Odd things can happen at dinner parties when you are a runner. At one such – now historical – event I was sitting next to a fellow – let’s call him Gideon, for that was his name – who quickly revealed himself to be an expert on everything. Naturally, ‘everything’ included running and, to my great delight, he was keen to share his wisdom.
‘I hear you’re a runner,’ he accused, looking me up and down, or as much as he could when both of us were seated.
‘Your hearing is excellent,’ I replied with just enough sang-froid to ensure he would go home and look up the meaning of ‘sang-froid’.
He raised an eyebrow that seemed to have its own beard, cleared his throat – though Lord knows of what or where to – and said, with misplaced authority, ‘Very bad for the knees, running.’ Then, the killer blow: ‘I read that somewhere.’
Ah yes, Somewhere, the respected scientific journal from the maverick publishing house that produces the provocative Facts Only I Know and the top-rated But It’s Common Knowledge.
‘My knees are fine,’ I offered mildly.
‘They’re fine now!’ he shot back.
‘They were fine yesterday, too,’ I replied, and gave him the beatific smile of a runner who has just finished a marathon and doesn’t quite know where he is.
Noting that I refused to be baited, he changed tack.
‘Just think of all the stress you are putting them under,’ he counselled, his voice heavy with concern but light with conviction. ‘So much stress.’
By now, other conversations around the table had dwindled, as it seemed a dinner-party ding-dong was on the cards. I glanced across at Gideon’s wife, who was under some stress of her own, engaged as she was in a game attempt to saw off her wedding ring with a butter knife.
My rebuttal was being keenly awaited. I did not disappoint.
‘Actually, Giddy, studies show that running actually strengthens the knee, not only by building the muscles and tendons around the joint, but also by helping to keep the cartilage lubricated and conditioning it to become more resilient. There is also the not-unrelated point that – if I may be so bold – running helps to maintain a healthy weight, thereby reducing pressure on the knee joints.’
There was a sharp intake of breath around the table, followed by, seconds later (to my great relief), collective exhalation. But had I gone too far? Had I just introduced facts into an argument? Had I also – advertently or otherwise – drawn attention to Gideon’s enthusiastic girth?
The colour rose in his cheeks and continued to do so until it had reached his hairline, where, unsure where to go next, it settled in for the evening.
‘Ah, but how many of these studies are carried out by “interested parties”’?
As he spoke, Gideon raised his porcelain-smooth hands and made ‘air quotes’, which redoubled my determination to best him.
‘Do you mean scientists? All of them, I imagine.’
How I wished for a flower in my lapel that I could have leaned towards and sniffed while gazing over my glasses and smiling triumphantly at the enthralled crowd. But I had no flower, no lapel and no glasses. The wrong kit, completely.
Gideon, reeling from my flagrant use of salient detail, again decided to shift the parameters of the discussion.
‘What about Jim Fixx, then? I’d say his story puts you in a bit of a…fix!’
At this, he sat back and eyed the other diners as if they were a jury and he a brilliant barrister with the scent of blood in his nostrils and a smear of soup on his tie. Seeing only confusion (except from his wife, who had her head in her hands), he pressed on:
‘You know, Jim Fixx, the man who made jogging popular in the 1970s.’
‘Yes, what about him?’
‘He died at 52! While jogging! And I know how much you people hate that word. Which is why I used it.’
‘He had advanced heart disease. His father died at the age of 43 from a heart attack.’
Gideon blinked several times, as if trying to convey something in Morse code. He was beginning to sweat and if this was just the beginning, we were in for a deluge. But he did not retreat:
‘People die running. They’re all trying to outrun the Grim Reaper but he catches up with them, even when they’re running!’
‘People can just as easily choke eating steak. Have some of my steak.’
A few seconds later, having cleared my plate without incident, Gideon tried one final approach.
‘I’ve heard that running may – may, mind you – add about three years to your life. Three. Is it worth it? All that sweating and suffering and knee pain, for a paltry few years at the end of your life? When you can’t really enjoy them.’
‘But what,’ I began, dabbing the corners of my mouth with the tablecloth, ‘what if you add those years to the middle of your life, when you can have a lot of fun with them? Have you considered that?’
Gideon furrowed his brow; then he furrowed the rest of his head.
‘You’re not taking me seriously,’ he said, his voice wobbling slightly.
‘You’re not giving me much to work with.’
Gideon looked over to his wife for support, but she had begun a torrid affair with the man sitting next to her, and the woman sitting across from her. Gideon would not be deterred.
‘What about those new shoes? All that money, all that fancy technology, just so you can knock a few seconds off your time?’
‘I expect I won’t be buying them.’
Gideon was about to respond, when his wife passed by behind him, dropping divorce papers in his lap. But my adversary was too far gone now to consider such trivial matters as living arrangements and custody issues.
‘And isn’t it just so bloody boring. Plod, plod, bloody plod.
‘I don’t think so, but even if it is, it is excellent practice for certain social situations.’
At this, Gideon put down the haunch of venison he had been nibbling and pushed his chair back, which was a considerable achievement.
‘Do you know what I really dislike about you runners?’ he asked.
I shifted forward to the edge of my seat.
Gideon took a deep breath, as if reluctant to add insult to ignorance.
‘You’re all so bloody judgmental.’
‘That’s just not true,’ I replied, in my least judgmental voice.
‘Yes you are!’ hissed my flinty interrogator with merciless precision. ‘You’re judging me now. You look at me – a wildly successful man – and all you see is my royal complexion, my generous allocation of chins and my distinguished stomach.’
‘You are, indeed, a man of substance,’ I allowed.
‘I know I am, I – wait – you’re still doing it! This is an outrage. I’ll have you know I’m very happy the way I am.’
‘As I am happy the way I am.’
‘Too bloody happy, I’d say.’
‘That would be the endorphins. You should get some.’
‘I have plenty of endorphins! Plenty!’ Then, seeing the horrified faces of those around the table – ‘Hasn’t been the same since the divorce,’ whispered one; ‘Did the other one say end orphans?’ murmured another – Gideon slumped in his chair. ‘At least, I used to,’ he mumbled and lowered his head.
Unable to resist the urge, I steepled my fingers.
‘Giddy, are you by any chance a reformed runner?’
He looked up at me through lashings of lustrous hair.
‘How could you tell?’
‘At first, I couldn’t, but then, I could. You seemed to know more than was necessary, though you were determined to twist the facts to your advantage by adding some made-up stuff.’
He gave me a wan smile, which pleased me, as I’d never seen one before.
‘I used to love it. 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons. Even a couple of marathons. But then, life got in the way, food kept getting richer, cars became ever deluxe, and so here I am, with a case of head gout and a cholesterol level that was calculated using an algorithm. My doctor says I could die if I so much as jump to a conclusion.’
‘Giddy,’ I began, ‘I think you should start running again. And I can think of no better time than now. So go, slowly, and catch up with your wife. Almost half of all divorces are prevented with an abject apology. I read that somewhere.’
Gideon rose from his chair and gripped my hand.
‘Somewhere is good enough for me,’ he said. ‘And tomorrow, I’m going to sign up for a Couch to Front Door programme.’
‘Good man, Gideon. Good man.’
And then he was, very slowly but with great determination, gone.
I turned to the remaining diners.
‘Right. Which one of you thinks I have it in for orphans?’
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