Cross country running? Mum wrote, in response to the photos I’d sent her of my ruddy face and muddy trainers, You hid in a ditch smoking ciggies when you were supposed to do that at school. Whatever next? Church?
Mum was right: after religion, cross country running was probably the least likely pastime for me to take up. I needed to get fit though: new relationship complacency had made me put on way too much weight and daring to look down at the scales at a doctor’s appointment weigh-in horrified me into doing something about it.
I’d heard about a free app from the NHS called Couch to 5K, which guides you gradually from short bursts of running, interspersed with walking, to running for 30 minutes solid. I decided to try it, but imagined, deep down, that it would suffer the same fate as the scratched fitness DVDs and forgotten gym membership cards of years gone by.
The first run was a disaster. It was chucking it down and I was wearing my glasses, which were quickly splattered with raindrops and therefore totally useless. I hadn’t really thought about what music I wanted to listen to while I ran and Spotify’s dedicated running playlists were beyond awful. I was only required to run for a minute at a time, with 90 seconds of walking in between, but the minutes felt like hours and I was sure I would never get through each 60 second section. It didn’t help that I’d overestimated the size of ‘running tights’ (overpriced leggings) I’d need and they slipped down every few paces. Just. Keep. Going, I huffed to myself, looking around to make sure I was alone before messily hitching the leggings up. And I kept going. Until the session was over, I was nowhere near home and my new trainers had grated the skin off the back of my ankles. Somehow, as I schlepped home with only my soaking, icy toes inside my shoes, I managed to lose the armband I’d bought especially to hold my phone.
So far so shit.
I kept at it though, for some reason. And I made a few changes: loops, round local parks, so I didn’t end up miles from home, proper good old-fashioned Detroit techno on the phone and cheap leggings that stayed up. I’d also shift my focus when it got difficult: look at your feet going, keep your eye on that tree skeleton over there, think of how you’ll feel by summer. Smile. The running parts got longer and I could see within a couple of weeks that I was capable of a little more each time.
Then I went to glorious Gladstones Library, with my book. My book, a magnificent opportunity to write the story of a personal battle, had become a personal battle. It was an enormous collection of words of varying tenses and standards that I had been working on, sporadically, because of work, for years.
When I was ten, I began making jewellery to sell in aid of the local hedgehog rescue centre. Impressed by my new expertise, my dear nan gave me an old necklace of hers to repair. I couldn’t do it, and it became tangled, the thin, delicate chain tied in endless, impossible knots. I tucked it inside a container with the rest of my jewellery-making kit and worried about it. Nan asked me about it a couple of times, and I said I’d been unable to fix it but I’d dig it out, but I never did and that was twenty-something years ago and now my nan is dead. I think the necklace is buried in Mum’s garden shed and I still feel guilty every time I think about it, like now*. Anyway, my book manuscript was like the necklace: a big tangled mess that made me feel guilty every time I thought about it. I had to get it ready to send to the publisher this time, because people wanted to read it and because it was driving me mad.
My initial plan was to intersperse writing with running, but after my first run in the gorgeous parkland near Gladstone’s, I sat down at my desk and just wrote. I shoved my hair up, didn’t bother washing it, settled in and just got on with it. Every time I hit a difficult bit, I just. Kept. Going. I had to. This not-OK-for-work-or-kids article was a major inspiration, but so was the running: if I could keep going until Laura, the woman on the Couch to 5k app, who had begun to feel like a good buddy, told me I was allowed to walk, then I could keep writing / editing until I reached the next chapter. And the next. And the next. Until I attached it all to an email, clicked ‘send’, left Gladstone’s so quickly that I accidentally took my room key with me and found myself on a train back to Manchester, stuttering at the ticket inspector and horrified at the news there wasn’t a drinks trolley on board.
It was done. And I had been able to do it by breaking it down, just getting through this puddle and past that dog turd and up the little hill, rather than thinking of it all as an insurmountable whole. Most importantly of all though, I enjoyed writing again.
As for the running, I can do thirty minutes, non-stop now, and my son and I are about to run a charity 5k together. Top marks for Couch to 5K. It’s been about ten weeks since the first run. I get to see spring unfurling every day in the park; the quagmire that I used to dread has shrunk to a tiny puddle and white blossom is everywhere. Just like writing, running is a joy.
*Mum, if you read this, I am really sorry about the necklace. Please don’t make me feel any worse than I already do; I am sure Nan was OK about it and I was only ten.
My favourite desk at Gladstone’s.