Finding herself at a crossroads, author ELIZABETH DAY suddenly felt the urge to run... in earnest. Here, she shares why it's helped in more ways than mere physical fitness, and why it doesn't matter the speed at which she travels.
I used to think running was the devil's exercise, and that's probably being a bit unfair on the devil. Throughout my twenties, when I thought I should be doing some form of physical activity but couldn't really be bothered to put in the effort on a regular basis, I would go for a run and pant and wheeze around the park before giving up after about ten minutes. It was excruciating. Looking back, it didn't help that I had failed to invest in the right kit. Or, indeed, in any kind of kit whatsoever. I used to run in my Converse sneakers and a weird pair of zip-heavy trousers I bought from one of those outdoorsy shops that sold camping stoves and water purification tablets. I didn't give running the respect it deserved. In return, it didn't much respect me either.
But then, in my mid-thirties, something happened. My life imploded. I had a miscarriage, my marriage broke down, I left my home, my job and the country in more or less that order. It was a chaotic period, which I refused to admit was chaotic at the time. It's only in retrospect that I realise I was operating at a kind of warp speed. I was sleeping less. After a lifetime of punctuality, I started making myself slightly late for everything. I couldn't read a book. My thoughts were so scattered the only thing I could focus on was the dull glaze of other people's status updates. I was numb. I had lost faith in my own judgement. And that's when I had the unlikely urge to start running. I bought proper trainers this time and leggings that felt slick as sealskin. I made a playlist full of angry hip-hop. I set out one day with no idea of where I intended to go or how long for and, ten minutes later, I was surprised that I felt able to keep on going. I started running three times a week. Ten minutes became 20, which then became 30. I once managed to run for an hour non-stop - a historic record never to be repeated. I liked the way I was so occupied with the completion of a physical task that I forgot to think. And I discovered that when you forget to think, you paradoxically have some of your best thoughts. Your subconscious is allowed the space to breathe. By the time I got back from my run, I would have sorted out some gritty issue that had been plaguing me for days.
But there was also this innate, almost primal desire to reconnect with my physical strength. I started running because I wanted to be able to propel myself forwards without relying on anyone or anything else. I wanted it to be just me and the tarmac. Having lost all my outward markers of stability, I needed to tap into my own internal power. Running made me realise that, for years, I'd been disconnected from my own sense of self. Like many women who find themselves in the wrong relationship, I refused to admit it. I was telling everyone it was ok, but it wasn't, not really; and I found myself pretending to be someone I wasn't, caught up in an emotional riptide of manipulation and anger until finally, I couldn't do it anymore. And the horrible thing about marital breakdown is that you can't think your way out of it. Nothing about it is logical, despite a legal framework which encourages you to come to dry, rational conclusions about what exactly constitutes unreasonable behaviour. I had all this emotion and nowhere to put it. So it went into running. Increasingly, exercise became part of my daily routine. As a writer, I'm used to spending long hours hunched over the blinking white light of a laptop screen. It was good to do something that took me out of my own headspace. It performed an almost meditative function.
I started running because I wanted to be able to propel myself forwards without relying on anyone or anything else.
I've now been running regularly for about two years. I don't want to give the impression that I've found it easy. I've read pieces about reluctant runners before and they always seem to be completing marathons with ease after, like, two weeks. Whereas I still consider a run of 35 minutes an achievement. I struggle with hills. I sweat a lot. Some days, I hate every single second. A couple of months ago, I broke down in tears after 20 minutes and I still don't know why. Oh, and by the way, I run really slowly. Occasionally, I'll catch sight of myself in a shop window and be embarrassed by my geriatric pace. But it was part of the deal I made with myself that I would run without judgement. To this day, I run at whatever speed feels maintainable and I refuse to measure distance. So am I the world's greatest recreational runner? Absolutely not. But running has given me something that can't be measured in calories or kilometres. It's given me back myself.