It started on a Sunday morning, with a hangover, seven years ago. Friends had decided to go to the gym and, not wanting to be left out, I tagged along in my tatty tracksuit bottoms, old, holey t-shirt and unsuitable footwear.
Half an hour in, and I wasn’t feeling great. Probably not the best idea to go to the gym after a night out. Pounding headache, feeling sick. The rowing machine and I were not compatible. Same with the cross trainer. Sprinkle in a myriad of gym bunnies, body builders and stick insects. Self-conscious and inadequate come to mind.
So it was that I stepped tentatively on to the running machine, with the sole intention (no pun intended) of walking. But five minutes later I was literally getting into my stride. I cranked up the speed and settled in to a light jog. It was at that point, something strange happened. I started to enjoy it. My wonderful, at times obsessive, at times excruciatingly painful love of running had begun.
People often ask me why I run. What it is about it that makes it so special. “I’d get bored”, one friend told me. “I couldn’t think of anything worse.” “Don’t you get lonely?” “Why put yourself through it?”
Four half marathons later, with a couple of 10 and 5ks thrown in for good measure I do wonder myself. Not unlike a hangover, running is hard going. You feel sick. Your muscles ache and you’re dehydrated. The words “never again” are uttered not only regularly, but with steadfast conviction.
And there are other cons. You get soaked when it’s raining. People look at you like you’re mad. Training takes up a wealth of time.
Nonetheless, writing and my fiance aside, running has become the love of my life. I’ve been sitting here for a while trying to think why that is. Eventually I’ve realised, and it’s simple: Because you’re free, and you’re you.
Running. It’s just me and the road. It’s cathartic. The pressure and hurly-burly of city life in the 21st century evaporates. I have time to work through my stresses, worries and problems.
Running. Gives you time you think about what’s important in life. It brings you back to down earth when you’re wired to the moon. It’s my constant, as the inevitable wheels of change roll on, my faithful friend through break-ups, job and house moves, work triumphs and failures, family joys and sorrows.
Then there’s the sense of achievement. Hard to put into words. I’ll never forget crossing the finish line after my first 5k race. Just a few months earlier, I’d have struggled running for the bus.
I’ve run along hundreds of streets in numerous cities. I’ve run along the beach at sunset, watching the day’s-end glow meeting the waves, slowly fading on the horizon. I’ve run in my home city, breathing in the clear, cool air and marvellng at the site of the rolling Scottish hills, while the bracing wind bites at my face.
I’ve run along the Thames, past street performers and sweetie shops, dodging past the tourists and the throngs at teatime as the bells of Big Ben chime.
I’ve lined up with all the others, jittery as I check my watch, stretching far too much because it’s something to do. Shuffling forwards, stepping over discarded banana skins and energy sachets, the air heavy with expectation and Deep Heat. We wait. And we wait. And wait. Then we’re off. Myself and the fifty-four thousand. High-fiving the hands of small children, grasping jelly babies from the palms of strangers, chanting under the bridge. The roar of the Red Arrows as the feet of the masses pound the pavements below. Feeling invincible at six miles, incandescent by 10. Picking up for mile 11, despondent at 12 (“never again”…) Levelling out at 12.5, enveloped by the swell of the crowd and the squelch of my shoes on the home straight.
The emotion, hitting me like that wall at mile 10, with the finish line in sight. Now you know. You know you’re going to cross it.
Of course the encouragement helps, as does coming from a running-mad family. My dad and brother are super fit marathon runners. I remember my them taking me out for a ‘training run’ before my first 5k. My brother soon zipped off (as one friend put it “when he finishes a half marathon, he looks as if he’s been for a wee light jog round the block…”) leaving me with my dad.
He said it was only going to be a mile or two – but it was much further. I felt like I was at military boot camp. “Come on now, keep going! Keep going now!…If you can still talk, you can still run…left, left, left right left etc” Of course I couldn’t talk – but couldn’t tell him that. Because I couldn’t talk.
The sick feeling kicked in, but I persevered and finished the run. And with hindsight, it stood me in good stead for my first half marathon, the Great Scottish Run in Glasgow. As I approached the end, I was really suffering. Vision was funny, sick feeling was back and I didn’t know if I could do it.
It gave me such a lift to see my dad and brother (who had finished the run long before me) cheering me on from the sidelines along with my mum, as I heaved myself across the finish line.
In the seven years since my leaden feet first clambered on to that machine, I’ve run distances I never thought I would have been able to. I’ve run races in great times and not so great times. I’ve been excited and ecstatic. I’ve been injured and I’ve been disillusioned. But sooner or later, something always makes me reach for my trainers. And the minute I’m out there, I know I’ve made the right decision.
“The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.” – John Bingham