Article by Ellie Sutcliffe - All rights reserved
It is common, on the 1st of January, to make new year's resolutions. People may resolve to drink less, eat more healthily, do more exercise, etc. For some, this can lead to discovering a new sport, such as running. For me, my love affair with running did not start in this way, but the arrival of another new year with new running goals to be set and personal targets to be met has got me wondering, why run?
I quiver in horror at the recollection of secondary school athletics. I remember finishing in the top 5 in my year group at cross country every year and this endowed me with the dubious honour of being selected to represent the school at various cross country and track and field events throughout the year. The memory of lining up in sub-zero degree temperatures, on a bitter winter's morning, in an exposed muddy field at St. Austell Rugby Club, clad only in a pair of briefs and a crop top, has been etched into my mind for all eternity. Even back then, my talents must have lay in the longer distance events – much to my annoyance – as I was invariably picked for the 800m and 1500m races in the summer. I hated them! My best friend, Shanna, was a sprinter, and I used to be envious that her discomfort was over after a 14 or so second burst, whereas mine went on for up to 5 minutes! I recall, on more than one occasion, arriving at Carn Brea or Newquay and Par athletics track and spinning a yarn to my PE teacher that I felt sick in order to duck out of competing. So, how did I get from being someone with a modicum of fitness and aptitude for running and yet a complete loathing and fear of doing it competitively, to someone who simply cannot cannot get enough of it and who readily embraces the associated pain of pushing her body to the limit in a race? It's an interesting question and one which I am not sure I have an answer for.
I know that I spent most of my teenage years using and abusing running as a part of an unhealthy exercise and weight loss obsession, and thus, as a result, grew to hate it even more. Running became something that I had to do in order to justify eating. I would run (outside, if the weather wasn't too atrocious, or else up and down my staircase for hours on end if it was) morning, afternoon and evening. If I missed a session, I would panic that my fitness would suddenly and dramatically plummet and that I would turn into a lazy, loafing layabout with no self-discipline, and would then have to double my routine the next day. There was certainly no such thing as a “rest day”. When I finally managed to free myself from this obsessive routine, the last thing I felt like doing was signing up to a sport that might reignite the same compulsive behaviours. I did go for the occasional jog or run on the treadmill at the gym to keep fit, but my main sport during my university years was horse riding. However, not having taken this up until my twenties, risk awareness and a resulting lack of nerve always held me back from achieving what I might have done had I taken up the sport as a fearless youngster. I dabbled with many sports throughout my childhood and teenage years but invariably quit after a few short years, finding myself in some way unsuited to them: ballet (not graceful enough), tennis (not coordinated enough), swimming (not patient enough), and yoga (not “zen” enough). Running is the only sport I have found that I feel so strongly about, I cannot imagine getting bored of it. The reason for this, I believe, is because it suits my personality; running and I just 'go'. I am mentally tough enough for it, I am dedicated enough for it, and it doesn't require me to be elegant and graceful and poised. It does, however, require an element of patience, and my lack of this commodity has thus far been my downfall. It is my impatient want-it-all-now-right-now personality that has led to me having experienced a string of injuries the past couple of years. When I fixate upon something, I want to achieve it as soon as possible. No biding my time, no chipping away at it slowly, methodically working towards a long-term end goal. In May 2010, I decided I wanted to run a marathon. I was 26 years old, living in North Wales, and the 26.2 mile Anglesey Marathon was due to take place on 26th September: it seemed like an omen. I signed up, through myself headlong into training and I ran the marathon 4 months later in 3 hours 19 minutes. I was worried beforehand that I would come last, that everyone would be waiting for me, and that it would be hugely embarrassing. As it was, I finished as 2nd lady, it had felt quite comfortable, and I was convinced that, with more training, I could go faster, further. Whilst my legs were still like jelly and the post-marathon euphoria was still coursing through my veins, I signed up for an ultra-marathon. I was hooked.
It is now widely recognised that regular exercise makes you feel more positive, No scientific mysteries here: exercise releases endorphins and endorphins are hormones that make us feel happy. Simples. I know that since taking up running I am the happiest I have ever been. I have more energy and more motivation towards life in general. I feel more confident as a person: after a good run I regularly feel as tough I could take on the world and emerge victorious (I would say that anyone who has completed an ultra-marathon will have experienced this feeling to an extent!) There is something about running marathons and ultras, and achieving times in 5ks and 10ks that most of the non-running population could not even comprehend, that entitles you to feel just a little bit smug and superior. I can vaguely recall my reaction, during my pre-running days, when someone told me they had run a marathon – A marathon! 26 miles? (“26.2 miles”). Are you insane?! Why? – but now I get it. Now I get the lady who lived down the road from us when I was growing up in Cornwall, who I'd see out running almost every day, in almost every weather; at whom my parents would scoff, insisting that she must have “issues” as no sane person should willingly put themselves through that on a daily basis. This was the eighties, and whilst the running boom had hit the male population in earnest, women who participated seriously in the sport were still a rare commodity. (Not forgetting that the first time women were allowed to run the marathon distance at the Olympics was not until 1984, in Los Angeles). I was born in 1983: things have come a long way for females in the sport since then. Nowadays, on occasion, women even outrun men, particularly in ultra-distance events in which our testosterone-devoid, more measured approach to racing and pacing regularly pays dividends. Furthermore, luminous yellow and pink lycra clad ladies are now a regular sight, pounding pavements the length and breath of the country, come rain, come shine. I am proud to be one of these women and proud to be a part of such a friendly, supportive, all-inclusive sport.
I cannot, at this time, envisage a life without running. I know that when I am injured or ill and cannot run, I stress more; I worry about silly little things: Did I lock the front door when I left the house this morning? (yes, always do). Did I leave my watch behind in the locker at the pool? (Oh, wait, it's here on my wrist). Will I make it to work without filling up with petrol? (Easily; I have a quarter of a tank left). Running definitely balances me. I will never be sufficiently “zen” to reap the benefits of a yoga class (I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking, upon emerging from the class, 'well, that's an hour of my life I'll never get back'), but, so long as I can run, I am as close to zen as I am ever likely to get!
So, if I were to push myself to answer the question 'why run?', I suppose it would be because I cannot imagine what I would do with myself or what I would be like if I didn't run. Running and me are now intertwined; impossible for me to extricate myself from it without losing a part of me in the process. Running is me, I am running. But that is me: why do you run? Why should anyone run? Indeed, why run?