The lone walker has taken up running.
For half a century I have hated running. I have tried it a number of times over the years, and each time I have hated it. Sometimes I just disliked it. During such times of not-quite-euphoria I would keep up the running habit for a while, disliking it less as I became more accustomed to the exercise. But soon the monotony would get to me, and I would find it increasingly difficult to motivate myself to get out of bed, get into some shoes and get out the door. The number of days between runs would add up and, eventually, I was back to hating running.
I hated the feeling of being out of breath almost as soon as I started. I hated feeling as if I wanted to vomit. I hated that sob that got stuck in my throat. I hated running in public looking like someone who is unfit and suffering. I hated having to walk when I was meant to be running. I found the whole business quite embarrassing.
But walking? Well, that I have always done. As a child I would sometimes skip the school bus and walk into town after school. I walked all over the slopes of Table Mountain, picking flowers and looking for fairies. In high school I got it into my head that riding a bike was, for some reason, uncool, and I chose to cover the 3 km through the suburb on foot instead. If my parents weren’t interested in driving me somewhere, I would walk where I wanted to be, easily covering five or ten kilometres without flinching. I loved ice skating and would walk to the ice rink and back every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
When I had my first child, I found putting the baby in a backpack and walking into town to be far less effort than struggling to load baby paraphernalia into a car, finding parking, offloading said paraphernalia, bundling a screaming baby into the pram and navigating the bulky thing around people’s ankles while trying to shop with one hand and steer with the other.
I would walk back home, uphill, weighed down by a baby on my back and over-full grocery bags in each hand. I must have looked a bit crazy, especially on the days when the south easter billowed my skirt up around my thighs and, trying to preserve some sense of dignity, I would do this little dance to turn away from the wind while swatting at the swirling fabric with my grocery-laden arms. I also walked the dogs in the mountain, sometimes for hours, breathing in the cool air and allowing my thoughts to turn to dreams as I settled into a walking rhythm.
Later, in my thirties, I took to walking for fitness. I loved the feeling I got from powering along, faster and faster, covering bigger and bigger distances. First 10 km walks, then 15 and 20. Then I entered the Discovery Cape Times Big Walk, walking the 20 km distance, then 25, then 30 and then 50. I walked the 50 km distance twice, finishing in about 7 hours 30 min each time.
Then I walked with Spartan Harriers for a bit, in an effort to become a proper race walker. I wanted to walk the New York Marathon, and didn’t want to come stone last. It’s a running race, and I felt I would have to step on it if I didn’t want to look a fool. The cut-off is eight hours, so I would have no problem making it home before the final whistle, but still …
I finished the New York Marathon, not as a serious race walker, but as the happiest walker on the planet, face aching from smiling, in six hours.
And then the walking began to lose its sheen a little bit. Someone would say ‘You did the New York Marathon?’ I would meet the wide-eyed, astonished gaze and say ‘Yes, but I walked it.’
‘Oh,’ would be the response, as their eyes filmed over and they moved on to chat to someone who had actually run the distance. You can’t be wasting your time talking to a walker …
Some people were so rude, they cut me off mid-sentence to talk about something else (themselves, usually).
Granted, most of the people who did this weren’t exactly exercise freaks themselves. They were usually a bit overweight and largely inactive, and these conversations, one-sided as they were, were at dinner parties, where cutting into a roast potato could easily distract one from a walker’s tale of victory.
And so I decided, fuggem. I’ll show them. I’ll run.
I downloaded Couch to 5k on my cell and started running and walking. And I didn’t hate it.
It never felt as if I was getting any better, as my chest rasped and wheezed with every run, but the running log I kept showed that I was running a little bit faster – if only by a few seconds – and a little bit farther each time. But I still didn’t feel like a runner. I still called myself a walker; a walker who is trying to do a bit of running.
Then I came across something called parkrun – a brilliant concept, started in Bushy Park, Teddington, England in 2004. Their principles: ‘weekly, free, for everyone, forever’.
I signed up and had a great first 5 km. I was most pleased with myself. Then general busy-ness took over. Couch to 5k fell dormant and my parkruns deteriorated. I would have to walk a few paces after about 3 km, run a bit, walk a bit, want to vomit a bit, and, for the last 500 meters, have to talk myself into making it to the next tree, to the next bench, to the next pebble, to the finish line. But I turned up for one every so often, managing to do a few seconds better with each effort.
But still I was not a runner. A runner runs. A walker walks. And if you run and walk, you are still a walker. Well, that was my mindset, anyway. And I didn’t get out there regularly enough to call this running business my new ‘thing’. Mostly I didn’t manage to run from one parkrun to the next.
And then I don’t know what happened. I signed up for the Sunflower Fund 7 km fun run/walk two weeks ago and ran it. All of it. I was given a frozen yoghurt at then end. Then, the following week, I signed up for the Sanlam Cape Town 10 km Peace Run, and ran it. All of it. Finished in 1 hour 6 minutes. With both runs the hardest part was weaving my way through the walkers for the first two or three km. No rasping chest, no sob in the throat, and no battle against the dreaded urge to vomit.
Then, in a flash of complete insanity, I signed up for a half marathon – the Cape Town Festival 21.1 km Classic. Signed up, turned up, and started running. Of course I was never going to run the whole distance – my longest run since I started running (and even then I can’t say I have really started running in earnest) nine months ago is 10 km. But standing at the start line on Sunday morning, my intention was to do this race as a runner. Not as a super-fit runner. Not as a fully prepared runner. Not even as an almost-ready-for-a-half-marathon runner. But as a runner, nonetheless.
I would run until I couldn’t run anymore. Then I would walk. And then, when I felt ready, I would run again.
And so I ran. I ran through Sea Point, ignoring the people passing me. I ran up the hill, all the way, without walking, around the corner and uphill some more. And still I was running. I passed the 6 km mark and my knee started hurting. But I was still running at the 8 km mark, even though I was kind of limping by now. I saw my daughter’s face in the distance, standing by the roadside to support her mom, and I waved with both arms – ‘Look at me – I’m still running!’ I didn’t say that, but I felt it!
Then up the gradient towards the Twelve Apostles where the halfway mark lay waiting for me. I saw my husband running towards me – he was on the home stretch. Again, beaming, I waved – I was still running! And running uphill, at that! I ran to the halfway mark and crossed over to the home stretch. I looked in amazement at all the people still behind me; people who were still running up to the halfway mark – who would have known?!
The 13 km mark was up ahead. My daughter was waiting there with some water. I had run 13 km – the furthest I have ever run in my life! And I still had some juice in the tank. On I went, 14 km, then 15 km. I ran 15 km without stopping. Me. I did. Then I decided to ‘reward’ myself with a walk to the 16 km mark – not a great idea, as it felt as if I was walking forever. Then I ran to 17 km, and then did a walk-run to 18 km. Three kilometres to go – I was going to finish a half-marathon as a runner! Three kilometres is just a stroll to the shops … a mere nothing!
My husband stood waiting just before the 21 km mark and ran a few metres with me. ‘Are you very sore?’ he asked. ‘No, I’m feeling fine,’ I said. ‘Okay, no … ‘ I conceded, ‘I’m sore!’ But I was laughing. ‘Sore’ didn’t really mean anything.
About 100 m before the finish he said, ‘Go, run in by yourself – your first half marathon as a runner!’ And I found a second breath, I shushed my pinching knee and my aching shoulders, I stepped up the pace and ran as fast as I could to the finish line, with the clock showing 2 hours 40 minutes.
The reception was rather inauspicious. Some bored looking people sat at a trestle table. One of them handed me a medal, kind of as an afterthought. Then I walked through the blow-up arch and handed in my little name card and wandered through the trestle tables, declining my complimentary coke.
It was done. I have lived just more than half a century and I have done something I have never done before, and never thought I would.
Well, what do you know! I think I’m a runner now.