The Anatomy of a Running Tattoo

The idea started in April with a carpet, the carpet that we’d been sleeping on all week during the Marathon des Sables. Gareth, one of the 5 other runners I’d been sharing the basic shelter with…

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…looked at the design on the edge of it and said, ‘I think I might use that in some way to add to my tattoo sleeve…’

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I recognised the ‘X’ symbol as that of the Berber free man. The Berber’s are a tribe that inhabit many North African countries and it was men from that tribe who were responsible for making and breaking our MDS campsites every day. The symbol talks to their belief and love of freedom, and their ability to fight for it; since the 7th century AD many invaders such as the various Islamic tribes and later the French had tried to conquer them but they’d not really managed it. They’d taken over the land, sure, but it was clear for those who travelled among them and read their stories that the Berbers had always kept their own spirit burning, and their defiance bright.

Now I wasn’t about to idealise that but I could see merit in recording the MDS experience in some way. The thoughts I’d occupied myself with during it could easily slip away if I wasn’t careful. It’s easy enough to be honest with yourself when you’re running through the desert on your own for days, and nights, on end, but once back in the capitalist world such obvious truths often take a back seat. They weren’t revolutionary thoughts, or anything vaguely unique, but they were ones I wanted to be a part of my everyday existence. Such as, when walking through the night over sand dunes, exhausted, feeling tired and mock heroic, and then realising that many people - refugees, soldiers, and those in search of something such as family or work (I’d once met a man in Malawi who walked 2,500 miles just to find work in Jo’burg) - do this sort of thing everyday. Which wasn’t to say I wasn’t achieving a great thing with the MDS, only that one must always have empathy when dealing with one’s fellow human, and understand that we are all facing our own battles, somehow, and it’s best to remember that before attempting to judge. Perhaps better not to judge at all, actually.

And then there was the other people in the race. It’s easy, if you are in any way discerning, to disapprove of how many act when they are living their everyday life. Even when taking the aforementioned empathy into account, people often still act pretty poorly. But the MDS, a race that puts near equal emphasis on the community side of running as the running itself, offers people a chance to shine, and for the most part people take it. I knew that those around me weren’t perfect and in fact if we met ‘back home’ we might not get along at all, but here I was seeing people at something like their best, and that made me feel good. Perhaps I was at my best, too. And perhaps if we all were at our best, then everybody else in the world could be like this, if they carved out a chance to be so, as we had by signing up to the MDS.

So, the idea of the tattoo was planted. The Berber free man symbol.

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The calendar year starting May 2016 had been a big one for me. A month in Greece had begun it, running alone in the mountains of Evvia and those around Athens. I’d wanted to get away from Canada for a while, the previous few months hadn’t been good - I’d been let down badly and subject to all sorts of mental abuse - and it seemed right to put a barrier between all that and what I hoped would be a far better future.

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Greece has always been kind to me and this visit was no exception. During my first week in Athens I’d trained with Maria Polyzou, a 1996 Olympian who still holds the Greek record for the marathon. Maria was generous with her advice and it was during this time that I first began to understand the direct relationship between positive thinking and being able to offer my best during a race (I haven’t always been able to implement this strategy since, but at least I now ‘get’ it!).

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Spring is glorious in the mountains of Evvia, flowers everywhere, a chorus of insects and bees humming, clear skies, nobody else at all on the trails.

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After 2 weeks in the mountains I’d returned to Athens and entered a 10k race. There were no other foreign people taking part and before the race everybody was being very kind to me, you know, lots of smiles, handshakes and waves. But nobody spoke English so when the announcement went out that the 5km and 10km race would start at the same time, there was no way I could understand. You can see me below, in the black compression socks and blue outfit on the far right of the photo.

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The gun went off, 5 guys shot in front of me and I spent the first 3km of the 5km lap of town trying to catch them. I didn’t know that the reason they were so fast is that they were racing the 5km, not the 10. I managed to pass 2 guys but the lead 3 were too fast and by the time I came up to the finish line that marked the end of the 5km and the start of my own second lap, the 5km top 3 had disappeared into the crowds. I thought they’d already rounded the corner of the road and were out of reach. I was in the lead but didn’t know it! So the car with the timeclock on top of it and 2 police motorcycles were driving a little way in front of me, and the crowds were going crazy, and as I lapped slower runners they were giving me the thumbs up and shouts of ‘Bravo’ and all the time I was thinking, ‘Ah, these Greeks are lovely people. I’m in 4th place and yet still, because I’m foreign, they want to make me feel good so they’re doing all this for me.’

I cruised down the finish straight, no pressure at all, I was in 4th place, a guy was closing in on me but I had nothing to loose, I thought I may as well high five all the kids and smile a lot, and I broke the tape with a big grin.

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Afterwards I sat around on the kerb having a few drinks, people were shaking my hand and smiling yet still I had no idea I’d won the race. I just didn’t expect to, I’d never won anything before and I certainly didn’t expect to win a running race in Athens at the age of 48! It was only when the awards ceremony began and they called the second place person up and I thought, ‘Hang on, that guy finished behind me,’ that I began to understand. Then they called out my name and the penny dropped, I had somehow won but not realised it.

It felt great to win in Athens, the home of the marathon, the centre of athletics! I took my trophy to ‘Beer Time’, a bar run by an old friend, and drank the best Greek craft beer from it all night. It was a quite memorable celebration!

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Later in the week I ran a 5k race around the Acropolis with Maria; it was a privilege to once again run with an Olympian and an all round lovely person, and so much fun.

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So all that made for an intense life experience I wanted to remember, and when what Gareth had suggested sank in it seemed the right thing to do to somehow include a Greek symbol in with the Berber one. The Byzantine double headed eagle had always seemed attractive to me, I’d used it a few times as a start point in my creative work over the years, I kept it in mind…

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The final piece slotted into place when I thought of my other significant race of the year.  It was the Canadian 24 hour running championships, and I had come first in the men’s race. I wasn’t allowed to collect the trophy as I was just a Permanent Resident of Canada, not a Citizen, but that hadn’t mattered to me. I’d begun training for the race earlier in the year, before the visit to Greece, when I was feeling about as low as I ever have done. I knew I wasn’t actually worth less than anybody else but that was the overriding theme of my everyday life. I was finished, it seemed, as a useful or relevant member of society, the treatment I’d been on the sharp end of had been so destructive, almost all self belief had been stripped away. But there was something small left, a part of me that said, ‘You’re not as bad as those closest to you think. You may be old and not look very good any more, and you’re not rich and you can’t lie just to make yourself seem part of the mainstream but you can at least try to win this race. Society is dumb, it only understands winning, so speak their language for once. Any old fool can win long distance races, you just need to apply yourself, stay healthy and push, hard.’ Ok, so my assumptions then, the result of extreme emotional hurt, don’t withstand scrutiny now but they spurred me on to train like a maniac. Then Greece happened and I became more positive, and the summer was good for me, so when race day arrived in mid September I was in a different headspace, a better one, not needing to win any more but still very much wanting to reach the end of the path I’d embarked on.

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Several guys were beating me and after several hours it really didn’t seem like I had a chance to even place top 3, and I resigned myself to just hanging in there and doing my best. But somehow the top runners dropped off, and I was left in the lead and managed to hang onto that through the night.

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My self confidence was partially regained, I had a base from which to begin life again, and a valuable lesson had been passed to me during these 24 hours which was, even if you really believe you have no chance at all of achieving your goals just hang in there, do what you’ve trained yourself to do. You’ve no way of knowing how others feel, how they might change their minds, have doubts and drop off the pace as the experience progresses. Never give up, keep pushing even when you feel so far away from the pace of life. Nothing is written, nothing is pre-ordained, nothing (and even if it is, you’ve no way of knowing that, so best to act like it isn’t or else you might use it as an excuse for a failure your training really doesn’t deserve). You may not ever have the slightest chance of coming out on top, but that doesn’t actually matter, personal success or failure is getting to be an archaic concept anyhow (and about time, good riddance to it) and anyway, acting like that won’t help the situation. Give it everything you’ve got, physically and mentally, and if nothing else, whilst society isn’t yet ready to understand the concept of oneness at least it’ll see that you’ree the best second place you can ever be, if that matters to you (and it does them, so if you’re dealing with them, it’s wise to bear that in mind).

So reflecting on all that, it came together. The centrepiece of the tattoo should be the Berber free man, within the colours of the Berber Independence flag (the blue represents the Mediterranean Sea, the green the fields that Berbers have cultivated since prehistoric times, and the yellow is both the Sahara – the domain of the Berber – and the concept of joy).

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The Greek Byzantine eagle should hold the Berber flag somehow at its centre.

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And the Canadian 24 hours lessons should be represented somehow, perhaps in the Haida style.

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So I took all that, mashed it into a rough design…

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…and visited a Tattoo artist that I trust, Samantha from I Love Mom on Dovercourt Road in Toronto, who said ‘Great, I can work with that, we’ll blend the Berber flag into the feathers, give me a few weeks.’

The only thing left to decide after Samantha had created the design was which eagle faced forward.

Greece is a place I love, and I hope that I shall return there many times before my time on Earth passes. It’s also a centre of critical thinking and dealing with the contradictions that make up a human existence. The tale I have told here is wracked with such contradictions, of yearning for acceptance and mocking it, of looking down on people yet feeling below them. So it is right that the Greek eagle has my back, forever watching over me, guarding me against myself, spurring me on to think critically.

Canada is my present and, I believe, my future, and it pays to live in the former with one eye on the latter, if you want to be content. So the Canadian eagle should be clearly visible to me, I thought, and be looking forward.

And the Berber concept of joy and freedom, and an ability to empathize, should be at the centre of all. And that is how it now is.

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Thank you for the inspiration, and life lessons Greece, Maria, the MDS, Gareth and all I met there, and Canada, and of course Samantha. :)

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