I remember being around 12 years old and contemplating why I put myself forward for cross country running at school.
It wasn’t really a forté of mine. I was a decent sprinter, but not really competitive running over any distance longer than 200 metres. I tended to finish well and place OK in races, mainly through a sort of blind determinedness. I remember a conversation between my dad and my rugby coach about my ‘stamina’, a quality that I was aware even then as being more akin to stubbornness.
It wasn’t physical ability that kept me going so much as shere bloody-mindedness. A refusal to stop until I was meant to stop. Not because I didn’t really, really want to stop, but because stopping was *all* I wanted to do, when I was supposed to. So running faster was my only option to make that happen sooner.
So I asked myself why did I do it? And what I decided was that whilst running long distance was absolutely horrible, crossing the finish line felt amazing. I loved being able to stop running.
But crossing the finish line after a 100 or 200 metre dash just didn’t compare to long distance, even if in those cases I was more likely to be among the first to do so. The amount of pleasure derived from stopping running was in direct correlation with the distance run.
Fast forward 20 years (give or take), and I’m training for my first marathon. And not training to finish, I’m throwing my entire self; body, mind, and all free time my wife would rather I spend with her, at an attempt to run it in under three hours. Which isn’t inconceivable, I’ve managed a 1 hour 26 minute half marathon. With the right training, people on the internet have told me, I should be able to do it. Which sounds to me like a challenge I’m not about to pass up.
And all that training has, admittedly, made running easier. My heart rate’s steadily been decreasing and copes much better than it used to when under pressure.
There is irony in the fact that my running has strengthened my lungs, when I’m running to raise money to battle cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that cripples the lungs of its sufferers. I can run seven minute miles quite comfortably now, without really worrying about my breathing. What a lucky bastard hey?
Running has become slightly more enjoyable. I can stick an audiobook on my phone, focus on the story and do my best to ignore that I’m running. Or sometimes a run will feel good, I’ll find a hypnotic rhythm that doesn’t feel like I’m torturing myself.
But mostly, when you’re training day in, day out, running is still horrible. The early morning slogs when I haven’t had time enough to fuel brilliantly. The 10 or 15 mile ‘tempo runs’ where I’m supposed to be doing half the distance at a pace that’s pushing myself but my legs are still hurting from Sunday’s 20 miles. Just horrible.
There seems to be a myth perpetuating among non-runners that runners enjoy running. Well I can firmly say that in my case, that is absolutely untrue. My wife will often ask me “did you have fun?” when I return home from a run.
“No. It was dreadful. It is almost always dreadful.” This tends to get an understandably confused reaction, why would I do something that’s dreadful? But it’s the truth. Just because I spend hours a day out pounding the pavement, does not mean that I wouldn’t rather be in bed or on the sofa. Of course I would. But being in bed or on the sofa feels a lot better if I’ve been out for a run.
I only run more often, and further, and faster, because the more I run, the more I enjoy stopping running.
I’m running the London Marathon in April to raise money for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust. You can sponsor me here.
photo credit: Stop