I recently re-read ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ by Haruki Murakami. The last time I read this book was seven years ago when I was getting curious about running and I’d just read ‘The Wind-up Bird Chronicle’.
At that point there was huge distance between me and the category of people called ‘runners’. Murakami talked about how beginner runners are red-faced, sweaty and out of breath. That was me. Still is, matter of fact. But now it doesn’t bother me so much.
At the start of 2016 I told myself I was going to start running again. In York there’s a 10K and a 10 mile run each year, in August and October, so I figured I’d have plenty of time to train. And I’d done a 10K before, so it didn’t feel like an impossible dream. But then… nothing happened. I watched the weeks pass, with me not running. I told myself I’d start next week. And then I just… didn’t. I carried that quiet, frustrated disappointment in myself all year.
Do you ever feel like that? You have the power to change something, and you know it’s the right thing to do, and that you’ll enjoy it, even. But you just don’t do it? I’m still like that about going to bed some nights. I slump on the sofa, feeling wiped, thinking how comforting bed would be, how needed sleep is, and… don’t move. Just sit there until midnight. What’s with that?
Anyway. 2017 started out the same way, with a vague ambition to re-start running. It got to the end of March and I think I’d done maybe three runs all year. An average of one run a month is hardly auspicious. And I wish I had a big dramatic story to tell here, a lightbulb moment a ‘then this extraordinary thing happened and it was the jolt I needed to get out of bed in the morning.’
But there wasn’t anything as clear or neat as that. What happened was more mundane and unspoken. I just decided to run twice a week. I’m not sure why. Maybe because the weather was nice. And once I’d decided, that was that. I wasn’t running long distances – probably less than 3 miles each time (I was later amused to learn that my approach to running is known as ‘naked’. No music, no monitoring.) But I was now out, doing it.
Then, the week of the 10K rolled around and I still hadn’t entered. I hadn’t run that distance, even. More like 6K, max. Then, unexpectedly, a friend pulled out of the race. I don’t know why, but that was the impetus I needed. It had meant something to her to take part, so I decided to take part for her, to represent what she wanted to support in that run (support for mental health charities, as it happens).
That 10K was hard. Harder than it had been before. I’d taken it for granted. The fact I’d enjoyed it and gone at a decent pace (for me) in 2012 hardly gave me a free pass to rock up to this one and expect an easy ride. I swear the kilometres were miles. We got to the first marker (1K) and I was already panting. No rhythm at all. Panic set in. Nine more of these to go?
After that I was fighting the distance all the time. Expecting it to be long and hard, and it was. There’s a double switch-back at the end of the course (you loop back on yourself, twice) and it’s pretty demoralising. The only silver lining for me was that I’d been overtaken so many times it was quite nice to see there were still people behind me.
So, I finished, spent the afternoon soaking in the bath and signed right up to the October 10 mile. Which was bloody brilliant. Because this time, I had it in my sights. 10 miles was further than I’d ever gone before (four miles further). It isn’t a big deal – not even a half marathon. I wasn’t doing it to impress anyone. But I was proving to myself that I could. That I was the sort of person that runs 10 miles. So I made sure I built my runs up, adding half a mile each week. I knew I could get past 10.
That early October day was clear, cool and sunny. All the attention was on the marathon runners – the real stars of the show. I was nervous as hell. The course ends with a hill, which strikes me as cruel (though from my event management past I accept that cruelty probably wasn’t part of the planning process.) I’d worked out a time in my head that I thought I could aim for, and tucked in behind the pacer for 1 hour 45mins. And then we were off. I was cautious. The first stretch is downhill (the same hill you run back up again). But this time, it just felt… good. I didn’t want to over-exert myself but I felt constrained by the 1 hour 45 mins timing, so stretched my legs out and went a bit faster. And just kept going.
What I’ve found since running more habitually is that the first mile and a half is a struggle. Every time. It’s as though my body’s saying, “This? Really? Now? Can’t we just go and eat a biscuit?”. But after a while it realises. “Oh. We’re doing this now. You’re not stopping. OK then.” And when that happens, that’s when the sweet spot hits. It’s just running, looking at trees, hearing my feet hit the tarmac, feeling into the rhythm of it. Thinking about everything (shopping lists, a writing project, presents to get for people, why I faffed about for 20 minutes putting off the run) and often just nothing. Just the movement.
And eventually my knees start to hurt and I’m ready for it to stop. And I go for a bit longer, but keeping it steady, easing down.
What have I learned from all this?
Deciding to do something is one thing. Doing it is another. Both the decision and the doing take work. Both require you to give yourself permission to try.
It’s not about the showstopper story. It’s about turning up, time after time, and doing it.
Sometimes it’s easier to make a commitment to others than it is to ourselves.
Sometimes there’s power in the mundane.
Wanting to do something in the moment isn’t the point. Sometimes you do it and the desire and reward follow.
Pushing our bodies to do new things can push our minds to do new things too.