People dipped discreetly into boxes of chocolate-covered nuts. There were carpets on the walls. An entire seat just for me. And not the usual rubbish designed for children, made of Marmite-proof, Oros-repellent plastic: this one was upholstered in the kind of plush, red velvet you can only dream of when you’re six. Best of all, we’d come to see Chariots Of Fire, a film about two of my favourite things at the time: chariots and fire.
When we opened on a beach in Scotland, with no sign of burning two-wheelers, I was disappointed. But only for a moment. Soon I was bewitched by the iconic theme, clean as endorphins pulsing through a brain; hypnotised by the white-clad figures skipping through the St Andrews surf.
One of them seemed to be overcome with some sort of rapture, throwing back his head and sprinting ahead. This was Eric Liddell, the Scottish missionary who ran for God first and Great Britain second. Running, it seemed, was not just beautiful and poetic. It was spiritual.
Ten years later, on a wind-scoured field in Cape Town, I remembered Liddell and his animal delight in running fast and far. Like Liddell, I was wearing white running togs and was surrounded by swift young men.I, too, had thrown my head back. But this wasn’t Scotland and I wasn’t Liddell. This was physical education and my head was thrown back because I was close to death and fighting for breath. Also, I knew that if I looked down I would begin to vomit and not stop until I had heaved up all my internal organs.
Some of my classmates might have been filled with the Holy Spirit, but I was filled with an unholy rage: the burning in my lungs and legs was nothing compared to the fiery loathing I felt for my gym teacher.
His instructions had been clear and stupid. We would have to run around the field a certain number of times in under a certain number of minutes (I want to say it was 6000 times in under two minutes, but I might be misremembering). If anyone failed, everyone would have to do it again.
Had nobody understood the underlying message of Forrest Gump?
Now he stood there, stopwatch in his paw, yapping at me out of his meaty face like a sock puppet stuffed with raw mincemeat. Next to him stood the gazelles who had finished in under the stipulated time, squeaking at me to run faster so that they didn’t have to do it all again and maybe break a sweat this time. God, how I hated them. How I hated Chariots of Fire with its lies about the joys of running and its ridiculous absence of burning chariots. How I hated this world in which runners are admired and walkers – sensible, civilised, non-vomiting walkers – are shouted at. Had nobody understood the underlying message of Forrest Gump? Had nobody realised that if you run often and for no reason, you will end up being shot in the buttocks, your childhood sweetheart will lie to you and die, and your momma will be Sally Field?
I have not run since that day. Now and then I have scuttled. I have been known to skedaddle. Once, when threatened, I high-tailed it. But I do not run. And this has given me the space and tranquility to understand that running is not only unnatural and hateful, but that it’s not even a thing. It’s really just an endlessly deferred fall onto your face.
This is usually the part where runners object angrily, their resting heart rate surging to around 20 beats a minute, and point out that humans owe much of their success to running. They explain that we are one of the few species that can sweat while we run; that our ancestors simply ran their overheated prey to a standstill.
I don’t dispute the history. But I ask you: did those brave ancestors run so that we would have to keep running? No. They ran so that we wouldn’t have to. They pounded across the plains and reduced their feet to calloused nubbins so that you and I could walk to our kitchen and put a non-perishable food-like substance into our mouths. To run is to spit in the sweaty, pain-etched faces of our forebears, and I for one refuse to be so disrespectful.
Thank you, ancient hunter.I honour you, and I chew open this carton of custard to celebrate the race you ran for all of us.
First published in The Times and TimesLive