Running Away From My Problems

DSC00104I just finished my 58th Parkrun. 25:25. Another personal best. It feels like a miracle after waking up with tired legs and pizza belly. It feels like a miracle for a lot of reasons. It’s now been a year and a half since I first dusted off my old non-brand trainers (unloved even in their best days) and decided to go for a run one autumn morning.

The truth is I took up running in an effort to combat depression.

It was October 2013. Not my worst month, certainly not my best. My mum had suggested running, or physical activity of any kind, countless times in the months prior. Problem was, I didn’t want to leave the house. I really didn’t like leaving the house. Then my counsellor asked me about my fitness; she asked how much exercise did I do during the week? None. The truthful answer was none. I was perfectly happy doing absolutely no exercise, resentfully resisting the suggestion and throwing away some typically facetious reply about how the only marathon I would be doing was the binge-watching kind. So perfectly happy was I.

“You should aim to do 20 minutes of exercise twice a week,” she told me. “You should do something that makes you out of breath.”

Living in a house full of keen runners, running seemed the obvious option. It didn’t require the commitment of a gym membership or buying new kit. I simply laced up my trainers and started running. And then I walked because, damn, running is really hard. But then I ran again…

The first thing that hit me was how satisfying it is to be physically challenged. I can now personally attest to the whole “runner’s high” thing. Yes, endorphins make you happy. We know this because we all watched Legally Blonde. The unavoidable discomfort that had put me off sport for years is now masked by a far greater, almost euphoric feeling of accomplishment. Is there anything better than that moment when you’re four kilometres down in a 5k and ‘Shake It Off’ comes on your playlist and you find just a little more fuel in the tank? It’s as addictive as everyone claims. Not the ‘Shake It Off’ moment specifically, but The Buzz. I’m running to chase that feeling. It is an exact opposite of the feeling I know I’m running away from so I know I’m going in the right direction.

If I’m ever thinking, “I don’t want to run today”, I think about how dropping out might affect my rate of improvement and hastily dismiss the thought. I’ve never known motivation like it. I’m not a serious athlete. I’m not looking to become a serious athlete. But I want to be better than I was last week. So, I go out to feel good. Those aching calf muscles afterwards only serve as a gentle reminder of how great I did. Besides, if I wake up early for a run, go out and push myself, it’s a free pass for the rest of the day. A day when I’ve run is a day when I’ve achieved and, therefore, I can relaaaaax. Imagine Pixar’s Inside Out is the inside of my mind: Sadness takes a nap while Joy (voiced, of course, by Amy Poehler) eagerly repeats affirmations as I unwind with some feminist literature.

Then there’s my long lost friend Vitamin D. Sunlight hitting my skin, warming its colour to a few shades up from its natural vampiric white. I feel like I went years living inside, only venturing out when I had to, for food or education or if a fire alarm went off. I’m a writer. I sit and I write. I’m more relaxed in front of a Word document than anywhere else. Running is a break from that, offering balance to my natural lifestyle. It takes me so many places, exploring my home county one foot in front of the other. I live in Bournemouth. I have the seafront, from Boscombe Pier to Sandbanks, and the New Forest, and the numerous athletics tracks that host club training sessions. Is there a place any more perfect to run? I doubt it. I have my running shoes to thank for showing me my world. I’d never really noticed how beautiful it all is – even if I do try to ignore my mum when she points out all the geese and rainbows and flowers and MUM, I CAN’T TALK RIGHT NOW, I’M TOTALLY OUT OF BREATH. WE’LL TALK LATER.

Getting out more, I’m meeting people all the time – happy, active people. I think I might even be one of them now. At the end of our track sessions, I don’t see a single person looking glum. The stand is always abuzz with proud smiles, people asking, “How was your session?” and “Are you racing at the weekend?”

Running might seem like a lonely sport; it’s not strictly a team sport, after all, but I think if you find the right running club, it does feel like a team. It’s not that there aren’t runs where I want to stick my headphones in my ears and drown everything else out with nondescript dance music. There are plenty and they’re necessary. But going out and having people cheer you on is an entirely separate, valuable experience. Making friends is always a plus, right? We all appreciate nice people supporting us.

And finally, of course, there’s the reason most people want to start exercising: that old “getting in shape” chestnut. While my main motivation for exercising was mental health, I have to admit that the idea of slimming down was an added incentive. The fact that I hated my body was never a big issue but it simmered beneath the surface, perfectly in line with the many millions of women who share that experience and have their vulnerability fed by marketing and the media. I would conceal whatever figure I had underneath baggy grey-tone tops that hung off me, hoping never to draw any attention. Funny thing is, my figure hasn’t really changed, only the way I see it has. I train four or five times a week but my body looks about the same. It’s probably tighter and firmer, but the same size, same shape. Running has merely given me an appreciation of what my body is capable of. The legs I always resented for being too chunky can carry me for miles and miles. My body is strong. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says about it, my body is so great, it can run far away from anyone who says otherwise. I feel oddly powerful, like I could lead the people into battle or catch kids who are trespassing on my land (I have no land). So, now I wear colours and I wear shorts. Sometimes even a cheeky crop top. I don’t care. My body is healthy. I’m happy.

People often ask me, “Why now? What made you take up running?” I don’t know what to tell them. I don’t think they understand the weight of the question. “The desperate need to feel better,” doesn’t seem like the appropriate response, but it’s the truth. And it worked.

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7 Comments

  1. The desperate need to feel better is a beautiful answer, and it’s real. Loved your post!

    Reply
  2. Ian Kennedy

     /  August 26, 2015

    This is moving and inspiring Jess. I kinda second-guessed this, but seeing it written it down is just beautiful.

    Reply
  3. Maria

     /  August 31, 2015

    Back home late last night and having just eaten a large pizza I was determined to complete my first run inspired by your amazing words. I told you I would and I was not going to let you down! Fluorescent jacket on and Andy on the bike behind me with a very helpful head torch the deed was done!
    I hurt a little today but feel a huge sense of achievement. Thank you for being such a talented writer Jess and motivating me to get back to running. Happy Running!

    Reply
    • Amazing! Well done for sticking to your word and going out. I’m honoured that it was my words that inspired you; that’s wonderful. Thanks for your kind words too. It’s so nice to hear that this prompted you to go out for a run.

      Reply
  4. Judev

     /  October 4, 2016

    Good on you! It s that first step that is the hardest but doesn’t it feel good whilst you are there and even more so, after!?

    Reply
  5. Bobbi

     /  October 4, 2016

    My daughter – a runner herself – posted a link to this on Facebook, and I’m so glad – I can’t run, I’m too old and full of arthritis – but I’m going out for a walk right NOW! – instead of promising myself I’ll do it tomorrow.

    Thank you so much!

    Reply

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