Chris Creegan

Comment | Ideas | Opinion

How running caught up with me – and why I can’t stop yet

by Chris on 29th July 2018

‘Honestly, Chris, the main issue is that you have osteoarthritis in your knee and the meniscus has a short shelf life.’

One of the best running physios around cutting to the chase. The bone even. That’s all there is when cartilage has crumbled to nothing. Peel back the medical jargon and it’s what the MRI report said. ‘Near total loss.’

I’m not shooting the messenger. I needed it right between the eyes. No silver bullet. But it hurt. Really hurt. Much more than my bloody knee. Running is mind over matter at the best of times. But what if there’s no matter left?

Fifteen weeks ago I woke up with a stiff knee. Unremarkable to the point of humdrum. A Wednesday morning with aches and pains was nothing new.

Tuesday is the toughest day of the training week and, at my age especially, running around a track as fast as you can, repeatedly, takes its toll.

But, having staggered to the bathroom, and then to the kitchen to get the kettle on, I knew something more significant was amiss. By the end of the day I was limping and the next day my knee resembled a small tree trunk.

‘Effusion’ the medics call it. Swollen, to you and me. I had held the word at bay for nearly 48 hours, but it was time to face it. I was injured.

Ask any runner and they’ll tell you. When injury happens your first instinct is denial. Only yesterday you were a world beater and now you’re just beaten.

Injury is crushing.

Whether your next race is a 5k or a 100k, injury stops you in your tracks. And I’ve not run since. Sorry, you’ll probably only get this level of melodrama if you’re an actual runner — but it’s been an existential crisis. Running — as much as anything — is who I am.

I’ve been running for a long time. When I was a kid, it was about four hundred yards and back to the village shop. ‘ Run to the shop’ my mum would say. And I did. I couldn’t quite understand why anyone walked.

Then in September 1972, I was the awkward, lanky boy in class 1H who didn’t know how to make friends at the local boy’s grammar school. Whatever my academic ability, my sociability was a story of failure.

I didn’t just know this. My teachers had told me. Every time a new boy had arrived at primary school he got the honour of sitting next to me. And it always ended in tears.

So now here I was. At the big school. A new start. But the same old conundrum. Who would be my mate? I went through the whole of the first year without finding a happy answer.

But something else did happen. I became a runner. Not a good one, but something made me stick at it. Sport was social currency and it was my best shot.

I had neither the aptitude nor the physique for football or rugby. No skill, no mates and you didn’t get picked. Remember Billy Casper?

But running — well I could do that on my own and anyone could join the team. ‘How did you do, son?’ my dad would ask me as he picked me up from school on a Saturday afternoon. ‘Well, I wasn’t last, dad, a bit better than last week.’

That was how it worked. Each week I was a little further from the back, if not terribly near the front. I was staking out a place in the crowd. Sure, I was still on the edge of it. But running kept the bullies at bay.

Peter Pippin’s 2nd Book of Puzzles may not sound like much of a prize. But it was mine. ‘Chris Eades, Most Improved Runner, Xmas 1973.’ Thanks, Mr Whaite. I’ve still got it. Some things you treasure, however small.

By the time I left school, I was I moderately good runner in a very good team. I had mates too. My all too often soggy, smelly running kit had been a suit of armour in the big boy’s world.

It hadn’t always stopped the bullies. But I kept on running. R stood for resilience too.

In truth what happened next was a loss of focus. University had a heap of distractions which relegated running for a while. And over the next 30 years, its intensity came and went. But the flame never went out.

I had a good spell in my twenties including some road racing and a few PBs that were pretty respectable. But mostly it was recreational. Probably jogging, although I was always far too much of a snob to call it that.

Now I realise how much I took it for granted. Sometimes weeks would go by when I didn’t put my running shoes on. But then I just did. Whenever, wherever, I ran. Often to the top of a hill. Because it was there and because I could.

When I moved to Edinburgh 15 years ago, running was how I learnt to navigate the city and see beyond it. As I joined up bits of Auld Reekie, I patched up my messy life too.

For a while, I kept coming and going. Mostly back to London. And running up to the top of Primrose Hill of an evening was plenty enjoyable enough. But it was a long way from the sublimity of Edinburgh’s Blackford Hill.

Then, in 2012, I came home. Back for good. And for the first time in a couple of decades, running became serious endeavour again. I stopped running away. So now I could run. Really run.

It started over almost by accident. A fun run here and there in support of mates trying to get fit. The Great North Run to raise money for a charitable foundation.

A dander up to the Meadows in my running shoes one evening in January 2013 was the turning point. I met Edinburgh AC’s Alex MacEwen. He spots a runner does Alex. And he reeled me in.

The rest — well that’s the story of the last six years. The camaraderie, the mud, the early mornings and the cold dark nights. The unmissable wonder of it all.

From lapsed runner — in the serious sense — to moderately good again, hovering around the top 10 or 20 in my age group in Scotland.

And then, just a few weeks before that fateful Wednesday morning, I’d come home from the national road relay championships with a bronze medal.

Mr Whaite and Mr Pippin were on my shoulder that day. Pride doesn’t even begin to describe it. Even though it came before a fall.

It took me a while to get over the shock of the words in the report yesterday. Late last night, when I’d stopped skirting round the edges of the page, I started to blub.

I cry a lot —a TV programme, a piece of music, watching the highs and lows of elite sport. They all water the ducts. Ask my husband — and he never cries.

Just as well he wasn’t here. This wasn’t the odd tear. It was serious, uncontrollable sobbing. I was the boy running to the shops who never questioned why or how. And a middle-aged man with more questions than answers.

In truth, I’m not sure where it goes from here. Or even if there’s a way back. There are certainly no short cuts. That my left knee is knackered probably means the right one is too. I can’t wait for the NHS so I’ll be off to a specialist.

They’ll need to tell me straight too because I’ve only got one question. ‘Can I run again?’ And I mean run — and race. With complete respect for anyone else out there who sticks a pair of trainers on when they can, I don’t mean jog.

That medal was unadulterated joy. And it’s unfinished business. Running may have caught up with me, but I can’t stop yet.

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