“Am I getting fat?” I asked my girlfriend the other day.
“Only in the head, my love” she answered fondly.
I had asked the question because I had not run for a week and was feeling both sluggish and twitchy, sensations that should not be in the same room together. I was taking a short break from running after finishing a half marathon in outlandishly hot conditions in Verona. (Incidentally, Verona is so beautiful that other cities bitch about it, saying it’s just had a lot of work done and isn’t bringing up three kids.) My failure to take anti-chafing lubricant on the trip had played a part in my decision to put my feet up, but even when a race has gone smoothly in all areas, a little rest afterwards is generally a good idea and a deserved treat. The problem is that it’s so easy to let two days become four and four to become a week and a week to become an opera.
That has never happened to me because after only a few days of not running I get the disconcerting feeling that my body is literally slowing down, that no one is stoking the furnace and the coal is starting to build up. In the week after a race, or if I’ve been ill or sublimely lazy, it sometimes feels as if I am actually getting heavier by the day because I am not out burning off the calories I continue to consume at training-for-a-big-race levels. Inside, whoever’s in charge (I imagine a tiny, sweaty, slightly overweight guy wearing dirty overalls) is panicking: “We’re not burning the glycogen! What’s going on out there? Liver, can you store some more? Atta boy. What about you, muscles? No? Thanks for nothing, big shots. OK, then, pass it along: we’re making fat. We are officially making fat. No, I have no idea how long this is going to last but we have to prepare for the worst. Someone tell this idiot to loosen his belt.”
Logically I know I’m not piling on the pounds but my body feels different, underutilised, operating a little less efficiently. I have become used to muscle soreness and comfortable with postrun tiredness, and I enjoy picturing the rebuilding and improvements that are taking place in the hours and days after a long run: the feeling of tightness in the muscles that gradually eases as they return to full health, but stronger than ever; the blood flowing fast and free; and the new mitochondria introducing themselves and settling in nicely. But after even a short period of relative indolence, the tiny sweaty guy gets scared and when he gets scared he gets mean.
‘Why isn’t he moving? Oh God, look at all this fat! Just store it down there, over his belt. And pack some in the buttocks. No, wait, just one of them. Let’s see how he likes that!’
Eventually, of course, I go for a run, not because I think a tiny factory foreman has gone rogue, but because I want to. And because I hate head fat more than I hate one flabby buttock.