I am a recent convert to al fresco running in public, having had a short burst of gym membership courtesy of an orange faced lady who offered me a six week trial period under the guise of an extended sun bed session. She seemed incapable of doing anything by the book. "I'll do you a deal" she urged, "I'll put you down as a senior citizen sun bed." The fact that I was neither a senior citizen or had any intention of using the sun bed was immaterial. All that mattered was that she got me signed up.
After a while I got disenchanted with the gym. For a start, I wasn't really getting the full advantage of all the amenities. All I wanted to do was run - I had no interest in any of the other gear in there, most of which seemed to be primarily designed to pelt you about with various degrees of discomfort. And then there was the running itself. Whoever decided to put up a bank of televisions in front of the treadmills wants fucking with an iron railing. And whoever decided to then tune all those televisions into Jeremy Kyle/Big Brother/Endless Pop Videos of Britney Spears wants fucking with an iron railing dipped in hydrochloric acid. It's bad enough having a searing pain in the back of your calves, but having one in each eyeball and both ears as well is like having your freshly ripped open wounds sprayed with industrial strength salt from a council road gritter. It makes an uncomfortable experience completely unbearable.
And then there's the treadmill itself. After a bit I realised it was entirely unsuitable for my needs. When you use a treadmill, you are not actually running. You are merely jumping up and down, usually in time to some heave inducing Euro-pop. I was paying twenty quid a month to jump up and down in front of a Girls Aloud video. Pointless. It was turning my knees to mush and my mind to water.
Added to this are the other people who use gyms. For a start, there was usually some class going on behind me, more often than not a load of divorcees on bikes being shouted at by some demented day-glo lycra clad midget screaming at them to "go to the limit" and "feel the burn". After twenty minutes of this I started having fantasies of burning his pert upturned lycra clad arse with a blowtorch, but this would only probably make him scream louder and longer. As well as the relentlessly demented staff, the other punters were either ridiculously aloof or alarmingly over familiar. One old gadge seemed to attach himself to me like a limpet, hovering at me shoulder in the changing room as I bent over to put me strides on, following me into the showers, lurking at me locker - everywhere I turned he was there, engaged in some rambling never ending anecdote about his recent heart attack and various hospital visits and dietary requirements. After the end of me six-week trial period, I felt I knew every inch of his colon intimately.
"Whoever decided to put up a bank of televisions in front of the treadmills wants fucking with an iron railing."
So I sacked the gym off and started lumbering round the park. It's free, it's convenient, and it's got no MTV tellies or surviving heart attack victims with verbal diarrhea. I don't know if it's doing me any more physical good. But it's certainly been more entertaining. For a start, parks are crucibles of human oddity, especially first thing in a morning. The added attraction with the park is that you are not on a treadmill and can therefore run away from them.
There are two fellows in particular who intrigue me. I don't know if they are brothers or have made a conscious effort to dress and look the same, but they both look like a cross between Keith Lemon and the fat one out of Junior Senior. They have matching yellow mustaches and black baseball caps and one of them drags a shopping trolley around. Most mornings I see them they are either rooting through the bins or sat at opposite ends of one of the wooden benches, pointedly ignoring each other. I usually give them a cheery nod as I stagger past, but am usually met with the blank impervious gaze of a basilisk. A basilisk with blond eyelashes and last night's dinner smeared round its gob.
I try and do three or four circuits of the park before admitting defeat. What I like about it most is the mental peace. After a bit, your mind goes blank and then all sorts of mad shit starts drifting into the empty spaces that the repetition of running seems to create. I usually start off by listening to music in me head (I have to do it in me head. I can’t wear them earplugs or use an iPod) usually Kraftwerk or something equally machine-like. Then I drift off into various inner landscapes as I go round and round. Occasionally I come across something intriguing. This morning I kicked aside something in me path, stopped to examine it – an elaborately bundled together collection of sticks and three miniature whisky bottles stuffed with leaves and grass and bits of mud. It was like an alcoholic’s version of The Blair Witch Project. Fuck knows what it meant, but I have now convinced meself I have evoked the demon of the park and will be chased round by an invisible banshee every morning from now on. Might be a good thing. Might make me run faster.