While running a pretty tough but rewarding 15km loop recently I got thinking about why I run. I was never a sporty type at school, and would more than often be found in the last group to be picked for football teams, staying in front of the ball in Rugby to avoid having to take part, and falling in ditches in an ultimately failed attempt to get out of cross country. When we got to sixth form and could do off site sports I chose Golf in the summer and Squash in the winter, mainly because they were a fair distance away and we went via McDonalds.
Looking back on it if we had some coaching in P.E. I may have gotten into it better, but no one told me how to run. That may seem a stupid statement to someone to whom running comes naturally, but there was absolute zero guidance on body position, stride length, cadence, or any of the other things runners obsess over. It was simply a case of those who had natural talent joined the teams, those who were of a driven personality type pushed themselves, those who enjoyed sport had fun, and the rest of us resented both the unguided physical exertion and the mocking and humiliation we attracted.
Anyway, that was then and this is now. The first run of my adult life was on January 1st, 2014 as a result of seeing Kelly D try and get as many people out for a New Year run as possible. I had recently separated from my wife and was trying to work out who I was again - nothing was off the cards. I was reconnecting with people I knew 10 years previous, this was happening, so I gave it a go.
I ran 2.19km in 16:07, with an average pace of 7:21/km. It was awful - the ground underfoot was slippery mud and I was totally unprepared for it, walking in places because when I tried to run my feet went from under me. I ran three more times that month, getting up to 6:52/km average pace, and then stopped. I can’t recall why, but apparently I restarted in June 2015 with a 4.68km run in 29:18 and managed to run once or twice a month with an aim to get a 5km in under 30 minutes which I achieved in October. Through 2016 I was very lax again and it wasn’t until I moved back to Sheffield in December 2016 that I got into it properly with Hillsborough parkrun just down the road and the encouragement of Liz. The rest is history, and you can read more about it right here.
Back to the original question: Why do I run?
It goes without saying that exercise is good for you, and I knew I needed to do more of it. Over the years my weight had crept up to over 13st and my waist to 34”, I remembered having a 30” waist and losing weight had the added benefit of making climbing (which I had also got back in to) easier. Exercise was only part of the game, I also had to adjust what I ate. The weight slowly came off and I got to 11 stone and a 30” waist (weight has crept up a bit since but waist hasn’t so I assume it’s gobe to muscle somewhere). My general fitness and stamina are also much higher which I’m really happy with, and has had additional benefits for swimming as well as the aforementioned climbing.
But this isn’t the only reason. Running is physically hard, and walking could have delivered similar benefits with less wear on the body, though it would have required more time. Running also gave me something to measure myself against, especially with parkrun. I’m not an ambitious type when it comes to comparing myself to other people, but I do like to track my own progress and see improvements. Seeing my times come down quickly at parkrun was a real boost, and the community of Strava made it easy to track how I was doing when I went on runs by myself, and soon I was adding in more runs whenever I could - including the work running club. I still surprise myself with things like signing up to the Amsterdam Half Marathon though.
Running is also a brilliant way to get out in to the countryside, or the urban landscape you otherwise wouldn’t explore. I’ve run many KMs along the rivers and canals around Sheffield, I’ve entered races which have taken me up dramatic hills in the Peak District, and I am lucky enough to live near some beautiful spots like Rivelin Valley, Loxley Valley, Upper Don Valley and with a bit of effort the Peak District itself. The run which inspired this post had a fairly tough climb taking up most of the first half, but it rewards you with stunning views in every direction across the peaks, even when you turn back and face the city it doesn’t dominate the landscape, instead nestling in the hills for which Sheffield is famous. I was taken with just how lucky I am to live near here and was very grateful for it.
But (and well done if you are still with me, I know I am quite a verbose writer - largely because this is as much for me as it is for you. Hopefully this section will help make this clear) there is more to it than that. Something much more important.
You see, running is good for the head.
Well, for my head anyway - I know everyone is different.
I said earlier that I was trying to work out who I was again, and one of the things I have discovered is I am a lot less mentally resilient than I thought I was. The precise details are for another discussion, but I am prone to prolonged periods of introspection and self doubt which manifest in anxiety and despair, and I needed to get a grip on this as it was leading to destructive behaviours. I was drinking too much, and I wasn’t looking after myself.
Running at parkrun gave me a regular commitment which meant I was more likely to do it rather than find reasons not to. I’ve discovered that I am far more likely to do something if I have told other people I am going to do it as I’m far more inclined to let myself down than I am others, and running as a social activity meant I also got the support and encouragement of my friends - people who are massively important to me and to whom I owe a lot of gratitude. Being able to return that by running with people and offering then encouragement and support is equally as rewarding.
It turns out it goes further than this though, and that’s why the run which inspired this post was entitled ‘Resetting mind and body’. Getting out on to the roads and trails turns out to have a really valuable benefit which I had not foreseen. It takes a while to get there, but after several kilometres you hit ‘the zone’ where the running has become second nature, you are moving easily and efficiently without having to think too much about form, function or the effort of making your body move; all of these things are occupying your brain to some extent but not fully, and I reach a state where I am able to attain clarity of thought. Maybe it is the fact that your heart rate is already elevated and your breathing intense, but things which maybe cause anxiety and confusion when sat on the sofa become easy to think about logically and analytically with objective analysis. When I find myself on the sofa fretting and sinking into a spiral of negative thoughts, getting out on a run will at the very least distract me, and hopefully allow me to figure out what is causing these thoughts in the first place and how to address them. I can only assume this state is not dissimilar to the state people seek to acheive through meditation, maybe one day I shall try and find out.
So yeah. I run because it makes me feel good, and feeling good is important.