From time to time I like to check that I’m still alive. Gentle, reflective strolls on the beach are all very well, but sometimes I need to remind myself that I could once do a half marathon in a respectable time.
Today was such a day. Start at the bottom of the woods and straight to the top. It’s a serious climb. Well, my middle-aged self regards it as a serious climb. Twenty years ago it might have been a training run but three children and too much time at the keyboard have taken their toll.
No matter. The sun was shining. The dog was straining at the leash and Lucozade Sport was on special offer at the corner shop.
“Come on,” I said to the official timekeeper. “Are you going to time me on your phone?”
“On my watch,” Ben replied.
“Does it have a timer?”
“No, Dad. I’m going to use it to reflect the sun onto a tree trunk and make a sundial.” Teenage sarcasm. Where would we be without it?
Blimey the first part was steep. Was it this steep last time? Too early to be puffing and panting – especially as Ben and the dog were disappearing into the distance.
Ah, the flat bit. Thank you, God. And the slight downhill. Even bigger thank you. “Five minutes,” Ben shouted from somewhere up ahead. Meanwhile Pepper was amusing herself in a spectacularly muddy stream. Should have brought the wife’s car…
And now we came to the serious part. The final climb. Time to sort the men from the boys. Where was the boy? Disappearing into the distance. It definitely wasn’t this steep last time. Throw a stick? You must be joking, dog.
“Come on, Dad, come on. You can beat your record.” Surely not? 15:36? The one record to rule them all? “Come on, Dad. Just sprint up this last bit.”
With a mighty effort I hurled myself up the last fifty yards of the hill. And collapsed. “Uuurrrgghhhh,” I gasped.
“Awesome, Dad. Just awesome.”
“What – was – it?” I panted.
“Fourteen thirty-three. You smashed it.”
“But.” Gasp. “That means.” Bigger gasp. “I didn’t need to run.”
“Right. I lied to you. But look at your time.” That’s what you get for making babies with a psychologist…
But I was elated. A new record. Life in the old dog yet. Time for some more children maybe?
Rather too elated as it turned out. “Down here,” I said to Ben when it was finally time to head back. “Haven’t been on this path for years. It’s a bit tricky but you should be OK.”
“It’s steep, Dad…” he said, kicking a stone and watching it tumble twenty feet in front of us.
“Hang on to a branch, like I’m doing.”
“I’m OK, Dad.” And with the sureness of youth he picked his way down the slope. He’d learn. Holding onto a branch was the safest way.
Until it broke off in your hand…
There was a moment when I thought I could stay on my feet. Then I was on my back. Sliding down the hill. Faster. Nothing to grab on to. Sliding even faster. I bounced off a tree stump. And stopped.
Not because of the tree stump. Because my son had grabbed a handful of my T-shirt as I slid past him.
“Awesome, Dad. Just like in the movies.”
I climbed gingerly to my feet. I was covered in mud. Blood trickled down my arm. Several parts of my body were arguing about which one hurt the most.
To his credit Ben didn’t start laughing until he was sure I was alright. “I assume that looked pretty funny?”
“Really impressive, Dad. But you’re too old to do your own stunts.”
The theme continued as I limped back to the car. “This is the moment when the wolves starting circling, Dad. They can sense you’re fading…”
“This is where I say, ‘save yourself, son?’ You and Pepper leave me here in the woods?”
Fortunately I had the car keys, so the question of my self-sacrifice was only theoretical. I finally made it through the front door.
Twenty years ago my wife would have rushed to massage soothing balms into my battered body. But we’ve had three children since then. “You’re filthy,” she said. “And you’re bleeding. Don’t drip blood on the carpet. And make sure you wash the dog before you go in the shower…”