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Your Pace or Mine?
What Running Taught Me About Life, Laughter and Coming Last
By Lisa Jackson
Summersdale Publishers LtdCopyright © 2016 Lisa Jackson
All rights reserved.
What running taught me about ... taking the first step
"Life leaps like a geyser for those who drill through the rock of inertia"
I blame my parents. When asked why I've fallen in love with something I have no chance of ever winning at and that I often find unbelievably difficult, it's the only logical conclusion I can come to. If I hadn't grown up with a Dad who was a national cross-country champion at university, I probably wouldn't be a runner today. And if one of my earliest memories of my mother hadn't been of her running up the steep hill next to our house in Pretoria in South Africa wearing a groovy little Pucci-print miniskirt, I'm sure I'd now spend my spare time swigging wine as a member of a book club, or singing gospel in a choir. Civilised pursuits that don't involve stinky kit, bulk-buying diarrhoea medication or your toenails looking like pork scratchings. But no, I, the world's most unathletic baby, had to go and be born to two activity-addicted parents.
Ever since I'd been given a school report that gave me the worst possible score for 'gross motor co-ordination' and the best possible scores for everything else (I was a six-year-old super-nerd), I'd convinced my parents, myself and everyone around me that I was 'the unathletic one' or 'the academic one', whereas my sister Loren was 'the sporty one'. I'd always associated running with embarrassment and shame – anything but elation. Like many kids, I didn't like doing things I wasn't good at. And boy, I was always spectacularly bad at running. I vividly recall break-time at primary school, when our teacher would tell us to run across the football pitch and back. I'd obediently plod along and then turn round, only to see that all my schoolfriends were already back with the teacher, sniggering at me while tucking into their fish-paste sandwiches.
Somehow I found myself, aged 12, running a 5K race around Kyalami, at that time a renowned South African Grand Prix racetrack. I hadn't wanted to go, of course, but my Mum dragged me along. I'd seen Formula One races on TV, so it was strangely thrilling running round the corners that Jody Scheckter, South Africa's 'Wild Man of Motorsport', had hurtled past. I can still remember how awkward running felt then, but also how elated I'd been when I was waved across the finish line, just like a racing car, by a man brandishing a huge black-and-white chequered flag. It was my first taste of the excitement of a big race, but despite my joy at making it round the Kyalami track, it would be ten years before I entered another race.
* * *
So, back to blaming my parents. My Mum didn't just drag me to my first 5K, she set an example by going for a jog, as she called it, every day. She ran long before the running boom really got off the ground or even before you could readily buy running kit: most people just pulled on a cotton T-shirt, shorts and some uncushioned tennis shoes and that was that. I'm not sure where she got the idea to run in a miniskirt from, but it was the 1970s and glamour was all-important. I wasn't tempted to join my mother – not once. I wasn't envious at all of the strange looks she got from our bemused neighbours as she trotted by. I didn't want to be stared at or come home all sweaty or run up the killer hill our house stood at the bottom of.
But my Dad had other ideas. He'd never lost his love of running, and while devoting himself to earning five university degrees and raising a family, he continued to run at least 5K daily, something he does to this day, aged 76. He attributes still being able to fit into his high-school blazer to this little habit he acquired way back when.
My younger sister Loren and I had long ago learned how to trick my Dad – when he used to insist we brush our teeth every evening, we would dutifully troop to the bathroom, thoroughly wet our toothbrushes, place them back in the holder, and then march smugly off to bed, delighted at having outwitted him. So, as a teenager, when my Dad started encouraging us to go for a 2K run each day – and began to check that we'd done so – I knew I could hoodwink him here, too. I'd occasionally shuffle round the block but more often than not I'd get my kit on, leave the house and hide between two parked cars reading a book I'd stuffed up my T-shirt. After 15 minutes I'd sprint the 100 metres home, arriving puffed out enough to convince everyone I'd been for a run.
* * *
Years of exercise avoidance followed. I suffered from a phantom case of athlete's foot at high school – for five years – so I didn't have to participate in swimming lessons. In my first job on South African Cosmopolitan magazine I joined a gym – and went once. I moved to the UK in 1993 at the age of 25. Having joined UK Cosmopolitan magazine I adopted a toxic lifestyle of long hours, late-night drinking and eating takeaways standing up on the Tube on the way home. I became so unfit I even struggled to run for the phone, and got breathless walking up a single flight of stairs.
And then, aged 30, one year after I'd begun working for a health magazine called Zest, something nothing short of miraculous happened: a colleague persuaded me to enter a 5K Race for Life in Battersea Park and I surprised myself by agreeing to go. 'How hard can it be?' I thought, steadfastly avoiding training and turning up in some flimsy plimsolls I'd swiped off the freebie table at work. Of course, I spent most of the race walking, and when I did run, each step thudded onto the road, sending a shockwave up my leg to my more-than-ample bottom. Running was infinitely harder, and more unpleasant, than I ever remembered. Who likes the sound of their butt flicking the tops of their thighs? Who enjoys having a face the colour of a stop sign? And yet I rushed home afterwards high as a kite, eager to tell my husband Graham about it. Because what had blown me away about the event wasn't the running itself – at that stage it was way too hard to like, even for a few steps – it was the atmosphere. Hundreds of partners, husbands and friends had turned out to cheer us, and I remember being very moved by the sight of several dads under a tree jigging babies on their hips while swilling champagne and guarding a giant pile of kitbags.
I got chatting to a group of women who were all doing the race for loved ones affected by cancer. As they told their stories I could barely see where I was going, my vision was so blurred by tears. Far from being competitive with one another, these women were collaborative, turning round to shout encouragement at other participants, urging them to keep going. I didn't learn anyone's name that day but I did get reminded, once again, that running didn't have to mean feeling like a loser, even if you did finish at the back. I also realised that while running really was hard, and involved unimaginable amounts of huffing and puffing, jiggling and wobbling, it also resulted in unimaginable amounts of joy once you'd done it. And when they gave me my medal, well, that was it. I didn't comprehend it then, but they had me. They had me for life. That night I started a tradition I've kept up ever since – I went to sleep wearing it.
* * *
By 1998 my aunt Rosemary, my Dad's sister who lived in Oxford with her British husband Ian, had already spent five years trying to persuade me to run a 10K with her. Aunty Rosie had a not-so-secret ambition of turning me into her running partner. One of the first things she'd said to me when I'd arrived in England was, 'Are you still running?' I'm sure she knew full well I'd never started running but she continued to nag me gently to enter a race with her. In the end it wasn't pester power that won the day, or even the fantastic time I had at the charity 5K, but all-consuming envy. My aunt announced that she'd got a place in the Great North Run, at that time the world's biggest half marathon.
'Noooooo!' I thought. 'Aunty Rosie's almost double my age and now she's going to be able to say she's run a half marathon!' The word 'marathon', even though it was preceded by the word 'half', sounded impressively, impossibly far.
That very day I posted off my race application, half of me hoping that I'd left it so late I wouldn't get in. But fate had other ideas. Just a few weeks later a letter arrived in the post. I had been given a place. I remember jumping into the air, punching my fists ceilingwards, but even before my feet hit the floor a terrible realisation hit me: I'd actually have to run 21K. Over 13 miles. A scary 16K longer than my red-faced Race for Life. What now? In the age before Google I rushed to consult a running-mad colleague.
'How do I find out how to train for a half marathon?' I asked Zest's Deputy Editor Sally Brown.
'Runner's World,' she replied sagely. 'Try reading Runner's World.'
Wow, there was actually a whole magazine dedicated to running? Who knew? And so it was that I became Runner's World's No 1 fan, stalkerish in my desire to pick up every shred, scrap and crumb of knowledge that would help me attain my new goal. I read every single word, starting from the Editor's letter all the way through to the Classifieds in the back. I even read all the dozens of advertising leaflets and flyers that came with it. And by the time I'd finished I felt I knew every staff member personally. To me they were the Rock Gods of Running. I knew their times, I knew the last race they'd run, I knew what they ate for breakfast.
Nick Troop particularly endeared himself to me when he wrote in his Publisher's letter about his newfound respect for runners at the back of the pack. As a runner capable of doing a marathon in under four hours (the benchmark for officially being called 'speedy'), he'd once been asked to pace runners aiming to finish in under six hours and had been amazed at how difficult he'd found it. He cited spending over two hours longer on his feet as the main reason for the agony he suffered – and had been full of praise for the tortoises he'd until then tended to dismiss as not having made as much effort as the front runners. 'Slow runners, I salute you!' was his humble apology. I was utterly amazed and very moved that a fast runner had taken the time to acknowledge that we runners at the back of the pack deserved praise just as much – if not more so – than our fleeter-footed friends.
* * *
My favourite page in Runner's World was The Penguin Chronicles written by John 'The Penguin' Bingham who, as a 43-year-old, 240-lb (109-kg) smoker, had taken the plunge and morphed into a slow runner with the catchphrase 'Waddle on, friends'. One column particularly touched me. In it, The Penguin described running a marathon next to a 40-something man who had tears streaming down his face. When asked why he was crying the runner, who'd already told The Penguin how he'd always worked hard, raised a family and done all the things he thought he should do, had replied: 'Because ... I just realised that in my entire life, no one has ever cheered for me before.' At that, The Penguin, too, had started to cry.
Every time I re-read that story I couldn't help but well up. Because I knew exactly what he meant. The fact that people who didn't know you wanted you to achieve your goal – and were prepared to shout themselves hoarse to let you know that – was almost unbearably moving. It was the exact feeling of uplift and gratitude I'd felt while running the Race for Life. Like the crying marathoner, I too had done all the things I'd believed were expected of me: excelling at school, being a dutiful daughter and a super-conscientious employee. And yet no one had cheered. Now I had the chance to be cheered – all I had to do was run more than twice as far as I'd ever done before. The thought terrified me.
Fuelled by fear I embarked on Runner's World's half-marathon training plan. Fortunately, Day One involved only one thing: Rest. 'Oh good,' I thought, 'I'm going to do just fine as I'm exceedingly good at resting.' Day Two was heaps more challenging than Day One, as I actually had to do some running. Without the distractions of chatting and cheering that I'd had in my 5K, I focused on what was happening to my body, and it wasn't pretty. I was plagued by chafing – my knees would rub together until they were raw, and when later I swapped from shorts to cotton trousers the constant friction between my thighs created holes in the fabric. It would be years before I discovered the deep joy of Lycra capris.
Having found my ideal time to run – during a section of my commute home from central London – the days turned into weeks and I was relieved to notice that after a while my bottom stopped jellying about and I was able to run ever-increasing distances without searching for the nearest park bench to sit on and catch my breath.
* * *
That autumn Aunty Rosie and I travelled up to Newcastle-upon-Tyne for the Great North Run. On race day I liberally dusted myself with glitter, intending to run dressed as the famed Tyne and Wear landmark, the Angel of the North, Antony Gormley's stunning 20-metre-tall steel sculpture with a 54metre wingspan. The event couldn't have been more of a 'Wow' if they'd attached feathered showgirl headdresses to each of the 50,000 runners taking part. As we surged over the iconic Tyne Bridge the Red Arrows aerobatic display team screeched overhead, trailing patriotic red, white and blue smoke, causing me to look up and lose my feathered halo. Although I was more than happy to continue running in just my angel wings, Aunty Rosie darted backwards, frantically scrabbling for the halo and triumphantly retrieving it. In the process she almost caused the running equivalent of a motorway pile-up: the air turned even bluer as dozens of angry runners blurted out expletives while trying to dodge her.
Undaunted we pressed on, revelling in the crowd's rapturous cheering, doing disco-dancing moves every time we encountered a band belting out a pop song, chanting 'Oggi, oggi, oggi! Oi, oi, oi!' with utter delight as we passed through the underpasses. But our jollity turned to dismay when, as the minutes ticked by, it grew colder and colder and started to rain. Being half-marathon virgins we'd dressed in T-shirts and hadn't brought along running jackets. We simply hadn't accounted for how temperamental the British weather can be. We tried to ignore the cold and rain and focus on the pot-banging spectators and grinning kids in South Shields for the final few miles, but had to resort to running with our hands tucked in our armpits to keep them warm.
Our second schoolgirl error was not bringing any food. We'd assumed there'd be plenty of snacks, or at least sports drinks, along the route, but I don't recall being offered any at all. We both started to feel slightly faint, so when a spectator stepped forward with a cardboard box full of race refreshments we eagerly ran over to grab some to boost our blood sugar. Unfortunately, the kind stranger had obviously assumed we'd be running on a hot and sunny day and had, therefore, thoughtfully stocked up on ice lollies to help cool us down. With chattering teeth, we each forced one down, despite the fact that they made us feel even more frigid than we had before.
* * *
Eventually, after interminable hills and a short, sharp downhill section that made many of us yelp in pain, we were on the home straight. Running beside the sleet-dusted North Sea we experienced a growing sense of disbelief. We'd made it. We had actually run half of that most magical of distances, a marathon. Crossing the finish line with our stopwatches reading 2h55, my aunt, her chin blue with cold, gave me a huge hug. Then, like two tipsy old ladies who'd gone a little overboard with the sherry, we hung onto each other for dear life as we zigzagged over to a charity tent to warm up. Having eagerly wriggled out of our sopping wet clothes and pulled on dry ones, we tucked into a huge portion of steaming-hot, vinegary chips. Paradise on a paper plate.
On the top deck of the double-decker bus that transported us from the finish back into the town centre, Aunty Rosie and I stared out of the window. As the miles rolled by it dawned on us – we'd actually run all of this. Yes, on our own two feet we'd covered a distance that was taking absolute ages to traverse by bus. We were now 'real' runners. We wanted to open a window and shout this astonishing news to anyone who'd listen. The hypothermia and hypoglycaemia were already distant memories because all we could think of, as we lovingly stroked our medals, was 'What's next?'
So what did running teach me about getting started? I learned that the longest journey really does begin with a single step (even if that step is taken in plimsolls). But that that single step is, in all likelihood, the hardest you'll ever take. It taught me that with any project or ambition it's best not to overthink things, something my political-analyst husband catchily calls 'analysis paralysis', but just to jump in feet first and see how things pan out. If I'd waited till I was properly trained and owned the right trainers to enter Race for Life I probably wouldn't be a runner today. The secret to getting started? St Francis of Assisi summed it up perfectly: 'Start by doing what is necessary. Then do what is possible. And suddenly you're doing the impossible.'
Excerpted from Your Pace or Mine? by Lisa Jackson. Copyright © 2016 Lisa Jackson. Excerpted by permission of Summersdale Publishers Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 What running taught me about… taking the first step 21
Chapter 2 What running taught me about… fear 41
Chapter 3 What running taught me about… never, never, never giving up 71
Chapter 4 What running taught me about… laughing 97
Chapter 5 What running taught me about… lifesaving 123
Chapter 6 What running taught me about… death 151
Chapter 7 What running taught me about… dreaming big 171
Chapter 8 What running taught me about… failure and success 201
Chapter 9 What running taught me about… nudity 231
Chapter 10 What I can teach you about running 245
Chapter 11 Your running record 302
About the Author 319