My attempt at running disintegrates into a war of words with Madonna

Christ, it hurts.

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Don’t laugh at me, but I’m trying to learn how to run. I blame that recent BBC programme, Mind Over Marathon, where a group of people, all living with mental health issues, trained to run the London Marathon.

It was good TV, warm and engaging, all of the participants showing impressive degrees of mental and physical courage – battling their anxiety and their knees, bonding with each other and with the viewer. And it sparked in me a little flicker of curiosity. I wonder if I could run? I’ve always shied away from it, but what if? What if?

Cautious advice-heeder that I am in middle age, I go to the NHS website and, sure enough, it offers encouragement to the terrified via an app called Couch to 5K. This teaches you how to start running in short bursts, egged on by the celebrity voice of your choice. I download the app, choose Jo Whiley, and brace myself.

Week one. Monday. A minute of running, followed by 90 seconds walking, for a total of 20 minutes. Christ, it hurts.

Wednesday. Run 2. Realise halfway through that I have made a complete balls-up of these first two runs by setting out in the hilly part of north London where I live, the gradient nearly killing me. I’ve also learned a lesson about gravity, and how strong is the pull of the Earth. A lightness of step is advised, yet I seem to hit the ground with an unexpected thud. I picture a glass of water somewhere, trembling. Also realise I need music.

Friday. I have a new plan, which involves taking a short bus ride to the nearest flat length of road and running up and down it. I’ve also made a Madonna playlist, aiming for a tone of can-do, dance-tempo positivity. First track up is “Vogue”, which begins with her slightly accusatory “What are you looking at?”, reminding me that when I told the kids I’d been running, the youngest replied, “What, in public? Where people can see you?” Am now convinced that everyone is looking at me.

Week two. Monday. Still with the bus ride and the playlist. It’s quite empowering, and I’m playacting at being Madonna-like, although after a while I wonder if she’s actually taunting me.

“Quicker than a ray of light,” she sings in my ear.

“Heavier than a sack of potatoes,” I mutter.

“Don’t stop me now, don’t need to catch my breath.”

Actually, you know what, Madge . . . hah . . . gimme a sec . . . hah . . . just need to . . .

“And when the lights go down and there’s no one left/
I can go on and on and on.”

I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

Wednesday. Meanwhile Jo Whiley is being encouraging: “Try to say to yourself, ‘I LOVE RUNNING!’” Banal, but it actually helps. After every 90 seconds of running she interrupts with, “OK, now you can slow down and walk for two minutes.” I go back to walking, not entirely sure that that means I’m slowing down. Her other tip is to distract yourself by looking around. I look up at the trees, all springy and bursting, and think of the lovely Dennis Potter quote about “the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be”, and it starts to rain, a fine drizzle mingling with the sweat, and I’m momentarily enjoying myself.

Saturday. I’ve finished run three and I’m walking back home, when a woman coming in the other direction in full running gear and headphones stops me. She gets out her phone and shows me that the last song she’d been listening to, as she did a 5K run, was “Come Hell or High Water”, from a mid-Eighties Everything But the Girl album. It’s a kind of torchy ballad, so I ask her whether or not it was helpful. “Oh yes,” she says, “it reminded me of being at college and singing along with it, tears streaming down my face.”

Well, whatever gets you through, I suppose.

Week three. Monday. My knee hurts. I mean really hurts. I’m in the studio today, standing up to do lead vocals, and am distracted by a throbbing just below the kneecap.

Wednesday. Resting. Have made an appointment with the physio. You know when you laughed at me for taking up running? Mmm. 

Next week: Kate Mossman

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article appears in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies