Born To Run

22nd October 2010

People take up running (and keep going…) for a multitude of reasons.

Heather Harris shares some of hers.

5,009th – it’s not exactly the stuff of prizes and podiums and national anthems…

Does anyone ever remember who came 5,009th in a sporting event? It’s unlikely that you do, but it’s firmly fixed in my mind: it was a personal best and I got a T-shirt. Not bad for a daffodil. (I was running for Marie Curie Cancer).

“At least you were in the top ten percent,” said my accountant husband helpfully, on my return from the BUPA Great North Run. My children repeatedly muttered something uncharitable about 5,008 people all having overtaken me. But then, they have never recovered from the shock of me training for seven months for the London Marathon and not winning.

“What do you do it for?” my over-competitive eight-year-old had asked as he rifled through my Marathon Finishers’ Bag, complaining bitterly that I’d eaten all the food, leaving him with “boring leaflets and mini deodorant samples”.

That was five years ago, when I first decided that putting one foot in front of the other for hours on end couldn’t be that difficult. And it was for a good cause. My twins had been born prematurely at 24 weeks in 1995 weighing just a pound each. As these little frog-like creatures clung for life in their first four months, I vowed to run the London Marathon if ever they reached ten years old.

A decade later on New Year’s Day, waking up with garlic breath and only one contact lens, my husband (once more displaying his gift for numbers) reminded me that this was the year.

I found a grubby tracksuit festering in a gym bag from the previous January (an annually made, annually broken resolution) and I started on the road to becoming a bona fide runner.

Initially, as I was consistently overtaken by people smoking a cigarette or wearing loafers, it was an uphill struggle. I was wired up with enough gadgetry to get me to the moon let alone round the block: 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 that each stride wasn’t going to be my last.

None of it helped. What I lacked was motivation.

I was brilliant at the fund-raising. Soon I’d roped in everyone within a 26.2 mile radius of home to sponsor me and had passed my £3,000 target with ease. It was just the running I hadn’t mastered.
And then I discovered a Running Club.

Who needs coffee mornings or dinner parties when you can run along a windswept towpath for three hours with a group of women and talk the entire way? I discovered a readymade social life. And it was free. As conversation ebbed and flowed along the canal side, covering topics from world politics to the relative merits of organic veg, so my cardio-vascular strength improved and my endurance increased.

A man joined us once and made solitary grunts at the beginning of our run and at the end some 18 miles later. He never came again. Another turned up with an i-Pod (in those days the size of a house brick, carried in a bag the size of a hod). He was banned.

Soon I’d got all the classic symptoms of ‘Runners Bug’: Running magazine by my bed; not one but two pairs of training shoes, a cupboard full of Isotonic Sports Drinks (sugared water by any other name) and a bread bin full of energy-giving bagels. My husband complained that I smelled permanently of Deep Heat and peanut butter (the latter being essential protein and easier to carry for the end of a run than a free range chicken). I even invested in those special carbo-loading gels which taste like wallpaper paste and cost the equivalent of seven bars of Dairy Milk.

And I didn’t just do one London Marathon but four…and Luton twice. My friends and my family automatically assumed I wanted sponsoring whenever I phoned and local shopkeepers started hiding as I approached with yet another ‘invitation’ for them to add to my charity coffers.

There were some major low points – being overtaken at 23 miles by a man in a Pepperoni outfit (presumably running for Sausage Eaters Anonymous) in the 2007 London Marathon, for example, and negotiating a soggy slalom of chip papers and half-eaten kebabs in the wind and hail of the 2006 Luton Marathon – the detritus of a wild night in this Bedfordshire town. Then there was the 2008 Silverstone Half Marathon when I was beaten by my younger brother whose training regime had consisted of intravenous cider, twice weekly curries and an average of three hours sleep a night usually not in his own bed!

But there have also been so many highs – the end of my first 10k when I kissed a stunned marshall on the finishing line and full on the lips; and winning our first Woman Vets Team event. Oh, and getting a letter from BLISS, the premature baby charity, telling me how many babies my £5,000 had saved.

And now as my half century approaches, I just keep running to stay sane. So much more sociable than Prozac, cheaper than gin and less likely to give you spots than chocolate… the natural high produced from a jog round the park in the pouring rain should be available on prescription.

I do enter races but more because of their perfect timing – usually around 10am on Sunday mornings: just as teenagers are arriving home foul of temper and breath from sleepovers, when the demands for help with long division are matched in velocity by the barks of un-walked dogs and there’s no milk.

Walking out on family life for a shopping trip or an appointment with the hairdresser would feel far too decadent but for a race – well that’s a different matter. “Sorry darling, I would stay and help, but I’ve already paid my entrance fee…”. (A great line, and one that’s even better line if you’re married to an accountant).

Pilates, aerobics, tennis, spinning (going nowhere on bikes cemented to the ground) all have their place but they still have to be booked and fitted in. Running is spontaneous – I’m a ‘before breakfast’ girl married to an ‘early evening’ man with an ‘only in my lunch hour’ brother. And it can be done anywhere – no courts, tracks, studios or village halls needed: just open space.

I’ve run along a Spanish beach, around Leeds City Centre, by a towpath in Birmingham and through a Welsh caravan park – and that’s just in 2010. I’ve run alone when I needed to think, with ‘Take That’ in my ears when I wanted to sing and with the Running Club when I wanted to chat.

I still dream of pipping Paula on the finishing line in 2012, but in reality I know that 5,009th is the fastest I can ever put one foot in front of the other.

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