My sons run. I rarely watch them in shorter races but marathons are different. So much time invested; such discipline, training and preparation; markers set for personal improvement. That degree of effort deserves support in its own right, but also, I like watching. The larger events are awash with atmosphere and humanity: competitors from the silent, skeletal knots of African elites, invariably leading, through to the overweight, the joggers and the walkers. Costumed runners; joyful runners; haggard and struggling runners; hobbling, shuffling, waddling. They’re all here – and I applaud them for lining up, for having a go.
But I’m ahead of myself. The Brighton marathon runs in April; this year it was just a couple of weeks after we moved. I might have given it a miss this year. But both boys had entered and I’m not sure that I’ve ever missed a marathon when one or other son has been running. And also, B’s daughter, Claire, was very keen to come and watch. I decided that a flying visit was necessary. Indeed, it could have literally been a flying visit: I could have tried out the daily flights from Newquay to Gatwick. But I opted for the train. Better the devil you know, perhaps.
Train tickets were purchased: arrive one day, return home the next. Then Russ withdrew through injury. And Claire pulled out of coming to watch through illness. About half an hour before I was due to arrive, Ellie called. Young Benji had finally succumbed to his brother’s tummy bug from earlier in the week; it looked unlikely they would be able to join me to watch. Plans were unravelling…
Yet again, I’m ahead of myself. First we have the train journey. It takes about six hours. I enjoy train journeys. I’ve taken the train from London to Cornwall before. It’s a beautiful route for much of the way, some of it hard against the sea and the red-rock cliffs. The train can be crowded. I’d reserved my seat in the quiet coach – lovely! The train arrives; I climb aboard; I find my seat; a young man is sitting in it. We compare tickets. He politely points out I’m showing him my return ticket. I mutter my apologies and stumble to the other end of the carriage. An elegant, well-dressed Indian gentleman appears to know I am coming. He asks for my seat number and indicates the window seat next to him. I had been peering at the reservation cards above the seats: only now as I sit down do I notice the permanent seat numbers marked on the overhead luggage racks along each side of the carriage. So much easier to see. Ah well. I settle down; he settles down; all is well.
I read; I write a little; I watch the passing scenery. The Indian gentleman falls asleep. There is a crash; my Kindle has slipped from the pull-down table onto the floor – underneath the gentleman’s legs. This presents a dilemma. I make a decision and act upon it. He wakes whilst I’m feeling about under his legs. I mutter my apologies and turn away. Suddenly I find the view from here – out of the window and away from my companion – is exquisitely fascinating and holds my attention for a very long while.
The train runs on to London but I alight at Reading – where I would have met Claire. I was not prepared for the onslaught: the noise and the bustle. The trappings of modern civilisation burst upon me like an army of frenzied highlanders hell-bent on vanquishing the invader. Platform announcements, people rushing, people pushing, people talking. I breathe hard. My connection arrives. No reservations possible on this train and no quiet carriage. The train is dirty and noisy and rocks a lot. Across the aisle, in full view from where I sit, two teenage girls chew gum with their mouths open. I realise they are with adult women – their mothers possibly? The girls are not checked for the open-mouthed chewing; they work that gum with gusto. I find myself compelled to keep looking at them just to see if they’re still chomping and always, they are. Just two weeks of rural peace and tranquillity, and a return to the ‘real world’ appals me. I feel like I’ve landed on a different planet and I’m stunned at my reaction to it. I’m so busy being stunned that I fail to notice when the gum-chomping girls leave the train. I sneak another surreptitious look to check them again and they’re gone.
The final change is at Gatwick, which of course, is busier still. Hordes of people moving every which way, clutching bags; pushing, carrying, pulling suitcases; backs weighed down with rucksacks; departing for or arriving from far-flung shores; tired faces from those arriving, bright anticipation lighting the faces of those departing. Holidays loom… But I like airports, and airport stations and I’m acclimatising to my return to the busyness of the south-east. And soon I arrive at Ellie’s.
Little Benji is desperate to eat and drink, but every smidgeon he ingests is speedily evacuated. The laundry pile grows. Mercifully after a final throwing up in his bed, he sleeps through the night and we all bed down. He is to stay with his father tomorrow so that Ellie and Evan and I can go and watch. Poor Ben feels sufficiently rotten in the morning that he really doesn’t mind that we’re leaving him.
Back to the train station; more tickets bought. Evan wants to look after his own ticket. I feel this is not a good idea and he accepts this gracefully. There is a problem on the line; trains are not running to schedule. Planned attempts to hook up with Tom’s girlfriend on the train meet with unanswered texts. We reach Brighton later than intended and feed into the crowd pouring onto the platform. I can’t find the tickets. In future I must remember to let Evan have charge of all of them: very much safer.
Tickets found, station behind us, we head downwards towards the seafront and the runners and our scheduled first viewing spot. We’re old hands at this; we know where best to stand to support and cheer. We’re still trying to raise Amy and also trying to hook up with Russ. Perhaps because we were pushed for time, we turned off earlier than we should have done. Perhaps. Anyway, we came upon the course unexpectedly. There were runners on it and look – there’s Tom, already! We shout and wave and call encouragements which he doesn’t hear above the crowd and because he’s not expecting to see us at this point. Not that we knew where ‘this point’ was. We only knew that it wasn’t at mile three; and we were on the wrong side of the course to reach mile three. Still no word from Amy, but Russ was in position and waiting for us.
We hustled poor Evan along as fast as his five-year-old legs could manage, hugging the route, dodging the crowds and looking for a place to cross. Finally, we made it. After more frantic texting we found Russ, and eventually, Amy. A flag and a whistle were acquired – essential kit; we cheered Tom on as he passed the three-mile mark; coffees were brought, the sun was shining; we had caught up with ourselves and were back on schedule.
We saw Tom at mile five and again around mile twelve. He was running with a group from his club, all running in tight formation: their own version of the Kenyan athletes – some way off, at the head of the racing snake. They looked strong, and if anything were ahead of time.
The sun was still shining; we had a chance to soak up some atmosphere. Brighton is a brilliant place; I’ve always loved it. And the Brighton residents were out in force for their Sunday morning perambulation. I so desperately wanted to take a photo of the massive leather-clad, tattooed man with his heavy chains, his shaved head and his chiwawa with her pink studded collar. I desperately wanted to but… There were cyclists and strollers; people on skates; people with dogs of all shapes, colours and sizes (though none as small as the chiwawa or with pink studded collars). And then of course, there were the spectators. Lining the route waving and cheering, holding aloft banners and flags and clutching paper cups and ice creams and holding tight to small children. “Go, Daddy”; “We love you, Mummy”; “Run, John, Run”.
And they ran. For a long stretch of the route along the seafront the course doubles back on itself. The faster runners are homeward bound, the slower masses are heading out towards the halfway point and beyond. So there’s plenty to see, and plenty to listen to, including dancers and musicians for when you need a break from the stream of running bodies. When the sun is shining, as it was this year, there’s a carnival atmosphere.
We were in place to shout for Tom at the eighteen-mile point. One of his group appeared first; he’d broken away. Then came the rest of them. Without Tom. Quiet gasps and shocked faces. He came into view. Still running but all wrong. He gestured to us that it was all over. Another race, another target missed; he could never make his time now. We turned to walk back to our final viewing point near the finish and just a short time later the news came through that he’d pulled up. The tiniest of injuries, the mildest of strains, but when you’re running twenty-six miles that’s enough to ruin the dream. He could have finished, jogged the remainder of the course for a slow, lacklustre finishing time. But the injury would have worsened and the achievement of finishing did not merit the risk. He’s finished marathons before, and this year he wasn’t running for a charity. He was right to pull out. Neither son would get a finisher’s medal this year.
We’d agreed to meet up for lunch. A chance to celebrate – that was the intention – before I jumped on the train home again. We still had lunch – at a fantastic diner with great music and soundless Tom and Jerry cartoons, which held Evan transfixed whilst we all assembled and waited for our food. The food was good, as were the shakes. Tom was disappointed but sanguine, as always. And Russ brought along Paul – who was lovely. He’s an ultra-runner. He had recently become world champion in the 100k road race. He’d run the marathon today, pacing for a group of first-timers hoping to break three hours. And he looked like he’d just taken a stroll in the park.
Meal enjoyed, good-byes exchanged, commiserations offered; I headed home. Same route, with longer gaps between connections, it being mid-afternoon on a Sunday. This time I rather enjoyed the people watching. There was a particularly joyful and exuberant family on the platform at Reading Station. They remained joyful and exuberant all the way to Exeter where they got off. The quiet carriage isn’t really intended for bright, inquisitive and very chatty young boys. A few of us bridled and bristled and one or two turned around and stared pointedly, but no one actually asked the parents to keep the children quiet. What would have been the point? The children weren’t miserable or argumentative; they were simply children. The parents remained cheerful and good-natured and seemingly oblivious to the disturbance caused to everyone else. And that was the best way to be. And eventually they did get off the train.
Which they managed more successfully than I did. It was ten o’clock when we pulled in, on time, to Liskeard. The train still had another ninety minutes to travel but there were very few passengers in the quiet carriage by then. I gathered my bag and headed for the door. How to get off? How to open the door? There was no brightly flashing button to press; no handle to push down. I was at a loss – and saw myself still there, on the train, as it pulled away from the platform. What to do? I heard a noise – someone else alighting close-by! I rushed towards the sound – in time to see the woman pulling down the window and using the handle on the outside. Good gracious, I thought that type of train door had gone out with the ark! Very thankful, I followed her onto the platform. I’ve travelled since and of course, there are clear signs instructing one on how to open the door. I don’t doubt those instructions were right in front of my nose as I stood quietly panicking on that Sunday evening.
But at least I did get off, and B was there to collect me and I’d managed my first trip away from Cornwall without permanent mishap. And it was wonderful to come home again. Quiet, soft rain was falling and darkness wrapped around us. And warm welcoming lights twinkled in the house to greet my return. Cornwall is where I belong.