Sometimes getting started is the hardest thing…
Living in the suburb of Clearwater Bay, I see my neighbours pounding the streets every day, dressed in lurid lycra and glow-in-the-dark trainers. My feelings about them have always been rather mixed. Impressively fit, dedicated and independent-spirited? Or holier-than-thou show-offs with too much free time on their hands? After all, I always assumed that I could run up and down the undulating hills of our rural peninsula myself if I wanted to, I just always had “other things” to be doing.
However, all these “other things” were slowly but surely weighing me down. Not just physically (I was weighing about a stone more than I should be) but mentally. I was starting to feel overwhelmed by the pressures of family routine. Why was every day such a frantic rush of mundane chores? I was snapping at my husband, harrying the kids, and the dogs were starting to retreat under the dining table when I walked into the room. And even though I was aware of it happening, I felt powerless to stop it. My motivation to change was at rock bottom.
So when a close friend suggested over a drinks one evening that I join her in completing the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon in December 2017, my initial reaction was to roll my eyes and order another glass of wine.
“Come on, anyone can run!” she said, correctly interpreting my subtle change of subject.
“It’s not that, I just don’t have the time to run,” I started, before realizing that I was talking to a woman who had exactly the same family responsibilities as myself but also managed to run her own highly successful company AND train for marathons and triathlons in her spare time. Shit.
“It’s all about motivation,” she said. “The less you exercise, the less motivation you have to start. The more you exercise, the more energy you have, and the more motivated you feel. Everything feels sunnier when you’ve been for a run!”
By the end of my second glass, she had talked me into it. Never mind the fact that the last time I had run was in 2001 when I was late for the Mong Kok minibus (I missed it). I just needed to get out there and put one foot in front of the other and I would rediscover my elusive mojo!
Two days later, I stood at the end of the flattest part of Clearwater Bay road I could find, dressed in ancient trainers and a brand new sports bra. How hard could it be? I started to run. And I do mean run, flat out, like it was 2001 all over again and this time I would catch that damned bus. Two minutes in and my heart felt like it was going to explode. My breath was coming in ragged gasps. My cotton t-shirt was sticking to my back and the new bra I had so optimistically bought was cutting savagely into my front. This was unexpected.
I pulled myself back into a brisk walk. My friend had told me that the best way to start running was to alternate between running and walking when you got too tired, so that’s what I did. I alternated between sprinting for 30 seconds and walking for 30 seconds. Hyper-conscious of the cars passing me by and praying that no-one I knew would recognize me, I sprinted-walked a kilometer in one direction and then another kilometer back again. By the time I reached the car, I actually felt fantastic, like I had achieved something miraculous. My heart was pumping in a way that made me feel incredibly virtuous.
Wobbily, I got back into the car and drove back home. I hauled myself up the steps to my village house, showered, and diligently stretched out in front of the TV. I had done everything right, I told myself, and now could reward myself with a cup of tea and a biscuit. As I stood up, however, I felt a sudden, sickening pain shoot through my right knee. It wouldn’t support any weight at all. I was horrified. What had I done to myself?
It took the best part of two weeks before my knee was able to bear my full weight again. Convinced that I simply didn’t have the physique to be a runner, I told my friend to forget it, there was no way I would be able to come to Cambodia with her, when I couldn’t even run 2km without falling to bits like my grandmother.
“What rubbish!” my friend exclaimed. “You only went for one run! How do you even know that what happened had anything to do with the running? It happened after you had been home for ages!”
Despite being convinced that my friend was deluding herself if she thought the knee injury and the running were unrelated, I agreed that I would give it one more shot. But before I did, I figured that I would first make sure that I was fully healed by going to have a chat with a proper sports physiotherapist that I had been recommended. I couldn’t afford a repeat of what happened last time and to be out of action for another few weeks.
My first professional session was illuminating. I briefly told the physio what had happened, assuming that she would agree that my knobbly knees were the problem and give me a “Get Out Of Running Free” card. As she poked and prodded and asked me to move through a series of movements to gage the flexibility and strength of my legs, she gently asked me a few searching questions.
“So when was the last time you ran before this happened?”
“Oh not for ages. Years, to be honest. Before kids.”
“And how fast were you running?”
“Pretty fast! It felt good, I just walked when it got too much. I alternated.”
“OK, tell me about your warm up”
“I stretched my legs on the kerb”
“But how long did you warm up for before running fast?”
“Um… how do you mean?”
“Did you jog for a bit?”
“Okay. What about your running shoes?”
“These ones you are wearing now?”
“These are hiking trainers”
As lovely as she was, I was squirming inside. My complete ignorance of some of the most basic rules of running was becoming obvious even to me. How could I have been so stupid? Did I really imagine that my body in my 40s would be as forgiving as it was in my 20s? My humiliation must have shown itself on my face, as she smiled supportively.
“I think what you are doing is brilliant!”
“No, you think I’m an idiot.”
“It’s fantastic that you have decided to start running, and I’m really pleased that you have come in for some help in achieving that. Because your friend is right, anyone can run. You just have to build yourself up a bit more slowly. If you want to run a race in Cambodia, you can. All you need is a sensible action plan.”
I came away from that first session inspired. I had a new understanding of how my body worked, a list of daily exercises to build up protective muscle around my knees, and a basic outline of how I was going to build up my running over the next three months. She agreed that running a half-marathon was unlikely, not because I was physically incapable but because the time left in which to train was too short to do it safely. But I could easily run the shorter 10k race if I stuck to the plan.
“But isn’t that too easy?” I worried.
“Say that after you’ve done it!” she laughed.
So I did. I stuck to three runs a week (two short ones and a longer one at the weekend), and it was incredible how quickly my body adjusted. After just the first week, I realized I could run my 2km stretch without stopping at all. After all, now I wasn’t sprinting in hiking boots! After 4 weeks, I was running 5km with little trouble at all.
But it wasn’t just the physical ability to run further that surprised me. It was how much more alert and positive I was feeling in myself. It was just as my friend had said; everything feels sunnier when you’ve been for a run. It was as though, by forcing myself to use up all my reserves of energy, my body was forced into restocking those reserves by creating more, and I was reaping the benefits in spades. I felt calmer, more patient, less consumed by the minor stresses of day-to-day life.
By the time December came, my friend and I flew off to Cambodia for a long weekend, a treat that I would never have dreamed of doing were it not for the excuse of the race. It is a beautiful country. The pleasure I got from exploring the Angkor Wat temples, zooming around Siem Reap in a tuk-tuk, sampling the amazing food and wandering around the markets was almost as satisfying as that of passing under the 10k Finish Line banner as I completed the race in a minute over one hour. Almost.
Of course, my friend is far too lovely to ever say “I told you so”, but nevertheless, I do feel lucky that she was there to badger me into not giving up. That would have been the easy thing to do. As it turned out, running that first 2km was far harder in some ways than running 10km. It was just a matter of getting started.
Submitted by @HKGIRL
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