I don’t expect I will be saying anything new in this piece. There is lots of material by those more medically qualified than I about the physical health benefits of exercise, so I won’t dwell overly on those. There are also thousands of ‘what running can do for you’ articles available to us. These accounts, while occasionally beautifully written and touching (i.e. Haruki Murakami’s ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’) tend to be largely self-aggrandising drivel with nasty laissez-faire subtexts, written by wannabe Alpha-types trying to prove a point by dragging the level of understanding down to laughing at the less gifted kids in the PE class. Sympathy for those seen as troubled would be, one would imagine, in a fairly short supply from this quarter. Indeed, I fear that this piece will come far closer to landing in this camp than Murakami’s wonderful, serene acceptance of his own limitations and how he works within them. Hopefully, it will strike a happy medium whereby I can explain how running can help you to help yourself. I have suffered from depression for some time, and taking up running a little under two years ago has unquestionably helped me to naturally raise my mood.
The problem with seeing running as something inclusive that can help alleviate mental travails is that it is mostly a hyper-individualistic pursuit that lends itself very well to isolation and an aggressively laissez faire way of thinking. If you don’t achieve your targets, it can have a potentially devastating effect on your self esteem if you lose perspective. This is all before we’ve mentioned the physical realities. If you find yourself struggling at 5k of a 10k run or at mile 7 of a half marathon, unless you are injured, it’s pretty much a certainty that you haven’t trained well enough for it. There are ways of making running less individualistic, you can run with a supportive partner or a club. This isn’t for me though. Truth is, I’m a bit of a loner, something that I’ve always been made to feel dreadfully uncomfortable about, mostly by well-meaning people who trot out a long accepted ‘wisdom’ that you need to constantly surround yourself with people in order to live a worthwhile life. This isn’t to say I advocate monastic existences as a way of easing symptoms of depression, I don’t in general, I just appreciate being left alone at times! And this is the point, hiving off an hour a day solely for yourself and using it to do something solitary can help in your ‘outreach’ efforts. This will sound horribly Thatcherite, but there does need to be a will to help yourself if you want to improve your situation. It just so happens that running was my way to doing that. I’ll share some of the whys and hows now.
A big reason, I believe, that so many people adopt running and stick with it is that you improve rapidly once you get into it. In my own case, I went from being a novice to taking just over 2 hours to run a half marathon in the space of 8 months. The building blocks of this were even more striking for me; from not being able to run for more than 2 minutes at a time the first time I went out, I was running non-stop for half an hour three weeks later, and I completed my first non-stop hour a couple of weeks after that. Weight fell off, I was getting faster every time I went out and my self-esteem rocketed. Now I’m regularly running for 2 to 3 hours at a time and enjoying it. Save for periods of injury, the progress you make as a runner is as close to a constant upward curve as you can get.
I will disagree with Murakami on one point he makes in his book. He says early on that he, “does not necessarily think about anything” while running. Oh to be so unencumbered! I think constantly when out on a run. Granted, this is partly because I run largely in areas where you’ll end up as roadkill if you aren’t on a constant state of high alert. Mostly, however, it is a time when I can remove myself from a situation that is causing me stress, be it the workplace or a personal situation, and have an hour or so to myself where I can ponder the imponderables and, as if by magic, whatever the source of my previous anguish was is diminished and seems more manageable as a consequence.
Following on from this, I find that my version of the negative voice, which we all have in some form (see the ex-footballer Tony Cascarino’s autobiography ‘Full Time’ for a particularly evocative description of this in a sporting context), is able to shout quite loudly when I run. Various shades of ‘That’s enough”. “What are you doing this for?” and “this won’t make you immune from death. Why do you want to live longer anyway?” tend to be my own ‘demons’ stock in trade. Happily, what you are actually doing while this voice is chirping away can act as an excellent counterweight. A quick glance at the watch to see how long you’ve been going for and a subsequent signal from your legs to say that they have much more in the tank are good things to do to silence this voice for quite a while. Also, the closer you get to your target for a run, the less you hear this voice chiming in. Cliche time now… all of your previous runs, good and bad, is experience you can take out onto the road in future when you revise your targets upwards and collect further ammunition to aim at your own negative voice. Hence, after completing 3 half marathons, I find myself training to run the Stockholm marathon in early June on behalf of CALM!
None of this is to say that running is a perfect cure that will work for everybody. It won’t, but the least it will achieve is to make you physically healthier. There are times when it doesn’t work for me. I still have days when all seems bleak and hopeless when I have to fall back on other coping strategies that I have accrued over time. This reality is something that I will have to live with for the rest of my life but I know that, 9 times out of 10, a good run will serve as a very powerful weapon against living miserably and it is something that I wish I had in my armoury much earlier. Now I’m the one who is sounding laissez faire. As cloying as it may be to admit, maybe the Alpha types do have a point hidden amongst their insecurity-masking bluster. Oh well, life is generally about finding compromises and happy-as-they-can-be mediums out of often disagreeable material after all…
And, finally, if anybody wishes to give me a push while I complete my training, I would be hugely grateful for any sponsorship, however small. Please click here for my fundraising page.