Image: Brijesh Patel
October 01 2010
Like deadlines, advice is best (or, at least, usually) ignored. About six months ago I vaingloriously ignored advice that said “never agree to do in future what you would not want to do this afternoon”. So I let someone enter me for the Venice Marathon, which is now just three weeks away. Like a horrible mythological portent, it is darkly occluding my view of the future. My mood is one of dread mixed with a fatalistic determination. I am caught in a horrible moral and practical dilemma: a bad case of lost face if I abandon the project right now; the certainty of ruinous humiliation and the possibility of death in Venice if I continue it.
Not that I’m unused to running. I do it rather a lot and once came last in a national 200m race which I had entered by subterfuge. I regularly plod the streets, but the marathon is a different order of activity and one that I’m certain is beyond the mechanical scope of my knees – not to mention the working range of my even more damaged and atrophied reserves of willpower.
Psychologists recognise a stratagem known as “defensive pessimism”, talking things down in order not to disappoint. A sporting equivalent to Frederick the Great’s instruction to his army: “Be more than you seem.” I am not doing that. I am being bleakly realistic. Put it this way. I could run rather slowly from Oxford Circus to, say, Chiswick. But doing a marathon is like running from Oxford Circus to Heathrow… and back.
My preparations have included hiring a personal trainer called Carlos who is an army PT instructor with a noteworthy sadistic bent. Carlos does ultramarathons and can run backwards more quickly than I can run forwards. He makes me do this and taunts, “Catch me if you can.” And I cannot. His dog runs with us. In fact, I am going so slowly that his dog never gets beyond a brisk walk. And when my doctor advised a shot of testosterone, this was advice that (for once) I followed since I am all for taking a bio-chemical advantage when one is offered.
I was a bit wary of uncommanded side-effects, but he assured me that the only body parts influenced by this intervention would be the muscles. And he was right. All my muscles are now aching. Then a friend gave me an iPod Shuffle with the Song of the US Marine Corps already loaded. This is that frightful umpitty-umpitty martial musical mantra composed to invigorate Corpsmen while overwhelming the enemy on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. More modestly, it helps me put a stylish little spurt into the last 200 yards before I collapse into my car in Battersea Park.
Tomorrow I am going to try 10 miles. They say once you can do 20, it’s fine. So I am not exactly there yet. But the discipline is to break it down into do-able stages and on the day at least I’ll be mollified by the prospect of panting into Venice across the Ponte della Libertà. We are being put up in the cloister of the Madonna dell’Orto, a 10th-century church founded by the Umiliati which I am certain means “the humiliated”. I think my arrival there will add fresh semantic horror to the notion of “deadline”.