'But you once said you hated people who went running!' was the surprised response from the Accidental Chum to whom I mentioned I'd started running. And he's right. When I first moved to London and had the time and disposable income to be a committed Bikram yoga bunny I used to scorn my fellow citizens who chose instead to get their work out by pounding the pavements, jogging and running through the city. They looked so serious, so miserable, as if they were not getting any pleasure out of their exercise at all. But now I have joined their serried, wicking-material-clad ranks, I understand those are not faces of unhappiness, but focus.
When I first started running last summer, I surprised myself how quickly I developed the very same focus I had seen on the faces of the seasoned runners I had once scoffed at. Firstly I had to learn to run properly though. How hard could it be, I had wondered. Surely it was just one foot in front of the other at a reasonably quick pace? Yet that approach had not worked well for me when I'd attempted running in the past. I could manage only about 20 minutes without feeling as if I were about to expire. And that rather put me off doing it again any time soon. 'You know you're still supposed to be able to breathe when you run, right?' counseled a wise proper runner with whom I shared my running struggles. 'Just start really slowly, and make sure you can still breathe.' And so I did. I reset my bad running habits and re-learnt how to run.
On an early morning run the city is all mine. The deserted streets are my athletics track, built hundreds of years ago by someone, for me to run on this morning. I do magnanimously condescend to share them with the dog walkers, the early morning newspaper people, the delivery drivers, and the local tramps with such a dedication to their alcoholism that they are busily tucking into the Special Brew as I jog past their benches before 9 in the morning. 'No no no! No running, no marathons today!' screeched one such fellow as I ran towards him on a morning not so long ago. I dodge push-carts, skateboards and dog leashes, slaloming through North London. Occasional clouds of fat, black flies rise up around my ankles, like tiny, unsavoury insect cheer-leaders, as my feet slap the pavement, disturbing them from the rubbish-filled bin bags they swarm around. Each stride, each step, each footfall stamps my presence onto the city. I was here; see the imprint of my trainers.
Weekday lunchtimes, Regents Park resembles an open air gym, its paths and grassy fields covered in office workers in search of a little mid-day endorphin hit. At the beginning of the year, in chilly January, the Park experiences a distinct upswing in popularity thanks to thousands of new year resolutions. But by March or April the numbers flatten out, and you get to recognise fellow runners, running the same patterns around the paths, at the same time of day, regardless of sunshine or rain. And here in the park, pounding a familiar route, anticipating each bend and bridge up ahead, being able to hear my ipod over my now pretty well under control breathing, I stopped fixating on the fact that I was running. I just ran. And my brain thought about other things, rather than simply screaming 'OhmygodIcan'tbreatheI'vegottostop' over and over again inside my head. And then I realised I could run for more than twenty minutes without collapsing on a nearby bench. No longer did I have to grudgingly drag myself out of the house to go for a run, in the name of attaining something vaguely resembling basic fitness. I learnt how to run, and I learnt how to love it.