I walk down to the Rhone and start stretching. It’s Saturday. As mentioned previously, this is the best part of my week. Not that the other parts are bad; it’s just that this is what I like doing more than anything else. Hard to imagine I know, but since my first week at boarding nearly 30 years ago, I’ve always ran. It got me through those tough years then and still serves as the perfect tonic when life grinds me down. It’s a safety valve and I’m never as happy as when I’m on a run.
I’m dressed in the blue shorts my housemate Steve gave me about 5 years ago, a University of Colombia T-shirt I found in the park on my first week here, and a pair of cheap gym shoes I bought from Decathlon. No socks. I spend a good twenty minutes stretching my 37 year old limbs and start thinking about the run. All sports require a certain amount of focus, but running is 100% in the mind. It’s the most solitary sport there is – Allan Silitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a good read – and I suppose that’s why I like it. While I love team sports – football, cricket, rugby – and used to play them, it’s a given that people will let you down. I remember bowling an excellent off swinger once against Shrewsbury school (our big rivals) only to watch the wicket keeper fumble and drop the ball after the batsman had got a thick edge. He went on to get a century, we lost the game and everybody blamed me. Even with individual sports – tennis, golf, snooker – you rely on equipment and a good slice of luck to get you through. With running you rely on nothing. Just you and the road, one foot after the other to carry you along.
I finish stretching and look to the east up the Rhone and the track that winds its way along the bank. It’s been raining a lot recently, so the river is full of washed away logs with birds perched on them catching free rides to the Med. A light rain is falling and it’s cold. Perfect.
I remember my early morning runs at school. Running to Morda across the frozen Welsh Marches at seven o’clock in the morning. Once there I would turn west towards the Ceiriog Hills along Morda Brook and into Candy Woods. Unstinting. Legs working like machines, lungs barely heaving, arms neatly tucked into my sides, palms pointing skywards. Gliding along as though skating on ice. I can’t go as effortlessly now, but my style remains the same. And considering the excessives of my twenties, it’s rare anybody overtakes me. It’s not a big point, but I do running well.
I start and within seconds I’m into my stride. The track is empty for a Saturday; no doubt the fair-weather runners in their yellow luminous lycra track suits are warming themselves by the fire with a nice cup of cocoa. They’ll be out in the spring though. Like the daffodils.
In the distance I pick out a marker and up the pace. While I can run in total isolation, it’s sometimes fun to pick yourself a target to catch. I can tell a good runner by his style. People who have just taken up running, run like calves trying to walk for the first time. Legs flailing about at all angles in a jolting, malcoordinated manner. Good runners move in a precise, engineered way, like ostriches on the plain.
My marker’s about 200 metres ahead and he’s moving, but as I pass under Le Pont Morand, I ease past him and the track ahead is clear. In ten minutes I’m at Parc de la Tete D’Or and circling the perimeter. The track here is always busy even in poor weather and today is no exception. Masses of short, podgy French running off their Foie Gras and Confit de Canard. Over the past five years running has exploded here and it’s not unusual for the track to get blocked with sweating bodies where the track narrows. Intensely frustrating, but today while there are numbers, it’s not rammed. The circuit is 4 kms long and once finished I head back down the Rhone towards home and a breakfast of eggs, sausages and cups of bitter French coffee. It doesn’t get better than this.