Going The Distance

14th October 2016

What started out as a running joke became a way of life for Heather Harris – who explains how the teenager who avoided exercise became an unlikely adult marathon runner...

Running is the simplest but most satisfying sport. Putting one foot in front of the other, that’s all. It’s the easiest sport in the world – and believe me, I should know.

Sprint back 35 years or so and I was the classic sedentary teenager. The most I lifted was a bottle of Vimto; the most I ran was… well, actually I never broke out of a fast walk for the first 20 years of my life.

At school the pinnacle of my sporting prowess was the speed I could forge my Mum’s signature in my letter to the games teacher, feigning yet another mystery rash/funeral/lost kit.

Even when I married a runner I would stay at home with a bacon sandwich while he sped around Tooting Bec Common. Waste of effort, I thought. Far better spending the time in bed with the Sunday papers.
I can’t hit a tennis ball; I can’t ski; I definitely can’t throw or kick anything and my hand-eye coordination is frankly uncoordinated.

But I’ve now run 18 marathons, about 100 half marathons and 50 10ks, not to mention spent more on training shoes and peanut butter than Mo and Paula put together.
It’s all my twins’ fault. They were born at 24 weeks, and – in an emotional rush of blood to the head – I told the nurses at Watford General that if they survived until the age of ten (at the time this seemed unlikely) I would run the London Marathon to raise money for Bliss, the premature baby charity.

A decade passed in a haze of nappies, hospital appointments and the, frankly surprising, birth of another child – and then in 2006 the phone rang. “So Mrs Harris… we’ve made the posters, how’s the training going?”

And that was the start of it. My first run was around the block in a pair of Green Flash plimsolls, a Led Zeppelin tour date t-shirt and my husband’s polyester running shorts. I walked most of it, came home and celebrated with a bacon sandwich – 26.2 miles seemed as achievable as a trip to Jupiter.

So I joined a Running Club. And that’s how I discovered the best thing about long distance running – it’s not the calories burned or the adrenaline rush but the fact that you can talk at the same time!
With my fellow beginners, we jogged our way around the highways and byways of the Hertfordshire countryside discussing the pros and cons of Hugh Grant versus Colin Firth, Spandau verses Duran and what impact the worldwide web would have on our daily lives.

And, as we chatted the miles away, our cardiovascular capacity improved along with our hamstrings. Soon I was displaying every sign of addiction – I not only subscribed to Runner’s World Magazine but quoted from it. I smelled permanently of a heady mixture of deep heat and peanut butter.

I even invested in kit…Watches that worked at a depth of 3,000 feet in case of a heavy downpour, pedometers that measured each stride and heart monitors that checked each stride wasn’t going to be my last. Lycra entered my wardrobe, as instant combustion from the polyester-on-polyester rubbing of my thighs became a real threat.

I had a physio on speed dial as dormant muscles were jolted awake. But even at £40 an hour, his couch was a whole lot cheaper than the therapist’s couch that running helps you avoid. I feel the mental benefits are huge. Putting one foot in front of the other is the easy bit; getting your head to keep up is miles and miles harder. The temptation to stop as that little bacon sandwich devil on your shoulder screams, ‘go home, you’re not really a runner’ is huge. And believe me, he chats just as much to me now as he did when I staggered down the Mall at the end of my first London Marathon ten years ago.
Shutting him up gives me as much as of a buzz at crossing the finishing line. I sing to myself to keep myself running; I use mantras; make shopping lists – and I recently wrote a bridesmaid’s speech in my head as I struggled up a hill in the middle of a rainy Chorleywood.

Running makes me happy. It also makes me hurt, but as the marketing men at Adidas remind us, ‘Finishing is for ever, pain is only temporary’.

And now I’ve put my money where my mouth – and trainers – are. I retrained (along with a classroom full of tattooed, skinny-jeaned students 30 years my junior) as a fitness coach. At the age of 50, I set up HRT (Heather’s Running Team) and set about converting anyone who didn’t cross the road to avoid me. Along with a fellow menopausal coach, I now ‘run’ four courses a week for a whole range of abilities – from total beginners to half marathoners. All the money from the beginners’ course goes to the local Hospice – almost £3,000 so far – and on the summer course we had a 53 year age span from 17 to 70 years old.

Over ten weeks we watch as the sceptical Green Flash plimsoll-wearing novices each slowly come out of their chrysalis and turn into runners. At the end of the course, we all do a 5k Park Run together. It’s slightly more emotional than Chariots of Fire as these ladies and men cross the line and we present them with their medal (chocolate, naturally).

At this point, we can see in their faces that conversion is complete. They sign up for our Intermediate course and then they too start smelling of deep heat and peanut butter. Like proud parents we spot them out jogging around the local highways and byways. They may not be going fast; they may even be walking – but they have pulled on their trainers and got out there.

They’re burning calories, toning their muscles and either chatting to a fellow runner, singing along to their iPod or just enjoying the countryside while putting one foot in front of the other. Simple.

Oh, and I’ve raised over £8,000 for Bliss.

Above: Heather Harris proudly showing off her medal after running the London Marathon to raise money for Bliss, the premature baby charity.

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