Running Shoes

This was the first piece I read to Leeds Writers Circle, except that the original was in the third person.

“You over-pronate,” said the confident twenty something, having watched me walk all of three paces across the shop and inspected the wear on my soles.

There must have been something about the promise of the warm summer’s day, or an echo of youth not yet irrevocably departed, that led me to stop the car at the “Complete Runner” in Ilkley. Freshly diagnosed as an over-pronator and needing some cushioning from the impact of road on aging joints I was left with a simple choice between three pairs. All were impracticably white and flashy for this grey-haired customer and those Yorkshire paths. Reflective strips here and there, soles with subtly different air-filled cavities, implying sophisticated technology, though I suspected more style than any sort of engineering substance. I tried not to think about Far Eastern sweatshops. To my surprise I could feel the difference between the options and soon bought the most comfortable, noting with some satisfaction that they were £10 cheaper than the Nikes. I added some socks, realising that the pair I had brought with me were from the last millennium and had degenerated into bedraggled beige limpness, more with years in the drawer than hours on the roads.

Months ago, as the need for exercise pressed in on me with the lowering Leeds sky, I had set off to jog round Gledhow Valley in walking trainers. The old running shoes had long since been relegated to gardening duties. My inner man despised jogging, with an irrational construct in which running and walking were somehow acceptable, but jogging was an effete hybrid, neither one thing nor the other, a suburban compromise. But that was what I had been doing, jogging. Down the hill, into the woods of the narrow ribbon of land which used to be part of a grandee’s estate. Past the lake, whose waters hinted at pollution but supported breeding mallard, moorhen and coot. A brown rat ambled coolly down the bank with the disdain of the streetwise.

I eased onwards into the towering stands of beech, so complete in their tessellated canopy. Dry runnels between beech masts marked where sudden summer downpours had overwhelmed the parched ground. Returning on the upper track above the oaks where the children used to climb and down the unpretentious steps – mud and leaf litter held back by old railway sleepers.  Jogging was easy, I wondered whether to try a bit of running when I reached the valley bottom.

Pain. Right calf. Cramp? Slow down. No better. Try to run it off, worse.

Pain left calf. Stop. Try walking, still hurts, hobble home. It took ten days to lose the discomfort from the few torn muscle fibres in both legs. I hadn’t warmed up, after all I was only going to be jogging. Those shoes were not made for running, but I hadn’t been running. It happened when I was jogging down the hill. I had always preferred running uphill.

It took ten weeks for muscles to heal fully. Was this the final warning from a dessicating body, protesting against a blinkered ego who still thought I could run? Or was it, as the sweet voice of hope said, just another minor setback. “Next time get some proper shoes, warm up, and don’t even think about running. It’s alright to jog … at your age.”

“Why not take smaller steps then?” counselled another voice of common sense. Rhythm and tempo preserved, stride length and cadence subtly moderated, athletic respectability tenuously intact. “Tell me” rumbled a deeper voice, subversively, “just what is the difference between running with smaller steps and jogging?”

The shoes stayed in their box in the “Complete Runner” bag on our bedroom floor, a daily reminder of the choice they represented, a reproach to procrastination. I looked in the bag. I hadn’t noticed their name before. “Wave Inspire”.  What a random coupling of words! What on earth was that bizarre association supposed to mean?  A job description for the monarchy? Wave. I had just managed to wave when I finished the city’s marathon many years ago. I had, however, felt about ready to expire as I lay on the floor of the Town Hall moments later contemplating the ornate ceiling and a run that had gone so well for the first twenty-two miles and so badly for the last four.

Inspire. The thing about running was that it was not just movement, it was rhythm. Inspire – Expire. Inspire – Expire. “Uh-uh-ayah”. A beat. “Uh-uh-ayah”.  A beat repeated so many times that it was internalised. A metronome of  the soul. Just as I believed, fancifully, that the structure of my toes had been sculpted by years of hard labour confined in the running shoes of my teens, this rhythm was a pulse of the psyche.

“Uh-uh-ayah” was not a jogging rhythm, it was a running rhythm. It had a tempo all of its own.  “Uh-uh-ayah” – allegro con brio. I could no more sing “Lily the Pink” as a ballad than slow down the rhythm of my inspiration. The beat and the tempo defined the experience, helped to define me.

I was putting off putting them on.  The birthday had passed. I could allow  myself to wear them now. I could step out of the door, enjoy the inspiration of the uphill, the achievement of regaining the rhythm. Would I feel again the tensile strength of taut muscles, the rawness of air-rasped bronchi, the clarity of mind following the endorphin surge? Or would this hasten the inevitable downhill, another injury, the expiration?

I put on my shoes.

© David Cundall

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