Why do I run? Is it a run … or a journey?

by Ben Burch

I should be flying back from Miami with Nick right now. The Florida Keys 100 was meant to be on this past weekend and it was cancelled. No need to dwell upon the reason why it got cancelled. The email landed a few weeks back; I’ll be honest, it threw me…. I mean I “got it”, but was still annoyed. Not annoyed at the context, but …. well, let’s take a moment to go deeper.

You get up and put yourself through endless training, all a part of a process to get to the start line. There are days when you just want to skip the session or take it easy. You can’t, or more accurately you can’t very often. Sometimes, life and responsibilities mean the plans have to be adjusted; sometimes there has to be compromise. But, where humanly possible, I stick to the plan.

The race is a part of the process, it’s a point in time to construct these plans around - simply something to provide focus and a mini-goal. I’m not competing for a medal, I am here to show up and challenge myself - it’s part of my identity.

And this race, The Keys 100 is a stepping stone towards a bigger goal. It’s a qualifier for Badwater 135. So this race has meaning. This race has purpose. And these goals give me purpose.

Now Keys 100 has been cancelled there are implications.... another year to wait, but it’s not waiting.. it’s another year to train and we are talking about training at a pretty intense level, that takes a lot of energy - both physical and mental.

Ben, get a grip… people are dying of Covid-19 and you are sulking about a race you can’t run.

Aside - I’m not at all, I’m deeply concerned about the implications of Covid-19, if I’m honest I’m terrified of the fall-out from it, I really fear that the effects of this are going to be felt by generations - and I’m going to do my best to do something about that…. more on that later.

“So my race has gone, I could have just kicked back and waited until the next event, the next “why” in the diary.. but I didn’t.”

30 years ago, my Godfather, Mickey Biggar, was driving. He collided with a lorry…. 5 weeks in a coma and life support, he emerged from the wreckage and slowly tried to rebuild a life. Severe brain damage left him with the chances of speech and mobility a slim probability, at best. Mike played rugby for Scotland in his youth. Arthritis from those days and a few more head traumas over the years have left him in a wheelchair for the past 10 years.

Mike was recently inspired by Captain (Colonel) Tom and his heroic efforts. He wanted to challenge himself - as if life is not enough of a challenge? He set out to take 100 steps in 30 days. Let’s be clear, Mike can’t walk. Each of these steps are excruciating to watch as he edges forwards with the help of metal railings to support himself. Every, single step a mental and physical triumph.

Humbling to watch, inspiring to think about.

Coronavirus has changed people. It’s enforced distance between us all and yet somehow I think we are realising how closeness and human proximity is such a vital tonic to take along this journey. I decided that I should do something for Mickey, some token of acknowledgement from me, but more importantly from his family and friends.

The idea was actually sown a few weeks back. A friend of a friend was recovering from Coronavirus and it had ravaged him. In a WhatsApp chat I was cajoled (truth be told, I needed little encouragement and took the bait) into “dropping a card off”. I had to run there as “only one form of exercise” was allowed. As it turned out, Deri lives about a “marathon away”. I accepted the challenge and doorstep dropped a handful of cards for Deri. I’d never met him before but he was touched by the effort, moved by the moment and the sentiment.

A run with purpose. To deliver for Deri. To deliver for friends. A random act of kindness. I was high.. I felt great, and as a consequence, the Welsh hills were little issue…

“Social distancing does not mean we must be socially distant, physical distance may have been enforced.. but we are social beings.”

It was a simple idea: collect some messages, get them printed and then deliver a banner to him. The idea was crystallising - I’d run to Mickey and deliver him the banner, he lives 50km away from me, simple… hmm better make it there and back.

The old cogs were turning, “whilst I’m at it”… my attention diverted to my sister Phili, who’s the first to admit she’s “not like my crazy older brother”.

I suggested to Phili that she might like to run the final leg of my run, but to fuel her own purpose, make it her longest ever run. She hesitated, but then accepted. I was thrilled.

Selfishly, I had someone to run with for a portion of my run, but, and vastly more importantly, she was going to go beyond her current 100%. I would be there, by her side to cheer her on, but she was going to take the steps herself and go further than she ever had.

Now these two elements were sorted, it was simply a case of running. All in, the route would be over 100km.

That’s a long run.. solo. I wasn’t really thinking about that - this clearly wasn’t about me.

On the day...

I started at 0730, my big two kids had set an alarm to wave me off… it’s the little details you notice. They are the fuel, and behind that is consideration and thought.

I set off … Mickey was on the BBC Radio at 0750. I listened in, tears ran down my face.

I carried on, soon onto new roads and the sun shone. I disappeared into podcasts and just ticked off the km’s. No checking the watch, just run. The distance wasn’t important. I would get to halfway and then I would run to my sister.

Where I would normally break a run down into segments, shorter towards the end for more psychologically manageable chunks, this was different. Two halves. Two meaningful destinations along a journey with a double purpose.

I arrived in Mickey’s village, a lady was gardening “oh, you must be Ben”. A brief exchange with her and I was on my way to the last cottage on the left. Was it the large rolled up banner on my back that gave it away? She used to work with Mickey, news had clearly spread that some lunatic was coming to the village!

I stood in the garden and Mickey was helped out to meet me. It was a surprise for him. I managed a fairly garbled explanation about delivering the messages from his friends and family.

We chatted for a few minutes, he was nearing the end of his challenge and was excited to share what it had meant to him.

“I feel relevant, I feel like I matter” he said. It struck me, the very same reason that 50km of running had felt easy (relatively), was exactly the same motivation that was driving Mickey. Purpose.

“I feel relevant, I feel like I matter”

Mike Biggar

Time to get back on the road …. nearly 50km to go until I would see my sister and finish this run off. There are many highs and lows on a long run like this, the smallest of obstacles can feel monumental, the tiniest of moments can lift you up. You simply have to keep moving forwards, relentless forward progress.

When the Ridgeway rose up from the fields I was broken. I could see a white horse in the distance carved into the hillside. Like most early sightings of a peak, it was a false summit... this can be disheartening at best, down right heartbreaking at other times.

I was about to climb to the highest point on the route and on some very tired legs. Somehow, this time was different however. I had momentum. It came and went. Ebbed and flowed. I felt this invisible power, as if I was being pushed and encouraged along, somehow drawn towards a destination which remained fuelled with meaning and purpose.

As I reflect upon it, I am reminded of something the great Scott Jurek is known for. In every race he asks his fellow competitors how they are and if they need anything. He takes the focus from himself and to that of helping others. He shifts his reason away from some internal goal of doing something for himself and into the desire to help others.

Phili was there, waiting and ready, she would run her longest run… and yet she was running in support of me and vice versa. What a way to finish the longest single run of my life, to be by the side of my sister “who doesn’t run” as she goes her furthest?

104.5km and the clock is stopped, I’m done.

It was a great day. A significant day. A meaningful day.

I ran with purpose. It was never a slog or a battle. I was running because I wanted to do something for others. Does it count towards qualifying for Badwater135? Nope. Was there a medal for crossing the line? Nope.

Will I remember this run and why? Yes.

So, why do I run? I run because I love the freedom, I love the ability run to transport me along my journey. Each step tells a story and that day, Mickey and Phili were able to tell me theirs.

Running is a metaphor, for progression along that meandering path we call life. One that can hurl unforeseen hurdles and obstacles at you.

There is no other way to get along that journey than to put one foot in front of the other. Just as Mickey has done. Some days, lots of ground is covered and some days not so many. We are not the measure of the distance we cover, but the steps we take along that journey.

Keep striving.

Take a pause.. it's done

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