Just in case you missed it, last weekend was the London Marathon. It’s an event that’s had a special place in my heart for a long time. Even though I haven’t taken part since 2001, it’s what first inspired me to get into running. And every year, I still get a little pang that I’m not there.
After spending the day as a marshall at the finish of the 1992 marathon, hanging medals and being thanked, hugged and kissed by sweaty, exhausted but ecstatic runners, I was chock full of emotion, inspiration, admiration and awe for every one of them.
So much so that me – who’d hated sport at school, who’d never run much further than for the bus – decided that I, too, could and indeed should do a marathon.
One of the perks of being a marshall is that it’s pretty easy to get a marathon place, so I knew I was in for the following year pretty quickly.
Guess I’d better get started with the training, then.
That first ‘training run’ is still clear in my memory. I ran roughly a mile. About half way round, I realised there was more to this running lark than just putting one foot in front of the other over and over and over again. Like breathing. Running and breathing – how did that work?
By the time I finished, I was beyond knackered. So… just another 25 and a bit loops like that and I’d be there. Suddenly I wasn’t so sure this was a Good Idea.
But somehow, despite the wobbly beginnings, I made it to my marathon. In the end, it took me two years to get to that start line, but by then, I was well and truly addicted.
I didn’t set out to become A Runner. Beyond the goal of just finishing that first marathon was a big fat nothing. Who’d have thought that nearly 25 years later, running would have become such a big part of my life?
And it’s brought so much. Confidence. The kind that only comes from pushing your mind and body to their limits and coming out the other side. Lifelong friendships. Amazing memories and unforgettable experiences. Even a new career. Running’s lifted me up and it’s broken me down.
Yet as I get closer to my first half century, I realise that many of those break downs were self inflicted. What I did or didn’t do as a runner is what kept me perpetually falling into injury. Sadly, no one’s invented a time machine yet. But if I could go back and talk to my younger self, there are a few little bits of advice I’d love to pass along…
1. Running is not an exercise superfood
When I started running, just being able to run felt like an achievement. So I ran. I ran some more. And that was it.
What more could a body need?
Plenty, actually. Like movement that goes sideways, that twists and turns and stretches. Not just movement that swings forward and back, forward and back, forward and back.
Decades of running’s left me with a body that’s out of balance. Weak lateral and rotational muscles. And feeble upper body strength. It’s something I’m working to fix, but if I could start over, I’d make time for yoga and pilates. I’d climb, and crawl, and find a million other different ways to move.
Running’s like eating carrots. Good for you as part of a balanced diet. Not so healthy if that’s all you eat.
2. Running is not a free pass to spend the rest of the day on the sofa
Running feels so righteous. Finish your Sunday morning 8, 10 or 15-miler and all you want to do is crawl on to the sofa and not move for the rest of the day. You’ve earned it, right?
Maybe so, but it’s a killer for your health and your running.
While I was running upwards of 3 hours a week, I spent the rest of my days sitting. And sitting. And sitting some more.
So my hips got tight and inflexible. My glutes went AWOL. And I lost any sense of where my core was. Then I took that body out running. Yikes.
I might as well have been running with my chair strapped to my bum.
But I ran. So I was Fit, with a capital F. Which meant I was just fine. Wasn’t I?
There’s a word for people like me. Active Sedentary. OK, that’s two words. But the point is that those few hours I spent running every week didn’t balance out all the hours and hours I spent locked in hip and knee flexion.
The more I’ve made the effort to get out of my chair and move when I’m not running, the better my running has felt, the more I can relax, and the more I can sense my core engaging. Hey, I’ve even discovered that glutes are more than just in-built butt cushions.
3. A training plan is a suggestion not a Bible
Trying to train for a race as a beginner runner is all one big mystery. How often should you run? How far do you need to go? When should you think about speed work?
I used to read Runners World from cover to cover every month. And I followed the training plans religiously. To the letter.
Never mind that I had a niggle in my achilles. Never mind that I still felt exhausted after Sunday’s long run. The Plan said I had to do a 5 mile tempo run. So by God, I was going to do a 5 mile tempo run.
What I didn’t take into account was that one plan is never going to suit everyone. It doesn’t know whether I’m an elite athlete or a total novice. It can’t tell whether I’m ill, injured or just plain knackered. It’s a starting point and nothing more. It’s up to me to listen to my body and adapt the schedule to what I need.
My training plan should never be the boss of me.
4. There’ll always be another race
It was 2006. I’d run hard all summer in preparation for the Bristol half marathon and I’d been following my training plan religiously. Again.
I’d ignored that developing niggle in my achilles tendon until two weeks before the race when it erupted big time. Running was painful. Heck, walking was painful.
In desperation, I booked myself in for a physio appointment. Could I make it to Bristol, I asked? The physio looked doubtful, made noises about how it probably wasn’t a good idea but it was my choice, and did her best to patch me up.
So, did I do the wise thing and rest up, giving myself time to recover? Err, nope.
I lined up at the start, fingers, toes and everything else crossed, praying that I’d make it through. I got to the finish line. Just. But by that time I was in serious pain. And the damage I did that day affected me for years afterwards.
No race is worth wrecking yourself for. No matter how much training you’ve done. Or how much sponsorship money is riding on it. Or how much you hate to admit to friends and family that it’s not going to happen. There’ll always be another race. But you’ve only got one body.
5. Running can be fun!
That very first run hurt. A lot.
What kept me going was the thought that if I kept training long enough and hard enough, at some point running would become effortless. I’d float like a leaf on the breeze.
Only, the more I ran, the harder I pushed myself. So I got faster, but it never got any easier.
Every run was a race against myself. If I ran further or faster than last week, it was a good run. If I didn’t, it was a bad run. Exhausting.
I liked what running did to my body. I liked the growing pile of medals and race t-shirts I was accumulating. But did I really enjoy running? I’m not so sure.
The idea that I could get pleasure from running just for its own sake, with no medal or PB as a reward at the end, would have left me gobsmacked.
So if I could go back, I’d tell myself to slow down once in a while. Take off the Garmin. Listen to the birds singing. Sense the ground under my feet. And enjoy the feeling of just moving.
6. Running is a skill that can be learned
But my biggest learning by far is that even those of us who are not Natural Born Runners can be taught to run better.
That running is a skill.
That how you run matters as much as – if not more than – how far and how fast.
That even a beaten up, broken down wreck of a runner like me could find joy in running again.