Can We Talk About Running? By Laura
He did this several times a week for a couple of weeks and then I saw the change – he wasn’t huffing and puffing quite as much. He was smiling when he got back. He told me he’d gotten a good few minutes beyond where he normally could get to without stopping to walk. He was on to something. So one cold, dark evening after work, I joined him. I put on some old jogging bottoms, a hoodie and the only trainers I had – my red Converse – and hit the mean streets (of our village). I didn’t get far. The cold air hit my lungs and made them scream and the sweat froze on my face. It was as far from joyful as you could get. But I kept going out with him.
I soon realised that running solved the problem of winter dog-walks: run with the dog and get it over with. So I started going out twice a day – before and after work. It quickly became less painful and I’d get annoyed when Lottie insisted on stopping to sniff something because it interrupted my stride. I invested in a pair of trainers (cheap Karrimor ones that probably weren’t intended for running) and some sportswear from TK Max. The weather gradually improved and my runs gradually got longer. I downloaded a running app to track my runs and enjoyed going over my stats, being able to see the improvement. I started taking my trainers when we went away for the weekend.
And then I found Parkrun. Runkeeper (my trusty tracker of choice) tells me I did my first Parkrun on 23 May, 2015. I was nervous about going. Everyone would be faster than me. It would be just like cross-country running at school. I’d have to suffer the humiliation of coming last. Maybe there would be patronising clapping. But I went anyway. And do you know what? It was none of these things. It was glorious. Parkrun (if you haven’t heard of it) is a charity that organises weekly, timed community 5k runs all over the world. It was originally set up in 2004 in Teddington (UK) by a handful of people who believed that community running could change the world. And they were right. Parkrun now operates in 22 countries. It embodies everything that I’ve come to love about running (and runners). It’s free. There’s kit if you want to buy it (obviously). It’s for everyone – parents with running buggies, people with dogs attached to their belt, young, old, every body shape under the sun. It’s staffed by volunteers who clap and encourage you, especially on the final 100m to the finishing line. Other runners encourage you if they see you struggling. And most importantly: nobody comes last (because there’s always a tail-walker). It’s a wonderful, joyous way to start your weekend, and normally goes hand in hand with a drink at the park café afterwards. Due to Covid-19, Parkrun isn’t operating at the moment, but I can’t wait to get back to it when all this weirdness has evaporated.
After that first Parkrun I was officially hooked. This was something I could be part of. I belonged. These were my people. It stunned me that they were, but there was no getting away from it. These lycra-clad (sometimes fancy-dress clad) people who got up to run on Christmas Day (avec hangover) were my people now.
Running made me feel good. It helped exorcise the demons. It helped me feel strong and in control of my body. I finally admitted (to myself) that I was a runner. A slow one, but a runner nevertheless.
When we relocated to the UAE in August 2015 (where there are sadly no Parkruns at the moment), I took to the gym and focused my energy on training for my first 10k race, which I ran on 20 November. Coming over the finishing line that day, you’d have thought I’d done an ultra-marathon. I was so chuffed. I didn’t get a fast time (1:06:44 if you’re wondering) but I’d done it nevertheless. That’s one of the things I love about running – for a competitive person like me, I only get to be competitive with myself. My times are mine alone and I don’t compare myself to others. Plenty of people are much faster than me but I’m not jealous of what they can do. I’m impressed, because I know just how much effort and discipline it takes to run hard for a sustained period.
Over the last 5 years, I’ve done a number of organised races, both in the UAE and UK, and try to do them as often as time allows. Having a race to train for gives me a sense of purpose and a sense of achievement when I’ve done it. Running in 2020 has taken on a whole new meaning for many thanks to Covid-19 and so many countries being locked down for endless weeks. More and more people are discovering the benefits of running and I couldn’t be more delighted for them. Someone commented recently to me (with a certain degree of cynicism and eye-rolling) that the number of so-called runners had increased exponentially during lockdown. For that person, these people are frauds. Joy-riders (or joy-runners, if you will), cluttering up the pavements. Fakesters who will stop running the minute restrictions are eased. I just don’t see it that way. At such a time of unprecedented stress and restriction, it seems perfectly natural to me that people might consider running for the first time. I don’t think these people were/are frauds. They’re people casting around trying to find ways to feel in control of something, to move their body, to get rid of the stress, to feel better. Power to them. For some, it might be the start of a lifelong habit. For others, it’ll last as long as they feel the need.
Running with friends has been another unexpected joy. I started running with two friends in the months after I’d run the London Marathon in 2018. I’d never really run with anyone, except for Phil when I’d first started, but even that hadn’t lasted long. Running, for me, was a solitary activity. A chance to tune-out and listen to cheesy music. I’d done almost all of training for the marathon entirely on my own, getting up before sunrise and pounding the pavements, enjoying the early-morning chill in the air and the smell of the grass verges being watered. I loved it that way. Remember: I’d started running when my head was a total mess. Running had helped me find some much-needed quiet. I never shared that time with anyone. If anything, I selfishly defended it.
So when two friends asked if they could come running with me, I had mixed feelings. But, I’d just finished a gruelling 6 month training programme that had seen me run further than I ever thought was possible. I was feeling a bit flat and direction-less. I needed to switch things up a bit. So I agreed. And I am so, so glad that I did. We run more slowly together than we do on our own, but that’s because we don’t stop talking and running whilst talking is Hard Work. We put the world to rights. We talk about our kids. Our worries. Our stresses. Our frustrations. We celebrate and encourage each other. Our sessions are basically free therapy. I wouldn’t miss these runs for the world.
Even weirder (for me) has been the joy of running with virtual friends. I’ve already tried to describe the running community – the unwavering support and cheerleading. The camaraderie. So it was, again, somewhat unexpected when I discovered a virtual running group who offered this sort of community, albeit from a distance.
I am a Badass Mother Runner.
I discovered the Badass group on Facebook when I got pregnant with Sasha in March/April 2019. I didn’t run during my first pregnancy. I felt so sick for the first 16 weeks and then when it finally lifted, I tried again but my balance was totally off. So I just did a lot of walking with the dog instead. I’d hoped to be able to run for some of my second pregnancy, so spent some time early-on reading about what I could and couldn’t do. And that’s when I came across the Badass Mother Runners. Reading their posts kept me sane during the never-ending second pregnancy when I couldn’t run – initially I felt far too sick, then I felt off-balance again and then because the baby’s head was engaged from 29 weeks it felt like she was about to fall out all day long – not optimal for running. I wished I’d known about the group when I was postpartum with Marianne. It would’ve helped me come to terms with the changes in my body more quickly and also to know that these changes were completely normal, rather than worrying or resenting.
These women in my phone are my people. They celebrate, commiserate and encourage me. They give me advice when my trainers hurt. We like kit and wear it proudly. We like bling. We read books about running. Have I met any of these women? No. Does it matter? Not a jot. Because we’re driven by the same things and I absolutely love it. I’ve noticed that when some members don’t post for a few days and then ‘reappear’ after a break, other members check they’re ok. Their absence has been noted. It’s wonderful and humbling and heart-warming. It’s not the only virtual running community, but it’s mine and I’m grateful for them.
It seems like stating the obvious to say that having children has irrevocably changed my body. I didn’t really listen when friends told me that my body would change. It went straight over my head. Then, in the weeks after I gave birth, I remembered what they’d said and understood. Pregnancy and birth (both times) significantly weakened me. Second time around, it was easier to come to terms with because I knew roughly what to expect. But first time around? Hell, that was a shock. I didn’t recognise my body at all. It was squishy and wobbly and flaccid. It leaked. I didn’t want this body. I wanted the one I’d had before I’d got pregnant. The one that was strong and could run 10k with no difficulty. This one had trouble sitting up without help.
So once again, running became an opportunity to rediscover myself, but this time there was an added incentive: when I was running, I wasn’t having to deal with a baby demanding things of me. I loved my daughter, but motherhood was much, much harder than I’d anticipated and I needed regular breaks. Running gave me something to focus on that wasn’t to do with her. It was just me and my headphones, pounding the streets again. It felt liberating to be on my own, even if it was for 20 minutes. When I tell people that I ran the London Marathon in 2018, they’re often surprised. ‘How did you do it?’ The honest answer is this: sometimes, a mother will train for and run a marathon just to get a bit of peace and quiet. True story.
Running regularly, no matter how slowly, has made me a better mother. I am more patient when I’ve been for a run. I am less liable to sidestep into shouty-mum territory, even when I’m tired. I’m more fun. I am a better person when I’ve been for a run. No doubt about it. It still amazes me that this thing I discovered at my lowest ebb, when I would have tried anything if I thought it would help, just happened to be the right thing at the right time. So, if you’re reading this and wondering if running might be your bag, my advice would be to give it a try. Download the Couch to 5k app and see where it takes you.