It’s a running joke in our family how crap I am at sports. No, seriously, I’m not being self-deprecating. By the time Matt was five or six, he had begun to regard me with pitying condescension, and would refuse my offers to kick a ball or play cricket. My hand-eye coordination is non-existent, and I spent most of my school days huffing along behind the shrinking forms of my classmates as they raced away. I’ve come up with all sorts of excuses. I’m an intellectual (yeah right), not a physical person. I’d have been diagnosed as dyspraxic had I been born later, and would have had occupational therapy. I never crawled as a baby (I have no idea if this is true), so I lack some basic motor skills. As a result, I avoid any group physical activities like the plague – if you’re planning a game of rounders, I am not your girl – and any attempt I make to join in is met with derision by my family (Frisbee flies past my ear, I dive uselessly after it, family choruses “I didn’t crawl!”).
But then. Last November, my mother-in-law fell ill. She was diagnosed with severe heart failure, and there was nothing to be done about it. I spent a month travelling up to Wellington and Wolverhampton to visit her in a succession of cardiac wards, until she died in mid-December. In that month, I saw a lot of very sick people, and while many had conditions they could have done nothing to prevent, many too were dying of lifestyle. Smoking, obesity, inactivity. And I made a decision. I am 45 this year, and getting to a point in my life where many poor decisions become less easy to reverse. I’ve never smoked, but I have always been a little, or a lot, overweight. I have never, ever been fit and active. And right now, facing menopause and its associated delights, is pretty much my last chance to do something about it.
So in January, I began using an app called myfitnesspal.com to track what I ate, and the weight began to come off. I started walking every day to help shed the pounds. But by March, I knew I had to up my activity level, so I downloaded the Couch to 5k podcasts, a programme that takes you from zero fitness (ie slumped on the sofa), and transforms you into a lean, mean, running machine who can run five kilometres in nine weeks. Well, I thought it was a hilarious idea, and of course I knew I would never complete it. Do you have an idea how far five kilometres is? It’s more than three miles. It’s all the way from here to the Hendon Tesco (and if that means nothing to you, just trust me, it’s FAR).
But week by week, I tackled the new running challenges, and week by week, I managed to meet them. I ran in gale force winds on our holiday in Cornwall, I ran with sleet being flung in my face like handfuls of sand, I ran in the rain. There were some dodgy runs, some days I had to stop and walk, runs I had to repeat so I knew I could do them. But I kept going, and one sunny Saturday morning in April, I set out for my run, and 28 minutes later, rang my husband from Hendon “I couldn’t stop!” I said excitedly. “It felt so good, I just kept going and going. I forgot to turn back!” I had run, not effortlessly), but happily, for four and a half kilometres, so enchanted was I with the sunlight, the burgeoning blossom, and the fluffy green of the willow trees. And a week ago, I ‘graduated’ at the end of the nine-week Couch to 5k course. I can now easily run for 30 minutes. I can run a slow, non-stop five kilometres in 32 minutes and 30 seconds. It has changed my life.
That may sound like a big statement, but it has. It hasn’t only changed my life because I have lost more weight, or I’ve found muscles in my legs I didn’t know I had. It hasn’t only changed my life because I sleep better, concentrate better and experience a post-run euphoria that lasts for hours and hours. It’s changed my life because I have changed a lifelong perception of myself. I am not useless at sports, or physically unable. I can run. I am a runner. Not the fastest, not the strongest, but a runner. Someone who runs.
I recently treated myself to Alexandra Heminsley’s book Running Like a Girl. Heminsley was, like me, an ordinary woman who decided to give running a go. Like me, she knew nothing when she began. Unlike me, she has now run five marathons. It is, quite simply, one of the most inspiring books I’ve read in a very long time, and I believe, profoundly feminist. She says “I enjoyed having my body praised for what it could do rather than how it looked… It became – and remains – a delicious pleasure to stride up the left-hand side of the escalator in a Tube station, my breathing steady and the strength of my own legs powering me faster to wherever I wanted to be. I imagine people wondering how I’ve done it and the answer is simple: I decided to be able to.”
I can’t recommend this book highly enough to any woman (or man) who thinks that they couldn’t. You can. I did. I transformed myself from a computer-bound slob to a computer-bound slob who gets out four times a week and pounds along the pavement like a demented waddling hedgehog. A runner.
And the future? Well, no marathon plans yet (but never say never). However, I am running the Race for Life to raise money for Cancer Research in Regent’s Park on 1 June. My aim is to run a sub-thirty-minute five kilometres, and if I meet that goal, I’ll personally double any donations anyone else makes. So come on, sponsor me, the running joke. It’ll be worth a laugh.
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.