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"The morning after I finished this book, I got my running shoes on. Funny, wise, and inspirational, Alexandra Heminsley manages to make running seem not just possible, but life-affirming, liberating, and fun."
Running Like a Girl
—Robert F. Kennedy
I don’t remember making the decision that I couldn’t run; it was simply one of those things that made me me, like my love of cheese or my distaste for men in turtlenecks.
My certainty that I couldn’t run was absolute, my envy profound of those who could, and my admiration for my flatmate boundless. She would appear at the front door, glowing from one of her regular routes around Regent’s Park or Hampstead Heath, and I would welcome her enthusiastically. We’d chat about what she’d seen, while she leaned at the kitchen counter sipping a glass of water and I sat on the sofa with my laptop propped on my knees like a windy baby.
“I wish I could run.” There is a certain comfort in saying it aloud. “It looks like so much fun,” I’d say, sighing, as she took off her running shoes. I felt a twinge of sadness, knowing that it was too late for me to start. I would reach for the TV remote with resignation.
As I watched my flatmate’s running clothes circulating hypnotically in the washing machine, I never questioned the casual lunacy of my conviction that I couldn’t run. I remember being six or seven and running being what I could barely wait to do during break time at school. And I remember being thirty, having total confidence that running was utterly beyond me. The change had been cumulative, something that I let happen to me, a state of affairs I succumbed to without question.
Somehow I had forgotten the itch in my legs when I was in school, looking up at the clock, back at the teacher, and out of the window. Soon. Then, the very second the bell rang, we would grab our coats and head outside to play whatever game we could think of, as long as it meant running around. We didn’t call it running at that age, because running was how we did everything, mittens trailing from our sleeves and braids whipping at our cheeks. We were just children doing our thing. We ran and we laughed. They were one and the same.
As a ten-year-old, I stood daydreaming at the start of the four-hundred-meter circuit. In the warmth of summer, I watched the sun shine through the pinprick holes in my navy blue shirt, noticing how it browned both my arms and the grass of the track. I would merrily run round it for as long as I could, sometimes straight across the middle if I fancied a change, until we were called back to lessons or until someone else needed the track.
Twenty years later, it was as if I had never run. It didn’t occur to me that I could. I wasn’t a runner, and that was that. Somehow I had lost sight of the fact that not being a runner and being unable to run were not one and the same.
I wasn’t the sporty type. It was as simple as that. I was a curvy girl with little or no competitive spirit. I rarely made a connection between bat and ball during games at school, and I neglected my body almost entirely for three years at university. Perhaps I broke into a run that time I was pushing my friend Clare down Cotham Hill in a shopping cart, and I know I danced on a podium a few times, but those were definitely the sum of my collegiate athletic endeavors.
Then I moved to London and joined the eternal treadmill of private gym membership. Each time I looked round a new venue, I told myself that this would be the one. This would be the gym that would make me fall in love with exercise. They never did. Once the oleaginous buzz of viewing the facilities, being given my workout profile, and trying the steam room for the first time was over, the magic faded and I returned to fleeting, guilty glimpses at my bank statement as I realized each visit was costing me more and more.
Back then I didn’t know that the gym was just sticky methadone to the heroin of running outdoors. How could pounding along on the treadmill, going nowhere in front of a wall of relentless rolling news, compare to the freedom of running along the seafront, looking up at a hovering seagull and finding yourselves neck and neck for a moment? Still I continued. Next came the (Madonna-influenced) yoga phase. Relaxing, but only as relaxing as it could ever be to race across the city and part with more money than I’d spend on three weeknight dinners for the sake of ninety minutes bending and sweating in front of myriad freelance Web designers and stressed-out fashion editors. Then came Pilates and even a flirtation with meditation.
Finally, after a summer of heartache followed by almost crippling depression, came the walking phase. After a hectic routine of lying under my coffee table weeping, I had reached a point where I had to get outside and see daylight. I wanted to feel the breath of warm air on my skin; I yearned to feel my blood circulate round my body again, and I needed to do it with a view that was not just that of a ceiling tile or a yogi’s tatty three-week-old pedicure. Half-deranged by weeks of erratic sleeping—nights spent enervated and panicky followed by sluggish, heavy-limbed days—I decided in desperation that physically exhausting myself might make the nights seem a little more welcoming. I longed to long for my bed, instead of seeing it as a sleepless battleground. I yearned to yearn to lie down at the end of the day, legs aching from use rather than the anxious jiggling they did under my desk for hours on end.
Thus began my walking phase. One day I up and left the house and didn’t return until nearly dusk. I began walking for hours at a time. Hampstead Heath, Regent’s Park, Hyde Park. I would leave the house on a Sunday morning and not return for three or four hours. Often I could barely remember the time I had spent away, as if the repetitive quality of my strides had hypnotized me. I would begin full of fire, longing to get away from the dirty streets, the dawdling pedestrians, the local shops whose owners had seen me tearstained and bedraggled during my summer of agony and bad eating. As the parks opened up before me, I would feel my spirits lift. I would romp around the heath, deliberately getting lost in a wooded area I didn’t recognize. I would stroll through rose gardens, wondering about the stories behind the blooms’ names. A tiny part of me I thought I had lost started to wriggle back to the surface.
I arrived home from my walks exhausted but noticeably lighter of spirit. My head felt as if someone had popped in and run a duster around it. I formed a truce with my bed. I cherished my time off the grid, uncontactable and alone. The coils that had spent endless nights tightening in my mind loosened a little; my imagination wandered toward the positive rather than the self-focused disaster-movie scenarios it had devoted itself to. I remain convinced that those walks in the summer of 2006 saved me. Not just because they restored my ability to sleep but because they delivered me that first germ of physical confidence. If I could walk for four hours, what might happen if I sped up . . . and then sped up even more? My heart had begun to believe that anything was possible. I had even let myself entertain the notion that maybe, just maybe, I was capable of going for a run.
It was this expansive spirit of optimism that inspired my first run to Queen’s Park a year later. If my heart could survive the pummeling it had taken, my legs must have more to give. I’d been taking three-hour walks regularly for about a year, so I figured I might be ready for a run.
That was it. I was going to run round the block. I had high hopes: the ass of an athlete, the waist of a supermodel, and the speed of a gazelle. I had finally bottomed out, defeated by gyms, bored by sanctimonious yoga teachers, and intimidated by glossy tennis clubs. It was time to end a lifetime spent believing that I existed in a galaxy nowhere near the sport’s. I would return powerful and proud, the city reeling at the sight of my grace and speed on the pavements of Kilburn. This is the story of my first run.
My preparations were extensive: First there were two weeks of thinking about it. What would it feel like? Would I fall over? How would I get home if I found it too much? I was filled with positivity and enthusiasm. Then I panicked; then I became exhilarated; then I put it off for a couple more days.
It was a Saturday in August, the month of my sister’s wedding. It was sunny but not too hot, perfect running weather. That afternoon I was heading to a party in Norfolk with my family for wedding guests who wouldn’t be able to make it to the ceremony, to be held abroad. It was the perfect time to get in shape, I told myself. After all, the big day was coming up in a couple of weeks, and I had bribed myself to take that first run on the grounds that I could really get involved with the party food later. Amid the happy chaos of the family wedding to come, I thought it would be nice to have the promise of an empowering new hobby to return to.
When the morning of The Run came, I woke up and immediately ate three slices of toast with honey, for “energy.” Then I spent ninety minutes faffing around on iTunes, trying to compose a playlist of such magnitude that it would propel me round the park, no matter how debilitating I found the experience. Despite my extensive research, I didn’t dare to buy anything new. Instead I dug out some old tracksuit bottoms, last worn when I’d had adult mumps and watched two Sopranos box sets in a single weekend. I rifled through my drawers until I found a bra that covered as much of me as possible. I found some old running shoes in the back of my cupboard beneath some festive reindeer antlers.
There was little else I could do to procrastinate. The laundry was done, the ironing was pancake-flat, the bookshelves dusted. Every possible worst-case scenario had been replayed in my head a million times, and it was clearly never going to rain. I had run out of excuses. I tied back my hair, grabbed a bottle of water, put my keys in the pocket of my tracksuit bottoms, and stood at the front door. This was it. I was going for a run.
I opened the front door and walked down the three steps to the pavement. What was I supposed to do next? Perhaps some stretching? I held on to a lamppost and pulled my foot up behind me, trying to stretch the front of my thigh. I did the same thing with the other leg and looked around anxiously. My heart was beating too fast already. What if onlookers could tell it was my first run? Would they be able to see that I was doing it wrong?
Running. It was just running. I set off down the road, trying to look to the Saturday passersby as if this were something as normal to me as taking the bins out. But that road was a long road. It was the grouting between the urban delights of Kilburn High Road and the chic coffee shops of Queen’s Park. As I headed toward the park, the houses became progressively more glamorous and well groomed. I, however, did not.
I was halfway down the road when I had to stop. There was an awful juddering as the whole world moved up and down on account of my lumbering limbs: thud, thud, thud as my feet hit the ground, sending shock waves through both my body and the pavement. Within seconds, my face had turned puce with intense heat and my chest was heaving. I could see the crossroads, but to my ragged humiliation, I could not make it that far. I was not just out of breath; I was having to swallow down panic to keep myself moving at all.
I walked for the length of the next song on my playlist. The indignity of admitting I could no longer run seemed slightly less than that of the physical wreck I would become if I continued. Eventually, I made it to the park and tried to run for the length of the next song. I could not manage that, so I ended up walking past the field of children playing football at the center of the park. Each of them darted around effortlessly, continually in motion, while every part of my body seized up.
The wobble of my thighs, the quake of my arse, the ridiculous jiggle of my boobs seemed to mock me as the Saturday dads stared in horror from the playground. Every time my feet struck the tarmac, I was convinced my ankle would twist, and every time I looked down to check, I was confronted with the unwieldy expanse of my thigh. My physical self was entirely disconnected from everything my intellectual or emotional self was trying to tell it. Calm down, putting in the effort is the main thing was met with Yeah right, because putting yourself in this much pain is a great idea.
As I reached the far end of the park and turned to head back, the pounding of my heart and then the slow fire in my lungs convinced me of one immovable fact: I would never make it home.
After several more starts and stops and the total avoidance of eye contact with every person I passed, I got home. It took a good fifteen minutes before my breathing and heart rate returned to normal, and almost an hour before my face stopped radiating heat—and the red glow of a thumb recently caught under a hammer. I stood, slumped at the kitchen sink, gulping water, and remembered the sight of my onetime flatmate, composed as she enjoyed an invigorating post-run glass of water. I was far from channeling her look. But I had done it. I’d been for the megarun, and therefore the spoils of war would be mine. I’d earned them, after all.
Consequently, I rewarded myself handsomely with a phenomenal amount of food and drink at the party that night, blithely telling everyone that I’d been for a huge run that morning.
“It’s been a training day for me!” I said brightly to a passing godparent I’d never met as I scooped a second helping of lasagna onto my plate.
“Okay, great,” said the relative, nonplussed at my enthusiasm to share details of my sporting endeavor. I was not, after all, a woman who at that point exuded any athletic prowess over the dinner table.
When I woke up the next morning, I felt as if I had been run over by a truck. A big truck with huge grooved tires. This wasn’t the pleasing ache of the day spent well on the sports field that I dimly remembered from my youth. No, this was an altogether sharper pain. It felt as if my body were stinging, almost acidic. My limbs were heavy, and muscles I never could have pointed to twenty-four hours earlier were suddenly making themselves known. Oh, this was an unacceptable way to make oneself feel. I must have overtrained. Later, I looked up how far I had run: one mile. My disappointment could not have been keener.
It was another three months before I tried to run again.
When I returned home that Saturday, I felt broken in body and spirit. My lungs and legs were wracked with pain, and my mind had inflicted a thousand tiny blows. Was this what running was going to feel like now? Would every run mean confronting this heinous shame, pain, and rage? Why did people do it? Why did I want to do it? What part of myself was I hoping to access? Slimness, physical achievement, something else? Chastisements rained down upon doubts as I sat, wretched, in the bath. After that disastrous first attempt, these thoughts wedged themselves at the back of my mind for months, like a pen behind an old radiator, always just out of reach.
My sister’s wedding came and went in an ecstatic flash. My reaction to the multiple photographs of me, however, was less joyful. Instead of the confident curves I’d always seen myself as having, I realized that part of the juddering agony of that first run was due to the fact that I had put on weight. Running would help with the weight, but the weight did not help with running.
I began to understand what other women meant when they talked about feeling trapped in their own bodies; the magazines I would sniff at in railway stations and doctors’ waiting rooms were full of them. I used to think I would never become one—until I found myself watching runners with increasing longing, wondering what their secret was, how they knew what to do, what got them going. Yet running still seemed an impossibility.
Everyone has limitations, and I had reached mine. I was sure of this, though it made me sad. I would see other runners, catch snippets of their conversation as I waited to pay for a coffee, be drawn to their image on magazines or on TV. Increasingly, I was attuned to them in the world around me. Surely, if I stayed alert, I would discover what the secret was that they all knew and I didn’t. As I paced the house looking for my lost glasses, I would lift magazines and search websites, hunting for the golden nugget of advice or inspiration to reassure me that a runner lurked in me after all. Because without it, there was no way I could face that Saturday-morning experience again. As the summer ended and the leaves began to fall, I would walk home grudgingly from the tube station, overtaken by the occasional runner, who served only to make my heart heavier. I resolved to try and forget about running altogether. The secret escaped me.
I did my best until a few weeks later, when my siblings and I were staying with our parents for a weekend. My brother casually mentioned that he was going to apply for a place in the London Marathon.
“Wow!” I gasped. “How amazing to be able to do that! I was so surprised when I went to cheer on a friend. It’s such an emotional event.”
“You should do it too, then,” said my father. His voice didn’t flicker. He didn’t look up from the cup of coffee he was making. His hands remained steady at the task. All very well, coming from a man who’d run several marathons when we were children, but this was me we were talking about.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” I exclaimed. “I can’t run.”
“You don’t run,” he corrected me. “But you’re more than able.” There was no shadow of doubt in his voice. Hearing it from someone else made me realize: There was nothing stopping me from running but me.
And that was that. The seed was planted.
The next morning I announced that I was not to be broken. August’s dismal performance was an anomaly to be forgotten. Indeed, I would run again. I started making a kerfuffle on a scale that suggested I was planning to run home from South Wiltshire to North London. I commanded my father’s computer for hours, Googling “small run northwest London,” “how to know if you can do 5K,” “supplies needed for 5K run,” and various permutations of the same.
I downloaded maps, I discussed nutrition and running style with my brother, and I chatted about shoes and bras with my sister. Somewhat exasperated, my father explained that I had two working legs, no medical problems, and a lot of long walks under my belt. He reminded me that it would be about half an hour before adding, “If you get tired, you just walk. You know you can do that.”
It was afternoon before I returned to London. By the time I got to the Regent’s Park tube station, night had fallen. I hugged the darkness to me, relieved that no one would be able to see the fear on my face. I crossed into the park, made sure no one was around, and set off.
At first it was exactly like the last time: the burning, the panting, the panic. This time there were two key differences: I was not in my neighborhood, so there was little chance of seeing anyone I knew; and I was running a loop, so I had to get back to where I had started. After about twelve minutes, a miracle: It got easier. My heart rate, while still high, started to even out. Instead of feeling like a never-ending heaven-bound roller coaster that would only ever go up, I steadied. The two beats of my feet started to match the two beats of my breathing—in and out. I was doing it. Yes, my legs were hurting. Yes, I was scared that I would never make it all the way around the park. But yes! I was running.
By the time I got home from my second run, I was awash with a heady cocktail of endorphins and undiluted smugness. I did some ostentatious stretching with my lights on and curtains open, took a bath (curtains closed), and ate a bowl of pasta approximately the same size as my sister’s wedding cake.
It was as if I were experiencing a reverse hangover. The wondrous, magical, heady phase of being drunk lasts for such little time—an hour, perhaps three at best, before it melts into discomfort, delirium, or just plain boredom. Yet the hangover can last a day or two. Finally, I could see with startling clarity that the time I had spent experiencing pain on a run was outweighed by the amount of time that I felt good about it. I was aglow. I was invincible. I was thinking I might be able to do it again.
One of the few concrete pieces of advice my father had given me the weekend before was to keep a running diary so that I could remind myself how I felt after different runs. When I look at that first entry, it says this:
18th October 2007
5K round Regent’s Park
So exhausted after 12 mins. but then it seemed okay. Felt so much easier than expected. Might go again!
The next day I e-mailed my brother. I was going to run; I was going to need a goal to keep me on course. Bumbling around the park indefinitely would not hold my attention, and I wasn’t going to see my brother embark on a marathon without me. After all, this might be my only chance for a training partner.
“Hey, do you have that application form for the London Marathon?”
I pressed send.
Posted November 3, 2013
Reading Heminsley's honest and funny account of her journey to becoming A Runner is inspiring! The book is divided into two parts. The first recounts her decision to run in the London marathon (and the other races); her training, setbacks, and triumphs; and her reflections on all of it--most especially why she comes to love running. She is at her most absorbing when she's being reflective, but because she is very funny and so informative (Heminsley is a journalist), the book is engaging whether she is engaged in this reflection or not. She's just a regular girl who runs. Awesome! The second part is a compendium of everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-running (common injuries, gear, running a marathon) that couldn't necessarily be woven into the memoir. This saves the memoir from being unnecessarily bogged down, but means portions of part two are repetitive. A book like a good run--brisk and invigorating.
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Posted December 23, 2013
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