My father once said to me that you never see a runner smiling. He has a very valid point. No-one runs along looking happy, pleased, joyous. Generally, they look more like they’re suffering, to the extent that as an observer you can almost feel their pain.
Having studied quite a few now, runners seem to fall into one of two groups. Firstly there are the reluctant runners. Huffing and puffing, red and shiny in the face, sweat lashing off them, they amble towards you, almost embarrassed. They rarely make eye contact, usually seemingly purposely avoiding your gaze. They look like someone has forced them out on to the pavements as penance for some terrible act deserving of the worst sort of punishment. The other group is quite different. For these are the smug runners. Usually this group has all the gear, naturally starting with the latest trendy labels donned head to toe. They used to have iPhones strapped to their arms. Now they’ve gone wireless with more subtle nods to technology but the lycra is still there, front and forward. These runners are usually lithe and athletic and there is definitely nothing enforced about their striding. No, for it is purposeful, arm swinging aplenty, knees high in the air and a slight air of disdain for the mere mortals looking on. These are the people that marathons are designed for; no comedy costumes or virtuous fundraising for them. These people have personal bests in their sights and heaven help anyone who gets in their way. But still, they don’t smile.
Now, I exaggerate of course. Where would the fun be in a dry discourse on running, possibly one of the most boring topics on earth. Or is it? For there is something beautifully simplistic about it. Anyone can run; it is literally a case of putting one foot in front of the other repeatedly, more than 10,000 times an hour in fact. It is also free. No fancy gym memberships needed for this one and no special equipment, save for the latest in lycra if you so fancy. If you travel, you don’t need an excuse to not exercise, for you can just exit your hotel and jog on for however long. No forcing yourself to endure the substandard hotel gym or the ridiculously small pool which more resembles a spa bath in which you can alternately bathe half your body at a time.
I had never considered running. I can’t, I told myself. I’m the wrong shape. At some point in my teens someone came along in the night and substituted the whole of the area between my waist and my shoulders with this ginormous expanse of very soft wobbly pillow which is ungainly at the best of times and for which no amount of supportive undergarments can assist with its inevitable penchant for gravity. If there were to be one, then the only positive point about this “asset” is that it prevents me seeing the second pillow which came along later which sits between my waist and my legs. And then there’s my lack of height and the creeping affect of age on all sorts of bodily functions which I am too restrained to mention, except to say, r-e-f-l-u-x anyone? My mate Tonya had got into running a bit before she died. She had this crazy app where you had to run away from zombies and keep up your speed or they would “get” you. I literally thought she was bonkers.
But, that very creeping age and a huge gratitude for having really great health despite not having had the best lifestyle habits, have made me think about what I want for the next half of my life. A purple rinse and being able to retire next week aside, what I’d like more than anything else is to stay healthy. Who wouldn’t want that? And it doesn’t take a genius to recite the facts that to be healthy, you are better off being fit.
So I made a goal that by my 50th birthday I would be fitter. In an effort to achieve this, amongst other things, I also made a goal that I would learn to run for 50 minutes. I say learn because it’s not something I’ve ever done before in any sustained way and I knew it would take gargantuan amounts of effort and resolve to get there. In October last year, equipped with a download of Couch to 5k (that’s 5 kms, not $5k sadly), I set off. A minute of running, 2 minutes of walking and so on for 30 minutes. I had left it quite late, but had just about enough time to get up to the prescribed 30 minutes of running before Christmas. Once up to 30 minutes, I would increase by a minute a session until I reached 50 minutes in time for my birthday. A new Apple watch from someone special, a carefully compiled Spotify playlist of old favourites to motivate me and a subscription to Strava were definitely going to help me on my way. The plan was to get up early and get it done before work. It helped that in November our department had a couple of teams entered into a Bluff to Auckland virtual walking challenge so there was an element of competition in entering our daily step count. How amazing it felt to have completed my step goal for the whole day before I’d even started work.
At first, the C25K, as they call it, went well. But I was impatient. I began to feel a bit like Forrest Gump and I just couldn’t wait until Christmas to get up to 30 minutes only to still face the hurdle of getting to 50. So I did my own thing – 20 minutes then 30 followed by 40 and, yes, you’ve got it, 50 minutes. Achieving that was like nothing else I’ve ever done because even to me it seemed so unbelievable. I did it. Just me and my little legs with my cushions swinging awkwardly from side to side like some sumo wrestler trying to do the haka. No-one helped me. Weirdly any time I felt like giving up, some inspirational music track would blare out, something like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”. It was all my own, very hard, work. I say run but I mean waddle. I am ungainly. There is absolutely nothing attractive about what I do. A granny cartwheeling or someone who has already finished a marathon and is running their 43rd km could beat me. Even this morning someone speedwalking in jeans overtook me. But it is still me, running; little old me striding forwards on my own legs. Or is it jogging, for I’m not sure I even know the difference?
Christmas came and went. I adapted my goal to run for 50 minutes 50 times before my birthday. I’ve run in some amazing places – various lovely walking tracks near where I live, Adelaide when I visited for a conference, Madrid where I spent the festive season and Barcelona for New Year. But nothing will beat running over the Penarth barrage into my home town of Cardiff just a couple of days before Christmas. It was cold, it was really wet and I was up against it with the parking meter and a very stern warden. But to run, yes run, in my homeland was amazing.
And so 2020 arrived and, of course, the disaster that is covid-19. I really hoped that for the first lockdown running would give me a sense of mindfulness, some “normality” in a sea of strangeness and unsettledness. That meant exercising in my local area which is hilly. Now, I may be full of excuses but hills scare me, like literally terrify the pants off me. I would procrastinate and find every excuse under the sun to not run up a hill, but that is what running from my front door necessitates. It doesn’t matter if I turn left or right but at some point, I have to face some hills. It’s just a case of whether I want to get them over and done with and have the relief of some downhill home, or whether I want to build up to them. At first it was going fine, despite having to dodge all the families out for their daily constitutionals by running into the road to overtake them – hardly a huge challenge given most of the traffic was safely parked up. But then my right knee got painful, shortly followed by the left to the point I couldn’t even sleep, let alone run or walk. Cue a number of video consultations, physio exercises to be done frequently and needless to say I slipped back into my old ways.
But just recently we had our second lockdown and I just couldn’t stay cooped up. Despite it being colder and wetter, I just had to get out. I am not usually so keen but the minute anyone restrains me, I feel the outside beckoning. So, off I set again, knees now better, onwards and upwards. I set myself a goal (actually it’s more of a dare) to run the Auckland half marathon in October. So, a colleague is coaching me and I am getting there. I may not be able to run the whole thing and I am most definitely not aiming to do it in a certain time, but I am going to give it my best shot. With seven weeks to go, I can run half of it. I say “run” liberally again. Currently I am alternating nine minutes of running with one of walking and my knees feel fine. I have done long bush walks at the weekends to help desensitise me to hills and to build some stamina.
I’ve even invested in some lycra courtesy of a sale at Lulu Lemon. The big question is do you pronounce the “lemon” as you might in French, like when my mother tried to Frenchify Krispy Kreme doughnuts. I did have to laugh when she said “but Kreme is spelt the French way”. I mean, I know there’s the whole -eme thing going on but there’s a bloody great obvious K there too, plain as day! I’m not sure if I ever sport a smile when out lumbering along. I do try when I pass someone as I have to at least try and maintain some semblance of Britishness by being unfailingly polite. But, no matter because I’ve realised that even though runners don’t smile a lot, the sense of achievement is something to make you happy all day. I feel healthier and more energetic than I’ve felt in my whole adult life.
So, please support me! I am planning to give back to the Starship Foundation who have funded some of my research. Like many charities they have had a challenging time maintaining fundraising with covid-19.
To my special someone who has egged me on every day – muchas gracias, querido. And in case anyone is wondering, no, I have never been tempted to run away from zombies. I just imagine Tonya herself running behind me, shouting “idiot” as she was prone to doing if you ever said something was too hard. Who wouldn’t run away from that?!