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!”