Back in February, I completed what was probably the worst run of my life. I say completed, but I’m not sure it counts as completion when you stop a mile from home and have to shuffle back. The actual running bit (though again, I’m not sure it counts as running) was a two-mile trundle with stretching breaks against every tree. I felt like I was gasping my way through glue.
Why I was running at all was open to question given my overall levels of fatigue – I was recovering from a pretty nasty virus and had recently given blood. But despite my body’s complaints, my mind was expecting good things: if not runner’s high, then at least something more than a crashing low.
Unfortunately, for most of the winter the high kept itself at bay. The best I managed was a mild sense of accomplishment – the kind of low-level relief associated with having paid your gas & electric or cleaned the toilet. But even this was underscored with frustration – “what kind of accomplishment can it be really,” I asked myself “when I’ve got so bloody slow?”
Now, if you’re not a runner, this might not sound like much of a sob story: the proposition ‘running is shit and it hurts’ is probably part of why you don’t run. Equally, if you’re very experienced, you most likely take periods of derailment in your stride. “Everyone gets ill or injured from time to time,” you’ll philosophise, stroking your beard with wiry, weather-beaten hands; “it’s normal to have an off season.”
But as someone who started out just three years ago – and derived a major boost from being speedy – I didn’t enjoy this sudden inability to put one foot in front of the other. I was about to turn 30. Bollocks, I thought, is this what being in your 30s feels like: having your young springy limbs carved off in the night and replaced with badly-oiled bits of robot?
Over the weeks that followed, I was forced to accept my limitations. I had to tell myself I was starting from scratch, and to take pride in milestones I’d have rolled my eyes at a year ago. Now, I know you don’t have to be fast to be a runner. I know a 15-minute mile is no less valid than a five-minute mile, and I know a person’s running speed is but a thin strand of irrelevant nonsense in this rich fabric of distraction we call life. But my ego wasn’t happy about it. I don’t think I realised how closely my ego was tied to my athleticism until suddenly it came under threat.
It was from this mindset that I signed up to the London Spring 10k, which took place in Regent’s Park today. Getting through a race I KNEW I’d struggle with (despite feeling much stronger all round) would be a major test for me.
In the past, I’ve shied away from racing because it’s just too anxiety-inducing. A 6.2 mile run, which I do a few times a week anyway and enjoy, becomes a savage evaluation of my inner mettle when you safety-pin a number to my front and place me among a load of dudes in tank tops.
If this sounds stupid, that’s because it is stupid, and I’ve long wished I didn’t have this mentality. I click on running blogs – the type written by girls with blinding smiles and a dedicated list of recipes involving carob seeds – and I think to myself, this is the way to do it. They go to as many races as they can, posting chirpy selfies of themselves en route and reconvening with all their mates afterwards for a pub lunch. Sometimes they’ll meet a time target and that’s great; if not, then hey, pub lunch.
My approach has more been one of absolute uncompromising solemnity, as if I had been drafted in to some kind of grim national service. For example in 2014 I completed a FANCY DRESS half marathon named after the ROMAN GOD OF DEBAUCHERY which had WINE AT THE WATER STOPS and I still managed to act as though my country’s honour was at stake.
And what’s all this seriousness about? Simply pushing myself a bit further left on the bell curve of amateur athletes. Competition can be great, it can galvanising; but it’s worth stepping back when you realise it’s crushing your sense of fun.
So the London Spring 10K. This would be an opportunity to try something different. To get out there and enjoy the run itself – the camaraderie and the support and the shared experience – even while knowing a personal best was beyond me. I hadn’t timed any of my runs in months so I had no idea how fast I was likely to be, but I wanted not to care. Adios, my ego.
It turned out to be a smart move. This morning was blisteringly hot, which, as any runner knows, means time goals go out the window. Especially when you haven’t trained in the heat (i.e., you live in the UK), the race will feel that much harder and your waterfall of back sweat will be that much more majestic.
This event was small and relatively no-frills, with just a few hundred people. They’d plotted a lovely course though – three laps of Regent’s Park – which is super-flat and scenic. If you like trees, fountains, and small children zooming across your path on micro-scooters, you’ll enjoy running in Regent’s Park. Two out of three was still tolerable.
I’d intended to pace myself conservatively, but I felt dangerously good in the first few kilometres and went out faster than I meant to. As a result, the trajectory was pretty much what you’d expect – great first lap, so-so second lap, horrendous third lap where everything came undone. From what I could gather, a lot of people around me were facing a similar struggle, not realising quite how hot it was till the last leg of the race and paying for their optimism three miles earlier.
At any rate, I did better than I’d been expecting – 45:57 on the chip, placing me 29th overall out of 341 and 7th woman (fourth in my age group). I was nearly four minutes away from my PB, but felt like I could have closed in on it by a minute or two had it been a cooler day.
Considering my loss of fitness over the winter, I’m really chuffed with this. It’s reassuring to know the off patch really was just an off patch, rather than part of an inevitable decline into the vale of joint replacements. It’s the encouragement I need to maybe start pushing myself harder again, probing the limits of what I might be capable of and launching back into – ugh – “beast mode”.
More than that though, I think it’s the prod I need to get to more of these events, whether or not I’m fully up to speed. After all, the things I really like about running have nothing to do with blitzing time goals. I like the sense of surrender to the moment, with no worries more acute than making it to the next tree. I like losing myself in my running playlist, plotting a course through different musical lineages and whatever moods and memories they evoke. I like the visceral sense of release: pounding away frustrations, sweating out mental detritus, exhaling the old and inhaling the new.
This is the stuff I was truly sad to lose over the winter, and this is the stuff I’m glad to have back. My running mojo is back in town. Who gives a flying frig about a PB.
British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands