• What Can I Say?

    It seems odd and contradictory to write about a performance that was about being in a place beyond language, and it's taken me a while to find the words, to be able to put my response to the performance into language.

    At the start of September I travelled to Kuopio in Finland to take part in the 2015 ANTI Festival. Before I went I was very nervous, but as ever these nerves, although understandable, weren't necessary. Everyone was welcoming and friendly, supportive and kind. Finland was magnificently beautiful and left a deep and lasting impression on me.

    My performance was called Running Beyond Language: a 26.2 hour silent run up and down a 250 metre pedestrian street. It was about the times in life when events happen that are beyond language: beyond sense, reason and order. It was about the human person being as fluid and changeable and beautiful as the changing seasons. It was about the absence of time, the strength of the body, the resilience of the mind. It was about support, participation and ownership.

    It was incredibly difficult.

    In terms of running it was the toughest run I've ever done, by a long way. The street that I ran on was urban, enclosed by buildings that seemed to grow taller and closer to me the longer I ran for. Each end of the street opened out onto a view that both awakened me and tormented me. At one end I could see a beautiful and vast lake. At the other end I could see a clock on a church tower, a park and my hotel - I could even see the window of my room!

    I learned that the one of the things I have loved about running is not just being outside, but being outside in nature. The longer runs I have done (12 and 24 hours) have allowed me to run through forests, fields, and past rivers and lakes. I've been part of the natural world, luxuriating in the space and harmony that comes with it. Even running around my home town of Halstead has allowed me to access 'space'. Although I'm running past houses and shops I'm never far from a field or even from a well tended garden! I'm lucky that Halstead has a thriving and successful 'in bloom' team, which means that there are beautiful flowers all around the town, people make an effort to keep their gardens tidy and the town itself is pretty.

    Kuopio is also pretty but the street I was running along didn't have any gardens on it. Well, it did have gardens, but they were just off the street, tantalisingly close but nevertheless out of reach, behind walls or fences, unattainable. The lake at the end of the street was mesmerisingly beautiful, but also beyond my reach, not in my world. The park at the top was a welcome relief for my eyes each time I reached it, but I had to keep turning my back on it.

    Being able to see the time was particularly challenging. The hands seemed to move incredibly slowly so that minutes often felt like years, not a problem when you're feeling strong and bouyant, but when you're struggling to remain determined and focused it becomes painful. The darkness that came with the night was a blessing as I was finally free from the clock, able to move beyond time. At the marathon expo the day before I had spoken about how you cope with the difficult times when you're running: how it is important to acknowledge them in order for them to pass. I was spitting with frustration when I was running because it felt as if some of those difficult moments took a whole year to pass!

    Eating turned out to be a challenge again! I had filled 26 bags with 40g of carbs each, one for each hour. I tried to vary flavours and textures so that I wouldn't get bored and for the first 6 or 7 hours I did really well - but then I started to get picky about what I wanted to eat, and rather than eat a whole bag per hour I started having something out of one bag, something out of another bag. Before I knew it I had lost track of what I was eating and had no way of knowing if I was eating enough or not. And at about 8am it felt like I lost the ability to swallow. I had taken a bite of a cherry bakewell and it lodged itself in my throat. I tried to swallow but it wasn't budging, and I remember thinking quite calmly to myself that I was going to die with a cherry bakewell stuck in my throat! In the end I managed to shift it by having a drink of water - so I obviously could swallow! After that I had to swallow all my food down with a glug of water, which meant I had to stop more frequently as I was taking such a small bite of food at a time.

    A couple of hours before the end I also pulled a muscle in my leg. I decided to walk for a while to see if it would ease off and it did - until I tried to run again. So I felt forced to finish the performance by walking. I was able to keep a good pace though but that didn't mean I wasn't diasppointed because I was walking, not running. In terms of the performance I think walking really helped: lots of people joined in with the walking, sometimes walking with me, sometimes walking on their own, sometimes joining up with other people. It was incredible to see so many people all walking up and down that street on a Sunday. I don't know if so many people would have joined in if I was still running. I can only know what did happen and it was a truly beautiful and remarkable sight as people took ownership of the street, the performance and the movement.

    Lots of people have asked me how it was to run in silence - some (myself included) weren't even sure I would be able to stay silent for 26.2 hours. A couple of times I found that my body instinctively wanted to reply to someone as they said hi in passing or as they hugged me goodbye. I hadn't had time to think about the words but before I knew it my body was making an attempt to speak: a reflex reaction to a social situation. At times I found the silence to be awkward or unsettling: if a passer by asked what the performance was about I either had to direct them to information about it, or sometimes if there was someone with me, they would answer for me. Both felt unsatisfactory, the first as I felt as I was being rude, the second reminded me of when my Grandad had had a stroke, unable to speak well for himself anymore he spent years having to rely on other people talking for him, guessing what he meant or wanted. But at other times the silence was refreshing and liberating, there was no pressure to make conversation. Some people ran in silence with me. We communicated by sharing a physical space, a common goal. We looked into each other's eyes in a way that I think we wouldn't have done if we were talking. Other people chatted to me as we ran, sharing things with me. Not expecting a response, just being in the moment, in that space, just being together. Taking away language took away some of my coping mechanisms - when I ran 26 marathons in 26 days I talked an awful lot, which helped me to process the journey as I was experiencing it. In Finland, I was locked in, unable to express how I was feeling, unable to process my thoughts and my feelings. Without language it was difficult to get perspective - if I was happy I was euphoric, when I missed home and the people who I love I was desolate and bereft.

    And this has continued to be difficult since I've returned home. I can sense that I haven't fully understood what I did, how I felt, or how it affected me and now I have moments of feeling a bit lost at sea, unsure of how to find my way back. And of course there won't be a way back. I will be a different person now because of the experiences I had in Finland, just as the experiences I have today will shape who I am tomorrow.

    I also haven't run since Finland and this is unsettling! I'm missing being outside, having space in my head and feeling my body move. I'm being very patient - I still have some pain my hip and I'm having physio and waiting for it to settle before I run again. But it's very difficult to be patient! Knowing that I want to run again is helping though, as I don't want to jeopardise my future plans because I can't listen to advice now :)

    Running Beyond Language was incredibly hard. Harder than any running I've done before - including 26 marathons! But it also was everything I wanted it to be and more. I'm extremely grateful to everyone at ANTI festival for inviting me over and looking after me so well. I was overwhelmed to be programmed with some artists who I really admire and respect and I loved being in Finland, experiencing the culture and the landscape, but especially meeting the people there. I find it so important to be able to connect with people, to recognise ourselves in others, to see that we are all just trying our best and although we might have different opinions about things we are all trying to get by, to live another day, see another sunrise.

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