I watched England tumble out of the European football championships last night. I don’t know much about our national game but I know those players are better than that. They had a bad, bad night. I know how they feel.

You are on the start line, primed and ready and carefully trained to tackle a distance you’ve covered easily before. You are as well prepared and motivated as you can be. You are kitted out in the latest new gear. You look good, you feel good, your best friend and most faithful training partner is there at your side. Bring it on. Somebody say ‘go’. Fire than gun and let’s take this…

Bang! Only we have a problem, Houston. The moment the gun goes, you realise that you are the one that’s shot. For some reason, you feel weak, you’re heavy-legged and short of breath. Some overweight jogger from the back of the field has fiendishly swapped bodies with you while you weren’t looking. This can’t be me. I ran like the wind yesterday, now suddenly I am running into the wind! Never mind, I can grind my way through this. It’s just a temporary blip, normal service will be resumed if I lengthen my stride, relax and find a rhythm. I am better than this, I am invincible, my body will ‘just do it’ if I push it a little harder. Wrong.

We do ask a lot of our bodies. Life in a busy, bustling city demands more energy and focus than we sometimes realise. The hours of exercise are ultimately full of net benefits but there are taxes to pay on them. They take a short-term toll. They have to fit around other demands and stresses. We are not machines, we have cycles and moods, emotional highs and lows. We have computer screens and car seats and the British weather for daily company. We need to be adaptable, understanding, even patient from time to time. We get one life, one body. And here I am on a stunning Italian hillside with 21km of challenge to complete in the Cortina Skyrace and my body is saying, “nah, sorry, not today.”

I knew I could run 21km as sure as I knew I was capable of the 1000ft climb. Hey, I’m just back from a big, big hole in the earth that calls itself the Grand Canyon. This is a little lump by comparison. I had a team of likeminded, challenge-hungry runners around me with enough accompanying excitement, motivation and energy to sweep me up the north face of the Eiger but my body had decided to take its annual leave today.

From the very first step I knew I was running on empty. So what did I do?… I did the only thing open to me… I panicked. I panicked I would let Em down, I panicked my body would let me down. The heat was one thing and the climb was another but suddenly I had bigger elements to deal and cope with. All of the great expectations I had flown over with, the boundless enthusiasm I’d felt for the approaching experience was under challenge. My entire mind-set had changed, or BEEN changed. Perhaps I had been naïve, maybe even a little complacent. I knew the Skyrace was to be no easy feat but did I think it was a stroll in the park compared to the Canyon Run? Did I assume that my inbuilt passion and persistence would automatically get me through any ‘walls’ that appeared? Was I already unwittingly thinking about the next challenge? Had I turned this into a fun run?

I was having no fun at all! I had picked a fight with a tired and discouraged body and done so at the bottom of a big hill that we had to climb together. I needed to be cruel to be kind. I couldn’t let my complaining muscles win. I had to listen to them and persuade them to come with me on this one but I had to back my willpower in this particular contest. I won’t lie and say I loved every minute of the 3 hours and 5 minutes it took us to complete the course but the pain produced its own gains. What I did love was the growing realisation that I was not going to give in. These challenges are not called challenges without reason. They aren’t meant to be easy and they are actually designed to question our sanity, to test body AND mind. It’s why we do them. If you don’t live and learn, you don’t live. The lessons I learnt at Cortina will never be forgotten and will always be packed away in my luggage for future adventures.

I learnt I am not invincible and that I cannot expect my body to sail through every challenge regardless of what else I am asking of it. Preparation involves rest as well as training, it must take into account mental and emotional considerations as well as physical ones. It must be challenge specific. It was a day to make peace with my body and make it a few promises for the future…

I will rest more… more than I sometimes want to.
I will also train more and more specifically… train tougher than the challenge requires.
I will listen more… listen to the creaks and groans of my body, listen to expert advice.

And with these three promises, I make a new deal with my body. I am sure that further negotiations will follow with further experiences. Much as I didn’t want it to be, that was indeed my body that was straining and stumbling to the Skyrace finishing line. Wherever my next trail happens to be, I will be taking that same body along with me. We’ve got to stay friends. We’re going to have bad days, bad races just as certainly as I’m going to have bad hair days and bad hangovers. I’ve just got to come up with a list of lessons learnt that make us stronger together. My body and I have kissed and made up now, we can even joke about it a bit and, with a little more consideration for what I’m asking of my body, I’m hoping the next challenge won’t hurt quite so much.

As for England… come on Wales!


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