I was never a runner. I was a runner’s sister.
In school, my P.E. teacher commented how my older sister was a good runner so I must be too. She entered me into the longest races on sports day.
My parents both ran, in races, for fun. When my sister began running competitively and winning marathons, it was final. I wasn’t a runner. I knew this, because it felt as though I was surrounded by runners.
I didn’t bounce around the hall in lycra lacing up trainers and checking my watch. I didn’t have a drawer full of t-shirts with amusingly-named races printed on them. I didn’t know if ‘trail running’ was the same as ‘running off-road’. Actually. I still don’t.
And yet, two weeks before my 30th, I decided to take up running.
The Power of Expectations
Running has become a thing. Major newspapers having running sections, there are running documentaries on Netflix and leggings have become an entire subspecies of clothing.
Go outside at 7am and you’re bound to see brightly coloured runners bobbing along anywhere from inner city pavements to river valley footpaths.
For the most part, they look at ease.
So when I laced up my new running trainers, tied my hair back and set my iPod to start counting steps (with the accuracy of a two year old), I thought I’d be at ease too.
After all, it’s only running. It’s not like you have to learn something new.
I stopped after 500m and I’d been desperate to for at least 300 of those.
I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t a runner. I was healthy and fairly fit but I couldn’t run. I was out of breath before I even got out of sight of my house.
That first run totalled 3k and I walked intermittently for half of it. Frankly, it was awful. It took me by surprise because…well…everybody ran. How hard could it be?
Ignorance and Arrogance are Cosy Bedfellows
For some reason, I persevered. A large part of me knew that if I didn’t start running at that point in my life, I might never get around to it. I had the time, I had the physical ability, I had to try.
So I ran. Twice a week for three months and it never got any easier. I hated it at just 3k and had to walk every 700m or so.
That’s it. Not a runner. If I could be a runner then I’d be one already.
Something was stopping me from giving up though. When I awoke on a freezing January morning in 2019, I wanted to be outside. I wanted to run anyway, even though I was awful at it and it felt like I was dying. It gave me a mental space I couldn’t get any other way.
During those early months, I’d never stopped to question how I was running. I didn’t know the speed, because I had no way of tracking it.
As I stopped and started that morning in January, I got stuck on a narrow path behind two runners. Instead of feeling frustrated that I was being held up, I slowed down and ran along behind them.
And I kept running.
We ran along the path, over the bridge, down the next path and eventually back along towards my house. I didn’t stop once. These two women, utterly in the dark about my stealthy pace-matching, transformed my understanding of running.
I’d arrogantly assumed I knew how to run. Don’t you just…run? And my arrogance had lead me into ignorance. Because that’s what happens when you take a black and white view of things.
Barrier Down, No More Obstacles
It’s amazing how we let simple beliefs hold us back for months, years, perhaps even our whole lives.
I downloaded an app to keep track of my pace and experimented until I found a pace I could run a 5k at without stopping. It was just days after that transformation run.
As I’d believed I already knew what running meant – a.k.a. a 14 year old sprinting at sports day – I’d been essentially pelting along only to lose lung function three minutes in.
I’d been naively trying to hit 5k for months and suddenly not only could I run 3k without stopping, I could run 5k and feel considerably better than I ever had before.
It freed me up to run whenever I wanted to, to let my mind wander off, to watch the birds instead of repeat the mantra, this is awful, this is awful, over and over again.
With the agony of sprinting behind me, I watched other running-related tensions melt away.
I stopped believing that some people were just born runners. I stopped thinking that I couldn’t enter a Park Run until I could hit a certain time. I stopped rolling my eyes at evangelical runners. I stopped comparing myself, stopped thinking of myself as a failure.
Instead, I just ran.
Some runs were good, some were bad. Some I abandoned. Some I ran onwards past my house.
The expectations I’d had for running faded away. The pressure left. None of it mattered.
Every runner on the path became a friend. Smiles exchanged no matter if they wore an ironman t-shirt or one they’d pulled out that morning for their first ever run.
An Escape from Judgement
In our world of online noise, it can easily feel like we are not enough. We haven’t achieved enough. We don’t earn enough. The next person is better.
It’s exhausting. It creates this hamster wheel of, ‘when I have X, I’ll feel happy’.
It doesn’t work and deep down, we all know it.
This is how I felt when I started running too. I wasn’t a runner until I could do a certain time. I couldn’t be a runner until I learnt the lingo. If that person ran that fast, why can’t I? Why I am not good enough?
In the online world, there’s little solution. But in the running world?
Getting out into the natural world constantly was having an effect. It calmed my mind before the day ahead, gave me a foundation from which to go forth. The idea that running was in any way linked to other people’s achievements became insane.
My run was nothing to do with their run. My speed was nothing to do with theirs. There was no failure or success. There was just the morning air.
I fell in love with running when I stopped fighting it. When I stopped expecting it to be easier and accepted that it was a challenge I could take in my own, sweet time.
The expectations, the pressure – they’re not real. Slow down, head up, look around at the view.