… and I don’t mean in some metaphorical sense. It’s not an image for being efficient, or moving through existence effortlessly and with ease. Nope. It’s actual running. I know. You couldn’t be more surprised than I am.

When I was at boarding school we had to do these things called Standards, which basically meant that everyone with the requisite complement of limbs had to “do” every athletics event—track, field and Cross Country—over the summer term. Every year. Worse: you had to be measured against a set of Standards of time, distance, how puce you went, and so on; and you had to do all this with the rest of the school spectating and jeering you on (Freudian Typo™). The school only turned co-ed the year I went, so I was the only girl in my class —top-set-swot, me, for everything except English (!)—and one of only a handful in the year group as a whole. I first went when I was 14. And I had big boobs from quite a young age. I’ll just add that I was, one year, beaten in the 100 metres by someone who was in the most debilitated stage of glandular fever, and I’ll leave it at that. You can imagine the rest.

So, though there has been a lot of money spent on therapy since then (no shit), I never suspected I would, indeed could, try running. When I worked in Waterstone’s I’d read the blurb on running books with a sort of fascinated incomprehension, as one reading something entirely foreign. I’d heard talk of the Runners’ High. I’d even spoken to people I knew were sensible, likeable human beings who rhapsodised about the joys of running. Still, it was not a thing I ever connected with me.

But since I started the morning walk (see thing 2) I’ve been aware of my level of fitness slowly increasing. Susie bought me a Fitbit for my birthday and—apart from troubles with the tech (some spurious heart-rate data, as you see!) and the development of some slightly obsessive self-monitoring behaviours—there has been a healthy satisfaction in seeing myself becoming more physically competent. (It does help to have a low baseline.) Then, one weekend last autumn when I was visiting my mum, I had a go on her treadmill. (Again, not a metaphor: rain or shine, she gets daily exercise, even if it is while watching ‘Homes Under The Hammer’.) Walking on the treadmill was ok, if a bit dull. I pressed a few buttons, and it went faster, and that was still ok. Then I made it faster still. And then, as I scrolled through the Auto-Recognised-Exercise Menu on the Fitbit and went past the RUN icon, up popped the thought, Gosh, I wonder if I can run? I edged the speed up further and found myself lumbering over the breakpoint into a run. Bloody hell. It was actually happening. I had to call my sister to come and witness this miracle. I was so very, very full of delight and wonder that I could do it.

Desiderata, though: some serious sports bra-age and some proper running shoes. The underwear could be taken care of online, but it took me a while to gather confidence to go to the (excellent) running shop in town. There are a lot of ridiculously fit people living round here who think nothing of—quite literally—running up mountains; and I had paranoid fantasies about lithe, fleece-clad assistants breaking into uncontrollable laughter and calling others from the back room to witness this roundish, fiftyish woman who thought she might be able to run… Of course, it was nothing like that. The shop assistant was superb: knowledgeable, professional, thorough and, above all, showing no evidence of surprise or doubt. I had a go on the gait-analysis machine, and together we looked at shot-from-behind footage of me running which revealed that I over-pronate (who knew?). I can see that this was useful, but I do question the decision to play the live-action shots of you running on a screen in front of you. Who needs to watch their own arse in motion? Not well thought-through, I felt.

However. NHS Couch to Five K podcasts downloaded, I worked through the weeks with the perky Laura, who was mostly encouraging but occasionally irritating—as when she announced the first non-stop 28-minute run and told me “don’t be scared”, at which point I roared back at her, somewhat wild-eyed, I’ll feel scared if I fucking well want to, sweetheart. As the weeks passed and I could run for longer, I did feel a great sense of satisfaction. But I wasn’t really enjoying it as a thing in itself: it was more enjoying that I could do it, rather than the doing of it. Getting hot isn’t good, and sometimes the running mixes on YouTube let me down, as when I chose “upbeat 80s mix” and found myself with a good half hour of Bon Jovi, Guns ‘n’ Roses and sundry other curly-permed thrashers who did little to distract me from the sweating and heavy breathing (because of course once you’re running you can’t stop to fart about with looking for alternative ents). All in all, I knew I wasn’t going to want to run inside forever. But I didn’t know how to find the confidence to run outside—partly because I live at the top of a bloody great hill, and partly because of it being so, well, outside. And public.

Enter my friend Sarah who, over a coffee one day, she told me she’d taken up running “again”. Clearly experienced, but also not intimidating. She agreed to take me on my maiden outdoor run, and we chose an after-dark time for the first go (so that the jeering crowds lining the streets wouldn’t have such a good view, obviously). She lives a bit further down The Big Hill, and had worked out a variety of mostly-flat routes. Thus one Tuesday evening I found myself walking down to hers, then walking out, with her, and then breaking into a run in public for the first time in over 30 years. I’m running, mate, I’m running! I kept saying. And I was. And it was a revelation.

The feeling of freedom is extraordinary. I don’t know if it’s simply the fact that I can run, albeit very slowly and not very far; or the pleasing anonymity of slipping through the night streets which, though familiar, are somehow rendered new and different by the running. It could be the companionableness of doing it with a friend, or the delicious feeling of cold air on an effort-warmed body, or the simple fact of moving that body through space in a new and marginally-speedier way. There’s definitely something in there about reminding myself of those 80s tampax ads where laughing, dazzlingly-healthy, white-trousered women bound joyfully, wholesomely through parks, clearly enjoying the best of friendships and the most rewarding of all possible lives… oh the power of aspirational advertising. I guess it’s probably something of all of those things, and possibly others, too, which I haven’t thought through yet. But it all adds up to a tremendous feeling of aliveness,* of inhabiting my body—of running being another way to feel the joy and wonder of being incarnate.

I’d like, eventually, to be able to do a Park Run, which will undoubtedly be a Thing when I get to it. But for the moment, this is enough. It turns out that this is a process-oriented thing for me, not a product: I’m running, but I don’t need to get anywhere. Slow and breathless as I am, I’m finding such joy in what my body and I can do. I absolutely love it.

*For a wonderful, wonder-ful celebration of being fully alive, read ‘I Praise My Destroyer’, here.

4 comments on “thing 16: ‘the deep breath burning’: learning to run”

  1. You never cease to surprise.

    There’s a brilliant ParkRun at Fell Foot at the bottom of Windermere. Stunning views. OK I’ve only done it once, and that was last year, and I’m still waiting for a dry Saturday morning to go again this year (there are fields involved and running through wet mud is not my idea of fun). And yes, I beat all the octogenarians and all the people doing the course pushing pushchairs, but only just.

    Lovely piece, as usual.

    • Wet mud, no, not so much… But that’s the park run I’m aiming for so perhaps we could beat our elders together?

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