I am not a sporty person. Physical Education lessons at school were ritualised torture for someone as unblessed with the powers of coordination as myself. I took a sort of contrary pride in being one of only three people in the whole year never picked to be on a school sports team. In an effort to get out of games I would routinely “forget” kit. I was happy to be set the task of running laps so I could avoid the shame of dropping the netball or the pain of taking a hockey ball direct to the shin.
Running is the one physical activity I am not actively bad at. I am not built for speed, but I can do stamina. I even ran cross country for my house team one year under duress. I finished the course in a respectable time but was sick on the headmaster’s shoes at the finishing line.
Still, I was satisfied that should the zombie apocalypse come I would at least be able to run away... so long as they moved at a shambling pace, a la Dawn of the Dead. If the rabid hordes of the undead were to move at faster, 28 Days Later speed of knots then at least my end would be swift. Besides, the collapse of civilisation would mean running out of my asthma medication and then I wouldn’t be running anywhere.
End of the world aside, I was happy in the knowledge that after leaving school I wouldn’t be putting my trainers on in anger again. While my Facebook newsfeed filled up with smug people boasting about their marathons and half marathons and fun runs I did little beyond the occasional yoga or aerobics class.
Until one evening in my third year of University an old friend skyped me from her year abroad in France. What did I think of running the Paris half marathon? It would be fun! A chance for self improvement. And, more importantly, justification for a trip to the city of light.
Visions of wine and cheese dancing in my head, I put down a deposit for a spot in the race and booked my Eurostar tickets. Thank you, student loan. I was riding high on my own nerve. I was going to be a runner! I would put smug race selfies on my Instagram! I dug out my old neon pink Nikes and started googling “how to run a half marathon, five month training program.” It was November, the Semi de Paris was in April. I had ages.
Four months to go. Before I could properly train, I told myself, I needed the proper kit. I googled “marathon nipple chafing.” I wished I hadn’t. A quick jog around the block and I swiftly realised my cute gym crop top sports bra wasn’t going to cut it when it came to strapping down my ample bosom down for 21km. My new, industrial strength sports bra was prohibitively expensive and hideously ugly, but it did its job. No more excuses.
Three months to go. Three years of little to no exercise had taken their toll. I hadn’t realised I was this unfit. I could just about run 3km without stopping, but I was constantly reaching for my inhaler. I started to seriously regret my life choices, but it was too late to back out. I vowed to redouble my efforts and train three times a week.
Two months to go. I could manage 5km in just over half an hour, but finding the will to push beyond that was eluding me.
One month to go and I truly had The Fear. The most I had run now was just 8km, well below the recommended minimum training distances I could find online. My running apps constantly sent me reminders, guilt tripping me for missing scheduled training runs. How was I going to find the strength to push myself 13km more than I’d ever run before? Secretly I began to believe I wouldn’t make it to the finish line.
Race day dawned. Whilst I had enjoyed the previous evening’s carb loading exercise, the logistics of simply getting to the start of the race felt overwhelming. Then there was the electronic tagging chip that needed to be strapped to my laces and the number that had to be pinned on. The queues for the portaloos were huge. What would I do if I needed to wee during the race? My scruffy old running leggings and blue fleece looked out of place even in the holding pen for the slowest runners. I felt like I was back at school, about to be picked last for the team.
After over an hour of nervously stretching and fidgeting as the faster runners set off it was my turn. The first 10 kilometers were honestly some of the most euphoric of my life. It was a beautiful, crisp and cool morning in Paris. The views as we ran into up the Seine, the tower of Notre Dame in the distance were breathtaking. Crowds lined the streets and bands played at the side of the road. It was exhilarating to be running as one with so many other people after my lonely training runs. I was a happy antelope running with the herd. I was invincible. I was a runner.
I didn’t so much hit a wall as a hill. As we reached the city centre and the road started to rise steeply I began to feel like I was wading through treacle. I felt nauseous and bloated and began to scan around for a bin. Throwing up on a teacher was one thing, but would I really be able to live down losing last night’s carb of choice (crepes, of course) in front of such a huge crowd? What if it came out the other way. Would I be forced to pull a Paula?
I made it to the top of the hill without hurling or otherwise losing my dignity, but the strain was beginning to show. As we rounded the corner by the Hôtel de Ville a lean, weatherbeaten French pensioner in red short shorts ran up beside me and advised me to pace myself: “zer iz steel a long long way to run yet!” 8km left to go and I was clearly struggling. I was not a runner.
Everything hurt. I could feel a gnarly blister forming on the instep of my right foot. I was having to reach for my inhaler. I began to alternate walking and running. The finish line felt ridiculously far away and even my running playlist was failing to raise my spirits. 2km from the finish line I began to wonder if maybe I could just stop now and forgo my finishers' medal. I wanted to cry. But with the end finally in sight and my friend cheering me on at the side of the road I somehow managed to stumble across the finish line in 2 hours and 31 minutes.
So can you run a half marathon without proper training? Well, yes, but it’s not advisable and it’s not fun. I was frankly lucky not to injure myself. Thanks to my complete lack of sporting competitiveness, I didn’t try to keep up with anyone. If you’re the personality type to sprint out of the starting gate because the person in front of you is speeding away then you need a race plan or you’ll tire yourself out quickly. Slow and steady might not have won me the race, but aside from one monster blister I was relatively unscathed (apart from when said blister popped all over my sock the next day, yuck).
What I hadn’t fully appreciated prior to dragging myself around a 21km course was the mental strength required to push yourself beyond what you think to be your physical limits. I’d always been the person who lives in my own head; my body was merely a means to an end of reading and creating and socialising. Now I understand that running long distances is just as much about the mental preparation as it is the physical.
If I went back in time, could I have pushed myself to train harder? I don’t think so. It’s been the knowledge that I can actually do it that has finally turned me on to training. It’s spurred me on to do another half marathon last year (2 hours 20) and then a 10k six months ago (1 hour, and I was sick on the medical tent afterwards. Some things never change). I’m never going to be super fast, but now I actually run for the pure pleasure of running and without having to have a race to train for. I guess that makes me a runner.
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