In early 2006 I was offered a press trip to report on the Colombo Marathon in Sri Lanka. I’d never run a marathon before but I thought I was fit – I used to spend an hour a day in the gym and was a trim 200lbs so reckoned I could handle a marathon (wrong!) – and although I was a self taught journalist I knew enough to understand that you can’t write anything without first experiencing it on your own skin. So I said yes to the invite; Colombo was going to be my first marathon.
A few weeks after training began I was beaten up by a gang of English Football fans. To celebrate the English team’s victory in the World Cup over Paraguay they gave me a ruptured spleen, massive internal bleeding, 2 broken ribs and a 1 in 4 chance of living.
I spent over 3 weeks in hospital. If the trauma of being beaten wasn’t enough, the hospital stay added it’s own flavour of depression and revelation. June was hot in 2006 yet our second storey ward windows had to remain almost closed to prevent any of us from ending it all. We all lay there sweating, day into night, always with kneedles or catheters in our arms and hands that caught and pulled on any obstruction whenever we moved. ‘Just in case’, the doctors said, just in case of any emergency. At night there was little sleep to be had. Laurie, in the bed opposite and to the left of mine, used to keep the ward awake as he spoke passionately to his wife, telling her all the things he should have told her whilst she was still alive. Then John, right opposite me, his stomach opened one afternoon in a geyser of hot blood. The nurses closed his curtains and did their best but when my afternoon painkillers wore off all that was left was his overhead fan chopping up empty air. Those are just 2 things that come to mind, every day had it’s own offering.
I remember spending those long nights watching the machine by my bedside blip blip and show my vital statistics. Heart rate, blood pressure. Life reduced to numbers. Twice it registered nothing. I thought, oh, this is dying. Suprisingly peaceful. You stand on the edge of the void and feel the wind under your toes and a rush of freedom in your heart. Then it started up again. Blip, blip. Ok, I am still here, I thought as I looked around the ward at my companions, but I’m not the same any more.
Those were a long few weeks, full of challenges and new experiences. One day I got what they call ‘cabin fever’ and checked myself out. I wasn’t healed but I could feel myself going crazy in that hospital. I could not stand to be facing death so visibly and so helplessly. I was going to fight this out on aÂ playing field where I had a chance of doing what felt right with life, not one that I felt was totally unnatural.
The doctors had left my spleen to try to heal on it’s own, I am forever grateful to them for that, but as I left they said that over the next year or so it might burst again if I had any contact with anybody or anything, like brushing up against somebody in the street.
A month after I got home the police said that they weren’t going to prosecute my attackers; no reason was given. I felt unsafe, scared, to realise that I was on my own. Anybody could do anything to me, the police weren’t going to help, nobody was. That wasn’t self pity, it was having my eyes opened, and I stumbled for a while because the truth was frightening. I was on my own. I always thought that wasn’t the case, but of course, even when surrounded by a loving family, it always was. To an unopened mind, at least.
A year later and I was getting back to the gym, to work. Physically much better, mentally still very fragile.
The Colombo Marathon organisers invited me again to report on and run their race, and 2 years after their first invite I began training once again. Finishing this race was going to be a sort of beginning for me, putting the past firmly in the past and starting afresh with a new outlook.
On the flight to Sri Lanka my spleen was in knots. The air pressure was getting to my insides. I arrived exhausted and spent a few days on the beach, trying to get used to the heat. I enjoyed those days, it’s a beautiful country.
The marathon started at 6am. The air smelt of ripe fruit and the humidty that was to make this a very tough event. Here’s a start line shot, me on the left, then the Palenstinian champ next to me, then a couple of Kenyan 2:10 runners, then Uwe, a German veteran of over 100 marathons, Vikas from Delhi and finally Sammy from Kenya, another 2:10 runner. As you can see, I was an attention whore back then as I am now, some attributes are tough for me to shake.
I was at the front when the gun went off.
It was a very slow marathon run, and a hot one. The sun was the sort of sun you feared. After I’d run about 15 miles I was ready to stop, I was so beaten. The run was on a main road that hadn’t been closed to traffic. A bus pulled up in front of me, black exhaust smoke was everywhere, a cow wandered into my path and a 3 wheeled tuk-tuk taxi nearly hit me, all in the space of a few seconds. I sat down on the roadside in the shade of a palm tree and said ‘Why Me? Why did I have to get attacked? Why can’t I carry on? Why Me?’
I’ve thought that often in life, before that race, and since, in various situations. Most recently when my marriage fell apart a few months ago. ‘We’d built such a bridge of beauiful moments between us,’ I’d thought, ‘how could this have happened? Why Me! Why did I misjudge this relationship so badly, and why did she do this to me, to us? How could she have had all those affairs, told me a barrage of near constant lies, how could she have thought so little of what we’d created? We sheltered in our little tent from hurricanes, we discovered Klimt together in Vienna, learnt to cook in Rome and Florence, we’d stayed up all night talking about every subject under the stars, I converted to Islam for her, moved to Canada and spent all my savings for her, and she sacrificed much in her own life too, and now this. Why Me? Why did we only have 1 good year out of our 4 together? What a waste, how did I let her drown her love of the evening flowers in a flurry of hipster bullshit, roll neck sweaters, Monty Python quotes and empty boys who paper over their lack of personality with a veneer of old music and old cartoons (not bitter in moments of weakness, noooo)? Why did I get mixed up with somebody who clearly just wants to destroy herself? Why Me?’
Except now, I only ask the question fleetingly, as I already know the answer.
Before that first marathon in Sri Lanka though, I hadn’t much of a clue. But that moment when I sat down on the roadside under the palm tree, feeling sorry for myself, that changed it all.
I remember looking at all the traffic buzzing past, and my vision was hazy with heat fatigue and grimy sweat, but then the busses and cars cleared for a few seconds, and in that short time I saw a man on the other side of the street, he had no legs below the upper thigh, and he was pulling himself along the street with his arms. He was a mess of dirty rags and pain. And so what was there left for me to do but understand the truth of it all.
Why Me? It’s not rocket science Dave you dumb ass. Why not me! I don’t deserve any special treatment. Why shouldn’t I have some hardship? You expect an easy ride just because you was a cute young blonde boy once and your mother made you feel like the centre of the world, and the most important thing in it? What an ass.
I haven’t done the correct marathon training, that’s the reason I am sat here on the side of the road. I’m a lazy bastard and I thought I could get away with it. I allowed my brain to fool my soul and this is the payment.
I walked up the wrong street and got attacked by that gang of football fans and they nearly killed me. Well bad fucking luck. That guy over there probably walked down the wrong path and got blown up by a landmine during the civil war here a few years ago, and lost his legs. Who got the better deal. Me. I’m still walking, I can even run, and I come from a country where I have chances in life, to live more contendedly. Me, I got the better deal. One of the best deals ever when it comes to living beings on this planet. So stop fucking moaning about your fucking boring spleen and your sense of bad luck Dave and get on with life.
I got up and walked on. Couldn’t run much, I was very out of shape. This was me after 20 miles.
I finished the race in just over 5 hours and collapsed into the medical tent. Nothing serious wrong physically, just hadn’t trained hard enough.
The run just changed my focus almost entirely. I began to look outwards. Looking back I suppose I was waiting for this change to come upon me. I’d taken spare money on the trip, not knowing what I’d spend it on, only knowing that it wasn’t for me. I spoke to the Sri Lankan manager at my hotel, told him I had a wish to help out locally in whatever way I could. He told me about an orphanage to help the disabled. It was in the jungle, the kids were a source of shame for their parents, they’d been hidden away. We visited, saw the conditions.
Some kids had no arms, couldn’t brush the flies away from their mouths. Lots you can do nothing about, but some things are possible. We went away and bought mosquito nets and fans, and a month’s supply of decent food. The kind ladies who run the place were happy. Foreigners at my hotel were cynical. ‘They’ll sell the fans when the food runs out.’ So what, I thought, at least they had a month of something good. And if not good, then better than it was. Sure, there’s going to be a comedown when the food runs out but what to do, get all intellectual about it and let people starve and live a tormented life? No. Pretend that I’m doing this for me and that I should man up and turn my back like a smart, caring Westerner should? No. No, I will never disengage from this wonderful planet again. Never.
Ok, not quite true, I waver now and again but you get the picture, the intent to change was there.
Many Sri Lankans I knew didn’t like what I’d done either. They didn’t want the outside world to think of them as a charity case. Theirs was a developing country, they wanted to project a positive image. Very sorry, I said, but you can handle it, sat in your beach hotel. The ocean wind will ease your brow and when it does, think of those kids in the jungle. They got their mossie nets now, they got their fans and they got a full stomach. At least for a month. And then perhaps I’ll come again, or you can do something, if you can.
Since then I’ve run a fair number of races and enjoyed every one of them, mainly because I stopped fooling myself and started to put in the training. They are often just asÂ painful as that first race in their own way, but I have come to appreciate the joy to be had in pain.
The spleen hurts now and again. It’s ok, I have set my playing field out to my liking and I am enjoying my dance with death. It will come for me as it does for us all and when it does I shall not know it’s beauty any more, at least not as I do now, and that fact inspires me to enjoy what I know of death before I feel it’s loss. And by appreciating the great beauty of death, life has become pretty good too.
There have been blips, mostly to do with women. I’m passionate and I fall heavy. But a few weeks of crying in my bedroom (or months in the case of my last wife) sorts me out, and always I eventually get over myself and think back to that first marathon in Sri Lanka. Why me? Why not me. We’re all the same, only fair to share the pain. And the joy.
June 10th 2016 will be the 10 year anniversary of the day that those football fans changed my life for the better. I was mostly an ass before then and whilst I have my moments now, on the whole I’m in a much better place. I’m happy to be spending this anniversary weekend in Toronto with new friends. I’ll be running and doing yoga in a beautiful park, discovering new parts of the city, and, well, I’m not sure what else but it’ll be good, for certain, for without a mind willing to sabotage itself then life can be nothing else but good. In my head I’ll be whirling a stately waltz with mother earth and we’ll twirl, laugh and flirt and I’ll say, ‘My, death, you look ravishing tonight, we shall dance and laugh and learn and love ’til the end of the end.’