If you’re not a runner and either don’t want to or can’t, please don’t turn away. This is a story about discovering I could do more than I thought.
Until January this year, running was something I never wanted to do, never thought I could or why I should. I hate being hot and sweaty, have always wondered why people like my husband, sister, various brothers-in-law and nieces would put themselves through something that looked so unpleasant. I have had osteo-arthritis in my knees (and other joints) since I was about ten, although it wasn’t diagnosed as that until every other option had been suggested and discarded and after three surgeries. Four years ago, after an MRI scan revealed more damage than my consultant had expected from normal x-rays, I was told I’d need a knee replacement. So, no, running was never on the cards. Running is bad for your knees, isn’t it? So goes the myth.
But about four years ago I got a treadmill and standing desk for my office, because I was very aware that being sedentary was a terrible idea. I walked on average 15,000 steps a day and my knee symptoms vanished. (My cholesterol and blood pressure reduced, too.)
Walking (albeit quite slowly) for 15,000 steps a day is wonderful and we keep being told that walking is perfect exercise. But I know it’s not enough. It doesn’t raise my heart rate and I knew that was bad. My resting heart-rate, according to my Fitbit, tended to be 80-90, and that’s too high.
I started doing some free NHS workouts in the evenings but found them very boring and I knew there was a high risk I’d not continue. It was on that site that I came across Couch to 5k, the very well-known programme that claims to take total non-runners from the couch to running 5k in 9 weeks.
Something triggered my brain. I want to do this. Maybe I could do this.
That weekend, my husband tricked me into going with him to a very scary running warehouse to buy shoes. Scary because it was full of actual runners buying shoes and knowing what they were doing. I had to be filmed RUNNING. I don’t (didn’t) run! People would watch me; they’d know I was an imposter, a middle-aged woman with wobbly knees, wearing jeans and not equipped for running. I had to RUN outside in the carpark, to see what the shoes felt like. I’d no idea what they were supposed to feel like! Shoes?
But apparently, according to the filming of my feet while running, I have a “perfect foot action” which means I can have a very wide choice of shoes! I’ll take the pink ones, thanks. Just get me out of here.
Next morning, I set off with my pink shoes and the voice of Sarah Millican, my chosen Couch to 5k “trainer” in my ears. Actually, I make that sound easy. It’s not easy setting off for a run when you don’t know what you need. Water? Where does the phone go? How will my ear-phones stay in? Do I need a tissue? Gloves? (It was January.) House key? Set the Fitbit to “run” at the same time as starting the Couch to 5k App. What if someone sees me? But eventually, I set off.
Really easy. The programme involves alternate walking and running, with mostly walking. I was embarrassed to walk when passing neighbours I knew (and in a small village that’s nearly everyone) so I ran more than I was supposed to. And I certainly ran when I heard a car coming, just in case that was another neighbour.
That was week 1, run 1. (There are three each week.) Too easy.
Week 2: Super easy.
Week 3: Super easy – probably running about four minutes at a time – but thinking there was no way I’d be able to run for half an hour without stopping in only six weeks. That’s what 5k generally is: running for about half an hour. (Actually, as it turned out, 5k on the hills around me, and at my pace, is about 33 minutes.)
Week 4: Less than super easy but very doable. Quite enjoying this, except for the very steep hill. I’d learnt a couple of excellent tips from Sarah by now: 1. Imagine there’s someone on the other side of a hedge, just seeing the top of your head: they shouldn’t be able to tell if you’re running or walking. (This isn’t a real running technique, just a way of using less energy.) 2. If it feels too hard, run more slowly. (Quite difficult as I was already running so slowly that I thought if I ran any more slowly I might fall over. 3. Breathe in a rhythm. My rhythm goes to the words, “Don’t stop now, Don’t stop now, Don’t stop now.”
Week 5: Everyone says this is the tough week. Not easy at all, but totally doable. I am thinking there’s a distinct possibility I might be able to do this. Especially with Sarah Millican, even though I know that when she says she’s with me, she’s not: she’s lying on a couch eating crisps.
Week 6: Yeah yeah. Thanks to Sarah telling me to run more slowly. By now, I’ve got excellent running kit, including the very important Running Gloves, as it’s damn cold as we come towards the end of February.
Week 7: I’m running for 20 mins without stopping so I can obviously run for 30. And I’m glad it’s so cold because it means I don’t get too hot, a feeling I still hate.
Week 8: The Beast from the East hasn’t stopped me. And I haven’t fallen in the snow. As I’m trapped in my village, carwise, it’s great to be able to get out. I’m thinking if necessary I could walk/run to the nearest town to get food.
Week 9: Done! Despite the fact that I have to run past people cutting trees and one of them recognises me. I gasp that I’m about to be completing my first 5k and they cheer me as I pass on my way back. I feel totally fantastic. Week 9 involves three 5k runs and now I really can call myself a runner.
That was the easy part. The difficult part is keeping going, because I’m still not one of those people who loves running. I still hate being hot and sweaty – though, as I get fitter, I’m less hot and sweaty… However, I do love what running gives me. And it’s what running gives me that keeps me running and gives me reason to continue running 5k three times a week forever, if possible.
Here’s what running gives me:
- The knowledge that I’m a runner, that I’ve done something I thought I couldn’t do.
- The knowledge that I’m fitter, as evidenced by the fact that I can now run 5k or more, three times a week, and by the fact that my resting heart rate is typically 60-70.
- Every running day, the over-riding knowledge that “I went for a run this morning – whatever else goes wrong, I did that.”
- A noticeable high for the rest of the day.
- Great views – and an excuse to stop and look at them occasionally!
- A great feeling as I run downhill for the last ten minutes of every run. (Because my village is in a valley, it’s a hard run out and an easy one back!)
- I’ve lost weight – 10-12lbs since I reached the 5k mark six months ago.
I run on my own, always. I have no desire to do a park run. What I like about it is that it takes half an hour plus a few minutes to get ready. I don’t have to go anywhere or wait for anyone or go at someone else’s speed or be watched or judged. It’s me against the weather, the hill, my legs, myself. I am not trying to run further or faster or better, just do it.
Don’t you need a challenge, people ask? I have two challenges.
One challenge is just to keep running 5k three times a week. I don’t care how fast it is, just that I do it.
The other challenge, each time, is to get into the mental zone where I forget I’m running. I find this really hard to do but it’s what makes the whole difference between the run being an ordeal to get through and the run being something I forget I’m doing. I’ve learnt that if I think about running, I don’t do so well or enjoy it at all: I’m thinking, “I don’t like this” or “I’m too hot” or “I don’t think I’ll get up that hill” or “When I do get up that hill, I’ll walk for a bit.”
But if I can make myself think about something else – something I’m writing, a speech, an idea – I can forget I’m running. And that’s when I genuinely love running. That’s the elusive goal each time.
The rest of the time I just love when I’ve finished running.
Which makes it remarkably like writing: if I can get into the zone and forget I’m writing, I love it; if I have to think about how hard writing is, I really only enjoy it when it’s over.
This means that running ticks another well-being box: “engagement”. I’ll talk about that next time.
If you think you’d like to try running, I thoroughly recommend Couch to 5k. It’s free and it works.
Oh, and I’ve started cycling, too. Yep, padded lycra shorts! And beautiful turquoise bike. Cycling is very different: more expensive, more sociable, more time-consuming, and you cover more ground. And there’s usually a pub or cake at the end of it.
I actually prefer running. I like the one step at a time aspect of it. It stops me rushing about. It’s centring, satisfying, solid.