It’s fair to say that the last eighteen months have not been the healthiest the world has ever had. With pandemics, lockdowns, and economic devastation, most of us have felt a lot worse, and at least speaking for myself, sought to make ourselves feel better through comfort food and alcohol paired with an almost complete lack of exercise. It should therefore come as no surprise that doctors have described my current medical state as ‘please do not come to the doctors’.
Still, every day offers new possibilities! Seize the day! Just do it! Stop lying in bed at 3 PM aimlessly staring into space until you enter the mental abyss somewhere halfway between life and death where everything seems meaningless! All of these motivational phrases can inspire us. Having spent the last eighteen months behaving like a method actor preparing for a role as a gout-afflicted sloth, now I intend to eat healthier and exercise regularly, returning to the levels of peak fitness I enjoyed in 2019 where sometimes I went to the gym twice a week to repeatedly drink and then refill my water bottle, do two pull-ups then decide I wasn’t feeling it and go home.
If I said to you ‘nike’ who would you think of? If you said, ‘Denilson, former Brazil international footballer and star of the 1998 advert where the Brazil football team played at the airport’ I would say… no, but I appreciate that you’re thinking outside of the box. If however you said ‘that guy who died after running to deliver news of the victory at the battle of Marathon’, then I have got a pleasant surprise for you. Pheidippides was a messenger who not only famously ran the distance now referred to as a Marathon (dying on arrival after uttering the single word ‘nike’, meaning ‘victory’), but prior to that he ran another 150 miles across two days running from Athens to Sparta. If anybody is going to help me get fit and healthy or literally die trying, it’s him. As part of our adventure today we’re going to be both exercising and also enjoying a series of healthy but hopefully tasty snacks that can become a regular part of my diet.
I meet Pheidippides in London’s Finsbury Park. He looks intimidatingly fit, as might be expected of somebody who runs more miles in two days than I’ve run in the last thirty-five years. As I amble over to him, he throws me a bag, which I barely manage to catch. “What’s this?” I ask.
“They’re goji and coconut balls,” he says, excitedly. “They’re good for energy and for your body.”
I examine the bag of balls. They certainly don’t have the immediate visual appeal of a Doughnut Time doughnut or a Miel Bakery pain au chocolat, but I’m willing to give it a go. Taking a bite, they’re both dry but also incredibly dense, as if an entire galaxy of goji berries and coconuts collapsed into a black hole and this is the result. It’s not my favourite thing I’ve ever eaten, but I guess if I’m trying to be healthier now though then this is the way I have to go.
“Right, we’re going to start with a light jog to get the muscles warmed up, followed by some short sprints, then we’ll get into our 20k before we close with a 5k warm-down,” says Pheidippides. I give him the look of a man who hasn’t ventured outside of his own home in three weeks, let alone is now capable of completing such a feat. He ignores my look. “Let’s get going!” He says, as he sets off on his ‘jog’. I say jog because if that’s what he calls a jog then what I’m currently doing is more like watching the evolution of man. It takes him a minute to realise that he’s alone, and then he circles back to find me. “Is there a problem?” He asks.
“That is absolutely not a jog,” I say.
“It’s a five-minute mile pace, as I say it’s quite light.”
“Five minutes a mile? Yeah, we’re going to need to go slower than that.”
“Six minutes a mile?!”
“Err… not exactly.”
“Oh, ok, so like five and a half minutes a mile?”
“I was thinking more like fifteen minutes a mile.”
“What the- but that’s- you just want to walk then?”
“I’m just going to need some time to build up to six minutes a mile I think.”
“Ok, so in about ten minutes?”
“In about ten months.”
“Unacceptable. We can do this. Push yourself to the limits! Let’s get going!”
With that, Pheidippides is off again at pace. I run fast alongside him, trying to keep up with his crazy pace, but after a short time it’s too much, and I trudge to a miserable, breathless halt. Pheidippides again fails to notice and continues running. As I stand there alone I look across the park and notice a familiar face on a bench nearby. “Andy?” They say, noticing me as well.
“Catherine of Aragon? What are you doing here?” The last time I saw Catherine of Aragon we were sharing some tater tots at Bubbledogs.
Catherine shrugs. “Just enjoying the park. I come down here all the time,” she says. She reaches into a canvas bag she has with her and pulls out some M&S chocolate eclairs. “I like to just sit here, enjoy a sweet treat and just watch the world go by. Can I tempt you?”
I stare at the eclairs. The eclairs stare back at me. “What’s the worst that can happen?” Says an éclair, in a thick Brooklyn accent. Normally I would be taken aback by this, but given how the last year has been, if hallucinating sentient eclairs is the only long-term consequence of this I’ll probably be fairly happy. I look around anxiously for Pheidippides. No sign. I sit myself down on the bench and go to take an éclair when-
“No, I can’t, I’m sorry,” I say. “I have to try and get healthy. I’m a new me now.”
“What was wrong with the old you?”
“Oh god, where to begin…” I say. It’s then that Pheidippides jogs back up and finds us sat on the bench.
“What’s going on here?” He says.
“This is Catherine of Aragon. Catherine, Pheidippides. Pheidippides, Catherine.”
Pheidippides and Catherine nod at each other. Then Pheidippides notices the éclairs. “Wait, is that what I think it is? No! If you’re hungry, then eat one of these!”
Pheidippides pulls a bag of turmeric, nigella seed and seaweed crackers out of his pocket and hands it to me. “They’re a superfood that’s high in fibre,” he says. I try them and find that ‘super’ somehow isn’t the right adjective. To be honest, ‘food’ is pushing it a little bit. If I were to pick a term, I’d probably go with ‘misery slabs’. It makes me sad to eat them, a sadness that’s only compounded by Pheidippides’ insistence that we continue on our run.
“Come on, let’s get to work. We’re never going to achieve that five-minute mile without breaking a few eggs.”
“Am I… the eggs?” I say, confused. Pheidippides ignores my question and we set off running again. Again, I try to keep pace with him but within moments I’m exhausted and in pain. More than anything though I’m sad. Not just because I can’t keep up with a professional marathon runner, but because I just don’t really enjoy exercise. Sure, it’s meant to release endorphins that make you feel better, but right now all is feel is pain, disappointment, and the cold, and that’s the last thing I need right now. I trudge back over to the bench where Catherine of Aragon is and sit down.
“Where are you going? Come back, let’s try that again,” says Pheidippides.
“No! I’m fed up. I don’t like running, and I don’t like your stupid snacks.”
“I thought you wanted to be healthy? You’re not going to get healthy if you don’t exercise and eat well.”
“What does it even mean to be healthy? Are you only healthy if you can run a mile in five minutes, have a six-pack and can pull a train?”
“The answer is no. Because you forget about the strongest muscle of all.”
“Yes… the mind…”
“You were going to say something else weren’t you?”
“I was going to say the teeth.”
“But… they’re bones?”
“It’s been a long day, ok? But yes, the mind! The strongest muscle of all! If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last eighteen months, it’s the importance of mental health. The last thing any of us need throughout all of this is to stress ourselves out about not being in shape. And if that all means sitting on a bench with a former wife of Henry VIII who was… were you beheaded?”
“Divorced,” says Catherine.
“Sitting on a bench with a former wife of Henry VIII who was divorced, eating chocolate eclairs because it makes us feel good, then so be it! You just do whatever you can to get through this, you shouldn’t feel guilty about looking after yourself.”
Pheidippides stares at us for a moment, then sits himself down on the bench alongside us. “Are they good then?” He says, eying the eclairs. Catherine hands him the box, and he withdraws one and takes a bite. “Oh my god! These are so good! How much turmeric is in these?”
“There’s no turmeric at all,” I say. “Hey, here’s an idea, how about we get something delivered here?”
“Delivered? As in somebody will bring you your food and then die?” Says Pheidippides.
“You know not all courier services are like that, right?” I say. “But Deliveroo doesn’t treat their workers especially well, so yes it’s a possibility.”
“Because all they care about is profit,” sighs Pheidippides.
“You’d think, but they actually make a huge loss every year too.”
“What kind of business is this?”
I shrug, as I tap a few buttons to set in motion a series of events that will culminate in a meatball pizza from a restaurant called Oi Vita. We sit silently, tucking into the remainder of the eclairs. “Isn’t this nicer than running?” I say.
“Is this what you do all day? You review food?”
“Oh god, the review!”
2/10 – Disappointing healthy snacks.
“Ok, phew, thankyou for reminding me. That’s all done now.”
“So what’s this? Like a post-credits scene?”
“If it is, then it’s not a good one. It’s not something I’d stick around for.”
“People seemed to like it when The Avengers had shawarma wraps together.”
I look at myself, a 35-year-old man working for a search engine that struggles to find itself, Catherine of Aragon, a 16th century Queen, and Pheidippides, a marathon runner dressed in what can only be described as linen hotpants. “We’re not The Avengers,” I say, as our Deliveroo rider arrives with our pizza, a Meatball Queen pizza comprised of meatballs, smoked mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, parmesan and basil. I hand the box around to everybody, and we sit and munch on our pizza slices, quietly satisfied. I look over at Pheidippides and he looks content.
“Nike…” He says to himself, then he drops his pizza and flops sideways.
“Oh god, is he dead?” I say.
“I guess it’s just his thing,” says Catherine of Aragon, as she picks his slice up from the floor and blows the dust off of it. “To good mental health,” she says. “Even at the cost of terrible physical health.” We cheers our slices. Overall…
10/10 – Oi Vita is the best pizza in London.