Tommy Martin: Some are built for speed, others for distance. I was built for the couch

The first rule of Marathon training is that you don't talk about marathon training, or, to be precise, you don’t talk about it to anyone who is not also doing marathon training, writes Tommy Martin.

Marathon effort: Laura-Ellen O’Keeffe and Clara Burke show their delight after crossing the finish line in last year’s Cork City Marathon.    Picture: Darragh Kane
Marathon effort: Laura-Ellen O’Keeffe and Clara Burke show their delight after crossing the finish line in last year’s Cork City Marathon. Picture: Darragh Kane

I’m training for the Cork City Marathon. That is, I was training Cork City Marathon until this week when it, like almost everything else, was called off.

It hasn’t been totally called off, just postponed until September 6.

So, am I training for the Cork City Marathon or not? Do I continue pounding the pavements or do I return to the comfort of the couch? Energy gels or cheese and onion crisps?

I am Schrodinger’s athlete. To train, or not to train, that is the question.

Obviously, all this comes with the caveat that there are more important things to worry about right now. 

The health and prosperity of our society is under existential threat — who cares about one man’s sweaty midlife crisis?

But that’s to misunderstand the human condition. Our brains don’t remain in a constant state of grave terror, no matter the external circumstances. 

We seek out the trivial and the diverting, even at the most trying times. 

That explains gallows humour, why soldiers under fire listen to pop music and why the terminally ill seek out the football scores.

Right now, our minds are mostly occupied by dread and fear. But they are also scattered with tiny, little concerns of our own. 

The child who’s wondering if their birthday party will go ahead.

All those weddings, communions and christenings. Will Liverpool get their league title?

This crisis is about a single, unifying threat, but also about millions of individual lives put on hold, plans shelved and aspirations halted. 

And some of those involve creaking bodies that had until recently, dared to think they could run for 26.2 miles without buckling like a baby deer carrying a Volvo.

Now, the first rule of marathon training is that you don’t talk about marathon training. 

Or, to be precise, you don’t talk about marathon training to anyone who is not also doing marathon training.

For, if you talk about marathon training to someone who is not also doing marathon training, then you subject them to a trial by boredom more extreme than any long-distance run.

I know this because of the look on my wife’s face whenever I talk about my marathon training. 

Most people are polite enough to feign interest when you start talking about interval sessions and recovery runs- they nod and smile as best they can, then move the subject on to something more riveting, like compound interest or crop rotation.

Wives are under no such obligation to spare one’s feelings. Mine’s eyes glaze over with a look of unvarnished tedium that flickers dangerously into open contempt. 

I’m no mind-reader, but I could have sworn an unspoken cry of “why did I marry this loser?” flashed across her face when I recently mentioned a tough speed work session.

I once overheard her talking to a friend whose husband is also in training. “How’s he getting on? Oh, I never ask him about his running,” the friend said. “I mean, it’s just running, what is there to ask about?”

So, it is much better to keep schtum in the face of such apathy towards your great personal struggle. The loneliness of the long-distance runner, and all that.

And I see the point. It is just running: Trudging along mile after mile, wheezing and spluttering, plodding out the distances, distracting yourself from the monotony with music and podcasts. 

This is an endurance event, after all. You’re meant to endure, not enjoy.

There are those who do enjoy running, I’m sure, who glide across parkland and streetscape in a Zen state, their minds freed with each fleet-footed stride. 

For me the pleasure comes afterwards, with a milestone reached, an advancing waistline halted and most of all, a strong sense of thank Christ that’s over.

Runners on St Patrick's Street during last year's Cork City Marathon
Runners on St Patrick's Street during last year's Cork City Marathon

It’s important to note here that if there is an ideal physique for distance running — long, thin limbs in the classic east African mould — then I have the opposite. 

I am the anti-Kenyan: Short, fat legs with chunky thighs. It’s like putting a monster truck in a Formula One race. 

Some are built for speed, others for distance. I was built for the couch.

So, in the face of external indifference and internal discomfort, why do it?

The reasons are not particularly interesting. 

There is no emotional back story or tragic inspiration. 

I presume I am just like many other women and men of my age, who, when suddenly confronted with their body’s inevitable failure, feel duty bound to wring something substantial out of it while they still can.

Mixed in there, I’m sure, is some disgust at our younger selves, who took this amazing thing — stumpy legs and all — for granted; who used it as some kind of pootling pleasure cruiser in which to lounge about and indulge ourselves and never thought to push it to its limits and see what it could really do.

The recurring sensation of my training so far has been sheer disbelief at being able to run distances that would once have had me reaching for the car keys. 

Which brings us back to the current juncture, halfway through a training program for a marathon that will happen far into the distant future.

At least the call to reschedule has been made. 

Spare a thought for Olympic athletes who must prepare for the Tokyo Games which defiant organisers insist will go ahead in July, but most others think should be postponed.

Speaking on RTÉ radio this week, Sonia O’Sullivan articulated the particular sense of athlete’s ennui at play here.

“It’s hard to commit fully to putting in a really hard effort if you are unsure if it is leading anywhere,” she said. 

“Should you be managing your effort now so you can maintain fitness, putting yourself in a holding pattern?”

Sonia spoke for aspiring Olympians but her words rang true for lumbering, middle-aged marathon hopefuls.

I suspect I will adopt a holding pattern for now and, don’t worry, never speak of this again.

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