I have tried for years to be a runner.
Before that, the idea of running when it wasn’t completely necessary (train leaving in three minutes and the next one will cost an extra £50; the limited buffet is now open) was foreign to me. Running conjured up images of myself at seven years old on a damp school field, slipping on wet grass in black plimsolls, panting at the back of the class and pretending I’d run four laps already so can I go and sit down now please?
By secondary school, with puppy fat and a heightened sense of vanity and a fear of running mascara, my list of excuses on cross-country-running days were well trained and rarely let me down. I knew how to fall in just the right way to secure a trip to Matron (my best friend Alexa happily linking arms with me and ‘helping’ me off the muddy field) without accidentally attracting a call for an ambulance or worse, my mother. An ice pack and a knowing look seemed like a small price to pay not to run round that field again. A dislocated knee at 13 sealed the deal (and a lifetime of sorry-I-can’t-do-PE notes) and I figured I’d never run again.
I was pleased about this. I thought PE was a stupid, horrible lesson. School was meant to teach you, I believed, and you couldn’t learn sport. You were either good at it, like Laura in our year who looked like a gazelle and had her name read out in assembly so many times that it became like a chant, or you were like me. Being like me meant that instead of running around on a field in a pleated skirt on Sunday mornings kicking things or hitting them with wood, you spent it in bed eating cheese toasties and watching Recess. I figured it was pretty obvious who had the better deal, and even at our Year 8 disco, when it became quickly apparent that Laura looked better in her denim mini skirt and nineties handkerchief top with spaghetti straps than I did, it didn’t seem worth the pain. I was Bad At Sport and in particular I was Bad At Running and that was me and that was fine.
Later in life, I realised I wasn’t actually bad at all sport. I can play a good game of badminton and I could smash you at table tennis and I’m a strong swimmer, which means I can do things like surf and snorkel without fear, which is nice. But it wasn’t until I met my boyfriend – now my husband – that I even considered running. Running meant sweating and panting and that burning feeling in your throat like you’re going to throw up. Running was what people like Laura-the-gazelle did and it made me want to put my pyjamas on and go back to bed.
But Ian didn’t think so. My husband, who ran a 17 minute 5k like it was nothing, talked to me about running like nobody ever had before. He talked about it like it was fun and he also pointed out that, as I’d only ever run for 30 seconds at full speed before stopping to have a tiny heart attack, I couldn’t actually judge it for myself. Reluctantly, I put my trainers on and followed him to the gym. I mostly did this because I had previously maintained my weight by living on wine, soup, and these weird low calorie fish pies that you bought from Sainsbury’s and heated up in the microwave and I sort of knew I wasn’t going to live like that forever. Maintaining my weight via ‘doing a bit of running,’ I thought, could solve all my problems.
And so to the gym I went, and my on-off relationship with the treadmill began. Running on a treadmill is boring but productive – you can see the calorie count and your time ticking away and afterwards you can say casually ‘well when I was at the gym earlier’ as you eat a club sandwich with chips, so those are all good points. But I also found it boring and not particularly conducive to weight loss and a bit focussed on numbers. At first I could run for a few minutes, then ten, then thirty, and then I could run 5k, although afterwards I looked like I’d been swimming in a very hot river. It was fine, it wasn’t like PE, but I didn’t like it. I thought this was fine. It was exercise. It was something I did so I could eat ice cream occasionally and look my GP in the eye as they took my blood pressure; it was something I made excuses to get out of and took entire months off from, just like everybody else. My husband tutted and sighed and tried encouragement and tough love, as he jogged a sub-3 marathon and came back talking about endorphins and smelling and covered in sweat; the more he ran outside, the less I bothered to go to the gym. I was scared of the outside, scared of running without the steady rolling treadmill and the control of the pace it gave me. I thought I’d go too fast again and feel that burst of pain in my chest. I thought I’d get lost and never find my way home again.
But a month or so ago, we went to Sheffield for the weekend to stay with Ian’s parents. I put my trainers in my bag because we were going to go for a walk in the Peak District. On the Saturday, Ian got up and went off for a long, pre London marathon training run. His mum was doing a workout video and his Dad was at the gym. I settled onto the bed and put on a Youtube video. I ended up watching Niomi Smart talking about her marathon training and something in my head thought ‘why not?’
Why couldn’t I run if she could – if Ian could, if everybody else can? I got up and put my trainers on, downloaded the Nike app with a map and a tracker on it that Niomi had mentioned, and shut the door behind me. It was a sunny, clear, cool day. I didn’t know the area and so I didn’t think about where I was going because I didn’t really have a clue. I just ran.
Sheffield is hilly and I had to stop a few times to walk and catch my breath and figure out where the hell I was. It’s also pretty. I ran curiously around the village, mapping it out with every step, tracing pubs and road signs and little walls with daffodils poking through them. When I got back, I’d run 6k – further than I’d run in years. I ran a bath, marvelling at how the blood was tingling in my fingertips, and I thought, I will do that again.
I thought the magic might wear off back in London so I started cautiously, early in the morning when the world slept. It was cold and a fog hung low in the air. I ran to the local supermarket and then I carried on, along the road. I hadn’t been this way before. I kept going. Other runners jogged past and gave me silent smiles. I got to a pub which I recognised, and was surprised by how close it was – I’d only ever been there on the DLR before. My phone beeped in my ear and I turned around and ran home.
Ever since then I have run more and more, every week, twice a week, three times a week. Building it up until I could run for an hour, an hour and a half. I ran in the rain, like a child, rivulets of water running down my forehead and water splashing up the sides of my legs. I ran in the sunshine and stood on a bridge staring over the Thames as if I’d never seen it before. I learnt the geography of my local area in a way I can’t really believe I hadn’t done before after living there for years.
It has taken me nearly 29 years to realise that running isn’t racing – that you don’t have to go fast, beat someone else or even yourself. There’s an easy, steady flow to putting one foot in front of the other over and over again – it wipes your mind clear like a reset button. And when you’re panting or cold or fed up and you just want to go home, you don’t have to fake an injury or pretend you have really bad period cramps, you just jog home and have a bath. I’ve signed up for 10k in May and honestly three months ago I would have had no idea if I could run a 10k but now I’m signing up for a half marathon in September. I want to put the little monkey-hiding-his-eyes-face up right now because I genuinely love running, and on that hideously sanctimonious note, I’m going back to bed with a cheese toastie. Balance, it’s what makes the world go round.