If you follow me on Twitter, then you’re probably familiar with my frequent tweets about running. I was never much of a runner until recently, but in the past year or so, it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that I’ve become addicted to running.
I aim to do a 20 mile+ run every Sunday, and try to squeeze in a couple of gentle 10km jogs during the week, too.
Almost every time I write something on Twitter after one of my long Sunday runs at least one person will ask if I’m training for a marathon – and if not, why I don’t consider doing one. The answer to the first question is a simple “no”; the answer to the second is a little more complex.
A few years ago, I did consider entering the London Marathon for charity. I told family and friends I was going to enter and then never did. At the time, I think a lack of self-belief that I could ever run that distance was a large factor – but looming equally large over my decision not to enter was the knowledge that people would be watching me run, texting me afterwards to ask how I did, and asking me what my time was. In short – I’d be setting myself up to be judged on how I did in the marathon, and that was enough for me to abandon the plan to run it.
These days, running the marathon distance would be possible. I regularly run 20 miles around the parks and towpaths of East London and occasionally stretch that to a 40km run if I’m feeling particularly energetic or if the mood takes me on a given day. I’d never say running that distance is easy and even though I’ve done it many times, running 20 miles is still a both a physical and mental challenge; that’s not to deny it gets easier then more I do it, though – I just don’t think it will ever be “easy”.
But still, even though I know I could do the distance, the thought of the London Marathon fills me with dread. So if it’s not the distance, what is it? Well the part which fills me with dread is the part which people who’ve run the race tell you will act as an encouragement – it’s the spectacle of the event and the crowds lining the route. Let me explain – or at least try to.
I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with sport, and a general distaste for anything which involves being watched by other people. I’m sure a psychologist would have plenty to say about incidents in my childhood which may precipitate such things, but let’s just take those as a given for now. Sport in general was always difficult for me. Never a coordinated child, I excelled at all things academic throughout school, but was never the sporty type. I still can’t kick a ball in a straight line or throw a tennis ball with anything other than wild inaccuracy.
Objectively, I’ve never been fat. I’ve carried a few extra pounds at various points in my life, but I’ve never gone above a 34 inch waist. But still, I’ve never been happy with my size and so a few years ago decided that exercise was the solution. My first choice of sport was badminton. I had played a few times socially, but decided to start taking it seriously and played regularly. It was great fun, but in the end I realised I was taking it too seriously and wasn’t really enjoying it anymore, and so my playing fizzled and I’ve not played for a few months now.
Around the same time I started running. Initially I was just running a very short 2km route from home, around Wapping and back home again. It was hard work, but eventually I got to running it without stopping and that felt like an achievement. I got up as far as running 10km around a different loop, and ran that distance regularly. Then one day I decided to try going a bit further until I ran around the loop three times for my first 30k run, earlier this year.
But running around the same loop three times is very boring, and so eventually I decided to try a new route. I walked the route first, as familiarity with the route was important to my self-confidence in running it. Eventually the regular Sunday morning run grew in length until it reached 20 miles – from Wapping up the Lee Valley Navigation and back with a little detour around Victoria Park on the way.
When I’m out running, I get myself into a little world of my own. I put on an mp3 player and turn the volume up loud enough for me to be lost in the music – but not so loud as to drown out the world around me. I focus just on the path ahead, and don’t look sideways as I’m running – quite literally. My route is chosen so that there are as few people around as possible. Most of the other people on the route are cyclists who appear and disappear quickly or other runners as absorbed in their own world as I.
Even if there are people idly sitting by the side of the canal watching everyone as they wander past, if I think they are watching me, I start to feel tense and lose my stride. My usual response is to speed up to be past them as quickly as possible. I know that they aren’t really watching me, but even the feeling that they may be is enough to make me self-conscious and speed past them.
So imagine that feeling multiplied by however many thousand people watch the London Marathon from the sidelines as the runners go past. Whereas many people would see this as an encouragement, to me it would just increase the sense of competition and weaken my confidence in finishing the race with a respectable time.
I could run a marathon if I had an invisibility suit. If nobody could see me do it and I couldn’t hear the crowd at the sidelines. I would wear blinkers and stare straight ahead. I would put on my mp3 player (yes, you are allowed to wear them during a marathon...) and ignore the crowd. I wouldn’t have my name on my shirt for people to shout, and would probably wear sunglasses so that people couldn’t see my eyes. I would aim for a time of between 4 and 4 and a half hours so as to be amongst many other runners who would surround me and hide me from the crowd. And most importantly, I wouldn’t tell anyone I was doing it – that way, nobody would expect to see me and nobody would be looking for me. I would just be another anonymous runner amongst the thousands slowly making my way around 26 miles in the April sunshine.
So there you have it. I’m not going to do a marathon. I’ll happily run the distance and I’m sure I’ll run 26 miles more than once this summer during my Sunday outings – but I’m not going to enter an organised marathon in the foreseeable future.
And when I do eventually enter one, I shalln’t be telling anyone about it before, during or afterwards.