The Grim Runner: How Running Gave Me A Sense Of Self

I was overweight, close to a nervous shutdown and had just flashed members of the Royal Family drumming in a kilt. Here's how running helped me find my sense of self...
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I was overweight, close to a nervous shutdown and had just flashed members of the Royal Family drumming in a kilt. Here's how running helped me find my sense of self...

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It’s a warm Saturday afternoon in June, Edinburgh, 1977. It’s the school cross- country, I have done minimal training, taking shortcuts on most designated runs and smoking fags behind trees in teen rebel mode over the previous two months. It’s a three to four mile route and I’m 3/4 of the way round and suffering badly. I’ve surprised myself by being about seventh in the field and I can see runners strung out in front of me as we cross Inverleith Park towards the finishing stretch. There are big gates that we have to exit on the opposite side. A teacher stands by the path making sure that no one sneaks through the hedge cutting off a few yards. As I pass him he leans towards me and whispers “You’re finished Farquhar”.

For the last year I had been one of the five school punks and this particular maths master, ‘Oink’ as we called him, had really grown to hate me. He wore ultra-establishment Clydesdale checked shirts, a tightly knotted tie, a tweed jacket and he ran the school cadet forces. He was everything I wasn’t and he had a fearsome temper to boot. That’s how I remember him.

I was a real mess, my dad had died recently, I was smoking too much dope and was probably pretty disruptive and hard to teach. But my god did his words get to me. I set my face in a twisted grimace and started sprinting from that point with a mile to go, I reeled runner after runner in, people who were far better athletes than me, but I was screaming my anger out, not just at those words, but at everything in my life. I collapsed over the line in third place and was promptly sick. That moment was the only significant thing I ever really achieved in any sport in ten years of school life.

I went on to run in the Scottish schools cross-country race, placing about 100th out of 400 and that was it, apart from the very occasional jog I did no running for another 20 years.

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1998 and I was out in Italy recovering from the toughest commission NVA had taken on, before or since. The ‘National Day for Britain’ at the Lisbon World Expo was presented on behalf of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Robin Cook was Home Secretary and immensely thin-skinned about any bad publicity - he had left his wife following a revealed affair at that time. All his civil servants were extremely jittery and paranoid about their positions.

NVA running a ‘national day’ was seen as a risky proposition. We were staging a pagan fire festival illuminating the Celtic fringes of the UK and Portugal, highlighting  the best of British club culture and staging some fairly left field cultural offerings such as Bruce Gilchrist’s ‘Sonic Bloom’ which amplified the tortured screams of plants as they were manipulated…you get the picture.

The final dance event had a stage invasion from drunk marines who we had paid in beer for pushing giant fire sculpture across the site earlier in the day.

I was drumming live in a kilt with Twitch of Optimo fame on the decks and continually flashing my bum to the crowd. Unknowingly this was being flashed across the three mile long Expo site on giant Jumbotron screens and was being witnessed by the Ambassador, Prince Charles and assorted VIPs who were taking dinner on HMS Chatham in the harbour.

I was so drunk and stressed that my drumming eventually disintegrated in a paddle and I was switched off on the stage. The poor civil servant whose job it was to co-ordinate governmental support eventually wrestled me to the ground and huckled me off to the sidelines. Needless to say the day was actually seen as lively and a real success.

One week later, overweight and the closest I have been to a nervous shutdown, I started running in the small hill village of Lippiano on the Umbria/Tuscany border. There were only two choices, to go up or to go down. Sweating it out in 30-35 degrees meant that I was shuffling more than running. The steep route went up past a cemetery and I never seemed to get much further than that in those first few attempts. There was little pleasure in those first attempts; the beginning just reminds you how unfit you are.

Then bit by bit you raise your head and realise where you are and how lucky you are and the simple accomplishment that comes from having made any such effort. I haven’t stopped running since. In my mind it is one of the anchors that help me make sense of the world and keep things in perspective. The person I had become that summer was not the one I wanted to be and so running became integral to the idea of personal change over stasis.

Angus is Creative Director of arts charity NVA. NVA’s Speed of Light, where hundreds of LED light-suited runners will perform in a unique fusion of sport and culture, takes place on The Quays in Greater Manchester between Thursday 21 and Saturday 23 March 2013 from 8pm. For further information visit:NVA Speed Of Light