“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional” – Haruki Murakami
My memories of running are of slogging round a muddy school woodland and athletics track on a cold, drizzly afternoon once a week, at the back of a group of some 50 girls almost all of whom seemed to be faster and more enthusiastic than I was. All I wished was to be absolutely anywhere else on Earth. I dreaded it. It was uncomfortable, uninteresting and I couldn’t be bothered. And worst of all, I had absolutely no desire to win the race. Needless to say I tried all manner of tactics to get out of it, including some clever scheduling of piano lessons. And then, at the first available opportunity to do so legitimately, I gave it up altogether.
Yet some 20 years later here I sit with a race number pinned to my shirt about to go and run my second half marathon of the year. It’s not a charity mission. I haven’t been cajoled or shamed into running it. And no, I’m not on some desperate bid to lose weight. I signed up of my own volition and, what’s more, I can’t wait to get to the start line. In fact, the grumpiest, most gloomy moments of this year have occurred during the few months in which I was unable to run owing to injury.
After years of declaring that I wouldn’t even run for the bus, that running is bad for you (a statement I would evidence with endless examples of my runner friends’ injuries), and that other forms of exercise are far more fun, I now find myself not just eating, but positively guzzling my words.
So what on Earth happened?
I moved to Denmark. The land of runners. At any time, day or night, in snow, hail, gale-force winds or torrential rain (and believe me, all of those weather types are pretty common in these parts), come hell or high water if you go out into the streets of Copenhagen you will find at least 10 people out running. And on a lovely Sunday morning in spring you’ll find swarms of them. It’s clearly extremely contagious.
I decided to give it a go.
To my astonishment it transpired that running wasn’t so bad after all. Especially by the sea and (surely not?) through muddy woodland. It was still uncomfortable. Painful even – any major physical exertion is bound to be – but I did not loathe it. Nor did I want to be elsewhere. In fact, on occasion, I have been known to be one of those mad people out running in hail and gale-force winds. I soon realised that it wasn’t a race against anyone else, but rather a challenge of mind, body and spirit for me and me alone. It has taught me a multitude of lessons, not least how great an influence mental attitude has on what the body can or cannot achieve. The body does what the mind believes. Well, to a point, at least.
The hardest and most surprising lesson of all was how much I missed running when I was no longer able to do it. Just as things were beginning to go well, injury struck. Plantar fasciitis (severe inflammation and splitting of the plantar fascia, the membrane of the ligament that runs along the sole of the foot from the heel to to the toes) may be a common running injury, but treating it remains an enigma. In fact there is so much conflicting information about how to overcome it that reading about it just about drove me round the twist. And there can surely be nothing more frustrating for a runner – for I have to admit that, against my principles and better judgement, this is what I have become – than hearing well-meaning friends suggest you “take up swimming”, seeking recovery advice from a doctor who simply tells you to “find another hobby”, or congratulating fellow runners on a new personal best when you’re out of action and feeling miserable. If I said I was unprepared for the psychological effects of injury I could win an award for understatement.
Happily, six months later I am back up and… well, running. My pre-injury personal records are a hazy memory, far out of reach. It can be disheartening at times: what happened to all that progress? But my first injury has been an education, and it surely won’t be the last. So I will stand on the start line of today’s half marathon with an enormous, grateful smile on my face because, while I may not be fast and it will certainly be painful, I will, once again, be running.