Just Another Day

I’ve been properly incapacitated six times in my life: in 1979, 1989, 2007, 2008 (twice) and now 2015, and each has proved a different experience with a different bunch of lessons to be learned.

’79 was the aftermath of running in the snow in Sutton Park in late ‘76. Have you ever gone over on your ankle? I guess most people have. I first did mine when I fell off my platforms at a party in Manchester sometime in 74ish. So there was already a weakness. But that snowy day in the Park was different simply because my ankle went the other way, not outwards but inwards. It wasn’t sore the way an outer ankle ligament tear is sore, but it never went away, not for two years. In 1979, aged just 26, I retired from running on doctor’s advice but then they threw me the lifeline of an operation to see if there was anything underneath that wasn’t showing up on the X-rays. Yeah, just a splinter of bone jamming into the tendon that runs down the front of your foot. So I found myself in a walking plaster, with crutches to support me for the first couple of weeks. The plaster had to stay on for a month. I’d walked the heel off the plaster by the end of week three and had to go back to using the crutches to get about before I went back. But the thing that always, always stuck in my mind from that experience was the day I was due out of the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow. They wouldn’t let me out until I’d proved that I could walk downstairs on crutches. Now I don’t know whether you’ve ever tried, or indeed ever needed to go downstairs on crutches, but it reminds me of watching the likes of Danny MacAskill on a stunt bike: How do you get to be that good when you’ve never done it before? I failed in the morning, because instinct told me to put the crutches on the step I was already on: wheeee…. It was only after a few hours more practice that I got to have another go and this time they let me go home.

But the real message from 1979 was that I wasn’t for letting up in any shape or form. With open toes on the plaster, I was walking half a mile to and from the bus at each end of my journey to work, and to hell with the cold. This was a snowy February. Fortunately the ankle healed, I got my running career back, albeit not for another three years, and I went on to enjoy some of the best times of my life running the longest distances in the most inhospitable conditions, day in and day out. The Cumbernauld years were just fantastic…

But that was just the warmup act for the events of February ’89. I’d been out in California for two weeks, loving the weather, living the dream and running on the beach barefoot through the waves. Cue a blister. Now being a runner, blisters were part and parcel of the game. Tape them up, cradle them with corn plasters, do whatever you need to do to ensure that you can keep on running, which is precisely what I did. I swapped the sea for sidewalks and continued to bang in 60, 70, 80 or whatever miles a week I was on. But one day after returning home, I got ill, very ill. 48 hours after touching down at Heathrow, I was running a fever and throwing up all over the place. 72 hours after touchdown, I was in an isolation ward at Monklands. Unbeknown to me, and indeed to the first line medical profession on my arrival back home, I’d contracted septicaemia somewhere along the line. The clock was ticking. I only found out later that I was two, maybe three hours away from the precipice of organ failure, but as I lay on a trolley in the corridor, throwing up nothing at all, because there was nothing left to throw up, that was the last thing on my mind.

The septicaemia episode cost me a month off work and I was as weak as a kitten for nearly all of that time. But there’s one thing that being athlete does for you, it makes you physically and mentally strong. Despite the setback of a bout of proper flu early in May, I was back to something like full working order by the summer and I duly added a fourth Cumbernauld Marathon Walk title to the back to back three I won from ’83. It remains a great regret that I didn’t compete in 86, 87, or 88 because what I now appreciate is that when you do something that is so very, very, very difficult to do, and you manage to keep on doing it, you should do it until you can do it no more. I get that now with the hindsight of experience, but back then I thought that three was enough. Mistake. Big mistake. Three was the record, and remains the record (because the event ceased to be by the early 90’s) but it should have been more. I have learned that lesson and learned it well.

Long before 2008, my running days were over. At my peak I’d been a 31 minute 10K runner and although I won very little, I enjoyed being at the forefront of the running boom.  I’d kind of given up the ultra stuff in the 90’s due to recurring achilles and calf injuries but I could still do a turn to keep myself fit. That was until I crashed my mountain bike on the Corrieyairick Pass in 2006 and knackered my left knee. That brought up the 2007 episode. Nine weeks of working from home, leg propped up on a chair, programming away to my heart’s content, it was one of the most productive periods of my whole career: no distractions, everybody out of the house, and I even got to host meetings with the guys from Glasgow. Happy days but at the same time boring days too. It’s hard getting up at 7am and logging straight on to work, then putting in an eight hour shift with no one to talk to. We didn’t even have a cat in those days. A cat’s great company when you’re trying to work because it comes and sits on your stuff. Always.

But the 2007 shift taught me that as long as you’re comfortable, and connected, you can work from anywhere. But in my line of work, that also means having two screens, one with the program code on and one with the visual front end: one complements the other so you can see the wood from the trees. 2007 worked because a straight leg, propped up, just means that you have to shift your backside every so often, just as you had to do if you were driving an old mini down the M6 for four hours to get to your work (been there, done that).

The knee op kickstarted a rush of theatre appointments at Crosshouse…

No sooner was I back up and running from the knee op, than I got the call to get my elbow sorted. Knee: September, elbow: February. That was for Golfer’s Elbow, strange really as I’ve never played golf in my puff. This one was down to giving it 110% at circuit training. But as with most things, not being mainstream has never stopped me getting the job done. I lost just one day off work on that occasion, the day of the operation itself, then I went straight back into the office and typed one handed for a few weeks. It was at a time when our jobs were unsafe and there was no way on this earth that I was going to give the management the opportunity to think I was a slacker. I’m not. The thing I remember most vividly about the aftermath of that operation was the pain. The surgeon had warned me beforehand that there was a very good chance that they would have to mess with the nerves that run down the inside of your arm to your hands and your fingers. Ever had sciatica? Imagine sciatica in your arm: it stayed with me for three months before finally subsiding away. The surgeon called it 100% right. He said it would go away eventually and it did. That elbow’s been brand new now, albeit second hand, for seven years.

But worse was coming down the pipe…

Obviously, because I was one handed, I wasn’t driving. But that wasn’t a problem: I just got the train into Glasgow, jumped off at Pollokshaws West and walked the rest of the way. That suited me fine because those miles supplemented my annual Highland March training regime and with the HM coming up in May, everything was hunky dory. Except I’d told my HM mates that I wasn’t doing it. I’d already set my stall out to cycle round all the SPL football grounds during HM week in memory of Phil O’Donnell, who died on the pitch at Fir Park in late December. Starting from Motherwell, the plan was to go solo round the country, with a Motherwell shirt, and get it signed at every ground, finishing at my beloved Inverness. However fate was to knock that idea firmly on the head…

I think it was in the second week of March that I went into work as normal but by about half nine I didn’t feel well. By eleven I felt worse and realised that I wasn’t going to last the morning, let alone the day. I thought it was maybe the dreaded Norovirus because it had the same kind of feel, that horrible wave of nausea that just takes over your very existence. By noon I was on my way home but remember I was on the train, so this was going to be a commute like no other. However because this is a family show, we’ll skip by the next couple of hours and roll the script forward to late afternoon when I had to call Jane home from work. This was most definitely not Norovirus…

Remember I’m only three weeks past the elbow operation so I’m basically still the one armed man. And I’m throwing up in agony. By 7pm, I was at NHS24, by 8 o’clock I was in A&E and by 9 I was on the ward. The only decision now for the medical team was do we operate now or leave it till the morning. I remember it well. The original plan was to slot me onto the back end of the (long) day shift but then word came through that the surgeon had already been on duty for some ridiculous length of time and this was a bridge too far. So I got dosed up with morphine and parked till 9am the next morning. Morphine’s good stuff by the way. You get to see dragons when you close your eyes after they take you off it. “A gangrenous appendix”. I will remember those words till the day I die. Another close call; another near appointment with our maker. And another few weeks off work.

I never did The Phil O’Donnell Round as it had been tagged. I never even got to do something similar a few years later with Iain McGovern’s crew either but some things are just meant to be: Highland Bike started from Motherwell and LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma was inspired by Celtic. Phil O’Donnell was a legend at both clubs. Instead I went back and did the Highland March and went up Schiehallion as part of a 28 mile day halfway through the March. That’s how I got my Twitter handle.

The appendix experience, being abdominal surgery, taught me something completely different: this is sore! Moving about the place was sore, getting out of bed was sore, and getting out of a chair was sore. It was a completely different experience from ‘79, from ‘89, from ‘07 and indeed from a month earlier…

And that, rather conveniently, brings me to 2015. I’ve had all this experience of being in hospital and being poked out with, plastered and strapped up, and now I get to go through it all over again. First up, I’m going to say that this feels different because whereas all the other episodes were to fix broken bits or take away dead bits, this time I’ve got an extra bit sewn into my abdominal wall. And it feels like it. Bruised, tender, ridiculous localised heat and just an uncomfortable nagging ache are all characteristics of where I’m at, nine days into what I’d best call half time on LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma. I can’t sit up straight in a chair because the scar is too close to the fold in my leg but I can slouch for Scotland. That means getting up at the back of eleven while I’m signed off isn’t just good for my day but it’s great for my recovery. Doing absolutely nothing is the name of this game.

Right now, every single day is exactly the same. And apart from the fact that this is a slouching laptop Friday, this is just another day….

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