There’s a sad old song by Irving Berlin called, ‘What’ll I Do?’ and sometimes I slip into it like a soapy bath and lie there in my pool of gloom. ‘What’ll I do when you are far away / and I’m so blue? What’ll I do? / What’ll I do with just a photograph / to tell my troubles to? / When I’m alone with only dreams of you / that won’t come true what’ll I do?’ And the answer doesn’t come. There’s no final verse with, ‘here’s what to do…’ – no solutions offered. So I change the record. The melody is still there in my back catalogue, reappearing every so often in my mental jukebox shuffle.
I was up early this morning. That particular song wasn’t playing. I walked into Holyrood Park to watch some of the Ironman race/competition/challenge. I’m not sure what to call it as the endurance event seems to represent so much more than what it might, at first, seem. I watched in awe as they pedalled anti-clockwise around Arthur’s Seat, heads down, thighs straining, oblivious to the daredevil swallows flitting inches from their helmet-clad heads. Farther on I began to meet the runners, strung out like lifebuoys on a rope. Small pockets of spectators were clapping them on, shouting encouragement, but the athletes seemed oblivious to it all. They were inside their heads, alone, talking down the pain, listening carefully to their inner voice of hope and reassurance, running towards a sense of achievement. They were the physical embodiment of Alan Sillitoe’s short story, ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’. It’s a story in which a young boy turns tolong solo runs,initially as a metaphorical means of running away – an escape from the emotional and physical circumstances of post-war working-class Britain and the borstal in which he ends up. He develops his talent, then self-sabotages a race he’s about to win in a deliberate two fingered act to the authorities. He is no longer running away; he is running towards self-empowerment.
I’m pretty sure that none of today’s athletes would have thrown a winning result just yards from the finishing line, but, almost certainly, like Sillitoe’s character, this morning’s thrice-gifted participants were fulfilling much more than a physical need. I’ve always found tests of physical endurance (both watching and participating) acutely emotional, bordering on the spiritual. For me, distilled to its essence, what I’m really watching is the individual pitched against his or her self, drawing on a well of inner solitude, endurance and mental strength. There is something of the mystical in watching them, willing them on: you can, you can, you can. Yet there are other demonstrations of the same self-will, endurance and mental strength that pass us unnoticed on the street everyday. Extraordinary people, without ripped muscles or strapped hamstrings, disguised as mothers pushing prams, old men bearing their weight on walking sticks, or postman pulling carts of letters and packages in the heat. In body, they are most unlike this morning’s elite triathletes, but in spirit, you can be sure they too are pushing through their own pain barrier, telling themselves that they can reach the finish line.
Meister Eckhart, 11th Century theologian, philosopher and mystic said, “Spirituality is not to be learned by flight from the world, or by running away from things, or by turning solitary and going apart from the world. Rather, we must learn an inner solitude wherever or with whomsoever we may be.” What’ll I do? Maybe I’ll take up running again. At the very least, I’ll keep on walking.