Ups, Downs and Repeats

James Lee

Michael Littlewood’s club challenge for the week was to get the most elevation in half an hour or an hour. For me, that came with parallels for my last 2 months and I wanted to make sense of that time before my next challenge – another kind of chemo for my brain tumour.

Before anything else, I hope all are well and can still run. For me, my consultant says I can get out but shouldn’t shop

I’ll start on a good bit. On 6th March I caught the buses to Wolsingham and ran the 19 miles home. The longest run since my 20s, there were some proper climbs at the start and I could see snow on the tops further West.

The second half was mostly cycle tracks – much easier. I’d love to get out there again.

On the 10th I went for an MRI – results can take ages. Then on the 14th came the race at the Lambton Estate. I took the wrong shoes for the hard ground. Pilates had pushed my gait to the limit. It was the last cross-country so of course I pushed it despite the feel. I was an idiot and I limped away from the finish line

Four days later I limped to chemo – but there were to be no pills this time. Instead my consultant came to see me. The tumour showed a ‘fleck’ that shouldn’t be there; I’d had twenty rounds of chemo and was hitting the limits; I should help my immune system fight covid 19 if needed. It wasn’t a huge surprise to stop chemo but the only up-side at this point was alcohol. It doesn’t take much after so many months off!

Back home, my ankle was too bust to run, all gyms were closed but… a recent optician’s test looked OK, my bike was still there… I took my son out on the pavements. Then I started going out on the road, sometimes alone and pushing it, sometimes with a child or two and enjoying that too. I got as high as Burnhope. It was lovely.

At the end of April I started running again. With cycling and Pilates it’s one hell of combination. On the 27th I cycled to and from Newcastle for the follow up MRI. No need for my wife to drive me – and the kids – to the hospital. No need for public transport. Quiet roads provided the best option for the virus. A slow ride North to minimise the sweat; a pannier with a change of clothes… and 17 miles flat out home in the sunshine.

The call came the next day. The tumour is growing – even I can see it in the images (November-April. The latter is on a newer MRI. All MRIs are upside down, so right=left).

I will finish the three month break, then start on the next type of oral chemo. As before, it’s palliative. Because of covid, the blood test will happen in my home, then be checked by the hospital. The pills will be delivered to my door and are as dangerous as last time, so they go on a shelf that only I can reach. It’s somehow very normal. The NHS has looked after me for more than half a decade

Later that week I took my son out on his first proper climb, up to Sacriston. He kept going, used his gears, eased off on the flat. For a few seconds on the way down we were doing more than 30 mph. I’m so glad we did that, even if it’s just once. He ached for days afterwards. I hope he remembers the down bit too!

On Sunday 3rd May I went for a run before breakfast. 3 miles in, most of the way up the side of a field, things went wrong. I fell over on the familiar footpath. The route looked wrong somehow. I slowed down and took the shortest pavements home. I ate breakfast, got a shower… still not all here. Julie took me to A&E. The kids stayed in the car. The doctor found I was missing all my sight on the right hand side. I could say my name but not much else. Julie couldn’t understand me. My head ached.

Late that afternoon I’d slept and the paracetamol had eased things. I could talk but reading was a nightmare. I went home with five days of steroids. I know, now, that the problem had probably been a seizure. The first knocked me out back in 2018, this was my second.

To write this, I’ve had to work out some of the words. Misspellings had the right sound but the wrong letters. Reading is variable. My sight isn’t missing the full half any more but it’s rough first thing. Cycling is stopped again. Whether things get better or not depends on whether the chemo works. I’ll find out in August. Another chemo reps challenge would be good.

In the meantime, my body is registered to train medical students and I want to leave them the best specimen I can. A club challenge is just what I needed. I’d cycled Charlaw Fell and knew it was about as high as I could get to. I looked for the lowest – the Wear at Cocken Bridge, less than a mile from home – and suddenly there was a new route. Back roads, only half with pavements – but my left sight is fine. I couldn’t resist this one. I even got down to the river to start, just 10 metres above sea level.

The first climb was 45m up in 600m running. The next stretch was flatter with some dips, then over the dual carriageway and steeper up to Nettlesworth. ‘Gentle’ climbing, then down Cross Lane in Sacriston. Then up and up on Acornclose Lane and the steep climb to the Trig point 232m above sea level. 222 metres up, 4.5 miles in 37:30. Glorious.

For me, there’s a purity to that line. East to West, bottom to top, one aim – but it didn’t seem quite right for a half-hour/one hour challenge. My thinking was that a long up-down-up was better than reps – two-thirds up not half – so back I went to Charlaw Fell, via Norburn Lane this time. I think I got the pace right – I was certainly pumping my lungs by the end and the last stretch is steeper. It was a great thing to aim for but, given Alex Mirley’s ‘lunch run’ of 890 metres elevation, it clearly wasn’t perfect! Still, 221 metres climbing in 30 minutes with a 6:23 mile in the middle can’t be bad.

There was a niggle though – how close to half an hour could the river-Trig course be? I’d start on the bridge, not by the river. I would push the pace. On the way home from the up-down-up I found ways to cut corners in Sacriston and Nettlesworth… a second attempt beckoned, and this time there would be me to race.

This is where ‘me’ gets complicated. For a while on the 3rd I lost the kids’ names – but I still loved them. I can, I hope, cope with losing tools like words and sight, but sometimes I wonder if there’s some ‘me’ missing – and there’s no way to find out. This is far from unique – my grandfather and many others died of Alzheimer’s. That doesn’t make it any easier. While I remember, you’ve probably seen comments on medical diagnoses not happening. The hospitals are separating covid 19 from other illnesses. GPs are doing phone appointments. If you or someone you know have something wrong that should be looked at, please go find out about it. Give yourself a head start. Lecture over, back to racing whichever version of me ran 37:30.

All the advantages of a second go: knowing how hard to push it because you know what’s coming; knowing the short-cuts; in this case, giving myself a head start – 16 metres above sea level this time. Downside of three climbs in a week? There were bits of me that were sore before I started. Result: top of Acornclose Lane (193m) in 30 minutes dead. Top of Charlaw Fell in 33:04 having nearly thrown up. Quarter of a mile less distance, 6 metres less height – but pace going from 8:20 per mile to 7:47 and that view again. I don’t want to stop doing this.

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