There’s a very funny picture that my Dad took of me crossing the finish line at River School sports day, circa 1981. It was when I still had a long way to go before growing into my adult teeth and gangly limbs. The overall image is reminiscent of an over-excited giraffe fleeing a hungry lion; all rolling eyes and overbite. Because of the unfeasible length of my legs it was assumed throughout my schooldays that I would be ‘good at running’ and while I might have been an enthusiastic participant back then, I completely lacked the focussed mentality to actually compete, enjoying instead the exhilarating ride. The medal cabinet remained bare.
School finished, and never again did I feel the least inclination to ‘go for a run’, not even at university, and especially not after the children came along.
Then, one ill-fated Village Olympics (there have been a few) I volunteered for the Parent’s Race (I might have had Pimms). Equipped with nothing on my feet but a slouchy pair of Rocket-Dog suede boots (the name erroneously implying speed and dynamism) I leapt off the imagined starting blocks and bolted across the grassy paddock with an unusual determination to WIN. Within two strides I had spectacularly torn both my hamstrings to shreds and was carted off on a stretcher, high on morphine while my children ran alongside asking for more money to spend at the cake stall.
Readers of my blog will know that since then, I have endeavored to maintain some tenuous hold on personal physical fitness to stave off complete atrophy. There has been a succession of yoga and Pilates classes, an extremely hazardous high-octane Zumba class, and more recently a fervent walking habit that has resulted in one midnight hike up Snowdon and a 28 mile Mighty Hike along the Northumberland coast, both for MacMillan Cancer Care. The medal cabinet is positively groaning now!
This year was to see me take up a second Mighty Hike challenge, this time with a good friend along the Thames Path, but a certain global disaster put the kybosh on that, and I was left high and dry with no goal on the horizon beyond the interminable queue for Aldi.
Now, I must stress that hitherto in adulthood, (apart from thinking I was Usain Bolt at the Village Olympics), I have only ever dabbled, very tentatively, with the notion of ‘doing a little bit of running’. I might have occasionally broken into a down-hill trot on a training walk, imagining I could pass for a plus size Sweaty Betty model in my compression leggings, but this always ended promptly with agonising shin-splints and a fear of spontaneous combustion. This, I am helpfully informed, by my Sandurst PT aficionado husband, is because I am unfit.
But all the best women I know seem to be proficient in this peculiar, publicly jiggly pastime, which for me has appealed only slightly more than the prospect of having my toenails pulled out with red hot pliers. So I cannot fathom what possessed me to download the Fitness22 Couch to 5K app on my iphone and set off, with Rose, one midsummer morning, at the start of eight long weeks teaching my legs to do things I never knew they were capable of.
I guess I saw it as a good Covid-busting mother-daughter activity to keep us from becoming vegetative Netflix addicts during lockdown. I even went as far as a socially distant visit to Sports Direct, kitting us both out in snazzy running shoes, bra tops and leggings-with phone pockets, (yes they’re a thing!). But, at the end of the Week 1- Day 2 session, my running partner fell by the wayside, almost literally, complaining of a whole syndrome of running-related maladies including ‘hurting lungs’ blocked nose, stitches (on both sides) and a general feeling of utter misery and apathy.
I on the other hand, motivated by the encouraging words of my fit friends, (and increasingly dreading old age) decided to push on through, and before long my thrice weekly training runs had become, in my head, absolutely non-negotiable. Compulsory. I was suddenly competing with myself and determined not to lose face. The sessions started very gradually, lasting initially for 25 minutes, including a 5 minute walking warm-up to start and finish, and a maximum of 6 minutes running time broken down into (barely) manageable one minute intervals with walking. What really appealed to my inner schoolgirl was that Californian cheerleader voice of the app that occasionally threw me a “Hey, awesome runner!” or a “You’re doin’ great!” or, my favourite; “Keep goin’! You’re WORTH it!” To which I might have occasionally offered a breathless, and very British, “Thank you” as I plodded on.
In week 4, when I was in Kent visiting my folks, I was able to complete three hot and grueling evening runs round and round the great circle of Dover Athletics Ground, proudly earning my ‘Halfway to 5K’ badge. The exploding head sensation had begun to diminish significantly and some days my upper body almost seemed to be carried along as if in a sedan chair while my legs just got on with it. Back home my usual route took me from my front door along Church Lane to a neighbouring village where the loop round a back lane eventually provided a convenient turning circle that brought me facing home to complete the 5 kilometre distance.
Weeks 6 and 7 were pretty tough as the training curve steepened like a flowchart of West Yorkshire’s second-spike Covid cases, and once or twice I might have exclaimed, “You gotta be fucking KIDDING me?!” (I hope nice old Farmer Stringer, who is oft found tending his ‘beasts’ behind these hedgerows, didn’t overhear some of my darker mutterings and Tourette’s shrieks that have helped spur me on.) I even laughed out loud once when, having paused the workout to chat briefly with a friend on the way out of the village, I forgot to re-start it, and 18 minutes of running later, obediently waiting for the app to tell me when to stop, I realized it was still paused and I had run much further than I was meant to. It’s frightening how easily led I am, under the influence of a training app. It would never occur to me to disobey it.
The use of wireless headphones, along with a carefully curated playlist of motivational/angry/pacy/dance songs has been another invaluable tool in overcoming and distracting me from the terrifying sound of my lungs, huffing like bellows and the heavy pounding of my feet, boobs and buttocks with every step. Underworld’s anthemic Born Slippy prompts me to run like a drug-fuelled Renton in Trainspotting, and Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain pushes me up and over the little hill with the grim determination of Michael Schumacher.
Week 7 marked a real turning point in the process. I was invited, after posting a sweaty selfie and progress report on Instagram, to join a Facebook group called The Badass Mother Runners. Suddenly I was part of a bonafide community of actual serious running, marathon-types who wear bandannas, and Garmins, compare Brookes shoe fittings and exchange nutrition advice and everything! Their valuable words of friendly encouragement kept me on track for the final furlong.
On one of my latest runs a driver stopped to ask me directions to Bridlington, and to my utter delight I noticed that I could talk comfortably without sounding like an asthmatic Hunger Games contestant.
So, this Wednesday morning, taking deep calming breaths, I casually laced up my Karrimors, topped up my Salomon Hydrapak with a Vimto ice pop from the freezer, and set off on the final day of my challenge, barely hoping to complete it. As I got into a steady and comfortable pace I made a mental note to not make too much of it, to try and be modest about the tiny potential victory ahead and just be cool. On the excellent advice of some of my fellow Badass Mother Runners, I also found the confidence, just beyond the halfway mark, and sufficiently out of viewing range of the respectable residents of Burnby village, to remove my vest, and run in my sports bra for maximum coolth. It was most liberating, and I tried not to imagine the appalled expression on Farmer Stringer’s face if he caught sight of my flabby midriff in motion, but I motored on.
Eight weeks ago, running non-stop for 35 minutes was completely out of the question, 35 seconds was a stretch. But, as the church tower came into sight at the edge of the village, I think I had a religious epiphany and started to think that, with divine help, I just might do it. Then the running-in-my-bra bit started to feel like a terrible mistake, as the church rolled past and I was still going. I begged The Cheerleader to tell me it was all over so that I didn’t have to run past all my neighbours with everything on show. Eventually those beautiful words, ‘slow down and walk’ rang in my ears, I had done it, I had run 5k without stopping! And yes, I did let out a little sob of glee before putting my vest back on.
All the endorphins, cortisol, Vimto and adrenaline that was sloshing about in my bloodstream as I threw open the front door meant that my earlier plans to be cool and modest went clean out of the window as I bellowed “I DID IT!!” My startled little family was, at that moment, gathered in the kitchen making bacon butties and I like to think that, as I presented myself for congratulations they looked upon my sweat-soaked throbbing middle-aged person with renewed respect and admiration. (I think I saw a teenage side-eye exchange, but couldn’t be sure.)
It was indeed a very unusual thing for me to have achieved and I think I can now count myself as one badass mother. I’m a runner! My legs really are the most remarkable appendages, I love them so much I want to give them a big hug. My husband generously conceded that there was no way he could run for 35 minutes, and allowed me to bask in a momentary glow of smugness brighter than burning magnesium. He also said that if you can run for 30 minutes, you can run for an hour.
My knees, thighs, hips and feet are wondering if they have a sadistic new owner, and I think, like me, they’re a bit scared. They know she’s already musing over the idea of 10k. It’s going to hurt, but hey ho, it seems, weirdly, to make sense…