Monday, 12 November 2007

To the gods I don't believe in

I’ve just spent a chunk of the weekend in the White Peak, running the Six Dales Circuit, followed by Remembrance Sunday hobbling my way around the Seventh Steppingley Step in Bedfordshire. That’s 51 miles in all, five years after a spinal injury left me wondering whether I’d be able ever to walk properly again, let alone run.

I’m not really supposed to do it. One of the consultants who saw me at University College Hospital in 2002 warned me off running and all contact sports on the grounds that a bad twist or fall could leave me paralysed below the waist. Another gave me just me enough encouragement to decide that the risk was worth taking. In any case, I know that if I wasn’t feeding my addictive qualities through physical exercise, I’d only be doing so in other, perhaps even riskier ways.

The first time I ran any distance again after the injury was around an island on Lake Bunyonyi, ‘the place of many little birds’, in the southwest Ugandan highlands. The sun was setting and a great storm was breaking with plump, clear rainplops splashing upturned umbrellas in the water.

Bunyonyi is that rare thing in east Africa: a guaranteed bilharzia-free expanse of fresh water. So a swim to finish off the run was irresistible, even as the electricity bristled in the air overhead.

I was treading water, inhaling deeply of an endorphin high and my amazingly good fortune in the successful completion of the 1.8 kilometre circuit of the island, when something broke the surface of the lake a foot or so in front of my face. It was gone as quickly as it appeared before showing itself again, dark, sleek and swift, first to one side and then to another. Finally, it re-emerged directly ahead of me, the distinct shape now of a small head, a mouth, whiskers and two eyes fixed firmly on mine, close enough to touch.

I caught glimpses of other shapes, shimmying through the water around me, the surface tension barely stirring as they slid in, out, down and around. A family of otters, fishing, playing in the water as dusk fell – and me, for those few brief moments, at one with them all.

It was a mini-epiphany, as near as I’ll ever get, I expect, to spiritual revelation – and the perfect accompaniment to the minor miracle of my physical recovery. I never finish a run these days without thinking a silent prayer of gratitude to the gods I don’t believe in. And I'm sure I saw an otter swimming alongside me briefly in the river Dove on Saturday.

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