I’m reading a book at the moment – ‘The kindness of strangers’, a collection of travellers tales about kind souls, guardian angels and help provided at unusual and often dangerous moments. It’s a great that’s making me reflect on my own behaviour. Do I do enough of that? I stop at the sight of a puncture on the Taff trail. I help the elderly where I can. I annoyingly offer tourists advice when a map is in evidence (whether they want that advice or not). But I guess we could all do a little more. It also got me thinking about when I’ve received help from nowhere and reminded me of the visitation of my own guardian angel, who in my case was a huge, 6ft 2” black guy with a rumbling subterranean voice and a heart of gold.
Back in 1998 I ran the New York Marathon for Simon Weston’s then charity – ‘Weston Spirit’. Initially I didn’t want to. I was running reasonably successfully on the track, my speed was improving all the time and I didn’t want the pressure of fundraising. But I was approached by the charity, knew people there and felt pretty bad saying ‘no’. So I fell into it I guess. Suckered by the knowledge that I could run a marathon and that refusing them was impacting their bottom line. Anyway. I trained. And trained. And trained. Until one day, about 8 weeks prior to the event – and after an insane week of high mileage and speedwork – I suffered a partial rupture of the Achilles tendon. Marathon training came to an abrupt halt, whilst fundraising trundled along. I swopped the track for the pool and the road for the turbo.
Toeing the start line on crystal clear and frosty November morning, I was not prepared to let go of my lofty aspirations. Why let injury and lack of training get in the way of a good target? So I start and knock out the miles at the right pace. I’m on track at 5 and 10 miles. At half way I clock 1hr 18 and twig that I’m about a minute off my target pace. Time to up the ante then. Not for one minute do I accept that given the circumstances, the target is entirely unrealistic and that this level of pig headedness is only going to end in tears (which it did).
At 15 miles I emerged from the Queensboro Bridge and entered Manhattan. Huge crowds lined the road. ‘You’re in 76th place!’ someone shouted. The idea of 76th rolled around my head. 75 people in front, 35,000 behind. I felt hunted. Haunted. Pained. My Achilles throbbed.
On First Avenue, the road was wide and the building high. A runner from Poole in Dorset came alongside me. ‘You’re a Les Croup!’ he yelled, referring to my running club (Les Croupiers Cardiff).
Running through the Bronx, a roughly hewn lump of ice was thrown from an apartment block and splintered on the road in front of me.
The residents and Brownstone buildings of Harlem witnessed my pace dropping. 6’s were no longer obtainable. Soon, neither were 7’s. Or 8’s. Runners streamed past.
By Central Park I was limping chronically. The place is mountainous. Or at least it is when you’re at the rump end of a marathon and feeling every inch of concrete beneath wafer thin racing flats.
I came up to the finish line. Went across it and burst into tears for the second time in my adult life. 2hrs 55mins 28secs. 540th place. £5k raised. Lots of pain (the Achilles never fully recovered).
I limped through the finish area. There was a triage area for suffering runners. No time for that. I had to get back to my hotel about 15 blocks away and lie down properly – such was the pain in my lower leg and the rapidly cooling and stiffening muscles. How much did I have on me? $2. Two. Paltry. Dollars. I was cocky and naive enough to think that I’d walk back after. There’s no way that $2 would get a cab and city marathons cause traffic madness. The roads were thick were vehicles. There were a few yellow cabs around, but none available for hire. I stood at the road side looking beaten up and dejected, a finishers medal slung around my neck. Out of nowhere a cab pulled up and the window wound down. The driver was a huge black guy, at least twice my size and 20 stone if he was a pound. He slowly looked me up and down. His voice rumbled from a place far below us.
Where you headed?
I paused and produced two mangled, one dollar bills.
How far will this get me?
You done the Mara-thon? (the word was strung out and connected with a hyphen).
Hell. I’ll take you as far as you wanna go.
It took an eternity to deliver me to that hotel, to a soft bed, a square meal and a lie down. I’ve never been happier to hear blaring horns and distant sirens through my open hotel window or to watch a lousy sitcom whilst drifting into immediate deep sleep. And the driver? He didn’t even want my two dollars and disappeared back into the bedlam of seized city traffic.
There are many things I’ll remember this trip for. Being accosted by an irate cleaver wielding chef in a Chinese restaurant (long story). Watching a rat dart across a delicatessen floor. A sales assistant at Macy’s telling me ‘You have a lovely slim neck. Do you work out?’ (Eh?…. Can’t see that happening in Debenhams). A BBC documentary crew capturing our experiences on camera. But it was this Taxi driver’s willingness to go out of his way and do something for free that will always stay with me. The kindness of strangers.
The Kindness of strangers is published by Lonely Planet.