The Aloneness of the Long Distance Runner

Alan Mair vest
Alan Mair, Head of RE at Trinity School in Woodford Green, is a marathon runner on a mission! He is planning to run 6 of the major marathons (London, Boston, Berlin, Chicago, New York and Tokyo) in a year. Just 21 other people have done this – and Alan’s aim is to be the fastest.

He has already completed the London and Boston marathons, arguably the toughest as they are just a week apart, and is now looking forward to Berlin on 28 September.

Calling his endeavour Race for Justice Alan is raising funds for both CAFOD and BCCS (Brentwood Catholic Children’s Society). To donate please go to his Mydonate page

The following is an article written by Alan for In Touch, the parish magazine for St Thomas of Canterbury parish in Woodford Green

The Aloneness of the Long Distance Runner

I make no apologies for the allusion to Alan Sillitoe’s masterful short story the Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner but raise the question about whether he got the title correct. Perhaps in 1959 there was little distinction between Aloneness and loneliness. But believe it or not there is a small but noticeable difference between aloneness and loneliness. To be alone is to be by oneself. You may or may not FEEL lonely when you are alone, but the only important condition for being alone is that there is no one else around you. To be lonely, is to suffer the feelings of loneliness, to want people, social contact, and yet be unable to get any. Given this fact, it is quite possible to feel lonely when you are alone, and it is also to feel lonely when you are NOT alone. Sillitoe’s character ran to be alone and in the final race he demonstrated that he had control over his own life, he exerted his independence above the pressures his peers and the authorities.

Alan MairSo what has running ever done for me? In my younger days I ran and was reasonably swift; a marathon personal best time of 2 hours 30 (and nine seconds). I was competitive and raced to the point that I would drop. I referred to the marathon distance of 26.2 miles as a race too far for the body and continued to push towards that particular finish line. That, in my later years, I can contemplate the contents of this article during a 30 mile training run accompanied by my wife on her bike demonstrates for me a maturity of thought and a greater understanding of my own place in the cosmos, it helps me to become steady, peaceful and centred. Is this just middle age maturity or is there something deeper?

My return to running has brought me back into an extraordinary world of competition and dedication to self, one’s health and fitness, and others, the support and encouragement among athletes. Making a decision on New Year’s eve to get back some health and fitness I began putting in some training miles. The competitive edge I have always had returned and I ventured to New York for the half marathon along with Mo Farah. While we were placed together at the start from three miles I was not to see him again. However, 1:30 gave me a good basis to gauge my level of fitness. London Marathon followed and then a week later the Boston Marathon. 3:27 and 3:55 respectively. However, it was to be the ultra-marathons that caught my attention. An ‘ultra’ is a race of any distance beyond 26 miles. My first foray into this type of race was the Grand Union Challenge, 100Km from Paddington along the Grand Union canal. Despite setting out at a pace that would give me a time of sub 10 hours I was brutally stung at 90Km. In fact the time it took me to complete the final 25 kilometres was longer than the time for the first 50Km. Now I had a new respect for the distance and the effects on the body. Finishing in 16th position out of 980 finishers I had a time of 13 hours and 41 seconds. Getting home I had to crawl up the stairs to bed I was totally incapacitated. However, as some readers will recall, I stepped in to serve at the 10am mass the next morning. Unable to bend my legs, genuflecting was impossible and any steps, however minor, were mountains.

RTTS06In the middle of July a former student, Caroline Rose, emailed me for some advice on how she might raise money for a project she was going to be working on in Burkina Faso. As I had signed up for another 100Km race, Race to the Stones, I suggested I would run that while highlighting the projects she would be working with, a Race for Justice was born. Caroline was to be leading a group of volunteers from the UK during a seven month trip to the West African country. They would be working with either a project for the disabled or a women’s rights project. Having spent a significant part of the last ten years in Africa I knew that both groups are heavily marginalized in many parts of the great continent. With some press publicity and Caroline raising the awareness at the Masses during the Race weekend she raised over 1250 pounds for the project. Any pain I was experiencing during the 10 Km paled into insignificance alongside the pain of those Caroline would be seeking to help. I passed 80Km at 6pm on the Saturday, the time when Caroline would be preparing to speak at the end of the Mass. I received a real bounce in my stride and some of my fastest kilometres are during this time.

Finishing in 54th position from a field of 2000 and winning the Masters title, (runners over the age of 50) I completed the race in 12 hours, six minutes and 4 seconds. Why do the seconds seem to matter over such distances? Having already experienced the effect that being too fast at the beginning can have over this distance I finished nearly an hour faster and I could still walk, although a little unsteadily.

RTTS06Another race down and many more on my bucket list as I aim to step up to the 100 mile distance; Leadville 100, Hardrock 100, Western States, Comrades Marathon. What a way to travel the world. But first the beginnings; London and Boston Marathons. What about the full house. The six ‘majors’. Usually completed over 2 years the major marathons are the top marathons in the world and include Berlin, Chicago, New York and Tokyo as well as London and Boston. So the race for justice continues and I will be competing in these marathons for CAFOD and the Brentwood Children’s Society. To date this feat has been completed by only 21 people worldwide. So being the 22nd is a possibility but who ever remembers the person who came second. Instead, by supporting the work of CAFOD and BCCS many will, I hope, experience support as justice is lived out.

Through 1500 miles of running this year I have come to treasure this time alone for contemplation and communication with the Higher Power. Even in our daily lives we should practice spending some time alone, going over the events of the day. Aloneness is both an important and integral part of our lives and is the opportunity to examine one’s life. As Socrates’ said, the unexamined life is not worth living. So what has running ever done for me? Or rather, what has running ever done for others? Perhaps Caroline can tell us about that upon her return from Burkina Faso.

Follow Alan’s blog

Donate to CAFOD and BCCS in support of Alan’s Major Marathons attempt – “A Race for Justice”

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