I was lying in bed this morning, too lazy to get myself to my desk in the cold and dark while everyone else was still sleeping. And it struck me how good I was feeling. I was still basking in the afterglow of last night’s run. It was only a 7 km run, so no great shakes (and now listen to me, saying 7 km is no great shakes, as if I’ve always run long distances for breakfast because, like, I’m a runner, you know!), but still I was feeling oddly good. The kind of good that comes from feeling not only healthy and well rested but from feeling that everything is okay, that you’re in charge and that nothing is beyond your abilities.
And, lying there, enjoying this feeling of feeling good, I wondered how it is that it has taken me a lifetime to discover running?
I tried running years and years ago, in my teens and then again in my twenties. And I hated it. I loved the idea of running. Everyone, it seemed, was out there, In their shiny little jogger shorts and flop socks, getting fit and having such a great time doing it. I didn’t know any of those people, I don’t think, tending more towards people who could handle a glass of wine or two and stay out all night, but they were definitely out there, loping through the streets, looking fast and toned and elegant. I thought all runners looked like that because they were genetically programmed that way.
And so, when I stepped outside in my new running gear and my too-big Sauconys, because that’s what the salesguy said I should buy, it was such a let-down when I discovered that I didn’t feel weightless and free at all. Instead, I just felt like a conspicuous, sweating, huffing, lumbering lump, a laughing stock, unable to control my breathing or keep my face from looking agonised, trying earnestly to do this thing but just wanting the wretched ordeal to end. Within the first few paces it would feel as if the air was grating down my throat and through my lungs. My open mouth, dry and useless as a vehicle for transporting oxygen to my body, would contort into an imitation of the tortured wretch in Munch’s Scream. My running shoes, which were so bouncy and light in the sports shop, were like anvils attached to my feet, their soles melting into treacle beneath my feet and gluing me to the ground. My legs, instead of transporting me in an even, gliding motion across the road, would first grow heavy, then turn to lead and then to quivering jelly. It would all be over in a few minutes. Or maybe it took a bit longer than a few minutes. But it wasn’t elegant and it wasn’t fun, and it sure didn’t last very long.
And when I told people at the office or at parties how much I hated running, they would nod in agreement. Yes, everyone hated running – everyone. And everyone thought those jogger-types were crazy. And everyone knew how bad it was for you, especially for women, because … Well … Women weren’t anatomically designed for running, see, because of their wider hips, so their knees were out of alignment, apparently, which meant that running put more strain on their knees, which is why they got injured. And then there’s the business of the sagging boobs. No one wants saggy tits! Nope. Running was for mad people. And fit people. And no-fun, hardcore, leathery, wrinkly women with saggy tits and bad knees. Either way, it was for Other People.
Those Other People formed part of that whole running cult out there; a cult I couldn’t belong to.
So why didn’t anybody tell me then that I hated it simply because I was running too fast? Because that was all it was: in my head every runner was a light-as-as-a-feather gazelle who hopped out of bed and took flight through the suburbs, loving every graceful step and feeling no pain. So I thought that was what I had to do too. And I can guarantee that is why thousands of others say they hate running: they all hit the streets at a pace far faster than they can sustain for more than a few hundred meters. All you need to do is slow down!
Part of the problem was that I was a fast walker, so running slower meant that I would be running at a walking pace, which made me feel even heavier, like my bum and my thighs were dripping towards the road, and like even less of an athlete. And I just felt silly. So I stuck to walking. And that was pretty cool too. These legs have covered some big distances and the time spent on the road or on the trail has led to some good insights and a few creative ideas. Why look and feel silly doing something you hate if, instead, you can stride out at speed, walking tall and feeling powerful?
But I don’t recall waking up in the morning, after having walked the evening before, feeling as good – or as high – as I did this morning, nor as good as I have after running a parkrun, a 10 km race, a half marathon or a marathon. And I don’t recall being on a high for days afterwards, either. (Maybe the problem there is that I didn’t walk fast enough?!)
I woke up the morning before, after a run lay-off of a few days, feeling glum, and questioning the point of it all. Running is so self-obsessed, I thought. Most of what we do, really, is quite banal, meaningless and self-obsessed. I thought about how there is so much happening all over the world and right on our doorstep – all that madness, greed, pain and sorrow. So many millions of people suffer, all of it senselessly and so intensely, and often at the hands of religious fundamentalists. How can that even make sense at all? And here I am, not rolling in wealth, not driving a flashy car or living in a big house on a vast property, but living a good life nonetheless. I live between sea and mountain in a warm climate, with my family, my dogs and my cats. And I agonise about ageing, my spreading waistline, my running, the deadlines sneaking past me before I am able to deliver the goods. I make lists of things to do, I browse Pinterest, collecting pictures of haute couture, jewellery, tutus, crochet and mosaic, I scroll through Facebook, clicking through links of Britain’s got Talent, choking back tears at the bravery, creativity and talent of the contestants. These things are stupid and they do nothing for society, they do nothing to help anyone – not even myself.
And running is equally silly, I thought. It helps no one and no one cares how far or how fast you have run – unless you’re an elite athlete, of course, winning major, well-marketed and branded races. Then everyone’s a couch athlete. Everyone knows what it takes to run a race. Everyone is cheering.
But, waking up this morning, and feeling so good, I realize that while the action of running makes no difference to the world, who you are when you run can make a difference to the world. If you run, you lose weight, get toned, increase your fitness and get an endorphin rush that lasts for ages. All of this boosts your energy levels, improves your mood and increases your self-esteem. When you feel good – when you feel fit, healthy, confident, energetic, happy – you’re nicer to be around. And you get more done. You spend less time spiraling down that vortex of digital distraction – too much Facebook, too much Pinterest, too much WhatsApp – becoming more inert, more glum, less creative and definitely less interesting. You become a person who does things. Instead of letting the woes of the world weigh you down, you get up and do something about them.
Running is a good thing. No, running is a great thing.
Now if I can just figure out why it is that I so readily find excuses not to do it …