Of all the things I’ve tried, running is the hardest

Yesterday, as I was sitting on the edge of my bed, staring down my running shoes and trying to shake the late-afternoon slump so that I could get out on the road for a quick run before date night, I thought about all the different activities I had taken on in my life.

I was a late adopter when it comes to sport. In primary school I did some ballet and as a teenager I did a bit of weekend ice skating and roller skating, but not really anything athletic. I think the first sporty thing I did, other than walking and sporadic, half-hearted, failed attempts at running short distances, was skydiving. I was a student at the time and couldn’t really afford the cost of flinging myself from a plane every weekend, so I didn’t manage to do the required four-or-so static lines before my first freefall. Weeks would pass between jumps and I eventually ended up doing eight static lines before my first freefall. I landed in the bushes, twisted an ankle, annoyed my boss because I couldn’t walk (I was working in a restaurant, so walking was quite important), and then that was that.

Then I tried windsurfing – wow – I loved that! It revealed to me the obsessive nature I never knew I had. I would stand on the board for hours … well, stand, then fall off, climb back on again, stand, fall off, climb back on again … first just trying to haul the drowned sail out of the water and get it upright, then trying to travel in one direction on top of the water. Later I would be in the water for hours trying to gybe and wet start or beach start or whatever it was called. My windsurfing adventure ended when the guy with the windsurfer moved on. I found another guy with a windsurfer and did some more windsurfing, but then moved on from that guy. And then I gave it another go while on holiday in the Maldives – paid for a resort course and spent hours in the water – even during a most spectacular thunder storm. Good sense eventually kicked in and I got myself and the windsurfer out of the water … only to be bitten on the foot by a moray eel and having to spend the rest of the holiday with my stitched-up, bandaged foot elevated.

When I started earning some cash after varsity, I took up scuba diving. I could barely swim and had to do the entire swim test (ten lengths in a swimming pool) doing the backstroke, as that was the only way I could keep myself from drowning. I still remember looking up at the WTF expression on the diving instructors face as I struggled through length after ever-increasing length. I went for proper swimming lessons much later, when I was about 30 and pregnant with my first child.

Not being a competent swimmer meant that there were some scary things to deal with on the scuba diving course, like rolling backwards into the water – first into the swimming pool and then off a boat. Managing to stabilize under water was a bit stressful, and buddy breathing had its tense moments, as did my first open water dive. But it was probably the most exciting thing I had ever done. I loved exploring the underwater world. I thought it would be something that I would never give up. But I did: once I married an ex-diving instructor. He had had enough of being wet and cold and had no interest in diving anymore. My wetsuit, tank, BC, fins and other colour-coordinated diving gear stayed dry in their wetbag for years before I finally got rid of some of it. I still have some of the stuff, purely for the sake of nostalgia.

After scuba diving I attempted a whole lot of other stuff. I tried water skiing and managed pretty well; even got to slalom before the friendship with the guy with the boat and skis ended.

I took up cycling and cycled my first Argus Cycle Tour on a cheap supermarket bike after only one month of training. I was about 27 at the time and hadn’t been on a bicycle since I was 14. I upgraded the bike and cycled another Argus Cycle Tour the following year, knocking an hour off my previous race time. I kept up cycling until I got divorced, ran out of money and had to sell my bike to pay the bills. I fully intended getting another bike as soon as I was back on my feet. But being a single mom meant having all sorts of other bills to pay and I never really got back into cycling.

I have a bike now – a solid mountain bike that weighs more than it cost – but I’m scared of the crazy city traffic and, mostly, our crazy city taxis. I’m not ready to be maimed and I’m not ready to die. So, much as I would love to whizz around on two wheels again, I’m not sure when that’s likely to happen. The cost of bikes is a bit crazy as well. The mountain bike comes out once a year when we go to the wonderful fantasy world of AfrikaBurn and then I enjoy the freedom of wheeling across the endless Tankwa desert, wearing a tutu and feeling the sun on my skin and the wind in my face.

So, where was I? Walking, a bit (a very small bit) of running, skydiving, scuba diving, waterskiing, cycling … next?

Okay, hiking. Lots of hiking. Holidays and weekends away were planned around good hiking spots. Hiking is almost spiritual, in a way. It has a way of making you feel powerful and humble at the same time. There is something quite primitive, I think, in making your way up a steep mountain path, sometimes for hours, and emerging from the shadows into the sun to stand on top of a mountain peak and look across at the world below. Like scuba diving, hiking opened up a whole new world. With scuba diving and hiking both, it was always the tiny things that I loved most – under the sea it was the nudibranchs and anemonies, on the mountains it was the tiny flowers and insects, and the way the dewdrops clung to cobwebs. Less hiking happened once baby number two came along. She was a bit disagreeable when stuck in a backpack and would try to climb out, toppling the backpack and causing all sorts of upset.

River rafting! Now there’s a thing! Wow! I loved river rafting. I’ve paddled down the Orange River, the Berg River and the wild and crazy Doring River. And, when I travelled to Peru, I had the pleasure of paddling a piece of the great Urubamba. Now there is something I would really, really like to do: paddle the rivers of the world. Just me, a little plastic boat and a paddle. One day. Maybe.

I did some sea kayaking as well. It was something I thought the Significant Other and I could do together. It didn’t work out so well. He doesn’t much care for being on the water. In fact, it makes him grumpier than usual. And so the kayaks lay forlornly next to the house for a few years until, eventually and with a sad heart, I sold them to someone who promised to put them to better use. It was either that, or plant flowers in them, because they were never going to see the sea again. And it wasn’t as if I could go paddling without the Significant Other, as the boats were too heavy for me to handle on my own. So that was that.

I gave paragliding a go, and bungee jumping too. And those were pretty fun. And scary.

So … that’s quite a lot of stuff, I think. There’s probably more but I can’t think of any right now.

And of all of that stuff, running is the hardest. Of all that stuff, running is the one thing that I have to talk myself into doing. I sit on the edge of my bed and stare at my shoes, trying to intimidate them as much as they intimidate me.

You never know how the next run is going to feel. You could feel on top of the world, flying like a gazelle. But you could just as easily get outside and find that someone has pumped cement into your legs.

Running makes you work. Running brings you down a peg or two. Running shows you who you are – and you might not always like what you see. You are defined by running as much as who you are defines your running.

But, maybe because running makes you work so hard, nothing makes you feel as good as running does. It must be what the old prospectors felt like when they eventually found a diamond after days, weeks and months of scratching in the dirt. Running in the rain, running during a storm, running at sunrise or at sunset, running along the road, along the beach or on a mountain trail … each run can be as exhilarating as the other. Each run can as easily bring you closer to your higher self as it can shove you face to face with your demons.

And this morning I put on a dress that I used to wear twenty years ago. And it fits like it did twenty years ago. It didn’t fit that well over the last ten years or so. But then, I hadn’t been running over the last ten years or so.

And so I have this to say about the pleasures of running: if ever you thought running could make you feel good, try on a dress that you last wore in the early days of dating your Significant Other. Gosh, suddenly I do so very much love running!


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