Friday, 1 July 2016

Someone who runs

These days, one of the questions I dread being asked the most is 'How's your love life?', which any sane person knows is something only sociopaths ask. But when I was younger, and blissfuly ignorant of the twin evils of curious acquaintances and societal shaming of single women to come, my least favourite question was probably: 'What are your hobbies?'

As a kid, the only things I could even vaguely frame as a 'hobby' were misanthropic staples like reading and erm, playing Sims. I was never particularly sporty. I wasn't preppy enough to go horse riding, or committed enough to learn an instrument, and no one counts listening to music as a hobby, even if it takes up a large proportion of your time, because basically everyone does. Which is why my younger self would be shocked to learn that were that dreaded question to crop up again today, I would actually have a fairly legitimate answer. And one that involves physical activity, no less!

Until now, I've resisted ever writing about running because I'm aware that generally, it's a topic that ranks alongside having to listen to someone recount their latest dream. But I just finished reading Alexandra Heminsley's Running Like A Girl, which despite its fairly twee-sounding title is actually a properly readable, inspiring book – but not in a bullshit, self-help sort of way – and I realised it was a topic that could be made interesting, WITHOUT being preachy.

Even after plodding along regularly for about three years, referring to myself as a 'runner' seems a bit grandiose. Someone who runs seems more apt. So as someone who runs, to those of you who think there's no way you could ever be that kind of someone too, however predictable it might be, here's what I've learnt:

Anyone can run. Yes, even you

I can already hear some of you scoffing – the ones who get out of puff just walking up the stairs and who gave up their short-lived attempts at running after a stitch made its side-splitting appearance – but it's genuinely true. And you can trust me on that, because I was a big ol' scoffer myself. It turns out our bodies are designed to make us think we can't run, initially – the first ten minutes when you hit the streets and start jogging along see a build up of lactic acid that leaves your legs feeling like lead and your chest all raspy and phlegmy, but if you power through, it really does get better.

You should start by thinking in landmarks, not kilometres

Seems obvious, but when you've got all your snazzy new running gear on and you've set aside the time to actually bother doing some exercise, it can be tempting to think 'Yes! I'll smash out a 5k no problem, how hard can that even be?!' When I first started running regularly, I was at uni in York and near my house there was a sort of country path that led out into the fields surrounding the city. On my first outing, I boldly ran along the entire length of the path (which can't have even been a kilometre) and honestly nearly had a heart attack in the process. I practically crawled home, spluttering for breath, and I remember thinking, 'I'm just not cut out for this.' But I persevered, and the next time, I thought – I'll just run along as far as that first footbridge. After I'd done that a few times, I went a bit further, and again, and again, until somehow, I was reaching the end of that path no problem.

It's perfect if you hate the gym

Oh god I loathe the gym. I know a fair few gym bunnies, and I don't know how they can stand it: all the preening, show off men monopolising the weights section, all the perfectly toned, glamorous women being chatted up as opposed to merely setting new records for how red it's possible for a human face to turn, which is more my forte. I can't deal with classes: I hate having a stranger bark orders at me as I bumble along getting whatever exercise it is I'm meant to be doing wrong. I do however like that running doesn't cost me 60 quid a month, and that I can do it whenever and wherever. I also like that the time passes by about ten times quicker when you're plodding along outside, perving on park dads, as opposed to pounding the treadmill. If you share any of these gym misgivings, running is for you.

It can be a surprisingly sociable activity

A combination of extreme competitiveness and sporting mediocrity was never going to make me a great team member, so a big part of running's initial appeal was its solo nature. But since starting, I've realised that it's more sociable than you'd expect. Go in for a race with someone you know, and you can train together and sympathise during the inevitable moments of regret at ever having signed up. When you run a big race, the atmosphere among competitors and crowds alike restores your faith in humanity (which anyone who's watched the London Marathon can attest). When my friend and I ran a half together recently, we got talking to someone on the way round and he joined us at the pub for a celebratory burger afterwards. And he didn't turn out to be a lunatic!

No one really cares how far you've gone

Alongside "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?", the next great philosophical question is surely "If someone goes for a jog and doesn't tell someone the distance, did it even happen?". The longer the distances you start to chalk up, the more you find running becomes less about struggling to breathe, and more about the battle between you and that little voice in your head that tells you you're probably not going to make it home and should just give up. So it's understandable that you'd want to share the distance over which you managed to ignore said evil murmurs. But still, however much they might pretend to, people don't actually care all that much, so you have to be prepared to know this is something you're doing for you.

It makes you feel great (give or take the odd injury)

Sadly, running a few 5ks a week does not a Victoria's Secret-worthy body make. But there's still a lot to be said for it: I now laugh in the face of people standing on the right side of the escalator, and can power confidently past them even to reach the faraway summit that is Angel tube station. Running also helps to do that wondrous thing which is to disassociate food from guilt. However much you love eating, as a woman, you're conditioned to feel that food = BAD, skinny = GOOD, so to have anything in your life that makes you more likely to think hey I'll eat this cake no problem is liberating and wonderful.

Running is still always a little bit awful

Don't go into running thinking it's going to revolutionise your life. Sadly, no matter how long you persevere with it, you're never going to reach a point where you can breeze along the entire distance without a hint of discomfort. I think in three years I've only ever felt that mythical 'runner's high' about twice – once when a bitch of a stitch that had been dogging me finally lifted and I was so glad I remember feeling like dancing along the path, the other, because I saw a huge crate of flapjacks awaiting me at the end of a half marathon. I never really relish the prospect of goingfor a run. But having gone for one? You can't beat that feeling.