Running in the Bristol Half Marathon on September 21 was a huge personal achievement – it was my first ever half marathon and came only nine months after I started running at all.
Following a decade at school where PE teachers routinely made me feel like a useless, uncoordinated, embarrassing lump that was letting the side down, I was quick to reject sport from my life.
But in January 2014, following a few years where I finally had to admit that age had caught up with me and I could no longer eat what I wanted without gaining weight, I decided I wanted to shift a few pounds. Unable to afford a gym membership, I decided to give the NHS Couch to 5k programme a go, and set myself the goal of becoming fit enough to run the Bristol 10k in May.
When May rolled around, I was stunned to realise I’d managed not only stick to the training plan but – much more shockingly – enjoy it. Between January and May, I had become a running bore. I read running magazines, sucked up running memoirs, browsed online for the best kind of running socks and, most tellingly, had booked myself in for a bunch of other 5k and 10k races.
The Bristol 10k was my first of that distance. I loved every single second of it: the atmosphere, the crowd support, the phenomenal feeling of having achieved something I never would have thought I was capable of. And, as unsporting as it might be, I also loved the fact that I was able to overtake a lot of other runners – take that, snotty school gym teachers.
Buoyed on, I ran more 10ks in the following months. My times slowly eked up, my fitness got stronger, the pounds continued to fall off, my mood generally stayed level. When life got in the way and I couldn’t run for a few days, I genuinely felt something was missing from my routine. And so, on a wave of impulse, I signed up to run the Bristol Half Marathon just four weeks before race day on September 21. That’s not quite as daft as it sounds because I’d already been training to do the Birmingham Great Run (another half marathon) on October 19, so I wasn’t going into it entirely half-cocked. But I was overcome with this stubborn feeling that I’d be missing something if I didn’t do my home city’s half marathon as my first 13.1 mile race.
Four weeks of panic and self-doubt set in. In my heart, I knew I hadn’t done the right amount of training. I had never run further than 9 miles so far. Three weeks before the race I was struck by the most hideous bout of norovirus that took me two weeks to get over. I was seriously considering pulling out of the race and having nightmares about the sweeper bus coming round to pick me up as punishment for not having got around the course before the roads were reopened. Worse… in the back of my head, I could see the pinched faces of my sour school PE teachers, laughing at what a sporting joke I still was. Who did I think I was to be able to run 13.1 miles?!
But I did run the half marathon, and I can safely say that the 24 hours preceding the starting gun were the most nervous I’ve been in several years. In my job, I can confidently stand up in front of 400 people and deliver a speech, I can go on live TV and face an interviewer’s interrogation… but those were challenges for my mind, and I seriously doubted whether my body was up to the task of running 13.1 miles before the 3.5 hour race cut-off.
What any runner (or probably any sports-person) will tell you is that running is more a mental challenge than a physical challenge. If you’ve done the training (and it’s questionable whether I’d done enough in this case), you know your body can last the course. But your mind will repeatedly tell you that you can’t… a little voice (whether your own, your former PE teacher, or whoever’s) will keep telling you how tired you are, how you can’t do it, how you’re useless. So you do a quick body inventory and realise, yes, your thighs ache a bit but it’s not too bad, and yes, that might be a blister developing on your toe but you can bear it for the last few miles, and wow, you’ve got this far without getting a stitch yet. Meaning that your body is doing just fine on it’s own, and it’s your mind that wants to trip you up.
But what I found on my first half marathon was that for the first time ever, that mean little voice didn’t appear. I was so wracked with nerves beforehand that I was forcing myself in the starting pens to try and visualise running over the finishing line as a positive image. I’d set myself a goal that I would be happy with (anything under 2 hours 30 mins). I took a lot of deep breaths and tried to block out all the other people nervously waiting around me. And once we were off, I tried to focus on the experience. This was the one and only time that I’d be running my first ever half marathon, and I should experience it while it was happening.
The run was tough, I’m not going to lie. But it was also enjoyable in a weird kind of way – the kind of way that making two of your toenails develop blood blisters and you at one point consider throwing up in public is enjoyable. The support from other runners and the crowd was phenomenal, and I found myself cheering other strangers on just as much as they were cheering me – a stranger to them – on.
I made it round in 2 hours 13 minutes in the end – a time I never would have thought possible 180 minutes previously. It certainly didn’t feel that long, even if my thighs felt like bricks by the end and I had a blister the size of a cherry on one toe. For the final 600m, when I could see the finish gantry, I was struggling to hold back tears of emotion, and after running strong over the finishing line I slowed to a walk alongside the others finishing at the same time and we all stumbled through to the race village, looking around at each other and mumbling in astonishment “We did it! We ran a half marathon!”
And that’s what I’ve kept saying to myself in absolute shock and disbelief ever since. I cannot believe that I of all people ran a half marathon. It seems so unlikely. And it seems even more unlikely that I enjoyed it… and that I have three more booked in over the next six months.
So to all those who were also ridiculed and bullied by joyless PE teachers at school, I say ‘Stuff them!’ Through running, I’ve discovered so much about myself. I’ve discovered that in a world where it’s hard to maintain control, where there’s too many gadgets vying for your attention, and where work is horribly stressful and you don’t earn enough money to live on… running is a means to take back some of that control. Running has helped me take control of my weight, my mental health and my time. You don’t need to run a 10k or a half marathon if you don’t want to, but going for a run in the fresh air is an excellent way to remember who you really are.