for who we are, warts and all. We give ourselves a more positive purpose in life and learn new ways to cope with our ever-changing world. Or, you could say, with a marathon.

© 2016

Photo taken by the blog author

Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 27th April at 6pm (GMT)


  1. Congratulation on running a marathon. That's quite an accomplishment. On April 4, I wrote about Cuba and was wondering if you know anything about the status of their rail system.

  2. What a great accomplishment! Congratulations!

  3. Bravo, Cuban! That's quite a feat, even if you were already a runner. I can't imagine it, myself. Very interesting to read of the part your spiritual self had to play in getting you through - would that we could all accept and embrace our four dimensions. A great piece, as always - I admire your commitment to writing here. Although I've been long absent, I hadn't forgotten you, and was glad for the tweet! (Deborah)

  4. Wonderful! Wonderful running and wonderful writing about it. The only time I have felt that synthesis_ and very powerfully_ was delivering my babies. Especially first when all seemed to be going wrong (after forty hours of labor). Exhaustion probably helps break down the barriers. You write of it all so well. Thanks! Glad to see you are back and well. K.

  5. My legs are too short and stocky for me to make a successful runner, but congratulations on this marathon. Quite an accomplishment.

  6. Congrats on running it indeed. We can sure push ourselves when reaching for one of the four, if not all four, on such a tour. To me it would be torture haha

  7. marathon? The longest I ran was 7km :)

  8. Very applicable to the race of life

  9. Ah, to be young again! Congratulations, dear Cubano, on achieving this hard fought goal. Thanks for this meditation on setting and achieving goals, on looking deep into oneself for what is hard and worthwhile.

  10. Well done you for completing the marathon!

  11. Physical, mental, spiritual, emotional. I am not certain one can gather these four "elements" and align them each to be in perfect tune with the others .... at least, in my case. And, I think, emotion might have dominance over the other three .... in the case of many, if not most. Anyway, CiL, it seems you have found the proper balance when it comes to running.

    Yes, congratulations, many times over, on your graduation to becoming truly a long-distance runner. It is no small achievement. I have run twelve miles a couple of times at various times and, strangely, I think, that is the same and the greatest distance I have swum a few times. The number twelve must have some hidden meaning for me.

    Nice to see you back in the saddle, pard.

  12. Well done! Running a marathon is a huge achievement. And I know what you mean about having a discussion with yourself - I recall being close to the top of Kilimanjaro and my body insisting I just couldn't do it, and my head trying to make it - but my body knew best, and I learned that there are some mountains I just can't climb, which isn't such a terrible lesson.

  13. You have such determination and you have given me much to think about. Congratulations. Long ago I spent a week at Hove and loved it. They didn't run marathons in those days, not that I could have run in one!

  14. What a poetic analysis of a grueling and challenging experience.

  15. Siempre es una gran satisfacción poder decirlo de haberlo hecho, estar en forma es lo principal.
    Un feliz domingo.

  16. What a fabulous post--and what a tremendous effort! Congratulations for taking on this incredible run and thanks so much for these brilliant observations!

  17. Welcome back!
    I cannot even begin to imagine running a distance like that - simply cannot! I think I could probably do a 1/2 hr. mile, no 45 minutes, walking, forget about running...ha!
    But what a wonderful and eye opening description of something that obviously greatly reinforced and renewed your vision of life. It's a post to go back and read again.
    I am in awe of your drive and ability!

  18. A brilliant post!
    Gosh...I so admire you for taking on such an enormous run. It must have been really challenging...mentally as well as physically.
    I think it would probably have just about killed me...and yet there you were, rising above all the physical torture and making all those fabulous observations to later share with us!
    You are truly amazing...:)

  19. Way to be! I loved being in on your thought processes as you accomplished this AMAZING run! It is true, all four quadrants need to be in play, . LOVED the experience of hearing the sea speaking to you.......I liked your thinking of those unable to run, which motivated you to keep going. A fine accomplishment! For an important cause.



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