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Running. Can It Really Be That Difficult?

Running. Can It Really Be That Difficult?

Running may not be for everyone, but don’t be the judge of that until you’ve tried it.

I have friends who think nothing of regularly running 5ks, 10ks, half-marathons, marathons, 50 miles, even 100 miles. But there was a time when they were starting out too. Just like me.

My story is for people like me; people for whom running was always something other people did; for whom regular exercise might start next week or next month or maybe after New Year, and for whom the plan to lose a bit of weight will start just after the next cake/biscuit/burger/ice cream/pizza (delete as appropriate).

All the above was me, but not any longer. Not since becoming a runner.

Before it all started

I’m not exaggerating when I say I believed I was physiologically and biomechanically incapable of running. I found it difficult to do much more than a rapid walk, and then not for too long. Thank goodness I drove everywhere and never had to run for a bus. I had issues with my neck. My lower back was a mess, and I was 57. I’ll walk, or drive, thanks.

By the end of 2016, my neck was really troubling me. I eventually saw my doctor who arranged for me to have an MRI scan in January 2017.

The Consultant Neurosurgeon was an educated man, but he had the bedside manner of a crocodile; I can see you’re drowning, but I’m still going to eat you.

After reviewing my MRI scans he explained I had a degenerative condition in the C7/C8 (lower neck) vertebra that would be likely to degrade over time.

I told him I was considering taking up running as I thought improving my level of general fitness would be good all round. He said, “Don’t. It’s like this; every time you hit the ground, walking or running, it sends a shock wave all the way up to your neck. I’d say you have only a limited number of those shocks left, so I’d use them wisely if I were you.”

He may as well have told me I had terminal cancer. I found it hard to contemplate the future and I gave up on the idea of running.

The trigger, then the bug

A year or so later, on Sunday, 11 March 2018, my partner invited me to a local charity 5k run; The Mad March Hare (it’s an English idiom). We stood together at the start line, bracing ourselves in the cold, waiting for the official start. The claxon sounded and I waved goodbye as she sped off with the rest of the mad runners. It was freezing cold, so bought me a nice hot coffee.

I stood waiting with a bunch of other “my wife/husband/friend is a runner” people for the runners to return. The crowd were all being happy-clappy and cheering on complete strangers whilst inwardly delighting in the knowledge that a warm car and hot coffee were now only moments away.

The first to trip the timing sensor was an obviously-fit man in his mid-30s who beeped across the line in just under 18 minutes — a time I would only later fully appreciate was practically supersonic and way beyond the reach of most normal people.

Coming a close second, and crossing the line a couple of minutes later, was an 11-year-old boy. Seriously?

As male and female, young and old, overweight and underweight, lively and gasping, dragged themselves across the finish line, I experienced something I truly wasn’t expecting.

The overwhelming and palpable wave of emotion that engulfed many of the runners, and the joy, laughter and tears from having successfully completed such an enormous personal challenge struck me. I began feeling their emotions in a synaesthetic way. As relief overwhelmed them, I felt their release. As the profound sense of achievement made them cry, I cried too.

My partner crossed the line halfway down the pack, almost vomiting from the sheer exertion, and it filled me with pride and admiration for her achievement. Everyone’s achievement. Everyone except for me.

Trying to make sense of how I was feeling, I realised it was FOMO. I actually felt I was missing out. I wanted what they had. I wanted to feel what they were feeling and I felt compelled to experience, firsthand, what they had experienced. I suddenly craved their sense of achievement and that deep sense of internal pride.

From couch [potato] to 5k

A week later I downloaded the ‘Couch to 5k’ app and committed myself to the idea of running.

For those who don’t know, the C25K program was not developed by top athletes or sports scientists, but by Josh Clark; a normal, everyday guy who wanted to help his 50-something mum get fitter.

Originally a sketched-out nine-week plan, it was uploaded to a website in 1996, and years later turned into a mobile app.

Week by week, the app takes you through a programme of walking, interspersed with short running periods, literally one minute of running, 1.5 minutes of walking. Repeat 8 times and you’re done. For today.

It’s not a race. Anyone can do it. Any age, any ability, and it has transformed the lives of millions of ordinary people.

The programme gets you out three times a week, with the walk/run intervals and distances gradually increasing over time. Easy peasy.

Week one, I nearly died. I found it so demanding on my lungs and so painful on my legs. I felt I had already run the full 26.2 miles (42km) of a marathon. It was actually about 2k in total.

Here’s what each of the three days in week one entails:

That’s 20.5 total minutes of walking, interspersed with eight, one-minute running sessions. I use the term ‘running’ loosely.

Once you’ve completed all nine weeks of the course you should be running, yes, R U N N I N G, for 30 minutes covering roughly 5k.

I couldn’t wait. I was excited, and I could already feel myself becoming a runner. I dreamt of telling people, “I’m a runner,” in only a couple of months.

It took me close to a year to get through the nine-week course. I kept having breaks and setbacks and then I repeated many of the weeks multiple times before moving on to the next level. But I was determined to be pressured by the need to get fitter, not to run 5k.

During the year I went through every kind of hell with aches, pains, sore bits, restless legs, sleepless nights, headaches, backache. I used kinesiology tape on my shins, knees, and Achilles. I wore elastic knee tubes on both legs for additional support. I was taking all kinds of supplements to help with joints and cartilage, heart and bones, and lots of pain killers.

Becoming a runner

I never did quite complete the C25k course. Not because I failed, but because I set my own path. I could now run 3k-4k reasonably comfortably, so I thought perhaps I was better off concentrating on doing that more frequently than I was striving for 5k for the sake of it.

By the time the Mad March Hare 5k came around again, I was ready for it. I still hadn’t run 5k in one go yet, but I felt that was a good thing as it meant the charity run would be more of an achievement than just doing it — it would be the first time I had covered that distance in one go too.

On March 10th, 2019, I joined my partner and around 300 runners at The Mad March Hare 5k, and I ran my first ever 5k. I was euphoric. We laughed, we cried, we mock-competed against each other along the way, and we ran to the finish line together; lungs burning, legs wobbling, feet throbbing. It was a wonderful moment to savour.

Did I mention that I run?

Where I’d been a little uncomfortable talking about my running experience whilst I endured the Couch to 5k, suddenly it became the new thing I could talk about, and you couldn’t shut me up about it. I was no longer ‘doing the couch to 5k’, as that was history. I was running regularly. I had proper lycra shorts, some fancy trainers and a techy watch. I subscribed to Runner’s World magazine. I even listened to podcasts on the way to work about running, so I knew I had arrived and was now a proper runner.

Over the two months following the Mad March Hare 5k, I was like a kid with a new bike. I ran three or four times a week, covering 3k-4k each time. I still found it hard going, and I suffered with my legs, but in a good way, and it motivated me to continue, if only for health reasons.

June 2019 arrived, along with the hottest weather we’d had in the UK in many years. I cannot run in the heat, it kills me. Apparently, it’s a blood pressure thing that results in a migraine-like headache if I over-do it. I stopped on June 8th and didn’t run again until mid-October when it was nice and cool again.

During the break, I’d continued to take my supplements, and I’d continued to look at my running gear and keep my watch charged, so I knew I could justify continuing to call myself a runner. But when I started running again, I was nervous about having to go through the rigmarole of aches and pains again. What I actually experienced was beyond my comprehension.

On October 20th, I ran 2k. No aches and pains. I ran another 2k a couple of days later. No aches and pains. I stopped taping-up my legs, and I stopped wearing the knee support tubes. Over the following five weeks, I completed ten more runs. No aches and pains. By January 2020 I was running 4k-5k two to three times a week. Still no aches and pains.

I can’t explain what had happened to my body, but I was enjoying the sensation of not just feeling fitter, but being fitter. I even experienced my version of the ‘runner’s high’ that everyone talks about. For me, it was when everything felt completely in sync. After a couple of kilometres, I could barely feel my feet hitting the ground. I had no feelings of effort-based discomfort and my head was clear. Each time I reached that point I began pushing a little harder, feeling like I wanted to run forever — until my body realised what I was doing, of course, and said, “OK, that’s enough of that.”

How did I get to where I am?

When I sat and contemplated what it was like at the beginning of my journey to start running, I felt proud for getting up and doing it and actually achieving what I set out to do. But I also felt genuine embarrassment. It was tough for me, running, I know, but my whinging and whining, aches and pains, non-stop talking about it, asking questions, “Yes, but what if…?”, and “How will I ever…?” Like nobody had ever been through what I’d been through before. Well, it still makes me shudder, despite the sense of achievement.

My ability to run would never have been possible without the dedication, commitment and support of my partner. She stayed with me, pushing me along (not literally, despite my begging), keeping me focused on the benefits and the end goal — the next Mad March Hare 5k run. “Remember how it made you feel when you watched it the first time? That’s why we’re doing this.” She was always right, of course, and it was the combination of her encouragement and my motivation that set my mind on pushing further and harder to run 10k.

A new goal beckoned

The 10k London Winter Run became my target. We’d both managed to get a place in this incredibly popular event and began training together with longer runs of 6k-7k at the weekends. I’d raised close to £1000 for Cancer Research from friends, family and colleagues, and was more excited than ever about being part of this event; running through the streets of London, cheered along the route by crowds in the tens of thousands.

February March 8th arrived. It was the day before the 10k run. Houston, we have a problem. The problem is a ‘she’, and she’s not looking happy. Her name is Ciara.

Storm Ciara hit the UK like a battering ram, bringing near-100mph winds, heavy rainfall, widespread flooding, severe damage and even loss of life in the UK and across mainland Europe.

All bets were off. The risks were way too high to stage a public event in these conditions. There was no alternative but to cancel the entire event.

We admitted to feeling a weird sense of relief, but also an overwhelming sense of disappointment and annoyance.

Undeterred, the organisers quickly rallied to patch together an online event instead, encouraging people not to throw in the towel, but to complete the run locally, wherever they lived. It was, after all, not about the event itself, but about completing the run. Of course, in the wake of the pandemic, localised, virtual events have become commonplace, but it was something we ever really considered previously.

We planned to run our 10k the following weekend. They predicted the weather would be awful, with more wind, rain and cold, but we got a break and set-off on Saturday 15th Feb 2020.

Running a short distance apart, we completed the 10k in just over an hour, and both felt elated and knackered, but with a great sense of personal achievement — exactly how you want to feel after a good run.

Our watches tracked our runs to enable us to verify successful completion, and our medals arrived in the post a couple of weeks later.

So, I’ve run my first ever 10k. I survived and I’m incredibly proud of myself.

It took me almost two years to get to that point. Pathetic by some standards. Monumental by others. I’ll go with the latter.

The pandemic

The 10k happened right before the UK went into lockdown because of the pandemic. Given how COVID-19 spun out of control in March, I will be forever grateful to storm Ciara for saving us from a scene now unimaginable; being in amongst 25,000 runners and the same number again in the crowds.

At that point, nobody could have imagined we’d still be in the grips of a pandemic one year on, so I confidently booked my place in the London Royal Parks Half Marathon, due to take place in October 2020. Obviously, that didn’t happen, but it’s now due to take place in September 2021.

If it happens — when it happens — I expect to be there ready to knock it out the park, but remembering what a long way I will have come from the guy who could barely walk fast, let alone run.

The closing cliché

If I can do it, anyone can do it.

I’m not preaching like a reformed smoker, and the, “If I can do it, anyone can do it” line is a throwaway phrase that’s also kind of rude because running really isn’t for everyone.

All I can tell you is that everything you hear about the positive effects running has on your mental and physical health is all true.

MRI update

Three years after the first MRI scan I decided to see if anything had changed.

Using my earlier cancer analogy, I imagined what I was feeling was not dissimilar to going for a post-remission check-up. You want to know it’s still ok, but you risk being told it’s worse. Nobody wants to know that.

My second MRI scan results were reviewed by a different Consultant, one who was far more understanding, helpful and informative. His professional opinion was that running was an excellent idea. He was delighted I had chosen to ignore the advice of the first consultant, suggesting that school of thought is, “very old fashioned.” And, “Like we used to tell people with sciatica to lie flat for weeks on end.” I chuckled to myself.

He continued, “Almost without exception, exercise is good for everyone.” And,

I’m delighted to tell you there is no indication whatsoever that the condition of the joints in your neck has deteriorated.

I ran home. Ok, not really. I jogged to my car.

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