That first run was dreadful. I imagine I looked like Bigfoot, captured on that famous grainy video taken in the 1960s. I felt heavy, ungainly and uncoordinated. I was so embarrassed I used to get up at dawn so no one would see me stumbling along. For the first two months I could barely run, my back and feet hurt, and at times I collapsed onto the ground sobbing because the target of running five kilometres seemed an impossible dream. But every day I picked myself up – mentally, physically and emotionally – and continued to put one step in front of the other.
I remembered those days recently as I stood catching my breath after skiing to the far end of a high alpine plateau, immersed in the visual splendour of the winter playground, which stretched as far as I could see. I pondered my journey from the rolling hills of lowland England to the peaks and lakes of Southern New Zealand. The journey took me from being a competitive national rower in my teens, through being hospitalised and barely able to move, to regaining my health and becoming an engaged Dad sharing my love of outdoor pursuits with my children.
I had always enjoyed sports that enabled me to travel simply, and at speed, through the countryside. Trail running, road biking, rowing and, most recently, Nordic skiing. It was never about the fitness per se, more about being within the environment. I also studied and honed the ancient skills of foraging for wild foods and building woodland shelters, so I saw myself as a ‘lone wolf’, capable of looking after myself in the outdoors.
However, twenty-five years ago, I contracted a horrendous bout of food poisoning while exploring the temples of Angkor Wat, hidden in the jungles of Central Cambodia. I was hospitalised with an aggressively reactive autoimmune arthritic response. Pumped full of steroids and gobbling down painkillers, I lay on the couch month after month. Crying out when rolling over for a pee, and being wheeled in to see specialists, I grew to hate myself: all day, every day. My soul still roamed the hills, but my body had let me down. I hated the drugs, particularly as they barely subdued the pain I was in. I hated the boredom of watching morning TV, afternoon TV and evening TV. I hated feeling a victim. I even grew to resent my love of the outdoors.
I eventually recovered and moved on, slipping back into my old life as the nightmare faded away. But five years later, I was attacked by the arthritis again – only this time it was more debilitating and the recovery took longer. The cycle of relapse and recovery continued for the next two decades, but each time the recovery took more time and effort. And even then I was never as physically capable as before. I was living in continual fear of being incapacitated, feeling like my soul was being eaten away. My joy and passion for life had become tainted through my resentment of the illness and the anger I felt towards my body continually letting me down.
After yet another flare-up seven years ago I was introduced to Chinese medicine: acupuncture and Qigong. Although wary at first, I embraced this ancient healing modality. Eschewing pharmaceuticals was far from easy, but I slowly began to feel better than I had done for many years. The mystery of how needles placed specifically in the body opened energy pathways that alleviated pain and reduced inflammation seemed magical. And once again I recovered – even better than in previous years.
However, I still could not run. The emotional pain, of never being able to chase my children or kick a ball around with them, ground away inside me. And although two years ago a podiatrist told me there was no chance of being able to run again, as my feet were in a worse state than many of the seventy and eighty-year-olds he saw, one day I threw caution to the wind and began running. Like Bigfoot, at first.
Six months later I surprised myself one day, at the ease with which I ran 5 km. It was a profound moment. I saw myself again as someone who could travel through the landscape and feel part of it. I no longer chastised myself for not running hard enough or far enough. I listened to my intuition and practised gratitude for what I had in my life, rather than feeling depressed about what I thought I had lost. I began to run for the joy of running and slowly the miles began to fall away: seven kilometres here, twelve kilometres there. I would run to a viewpoint or into a sunset, as I had in my early twenties. Then one day, a year to the week that I had started running, I didn’t feel like stopping, and I ran twenty kilometres.
My children still don’t run with me, as I now run “too far and too fast”. But we have fun hiking in the hills, riding our bikes along trails, and laughing as they leave me far behind while skiing.
When I gazed at those distant mountain ranges on that chilly morning, I realised my biggest surprise was not regaining what once had driven me: the capability of being the lone wolf in the outdoors. Rather, it was my gratitude for the last twenty-five years’ journey. That journey enabled me to experience the joy of living in the present, and to know that whatever happened in my past no longer dictates my future.
James Briscall lives and plays amongst the hills and lakes surrounding a small town in New Zealand. He is usually found trailing far behind either his dog or his children while trying not to fall off his mountain bike or tumble down a ski trail. Professionally he is passionate about supporting others in their transformation to reach their next level in life and business.