Why running is both the best and most difficult thing I’ve ever done…

I took up running about a year ago, with absolutely no idea what to expect. I didn’t tell anyone I was running for a while, keeping it quiet as if it was some kind of dirty secret. I didn’t want the attention and I certainly didn’t want to do it with people. It was my thing. And I didn’t want to share my running with anyone.

I then did. I told friends. I told the world and I joined a running club. I’m lucky to have found the most inclusive running club on my door step, but even with their mixed ability, everyone’s welcome ethos, there’s still competition, if not against each other, it’s with yourself. I didn’t know what looked good or bad, the talk of PB’S really put me off, and I started subconsciously measuring myself against myself every time I went running because that’s what everyone else does, right? I have never been a competitive person, “It’s the taking part that counts!” my hippy teenage self would scream. Judging yourself on yourself was new. Some runs were great, and I’d come back feeling elated and ready to go out again. Others were not so great, I’d convince myself I was too slow, that my pace was awful and I shouldn’t be a runner. Am I fooling myself I’d wonder? Many times mid-run I’ve stopped dead in my tracks, wondering what I’m even putting myself through. My mind harps back to school PE, when I was told I couldn’t join an athletics club because I wasn’t good enough. Maybe those teachers had a point? But these thoughts always passed and I plodded on. I tried to go further each time, ignoring the time as best I could. But then when I ignored my sports watch, I’d convince myself I was doing something wrong because I wasn’t running a race with myself. it’s a cycle and a cycle I don’t know how to break.

When I post a running photo on Instagram or Facebook, often smiling, looking like I’m having the time of my life. I’m always congratulated. People tell me I look great, that they’re proud and use the “inspiration” word. Friends tell me they wish they could run, I’ve even inspired some people to take up running and others would say they can’t add anything to conversation when I talk about running. We are social beings and we crave being part of communities, I feel part of some kind of running community now, a community I used to admire from afar, “Rather them than me,” I’d say. Friendships are built on connections, and through these connections we share interests, likes and dislikes. Offer support when things are hard and celebrate our achievements. It keeps conversations moving, and means if you’ve worked on the friendship thing well, you rarely run out of things to say. I adore running, being able to talk about it and relate to other people when they mention they run too. It’s given me a freedom I haven’t felt before and has been a way to calm the anxiety before it takes over.

RunningBut it is also by far the toughest thing I’ve ever done. 

This afternoon I went out for my usual 5K loop around the block, and as I did I stopped to take a smiley, “I’ve been for a run!” photo. I stalled posting that on social media. I didn’t post it because it wasn’t always a great run. My social media has been lying about how I’m finding running. The first 3k of that run was awful and I was very prepared to give it all up. No more running Alice. No more competitions with myself. No more trying to be something I’m not. Before that photo, something you didn’t see, unless you were the dog walker in the distance, is me collapsing in tears in the field behind me, feeling awful about running, and convinced I had lied to myself and everyone around me. I can’t run. I can’t even run against myself. My thoughts raced, I couldn’t find it in me to go on, and I didn’t want people to think I had taken to running like a duck to water. Am I a running fraud? Every run I have to push myself, sometimes even just to get out of the front door. Every run I wonder what I could do better. And some runs, I feel like giving up. It’s a labour of love with yourself; it’s a labour of identity, you have to listen and understand your body. No amount of running books or think pieces about ultra-marathon runners helps you understand this. No amount of races completed, PB’S achieved or expensive running kit bought makes you a runner. It’s about how you feel. How that race is going with yourself, whether invited or not, the motivation to get out of the front door. Today I did get up and continue my run. I plodded along, and tried not to worry about my pace or the obstacles in the way. I focussed entirely on me and my breathing. It wasn’t the best run, but I got to the end and completed the distance. I post about the end on social media. I tell people about my runs and the club I joined but I rarely talk about the middle. The middle is the most important. The middle is where I learn about running. I got there but today it didn’t feel easy. Taking up running is by far one of the best things I’ve ever done because knowing I can get to the end of something challenging feels more wonderful. Than something like writing, which I know I’m good at, but I don’t find hard.

Despite this afternoon running remains one of my favourite things to do, I don’t always run with the club. And running on your own allows you to have moments like today. We all need time to reflect and understand what it is we’re really getting out of something. I will go running again. Moments like today will arrive again, it’s the cycle of running. A cycle I’m only starting to understand one year on.

I’ve written this for anyone who’s ever wondered why they run or even if they fit the definition of a runner. And has considered giving up too. Or substitute running for another activity you equally love but find almost impossible some days. This is for you.

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