So some of you might know that, in a fit of uncharacteristic enthusiasm, I decided to train for a 10K a couple of months ago. The race itself is in October, and the first half mile is a long, curvaceous, uphill climb past Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. But let’s not think about that right now.
To date, my progress has been mixed at best. You see, I’m not what you might describe as a “natural runner”. I find running amazingly, incredibly difficult. I huff, I puff, my face turns the colour of beetroot, I get cramps and stitches and all kinds of weird and wonderful pains, and I occasionally cry when I do it. Sometimes I even sit down in the road and cry after I’ve done it.
The funny thing is, I’m not a particularly unfit person. I could quite happily get on my bike and cycle 50 miles without flinching. I do yoga, I climb hills, I walk a 5-mile round trip to work and back five days a week. I even swim occasionally for heaven’s sake! Fitness per se isn’t the problem. It’s the particular type of fitness that’s required to propel the whole of my own body through the air at speed using nothing but the steam I can muster within myself to do it that’s the problem.
And then there’s the willpower issue. I recently read somewhere that the experience of running is actually only 30% physical. That means 70% of it is in your mind. 70%! As an experienced giver-upper on hard things, what this means for me is that as well as battling with the physical stress of actually having to run, I am engaged in a constant battle with the part of my mind that makes me want to quit and have a latte every time I do something that doesn’t come easily to me. And, because the nature of life is such that we just can’t win ‘em all, sometimes the voice in my head that tells me I’m no good as a runner wins the argument and the rest of me winds up on the pavement somewhere, out of breath and feeling like a colossal failure.
So may well you ask why, in light of the above, I’m still choosing to put myself through this tortuous process. It’s a question I’ve asked myself many a time. In fact, it’s a question I ask myself every time I wind up on the pavement somewhere, out of breath and feeling like a colossal failure. And after much consternation, I think I’ve arrived at an answer. In the first place, there’s this thing I have about wanting to get better at stuff. I don’t like not being able to do something. It frustrates me, but it also scares me a little. What if one day I find myself in a situation where I absolutely have to be able to do activity X, and I can’t because I never tried hard enough to become competent at activity X, so I end up having to ask someone else to do it for me? Or worse, what if there’s no one to ask? I know, I know, I sound crazy and neurotic but the residual girl guide in me would always rather be a mediocre Jack of all trades than a master of perfection of only one.
More fundamentally, however, there’s just something about the activity of running itself that pulls me back in every time I’m on the verge of giving it up. Because when running goes right for me, it goes so right that I feel as though I never want it to end. It’s empowering, it’s crazy addictive and it fills me with a sense of abounding possibility that I’ve rarely found in physical activity before. It comforts me, in some bizarrely primal way, to know that as I train for this 10K I am actually in the process of becoming physically able to run away from things. To put distance – real, actual distance – between myself and any external source of imminent pain or strife, using nothing but my own body as a resource. I might not go very fast, I might not go very far but still. There’s a slowly emerging freedom at the tips of my toes that feels a tiny little bit like magic. And as with all things magical, now that I’ve tasted it I want it more and more often, and for longer and longer stretches of time. It’s the golden snitch of running: I think those in the know refer to it as the bug.
Of course if you ask me again after 9.5K on October 7th I may well tell you a very different story.
Image above from here.