So something extraordinary happened this morning. I went for a run, before breakfast. Now that might not sound like a big thing to most of you, but the thing is I HATE RUNNING. I’ve always hated running. I’m not built for it. I’m always the last, the slowest, the least capable. If I was an antelope the lions would have got me years ago. I avoid even running for the bus if I can help it. My last attempt was some 10 years ago when I foolishly volunteered for the interdepartmental relay race. I’m fit, I thought, I can do this. Until I started training and remembered how bad I am at running. Then I decided that my goal was just not to come last. I didn’t – but only because someone else ran the wrong way round the staff car park and added an extra few hundred yards to his course. Yes, I do yoga – I can touch my toes and stand on my head but it doesn’t help much when it comes to jogging. Or does it?
Let’s start with why I ran this morning. I’ve been reading this book called “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. It’s the story of a man’s search for an almost mythical tribe called the Tarahumera who live deep in the canyons somewhere in Mexico. Along the way the author discusses our attitude to running. These days we run to get fit, get thin, to win a race or beat a personal target. We don’t (well I certainly don’t) run for fun. We used to when we were kids but somewhere along the way, most of us lost that. The author also writes a lot about our anatomy and theories of how and why we evolved to run. I’ll skip a lot of it but here’s the gist.
Animals don’t sweat, they can only lose heat through their breathing.
We less hairy humans can lose heat through perspiration as well as by panting.
So we can run further (although not always faster) than our animal prey because we don’t have to stop to cool down.
So, with a bit of help from those big brains of ours to track and predict what our prey is going to do, we could simply run them into exhaustion. Well no, it’s not simple – but you get the idea.
Incidentally, he reckons this is why the big, strong, hairy and intelligent Neanderthals became extinct – when the earth warmed up they lost out to us feeble, hairless runners.
Anyway, I was convinced enough by this book to give running another go but with a different approach. I decided to leave my ego behind. I would just go out and see what happened and run totally in the present – no goal, no race, no pressure on myself.
I should also mention that this book is pretty anti running shoe. We are designed to run barefoot – not on roads but on grass and sand and rocks and uneven surfaces. My feet are the one bit of my body that has been totally transformed since I started taking yoga seriously. The arches are higher, the toes more spread, they are wider, stronger and more flexible. But it is January, the temperature is barely above freezing, the local common is the most popular in the borough for dog walkers – and they don’t all scoop their poop. So I compromise with toe socks and a cheap thin soled pair of trainers.
I warm up with a brisk walk uphill. We are lucky to have the common just a couple of minutes walk away. Then first on the asphalt path I start to jog. Really slowly. No speed, no long strides, just a very gentle jog. The air is fresh and cold. The sun has just come up and is lighting up the dew on the grass. I’m running across the top of the common – a chalk ridge, the first of the North Downs and I can see across the valley with mist rising from the trees. It’s pretty, but I’m not having fun yet. So at the end of the path I turn round but step into the cold, wet, muddy grass. The surface is slippery and uneven, with hummocks and tussocks and nettles to negotiate. But straight away I feel lighter and my legs feel better.
I run back to the gate where I started and decide that I can go a little further so I carry on, even zig-zagging up and down a little slope to bring more variety into my stride, I go into the trees where it’s muddy and hop and skip around the puddles. This is almost starting to feel like fun. As the common starts to descend I decide it’s time to turn round to avoid having a long uphill climb on the way back. And it’s probably best that I don’t go too crazy on my first run in 10 years. But I do run all the way back to the house and have energy to spare. I might even have another run tomorrow.
So in letting go of my ego and choosing to have fun, maybe I have found the runner inside me.