I was in the middle of Amsterdam for one night only. I had to get out and run. So at 6.30am I was stepping out of the hotel into the icy morning air. It felt more like the middle of the night. The cold water of the IJ lay black and and foreboding in front of me. I ran alongside it, winding up my recalcitrant legs and pumping up my reluctant lungs. My body was protesting at being prematurely dragged out of bed into the freezing cold and then forced to perform, for no apparent reason. By the end of the morning, they would be glad they were working at all. Somewhere else in the city, a tram was sliding along the rails with a few early morning passengers.
Once my body accepted that there was no going back, I was soon into my rhythm, running over the bridge across the IJ and into the old city. I was heading for the famous canals – to run alongside them along the narrow pavements. There were sparkles of light in the occasional window, on pedestrian crossings and in the early christmas illuminations hanging in the trees. But otherwise the air was grey and gloomy. One or two vehicles were taking advantage of the empty roads to skip around the city. A few early risers wrapped up in dark coats and hats, their heads down, their hands thrust into their pockets, headed somewhere.
And me – in my red lycra top, phone strapped to my left arm, and an American woman’s voice updating me on my performance through the wonders of GPS, Bluetooth and bone conduction. When you run you feel like a ghost, watching the world whilst nobody else is noticing.
She announced my first kilometer – 4mins 37 secs. A shocking time – I never run that fast ! Having said that I do seem to run faster in cities than in the country. Is that because its flatter, less windy or because my ego accelerates the legs when people are around? Unbeknownst to me, this exact time – the exact number of seconds – was about to make a big difference to my life.
By now I was running alongside the Kloveniersburgwal Canal. Amsterdam is a spiders web of canals, or more accurately half a spiders web with the IJ as its diameter. Kloveniersburgwal is be one of the main spokes. cutting through the concentric semi-circles. My plan was to zig-zag around a couple of canals and bridges and create a running map which would look like a man lost in a maze. I clocked up my second kilometer as I turned along Herengracht – apparently Amsterdam’s most prestigeous and chique canal. Im sorry, but at 6.45am on a cold November morning, it looked as dull and monochromatic as all the others.
I weaved through the lattice of narrow pavements and waterways. As the visibility improved with the aproaching dawn, a few more people were emerging from their beds and getting about their daily business. I had visited Amsterdam 15 years earlier on a day trip with my daughter – seemingly nothing had changed. Quaint little bridges, cobbled streets, an unbroken wall of picturesque waterfront buildings and randomly abandoned bicyles leaning against the black iron fencing. I hadn’t remembered the tramlines. Maybe they were new.
It was November 30th – the anniversary of my dad’s passing away, nineteen years earlier. Poignant – although I wasnt really thinking about this, as I turned left twice and headed back along the left-side of Princengracht – Prince’s Canal. Further out along this canal is Ann Frank’s house. I hadn’t the time or the energy to run out that far. I was in a rush. As I headed back towards Kloveniersburgwal, I clocked up my 3rd kilometer – I was still averaging 4.45 pace despite all the twists and turns, close to a PB.
Amsterdam, without a Metro, has one of the largest tram networks in europe – over 200km of track. As I appproached Leidsestraat bridge, one of them glided across, from left to right, in front of me. I paced it perfectly as I passed behind it.
I dont know whether I heard the brakes first or saw the enormous face of the tram, literally inches away from me as I looked right. Either way I had no time to think. I guess I might have stopped and frozen, put out my hand and taken the impact.
But without thinking, something in my mind activated the accelerator boost in my legs. Two life-saving strides later I was across the rails as the tram rushed behind me. It would not have stopped in time. If I had been one second later, or the tram one second faster, or if it hadn’t braked – it would have hit me. My lap-times had to be exactly what they were.
They say your life flashes before you. Mine did not. Nor did I freeze like a rabbit – literally in its headlights. Somehow I did the only thing that worked and enabled me to run forwards into the rest of my life.
I’ve had scares in the past – I guess we all have – but not as big as this by any stretch. Having to brake hard in the car, for example. Once, with no time to brake, I had to cut suddenly into an adjacent lane to avoid hitting the car in front. About two sconds after a near miss, you feel a physical surge of adreneline from the stomach up through the chest, accompanied by a rapidly beating heart and a dry throat.
There was nothing like this. I simply kept on running along Princengracht, stretching my legs, breathing in the cool air. Maybe it was the very act of running which enabled me to remain calm and process what had just not happened to me. More likely I as in a state of shock. I started to process.
How had I not seen the tram? Because it had been completely hidden by the tram going in the other direction. Because trams don’t make a noise. Because I didnt know there was a second line going in the other direction. Because the first tram was “on the wrong side of the road”, passing from left to right and there should be nothing behind it. Because it was dark. Because I wasnt paying attention. Because when you ar running, the last thing you want to do is to stop. Because when you are running fast, you can feel invincible. Or maybe because someone up there wanted to remind me how precarious and precious life is.
I turned right and crossed a bridge, no longer really concentrating on where I was going. I just had to keep on running
Next question – how close was I to being killed? One thing was certain in my mind, I was within half-a-meter and one second of being hit. Would I have been knocked to one side, glued to the front like some cartoon cat, or would have I been dragged underneath? If I had been dragged underneath, could I have been miraculously preserved as the line of tram coaches passed above me, or (most likely) sliced up like a joint of meat.
According to my running map, I turned left again. I have no real recollection of this. I was running through a latticework of questions and what-ifs.
How would they have identified my body? How long before my colleagues in the hotel would be notified? How long before the police in England knocked on my wife’s door and suggested kindly that she might sit down?
All of this was going through my head, and I was still running, running, running. My legs working, my arms pumping, my lungs expanding, my body alive and intact.
In fact I ran another 4km, around more Amsterdam streets and canals. But my mind was somewhere else. When I stopped to check on my phone that I was running the right way back to the hotel, I turned round thinking I had been running the wrong way and set off in the wrong direction. I eventually realised and found my way back to the hotel. All I could see in my head was the steel and glass face of the tram.
The rest of the day was spent back in the hotel in a big meeting, I almost forgot all about my near-death experience. I guess I locked it away somewhere in a secret corner of my mind. At the end of the day, a number of us went to the airport. I got very stressed with someone on the phone. But I caught the flight back to Birmingham, and felt fine.
As I stepped off the plane, I looked into the dark evening sky and took a deep breath of cool air. And suddenly the delayed reaction started to kick in. I was home, alive. I felt the juxtaposition of positive relief and the shock of what might have been. I cried a little inside myself as I dragged my case through the familiar airport corridors, and bought my wife a bunch flowers. She could have been buying flowers for my funeral.
And so we live out our lives for the number of days which have have been given to us, being grateful for each day of movement in our legs and breath in our lungs. I feel less worried about growing old than I was – it really is a lot better than the alternative. And remember, whatever happens, keep on running (and keep a better look out for the trams).