Viking on The Run


The email is short and smug: Do you want to run the London marathon next year? It comes from a friend who has just finished this year’s race in 4 hours 38 minutes. He raised £5000 for the Red Cross, including a small donation from me. I think about his proposal and then I write back: I’ll think about it.

I hesitate because I ran the London marathon in 2001 and, despite the hype, I found the route disappointing: – dismal suburbs for fifteen miles and no historic sights until the last four miles, by which time I was too knackered to enjoy them. But the real reason is that my last marathon, in 2007, which was my 5th, did not go to plan. It went haywire, frankly, and I’m not sure I’ll do another.  Want to know why? Got your shoes on? Good, let’s go. Back in time.

One cold January day, I’m jogging through thick fog around Faurei, rural Romania, when I meet a shepherd wearing a huge coat made of golden fleece who asks if I have seen any of his sheeps in the fields. Sheeps? I can hardly see my feets.

“Sorry, no,” I say. The well-wrapped shepherd chews his obligatory stalk of grass, gives me the once over and says, “So are you one of them crazy joggers from the West training for a marathon?”

I shake my head as I run on, but now I’m thinking: Maybe I am? Maybe it’s time for another one; number 6? I glance back at the shepherd disappearing into mist. Was he sent to prophesy? Or am I going mad out here?

Next time I’m online, I check my options and choose the Anglesey marathon, nine months off, in late late-September. Let me tell you about Anglesey, because I know it well from summer holidays as a kid.

Its an island off North Wales with stunning views of mountains, a remote and desolate place. The Romans conquered it, in 78 AD, but the hard-ass Vikings failed, in 900 AD. Local Welsh warriors chased them while Druid priests chanted in victory. This is highly relevant, I feel, because my family has Viking roots, so maybe I should go back and avenge my scaredy-cat ancestors? Conquer Anglesey alone? By Odin, it would be about time.

Come spring, back in Bucharest, I increase my weekly mileage and monitor my heart rate, all that technical stuff, doing well. But something unexpected lies ahead: by mid-July, Bucharest is baking at 46C.  Global warming, maybe? Long runs become tricky unless I start them at 5 am. I run a few 20 milers, but not enough.

Late in August I get another surprise: I have to go to India for a month to work, which compromises a crucial period of my training, especially as I fly back from India to Europe only 24 hours before my marathon. I can hear the Druids chuckling down the centuries: Viking, you stupid or what?

Time to focus. After my 9-hour overnight flight from Delhi, I land in the UK at 7 a.m and take a train from London to my mum’s place in Liverpool, planning to eat lots of carbohydrates and other relevant goodies when I get there – pasta plus broccoli, and some pomegranates. But due to circumstances beyond my control, when I arrive in Liverpool. I have to settle for sandwiches and a cup of tea. And another cup of tea, chatting away with my mum, the way you do, the PG Tips flowing like wine. Time is tight and so is my head.

An old school friend has offered to drive me to Anglesey but we depart into a setting sun that dips over over Penny Lane with a fiery glow, beckoning me forward to North Wales, if I dare.

It’s 9pm by the time we reach Anglesey, where the chef of my pre-booked hotel refuses to cook me a hot meal because it’s too late, mate. I tell him I’m running the marathon, mate. Try the pub, he says, taking off his apron. He’s had a long day, poor fellow. I don’t tell him about my long flight and that I am, well, starving,

The pub has a sign outside that says Warm Welcome Guaranteed and a sour-faced landlady inside who says: come again? But I don’t think I will, somehow, because she will not cook me any pasta either. Why?

Perhaps she can tell I am one of those Vikings, here to rape and pillock. Perhaps my fleecy hat has sprouted horns? Should I axe her politely? There seems little point and so, instead, for my pre-marathon carbo-load dinner, in a chilly corner of the pub, I eat a bag of roast peanuts and a bag of crisps. The locals give me the kind of chilly looks I remember as a kid on my summer hols: you’re not from round here, are you? My friend sips coffee, on edge. I drain my juice and we head back to the hotel. I need sleep. It’s time to get to bed.

Problem is, the hotel is overbooked so my caffeinated driver settles in a chair in my room to watch Hits of The 80’s on MTV. I lie in bed a few feet away listening to Nik Kershaw and wishing I was in Spandau, at least it would be quiet. I drift off eventually, but I swear I can hear the Druids laughing at me: welcome back, boyo.

I rise, zombie-like, at 6 am, tired and hungry. En route to the race, I get a weak coffee and two granola bars from a garage, but I know from five previous marathons that this will not be enough. And I’m right.

The Anglesey Marathon 2007 starts under a brooding sky at 10 am with 500 runners, all looking fit and happy, and me, feeling like shit. I shuffle along half asleep. My first 5 miles feel like 10, but somehow, my feet wake up and I reach the halfway point in 2 hours and now entertain giddy delusions of success: I can finish in under 4 hours, my target? Have I discovered a whole new Hindi-based training system – The Red-Eye Rocket?

No! The Welsh hills wind fight back with windy vengeance. Mile 22, I hit the infamous ‘wall’, and it feels like it is made of Welsh slate. My heart rate is sky-high and I sense that if I don’t slow down, I will perish like my barmy Viking ancestors. So, I take it easy and crawl to the finish line on 4 hrs 34 minutes – aching with disappointment, my training wasted. Ironically enough, by some twist of fate, the beautiful young Welsh woman giving out the medals slips not one, but two of them into my quivering paw. She vanishes and I’m too tired to go after her and give it back. Plus, I feel as if I have run 52 miles, not 26. I’ll give it to my nephew in Liverpool. He likes athletics. It might inspire him.

Anyway, enough mistakes, let’s finish on a wise note. Voltaire once said every misfortune brings a privilege, and he’s right, because I’m privileged to be able to run at all. I also know, more than ever, that no matter how well plan our lives, even 9 months ahead, they can unravel in 24 hours or less. That’s a lesson I won’t forget.

What else? Next time I train for a marathon, it will not be during summertime in a boiling city. And next time I take a long haul flight, I will not run a marathon 24 hours later.

If you’re a runner, you know why you run. If you’re not, give it a try – it might change your life.

As for Anglesey, some people probably enjoyed those steep, howling hills, but, if and when this skinny Viking ever goes back, he will take more supplies and ask Mr. Kirk Douglas to drive him.


[First published in FHM, July 2010, by S.C Sanoma Hearst Romania SRL].

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