The internet is full of inspiring memes about people taking up new hobbies and learning to knit robots during lockdown. It is also awash with motivational stories of running, and runners photographed against a sunset background with their faces lit in a celestial smile of joy. If you’re that person: good on you! I want to be like that, so much.
I am not like that. And I suspect most people aren’t. I’ve been running three times a week, give or take, for thirteen months. Sometimes it’s been great. Sometimes it’s sucked. But I figure, in the spirit of being a human rather than a model, an athlete or an idol, I’d talk about some of the ways – good and bad – it’s been going, including these last few lockdown weeks.
Running During Covid
The first week of Covid was bizarrely – creepily – incredible. Deserted streets; quiet roads. The whole of central London shut down and I felt like an extra from a zombie movie, speeding down routes I’d never normally go near. It was as if every day was 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning. I could hear birdsong and see the horizon; the air smelt different, the breeze clean. The light off the Thames that first week was vibrant blue, the usually choppy waters unnaturally still as traffic ceased.
Since then, it’s got much less magical. For a start, I avoid parks. They’re full of people desperate to get a bit of greenery in their lives – which is really fair. I want some greenery in my life so much – but I find it’s hard enough moving one foot in front of the other; doing it while keeping respectful distance at speed is a calculation that makes everything harder. So I avoid it, and try to stick to anti-social hours and deserted inner city routes. Whenever I see people I can’t dodge on a narrow pavement, I will seek to cross over or, if the road is quiet enough, run in the road itself – again, something I have only been able to do during lockdown. Sometimes I’m overtaken by speedy dickhead runners whose only objective is their run and their pace, rather than leaving room for others. I am suffused with dislike for these individuals. They are the problem.
My legs are confused by the fact that I’m not also walking miles every day, as was my pre-pandemic habit. For the first million years of lockdown I adhered strictly to the ‘one bit of exercise a day’ rule. On days I didn’t run, I’d take a stroll – but it’s hard to cover meaningful distances when you’re trying to avoid humans and the parks are closed and you’re not gonna take public transport and there’s no where you actually have to be. Your life becomes a curtailed loop, centred around the flat.
Now lockdown is easing perhaps a bit sort of but not really hard to tell. Thank you UK government for your clarity and incidentally, your hypocrisy. However given that guidelines are so flipping vague and there are still lives to protect, I try to limit going out to maybe a run and if I absolutely have to, a trip to the local shop. But I aim for staying home as much as I can, and so my legs are still very confused. It also makes working out routes for a long run tricky. In the past I’ve felt comfortable setting a goal, picking a direction and going for it, in the confidence that if worst comes to worst I can get a bus back. New swathes of the city have opened up with a cry of “let’s see what’s that way!” There’s no longer any wiggle room for catching a bus back, though at least, as the weather warms us, I can limp home on foot, whimpering should I mis-calculate the route, or my stamina.
What do you even want, winter?
I am very grateful that it’s not winter. Walking home after a run if I mis-calculate? Flipping impossible in winter, because I can’t carry enough warm clothes to change into in the world.
The key, apparently, when every part of your skin crawls at the mere notion of stepping outside, is layering. I haven’t cracked it. I’ve tried every combination. Hat/no hat, gloves/multiple gloves/no gloves/fingerless gloves/fingerless gloves with fingered gloves/hand warmers, sleeves/no sleeves/detachable sleeves, coat/no coat/bodywarmer/zip jumper/no jumper/layered thin jumpers, shorts over trousers/just trousers/many socks/winter socks/layered trousers.
… what I’m saying is – I’m British. I love to talk about the weather. But I am flipping freezing when I start a run, then boiling within five minutes, then freezing if I stop for more than twenty seconds. Or my ears are cold but my core in boiling or my feet are hot but my fingers are blue or the cold air just hurts to goddamn breathe. And don’t even get me started on how many storms we had at the end of 2019. Every other weekend was Ciara or Sienna a Kiera, rocking up to ruin your day.
There’s an often-quoted saying that’s attributed to Scandinavians – “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” I would like to amend this hypothesis. “There is bad clothing for bad weather. Sometimes there is bad weather too.”
I started running with the NHS Couch to 5km program. Fun fact: when I started you trained to the voice of Laura or nothing. I loved Laura. She was a sensible grown-up telling you that it was ok for things to be tough. Every run began with, “Hi, I’m Laura,” and did I shout back “Hello Laura!” through the privacy of my headphones? Did I well yes maybe….
Couch to 5km was great. Crucially, it taught me to pace myself and not to be an idiot and risk injury by pushing too fast or too hard. There are innumerable apps and podcasts out there. For somewhat random, poorly-thought out reasons I ended up with Nike Running Club. It’s a buggy app, but it also has a huge collection of guided runs. They are cheesy, highly American, and every time they tell me that I’m an athlete and I’m making the best version of myself, I feel bile in my throat. But. In fairness. They also tell me to pace myself. They tell me to be smart, and give genuinely useful tips – and more useful distraction – when out and about. It also comes with a feature to generate structured, months-long training plans for races or getting fitter or stuff. Again, it’s pretty buggy and not great, but it does at least force me to sometimes do interval training, which is the absolute worst.
During lockdown I’ve used them a little less, as I’ve found the quiet of the city to be so strangely enthralling. But now that lockdown is cracking at the seams, I am gently re-kindling my love of guided runs, to make the focus more about the run and less about the sense of weirdness on the streets.
What the hell do you eat before a run?
I like running in the morning. I find it easier to get it over and done with, and on gig days – remember gigs? – I had an average call time of 2 p.m. – 11.30 p.m.. However. I still haven’t mastered what the hell you’re meant to eat before a run. Granola hit my stomach like a concrete block. Toast and peanut butter was pretty great for an hour, and then wore off hard. A bit of fruit was fine for a short run, but sometimes passed straight through and out the other side, so I’d end up staggering back to the flat with no thought in my mind except the toilet and regret. In the end I settled on oats, but how much time to leave between eating and running? Too little and I get indigestion. Too much and it feels like the maximum moment of awesomeness has passed. There’s a whole thing about get up – eat – run – which doesn’t account for thirty minutes between eating and running where you sorta sit there feeling your will to leave the flat evaporate. Also running advice is full of pictures of avocados and chia seeds served lovingly with a balsamic vinegar reduction that you just whipped up at 5 a.m., and I dunno about you, but that’s not really a thing I got any space in my life for, without sacrificing something something else like, oooh, say… running? What even are chia seeds?
Running With A Friend
I miss my running buddy. We are polar opposites in every way. I’m 5’11. She’s 4’11. I like long distances at an easy lollop. She could short produce bursts of speed that left me staggering behind her wheezing. I loathe running in winter. She despises all hints of warmth from essentially mid-March onwards. The only thing we really have in common is terrible hayfever. Running with her was great. Running with her encouraged me to run more, to try new things. She made me do hills, for goodness’ sake. Some actual honest hills. But mostly, I miss the company. I miss having cake after. I miss that connection. Running with a friend is great – not for training, but for humans, just being together, running. Throughout Covid I’ve talked with lots of mates via phone and video, and that’s been lovely. But the experience of something shared, whether that’s a walk, a meal, a run or anything at all, is a thing that I continue to deeply miss as the months tick by.
Apparently runners should cross-train. I used to swim. Remember swimming pools? Those were the days. Alas, the summer passes and my swimming costume remains untouched as the pandemic continues. So I do yoga, and sometimes – occasionally – workouts from apps and videos which I find boring but at least mildly efficient. There’s a lot of stuff talked about cross-training, and I do respect it. But I mostly respect those scholars and sages who say that the best exercise you can do, is the exercise you will do. That sounds like the single most common sense bit of advice I’ve ever read, and in an attempt to find someone, anyone, who’ll tell me that push-ups are stupid, I feel like I’ve read it all.
I’m Not A Man, Who’d Have Thunk
It is a sad scientific fact that men gain muscle mass more easily than women. Boooooooo. If your running buddy is a bloke – and the people I was gonna do the Hackney Half with are all male, and all wanted faster times than me – then as a woman, you gotta set your own pace that works for you. In the “pure will” vs. “capacity to put on muscle mass” equation, my pure will is mighty indeed.
Are expensive but important. People who talk about running as being ‘free’ tend to skim over that, or how easy it is to sink cash into performance tops or clingy shorts or whatever. However! There are some shops where people will very nicely test your gait, give you some pairs to try on, and then write down last year’s model that you can go and find online for half the price of this year’s version. Particular shout out to the Runner’s Need at Canary Wharf for being extra friendly and helpful in this. My current pair is heading from 400km and will be dead before running shops re-open, so screw it, I’m gonna buy the same again, if they’re still in stock. Alas, being a woman with enormous yeti feet, I’m only allowed to choose between too colours – baby pink or fuchsia. And I choose fuchsia.
I’ve never had a running injury. This is possibly because I am absurdly careful about monitoring my body, and never running on something that feels wrong. What I have had is the endless cascading migration of aches and pains. Sometimes it’s shin splints. Ok – I do calf raises while brushing my teeth and the shin splints go away. Then my thighs hurt like buggery, so I do lots of stretches and in time, that eases up too. Then a random muscle starts shrieking in my bum or hip, and by the time I’ve sorted that, my shins are complaining again. It’s like chasing some feral bloody pain squirrel – yes, that is the image that leaps to mind – around your own body, that stops long enough to trick you into thinking you’re gonna catch it – only for the wretched thing to dart away to a new bit at the last possible moment, chittering madly.
Meanwhile, I’m also doing some yoga, and it’s like running is locked in a perpetual battle against downward facing dog to see who’s gonna win the war for my calves. Will they lock up into a muscular wall of runner steel, resulting in great form but leaving me unable to touch my toes ever again? Or will they finally release into a fluent, flexible form of grace and suppleness, so I can stick my toes up my nose because.. I mean… reasons? … but never quite get past a 10km? Watch this space.
A bit like that bit at the end of yoga where you get to lie on your back feeling chilled, I am 100% here for recovery. Again, there seems to be a huge amount of reading you can do about ice baths and compression socks and more chia seeds – so many seeds! – but basically, an enforced time where you stop and heal is great. And if you want to turn it into a conscious thing, a deliberate pause where you actively go, “I am gonna respect my body and allow myself a chance to chill” well, at this stressful time in particular, I am totally here for it.
I Am Enough
Thirteen months in, I am not a fast runner. I didn’t take up running to win any races. I want to be able to do a half marathon, in my own time, for my own reasons. I want to get into a habit of health, I want to challenge myself without punishing myself, and I enjoy how running makes me feel, sometimes when I do it, and always after it’d done.
But for the longest time – and still occasionally now – when speedy people overtake me, I feel a slight stab of disappointment. I am working my arse off, my legs aching and my mind one long cry of ‘ugggggh’ – and someone just zooms by, making it look easy.
I know that it’s almost certainly not easy, for anyone. But that’s not even the point. What I do is enough. What you do is enough. To everyone pounding the pavement who clearly thinks that this sucks, who thinks the idea of 5km is a daft goal inhabited entirely by sexy models laughing at us – you are the awesome.
I don’t intend to write much about running on this blog, ‘cos frankly (as you can see) I don’t have much to say. But in all my reading around running, in an attempt to find some magic bullet to make it easier and me instantly better without, you know, having to run all the time, I don’t always see much written from the point of view of someone who’s a bit meh. Who has other shit going on in their lives, but sorta likes running on the side and isn’t sure if that’s ok.
To you, weary jogger on the side of the road, I wave my sweaty hand.
We’re ok, and we are enough.