Claire Tunnacliffe: Distance travelled

Claire Tunnacliffe has taken on the London Marathon twice for Leukaemia Care. In the process, she’s raised over £10,000 for all those affected by blood cancer. Here, she describes her journey, and how she took up running in memory of her dad.

It is perhaps a strange confession, but my relationship with both running and grief has a lot to do with numbers. Counting, adding, subtracting, dividing, multiplying. Counting towards a moment – a run, a race, a death, an anniversary – and then counting away. Setting a fundraising target, and then watching the numbers add up. Dates, times, distances, pace. Miles run in training, or in a race. Miles run this week, month, year. Distance travelled since Dad died, in both mileage and time.

Numbers mean that the memories don’t get lost; mean that I don’t get lost. Numbers anchor into place the pivotal dates, sometimes imperceptible, others seismic, all engraved onto the grey matter of my brain, that made my world suddenly hinge in a different way, the axis of my world suddenly spinning at a different angle: Dad’s diagnosis of acute myeloid leukaemia; the time (10:49), the day he died (29th November 2011); 23 years old; my first half, my first marathon, my first ultra; 25, 26, 28 years old; going from a 4:17 to 3:53 marathon; fundraising £500, £2,000, £4,000.

I remember hitting £5,000 and thinking, in that moment, could it be possible to reach £10,000 by the time I am 30? Two years to go. In between, I fantasise about being faster, stronger. In between, I fantasise about finishing and that Dad is there both watching me and running beside me. In between, I am angry when my body won’t go faster than I want it to. I am angry because I can’t run better when he can no longer, he who used to run every day.

£7,000, £8,000, £9,000 for Leukaemia Care. Then, I’m 30 and I’m tired. In the space of 4.5 years I’ve run 10 half marathon, multiple 10Ks, 5 marathons, 1 DNF, 1 ultra, 1000s of miles in training. A string of PB’s. And then, something broke. My body gave way, and injuries crept in again and again, forcing me to slow, eventually to stop. My body physically creaking under the distance travelled since his death, the lines around my eyes dug a little deeper.

I talk a lot about the reparative effects running has had on me. It has taught me important lessons about trust, on showing up for myself, healing and grieving. However, for me, running also occupies a complicated and confusing space, being both a form of therapy and a well of self-criticism and judgement. Numbers may have spurred my growth, success, of hitting PBs and fundraising targets, but equally they became tiny barriers to maintain. And even more so than the physical, I mentally struggled. It seemed that I couldn’t outrun myself anymore and I became unforgiving when my body hurt, or was tired, or just didn’t want to. Running became both release and trap.

On the 22nd of April 2018, I laced up for my second London Marathon despite not having been able to train for months. Full disclosure: my mental health isn’t great either. But I’m here, I’m 30, and that morning fundraising hit £10,808 for Leukaemia Care. The numbers have added up.

I’ve not told many people this, but I speak to my Dad when I run. I wonder how many of us dig up our ghosts in these moments. I dig deep and think of him here. I slow to a shuffle and my legs are screaming, but I don’t stop. When it really, really hurts, the pain becomes a strange portal, where I roll an incantation I have practiced during many races before: come on papa, come on. This unlikely daughter of his, the runner he never knew me to be.

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