Tuesday, 28th March 2023
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Another day...

by Gary
Friday 23rd September 2016
I should have. I could have. Some of the most powerfully used words in the English language are the ones we use when we express regret. What might have been.  When we try and express the disappointment felt when a dream is left unrealised.
This time last week I should have been nearing the end of the Tor des Geants. I could have been looking forward to a triumphant entry into Courmayeur at the end of a 338k journey around the Aosta valley. Third time lucky it might have been, a combination of injury and stupidity having denied me a finishers jacket in my two previous attempts.  But instead I find myself here, typing on a computer and trying to order my thoughts in an attempt to explain why I failed.
I walked off the course barely thirteen hours into the race having done a mere 50k and 4700m of climb. Physically I was fine. The normal aches and pains you’d expect with a journey like this but despite my training being less than ideal in the previous two months I was in far better shape than I had any right to be.  And I walked off with barely a backward glance and not a moment’s hesitation because I knew I wasn’t mentally strong enough to be there. For a race like the Tor so much depends on your willingness to suffer and accept pain and if that strength isn’t there at the beginning you may as well save yourself and the organisation some trouble and walk away.

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So I did. And I’ve barely given a thought since because I knew then I was doing it for the right reasons. Mentally I hadn’t connected with the race and if I was honest with myself I should never have started. Sometimes doing things for the wrong reasons works out but I had been stupid to think I was capable of shutting out the little voices in my head for the five or six days the race would have taken me.
So instead I told my friends that I was done, wished them and the incredible Natalie White all the best and returned to my flat. Unpacked my kit, tidied away another yellow drop bag I could never use again and for the first and only time felt regret. I felt regret not for my failure but for the fact that I’d used the time to do something I never should have attempted. I’d wasted my time, the time of my friends and of the organisation in looking after a runner who had no business being out there. 
The light of day found me back on the mountain but this time with my own agenda. Freed of the time constraints of the race I ran for myself, climbing the mountains overlooking Courmayeur until I found  a statue of the mother Mary thousands of feet above the town. And that’s where I stayed for the afternoon, lost in the thoughts that had consumed me in the months previous.  I found the connection and the peace I needed to rid me of the last of the regrets I felt at coming out to Italy.

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The next day I returned home. Not to where I lived but to where I’ll always consider home, the rural countryside outside of Galway in the west of Ireland where I spent the first twenty or so years of my life. And I reconnected with my running. And with my family and the things that made me who I am. I’m fiercely proud of being Irish and over the last week I’ve spent time revisiting the places my parents brought me as a child.

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I ran the Glencoaghan Horseshoe, a 14k 1600m route around the finest and wildest hills Connemara has to offer, a place I visited time and time again as a child. I learned to swim in the Connemara mountain streams, thrown in by my Dad and told to make for the bank whilst my mother looked on to make sure I was safe.  I ran the hill at Cnoch meadh, an ancient faery fort and reputedly the burial site of the king of the faeries Finnvara. I walked up the highest hill in the west of Ireland, Croagh Patrick, where the devoted stumble barefoot over the scree slopes to show their dedication to their Catholic faith. And when we returned to the car park I headed back and ran it again on my own, tumbling back down past stunned daytrippers with the stupidity of my speed. 

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I ran for memories. I ran to reconnect with the land of my childhood and I ran to honour those I had lost and to spend time in the places I remembered spending time with them. And I ran, and walked and hiked and ambled to make new memories. I visited places with my Dad I had never visited before. Places where we could say we’d been for the first time.  I had no plan beyond what felt right for the time. If I felt like walking then walking was what I did. I stopped and took photos. I chatted to my dad. I sat and enjoyed the views and I did only what I wanted to do. No plan. No programme. My travelling through the scenery was with only one purpose. Enjoyment. Reconnection.

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And so a week that started in the Italian Alps ended in the Connemara hills. Miles ran, metres climbed all irrelevant.  A week that started with confusion and pain ended with new memories and the knowledge that despite my failure I’d done the right thing. The Tor will be there again. This year was about doing what was right for me.
So how do you reconnect when you feel you’ve lost your way? Do you have the mental strength to push through or do you cut your losses and live to run another day? And why do you do it?

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