Last Saturday was one of those rare nights I was getting ready to go out. I’d tried on the outfits, and then just before the closing time, dashed to buy a new pair of tights after deciding against wearing shorts in November. I packed a couple of tops in my bag in case I’d change my mind. At least the shoes were comfortable. At their price, they should be.
My feet were sore when I limped home at 3am, my new pair of tights covered in vomit. A standard Saturday night out. Well, not exactly.
My neighbours – who are also my landlords and live upstairs – had offered to babysit for a night to return an old favour. If you have any idea of the humiliation a single mother experiences in the London rental market, this is nothing short of a miracle. The only issue with the kind offer was that anyone who knows me knows there’s only one thing I like more than sleeping on a Saturday night and that is sleeping on a Monday morning.
This was until I found out about the Midnight2Midnight event on Facebook. Organised by a group called London Midnight Runners it was based around a simple but well organised idea of having a 24 hour non-stop relay run in central London to raise money for the Syrian refugees.
I always feel a bit conflicted about charity running events, which is the standard format for the most popular road races in the UK. After your first couple of times it starts feeling like you’re asking your friends to subsidise your hobby. If the idea was that I subject myself to weeks of suffering, tediousness and loneliness that culminates in a painful and inhumane effort, where I lie to myself in order to complete it, I should be asking for sponsorship for doing my ‘annual performance review’, not for running 26.2 miles along beautiful city routes.
Anyway, there was no ‘minimum fundraising’ required, and I had long felt that when my daughter one day asks me what I did in 2015 during the Syria crisis, I don’t want to be saying that I changed the background of my Facebook profile picture. Ok, it’s not the peace troupes, but I signed up for the last three 10k loops of Midnight2Midnight.
I convinced a friend from work to come along and drag his dinner date to the last slot. Otherwise, I didn’t know anyone in the group, which didn’t bother me. I’m conversational on one or two running related topics, and in any case, unlike at a dinner party, it’s perfectly acceptable to put your headphones on and speed off (or tail behind) when you don’t feel like talking. I was more worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up, not just for having a cold but also a very sore knee. I resolved to a double doses of prescription pain killers I had stocked in the hospital last year. Whether it was this or my erratic training or my new high-energy companions, I might have still ran my fastest 20k at 4:50/km, which made me quite excited about next year’s races.
Each loop, which alternated between Southbank, Battersea Park and Hyde Park, was joined by fresh runners and a sound system duct taped to a bike, which helped keep the pace up. There were also some veterans who had had very little sleep, including a guy with a haunted look completing twelve loops in sets of 30k.
In the athletics, the longest official Olympic relay distance is run over (4 x) 400m. Yet the human evolution (and Christopher McDougall) suggests that we have been designed for running much longer stretches and as a pack – not 400 metres or 10kms but ultra-marathons! It is this rather than Deliveroo that has enabled our carnivorous existence over thousands of years. Running is about achieving a balance of individual freedom and group solidarity and killing antelopes, and it is in this, not in the suffering, where I find the connection with the people who are crossing Europe in flee of the war.
I was limping my last kilometres in the middle of the pack now, no longer dodging but high-fiving the tourists and party goers on Southbank. Running on the streets of the city has a funny effect: it fills me with love for my city. Even if its political and economic profile would never normally invite me to use the possessive pronoun, in these kinds of moments you are filled with an irrational feeling of ownership and belonging, exponentially multiplied by the number of people you are sharing the route with.
Still, I bailed the after party. After finishing on a high, I was shivering cold and a sudden wave of nausea swept over me. I departed to walk towards the night buses on Trafalgar Square. Dozens of colourful sleeping bags lined the road at the other end of which decisions are being made about bombs and human lives by people who actually run this city, and this country for that matter. I got on a bus. That’s where the exhaustion, cold, pain killers, protein bars, energy drinks and I’d like to think my general disgust for the European politics infused with the smell of alcohol breaths, and my body gave up. Judging by the state of the street, this was the standard part of a Saturday night.
I got off and guessing I hadn’t increased my slim chances of getting into a cab, I started the three mile walk to North London all the while thinking about how free and fortunate I was.