THE JOYS OF RUNNING AND OTHER STORIES

Back in the day, sometime in the late 1970s to early 80s, I was quite a good little middle distance runner.

My heyday lasted just a year or so, when I was about 12 or 13. I was Shropshire county cross country champion, reached regional finals for 800m and 1500m, ran regularly for my local club (Shrewsbury & Atcham AC) and had an 800m PB of 2 mins 16 secs. Now I doubt I could break four minutes.

In those days parental involvement was muted. Any folks who showed a keen interest in their child’s athletics development were viewed as pushy, needy and, frankly, pretty wierd.

My mum and dad, like most of my friends’ parents, supported me by making sure I had the kit I needed, ferrying me to and from events when needed, giving me entry fees for races and asking me how my training was going. The last thing I wanted back then was for my parents to hang around while I was at training sessions with my friends, or for them to get involved in coaching or transport. Running was My Thing, something I did that was separate from school and family life.

Despite this adolescent insouciance, I recall with great clarity every single time my folks turned up at a race meeting to cheer me on. It only happened a handful of times, but obviously their presence meant a huge amount to me, even if at the time I would have died rather than tell them so.

Now, as a parent myself, I can’t imagine being anything other than cheerleader-in-chief, photographer extraordinaire and manager supreme, should my boys discover their passion lies with a particular sport. I will be right there, every step of the way, just as I am with most anything they do. It would be frowned upon these days to be anything less.

I wonder if I would have shown the same passion back in the 70s and 80s, when parental involvement was not encouraged like it is now. I like to think so – I believe it is a Very Good Thing to share in and get involved in your children’s activities.

But there is a fine line between encouragement and being overbearing; between supporting your child and putting undue pressure on them; between helping them and doing the work for them. (I also feel for the poor sods running the activities, usually as volunteers. Who’d choose to be a gym coach or kids’ football team manager or Scout leader these days, faced with all those beady eyes scrutinising their every move and hanging on their every word?)

I know lots of parents who feel under enormous pressure to “conform” and be fascinated by every little thing their child does and says. It’s not good enough these days to provide them with the opportunities – we have to share in and endure them as well. And if you suggest that, actually, it’s pretty boring to sit through another choir practice or judo session, you may as well sign the kids over to social services.

I wasted an hour of my life yesterday attending an information session for new parents at the primary school where my youngest will start in September. While our little darlings were getting to know each other and their teacher, we were herded into the school hall to take part in some maths activities designed to help us help our children to master numbers.

Now, I think activities like this are really useful and full marks to the school for organising them (there are two more to come!) But having previously taken part in similar sessions for my firstborn, and having been a volunteer TA at the school working with children on this very topic, there was absolutely no need for me to stay. I could instead have used the time to pop home, have a cuppa, do some paperwork, ironing, anything. However, I felt compelled to stay, to show that I was a SUPPORTIVE PARENT, and to make sure my name was on The List. (You know, the one every teacher keeps, listing the parents who give a damn. Being on The List gives little Jonny a good chance of getting picked to be in the photo shoot in the local newspaper or of landing good parts in the school play. Come on, you know it’s true.)

I’d like to get back to running now, which was intended to be the theme of today’s blog. See how my little brain works, leaping from subject to subject in the blink of any eye? Try being in my mind for a day, it’s fascinating.

So, by the time I turned 15 I had hung up my spikes. I didn’t even go running for pleasure – I just called a complete halt. I went from running three or four times a week, plus races, to nothing. Nada. Zilch. I’d replaced the joys of pounding the streets with hanging about on them; swapped making myself breathless through endeavour for filling my lungs with cigarette smoke in a quest to be cool.

Over the last 10 years I have dabbled again in this most simple of exercises. Like my weight, my interest in running has yo-yo’ed dramatically over the past decade or so. I have completed a few 10k races, red faced but respectably not last; a few more 5k events; managed two or three triathlons;  and even entered a half marathon before pulling out a few weeks before due to illness (and lack of training if truth be told.)

Earlier this year I decided I needed some support to get the most out of running, so signed up to a beginners’ course for runners offered by Kidderminster & Stourport AC, from their fabulous new base at Stourport Sports Club.

I turned up on the first night, with some trepidation, to meet a roomful of like minded men and women. About half were fit enough to join one of the regular running groups immediately; the rest of us would be put through our paces more gently.

We were all manner of shapes and sizes. I’m always amazed to discover that people who are thinner and younger than me can’t always run as far as me, but that’s how it turned out.

Anyway, in exchange for £20 I enjoyed three sessions of running a week for eight weeks, led by Theresa and Pam, a funny and encouraging pair of coaches. I also go to meet some absolutely fab new friends and, perhaps most importantly, rediscovered my love of running. It’s not helped me shed weight yet, but I think that will only come once I stop eating all the pies.

My new interest in running caused me to revisit the work of Haruki Murakami. Now I’ve loved the work of Murakami for years – his charming and gentle fantasies, his quirky view of the world, his strange, introverted characters and beautifully described scenes resonate with me like no other novelist. Murakami is also a lifetime runner. He has completed more than 25 marathons, several extreme long distance runs and, now in his 60s, continues to find solace and pleasure in running.

He has written a fabulous book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which is an absolute joy. In it he explores the idea of running as something spiritual, something other than a means for keeping fit.

He describes how running is a skill that must be learned, practised and honed; something that requires inner strength and persistence. As someone seeking to improve on these aspects of my own personality, it resonates particularly powerfully.

Running is presented as a simple exercise that can be done anywhere, without equipment or preparation; but which somehow embraces all of the difficulties and challenges of life – the need for self discipline, for overcoming lack of willpower, the need for consistency, for being single-minded in pursuit of a goal.

I love Murakami’s philosophy of life. He sees it as something simple that is made overly complex. He determines to live his simple life simply – running every day, writing every day, spending time with his loved ones, pursuing his goals, being alone when he feels like it, not wasting time with people he doesn’t care about.

Running fascinates me. I like how it works its magic – how the act of running can help me turn trouble and confusion in my mind into clarity.

When I hit the road, get into a gentle rhythm and my breathing and footfalls come together in harmony, I develop uncanny focus. The insurmountable becomes achieveable, I spot a way round a sticking point. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not always like that. Running can be annoying, frustrating and very painful. Sometimes I drag myself round the block and come back wondering what the hell I was doing. But it’s worth it for those special moments and for the way it can make you feel so good.

When my running is going well, I’m flying along, seeming to barely touch the pavement. I feel just as I guess I did when I was 13 and loved the sensation of running. It’s a great way to feel alive, fit and healthy.

When it goes badly it reminds me that I’m out of shape and not getting any younger. But, as Murakami so masterfully describes it: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” A good philosophy for life too.

I’m off for a run now…look out for me!

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  1. I love that Murakami quote! Am going to share it with all my pregnant friends worrying about childbirth 🙂

    • Catherine
    • June 30th, 2010

    Brilliant, especially as I have just watched Hannah win a 600m race in an inter-school competition (and make it look easy!). I am not a natural athlete, hated sport at school but now run and compete in a few races and sprint triathlons and I totally agree about the running Jane.
    I am now hooked and my family can tell when I am not getting enough exercise or it is going badly as I am very grumpy, will now read some Murakami!
    Catherine

  2. Hi, this weekend is pleasant for me, for the reason that this moment i am reading this fantastic informative piece of writing here at my house.

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