RUNNING IS...LIFE - AN INTERVIEW WITH ANSON MACKAY

RUNNING IS...LIFE - AN INTERVIEW WITH ANSON MACKAY

RUNNING IS...LIFE - AN INTERVIEW WITH ANSON MACKAY
BY Francesca Goodwin

“Move, as the limbs / of a runner do…In orbit go / Round an endless track.” W.H Auden

One might identify a few different ‘journeys’ in Anson Mackay’s life; their ‘journey’ with cancer; their ‘journey’ as a gay man; their ‘journey’, more recently, exploring their queer identity; their ‘journey’ with running. But Anson doesn’t like the word ‘journey’. “It feels too linear and like there’s an expectation of moving from a ‘bad’ to a ‘good’ place, when, really, you’re going with the flow and sometimes getting buffeted about a bit”. We struggle for a moment as we consider alternative terms before Anson begins talking about the Gaelic word ‘cuairt', which means a circular course. ‘Cuairt’ speaks to the essence of the person Anson is – perpetually in motion: constantly evolving, constantly curious and constantly pushing the boundaries of possibility.
The week before this interview, Anson and I had shared some miles with Camino Ultra, a London-based run tribe, and, as we jogged along in the rain, they had spoken about waiting for some medical test results: “The biomarkers could indicate cancer, or they could indicate that I just ran around a track for 24 hours”. It’s a comment that contains their idiosyncratic wry humour. “Let’s hope you’ve just killed yourself through running”, I reply grimly. When we sit down for this conversation, Anson has received the results: it turns out that running for 24 hours does indeed mimic the inflammatory markers of cancer; the difference is that running is a choice, running is strength, running is life. Cancer is not.
“F*** cancer”, we both agree.
This story doesn't start with cancer, however. Anson’s childhood was spent in the Highlands in a remote community on a hillside but, ironically for someone who now loves and breathes the trails, running didn’t enter their mind as a young person surrounded by such a wealth of natural beauty. No, running entered their life in the urban streets of Manchester during their PhD.
“I was running in my Dr. Martens all the time because my friend did, and I wanted to be cool; it didn’t last!”
It was only when they turned thirty-eight and research opportunities in Siberia and the Kalahari Desert in Botswana arose that running re-entered their life. It was a time when, by their own admission, they were drinking too much and weren’t in peak physical or mental health. Running seemed a way to improve their wellbeing, as well as a means of building the fitness required for the demands of the trips.
From someone who started off running in Dr. Martens (not advisable), by January 2020, just months before the pandemic hit, they had begun a run streak as part of RED January, raising money for mental health support. It was only intended to last a month, but they’ve been running every day since, including through their cancer treatment.

“I think I used running as a deflection, in a way, from who I was or what I did”, Anson reflects on what running meant to them in those years. “I think it was linked to mental health issues. When I decided to become healthier, it meant that whatever mental health issues I hid through drinking or partying, I began to struggle with more. I can’t exactly remember but I think that running was a way to quiet the ‘monkey mind dialogue’ that I had used alcohol to dampen down.”

Alcoholism isn’t something that Anson is a stranger to: they lost both their parents and sister to addiction. For them, however, alcohol was not so much an addiction as a crutch to talk to people until it became a bit more than that. As their cat jumps down from their lap where she has been contentedly purring, Anson puts it another way, “Running had become far more than a physical material gain and more a mental one.”
Anson’s racing experience started with marathons but they were never chasing times, nor did they feel that traditional running clubs were for them. The answer, and perhaps turning point in their running ‘cuairt’, was to start their own club for the Geography department at UCL for students and staff: “The UCL Joggers”, they say with a smile at the pun. It was a way of socialising not built around going to the pub and was the start of seeing a “greater good” in running by helping others to access it too. Research and running have come together in other ways too. In 2013, they ran across Lake Baikal whilst on a research trip to Russia. A marathon across the frozen lake in -30-degree conditions is an experience that they still reflect on as being one of the most extraordinary of their life.
Anson remarks that organising those research trip also enhanced their planning for long ultra races since there is such a small margin for error when collecting data in remote locations: “Any small mistake can just end it, so you have to make allowances for everything.” I use this as a point to pivot the conversation to something that they could not have anticipated or planned for: cancer. This ‘cuairt’ started with an innocuous visit to the doctor, at around the time of beginning their 2020 RED January run streak, with a swollen gland which stayed hard and lumpy. Unbeknown to Anson, this was a symptom of head and neck cancer and it wasn’t long before a confirmatory diagnosis.

“In my head though, I still wanted to run every day and I wasn’t going to let that stop me.”

 

The first day of radiation treatment coincided with the first day of the pandemic. A brutal time to commence on what Anson’s oncologist informed them was a ‘brutal treatment’. Just to throw in another challenge, it was then that they committed to running every day.
“There were a few days when I physically couldn’t run but I could walk. So I would walk round Wanstead Park, also doing exercises like push ups, sit ups and star jumps. Every day I did some kind of exercise even though I was really ill. Running every day became part of a new identity for me; cancer takes away your bodily autonomy…you are constantly having things ‘done to’ you and running gave me some of that back. It allowed me to keep pushing my physical boundaries.”
I’ve heard this story before, but it still brings up a huge ball of emotions as I listen to Anson talk. It’s painful to imagine someone so warm and generous of spirit having their life suddenly become so limited and uncertain. However, told with their matter-of-fact humour, it is difficult to not also suppress a laugh and share delight in their single-minded determination to do everything to feel themselves: to feel alive.

“I just felt there was something I needed to keep for myself; it wasn’t going to rob me of my strength and resilience. But also, just the challenge, you know: how bloody minded can I be?! It was really hot that summer and often I’d run without a top on, and my feeding tube would come loose; I’d tape it up but then it would come out again and there’d be bits of stomach flying around, which is just a bit gross! Luckily, there weren’t many people around at the time!”

Running hasn’t just been important as the antithesis to cancer in terms of exploring identity and supporting their mental health. When Anson started running longer ultra distances, the hours spent running helped them to process the trauma around the illness. This meant that, despite being sick, they never became depressed. Running also became a space to explore their queer, non-binary identity.

“I’m someone who always looks for the good and there are positives to having cancer: I’d never have taken up trail or ultra running; I’d never have connected with people like Camino and yourself, and I’d never have realised that I was non- binary.  I’d go out running and be questioning why I was getting so upset that it is so toxic for trans and non-binary people in the UK at the moment and, as I ran, it hit me that it was because it was closer to home than I realised: my gender didn’t fit into a strict binary. It was a moment that was fundamental to changing who I am. Sometimes I think ‘I’m in my mid-50s; I can’t keep changing’, but we are all always changing and running has allowed me to keep asking those questions of myself.”

I comment that so often we don’t give ourselves processing time in life or the opportunity to embody our feelings and Anson agrees, “I don’t think about anything when I’m running but my brain is churning everything over…it’s been advantageous in my career, advantageous to my health and now advantageous in my identity.” In other words, it opens up choices, I offer: there’s possibilities and options, rather than a path that you feel that you have to go down? “Yes,” they nod, “often it’s that solo time that allows you to think about those decisions and ask: ‘is the world going to stop if I don’t do this…? No.’ It’s a privilege to be able to have that time, I think.”
There’s certainly a lot of time for processing on an ultra-race and Anson has completed many, from the one hundred mile ‘Arc of Attrition’ trail race along the Southwest Coast Path, to, most recently, a 24-hour track race.

“People are much more encouraging for you to do well in an ultra. Unless you’re an elite runner, it’s not about getting a PB, it’s about mental and physical resilience and trying to complete the distance because it’s bloody hard! You’re out there for so long. It sort of imitates a life: you need so many different skills.”

It then became a case of testing themselves in different ways on different terrains, which is where we move from beautiful trails to running in circles round a track for 24 hours.
“A friend of mine, Oscar, was doing a marathon a week for a year, running on a track on Parliament Hill, and I thought I’d go along and join him. I then did the London marathon virtual version on my local running track, and I just loved it; four hours passed, David (my partner) arrived to pick me up and I hadn’t realised how much time had gone by. It was really meditative.”
One of the biggest revelations was not running for that long but that running in road shoes on a track was somewhat easier than the trail ones they’d used for the virtual marathon (“my calves were a bit tight afterwards!”). The other was the community.
“I finished one hundred miles and stopped and wasn’t going to do any more but then others were urging me on, so after twenty minutes I got back up and first tried walking, but I don’t like walking, so just kept running again…The community there was amazing.”
I’m keen to delve more into this notion of community, which is a word that’s been consistent across our conversation.
“I think people like Camino embody all that’s good about running. A community is about more than the people, it’s also about where you’re running to: your purpose. Having communities where people find representation for themselves is hugely important: in London, there’s Black Trail Runners, Queer Running Club and Queer Runnings (online). If you’re young and growing up amongst a lot of the hatred in our culture at the moment and not finding yourself represented, you have to find your own group. So, these groups come of necessity but out of necessity comes joy.”
We turn to discussing the obstacles for queer people in society and how the running space can be a safe one for them. For Anson, it’s again about representation:

“So many people growing up queer encounter more mental health problems. I set up a group to support people in the Geography Department at UCL and it was so successful that it got rolled out to other departments. It doesn't surprise me that representation is important in running too. If you’re running to mitigate against the negative impacts of mental health or the stigma associated with your sexual identity and you can’t talk about that when you’re running, you’re not going to like running!”

Anson was lucky to discover Toby, their coach, and, through him, ’Queer Runnings’, which was set up for trail runners who identify as queer. There’s a long way still to go, however. When Anson ran the 24-hour track race, the organisers recognised their pronouns but explained that England Athletics insist on ‘he’/‘she’ identification. Many big races are recognising the need for more choices, but it remains a problem at the top of the sport and leaves many feeling unseen. It’s something that Anson has learned so much more about through connecting with others in the Queer Runnings community. Indeed, when you consider that we’ve only just about got tampons in the bathrooms on races, gender parity is definitely still an evolving conversation for the sport.
Machismo is certainly something associated with the branding of ‘Britain’s toughest race’, The Spine, which Anson is tackling in January: 268 miles, non-stop, along the Pennine Way in the middle of winter. It’s a challenge that has them feeling a little anxious, mainly due to the immense logistical organisation required since it will involve many days of self-sufficiency. There’s also the question of navigation, which, despite being a Geographer, is not something that they feel hugely confident in. “I’ve just done a weekend navigation course; I’ve been teaching Geography for thirty years and I couldn’t use a map and compass,” they chuckle.
We are back where we started as I choose this moment to pull the trigger on the ‘journey’ question and what others might take away from Anson’s own? It’s a word that I realise, now more than ever, simply does not do justice to their experiences. Anson, being the person they are, assures me that I can use any word I like in the edit, pauses, and then thoughtfully replies:
“Taking up running can be really life-affirming. Few people like it immediately, but it grows into you and sort of becomes part of you. It can have such a positive impact in so many aspects of your life for your mental and physical wellbeing and enable you to find a community of people with whom you can talk about your true self: people who are using running to come together and have a shared experience.”

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