Tony Cascarino was a journeyman footballer, occasional Irishman and writer of the excellent ‘Full Time’ – one of the few readable footballing biographies around. In Full Time, he describes the process of going to training, towards the end of his career. He struggles to get out of bed, finds his legs completely seized up, hopes against hope that the next cortisone injection will free up his frozen joints, and all the time tries to keep his team-mates and coach in the dark. I remember reading this a few years ago, and thinking how I never wanted this decrepidness to happen to me…
So, I woke up on Sunday to go for the traditional long slow run. Running to my training partner’s house (about 3 miles), then an hour with him, then another 3 home. No problem at all, until I tried to get out of bed. A small pixie with a good supply of drawing pins had installed himself inside my right achilles, and every time I tried to move my foot, in went another pin. Managed to get downstairs to put the kettle on. Despite the early hour, Mrs Emu would be needing tea. Hobbled back up the stairs, and about half way up, my right knee locked, so had to travel the rest of the way on all fours. Finally got out the door, and slowly made my way along the ring road to Glen’s house. After a mile, I figured that it would be more hassle turn back than to carry on, so I carried on, although it felt like a shuffle more than a run, as my legs just didn’t seem to be responding. And so went the rest of the run, which was conducted largely in silence – Glen seemed to be suffering just as much after 2 weeks out with a virus.
So, between the silences, the conversation you’d expect would be a series of whines and complaints, but that’s not what happened. And I put this down to the fact that I read books about Glenn Cunningham, and my training partner reads books about Ranulph Fiennes. Now, most people know about Fiennes – 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days, regularly leaving bits of his body behind on arctic explorations, fretsawing his fingertips off in the garden shed because he was annoyed by the pain of frostbite, that sort of thing. And as a result, Glen never complains about the cold, or the length of time we have to spend dragging our sorry carcasses around the Norfolk countryside.
You may be less familiar with Glenn Cunningham though. You can read more about him on the net, and I really recommend his autobiography, appropriately titled ‘Never Quit’. The summary of his story : Cunningham used to run with his older brother, Floyd, to their one-room schoolhouse in Kansas. Floyd’s responsibilities included getting the kerosene stove started in the morning to heat the school for class. When Glenn was eight years old, a delivery truck inadvertently left petrol rather than kerosene at the building. Consequently, the stove exploded into flames, killed Floyd and left the younger Cunningham in critical condition for six weeks. His injuries were horrendous – he’d lost all the flesh on his lower legs, lost all the toes on his left foot, and his left foot arch was destroyed. Doctors were planning to amputate both legs and, after deciding not to, concluded that he would never be able to walk normally again.
The rest of his story reads like a Hollywood screenplay. In the film, Cunningham would probably be played by an overweight Michael Douglas (ever seen the film ‘Marathon’?). So far as I know, there’s never been such a film, but the key parts of the story are about Cunningham teaching himself to walk, then to run, to run competitively, and, astonishingly, to compete twice in the Olympics, and each time with the support of his parents, who would spend hours massaging his legs just so that he would be pain-free enough to put one foot in front of the other. There’s a lot more to this story than I can do justice to here, but suffice to say, it’s an absolute inspiration.
And my personal lesson out of all of this, is that it’s an excellent story to think about when your legs are getting a bit tired or your knees start misbehaving. We can’t all have the talent, the perseverance and the pain threshold of Glen Cunningham, but maybe we could all use a bit of ‘Never Quit’ now and again.