It’s many years ago, and the great English middle distance runner that is Sebastian Coe is at home with his wife and family having his Christmas dinner. Only he’s not enjoying it at all. He’s barely touched his wine and picked at his turkey whilst barely saying a word to anyone. He’s trained hard all year, and has promised to stay in, today of all days, with a long-suffering wife and children who barely see him.
Finally he says what’s on his mind.
“He’ll be out, you know”, he says.
Everybody knows who “He” is. “He” is Steve Ovett, Coe’s arch-rival. No way Steve Ovett takes Christmas Day off. Steve will be in the gym, or more likely doing a 10k in the freezing, deserted streets. The thought of Ovett sacrificing Christmas to gain an advantage while Coe eats Brussels sprouts is driving him insane. Without saying another word, he puts on his running gear and walks out the door.
Some years later, now both long retired, the two men meet at an event and Coe tells him the story of the Christmas run. Ovett looks at him evenly. “Why did you only go out once that day?”, he asks. Coe looks to see if he’s joking.
The story came to mind when reading Ally Beaven’s emotional, empathetic, quirky, slightly sweary, amusing and sometimes emotional account of ultra long-distance running during the pandemic: “Broken”.
So think about the drive and obsession of Coe and Ovett. Now multiply it by a factor of ten. And then imagine a global pandemic coming along and denying you the chance to feed that obsession. “It would be absurd”, writes Beaven, “to think of global events having a bearing on skinny Highlanders running through a the fields near Dingwall”. But it happened. Everything connects. This is the story of Covid, as seen through the prism of the world of ultrarunning.
It’s an intriguingly ambivalent title. On one level it’s about broken records, or Fastest Known Times (FKTs) as they’re known as in the world of distance running. But, on another, it’s about the broken bodies, and minds, of these fascinating people who are, like Coe and Ovett, just built differently. There is, says Beaven, something between a the ears of ultrarunners that keeps them going “long after most would have thrown in the neck gaiter”.
This book joins a literary sub-genre – an insight into a sport or activity – with a proud heritage. Classics like Hunter Davies’s “All Played Out”, which followed the nearly glorious England World Cup Campaign of 1990; or Lawrence Donegan’s insight into the world of professional golf caddies (Four iron in my soul) are classics of the genre.
But where this differs, I think, is that where many of us can identify with golf or football, it takes a special writing talent to provide an insight into people who, when presented with a lockdown, simply (in the case of a marathon runner called Pat Shencu) adapted their training to running round two tables in his kitchen, 6250 times. Or people who got their fix by climbing the equivalent of Everest by going up their stairs continuously. Most us us took up a Netflix subscription, read more, learned how to make sourdough.
Not Carla Molinoro though. She ran “LEJOG” (Lands End to John o’ Groats). And if you think that’s mental, consider that two years earlier she’d ran from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg. If you Google “Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg, incidentally, you don’t get a distance. You get airline prices. Because it’s 930 miles. Having arrived, she then ran a thirty-five mile road race. “Despite what you think”, writes Beaven in his introduction, runners are just normal people who have a particular hobby”.
To borrow one of Ally’s favourite phrases: well, that’s shite.
These people aren’t normal, something the author makes abundantly clear in the rest of the book. Hill runners, in particular, are a breed apart. It takes a singularly warped mindset to even consider running up Beinn a’ Buird, says Ally. “All of the toil, none of the reward. Hill running for Calvinists”, he quips. Perhaps there’s a reason why the sport is so popular in Scotland.
Alec Keith, a runner Ally looks upon with a mixture of awe and bafflement, perhaps best personifies the breed. “He’s spent”, says Beaven, more hours than anyone I know trudging through bog and boulder, yet he somehow remains irrepressibly cheerful. He actually enjoys it. I’m never sure if, as a society, we should be holding up people like Alec as an example to all or locking them away like the lunatics they clearly are”.
The book teams with such characters. Stephen Poulton cycled and ran the Three Peaks as a young flight lieutenant in 1980. In the year of lockdown, now aged seventy-three and with a cancerous bladder, he did it again. The legendary Mel Edwards, who ran his debut marathon in 1967 in the time that would have comfortably got him into the Olympic squad as late as 2012, and who then achieved sporting immortality by running the “Big Six” Munros and breaking the record of the great Eric Beard.
In a year of breaking records, however, nothing compares to Donnie Campbell’s time in completing all the Munros in a single visit. He broke Stephen Pyke’s record by a week, ten hours and four minutes. “The value of these kind of performances is not in their sporting level”, argues Ally. “They’re there to be gawped at. Not to be compared to anything else but taken as they are: equal parts of audacity and foolishness”.
And yet, poignantly, the historic moment feels like a denouement rather than a triumph. Perhaps, because it had been clear for weeks than Donnie was going to break the record by a wide margin, the moment was always going to be anti-climatic.
Perhaps one of the themes of the book is this – it’s better to travel than to arrive. You don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone, and the early months of hard lockdown. The realisation – that what matters is not the destination but a journey – is true for all of us, hill runners or otherwise, and is best articulated by runner James Stewart.
“Sure, I’ve got personal bests ahead”, he says as the Covid restrictions ease, “but I’m more excited about the adventures ahead. That’s the stuff I’ll tell stories about. Not ‘remember the time I ran a 16:10 5k’, but ‘what about the time we had to climb a mountain in the dark because our head torches stopped working?’ I want to experience more of that. And I want people to re-connect with the outdoors and rediscover the magic of it”.
To reconnect and rediscover the magic.
Perhaps, in these strangest of days, that’s what all of us need to do.