Running sucks. I’m kinda learning to love it.
As a child, I was taught that exercise was basically a moral sin. For my Dad, who was always overweight, exercise was just something he straight-up refused to do. My Mum loves walking everywhere and values exercise in life deeply, but always had a strong sense that to ‘do exercise’ such as the gym was to indulge in unforgivable vanity and self-importance. That, and she hated the swimming pool changing rooms. Consequently, I was raised suspicious of basically all activity that wasn’t walking casually ever.
At secondary school, my PE report was always the same. “She tries, and is very good at knowing where the ball is going to be – but not any good at getting there in time.” Rather, I was the chess champion. That was my big claim to fame. You want someone to sit very still for an hour scheming? Greetings.
At university, my flatmate was convinced that London was full of rapists and murderers, so we did some jiu jitsu together. There I learned that I liked martial arts – just not this particular jiu jitsu teacher.
At RADA there was no time for exercise. We were working 60 hour weeks on a regular basis, and there were plenty of weeks where I’d work 78 hour weeks because that was what was expected of us and we were way too young and keen to ever wonder whether that was really a good industry standard to aspire towards. Consequently, after graduation, the habit of working until we dropped was fairly well ingrained, and it wasn’t until my mid to late twenties that I actually had the space or will to ever consider exercise at all. Let alone the idea that there was honour in this so-called ’40 hour week’ of which you sometimes heard rumour.
My Italian friend got me into running first, as her then-partner was a marathon runner. We did a 5km together, and didn’t really train smart or well for it. Then we got into swimming, which was much easier, and after doing two Swimathons together as part of a team I resolved to get actual lessons, since she was ridiculously better at swimming than me without ever seeming to put in the work. Swimming lessons were great; measurable improvements through skill-based technique. Any form of exercise where my brain is engaged is totally my thing – swimming was my new chess, only much wetter. Around this time I also started learning escrima, which was also much bigger on the sneaky deployment of technique than it was, say, push-ups. Having weapons in your hand changes the whole conversation, and suddenly being able to think clearly while also prancing around like a loon became a thing that I adore.
In 2018, my jogging/swimming friend died. A few weeks later, I signed up to do a 5km Swimathon solo. It was not the easiest thing I’ve ever done. I followed the training plans, pushed and pushed and pushed, even tried a bit of cross-training for this thing called ‘strength’ (which I’ve never had – technicians who can hoik VL1000s with one toned bare arm might look like they’ve got moves, but their backs are buggered by 35; also if they drop said expensive light it’s probably worth more than we get paid in 6 months, so yeah…) – when I completed the swim in March 2019 I felt like the queen of the universe. The actual swim was fine, though by then the inside of the pool was fantastically boring to look at – but the physical exhaustion afterwards was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I spent 24 hours on a sofa dribbling and smug.
It’s now July, and while I still love swimming, I’m not in a hurry to jump back into intensive swimming training again. I use ‘intensive’ cautiously, because there are people who swim 10k or do back-to-back 5k swims on a regular basis. They are intensive. I’m… someone who has a lot of interests, of which swimming is merely one. That kind of intensive. But I’d like something else, and so when the mother of my Italian friend suggested going to Venice in October to do a 10k with her, I said yes. (I was delirious immediately after the swim when this was proposed – this may have account for my choices.) I’ve already done Couch to 5K, which was genuinely great and God bless the NHS. So in April I started in with some ‘Beyond 5k’ stuff, (does anyone else say ‘hello Laura!’ whenever Couch to 5k’s Laura says hi? Anyone else…? At all…?) played around with a few options, and started jogging in earnest.
And blimey I’m crap. I rarely get breathless, except in interval training, but every single time I jog I’m astonished at how new and exciting parts can hurt. For the first few weeks it was shin splits – flipping agony. Then it was shin splints in just one leg. Then it was pain (and still is) where the top of my foot meets my shins, but again, only in one leg. A different leg. Then it was crunchy toes. Then my bum hurt. Then my left knee. At every stage I wonder ‘is this an injury’ and am excrutiatingly careful around prevention, as I like knees. However, given that it takes me about 6km of jogging just to warm up, at which point the pain vanishes and doesn’t return, I think it’s just being not used to running.
Looking for tips on that key question that all newbie runners have – dear God should it hurt this much and when will it become blissful and life-affirming instead of crap? – I started listening to podcasts about running. And yeah, every episode there’s usually someone who’s like ‘it started hard but it got better, and now I’m made of diamonds and love!’ but they’re running 100 miles while carrying a crocodile after losing half a liver and an unhappy love affair. I literally just wanna jog 10km and not be lapped by the 65 year old mother of my Italian friend.
When the podcasts fail to tell me the magic, magic solution that will make everything great – because surely there’s one of those, right? – of course you do the next thing and start to look for a product that will make things amazing. Maybe you have the wrong shoes? Perhaps you need fancy-pants pants? Foam rolling. It’s a thing that everyone seems to love, despite the lack of scientific evidence that it does anything, so that’s nice, right? And my word, the apps. There are so many apps that promise to improve your life through PBs and.. TBs and… stuff like that, which isn’t ever really explained because presumably you know what 11.15 1.11 6″22 means. Co-ordinates for treasure, yes? For no real reason I wound up using Nike Running Club, which has a bunch of guided runs. These range from the very short to the challengingly long, with not much middle ground, but frustratingly I’ve also found them quite useful. Frustrating because the chirpy, “and we’re off! You’re an athlete! Be the best you can be! Keep your core strong and stable!” narration makes me feel like I’m watching a Tory party political broadcast. There’s something inherently a little sinister about a detached American voice telling you that you can be the best version of yourself while discovering deep inner peace through shoes. Sure, much of it is great, especially the part about people who’ve run 100 miles while carrying a crocodile, but the overall emphasis on self-empowerment sits for me on the same slippery slope as the modern ‘wellness’ movement. Do you have years of credit card debt, a family to raise, an unstable, poorly-paid job and a government that’s actively seeking to make you feel alien in your own home? Running, meditation and Himalayan rock salt will fix it. All for a reasonable few thousand pounds and a huge investment of time, if you just try really, really hard, if you just pull your socks up, it’ll all get better because you are better. Yay. I know that’s not its intention, hence the fact that I am both frustrated and thrilled by the fact that it works. Ah real life – ruining motivational messaging since the Black Death.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of – well, running and meditation, not so much the salt, though I’m sure it’s yummy. But I’m also a fan of higher taxation of the rich, social justice and access to resources for all, so that everyone has an opportunity to be the best they can be and go for that sexy jog, all of us at last equal in our shared shin splints and universal access to good libraries and teachers. Maybe I’ll go back to listening to Laura and the Beyond 5k podcast. She’s never told me that I’m an athlete, a winner an icon or a hero. She’s just told me to keep my back straight, watch my form and keep my eyes at least ten paces ahead. Hello Laura!
However, if you ignore the socio-economic downsides of all of this, the actual physical upsides are kinda starting to emerge. And secretly, strangely, I’m sorta… kinda starting to enjoy running? My first breakthrough was a few weeks ago, when I finally clocked my first 10km by jogging to Brixton, following wiggly back roads down to Herne Hill and winding up in Brockwell Park on beautiful spring day just after the baby ducks hatched in the pond. The second breakthrough came a few days ago, when I jogged to Regent’s Park in bright sun and cool wind and it was just… well… great. More than great. It was lovely. For the first time in a long while I felt the real freedom of it, the joy of being separate from all the things that needed to be done and the anxieties that waited in the rest of life, and just being out and about on legs that were perfectly happy to do their thing. Swimming might be easier, but running in London, if you know your route, can be a feast for the senses. Judge things wisely and you can link up Finsbury Park, Clissold Park, Green Lanes reservoirs and Highbury Fields in a spin of grass and fountain. Judge it right and you can run from Hendon through Hampstead Heath, cross from Hampstead to Primrose Hill, cut into Regent’s Park or along the canal and clock in mile after mile of tree and grass, soft ground beneath your feet. Or if you’re insane you can do it the other way – the uphill way.
The canals are a particular gift, allowing you to run from Paddington to Stratford almost entirely on the water’s edge, up through Victoria Park and Hackney Wick. Or head out east from St. Katharine’s Dock along the river or West from St. Thomas’ Hospital and you can find empty paths of singing flatstones for miles, to Greenwich or Richmond and beyond. Or perhaps you’re an urban explorer, in which case laps of the Barbican can keep you both outside and covered from the pouring rain while weaving through pedestrian concrete landscapes and over high bridges above the roads. Alleys wiggle around Liverpool Street and Bank; dodge the lawyers and you can do laps through the Inns of Court from Chancery Lane to Blackfriars. Soho before the shutters are up has a quiet kind of magic; and even if you don’t know the more obscure wiggles, London is rich with quiet residential backstreets tucked just metres away from the belching main roads. Plan it right, and you can get from one neck of the woods to another while barely clipping a bus-belching street. Mapping out new routes to places, finding loops that I enjoy and calculating distances from here to there has become one of my great joys, and secretly, despite myself, running has started to blossom for me too. I’m already at 10k and really loving it… so maybe next year a half-marathon too? As a Hackney girl born and bred, the Hackney Half has always had my affection. Maybe time to really see where my running shoes (dubbed PoundyMcPoundy, why yes I do write novels) can take me.