Running is my sanity and my strength. It has got me through some very tough times – hitting the pavements was definitely smarter than the alternative, hitting the bottle. So, when I came up with the idea of 50 Challenges, there seemed only one obvious way to launch it: with a run.
If the timing of the New York Marathon hadn’t been perfect, I would have found another event to mark the start of 50 Challenges. The fact that it is the day after my 50th birthday made it a natural choice: the planets had aligned to give me the chance to run a World Marathon Major, celebrate my milestone with my family in a fantastic city and launch something which, the more I have worked on it and talked about it with peers, the more I have understood is zeitgeist for our generation.
So that’s why it’s New York. But, as I said, if the timing hadn’t worked for New York, I would have found another running event for my first challenge and to launch 50 Challenges, because running has been key to me rebuilding myself following severe depression in my mid-forties.
I took it up by accident: I needed to make a public commitment to get fitter after struggling on an annual walking holiday. The medication that had caused my depression had also made me to put on two stone; after coming off the medication, I had managed to shed one, but was still a stone heavier than I feel comfortable with. I felt sluggish, and I struggled with the first three days’ walking.
Admittedly, that was the first year we decided to dispense with a luggage transfer company and carry everything we needed in our packs. And the first three days out of St Ives towards the Lizard on the South West Coastal Path were tough (I suspect that if we had been walking the other way, the gradually increasing gradients would have meant that I would have taken the walk in my stride and never become an accidental runner). But even given those factors, I was ashamed that I struggled with the walk; I had always considered myself a healthy, active person, but my panting up the inclines told a different story. When I came home, I resolved that I would never be that unfit again.
I am not a natural runner. I cannot sprint to save my life; at secondary school I volunteered for long-distance and cross-country running. I was never any good at it, but it was less humiliating than coming last in the 100 metres; if you limp in at end of a cross country race, dripping with mud, people just feel sorry for you.
I had previously done a bit of fair-weather jogging, as an easy way to try and fit in some exercise around a desk job. I would get to the point where I could manage three miles without collapsing, and then there would be a raindrop or I would have sniffle, and I wouldn’t go out for another four months.
But after my struggle on the South West Coastal Path, I resolved to be fitter. So, I took the dog to some local fields, determined to make the most of six days’ challenging walking in my legs; I ran one side of the first field – and collapsed. I could not believe that I was that unfit.
Dismayed, I did the only obvious thing: I came home and announced that I was running our local half marathon in six months. I figured the only way I was going to get fit was to make myself publicly accountable, so I told everyone: family, friends, business colleagues. Then I looked up training plans for half marathons, and figured I had enough time to make good on my promise.
And that’s why I took up running.
Training for that first half marathon, during one of the wettest winters on record, I learnt that:
If you run four times a week, you start to enjoy it (as opposed to running twice a week, when every run is an effort).
Getting out into the fresh air for an hour is a fantastic tonic, even when you are shattered and just want to collapse on the sofa.
Running is as much about the mental space as the physical benefits.
If it’s raining, you don’t get any more wet after the first mile.
If it’s really raining, after five miles the water in your shoes begins to warm up.
If it’s really, really raining, you only pass other runners; dog walkers, cyclists and horse riders all stay indoors, but the runners keep to their schedules.
Even if you know nothing about running, there are great apps that will guide you through to conquer your target – just do what they tell you to do.
If you think you can’t step up to the next level (as I didn’t, the first time I had to run six miles), just do it; if you are following a good training plan, you will surprise yourself by taking it in your stride.
Not every run is great – even when you do everything right, some runs still feel like wading through treacle. But every run is an achievement: because you ran when you were feeling tired, because you went out even though it was raining, because you ran your furthest. And, very occasionally, because you ran your fastest.
One run in 10 feels like flying. And every screaming muscle, every bruised toe, every early start, is worth it for that one in 10.
I also learnt that, while I can’t sprint 100m, I can plod credibly for two hours. So that is also why I took up running. Before my first half marathon, I told my family I would never step it up to a full marathon; but I loved the experience of the race so much (so much more fun than 13 miles on your own in training) that I put my name down for a place at the London Marathon the following year.
When I got an email from the Multiple Sclerosis Society saying I had got a place with them, we were in the middle of some very challenging times within our family. My mother’s exact words were: “You don’t have time to train for a marathon, you are needed at home.” She has never exercised, so I couldn’t explain to her that I needed this to be able to get through the challenges at home. And I did: the following months were very tough, and the only times I had mental escape were when I was running. Running enabled me to build up a physical strength that I had never had before, but it also provided my sanity. And it gave me my only tangible measurable at a time when everything else was slipping away.
I know that running is not everyone’s cup of tea, and it certainly doesn’t have to feature in everyone’s #50Challenges – your challenges should inspire and motivate you, and if running doesn’t do that for you, it is not a relevant challenge. But there are five reasons why I run, and why I will continue to run:
I like having a strong body, and the contrast of this to when I was unfit and struggled.
I like that it forces me to get outside.
I like that it forces me to take time out.
I like the mental clarity it brings.
I like the sense of achievement as well as the measurable achievements.
Running has been integral to me rebuilding myself after hitting a physical and mental low in my forties.
It has also been key to getting me through some very tough times. And that’s why 50 Challenges had to start with a run.
To sponsor Siobhan's run for the MS Society please donate here.