Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Things I have realised while running

I went for a run the other Saturday night. (I know, right?!) While everyone else in Amsterdam was busy eating and drinking, flirting, dancing and generally carousing, I eschewed a glass of wine, took off my make-up and put on a clingy turquoise running shirt. Then my friend, Lou, and I trekked out to the city's Olympic Stadium, and we prepared to run the Nike We Own the Night 10k. With several thousand other women, we stretched and warmed up in a spot of light drizzle, grimaced at the insanitary portaloos, and then lined up in our numbered pen ready for the off. We then stood around, swiftly cooling, as the dancers and DJ who had been motivating the pre-race warm up, frantically vamped to cover a problem at the starting line. But then, finally, sometime before 11pm, the first few runners set off. Almost 20 minutes later we followed them.


The first kilometre was slow going. Our batch of runners bundled itself out onto the roads and slowly we all settled into our individual strides - a sea of matching turquoise race shirts rolling through the city. We bunched up where the path narrowed and paces slowed, then redistributed ourselves across the road again as it widened. Women overtook and fell back, sneaking between or nipping around each other, while some simply held a single steady line. Cocooned in a fog of pounding music between my headphones, I too zigged and zagged. I thought a bit about running, and how much I was enjoying striding through the city; taking in little of the canals and cobbles, but acutely aware of the surrounding buzz of celebration and energy.

As we approached the third kilometre marker deep inside the Vondelpark, I noticed familiar turquoise race shirts coming towards our batch of runners - the race leaders were returning to the Stadium, well on their way to the finish. Some of them ran alone, others in small groups. One or two ran a distance apart with a designated pacer beside them. Once, as a casual (and formerly lazy) onlooker, I might have rolled my eyes and made disparaging comments about the sad people who spend their lesiure time - worse still, their Saturday nights - pounding roads and not out 'enjoying themselves'. But I was blown away by these women. Man, they were impressive. I so admired their training, their commitment and the sacrifices that they must have made to be able to get up that evening and race at that speed. I felt proud to be in their ranks...albeit a long way behind them.

I was impressed by the qualities of determination and focus of others at my end of the race too. Every woman who slowed to a walk but never stopped moving was as much a source of inspiration as those already sprinting for the finish line. All around me were dozens of solid, committed women, with looks of determination on their perspiring faces; faces which still raised a smile for the event photographers or the friends who ran beside them.
Beside me, well, usually just ahead of me, was a friend of my own. Lou and I had agreed to run together, to keep each other company, and to avoid losing one another in this strange city. But running with my friend also kept me true. She kept me moving, she kept my pace up; at a speed probably quicker than it would have been if left to my own (lazier) devices. Her presence made me stronger and more focussed, and my run more impressive. She forced me to up my game. With each longer stride and faster kilometre, I felt surprised and delighted.
As I ran faster I was reminded of something I had realised when I had been back home, training on the streets of North London: I am at my most honest when I run, and yet despite this I am also happy. With my hair scraped back off my make-up-free face, every spot and line is visible. You can see each bulge and bump beneath the unforgiving lycra I wear with the express purpose of making my run easier. But that is me. There is no hiding the truth or kidding anyone - especially myself - when I run. And once I've surrendered any embarrassment about my shiny red face and my sweaty shirt, I can think about how I feel when I run. I am motivated. I am taking care of myself. I am focussed and I will achieve what I set out to do. I am strong and energetic. I am capable and purposeful. I am not the person who sits still in an office, staring at a screen, feeling bored and a bit useless. I am not the person who feels overwhelmed and angry as voices are raised and criticism is hurled. I am someone I wanted to be long before I sat in that office; when I was fresh out of university, naive and inexperienced, but aiming high.

And sure, some days I go for a run and within a few hundred metres I feel tired and heavy, and I question why I dragged myself out of bed, or why I am running on twingeing knees with a history of injuries. Why am I not warm and comfortable, drinking wine, eating Oreos, spending time with friends and family, writing, cleaning the bathroom, or devising phenomenal solutions that will solve all of the world's ills? I give myself a mental slap, and I shake off those thoughts. I remind myself that I need to be on this run, to be exercising my mind as well as my body, and reminding myself of what I can do. I need to run to be able to do all of those things when I get home again, once I am showered and stretched, and free of my sweaty running gear.

In the horribly early hours of a new Sunday morning, Lou and I shivered back in the Olympic Stadium post-race, waiting to collect our belongings under a layer of rapidly cooling sweat. We then trekked back across town on aching feet, lamenting the mysterious reluctance of Dutch cab drivers to pick up fares, and I realised the race was truly over. Working towards it had given me the need to get up and run, again and again, over the past few months, so now what?

I got home to London, gave it a couple of days and then I went for a run again. I was slow, I would rather have been at home watching Game of Thrones, but I ran. And I remembered being part of that race, and I felt happy and strong again. And then came my second realisation: when you run to feel happy and capable, and you don't do it to run the fastest or the furthest, or to be toned and beautiful, the training is never over. You run just to be, and tomorrow is always a race day.

8 comments:

  1. Good on ya'!
    That's an impressive way to spend a Saturday evening!

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    1. Ah, thank you, Rashbre! Not something I'd do every week (waaay too lazy for that) but fun to do once in a while...

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  2. A wonderfully heartfelt post Flora, which I very much enjoyed reading. It's good to know what was going on inside your head whilst you were running! I would never have imagined myself running, along with thousands of other women, on a Saturday evening - it was a very empowering moment and I'm proud of us (and in awe of those women who were already at 7k when we hit Vondelpark). It takes a lot to get out there - keep it up and keep enjoying it X P.S. That walk home wasn't fun, but realising we'd missed the huge storm was hugely satisfying : )

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    1. Thank you, my dear! It was such fun to run it with you. Oh man, can you imagine how arriving home knackered AND soaked to the skin would have altered our feelings of it?! Phew! x

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  3. Run away, Flora, run away. I haven't participated in a race for a very, very long time. I admire you for doing it! As for what is going on in our heads, I think that you are right: running clears our minds. And it makes us feel alive too.

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    1. It's always so interesting to hear about the individual mind-clearing things that people do. For some it's running, for others walking, writing, baking, driving etc. Hope you're getting some time for brain-clearing amongst your ever-busy schedule!

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  4. I've been trying to get into running for a while now. I think I may try a bit harder now. This is a great post, thank you for sharing! You may also be interested in Haruki Murakami's 'What I Talk About When I Talk About Running' :).

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    1. I got into it by just taking it a lot more gently than I originally thought I should. I ran very very slowly just to sort out my breathing, then I started to pick up the pace until I could run a few kilometres without wanting to collapse at the end. Good luck with your perseverance!

      I've heard a lot about that book...I really must check it out; thanks for the reminder!

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