Recently, I declared my intention to spend more time gardening, and to become a grower of food, rather than a planter-of-vegetable-seeds-that-occasionally-don’t-die.
I often feel compelled to shake my life up a bit in the autumn. It feels like a good time for new beginnings, and always has that back-to-school feel about it, even now.
Because I’m daft, I’m going to declare another intention: I want to spend more time running.
I’m not one of those interesting runners you read about in an exciting book. I’ve never been 15 stone overweight, or had a life threatening illness, or lost a limb. I didn’t start running to overcome great personal tragedy, or because I lost my job or my wife or my dog. I didn’t start running to raise money for a worthy cause, or to inspire other people. Or even for a bet. I’m not the oldest person to run a marathon, or the youngest. Or the fastest, or even the slowest (although I’ve come close).
I’m not even sure when I started running.
I do remember I was pretty good at the potato-and-spoon race at school, but that had more to do with my ability to hold the spoon steady than my ability to run fast. At high school I was useless at sport, and when I look back it astounds me that I cannot remember a single person ever telling me I would get better if I practiced – it was like I was doomed to be rubbish forever. Once my class declared, in my absence, that I would run the 800 metre race at sports day. I came last, huffing and puffing around the pitch in my woefully inadequate not-even-a-sports-bra, and declared I was never going to run again.
The next time I remember running was in 1998. I’d just moved to university, and have no idea what moved me to run, but I did. Just once, around the fields near my hall of residence. I enjoyed it, but don’t remember doing it more than once.
In 2002, after university, I lived on a boat, and people regularly ran past our windows along the canal towpath. One day I tried, again huffing and puffing and walking a lot, and taking the shortest route home. My boyfriend at the time told me one day I’d find longer routes so I could run further, and I think I may have said a rude word or two. He was very fit, and I was very unfit, and the whole idea seemed laughable.
I don’t remember running again until I moved out to the peak district in 2003 to live and work in a youth hostel. With miles of beautiful countryside outside my door, I spent a lot of time outside walking and cycling. I don’t remember how I acquired it (was it left behind by a guest?), but I remember sitting in my room reading a running magazine. That summer I ran more than once, just short runs through beautiful valleys, and I remember counting my footsteps and my breaths as a ran – one two three, one two three, one two three.
In the autumn I moved to this city, and brought with me a new boyfriend – one who had no interest in running at all. I started a PhD and spent long days in front of a computer, and with no friends and few acquaintances in those first weeks, I found my way to an online running forum. I introduced myself, and found much support and encouragement and affection there, whether I was talking about running or not. Sometimes I ran through the leafy streets, but a lot of the time I didn’t. I remember keeping a log in a hardback book. Every run said ‘I didn’t want to go but when I did I loved it‘.
Over the years I met some of my online running pals in real life. I can’t even remember the first time. We met in ones and twos and threes at races, some running and some supporting. We had a day out to London and for reasons I now can’t remember, went to the Imperial War Museum.
I don’t remember the first race I did, possibly a Race for Life but I don’t know where or when. I remember the Liverpool half marathon, and my grandma sneaking under the barrier to run the last little bit with me, handbag clutched to her side (that was also the race I popped into the newsagents for some jelly babies half way round). I remember a 5k around a local lake, and that I went on my own on the train and felt quite deflated at the end with no-one to celebrate with.
I never trained regularly, but I spent a lot of time on the running forum, and often found myself entering races, thinking ‘this time I’ll train!’ Of course I didn’t, and I developed quite a reputation for not caring if I finished right at the back. I came last in the Liverpool half marathon, and the Sheffield half marathon, and the Leeds Abbey Dash 10k.
One year my running pals persuaded me to do a triathlon. I’m not sure how. I never learned to swim properly, and I’d barely been swimming at all since school. I don’t like the water going up my nose, and I’m terrified of not being able to touch the floor. But I’m game for a challenge (and I don’t like being left out) so I signed up, had a few swimming lessons, did a tiny bit of running and cycling – and came last, having had a marvellous day.
In 2012 my sister started running. She’d never shown much interest before, but got very enthusiastic very quickly and started entering races. And was faster than me.
Well, I wasn’t very impressed with that.
She beat my 5k and 10k time, and we said we’d do a race together, and one thing led to another and we entered the Chester marathon. We did a half marathon together (which took 4 and a half hours), and then came last in the Chester marathon last October. I declared I’d never do anything so stupid again.
This January we did a 10k, and I knocked 24 minutes off my previous time. In May we did another (I hadn’t run since the previous one), and I knocked off another 15 minutes. I’ve run twice since that race in May (both times this week), and tomorrow morning we’ll run another 10k.
When signing up for races I rarely consider whether things are practical. I don’t talk myself out of them because they’re too much effort (like I do with other areas of life), and I think it’s simply because I don’t mind coming last. I cheerfully see myself as a slow runner, and I don’t mind being the one plodding around at the end. I tend to pick larger races where there’s likely to be plenty of slower runners, so I’m not causing a nuisance by making a couple of poor volunteers wait hours for just me.
Part of me doesn’t train properly because I’m lazy and have other things to do. While I don’t try, I can blame my lack of speed on my lack of effort.
But what if I tried really hard and still came last?
Well, so what? First of all, it doesn’t matter. Nobody watching me cross that line knows or cares if I trained. Secondly, if I train I won’t come last, because there will always be someone else like me who’s willing to enter regardless of training, and it’s likely that they will come last.
My enthusiasm for running is fired again. I don’t know what sets me off. Sibling rivalry this time, no doubt.
So here’s my other intention. I’m going to make space for running in my life. As with gardening, I feel I’ve observed enough, both myself and other people, and it’s time to put my knowledge into action and train properly.
I’m going to find out what it’s like to be consistently in the middle of the pack rather than at the back.
I’m going to run, and I’m going to write about running. I’ll post pictures of scenery in beautiful places, and daft pictures before and after races. I’ll tell you about my successes, and the things that haven’t gone so well.
And if I do sign up for another marathon, I’m going to make damn sure I finish before the cut off time…