As you can’t fail to have noticed if you follow me on Twitter, unless you’ve muted me for annoying you, I’m running the Oxford Half Marathon on Sunday. The organisers have kindly sent me emails reminding me to hydrate this week. I’ve mostly been reminding myself to breathe this week, thanks to a head-cold leaving me zonked and horizontal for much of Monday and Tuesday. Happily I’d recovered by mid-Wednesday and have managed to squidge in a couple of relaxed short evening runs.
In-between putting together my final race playlist, trying to dredge up memories of pubs in Oxford that might do good lunch from 20 years of sporadic family outings (and taking in that I’m OFFICIALLY running THE LONDON BLOODY MARATHON for Mind next year), I thought this seemed an appropriate moment to share with you some of the most personal and important life lessons running has given me…
- I need an emotional affinity in order to want to do a physical thing, and talk about it When I tried running just for its sake a couple of summers ago, with no aim or plan, something just didn’t quite feel right. Literally. My gait was wrong, I got stitch, I gave up. When I ran for charity in May with a big, proper training plan and big, proper reasons, my natural physical awkwardness evaporated. I’m the dyspraxic equivalent of those dyslexics who’ve never read aloud until they read out a poem for an occasion. The emotion is what makes it feel good, fun and worthwhile instead of weird, awkward and pointless. And by gosh, knowing this earlier would have saved me a heap of undergraduate angst about other things. It explains why I hate dancing but enjoy dancing to songs I like. It explains why I hate cooking for myself but love cooking for my parents or good friends. It explains why unless I connect with someone emotionally, no matter how physically attractive they are, the idea of doing the business is about as sexy as building a shed. And why when I was younger and did it to be rid of the social stigma of not doing it, I didn’t feel it really “counted” and didn’t want to talk about it (which, duh, defeated the whole point). It’s not that I don’t like physical activities, or that all of them are beyond me. There are some I can get to love; I just need a “way in” to them.
- If you’re self-employed, regular exercise can take the place of belonging to something For most of my adult life I’ve been part of an institution: university, journalism school, a big company. After all that, being freelance and not belonging to anything can be a pretty daunting realisation. When one of my best friends killed himself six months into my self-employment, being part of a community of mutual friends was a huge help in getting through the initial shock. Going through similar feelings, plus worse, again late last year when a second friend did the same (GUESS how much I’m looking forward to it being November again this year. Clue: NOT VERY), and on top of that not having that same support network made me realise how much I needed to belong to something. Running has given me a sense of it. Not in the direct sense of being part of a running club (most runners largely prefer running on their own) but in the camaraderie of online communities and talking to friends who run – some of whom I never knew did until I did.
- Some physical things are actually easier than writing There are days when putting one foot in front of the other is considerably easier than having to think things and then organise them on a page so that they make sense to other people. Sometimes all of that takes ages. (Incidentally, this is why you should pay people to do it and not expect them to do it for you for free).
- Physical exhaustion won’t take away mental pain Anyone who says running is a “cure” for depression has probably never run, never been depressed, and always been Katie Hopkins. Mental pain is brilliant at not buggering off, and catching up with you acutely in quiet moments (as Julian Barnes put it “sudden arrows”). You will still lay in bed or sit on a train or in a car pining for a time when sitting alone was more relaxing and less a reminder of some sort of sadness. You will still go to parties or gatherings, come back and sit on the floor in tears. What running does is take the edge off the rubbish enough that you can get anything done.
- Exercise is as psychologically “addictive” as medication It’s a decade since I took anti-depressants (and I was 21 then, which my current doctor believes is too young to do so) but I just about remember the “Rats, I forgot to take my pill yesterday” feeling and it’s similar to the “Rats, I didn’t run yesterday” feeling. Anyone who tells you not to take anti-depressants because “pills are addictive” – so is exercise. Anyone who is ill “depends” on something in order to feel better. One dependency is not morally superior to the other.
- When you’re flagging is a time to accept it and slow down not speed up, or else you will fall painfully I remember when I fell over running. I’d come to the end of what had turned from an initially fun into a fairly so-so run feeling slightly tired and disappointed. Hearing the audio-cue for the last minute, rather than admit defeat and slow down I decided to push myself until the last and speed up. I tripped and fell over next to a main road. Reader, it hurt. It was a (literally) painful lesson in accepting reality and listening to my instincts. That lesson is just as painful when it comes to throwing ever-more thought, time and energy at a futile, one-sided relationship (in any sense of the word) instead of reading the signs and scaling back. Only, the fall is much slower and the pain isn’t as literal so it takes a lot more wasted life to work it out…
- There’s a universal satisfaction and sense of accomplishment to making yourself do things when you don’t feel like it I had previously only ever experienced this feeling with writing and housework. I hope, in time, that experiencing it in running will better help me apply it to writing and the rest of life. (Massive caveat: Does not apply to running if you’re physically ill or injured. Or to anything involving another person and your body).
- The world is full of whimsy if you look hard enough Bless the old man always smoking by the back door of the Indian restaurant up the road whenever I go running, whose lungs must be as broken as my heart.
- It is possible for me to do something new and different and feel generally relaxed about it. The 10K in May was one of the first times in my life I remember going into something novel without wading through half a tonne of self-doubt to get there. What a feeling it is.
- Running normalises me. To the passers-by who can’t see inside my head I’m just your average white middle-class woman in my early 30s running through Penn listening to Fast Car by Tracy Chapman and power ballads interspersed with Le Tigre, and reminding herself that she’s not as “Other” as she thinks she is.
- For an unlikely runner, getting into it is like falling in love accidentally. There is no love as powerful – as equally intoxicating and painful – as a love for someone you never thought you could.
EDITED TO ADD: Just to clarify as a couple of people have asked me about sponsorship: This isn’t a fundraiser, it’s just a practice for the London Marathon, which I will be fundraising for and which you can sponsor me for when I put my sponsorship page up next month. Thank you!