Running, racing, and the difference between them 

when I restarted running as an adult, I had no thought of racing. I went for my first run, driven out of the house by a failing marriage and the instinct to escape. Struggling my way around five kilometers, all I wanted was to move my body, and drive my mind into quietness. Quickly, short runs became easy and vital, and the bleak state of mind that had been my prison was opening and letting me out. 

I knew about charity runs, even took part in a charity 10k, but the idea of racing was quite beyond me. I did a city half marathon, enjoyed it and wasn’t too slow, but paid little attention to the time being happy to finish. I did a few parkruns, and was slower than I should have been, but still didn’t think of it as a race. I discovered that my stomach is my enemy when racing, and that around a half hour after finishing, I can be crippled stomach cramps. Training has helped with this problem, as have prescription anti-spasmodics and careful nutrition, but it remains a major issue in my running. 

Influenced by my partner, I joined a running club and started to pay more attention to times and training. Living with a statistics fan, I got drawn into the numbers. I was a mid pack runner, strong over the half marathon, and my times came down quickly. Shorter and faster was still a struggle, and training was basically running three or four times a week at whatever pace felt right. Structure, speed, and intervals remained outside my awareness. 

I completed my first marathon on minimal training, a few 15 mile runs done too slowly, and not enough weekly mileage during the week. Unsurprisingly I struggled hugely after 18 miles, but I managed to run it in, albeit slowly. My second was quicker, although the training was still not great. For my third, I followed a 16 week plan almost to the letter, including weekly track sessions and proper long runs with paced segments. Despite an horrific headwind for the final six miles, I nailed my time target and qualified for the London Marathon. 

Racing became a way of life, summer weekends were taken up with road 5 mile races, or cross crountry races over the hills, or local 10ks. I learned to keep my position, drive on, be strong. I was occasionally placed in my age category, but not quite quick enough in the body of race for placings. I decided I would do an autumn half marathon, another in the early spring, and a spring marsthon. Winter was to be club cross country through mud and freezing rain. My favourites were the summer off road races, with the bright sun and the fields. I was turning into a runner. 

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Of the body

inisoirrIf you look closely among the stones, you can see me running. This photo was taken on the eve of my 37th birthday. I was on a tiny island off the west of Ireland, surrounded by sea and limestone, with the vast sweep of the Atlantic ocean before me, and a storm coming in from the west.

When I was a child I was very small. Short, always sporty, often more like a baby  bull than a little girl. When I had my long hair cropped on a whim, aged 11, I was always mistaken for a boy. I have many memories of enjoying endurance activities. I walked with my father along part of the Appalachian trail in summer, and dreamed about walking for ever, not just for a few hot hours. I cleared out a barn full of animal droppings and old straw, filling barrow after barrow, enjoying the feeling of achievement to see it cleared, and loving that my muscles ached with use. I would eschew the bus and walk miles, back in those innocent times when children were so much more free than they can be now. I adored my school cross country run, which was hated by most of my friends. I loved it, and with no training at all, would happily run the 10k (ish) course and revel in my tiredness at the end. On the track, I ran the 1500m for my school (the longest distance we were allowed), and developed a  deep fondness for athletics tracks.  I would swim until my arms ached, telling myself stories as I went up and down the green tinged, salt water pool of my childhood summer holidays.

Awareness of my body and its defects came early. I don’t know why, or what prompted this change. I was doing ballet. We had to wear pink leotards with a pink elastic “belt” around our midriffs. Suddenly, I was aware of the pressure of the belt around my belly. I held my child’s stomach in and got praised by the ballet instructor for my improved posture. That evening I had a stomach ache and refused dinner. I can’t have been more than 9.  Suddenly one summer I decided to refuse the ice cream cone my grandfather always bought for me. I remember well that the act of refusing the ice cream, when I knew I wanted it, felt good to me, made me feel strong and grown up. Refusing it “tasted” better than eating it. I touched my pre-pubescent stomach and willed it to be smaller.

Where did I learn these things? I find it hard to understand where this way of thinking came from. One day I was a normal little girl, eating chocolate when I was hungry, not eating when I was full, totally unaware of how I looked. My body was just a body, for playing and running around and swimming. The next day my body was something outside of me, that had to be controlled. I grew up in Ireland, at a time and place where food was utilitarian and unremarkable. We ate typical 1980s dinners of pork chops, boiled potatoes, frozen peas. Treats were 5p chocolate bars or penny sweets. Portions were small, and my mother, who, unlike her own mother or sister, has never been overweight, was careful not to serve too much. But she didn’t talk about dieting, or express discontent about her own figure. My aunt and grandmother were both very large. My family spent every summer with them in America, and food there was very different. Portions were so much bigger, and the food tasted nicer. Ice cream, crisps (potato chips, as they were called there – so different from the small packets of cheese and onion Taytos we got in Ireland), hot dogs as long as my forearm, battered onion rings, sandwiches piled high with pastrami and swiss cheese. Perhaps it is no coincidence that my first awareness of the perverse pleasure of refusing food came while in this land of abundance.

In secondary school, I became adept at skipping lunch. Sandwiches rotted in my school locker. I would eat an apple and have a mug of instant coffee instead. At home, starving, I would sneak a lump of cheese, cut it up into tiny squares, and eat them on my bed while reading novels. I preferred my squares of cheese to my lunch, so my deal with myself was that I could not have both. I rode horses, and would spend all day at a competition without eating a thing, and congratulate myself for getting through the day. But when home I would sneak a fistful of raw egg noodles, run them under the bathroom tap, and eat them in my room.

I got a boyfriend who was not very nice. He would poke me in the soft part of my stomach and comment on what I was eating. But I had already internalised the dislike of the body that causes you to divide yourself up into good bits and bad bits. Good: lower legs, arms, bum. Bad: stomach, thighs, face. In reality, I have never been fat. I am exactly the same clothing size at 37 that I was at 16. Nor was I ever anorexic. But I have never had a healthy relationship with food. I would always do deals with myself: skip this meal and you can have that meal without the guilt.

I watch people with great envy. They can go into a coffee shop and have a danish pastry, or a muffin, just because they fancy it. I have never been able to do that. I can’t even imagine doing that. If I am hungry, unless it is at a time of day where I have deemed it ok to eat, I must stay hungry. If I am hungry and I eat more than I feel I should, especially on days where I haven’t exercised “enough to deserve my food”, the guilt floods in. I look at my body, which is strong and toned, and, if not thin, certainly athletic, and voices in my head tell me that my stomach is “disgusting”, it is “not good enough”. Even though I know I am healthy, part of me always wonders, if I could just manage to eat a bit less than I do, if I could manage my hunger better, how thin could I be?

This is not something that is easy to discuss. Especially because I’ve never had a clinical eating disorder. I have on occasion had bulimic moments, but luckily I did not allow those impulses to get out of control. Exercise became my way of allowing myself to eat. Because I like eating, the more exercise I do, the more I can indulge my eating. I don’t eat chocolate or cake or much in the way of sweet things, and I have trained myself to like mainly healthy food, but I am still conflicted about eating too much.

Yes, I am afraid of getting fat. But why? Logically, I know that it is madness. I see a certain type of body shape in women, long, lean, dancer-like. My shape is naturally different: I’m short, athletic, muscular. I want to be something I cannot be. I give value to something that doesn’t deserve it. The child who felt pride in refusing the ice cream her grandfather wanted to give to her, is now an adult who will not share a birthday cake with friends.

an introduction of sorts

I am a runner. When I’m not running, I think about running, where I want to run, how fast I want to go, how it feels to be moving through the landscape. It is not always a positive thing: what compels me to run is far from pure, and involves a certain amount of self-delusion. But the end result is gloriously simple: a body moving quickly over the ground. The flow of motion and the exhaustion that follows, something that we so rarely experience in our modern and sedentary lives.

This blog is not going to be about the act of running, because running is basic. It will be about the things that surround the act, the motives, the doubts, the hindrances, fears and inspirations. It will explore where my own desire for movement has led me, why I denied it for so long, and the issues that it has forced me to try to face, both personal and more widely in society.