Mohammed was bang on time. A neat, slim man in a checked shirt, he walked up and introduced himself. As we spoke he became more animated. I noticed that his eyes shone when he smiled and he was full of humour. Early into the interview, he got up to get sugar for his coffee. He returned with six sachets and poured three into the cup. He held the last three back in reserve. He told me about his sweet tooth and joked that if he didn’t run he would definitely have diabetes. He laughed when he told me that running had saved his life, but he wasn’t being funny.
You’re not going to have my name in the book? I’m disappointed now. I’m terrible at reading books, but your book will be different. My story is going to be in it, so I’ll definitely read it.
I’m sorry that I couldn’t meet any closer to London. I had an exam yesterday. It didn’t go very well, so I just have to go through the process of revising and taking it again in a month’s time. When things like that happen, I can’t sleep. Last night, I didn’t get to sleep until about six in the morning, so my sleep pattern is all over the place.
My name is Mohammed, I was born in North Africa. My dad is Algerian and my mum is English. I grew up in Algeria and went to school there until I was ten. Coming to the UK was difficult. I didn’t want to leave home. My friends and the family that I knew were all in Algeria, but my mum and dad were living here. Even though it was nice to be reunited with my mum and dad there were so many negatives.
When I first came to the UK, I didn’t speak English. I spoke Arabic and French. I still remember my first day at school. I felt like an alien from Mars and all the kids at school spoke this random language that I didn’t understand.
I guess I started speaking English within a month or two. I needed to pick the language up quickly to keep up with the other kids in the class. It wasn’t good, but I was speaking.
I’m a gay man. Growing up in a North African country, being gay is an abomination. That kind of mindset is still there. It’s part of me. My struggle isn’t about being a gay man in the UK. It’s about how I feel inside myself. I could be anywhere in the world and I would still feel the same. It took a long time to come out to myself, to get to the point when I could say, this is who I am. I’m not sure how that happened. I only actually came out to my mother last year. Since then, I’ve joined a Muslim LBGTQI group. That was very important to me.
This necklace is something I got from a trip to Leicester last year. I went with the group. We did an exercise where we all sat down to figure out each other’s strong points. As we went around the table, people agreed about a certain person and their quality. My idea was to bring something back as a gift. So we all got a necklace. This one means “caring” in Arabic because I’m constantly caring for them, looking after them and making sure that they’re OK. That’s my quality.
When did I start running? I looked that up this morning. It was the first year of university, probably 2016. I used to be a smoker and I wanted things to change. I wanted to be healthier. I still try to remember what was going through my head when I decided to go for a run. It was at night. It might have been a Sunday because it’s quieter then. I didn’t want people to see me. I didn’t record the distance but I didn’t go far. My goal was just to run.
At school, I was a very skinny little boy who hated sport. I got bullied for it. I remember my mum tried to encourage me to do football or go swimming. I didn’t like it and I still can’t swim. Where the running thing came from I have no idea. That’s probably why I chose to run at night. It was just me, there was nobody else involved. Nobody could call me names.
Now I’m addicted to running. It makes me feel euphoric. What I like most is running in the rain. It’s like heaven on earth. It’s like dancing. There is so much freedom. I can’t describe it any other way. You feel like a child. Your inner child comes out. Sometimes I’ll see a puddle and will run through it just to get messy. Running does that to you, you feel free and grateful. Running in the rain I feel on top of the world. And I have been to Mt. Kilimanjaro, so I know how that feels.
I want to run for a long time. So I hold myself back a little bit. I don’t want to overdo it. This is a long-term lifestyle for me. I try to limit myself to a maximum of one marathon a year. Half marathons have a much smaller impact on the body so I did more of those last year. It’s important to have something to aim for. It gives you an extra push to go out and run. Touching wood, I don’t have any injuries and I can train for a marathon. I might get aches and pains for a few days afterwards but then I’ll be fine.
Running with other people is good in its own way, you run faster and it helps you beat your time – although that’s not important to me. But I much prefer running on my own. I’m a member of a running club, but even when I run with them, I put my music on and I’m off. With running, you have to feel your own pace. You run on your own terms. If you try and catch up with someone or slow down for someone else, you end up getting tired. It doesn’t feel right. But if you stick to your pace you just keep on going. That’s what I like. I just like to run.
My philosophy is that you should run in one direction until you can’t run any more, and then make yourself run back. That’s the only way you can get to the next level. Otherwise, the mind makes you lazy. After a certain distance you think you can’t keep going but that’s not true. What I learned is that once you get past that psychological barrier, you can carry on for another 5km, and then another 10km. You can do it. It’s all in the head.
Music helps me overcome the mental barrier. When I do go for a run, my body is constantly saying ‘go home’. Music helps quiet my mind and distract me, especially good music.
When I worked in London, one of my colleagues approached me and said that he was doing the Paris Marathon. He asked me if I wanted to join him. That was ridiculous. I had only ever run 10km. He asked me in September and the marathon was in February. I never thought that I would be ready. But then I looked at him. He was a mess. He smoked and drank. I just thought, hang on, if he can do it, I definitely can! I made it my mission to train for the marathon. I didn’t get into Paris. When I finally went to apply, all the places were sold out. But I had done the training so I signed up for Madrid.
Coming up to Madrid, I got an injury to my Achilles tendon. But after all the training, there was no way I was going to miss it. My goal was to not give a shit about other people. All I wanted to do was finish. It was stupid. 5km in I couldn’t run anymore. It was excruciating. I bought an ankle support and that got me through. I had never pushed my body that far but when I finished I was in a state of euphoria. It was like I was on drugs. That feeling is really addictive. I had never experienced it before. I get it every time I run.
My main running ambition is to complete the Marathon des Sables. It’s a six-day race. You run 150 miles over six days in the Sahara. Some days are full marathons and other days are shorter. There’s one rest day. I need to train a bit more, but it’s definitely my goal.
This year, I chose to run a marathon in the Sahara. I wanted to know what it felt like to run in the heat. It’s not as bad as you might think. It’s just different. You run on new terrain, the temperature is a bit warmer and you get different people running. The course wasn’t extreme like the Marathon des Sables and we didn’t really touch any big dunes. In the Marathon des Sables you can run for a whole day on sand dunes. The part of the Sahara that we ran in wasn’t like what you see on nature documentaries. There were a lot of rocks and it is one of the driest areas in the world. There were water stations every two kilometres and I found that dates really helped. The heat was fine. The temperature must have been 26°, but the heat in the Sahara is different from the heat here. In the UK it’s awful when it’s hot because of the humidity. In the Sahara the air is dry. There is not a lot of humidity. That helped.
I have allergies. My hay fever gets bad to the point where it paralyses me. I’m also allergic to pollution. Once it gets triggered, everything makes it worse, humidity, damp, perfumes. But it’s funny – when I’m in the desert, I’m cured. I’ve always said to myself, that when I retire, I will go somewhere in the desert. I am a Mediterranean boy really, I like to be next to the sea, but maybe when I retire I will get a nice little hut somewhere in the desert. How do I cope with London and its air? I don’t really. It’s a bit of a struggle. It’s interesting how we force ourselves to live in an environment that is completely toxic to us. Even though I know that city life is not good for me. I force myself to live here, because I love living in London.
I sometimes wonder what there will be to do after I’ve run the Marathon des Sables? Do I run across the continent? I’m already thinking about what I do next. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing, or a bad thing. Once you experience that feeling of pushing your body to its limit. You can’t give it up.
I like to think that running has made me fitter physically, and I know that running has shaped my physique. Psychologically, running keeps me stable. I suffer from anxiety and chronic depression. Running helps me ground myself and adjust my mindset. It helps me to feel grateful. I experience joy for sure when I run. It’s the kind of joy that people pay money to get. I am always so grateful for my legs. If I didn’t have my legs I don’t know what I would do.
My anxiety has been around for longer than I can recall. It’s always been there. It was only three or four years ago that I started looking deeper and trying to find out what it was. Before, I just thought that it was a normal state of mind.
Anxiety changes everything about my body. That’s the result of stress hormones going all over the place. When I have an attack I am on edge, I get cramps and headaches. My whole body feels completely ill. So I go for a run. When I get back home I feel more relaxed. I am able to sleep. Not everybody experiences the same things but running is my way of dealing with how my body is.
Running doesn’t cure you but as long as my body is capable, it is something that will always be there as an option. I remember saying to my therapist, look if I could run non-stop I would. It’s the only thing that helps me. I do wish that a lot more institutions in general would support, not just running but sport in general. There is a certain amount of pain, but once you’ve gone through the barrier you get the joy of running.
After failing the exam, I just lay in bed. I went into a spiral of negativity. I felt that I wasn’t good enough, I told myself that I had let myself down … all that negative stuff. It was awful. Running helps me get out of moods like that. I believe that if you’ve got a brain and a functional body there is nothing that is different between you and someone else who has the same functioning parts. Growing up, it’s our environment that shapes us. Being depressed or being stressed out is just a state of mind. At root, everybody is the same. We all have a choice as to what we want to do and where we want to head. It’s what you make of the situation.
I could have said, I‘m not going to do a marathon, it’s too hard, I’m not sporty. But I didn’t. Everybody has the capacity to run. Last year an ex-soldier whose legs had been amputated ran the Marathon des Sables. Life is not just about what you think your body can do. It’s what you believe your body can do. I know it might sound weird, but if someone asked me the best way to die. I would say that I would rather die running than anything else.
I’m a big fan of Lance Armstrong, even though he cheated. He had cancer three times. His love for cycling was so strong that he kept on going. He beat cancer three times. If you do something just to achieve a result, or because someone has told you to, then it can be hard. I run out of love, not necessity. You don’t do things because you expect something in return. I don’t run because I get a euphoric feeling, or to have people cheering, or to prove a point. I do it because I love it.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. When I look back at my life, there are a lot of things that I regret. But I can honestly say that going for a run is one of the best decisions I ever made. I’m not sure how much you know about anxiety or depression but when you are in that wormhole, it’s physically very difficult to feel good and to feel grateful. Running lets me do that. We can never be totally sure what will happen in life. But I believe, as long as your intentions are good, the end destination will always be good.
© Copyright Arthur Knaggs 2019