I’m often told – by people who don’t exercise – that sport and exercise are dangerous and bad for your health. These people take pleasure in insinuating that running has somehow contributed to little niggles like the degenerative arthritis in my knees and my chronic Achilles tendonitis! Where did they get that idea from?
My own son has actually claimed that running lowers the immune system and may have something to do with the number of colds I catch! What does he know, huh?
So here, in reverse order, are my top 5 anecdotes from about 35 years (on-and-off) of running and cycling, to prove them all completely wrong.
5. I was just 15 when my first running disaster struck. The boys’ boarding school I was at organised a 25-mile sponsored walk along the South Downs from Amberley to Ditchlng Beacon. My memory of some details is a bit hazy now, but I think it was a whole school year of pupils that went on this walk – most boys probably being dragged along reluctantly (looking back, I don’t know how they expected so many teenagers to be able to walk that kind of distance. But then school was different back then).
I, on the other hand….
I decided it would be fun to run, instead of walk, the whole distance. Bearing in mind that, as a keen cross-country runner I’d never run further than 4 miles, this was probably one of my less bright ideas….
However, apart from the lack of training or preparation, it might have all been OK if I’d gone the right way at the beginning.
We’d travelled from the school to Amberley in 2 or 3 coaches, and some groups of boys and teachers had already gone on ahead. The coach I was in arrived at the car park, and we started walking the short path to the South Downs Way. I jogged on ahead to the SDW signs pointing left and right, then called back to the others to check which direction we were going. The vague, mixed responses of “Right! I think…” and “Left! Probably…….” finally settled into a consensus of “Right! Definitely right! …yes, pretty sure it’s right!”
So, right I turned, and off I ran.
And on I ran or jogged, expecting to catch up with the earlier parties very soon. And on and on I ran….several miles, but still no other boys or teachers up ahead.
It took a while before I concluded for sure that I’d been going the wrong way right from the start. I have no idea how many miles I ran before I turned back. There were no GPS watches in those days. And, I guess, not much attention to health & safety back in 1980. When I eventually arrived at Ditchling Beacon at the end of a worried mix of hitch-hiking and slightly frantic running, without any definite clue about directions or distance, the teachers seemed (somewhat disturbingly) unconcerned.
Running bad for you? If I hadn’t made that mad decision to run a 25-mile walk as a naïve young teenager and ended up hitch-hiking, I’d have missed this early life lesson in ingenuity and adventure…. Or something like that.
4. I’ve only ever broken one limb. Cycling to work one morning at the age of 18, I came to a set of roadworks as I sped down the hill through Buxted village, where I grew up, and carried on through the green temporary traffic lights.
However, a car driver turning out of a side-road just ahead of the roadworks failed to see me and decided to save a couple of minutes by driving through the red light at his end. Although I spotted him, I was unable to avoid the collision. The car hit me (at quite a slow speed) and I lay on the road in mild pain and a bit dazed but otherwise pretty OK. I got up, dusted myself off and said I’d be fine, but saw the GP in nearby Uckfield later, who told me the pain in my leg was just bruising.
The next week, after hobbling around on a painful leg for a week, the GP sent me to our nearest x-ray department, 20-odd miles away in Eastbourne, where a fractured fibula was diagnosed and put in a plaster cast.
I might have struggled to walk on the broken leg, but legally the driver didn’t have a leg to stand on. This was one time when having a solicitor in the family came in very handy: my Dad helped me claim £400 compensation, which paid for my first car – a green Mk 1 Ford Escort with a red flash down the side, which of course was very uncool in a cool kind of way (well, I thought it was cool).
Cycling dangerous? It was worth breaking a leg to pay for my first car….wasn’t it???
3. In third place is another cycling incident, this time from just a few years ago, that demonstrates the joys and benefits of exercise.
I was taking quite a long break from running following a meniscectomy (keyhole surgery to remove a small, ragged piece of cartilage from my knee), but needed some exercise, so decided it was time to get back on my bike.
[I’ll skip the story from a few years previous to this when the driver of a flashy Bentley parked in Eltham High Street opened his car door without checking his mirrors first and my very nice British-built racing bike collided at 900 with the door, bending the bike frame and damaging the Bentley’s door so it wouldn’t close!
The driver, who was clearly at fault and no doubt knew it, had the cheek to blame me for the incident and was threatening legal action against me while I stood there bruised and dazed. Unfortunately, by this time in my life I had no practical way of pursuing a small claim against him for the bike, and of course I never heard from his insurance company as he knew he was to blame.
But the reason I mention this story in passing – which I clearly haven’t just told – is to point out that that was my last racing bike and after that I made the decision to purchase a mountain bike, to pursue more off-road cycling.]
So there I was, enjoying a little jaunt on my mountain bike, along the seafront from Hastings to Bexhill, via Galley Hill, a little grassy hill leading down to Bexhill seafront. Ahead of me were two small ridges set into the slope, and it seemed like a great idea at the time (to this completely inexperienced mountain biker) to pelt downhill as fast as I could to each ridge, flying off each one before carrying on down the rest of the hill. I remember cycling downhill as fast as possible towards the ridge. I have no recollection of what happened next.
The next thing I remember is waking up to the sound of two strangers’ voices talking to me and calling an ambulance, as I lay next to the bike with a bleeding head wound and no idea what day it was. In fact, when I was asked what day it was, I’m not sure I even quite understood the question.
The paramedics who turned up knew me, because I work for St John Ambulance and my office is next door to our local NHS ambulance station. I persuaded them, against their better judgment, to take my bike in the ambulance and drop it off at the station (taking a sizeable detour) on the way to A&E. “But don’t tell the boss,” they said.
As I drifted in and out of consciousness in the ambulance, with a bandage now wrapped around my head and aware that I was suffering concussion, I kept thinking of the Fawlty Towers episode where Basil has his head bandaged and starts acting even more bizarrely than usual. It’s the famous episode, “The Germans” – the one with the immortal line “Don’t mention the war!”
My train of thought and speech also became erratic, and the comedy of the moment wasn’t lost on me, even in my semi-delirium on the way to hospital.
I was home from A&E after a few hours and took the next day off work to recover. During that day off sick, I searched up the famous Fawlty Towers episode on YouTube. Usually finding this old sitcom pretty funny, the sense of identification with Basil Fawlty this time struck me as hilarious and I laughed my socks off.
Cycling dangerous? Maybe, but if I hadn’t had that incident, I would never have enjoyed that moment of comedy with such hilarity……
2. This little story, from the early ‘90s, nearly made it to No.1 because of its fond memories. This time, my little bright idea was to cycle to Devon for a holiday, from Eastbourne where I was living and doing my nurse training.
The first day I cycled 90 miles – not a huge distance for some seasoned road cyclists, but equal to the longest I’d ever ridden in a day before.
The second day I rode 110 miles, stopping for the night at a youth hostel just by the Devon border. Unfortunately, I wasn’t just knackered; my knees were so painful, I couldn’t cycle up even the gentlest hill. Somehow, through a combination of freewheeling down hills and pushing the bike up hills, I made it to Barnstaple, where I visited a church-based café for a drink.
There I met a wonderful, warm, Christian couple, whose names I wish I could remember now, who heard my tale of cycling woe and invited me to stay at their house for 2 or 3 days while my knees recovered.
So for a few days I enjoyed their hospitality, while I walked and prayed around the beautiful Braunton Burrows and talked with the couple about spiritual things, my dreams and the struggles I faced as a new-ish Christian.
I’ve always highly valued this kind of hospitality and have sought to pass it on to others now that I have a house and family of my own.
My knees didn’t really recover that much in 2 or 3 days and I took a train back home from Exeter.
Cycling bad for your health? But if my knees hadn’t suffered in that way, I’d never have enjoyed that particular experience of warm Christian fellowship and the couple wouldn’t have had the opportunity to serve a brother in Christ in this way…
1. This anecdote is No. 1 because it’s the most recent, the one that inspired this blog post and, in my opinion, the funniest.
While staying with my in-laws in Weston-Super-Mare (Somerset) recently, I stepped out for an obligatory run along the coast. Before long I needed the loo – and not the kind of loo stop that a bush would suffice for. Fine when you’re running close to home and you know where all the public toilets are. But in unfamiliar territory and now miles from a town, it became a bit of a conundrum, and I became too uncomfortable to carry on running easily.
I was in a village called Kewstoke, where I thought there might be a public toilet. I asked a stranger, but alas, there were no public loos in Kewstoke. Maybe a pub or café owner would let me use their loo, so I carried on jogging, looking for a café or pub. Up ahead was the Village Hall – a huge, new, brick building with a large car park in which were a few cars. So it looked hopeful that there were people in there.
I knocked on the door – no reply. I tried the door – it was open. So I stepped inside and noticed the toilets to my left, the main hall up ahead, and stairs to my right leading up to an office. I called out, “Hello!” – still no reply. Maybe there was someone upstairs who hadn’t heard me. Or maybe it’s an open public building, I thought.
So I did what anyone would do in the circumstances. I nipped into the loo, of course. I mean, wouldn’t you?
As I sat there, I heard some noises. Someone coming down the stairs, perhaps.
That wasn’t someone just going out the door, was it? I called out, “Hello!”
That wasn’t the sound of someone locking the front door behind them, was it?
I finished what I had to do, came out of the toilet, and sure enough, I was locked inside the village hall, without a phone and a long way from anyone who would hear me if I started knocking on the window.
All I could think was: This is a scene from a sitcom. But this is really happening!
Do I venture upstairs to the office and see if there’s a phone I can use? Do I see if I can open a window (but then how will I make it secure again after I’ve gone out)? Do I just wait till someone shows up again? But how long will that be?
Eventually I found an emergency exit door in the hall – one of those with the push bar, that self-locks on closing – and managed to get out without any fuss or breakage, and no burglar alarm being set off.
So in the end, all was well. But it was a worrying moment. Most of all, though, it was a comedic moment. Utterly sitcom material.
People who warn of the risks involved in running or cycling fail to see the potential for comedy in these escapades. Or is it just me these things happen to?
Perhaps I should heed the Bible when it says that “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8) and I should focus on spiritual more than physical training. Then again, perhaps I do already.
At the same time, the Bible also says that “God works all things together for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28) and even my mini-disasters have had positive benefits. At least, that’s how I justify my escapades….