Hampshire Runner

He Pants in Hants

Category: Personal

Getting the word out

When I started school at 5 years old, I almost immediately developed quite a bad stutter.  Teachers would ask me questions and I wouldn’t be able to get the answers out; I would stutter and stammer, and tears of frustration would follow and flow.  In time, the teachers learnt to wait for me or, worse, stopped asking me questions at all.

(This is not about running, you say.  Give me time, I say, it will be relevant.  I will get the words out eventually!)

No one knew quite why I had developed this problem.  One theory was that the nurse giving me the mandatory school medical had held me down when I squirmed too much during the ear examination.  I went to speech therapists, who were kind but ineffective.

Every new year and every new teacher would present a new challenge as they did not know my situation (why had no one briefed them?), and I would have to take each of them through the whole excruciating induction course to my stutter……..

New teacher: “What’s the Latin for lion, Till?”

Me: stuttering peters out into silence.

Teacher: “You were supposed to learn this for homework, Till.”

John Grenville, the class tough guy: “Scuse me, Sir, Till probably knows the answer, but he sometimes has trouble with his words.”

Teacher: mumbled apology

An only child, I was isolated even more by this difficulty, but I forced myself to challenge it by doing things like entering verse speaking competitions – I even won one or two.  Sometimes, the words would flow out, and sometimes they were dammed.

I became School Captain, but Speech Day was a challenge too far.  At the practice of my speech in front of the headmaster and staff, I stuttered and stumbled my way through the few lines given me to deliver.  They asked me if I would like the Head Girl to make to speech instead.  Significantly, I asked to phone my mother, thinking I would be letting my parents down terribly by dodging this responsibility and this honour.

Even more significantly, I was surprised when she immediately urged me not to do the speech.  My parents so rarely let me off – or, rather, so rarely encouraged me to believe that I could let myself off.

I was sometimes sent to deliver messages, and I can remember struggling particularly badly one day to tell two of my parents’ friends about a change in some social arrangements.  When they next talked on the phone, I heard the phrase, “Poor Stephen,” more than once.

By university, I could converse well enough; it was just introducing myself, saying my name (well, when someone asks your name, there’s no way round saying, “Steve Till,” is there?).  That was the stumbling block, and social occasions were fraught with worry and embarrassment.  In normal conversation, once the introductions were over, I was still prone to stuttering, but I could always find an alternative word if I felt that one later in the sentence would trip me up.

But there was something else going on here too.

The effect of my stutter was multifaceted: at the time, it felt like a curse, but I now see different, positive strands to the way that it influenced my life.  Because I could not speak, I thought more.  Because I could not express myself orally, I wrote: I wrote poetry voraciously from the age of about 11.  And, crucially, because of my stutter, I developed the aforementioned verbal gymnastic skill in dodging difficult words.

****

Researchers have said that 10,000 hours of mindful practice is the requirement to reach expert level in any given skill.  Musicians, sportspeople, writers, artists – all seem to fulfil that condition.  Even the ultimate child prodigy, Mozart, who started writing symphonies practically in the womb, conforms to the “rule” that he needed 10,000 hours of focused practice before he began to produce his best work.

Now, I am not claiming to be a Mozart, or indeed an expert, but surely it can be no coincidence that my stutter forced me to practise verbal gymnastics for several hours a day, encouraged me to think deeply, and prompted me to express myself in writing, so that by my mid-teens, I had probably clocked up the requisite 10,000 hours of intense creative preparation………..right about the time when I started to produce award-winning poetry.

****

I left university and started work.  Ironically, I gravitated towards roles involving public-speaking – sales, marketing, training roles.  I could do these, because I could always find different words or alternative phrases.

But I hated the phone.  So many times I had to hang up, when the other party asked my name.  It was my dirty little secret, and I knew with absolute certainty that I was a fraud and if my seniors ever found out about my stutter that I would be fired.  Of course, that’s not true; they would probably have been fine, but in the cut-throat world of US-led software sales in particular, it was dog eat dog, and it seemed to me that any weakness would be ruthlessly exposed and castigated.

I remember calling my manager from my car phone and not being able to say who it was.  I had to hang up.  The next time I saw him, I apologised about the terrible line which kept breaking up!  He said, “No problem…….. for a moment I thought you had a terrible stammer.”

That was like a knife through me.

I was right – it was an awful, shameful secret, which no one must ever know about.

Of course, some of my friends knew.  My wife-to-be knew.  I remember saying to her, “What if I can’t get the words out, when we’re taking our marriage vows.”

“Don’t worry, I will wait forever for you to say those words.”

****

Years have gone by, and the outward signs of my stutter have all but disappeared, but it is still there, and so even today, in every conversation, I mentally dodge words or reframe sentences to make them deliverable.  Only another stutterer would detect the hesitations, the reframing, the ummms and errrrs that ease my voice into difficult words.

But the stutter has had more effect on me than just enhancing my verbal expression.  I think, for obvious reasons, it has made me face challenges – challenges like running round a track for 24 hours – and it has made me feel that if a stutterer can win a verse speaking competition, be the prompter in the school play, be asked to give after-dinner speeches, deliver training courses, run seminars and host networking events, then I can meet other challenges too.

And it has also made me cynical about the loudest mouths, the quick wins, the sound-bite generation and the X Factor wannabees, and made me correspondingly appreciative of the quiet, the strong silent types, if you like, the unsaid, the deep, the background, the underlying patterns, the truth beneath the surface of life – and approving of those for whom long term commitment and unshakeable loyalty are where the real meaning in life resides.

One example: as you know, I love running.  I love watching running videos.  And for some reason I have always loved watching running videos of athletes in training, far more than those of their races.  Why is this?  It had puzzled me for ages.  Surely races are far more exciting and meaningful – they are the outcome, the proof of the pudding, what it’s all about.

But, no, I prefer the training videos…………..because I value most of all the commitment, the work that has gone on behind the scenes, private, hidden from view, that no one is shouting about, but is the reason behind the public race performance – which makes it the more truly meaningful activity.

****

This revelation, along with all of the others in this blog, and so many more, have come as a result of my work for the last nine months with Stephanie Walters of The Positive Element, whose wonderful skills and empathy have empowered me to see the truth about myself for the first time in 60 years.

****

For years, my stutter was my curse, my bete noir, my weakness, my dirty little secret.  It made me feel bad about myself, ashamed – made me feel that I was flawed, incomplete, disabled, weird even – and that therefore I had to hide it at all costs – or, if found out, to apologise profusely for it.  Only now do I know that it is my gift: stuttering has given me my creativity, my facility with words, my ability to think on my feet, my determination, my courage, my commitment, and even my value system.

But it has given me more even than that.  It has finally come full circle and put me at peace with myself.

Realising the positivity of my stutter has been the key to my realising the positivity of my life.

****

I remember Ronnie O’Sullivan, the snooker player, being interviewed after one of his World Championship wins.  He was asked if he would go on and try and win a record number of those titles.  His reply was along the lines of, “I am really not as mentally strong as guys like Ray Reardon or Steve Davis; I can’t take the pressure year after year, so I will just try and win one or two more.”

Of course, that mercurial mental “weakness” or inconsistency, was also the gift that made him the greatest genius ever to hold a snooker cue, able to record the fastest 147 break, and to play incredible shots – shots that no one else could make or even attempt – when, crucially, he was in the mood.

What honesty, what humility, to admit what he saw as his weakness!  And how great to be so at peace with it, to the extent of cheerfully describing it to millions of viewers!

Because my flaw, like Ronnie’s, is also my gift, the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl, as the old metaphor has it.  And only now can I roll back all of the angst, the pain, the frustration, and the desperate secrecy associated with my stutter, and give it its full due.  In many ways, and in terms of whatever I am as a human being, it is because of my stutter.  It has been the making of me.

My curse has become my gift.

My quietude has given me so much to shout about.

My silence has given me my voice.

So…… for how many of us is this true, that what we or others perceive as our weakness is really the source of our strength?

That is the word that I want to get out.

Discovering the truth about the part that my stutter has played in my life has enabled me to move from ashamed to proud, from feeling bad about myself to feeling good, from feeling cursed to feeling blessed.

So…….. no more apologies.  If my stutter has made me quiet, if it has made me hesitant, if it has put me on the margins of social events, then I am OK with that, because only when you are quiet can you think deeply, only when you are hesitant can you make the right decisions, and it is only those who are NOT the life and soul of the party who see what is really going on in life, the underlying patterns, the true meaning.  (How much those extroverts miss!)

And that is me – quiet, hesitant, always in the kitchen at parties, yes……… and strong, thoughtful, creative, quick-witted, determined, courageous, committed too – and, you know what?  For the first time in my life, I am OK with that.

The Toughest Race in the World

“Another great lap,” the cry rang out across Brands Hatch.

No, I wasn’t driving; I was cycling. It was the third discipline of what they were calling the Toughest Race in the World – the 1983 Foster’s Quadrathon. We had started in Brighton with a 2-mile sea swim, before race walking 50km up to Tunbridge Wells. We had cycled from there to the famed motor racing venue where the prescribed 100 miles of pedal power would be completed with 50 laps of the club circuit. Then there was just the small matter of the final marathon to Gravesend, of all place names.

The event attracted the usual nutters – long-distance cyclists, extreme triathletes, a few race-walkers, a bloke who held the world record for running a marathon whilst carrying a hundredweight of coal, Boy George’s brother, and Richard and Adrian Crane who had just run the length of the Himalayas in 101 days.

Cycling was the discipline I feared the most, its taking the most time of the four and my having the least pedigree in that sport. Nevertheless, after something like 10 hours, I was still going, suffering up Druids every time, and, it being the middle of the night now, one of my support team had stayed awake to shout me on.

“Another great lap.”

They didn’t feel that great and they weren’t slipping by that quickly, but they were going and I had trained for extreme challenges. A typical day involved running 10-20 miles to work, then a combination of race walking and swimming at lunchtime, with a long cycle home in the evening. The logistics sometimes went wrong, and I would arrive at work to find I had no shirt and only yesterday’s pants to change into.  My co-workers pretended not to notice.

The race had started eventfully at 5pm: during the swim, about a third of the 100-strong field were pulled out of the sea with hypothermia. One rather glamorous ultra-distance-running lady had attracted a lot of media attention in the build-up to the race, but she lasted less than half an hour.

“Serves her right for having 0% body fat,” said a competitor.

The walk was my strongest discipline and that passed smoothly enough, before the dreaded cycle. It was the laps at Brands I was fearing most, but there were also some unlit roadworks on the way there, which I managed to plough into.

Luckily, a doctor arrived on the scene within minutes. Luckily, I was OK. Luckily – and more importantly – so was the bike. The doctor told me later that when he first reached me, my pulse was so fast that he couldn’t actually count it.

Anyway, on to Brands Hatch – “Another great lap!”  Great friends, Mick and Rod, were supporting me, and Mick was supplying food and drink – and vocal encouragement – while Rod slept in the car. We later learned that he had fallen asleep with the radio on, draining the battery and necessitating a bump-start the next morning, when I finally left the circuit to start the marathon!

One of my competitors, John Hills, a bit of a pin-up with the girls, was so traumatised by Brands, that he had to have a cuddle with his girlfriend at the end of each lap.

“Pathetic,” said Rod.

Eventually, the bike leg was over – a compulsory 15-minute medical (“you’ve lost a lot of weight, Steve”) – and then off on the marathon. One competitor told me later that he was jogging down the hill from Brands to start the run when he saw someone cycling up to begin their 50 laps.

“You poor sod,” was all he could say.

The marathon was naturally quite hard and, by that time, we were so spread out that I didn’t see another competitor for the entire 26 miles, so I finished in 17 hours and 23 minutes, still in 6th place.

My friends took me off to a pub to celebrate, and asked me what I wanted to drink. My mind was a bit frazzled by this point, but Foster’s had sponsored the event so I asked for a pint of their amber nectar. It seemed like a good idea until the third sip when I fell sideways off my seat, and my friends picked me up, carried me to the car and drove me home.

The wonder is I came back to do it all again the next year.

Not stepping on butterflies

He ran among the butterflies but didn’t know what they meant. He ran and kept an eye open for deer, but he only saw them when he wasn’t looking.

He would decide on a time and a distance and sometimes a speed. He would sit on the stairs and put on his shoes, then open the door and go out. He would look at his watch, look at the sky and then he would start running. Slowly at first. Then with more of a rhythm. And by the time he reached the fields he would feel good. And the fields would look different every day. The rape would glimmer and glisten with yellow, except for the concave belly of the field that would blush green. And then even that would turn yellow and the whole field would soak him in its colour. And the corn would look gold one day and white the next. And the poppies were like a trail of blood around its edge. And he would run across the fields and sometimes a farmer would be there ploughing or reaping or bagging or something. But usually not. And sometimes someone would be walking their dog. Or there would be kids sitting at the bottom of the field by the cattle trough. But usually he would go unnoticed.

Except for the butterflies. In summer, the red admirals would appear at the edge of the rape fields. He didn’t know why. They would land on the hard, cracked, brown earth path that skirted the field and he would try not to step on them. They seemed to know he was there. Some of them flew alongside him for a while. He tried to avoid them, but sometimes he saw them late and he was never sure if they lifted off in time to avoid his footfall. He didn’t want to kill any of them. He wanted to find harmony with them.

He cut a corridor through the air, retracing the purposeful journeys of silent generations with his purposeless, silent one of today. In towns and villages, he kept to the back alleys and passageways, passing through communities without touching or changing them; the child, the animal inside him, at play; the man on the outside still clamped in seriousness.

He liked to think that he was getting back to nature when he ran, and he was gratified on his first few ventures into the fields when he saw a deer now and again. After that, he always looked for deer, like a talisman of nature to press into the pages of his running diary. But they were never there when he looked for them, only when he didn’t. Places where he’d seen them several times before yielded nothing, and just when he knew that he would not see one today, and he had given up (because he was getting back nearer houses, the sort of places where deer wouldn’t go,) one would dash across his path, or bound away through the long grass.

After a while he realised what was happening and smiled to himself. So then he would run and try not to look. And he would try not to hope to see. But he never saw them – not until he forgot he was trying not to look, and forgot he was trying not to hope to see.

 

A daughter’s gift: a new running life

On 27th October 2014, my daughter, Gabriella Till, ran a mile round the field at the back of our new house, and changed my life.  She got me wondering.  I should be able to do that, I thought.

Let me give you a bit of context.  I had been a runner since 1971, but, since early 2010, when my left knee went dodgy and my right foot quickly followed suit, I had only really run in parkruns, not training at all during the week.  Inevitably, I had lost fitness, put on weight, got slower, lost more fitness, put on more weight……… – to the point where I could just squeeze out a sub-30 on a very flat parkrun, but my Alice Holt parkrun times were typically 33-35 minutes.  Indeed, my tailrunning times were becoming indistinguishable from my other performances!

So, on that beautiful autumn morning, I went out into the field and slogged my way round – slowly, tentatively, painfully – but at the end, I was smiling and glowing, and I felt like a runner, like an athlete, for the first time in nearly 5 years.

After that – well, you runners know how it is – one thing led to another.  I ran two miles the next day.  Then a bit more.  I started eating a bit more healthily.  And suddenly, I was running 31 at Alice Holt, then 29.  These weekly boosts of confidence inspired me to run more, add speedwork, stretch, do more in the gym – and eat more intelligently too.  My knee and my foot stopped me from running more than 3-4 times a week, but I was doing everything else I could to get faster.

On non-running days, I would race-walk uphill as fast as I could, hoping to boost my metabolic rate without stressing my joints.  I started rowing for half an hour on every gym visit – soul-destroying but body-enhancing, I called it.  I made small dietary changes – Americanos instead of lattes, porridge instead of buttery toast, salad instead of crisps and dips, chicken tikka instead of chicken tikka masala.

And I had discovered, almost by accident, the perfect virtuous weekly circle of running more often, eating more healthily, getting fitter and seeing my times improve, which then gave me the motivation to carry it all on the following week.  (The weekly challenge of parkrun was crucial to keeping that momentum.)

It felt great.  I did improve almost every week.  It was exciting.  I didn’t know how far I’d get, but I thought if I could just set one more Alice Holt parkrun PB (it was 28:21 back then), I would be happy.

Well, having now set 10 more Alice Holt PBs and numorous at other parkruns too, I am at the point where I am doing 23 for a flat parkrun and am down to 24:51 at my beloved Alice Holt.  I have also run longer races, even slogged round a marathon.  I EVEN won a (handicap) race; I EVEN EVEN overtook a certain Harry Till on Dragon Hill once.  My lead was temporary, but no less jubilant for that!

So, I want to thank those concerned for your encouragement and support (your surprise at my acceleration and weight loss has been an extra motivating factor!!) – thank you, my family, my friends, all you great people at Alice Holt parkrun (if you’ve never had the pleasure, it’s the sort of place where total strangers cheer each other on and come up to you and congratulate you on a PB!!) – and in particular I want to thank the only runner I know who has improved more than I have in the past couple of years – and, ironically, the one who kicked it all off in the first place – Gabriella Till!

 

Thursday mornings

I can only see five yards in front of me.  I can only touch the leaves and mud under my feet.  I can only hear my own breathing.  I can only feel my dog’s panting on the backs of my calves.

Life is reduced to the box I am in, just as big as my head-torch can light up.  It’s 10 past 5 on a Thursday morning, I am running round a field, and the world is mine!

I have been attending breakfast networking meetings on Thursdays for 15 years, and, having to exercise my German Shepherd first, I have been getting up early.  Last April, I decided to challenge myself – why not run 2 miles with her, instead of walking 1?

Seemed like a good idea at the time…………..

I get up just before 5, and as soon as my feet hit the bathroom floor, the whining starts from the canine department.  Back in the bedroom, I try not to put on too many layers.  I peer out of the window and try to discern the weather and the temperature.

Then downstairs – shoes on, head-torch, outer layer perhaps – and out into the night.

We make our way across the car park and through the woods to the field.  I click my watch by the tall bramble in the corner and we set off.  There is a distinct trail round the margin of the field that is runnable most seasons.  The field is nearly a mile round, quite hilly, but all of it is high with views south across the A31 to Worldham and Selborne.

I try and go as slowly as possible and let my body wake up.  The first lap seems endless, but then the second passes much faster.

If I’m feeling particularly wild, we might do a third!

It’s a wonderful sensory experience – or rather, lack of sensory experience.  Just the odd car on the bypass, and the odd streetlight, indicates a world beyond mine.

Clicking my watch by the tall bramble again, I walk on a hundred yards or so, turn and jog back to the gap in the woods to get home.

Inside, it’s 50 press-ups and stretch out hamstrings and quads.

I feed Roni, make a cup of tea, and listen to Pause for Thought on Radio 2.

And it’s just a lovely feeling – it’s my time, I’m very chilled, I’m not rushed, I’ve experienced a world that no one else has seen, I’m awake and ready for the rest of the day.  And I like the feeling that I have not got up just to get to work, that there is a little pause for me – and paws for Roni too!

1994: an ultra-memorable year

“What lap are you on?” he asked.

“Same one as you, mate,” I replied.

50 miles into the National 100km championships of 1994 in Greenwich Park, I had drawn level with Rob Littlewood, and simultaneously we had realised, with so many pre-race favourites dropping out in the hot conditions, there was a bronze medal up for grabs.

Rob, George Stoakes and I had but yards between us with about 10 miles to go, when George went off for a massage, just as I felt that Rob had started to have a bad patch.  George’s action made no sense to me at all, with a medal on the line – all I can assume is that the pressure of a three-way fight for that bronze was too great and his mind convinced him that he needed that rub-down.

I made a big effort and pulled away from Rob – 100 yards, 150, 200.  Each mile+ lap of the course included 400 metres on the track and, a bit later, when I exited the arena as Rob was entering it with about 4 miles to go, I felt I must have that medal won.

Then the hamstring cramps struck.

I had to ease back a touch, but constantly monitored the gap to Rob, which actually grew slightly.  I finished some 40 minutes behind second place but overjoyed to have taken half an hour off my PB and secured a national medal.

The icing on the cake was the award of a drugs test!  I had run 62 miles on a hot day, so the man from the anti-doping agency, with the large bottle of water and the test tube, had to follow me around for quite a while before I could ‘perform’.

I drove back to Basingstoke round the M25, stopping at South Mimms for a toilet break – over-rehydration by this point! – and took several minutes to shuffle to the facilities.

I was delighted not only because of the unexpected medal, but also because, when the chips were down and a medal was at stake, I managed to summon the determination and focus to grasp the opportunity.

A couple of months later, I ran the Humberside 24 hours, intending to post a performance that would get me noticed by the GB selectors.  I had run 134 miles in 1987 and needed something like that again to catch their eye.  Paul Bream was prerace favourite and led for over 100 miles.

Then he encountered problems of some kind and retired to a sleeping bag in his tent.  Lying second by now, I was hoping he would not reappear and so, to convince him of the pointlessness of such an action, I made sure that I ran, not walked, past his tent over the next several laps.

I don’t know whether those dirty, underhand tactics worked, but he did not re-emerge, and soon I was in the lead.

Now, towards the end of a 24-hour race, as you can imagine, it gets pretty hard.

With 25 minutes to go, I was 18 miles in the lead, walking round the track very slowly, and about to miss my PB by a mile or so.

“Come on, Steve – you can do this.”

It was my wife.  Yes, she was right – I could.  If I could just pour everything I had left into the last 25 minutes, then a PB, as well as a win, would be mine.  From somewhere, I started running 8-minute miles, maniacally circling the track as the minutes ticked by.

I beat my PB by about a mile.

And it was these two performances, more than any others, that laid the foundations for my joining the GB Ultra Squad in 1995, and eventually winning that coveted national vest in 1996.

And it all seems like a very, very long time ago!!

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén