I was never really interested in sports at school. In fact, I was rarely very active at all, much beyond accidentally booting a football into a neighbouring garden during afternoon break time. When the mood struck, I could be very reminiscent of Gary Lineker in his pomp – a goal hanger par excellence – but actual physical effort, no thanks. So whenever the timetable read ‘cross country’, I immediately began to limber up, relishing the prospect of staggering around windswept hillsides in the freezing cold.
There was no escape from the dreaded cross-country run. Our teacher, Mr Bunker, made sure of that. In hindsight he wasn’t a fearsome man, but under his watchful glare I felt that failure to at least attempt a jog signalled impertinence and therefore would warrant punishment (at least, that’s what my 14-year-old self believed). So jog I did. And I hated every miserable, cold, wet, exhausting moment of it. But most of all I hated Peter McAllister.
Peter McAllister won every cross-country ‘race’ that the rest of us endured. He run up hills with the same ease that others ran down them; coasted along the flats, barely touching the ground; and always, always finished minutes ahead of everyone else. It never occurred to me to try harder and have a go at beating him – or at least finish the race with Peter in sight. I simply didn’t see the point of running so I didn’t try. A few of my classmates would nip off into the woods as soon as ‘Basil’ Bunker (a highly original nickname) turned his back and have a smoke but I didn’t join them. It would have been pointless as I didn’t smoke. That came later. So I huffed and puffed along, making the requisite effort and praying that the race would finish before I died of hypothermia, exhaustion or boredom – possibly all three. Who’d be a runner?
A little under 15 years later, I made the first of several abortive attempts to get fit and running seemed like the best way. It was cardiovascular, it was cheap and you could do it practically anywhere. So I, like countless others, hit the roads and ran far faster than my lungs, heart and legs were ready for. Less than 100 metres in and I was done. My lungs were burning, my calves were on fire and my heart was beating like a thrash metal bass drum. Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly if you’ve ever been a smoker, I was gasping for a cigarette (an oxymoronic term at best). I vowed never to run again.
By 2004, I’d made my first purchase of a pair of proper running shoes by Asics. After another pitiful attempt at this running lark, I placed them at bottom of my cupboard, where they stayed in pristine condition until one day a couple of years ago I discovered that if I stopped holding my belly in (something I’d been doing with increasing regularity over the preceding decade) I couldn’t actually see my feet. Now, there comes a time in a man’s life when the whiff of change is in the air. I wasn’t quite ready for a mid-life crisis at the age of 37. Besides, I can’t really afford a swanky leather jacket, much less a sports car. But being unable to see one’s feet, well that was beyond the pale.
And so it was that I discovered Sports Direct sold some decent running clothing at very competitive prices (that’s a plug, Sports Direct. Hello? Hello?). Stepping out onto a quiet street the following morning I was for the first time on the road to fitness, with intent.
100 metres down the road I was gasping for breath. Bugger! Arse! Shit! I thought, but didn’t have the lung capacity to exclaim. Surely running isn’t supposed to be this hard. I picked my wounded pride up off the floor and limped back home – it wasn’t far, fortunately.
It’s amazing the virtual doors that the internet has opened up. Sitting at my desk at work the next day I idly typed ‘how to run’ into Google, not expecting to discover anything of merit.
I wasn’t expecting that. My PC had blown a fuse – or something technical that I didn’t understand – and shut down. Perhaps I’d irritated the gods of the internet with the stupidity of my search. Perhaps typing ‘how to run’ was a secret code that destroys the internet and all computers on earth. I checked with my colleague; his was working fine. I did the honourable thing and called IT.
Later than night, I nervously typed the words ‘how to run’ into Google once again, hit Enter and braced myself. A wealth of information appeared. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. People actually discussed this stuff, posted tips, training plans, how tos, blogged about it, wrote long sprawling articles on great runners (did a search for Peter McAllister, he didn’t figure. A moral victory), and were incredibly passionate about the subject. To say it was inspiring is an understatement. It was a revelation!
So, I started again. I found a plan for beginners and slowly made progress, going a little further each time until I could run a mile, then three, then five. I created an account on Runner’s World and posted in the Beginners section, asking for like-minded novices to add their thoughts on learning to run. Runners are amazingly friendly people. Full of praise, help and an endless supply of positivity – must be all that fresh air. Finally, I entered a 10k race. I don’t mind admitting I found it hard, but I got around the course in under and hour and was rightly pleased with my performance. Then I stopped running. I fell into the trap of over-running and burnout. It happens quite often, apparently (I Googled it). I didn’t run for months, but whenever I saw a runner pass me on the street or cross in front of my car at a traffic light, I felt a pang of jealousy and a large dose of guilt for not being out there myself.
Several months later I began running again. I built up my mileage slowly, the same as before, and soon reached 10 miles, the further I’d ever run. I did plan to race another 10k, confident that I could beat my previous time. Then I burnt out again. I guess although I thought I was progressing slowly, it had become all-encompassing. I ran when I could and when I wasn’t running I was reading about running; when I wasn’t reading about it I was thinking about it, and so on. No wonder I have blood pressure issues!
It’s now early January 2014 and I’ve started again. This time I am forcing myself to take days off between runs in the hope I can avoid burnout, so we’ll see how it goes. I have a feeling I’ll always be this way, though. If something stimulates me I’m an all or nothing kind of guy. The procrastination just fills up the rest of my time.
But one thing that will never change is how I feel after a good run. I can’t describe well the sense of accomplishment, of well-being, of (dare I say) sheer joy that follows this funny little pastime. Only those that have done it will ever truly know that feeling, so we’ll keep it our little secret, eh?
So, how to run? Start slowly, walk if you need. Google it, like I did. There’s more information online than you could ever possibly read, but it’s a fantastic starting point. And say hello to my friends at Runner’s World. Just don’t try to run 100 metres at sprinting pace. It’s a sure-fire way to burn out.