18 March 2012

Running like the wind (or rather, a gentle breeze)

It's funny because it's true.
It started with the most unlikely of sources of inspiration. Most people who read The Guardian or watch Channel 4 will be familiar with Charlie Brooker. Charlie is a scathingly funny and acerbic wit who cuts through the absurdity of television and current affairs with a sarcastic sneer. His columns and television appearances are always a thing of joy. What Charlie isn't, though, is someone you would turn to for inspiration when you want to get fit.

Last November, Charlie wrote a column entitled I have been murdered and replaced with a suspicious facsimile. In running shoes. He writes:

For years, I thought I knew vaguely who I was, and the kind of things I liked. And one thing I'd definitely class myself as is "un-sporty". I've never had a gym membership and have always been profoundly suspicious of anyone who willingly does anything more physically demanding than wiping their arse. So imagine my shock, in recent weeks, to find myself running around a local park. Not once, not while being chased in a waking nightmare, but voluntarily and often.

He goes on to explain how, with the help of an app for his smartphone, he's started to take up running. And enjoying it. Hating himself for enjoying it, because it goes against type, but enjoying it.

I'd been feeling unhealthy and unfit, but unwilling to part yet again with cash for a gym membership I'd use enthusiastically for a month or two before dropping away (and still paying for membership). Something in Brooker's piece chimed with me. If someone like him could take up running and enjoy it, why not give it a go?

I mentioned this to a friend a week or so later. She's a force of nature, and in the face of her enthusiasm I had no choice but to download the app that Brooker had used (Get Running). A few days later, I donned my ancient trainers, a pair of sweatpants and a fleece, and headed out.

And so it began...
Running 1 minute at a time - easy, right? Not so much. I came home from that run feeling like my lungs had been ripped from my chest and scraped raw with a cheese grater before being shoved back in upside-down. I looked ahead to that final run – 30 minutes of running without stopping – and the goal may as well have been "fly to the moon" for how realistic it seemed.

But a funny thing happened. My stubborn streak kicked in. Goddammit, I wasn't going to stop. And so I started working my way through the programme.

There were good days. There were also bad days. Days when it felt like I was running through treacle. Days when the wind was blowing horizontal rain and sleet into my face. Days when the temperature dropped below zero and I worried my extremities would fall off. But my stubborn streak carried me through. I started so I was determined to finish.

I got stuck on some runs. I hit plateaus. My smoking habit, which snaked back into my life after I'd stopped last summer, didn't help. My creaking knees didn't help. Each week a new muscle group would protest at the unaccustomed exercise.

The genius of the Couch to 5k programme, though, is that not only do you start slowly and build up (thus reducing the risk of injury), you can really measure how you're progressing. Each new goal rose up in front of me, a daunting new Everest of running 5 minutes straight, then 8 minutes, then 20 minutes. And even if it took a while, I'd conquer each mountain. The fleece and sweats were replaced with running leggings and a proper running top. The ancient trainers were replaced with a pair of overengineered, garish, bouncy pair of "running shoes". Instead of feeling embarrassed when I crossed the path of another runner, gradually I began to exchange comradely smiles and nods.

Towards the end of the programme, my smoke-damaged lungs cried for mercy and I managed to give up the weed again. I'd stopped before and found it utter hell; this time was much easier. Alarmingly so. And I think it's because my lungs immediately began to reward me on the runs with deeper breaths and less suffering.

The new year came. I knew I wouldn't meet my original goal of running 30 minutes by my January birthday (based on the 9 week duration of the programme) because of the repeated weeks, but I carried on, with a new year resolution of completing a sponsored 5k run.

I signed up for the British Heart Foundation Regent's Park Jog and I was spurred on through the cold winter mornings to carry on running by the support and sponsorship friends and family gave me.

Oh happy day!
On the day finally came that I never quite believed would happen but stubbornly refused to give up on: the final run in Get Running. Thirty minutes of running. Thirty minutes.  It took longer than 9 weeks to get there, but by God, I did it. Stubborness pays.

On March 11th I arrived at Regent's Park, excited but nervous, and, alongside the friend who'd originally pushed me into downloading the app, I ran. I ran for about 40 minutes, and I ran 5 kilometres. I had my doubts at times if I'd make it, especially when I got to the 4th kilometre, but once again my stubborn streak – and the knowledge that I had sponsors who'd donated money to me in good faith and support – pushed me to the finish line, bursting with pride. OK, my time was nothing remarkable but at the advanced age of 40mumblecough"something" I'd done something I'd never thought I was capable of doing.

With my unsporty nature, my creaking knees and torn cartilage, my 20-a-day habit…it never occurred to me that I would ever take up running. It never occurred to me that I would want to, let alone that I could. My astonishment couldn't be any greater than Brooker's. And now, god help me, I've downloaded an app called "Bridge to 10k". I don't even know who I am anymore.

Thanks Charlie.

P.S. My page to collect donations on behalf of The British Foundation for the 5k jog is open until 11th June 2012. Please contact me if you would like the address.

P.P.S. The "What I feel like when I run" image is a meme I've seen all over the internet so can't credit the source. If you know the source, give me a shout.


  1. Trish, you are an inspiration!! I tried this and gave up- finding better things to do like picking my toenails. Anyways, I'm ready to try again after reading this. We're all so proud of you!! xo

    1. Thanks Kerry! And thank you for your sponsorship, too. :) xx