My relationship with running has never really reached its full potential. I’ve had an on-off thing with it since I was a teenager, and we’ve never really, properly, committed to each other.
The Early Days
Back in the late 80s running was called jogging, and it was still dusting off its reputation as a sport that only very thin, sightly weird people participated in. But even back then, there was something about it that I loved. Cross country at school was torture to some of the girls in our class. They shuffled along, squealing at the mud and complaining at the exertion. I rather liked cross country – it was something I felt I inherently knew how to do – but I felt uneasy about admitting it.
I ran now and again during my A-levels, and on and off at university. I had no idea what training was, and would literally go full pelt out the front door until I ran out of muscle and air, which normally took about 10 minutes.
It frustrated me. I could never get any better, and I was always so sore and tired after a run which meant days of recovery and then a reluctance to go again because it meant suffering the same. Looking back I can see that I was almost sprinting every run I did. Because of this, I fell into a pattern that repeated for years – a few months sprint-running a couple of times a week, and then giving up because I just couldn’t increase the time beyond 10-15 minutes. Months would pass and then I’d get antsy again about not running, so I’d start from the beginning. I probably had the heart of an ox.
Going a bit further
In 2004 I bought my first ever book on running and learnt about combining running and walking. This was great – I could train for longer and I could recover between the sprints. I was living in Portsmouth so I ambitiously signed up for the Great South Run, which is ten miles. I started a training plan, but walk-run became run-run in the book after a few weeks and my sprinting left me exhausted. I thought I must just be very unfit, or a crap runner.
I ran the (untimed) Basingstoke Race for Life that year (5k) in June and timed myself at 28:59. I could tell by the number of people in front and behind me that I finished slap bang in the middle. To this day, that is still my unofficial PB for a 5k. However, by the end of the summer, with a heavy travel schedule at work, my enthusiasm amd training had dropped right off. I ran the Great South in 1:56, a pace of 7.25min/km, or 11.6min/mile. I was utterly exhausted afterwards and every step of the walk home hurt.
At work on the Monday one of the senior managers asked me how the run had gone as we passed each other in the entranceway. I told him my time and he said:
“That’s not very fast, is it?” and walked off saying something about having to train harder and Jane in accounts finishing in 1:25 (I can’t remember the actual name or time of the person he mentioned, but it was something like that).
Yeah, he was a bit of an arse. But it still stung.
My running dropped back to occasional runs here and there for the next few years. I wanted to be a runner, but I couldn’t keep it up. Something would inevitably interfere with my exercise plans – usually illness after the first few weeks of starting (again, with hindsight I can see that I was going all-out for each run, destroying my immune system and I needed to reign it in). I was working endless hours, then buying a house, then planning a wedding and then having a baby, so running was neglected and mostly ignored.
I put on three stone during my first pregnancy, and almost died after haemorrhaging severely following an extensive labour and birth. I had never been so physically weak, but something about it fired up my desire to run again. Three months after bringing my new baby boy home, I set out on a 16 minute plan: walk 3, run 1, x4. I felt like my lungs were turning inside out and my body was covered in a bag of jelly. I signed up for the Great South Run again. I wanted to beat my previous time.
I’ve never liked running really early in the morning, or really late in the day, so I ran once a week, when my husband or my mum could look after Lucas. It was obviously not enough, but it was all I could fit in. I ran through sleep deprivation, horrible weather, teething and weaning. Slowly, oh-so-slowly, my weight came back down. I ran 5k in 30 minutes at the Southsea Race for Life. I was still 5kg over my pre-baby weight when race day arrived. I finished in 1:52, pleased to have beaten my old time, but sorely disappointed not to get under 1:45, which is what I was secretly hoping for.
Falling out of love
Straight after the Great South, I immediately got pregnant and nine months later Christopher arrived. Things were not easy with a toddler and a baby. The opportunities for running were even more limited and I struggled through each day in a fog of tending to the needs of two tiny people who needed me for everything.
When Christopher was 9 months old, we decided to try for the third baby we wanted, assuming it would happen straightaway. I wanted to get the pregnancy and birth out of the way and then I could move on, focus on myself, get my body back in shape. However, the universe had other plans. It took three and a half years of heartache before I finally carried a baby to term. During that time, you would think that running would have been my salvation. My escape. But it wasn’t.
I couldn’t focus on it (or anything really). I longed for the feeling of freedom that running brings, but no matter what I did I could never escape the misery in my own body and mind. I signed up for races to motivate myself. I ran the Hursley multi-terrain 5k in September 2013 in 33:22. Before I lined up to start, I nipped for a wee in a portaloo and my period had arrived. I had been desperately hoping for pregnancy. I ran, and I wanted to cry the whole way around.
I ran the Great South 5k the following month (the ten miler was way out of my league). It rained buckets. My shoes were full of water. I hated it. I wondered why on earth I was doing something so fucking stupid as to go running in the freezing cold and wind and rain. My time was 34:16. Then in December, I ran a Lakeside series 5k in 30:54. That’s my official 5k PB. If I’d known I was so close to sub-30 I would have pushed harder. After that I got pregnant and miscarried yet again, this time losing a baby boy at 11.5 weeks. I was done with running.
And back in again
In 2015, pregnant again, it started to look like we might actually bring a live baby home. I felt happier than I had in literally years. I started running again. Very, very gently. At 27 weeks I had to stop due to severe SPD. The last couple of months of my pregnancy were absolute agony. When Francesca was born, I’d planned to do the same as I’d done with Lucas – get back to it after around three months. However, baby F was The Worst Sleeper In The World. Maybe it was because I’d been so anxious during the pregnancy, but she screamed every time I put her down. Even if she was asleep, and I waited until she was totally limp, and took minutes to lay her down, her eyes would spring open and she would howl the house down. She slept on my chest, day and night, for four and a half months. At five months, delirious from lack of sleep, I couldn’t take any more and I put her in a cot in her own room. She woke every 90 minutes for the next few months. We hired a sleep consultant which helped a little.
But running couldn’t wait. I was desperate to get back to it. I started out by going to a local parkrun and trying a slow and easy 5k. For the first time in my life, I ran slowly. I pottered along at the back, being overtaken by sprightly pensioners and people twice my size. But I did it, and I loved it.
I ran parkrun every Saturday that summer for 9 weeks and my time went from 37:21 to 32:12. But the lack of sleep combined with the junk I was eating (I was living on chocolate and takeaways because cooking was impossible with the world’s screamiest baby), took its toll on my body. A niggly foot injury I’d ignored for ages started playing up badly and my joints were so stiff and sore. I stopped running.
My joint pain got worse and worse. I still wasn’t really sleeping, and was refereed to a consultant in September of 2016. I had osteoarthritis. He suggested a surgery – a cheilectomy to remove the osteophytes that had grown around my joint (little lumps of bone that stop the joint moving so much). He said a bone fusion was probably my only long-term option, necessary within two years. The cartilage in my right toe was ruined. I went home and brooded.
My joints got worse and worse. At Christmas I went back to the doctor because everything hurt. Getting up off the sofa was painful and my thumbs were so bad I couldn’t do normal things like open jars any longer. They did a blood test to rule out rheumatoid arthritis and said I was deficient in vitamin D.
I sat at home and brooded some more. Every time I was out in the car, I saw runners. Happily running along. How lucky they were, to be able to run! I had a combination of depression and denial. It didn’t seem possible that for the rest of my life I couldn’t run. How could that be taken away from me? I hadn’t even really gotten started.
In March this year (2017), I started researching arthritis. I read dozens of medical studies and ordered a book called “Say No To Arthritis” by Patrick Holford. I ordered a ridiculous amount of supplements. I stopped breastfeeding my daughter at night in an attempt to get more sleep. I cut down sugar (which was so hard). And slowly, after around three weeks, there was a definite improvement. I was no longer limping.
I braved my first run on April 18th this year. A very gentle, very slow jog, with lots of walking. My foot did not get worse, fall off, swell up or explode. I took that as a positive sign and for the last six weeks I’ve run at least once a week, sometimes four times a week. My toe aches now and again, and the pain is still very much there if I prod around and look for it, but it’s subsided enough to allow me to walk normally and run carefully. I am grateful for every pain-free step. For a few dark months, I thought my running days were over.
And being a lot older and wiser, I have done a lot of reading about training. About overtraining specifically. I know about slow runs, about recovery, about consistency. I just need to put it into practice.
I’ve signed up for the Great South this year. Overly ambitious, as always, but a girl’s gotta have a goal. And if I can run that race it will be a victory not just over the general lethargy that we all have to battle, but over arthritis, which threatens every day to flare up and take away my love of movement.
Running has always been my ‘thing’. Running and me – we’ve always been together, we’ve just spent a lot of time apart. But now we are partners more than ever before. Each time I get ready for a run, all I feel is joy at being lucky enough to be doing it. I wish I’d been more consistent, and more gentle with myself in the past. I’d love to have years and years of solid training behind me instead of years and years of crazy sprinting and then stopping. But I’ll work with what I’ve got and this time I know for sure, as long as I am able, that I’m in it for the long haul.