Seeing another article about the benefits of running may, understandably, feel grating. The things you read about running tend to be chirpy and formulaic, either spoken of with hammy reverence or the peppinessyou’d find on a smoothie bottle. Some writers have been able to avoid these tropes, but tales of transcending agonising cardio will almost always feel out of touch. These emotional stories may be nice, sure. But who actually finds them constructive?
Running has held a top podium status few other forms of exercise have managed to achieve. Despite its low barrier to entry, it’s uniquely loathed, with a near-universal belief that it is insufferable. Lifetimes have been wasted stopping and starting running, with most people unable to ever commit themselves to the consistent, unavoidable pain. Running is miserable, there’s no way around it. The people who do it are masochists.
Since March, I’ve become someone I’d never thought I’d be. I now run more days than I don’t. I own special shoes; I even use an expensive bubble bath for my muscles. I am slow, but I can run 7km without stopping. I’m thinking about doing a half-marathon.
I say all of this not to brag about my progress, but to be clear: I am now a runner. And yet I’ve experienced next to none of the things promised to me by writing about running. The magical endorphin rush, the feeling of empowerment, the promise of becoming an addict; all have seemed to evade me. Even my mental health is only marginally better. I read quotes from Mo Farah and stories from Bella Mackie, hoping that their responses to running could, through osmosis, eventually become my own, too. But nine months after downloading Couch To 5K, I’m still waiting for that legendary high. I still have not fallen in love with running.
For all of these reasons, I feel conflicted about championing it. Despite not feeling those promised effects, I do find myself coming back for more. I’m not naturally athletic and I’m not someone who has ever enjoyed feeling the burn. But I feel a draw to run, a draw that I don’t recognise in the mainstream running narrative.
Bar one run a week with my partner, I only ever run on my own. Previously it was in Scotland, where I spent lockdown, along paths that cut through empty, open fields. Now it’s in London parks, where I search for pockets of less trodden ground. I can’t look at my phone, I definitely can’t speak, and it’s impossible to do anything but the task I’ve assigned myself. Sometimes I listen to podcasts; other times I listen to nothing. But regardless of what I’m doing, I am forced into my own head.
I am not someone who usually searches for time on my own. I’m what would be traditionally described as an extrovert, and I often yearn for the company of others. This has always been a part of my personality – even when walking the dog I try to ring a friend. But for these 40-minute runs, I have to accept that the only person I’m going to be with is me.
More than learning to pace myself and to slow down (this is the real secret to running: start with a glorified walk and build up from there), running has forced me to accept who I am. My body can only do so much, my thoughts can only be what they are. And once I adopted that self-tolerance, every extraneous part of me started to dissolve. My predisposition to overthinking is replaced by extreme clarity.
When I run, it’s suddenly painfully obvious what I think and what I want. What was I so preoccupied by? Why did I worry so much? Anxieties about how I am perceived are suddenly gone – be it general fears over what others think of me, or the more immediate embarrassment of how red-faced I am. This clarity is far from religious: instead of seeming revelatory, it feels so fundamental and matter of fact. It’s as though I have always operated with this complete consciousness. Somehow, drenched and puffing, I am calm and content.
These moments are never epiphanies. There is no “a-ha” moment; ease simply sets in. Instead of feeling self-conscious, I laugh at how I must look, trying to keep a two-metre distance from others on busy streets. The rough edges of my psyche are sanded off.
There are some unavoidable truths as to why I run. I run because it’s cheap, because I want to be healthy, and probably because of an unhealthy desire to lose weight. But running doesn’t have to be the “jocky” exploit or emotional awakening the narrative tells us. It can simply be a time to be entirely with ourselves; a moment taken to embrace who we are and what we are capable of.
This article appears in the 15 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Race for the vaccine