Larry Ryan: Embarking on a new life beyond VAR with a golden mile

Larry Ryan: Embarking on a new life beyond VAR with a golden mile

If anything could heighten a sense of foreboding in these weird times, it was going to be VAR.

It sucks you right back into a way of life you thought maybe, just maybe, could be left behind.

Remember the brief exhilaration, even at the height of this crisis, when you were almost out. When you caught a glimpse of a better way to live.

But too many of us are already back in that place of great aggravation, where all you want is consistency. If not necessarily the kind of consistency that saw VAR make incorrect penalty calls in all of Thursday night’s Premier League games.

Poor old Dean Smith is back in that place alright, the Villa gaffer making his feelings known in time-honoured tradition by refusing to make his feelings known.

“It’s a disgraceful decision but I can’t really tell you what I think about it, but it’s a poor decision.” 

Ah, it’s not just VAR. Everywhere you turn, old normality is rising like damp.

The GAA lads had their brief moment of exhilaration too, when they realised they might get a game of ball this year. Before it all dissolved into the usual hullabaloo about ‘structures’ and who got to impose The Sacrifices and The Demands on the countyman.

And then, this week, to introduce an air of finality to this time for reflection, rugby fixture lists appeared, a signal of intent. It’ll be back alright, drawing a gainline under this window for self-improvement.

And drawing our attention to the inescapable fact that some of us have achieved nothing. No book written, no language learned, no wall painted, not as much as a slice of banana bread eaten, not to mind baked.

During lockdown, the lad who sits beside me at work, Eddie Butt, revived a 30-year-old music career and got to number one with the Emperor of Ice Cream. I ate ice cream.

And then, breaking the gloom and the rains that VARman in the sky sent us, the sun sat proudly high on Friday morning and I ran a mile.

Bear with me, I have run a mile before. But this was a golden mile. Could it even be the first mile of the rest of my life?

To summarise my overall outlook on running miles, in any quantity, put me down for what Colin Corkery told Tomás Ó Sé on their entertaining podcast this week. Recalling his brief stint Down Under in the AFL with Carlton, the Cork legend described pre-season as ‘horrendous’, admitting he often stepped onto the Melbourne trams to gain ground on the pack in their grueling 10k runs through the city.

That’s running, as so many who played team sports have come to know and revile it. A necessary evil, a world of pain, a hurt locker of trudging laps and cutting corners and puking in ditches and imploring younger hares not to pull away.

Early in lockdown, a terrible mistake was made. Somebody resurrected the famous Diego Maradona line about the time his fitness coach made him do the Cooper Test — that 12-minute run beloved of coaches around the turn of the century.

Unhappy with Maradona’s efforts — Diego declared at 2,550 metres — the coach told him that “elite footballers should do 3,400 metres, even I can do 3,200”. To which Diego replied: “Then it is best that you play instead of me on Sunday”.

There are no Maradonas among us, but a few old teammates swapped our own horror stories of the Cooper Test and persuaded ourselves into reenactments, nearly two decades on. And in attempting to match Diego’s modest effort, we acquainted ourselves all over again with the concept of running as a form of torture.

These figarys usually last a few weeks. Parkrun the same, a marvellous initiative for crowdsourcing camaraderie. If only you could enjoy it, instead of heeding some needless competitive instinct to hurt yourself.

It has always fascinated me, this idea that you might enjoy going out for a run, that it could be something you’d look forward to, like a five-a-side.

I even dipped into the work of Haruki Murakami, ‘the running novelist’, for clues, but he doesn’t dwell on runner’s zen in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

Though he does note, on his long-distance treks, that there are “others, overweight, huffed and puffed, their eyes half closed, their shoulders slumped like this was the last thing in the world they wanted to be doing.” 

Murakami put it down to how kids were forced to run set distances in Japanese schools, and grew up to hate it as much as veterans of the Cooper Test.

He introduced himself more politely to running. “As I continued to run, my body started to accept the fact that it was running, and I could gradually increase the distance.” 

Unconvinced, out I went anyway, Friday morning. Except this time I had a running partner. She’s nearly nine.

Her twin brother was unfolding his new Subbuteo pitch and probing players from their cases with uncommon tenderness and care at the time, so that was a higher calling you couldn’t disturb.

But herself came along and we ran a mile. Four laps of the green, already measured for Cooper.

She seemed to enjoy it, the solid achievement of it. We kept it leisurely, chatted around, and afterwards agreed we might go again.

Taking it handy for small legs, it struck me that we briefly found some of the peace runners talk about out there, far away from VAR. That we were opening a conversation with our bodies, a dialogue, rather than shouting at them.

What a gift it would be if she twigged the joy in running that we are born with, before her football or soccer or hockey made it a means to an end.

And what a gift for her old dad if she always had time to go with him. And he could relearn running as a child, come at it from a different angle, talk it over with his body and, maybe, gradually increase the distance.

At least until I have to hitch a lift to keep up with her.

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