Racing the Reaper Man: The Book

Racing the Reaper Man © Paul Comerford

Here follows the serialisation of the book.

Introduction: Overview

At the very start of this blog, back in January 2016, one of my first posts was entitled, Racing the Reaper Man. It is my metaphor for how we stay ahead of our slowly unwinding existence: by programming, action and choice. Life, after all, is the only countdown that goes up. The use the metaphorical Grim Reaper, that psychopomp of myth and mirth, suits my purpose. In my youth I used the phrase Reaper Man freely, as I was a biker of the less shiny kind, and we all used the term ‘man’ far too much. The best  embellishment of this myth was by the late, great Terry Pratchett, where DEATH became a bit of a rock star. I digress. My metaphor is as follows:

When we are born, a starting pistol fires and we set off along the timeline of life. The Reaper Man starts at the same time, but very slowly, at a fixed pace… notwithstanding innate health issues and accident, everything we chose to do to ourselves can affect our progress. To keep ahead of the Reaper Man, health and fitness are an imperative. Anyone who chooses an unhealthy path will be chased down sooner than they should. Life is never that simple, and there are times this dark figure will gain ground, but for me, I aim to stay ahead as long as I can and make sure he’s out of breath when he taps me on the shoulder. In my novel, Mr Gupta goes to the sea, Gupta sees life in a similar way, but as a triptych: we are born, some procreate, we die. He sees only the first and last phases as a definite event, and the central part is an unknown land about which he believes you can only ever say ‘up to now’ with confidence. More famously by far, Douglas Adams wrote in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, that the meaning of life was worked out as being 42. So, in all these rather mixed metaphors, life – that middle bit – and its philosophical meaning is always up for debate, but never, ever certain.

Although I can become philosophical, I am also a stepper-backer. I have found that most debates forever shrink as they focus on the specks of irritation, rather than a logical, progressive overview. Politics, religion and social media are the greatest subjects for speck-focussing, and life can seem like a series of screaming strap-lines as a result. A statement is not factual without proof – proof is not true unless tested – tests are not certain unless repeatable. Opinions are generally strap-lines for lazy thinkers. Humans naturally believe what they want, based on personal bias, so to look at improving one’s life, it becomes necessary to learn to step back. So, for this blog, and its future incarnation as a book, I will step back and write what I know about making life healthier, fitter and better for the more mature person.  

Will it be my opinion? To a point, yes, but I will avoid the pitfalls outlined in the previous paragraph by explaining that I have carried out repeatable tests to validate what I write. I am my own experiment. Racing the Reaper Man explains pretty much what I have done to the machine that is my body. I’ll cover my early existence only to set the scene, but will focus on how I allowed the Reaper Man to get within touching distance, then gaining ground from my 50s into my 60s. Feel free to test what I place before you. I will never say “you must” as I’m an old rebel, so if I hear those words I tend to immediately think, “Oh, must I?” followed by, “Feck off!” If I haven’t tested something and then embraced it, why bother droning on to others? As the late, great Christopher Hitchens said, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”  

What I will say is, one has choice. This is something that has become diluted in recent times. Generally you are, fitness wise, what you choose to be. How you treat your body is pretty well up to you. I often hear people justifying injurious habits, but never hear the same from those who follow a regime for a fuller, healthier life. Commonplace justifications tend to revolve around perceived rights and negative bias towards the healthy. A choice becomes a self-imposed right. How often have you said or heard:

“I deserved that treat, I’ve been good.”

“It’s Christmas, nothing wrong with letting your hair down.”

“I’m cutting down.”

“You’ve got to eat meat. Vegetarians are always ill.”

“I can’t run, I get bored.”

“You’ve gotta die sometime, so just enjoy it.”

There are hundreds more ways to justify personal bias and injurious habits. Therein lies the biggest hurdle to living rather than existing. Like it or not, we all delude ourself on a regular basis. What I have discovered is, it is best to be honest about it. Not to others, but to ourselves. Very often we evoke partially understood personal rights as a catalyst to apply excuses. My aim is to outline why I found it is my duty to seek a healthier way of living. Racing the Reaper Man is personal to me, and is meant to be applied to the individual. And the key is that word choice. That, I will deal with in another part of this Introduction.

To sum up my intentions, I aim to map out a way to proceed from knowing one needs to do something, removing excuses, choosing to embrace change, and keeping ahead of the Reaper Man.

Introduction: Beginnings

This book is aimed at those of us who are in our 50s and 60s. At the time of writing, with serendipitous synchronisation, it means we came into the world in the 1950s and 1960s. However, with luck and a following breeze, these words may survive and be read by those born later. I hope they have relevance to anyone who wants to get into better shape. Ultimately it is about walking, jogging and running; honesty, desire and application. Thus, after my initial Introduction, this part is a little bit about me. If you don’t know my background, you may think I’m an especially gifted athlete, giving the immediate view that what I show you is beyond any ‘normal’ person’s aspirations. I am just an ordinary fellow with the same frailties of anyone of you. My weaknesses are the same. My desires are the same. My self-justification of injurious habits is the same. Right now I am in my mid-sixties, so I’m also creaking a bit.

I arrived in the world at 29 Woolavington Road, Puriton, Somerset in 1956. The house was demolished back in the 80s, and now that site is a raddled field with a luxurious lacing of briar. Home was an Airey House, a post-war prefab, built on the MoD property of Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF) Bridgwater. After the Second World War several of the ROFs were set up to manufacture these Airey Houses so returning soldiers and their families, had somewhere to live. This set the scene of the most coincidental of conceptions.

paul-comerford-aged-three-small
Me aged three years

My mother worked at the ROF, either in the canteen or stores, and was a war widow. Her first husband, an Irish airman, was killed when his Wellington bomber was shot down. My father, born in 1905, was a career soldier from 1921, serving across the Empire, then had the misfortune to be posted to Singapore a short time before it fell to the Imperial Japanese Army. 3 years and 8 months later, having survived the whole of the Death Railway construction, he was lucky enough to be liberated, then returned home to recuperate in Cornwall, with his Anglo-Irish relatives. Once well enough, he joined the War Department Constabulary and was posted to ROF Bridgwater. There, he met my mother who had a continuing penchant for the Irish, so they fell in love and got married. Married quarters were provided in the form of the flat-topped Airey Houses made in the Factory. I was conceived in that house and was born there. So, I was conceived and born in a house, that was conceived and created in the factory, that provided munitions to win the war, because of which my parents met on the same site. My father died in the house in 1961. That I worked in the same place for 29 years adds to the tale. I wrote a book about the ROF, and after its closure, have become involved in preserving its history, as well as the conception of its new guise as a zero carbon Eco-Park, the Gravity Project. In February 2020 I was in the mind-boggling position of being photographed in building 7/1, in which I often worked, but was also where all the Airey House parts were set and sorted into packs. I had great fun explaining to the people of the Somerset Heritage Trust that they were creating historic pictures of a man who was effectively conceived in what was conceived in that building! 7/1 is to be a heritage building with offices, the walls of which will have the occasional picture of me. How discombobulating is that?

michael-comerford-in-shimla-hills-india
My father Michael Comerford (sitting, smiling, pith helmet at a jaunty angle) in the Shimla Hills in northern India

After my father died my, mother and her four children were given a council house in nearby West Huntspill. After her death, when I was but 17, I found I had no idea how to be an adult. She had been sucked in by a cult of religious morons, and my upbringing was very isolationist and dominated by god-bothering mental and physical abusers telling me how awful I was. Thus, as all good teenagers, I rebelled, became a rather grubby looking biker and stumbled into smoking, drinking and various other unheroic pastimes. Although the bikers, including a regular group of Hell’s Angels, were my friends and effectively saved my life, I was not happy. ‘Lost’ is the only word that fits. As I tried to raise myself, being child, parent and mentor, with only a basic binary biker view of the world, attractive though it was, I rebelled again and got married, ending up working at the ROF from 1978 and living, what I thought, was a ‘normal’ life.

By 1981 I was still smoking, getting chubby and was thoroughly miserable with myself. I was fighting conformity, the cultural concept of normality and accepted mores, due to the chaotic authoritarian drivel that had been fed into my developing mind. This I didn’t know at the time, so there I was existing without thinking, living without any idea of how to become myself. At 20 I had children, a delight I never doubted, yet I was but a child myself. And then, in 1981 I bought a bike, my brother started running, the first London Marathon took place and in February 1982, at the end of the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon at Kona, Julie Moss collapsed 10 yards from the finish and was overtaken by Kathleen McCartney to lose the race. By May 1982 my life changed forever as I will explain next time.

Introduction: Finding a Reset

Key moments in one’s childhood, those events that permanently etch into one’s memory, are seldom stored in any logical way. I remember 1958 when my brother was born – I was 18 months old, but was demoted from front of pram, to sitting at the pushing end. The pram was coach built in navy blue and cream. I remember the last moment I saw my ailing father: I was just 5, he sitting on his bed, gravely ill. He smiled as I turned to his final kiss. He died 11 days after my 5th birthday on 11th October 1961, at the age of 56. Flashes of moments could fill a chapter, but I have clear memories of 1970 when Ron Hill won the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games marathon in 2:09:28. This slight man in a string vest bouncing into the stadium after covering more than 26 miles! I remember being flabbergasted – I’m not sure I knew what a marathon was at 13 years of age, but it remained in my mind.

By 1981 I had worked for the Ministry of Defence at Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF) Bridgwater for 3 years. Completed in 1941, this square mile had produced high explosives for the British Armed Forces for four decades. Little had changed since the 1950s, even with new processes being introduced and, being Government owned, we still had a bus service for workers from local towns. Old, olive green omnibuses, which cost just £2.40 a week, if I remember correctly. I was 24, married with children. I was also unhappy. I felt I was turning into an old man, the wartime infrastructure around me seemed to be turning me into a monochrome stereotype. It was 1981 that my mind adjusted to my own reality and I chose a way that was hard, different and beyond my self-applied accepted normality.

All-roads-lead-to-the-ROF
ROF Bridgwater

In March 1981, I watched the inaugural London Marathon won by American Dick Beardsley and Norwegian Inge Simonsen, who crossed the finish line holding hands in 2:11:48. Joyce Smith set a new UK record to win the women’s race in 2:29:57. A switch was flipped. The following week, at the end of a night shift, I was washing at the end of a long row of white sinks. I looked left and there was a phalanx of tummies, each beautifully bulging to varying extents, and my nascent gut was on the way to joining the symmetry. That moment is also etched on my mind. I was troubled and wondered why most of my friends and colleagues accepted this slow decline from boozy, smoky adolescence into chronic, standard middle age without being a bit scared. I mentioned running a few times but was always laughed at, with warnings that knees exploded if one was daft enough to take it up.

I bought a bike, paying £1.80 a week to a mail order company, to save 60p and ‘get fit’. The mockery was subdued as 60p was a reasonable saving, then, and rumours were rife that the bus service was being axed. I loved cycling. My bike was a standard 3 speed, but the roads were flat and the 6+ miles to work and back, 6 days out of 8, saw me slim down rapidly. I still smoked. Then, in order to get fit for a trip to America, my brother started running. I joined him a few times, but was left in his wake, gasping for air – 2.5 miles was 25 minutes of torture… but another light came on in my mind. It came to me that I was actually making excuses to get fit! I was apologising to my contemporaries for making them feel bad.

I cycled everywhere. I had always been a birder, so cycled to distant reservoirs, hills and forests looking for various species. It was nothing to cycle a 40-60 mile round trip, with a long walk at my destination. By the start of 1982 I was fit, happier and far more aware of a voice in my head telling me to rebel! Smoking: it was expected and expected. I’d only started at 18, for no good reason but to look tough and fit in. It was an addiction. I had a real hatred of being controlled – after a childhood of being brutalised by religious bigots, I had evolved an inner warrior that could cope with any pain. To live in fear of pain from the age of 5 to 15 can effect one in many ways. Eventually, for me, the mental and physical abuse was nothing and puberty sparked my innate father’s genes into life. If one overcomes pain, the thing inflicting it can do no more than cower in defeat. The control nicotine held was really making me angry; if I didn’t have it, I was a craven mess. It’s hold was nothing more than acceptance of self-defeat. I turned 25 in the September and swore I’d never see another birthday as a smoker.

paul-birding-on-a-bike
1981 aged 24 out on my bike, birdwatching

In February 1982 there was a short news item. At the end of something called the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon at Kona, Julie Moss collapsed 10 yards from the finish and was overtaken by Kathleen McCartney to lose the race. In April I watched the second London Marathon, Hugh Jones won in 2:09:24 and Joyce Smith lowered the women’s record to 2:29:43. At that moment anger changed to an absolute decision: I’d give up smoking and run a marathon! My wife thought I was unhinged. As I was still rather young, impetuous and vocal, I announced this at work with absolute confidence. I knew my inner warrior needed something to feed on, so telling everyone meant there was no going back. I had pressed my ‘reset’.

On the 6th May 1982 I stopped smoking. Anything else but total cessation would be to give in to excuses. I pushed the pedals of my bike harder and ignored the withdrawal symptoms. Then, 10 days later, on 16th May 1982, I measured a 5 mile route on an OS Map, cycled 2 miles to the countryside start (too shy to run from my house) and with cheap, flat training shoes started running. Naïvely I ran, fit-to-burst, out and back, ending with a time of 33:40… My heart pounded in my head, I was shaking, slightly wobbly and delighted. I cycled home in a new, undiscovered country. The comment in that first logged entry reads: ‘Sun 16th: Puriton Road – 5ml – 33:49: Tired. Recovered quickly.’ Since then my weeks have always been Sunday to Saturday, and I’ve logged every mile. That first ever week I ran 26 miles. 

I’ll deal with finding a reset in later posts, but I need to say is that it was not easy. It was not easy because, like all Homo sapiens in modern times, we carry ancient genes that instinctively coax us to store energy. We conserve effort and conserve fat, ready for the lean times. We each carry millions of years of genetic code to survive in a natural, hunter gatherer world. Being thrust into a modern, ostensibly civilised world with those genes have caused major mental and physical issues. The reset rests in understanding this.

This is not the end of the story for me, but the start of running thousands of miles, with success and failure, highs and lows. Yet, there was a terrible crash when I reached my 50s. However, initially I put a lot of distance between me and the relentless Reaper Man, his whispered threnody stolen by the breeze of young, arrogant optimism.

Introduction: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

I started running on May 16th 1982. The Running Boom had started, fuelled by the arrival of big city marathons, with lesser races appearing to mop up those unsuccessful with entry lotteries. Some years over 100 marathons could be found in the UK alone and, it became obvious to me, lots of people had found their reset button. Of course, there had always been a running community, but they were almost hidden in plain sight. Now those eccentric few were joined by the new wave of uninitiated, naïve dashers, joggers and doddlers. Running footwear improved and new brands hit the market on an almost weekly basis. I read everything I could and subscribed to several running magazines. This new obsession displaced old habits and I moved into the next stage of the reset – making it a life change.

My flat, cheap training shoes gave me blisters, so, with a windfall by selling a vacuum cleaner, I spent the £19 on a pair of blue and yellow Nike Internationalists. The difference was amazing and I ran with nothing in mind, but to run. I never craved a cigarette and couldn’t afford to drink, so I ran and ran and ran. Then I found I had a local running club, gingerly turned up one night, wondering if I was really good enough to be there, was welcomed with open arms and became a member of Burnham-on-Sea Harriers. They had been formed the year before by an old school chum, Graham, and his friend Brian. When I arrived there was a knot of runners of different abilities. I embraced the culture, wore the yellow club vest with pride and turned up on as many Wednesday evening training nights as I could.

I met great people and some very experienced runners. After a few weeks I entered a marathon at Honiton in October 1982. From my first steps to that race would be 5 months. Could I do it? More to the point I wanted to run a 3:30:00 based on various tables I’d misread in magazines, so naïvely aimed at that. I took up the view that Edmund Hillary extolled, ‘Life’s a bit like mountaineering – never look down.’ A friendly chap from Wells, Bernie, scribbled out a training plan for me, which I adhered to religiously, introducing me to such things as intervals and tempo runs. I lost weight, found structure and factored in my first ever races. A sub-37 minute 6 miler followed by a 1:25:45 half marathon debut showed I was in a good place, and I had learned how to conserve energy. Instead of tearing off and gradually slowing down, I quickly developed a metronomic pace judgement.

honiton-marathon-1982
Honiton Marathon 1982

None of this came easy. I’m no ectomorphic racing snake, but at the compact end of the mesomorphic range. In those early days every training book and magazine had ideal weight charts and I was constantly at the low end of ‘overweight’ even in my best years. So, I ignored the charts and just ran. On October 17th 1982 I lined up at the start of the Honiton Marathon. It was a windy day, post rain and warm. As several hundred people set off, my nerves left me and I stuck to my plan: just under 8 minutes a mile for as long as possible; then, with slowing, I may squeak under that 3:30:00. My memories of the race are sketchy, but I fell in with a chap called Gordon, and we ran in isolation for a long way. I was too quick, but relaxed, so ran in comfort rather than to the watch. At 20 miles I finally experienced that drain of energy heralding ‘The Wall’, but I pushed on, slowing just enough to get to the end. During the final miles I was isolated and anxious. Was some unknown physical issue lurking to strike me down?  The final descent into Honiton was bliss and I pushed it hard in the last mile to record 3:22:54! Around 7:45 pace. Wonderful. I couldn’t walk properly for a week.

Over the next few years I tweaked my training: more miles; two speed sessions a week; hills and dunes; and read endless books. In the end I used Ron Hill’s training methods as he described in his autobiography, The Long Hard Road. He hurt himself in training so that he could never experience anything harder in a race. In his prime, no one could inflict pain on him or, at the very least, could only beat him by supreme effort. Ron would give everything. So, that was my model. An example: I would run the 6 miles to work, do a night shift, run 4 miles to a measured course on a trail near the sea. There I would hammer out 6 x 800m in 2:40 average. Run 2 more miles home. Or I may get in from a night shift and get out on a 16 miler. If I could run well as fatigued as that, any race would be easier. I wanted to break 3 hours and managed 2:58:20 in 1984. Using a similar training regime, in 1985 I ran 2:54:12. So, against all the formulas I could find, and all the doubt inside, and having been selected for the 1986 London Marathon, I set sub-2:50 as my goal. I was brutal, and on a couple of weeks topped 100 miles. I ran a 1:18:13 half marathon which blew my mind, then, on the day, had the single, most perfect race ever, finishing in 2:49:15.

1986-london-marathon
London Marathon 1986 (2.49.15 corrected time)

Introduction: “You are finished!”

By now I was as fit as ever I would be and I was wondering how fast I could get. But things were not right. As Edmund Hillary also said, ‘Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain.’ The gradual crumbling of my married life had started and I had not noticed. With my self-built view of how life should be, my naïvety began to warp my vision of domestic bliss. What could possibly go wrong? Well, just about everything.

My slow descent to 20 years in the wilderness started in what could have been my best year ever: 1987. I was 30 and at my peak but, with hindsight, several things happened which, to a wiser, more mature person, would have rung alarm bells. I’d passed my driving test and had a car. For once I had a little spare cash and it was great to be able to take my young family on trips that didn’t involve cycling. I stopped the ride to work as well, so was losing a little training. Yet I followed my successful schedule from the previous year and entered the Amsterdam Marathon. It would be flat! I ambitiously set 2:48:00 as my new goal and set about making it happen. A 1:18:40  half marathon showed I was on course and, even without cycling to work, my endurance seemed fine. Unbeknownst to me, I was using banked credit: effectively carrying the previous year’s conditioning with me.

12 years of shift work in a brutal recurring programme (6 mornings-2 off-6 nights-2 off-6 afternoons-2 off, then on again with mornings) had isolated me from the regular world. Cracks were showing in my marriage and I never recognised the severity of the symptoms. Yet, I arrived at the start of the Amsterdam Marathon and made one small error – on a cold May day, in a country where the wind blows over chilled water, I wore a brief half-mesh vest, shorts and no base layer. I set off at a fast, even pace, and settled in with a few runners who could clip out 6:10 miles. Halfway in 1:21:20 and I was flying! It was around 20 miles that a huge stitch hit me in the upper ribs and, even though I was full of energy, slowed to 8 minutes-a-mile. The chill was to blame; I had cramped in my least active muscles and had to watch runners go by. Then, with 3.5 miles left the stitch went and my pace soared back to 6:15s, but the damage was done and my final time was 2:51:32. I’ve recalculated what could have been over the years. Those 3 8-minute-miles added, probably, 4.5 minutes to what I was in shape to do. That stitch! 2:46 was on the cards, but it was not to be. I never broke 3 hours again.

Amsterdam Marathon 1987
Number 3039 Amsterdam Marathon 1987 – my last Sub-3 hour race

By the start of the 90s my world fell apart. Divorce and its endless repercussions had pushed running into an unstructured heap in a corner and by the end of the 90s I’d stopped racing at all. What a decade! Traveling and embracing new worlds were heavily tempered by a second divorce, a socialising habit fuelled by drinking and living at 9 different addresses. But I kept running and stayed in reasonable shape. The hardest thing to deal with was my lack of confidence in being true to myself. I constantly tried to adjust to other’s expectations, but I could only maintain such emotional ruses for a few months. From 1992 to 2002 my average relationship lasted less than a year and at the end of that time the fitness I had banked was at an end. In 2001 I ran fewer than 100 miles.  

I’d lost everything twice over. My energy, once used for running well, was focussed on rebuilding my life. At one point I was surviving on less than £30 a week after fulfilling my financial responsibilities. During that period I discovered my rather blinkered drive to fitness had caused resentment in some quarters, something that, up to that point, had never really registered. Three words became the crowing triumph from some of those I considered friends. I had the same phrase fired at me several times – “You are finished!” I started to realise my perception of life was not how things really were. Those words stuck.

By now I was commuting to my home county from a new life in West Sussex. My partner was a heavy drinker and my own drinking became exceptional. I even started smoking cigars and, once the drink had really soaked into the relationship, I ballooned to nearly 16 stones (224lbs/101kg). Even so, I still ran sporadically and lifted big weights in my local gym. Yet, by now all the banked fitness had gone. I ran, just to be fit enough to run. There was no joy, just habit. I reached my lowest point in 2008.

In 2007 I had left my job of 29 years and became a Civil Servant in West Sussex. My body was a mess. Health problems appeared and by the end of 2008 I had high blood pressure, a hiatus hernia and struggled lacing up my shoes. I also hated myself. Trying to conform to other people’s ideas, driven by the need to be accepted, had only made me betray what actually is me. “You are finished!” It was used again and again. And, I suppose, if life is judged in the short term, I was. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I can now see clearly what the issue was. If one is fit and healthy, driven and fundamentally prone to laughter, many people resent it. Not even knowingly. When someone like that falls, it justifies personal biases about one’s own lack of self-preservation. But that knowledge was still some years away.

Ecuador 2009 The 53 year old wreckage I became
Ecuador 2009 The 53 year old wreckage I became…

At the very start of 2009, having reached my lowest point, a light came on somewhere in the dusty recesses of my mind. Racing the Reaper Man, as a concept was born and I woke up. Just as well as I was slowly killing myself and my metaphorical Reaper Man was just inches from catching me. Five more years would pass before I found a consistent way back, but even that was full of pitfalls, unseen events and several giant stumbles. I became my own experiment.

Introduction: I gave up once and nobody noticed

I discovered between 1987 and 2009 that one can exist without living. There is a strong cultural influence on how you lead your life and this may not always be a positive thing. I realised early on that accepting as fact, those mores steeped in tradition with no base in fact, are generally destructive. We can stop giving logical thought to things and accept that undefined voice of authority, following blindly convictions born of faith and favour. Instead of using logic and factual reasoning, human beings act as a herd, bleating untruths as a mantra for belonging. For the purpose of this blog, I will refer to this as lazy thinking. One effectively exists in a self-imposed bias-bubble. Living is being free.

Earlier I wrote about those three barbed words, “You are finished!”, and to me, that became my voice of authority. The relentless war of attrition I had allowed to influence my life had turned me into everything I hated. I was overweight, unhealthy, eating badly, smoking cigars, had stained teeth and only exercising enough to constantly reinforce how far I had fallen. I was not only finished, but I had given up trying. After rebelling and resetting in 1982 I spent all the years from 1987 becoming an extra stomach in a phalanx of others, side-by-side at a metaphorical row of sinks. Those predictors of my demise had long gone, so in giving up I discovered another thing – nobody noticed.

On January 1st 2009 I gave up smoking for the second time in my life. I started to jog a bit more and upped my training at the gym. In an act of over-exuberance I booked a climbing trip to Ecuador. I had 7 months to get fit. I also reduced my drinking and “became boring” as my partner was fond of saying. “You are finished!” resurfaced, but my lowest point was behind me, I was taking back control. Yes, you really are what you want to be, and if you are not happy, change things. That was my nascent philosophical mantra. It was a fight, however, because my new drive had shown I may not be finished and I was projecting positive energy. This was a threat to a deluded drinker. Ecuador was not very successful. I’d lost 16lbs, but was still a hefty 15 stones, and I had not really started to reverse the damage inflicted over the previous decade or so. Suffice to say, I reached 5000m, but was wiped out. Then, just as I was feeling better, collapsed on the slopes of beautiful Cotopaxi with an explosive bout of food poisoning.

Phone calls home were tepidly reserved at best and upon my return, she announced she was off. By October I was alone in my house, broke, with a bed, some sun loungers and a TV. A ton weight was lifted, and even though it cost me every penny I had, I was finally free to try and get back to sanity and fitness.

paul-in-ecuador
Ecuador was not a total disaster

Ecuador was not a total disaster. It had shown that my inner strength was still intact, I had seen a beautiful country and met my great friend, Harvey, who convinced me to start writing. It has also allowed me to start Racing the Reaper Man, to develop a philosophy and apply ideas about health, wellbeing and fitness to myself. So, I gave up once, and nobody noticed, but as I got back on the road again, as a real runner, I was a happy rebel once more. At the very end of 2009 I stood in the debris of my own lazy thinking, yet I had my thumb on the reset button. It started with sunrise in a Tunisian salt pan, on a trip into the Sahara. Then, upon my return, by sheer accident, met the woman who became my Passepartout.

paul-in-tunisia
A trip to the Sahara

My Passepartout accepted me for who I am. She became my companion and equal in all things, but most of all believed in me. As well as being an exceptional artist, a free thinker and a fierce protector, she is the kindest person I have ever met. Our lives had taken us through similar filters, but we each have different strengths which make us a single, extended being. The knowledge that if I fall, she will always be there to catch me is a priceless gift. For the first time I can feel love as a beneficent infection.

with-passepartout
With Passepartout

This Introduction has a purpose. It gives a biopic of who I was, how I got to now and where my philosophy comes from. All our lives are peppered with many, many events. Each road is unique, but we all have one thing in common – we get older. This book is aimed at those of us who reach and surpass 50 or 60, mainly because I have. Of course, my life has been far more complex than the synopsis that I’ve recounted. What I have aimed to do is keep it focussed on health, wellbeing and fitness. We were all fitter at one time, whether through youthful exuberance, military careers, football, tennis, fit classes or walking, ad infinitum. My tale is just another take on the same theme. Racing the Reaper Man’s staring point is not when I was in the prime of youthfulness. Most of us have pictures of our younger, naïve, slimmer selves. My starting point is where I had fallen into a terrible state in my 50s.

As I write this Introduction I am 63. I intend not only to recount how I returned to fitness, but will also cover the future months of my journey, to which I am still applying my own methods. This has been compounded by the Coronavirus pandemic, which also means I’m writing this under the lockdown conditions first set up on 23rd March 2020. This has given me a new challenge – to stagnate, or try to exit lockdown in better shape. Ultimately, I will finally compete in my first organised ultra marathons, my entries now having been pushed back to 2021.

So, as I am my own experiment, I give you a book based not only on what I have done and why I did it, but also a narrative of how it is panning out ‘live’, as it were. I will share the past and the coming months with you. Starting over was the hardest thing I have ever done, but worth every minute. Rather than existing, race the Reaper Man with me and see what we can achieve when it comes to living.

2021 A Racing the Reaper Man Year

Some months ago, I wrote the Introduction to my book, Racing the Reaper Man which I am initially serialising on this website, and will add to as time progresses. To make it authentic for my target readers in the 50 – 60+ age groups, I had always planned to use 2023 as the year in which I literally lived all of my own methods ‘live’, to underpin the advice in the book. After this I would pull the book together for publishing in a viable format. That target year would see me in retirement, so I could focus without other commitments. But, life is not that simple.

2020 became the most bizarre year of the century. The Covid-19 pandemic’s effect will be remembered by all the generations who lived it. It was no different for me. Working from home and spending around 10 months out of 12 in isolation, I found my enforced solo lifestyle had stealthily ingrained some destructive habits. To those on the outside looking in, I was a healthy living, dedicated runner, but that was only partially true. To paraphrase Dean Karnazes, I had become so comfortable, I was miserable. So it prompted me to use 2021 as a new start, even though the pandemic was still firmly in control.

As I ground out 141 miles in December to reach my 2020 target of a nice, round 1000, the bad habits I had allowed to affect my daily life became an unwanted burden. Circumstances had put me in the right place to make 2021 the perfect Racing the Reaper Man Year. My daily mileage from 27th December was: 6; 10; 10; 10; 6. I had a momentum I did not want to break, so on January 1st 2021 grasped the nettle. As I state in my book’s introduction, I had ‘pressed the reset’.

Serendipitously, coinciding with this dynamic decision, my Personal Trainer, Martin Sorenson, needed a long-time subject for his MSc dissertation. As my goals of losing weight, strengthening my core, improving speed and training for 3 ultramarathons fit his requirements, we formed a partnership. My book and Martin’s MSc became the focal point we both needed. It also reduced any chance of a way out for either of us, so we are committed.

2020 – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Until the Covid-19 Pandemic took hold, I was still commuting to London three days a week. My life had structure. I had control of food intake and alcohol consumption. In 2015 I had reached a point of fitness where I could run 28 miles in under 4:45:00 in training. My low point in life during 2008 was behind me. I’d dropped from a peak of 16 stones, to 12 stones and 7 pounds. I hit 2016 travelling in hope, but little did I know I had 3 years of illness and turmoil ahead. Minor bad habits became major crutches and the after effects of severe illness and a course of Ciprofloxacin saw me dealing with various tendon pains until the end of 2020. Last year was to be my first year clear of major issues, but, of course, life has a way of confounding one. 

My low point in life during 2008

Lockdown, from March, became a two-edged sword. I had no need to commute, but also lost 15 hours a week reflection and reading time. The train was my reading and writing place. It allowed me to dream of many things. Working at home meant I was always in the office, and Covid-19 was also part of my risk management role, so the pressure was sustained and relentless. I could never shut off as my decisions always had long term ramifications – I had to keep people safe. I had a bit of a crisis in April as the unrelenting pressure left me emotionally shattered. Yet, I rallied with the coming of spring and slipped into a comfortable routine that encompassed my best and worst habits.

16 weeks of isolation were eased by taking to my local trails. I did long runs of up to 20 miles in the sunshine, and set about exploring every local footpath I could find. I ran up onto the chalk downs and scuttled around the coastal trails. I introduced more core work and maintained a reasonable level of fitness. That I was in good shape for a 63-year-old was enough, and turning 64 was no issue. However, my two ultra marathon debut races had been cancelled, so I had no real goal and slipped into a daily cycle that may surprise a lot of people. I drank an average of 31 units of alcohol a week! The calories I burned running barely balanced the excessive intake of booze. Running had become an enabler to pour alcohol down my throat and stuff convenience junk food snacks into my face. 

Looking at my training log for the year, several statistics jumped out at me:

  1. My alcohol consumption of around 1630 units worked out as 96,000+ kcal.
  2. That added around 2000 kcal of useless input to my weekly intake.
  3. Without that I would be around 14lbs lighter.
  4. My barrel chest was also a barrel gut.
  5. That 1000 miles was achieved in spite of not running at all for 195 separate days!
  6. My diet still included lots of junk, even though I do not eat meat.
  7. I achieved my running in constant hangover recovery.
  8. I was underachieving and unhappy with how I felt.
  9. My health recovery had paused at the altar of perceived comfort.
  10. The ‘comfort’ was not real – I was often depressed.
  11. My habits gave a bad example and enabled others not to get fit.

2020 – the final 42 miles to The Reset

A six miler, three 10 milers in a row and a final six: I’d reached my 1000.  Every mile I was in deep thought, but over those 5 days I still consumed 43.6 units of booze! I was sick of alcohol, but poured it in every evening; then, the next day, ground out those miles. Yet, for once, it was considered: I had been reading, strategising and planning. By New Year’s Eve I had juxtaposed how I felt against what I desired. I knew January 1st 2021 would be a very new start.

I had initially had a rough idea as to what I wanted to achieve in 2021. Then, I read Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s new book, Eat Better Forever. I collect cookery books of favourite authors, and usually skim through the prose and use the recipes, but this one was different. It explained the differences between food groups, how our ‘treats’ and food preferences are most often based upon manufacturers understanding our primitive minds. They create food we crave, hit our ‘sweet spot’ and we up our consumption thinking we enjoy it. A packet of crisps is a case in point: the more we eat, the more we crave. Science and marketing, pure and simple. The proof of this marketing brilliance is the increase in obesity in the western culture. Even being overweight is now acceptable, as there are so many much heftier people about to dilute the perceived lesser danger.

I have become sure that we no longer wean our children into a wonderful world of subtle and fantastic tastes, rather they tend to be hit with mighty junk food taste bombs. In a short period, a healthy diet becomes ‘bland’ and unappealing. It is hardly surprising. I grew up in the transition culture. From lots of exercise and unprocessed home cooking, to becoming adult and getting into the convenience food and social media driven world. Urgency in everything overtook gentle reflection. Food became something to stuff quickly in ones cake hole, and the taste bomb took the place of savouring new flavours. Thus, I too had weaned myself into bad habits, born of incipient junk food propaganda and chemical wizardry. So, The Reset: for the whole of 2021 I will live the adjustments I conceived and apply Martin’s strength and speed techniques. I invite you to watch what can happen if you reset your life by positivity and shrug off learned bad habits. At all times, remember I reached over 16 stones (225lbs/102kg) at the age of 52, so reaching this point has taken years of reflection, application and, at times, demoralisation. Also remember, I have the same cravings as any one and subconscious weaknesses to grab for a reward – junk food, booze and prolonged arse-sitting. I am human. I am 64. But I know older age can be loaded in our favour. My January overview will appear here very soon. 

Racing the Reaper Man in 2021

A Racing the Reaper Man Year: January 2021

In my opening Blog Post introducing my Racing the Reaper Man Year, I explained how being fit but retaining unnecessary habits, kept me in a self-imposed Limbo of not quite resetting my life for the better: the pandemic had the same effect on me as everyone else. My stubborn final drive to run 1000 miles for 2020, covering 141 miles in December, liberally laced with red wine as a reward, changed my mindset. I decided to stop kidding myself and put my philosophy into action. Thus, armed with hindsight and moving firmly forward, I started to put my ideas into a year-long journey. This post is about my first month ‘being my own experiment’.

On January 1st I had reached my sixth day of running at least a mile, and I planned to keep that going for as long as having no excuses would let me. I gave up drinking ‘for a month’ and applied some heavy pruning to my diet. Butter was gone: it was replaced with finest olive oil. No refined sugar, chocolate, crisps, pies and those nutrition-free ‘treats’ the whole Western World are addicted to. In came grains, nuts, locally sourced fruit and veg, and 0% alcohol beer. My bread consumption dropped to a loaf of locally baked sourdough rye for the week. This was a ‘live’ learning curve which I intended to refine as I went, and I was dead-set to reject my diet if I found it awful. I have not eaten meat for years, but kept sustainable fish in, and retained only cheese as a dairy product – this sourced from Britain.

Locally-sourced farm shop fodder

My aim is to reach certain targets as the year progresses and to report honestly how it affects me, and how my life changes. January was the reset month where I allowed myself time to adjust and make errors. So, on January 1st my starting point statistics were:

  • Age 64
  • Weight: 13st 5lbs (187lbs/84.8kg)
  • BMI: 27.6
  • Belly circumference: 38 inches/96.52cm

For years I have counted my daily calorific intake and for this year determined to consume no more than a ‘passive’ 2000kcal a day. This is not purely scientific, but without a laboratory and funding, I developed a rough benchmark to work from. It goes thus: using online calculators for calories burned whilst running, I found that I was projected to burn an extra 125 or 150 kcal per mile. I took a baseline figure of 130 kcal. So, I would count all my calories in through the day, then subtract 130 per mile ran as follows:

Running 6 miles eating 2000 calories: 2000 – (6×130) = 2000 – 780 = 1220 kcal day’s balance.

Not perfect, but far from cheating. If I stuck to 2000kcal a day and ran 40 miles a week, I would soon fall over. Trust me, it works very, very well. And, I will prove it this year.

I committed myself to a weekly core strength session a week with my Personal Trainer, Martin Sorenson. He is working on his MSc, so is going to use me as a small part of his work. On top of this, I would do a single core workout exercise each day, along with some shoulder strengthening and mobility exercise – I’d had a cortisone jab in my left shoulder to ease several years of pain from a damaged rotator cuff, and needed to bring it back to normal.

My targets are 12st 4lbs (172lbs/78kg) by May 1st; a couple of ultra-marathons; and try to crack a 7-minute mile by the end of the summer. My organised 50k was postponed until October, so I determined to run a solo time trial over the same distance in the spring.

How did I fare in January?

I started with the commitment of the newly converted, but was aware that this was not a short-term regime. I was prepared for self-doubt and negative thoughts surfacing as excuses. Yet, the longer I avoided booze, the easier it became. By the second week I had no craving at all. I remained true to my diet needs and there was no junk.  My daily food intake was averaging 1600kcal and I started to feel much better. In January I ran 116 miles – running every day. I had completed 4 x 11-mile long runs and was pleased to have been alcohol free for a month. Relevant stats:

  • Age 64
  • Weight: 13st 0lbs (182lbs/82.6kg) – down 5lbs/2.27kg
  • BMI: Down from 27.6 to 26.9
  • Avg kcal/day = 1544

As I had been drinking too much in 2020, it came as a relief to commit to abstinence. My sleep pattern became erratic for a while, then, by the end of the month, had settled and I was getting proper rest. I began eating regularly in small amounts through the day, so I was never really hungry. My final meal of the day was no larger than 750kcal and eaten before 20:00. That way I effectively fasted for over 12 hours most days.

Core training once a week was initially hard, but as I started trimming down, I found exercise was becoming less of a burden – I was no longer training through a daily hangover. My runs were starting to be fun again, and photographing my progress for Facebook posts encouraged me to run as many varied routes as I could.

Swerving along the rooty trails in January

The first month was a test as everything was new. My mental processes were very strange as I would imagine excuses not to run automatically. It was as if my body and mind were conspiring against the change. However, once out in the cold I was fine, so one has to be aware of that inner voice. It stems from the primitive instinct not to expend energy, store fat and rest until the no-longer-relevant time of hardship arrives. That is the main message I have for January. Your stone age self has a built-in set of triggers designed to save energy. As modern humans we must override this, as energy stored as fat is no longer a requirement for survival, but its corruption is certainly a modern killer. Pressing the reset takes commitment, but it has been well within me so far. Contact me if you have any questions or comments.

Looking across to a bitterly cold Bosham in January

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