Monday, 20 June 2011

The loneliness of a (not very) long-distance runner

On Saturday morning I ran 5 miles in an hour.

More experienced runners will groan or smile at this: it's not very far, or very fast.

But it's further and faster than I've done before, so I was euphoric, as was my running partner Karen. Tomato-red and beaming, we high-fived each other -- then bent forward in perfect synchronicity to clutch our knees and catch our breath.

Running with Karen is a treat. We're evenly matched in both fitness level and sense of humour. Our weekly run is made all the more enjoyable by our ability to coax one another along the harder parts of our route, and to elicit frequent fits of laughter from one another. This week was no exception. At one point Karen got a painful stitch just as we joined a long stretch of public road, but in the interest of not stopping she gamely ran on with her arms above her head to alleviate the pain (this does work) -- all while streams of traffic tooted at her and I giggled. She in turn found it hilarious when later on, our reserves sorely tested, I misjudged a corner and ran straight into a thicket which would have taken off much of my hair had I not been wearing a cap. Cue lots of jokes about me running the Royal Parks with a combover/mohican/enter your daft hairdo here, while we gasped our way to the 5-mile finishing point.

So I approached today's run with some nervousness given that I would be attempting to repeat Saturday's feat alone. Work, families and weekday juggling routines mean that Karen and I find it hard to run together more than that once a week.

An encouraging text arrived from her just as I was wondering whether there were any grounds at all for not running until tomorrow. Being shamed into training for a fundraising race in which I have cajoled family and friends to stake money is not a good feeling -- but within five minutes of receiving her message I was locking the door behind me and setting off.

The weather was absolutely gorgeous and I started at a modest pace. For the first fifteen minutes the path took me through the park, alongside the stream and down between the allotments, bursting squares of leafy fecundity. As well as making good progress and not being at all out of breath, I settled on the 'leafy fecundity' phrase and so was feeling very pleased with myself when I popped out at the top of the golf course and turned right for the nature reserve.

At this point the road slopes upwards and goes past an uninspiring development of new flats. The combination of gradient and utilitarian boxes cooled my momentum, though alas not literally as the sun had emerged by now and was toasting me uncomfortably. Still, I made it up the hill without stopping and coasted into the woodland part of the route prepared for five glorious minutes of downhill pace.

The weekend's downpours had turned the dirt track into a boggy cauldron across which I hopped and cursed. Hopping downhill is a lot less energy efficient than running downhill and by the time the route wound uphill again towards the kissing gate I was starting to panic. My energy levels and confidence were shot, but not to complete the run would feel like a big failure. I just couldn't figure out how I was going to make it up that hill though. At this point the track narrowed into a shadowy tunnel where thorny trees on either side meshed to blot out the sun. I found myself thinking of the scene in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy is chased through the wood by the scary flying monkeys -- o for a flying monkey I wondered wildly. At least then I'd be aloft.

And then -- salvation. An elderly hiker was 100 yards ahead of me, striding along with his stick and putting me to shame as I puffed and staggered behind him. Even better, someone else coming the opposite way saluted him and strode towards me with a smile. I was forced to straighten up, smile like everything was fine (though I'm sure my colour betrayed this) and summoned the wherewithal from I know not where to make it up the hill.

And then it was home free. Ok, so I had to resort to my ipod for the last fifteen minutes: to whit, a playlist of slightly crackers pounding gothic beats (revelation: some 40-year olds are still listening to Sisters of Mercy.) But by that point I was without shame. Whatever got me to the end. I would have worn my shorts on my head if someone had told me it would give me extra reserves of energy.

So: huzzah for two 5-mile runs in the space of three days. Now I just have to figure out how to do it two-and-a-half times over in one day without the help of flying monkeys, pensioners and 80s trash. That's going to be some conversation with Karen.

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