Not a runner’s body, I’m sure you’ll agree. At least, having been running for what, a couple of months, the body is not the kind you’d normally see on a runner. Certainly not the kind we saw at today’s Autumn Shakespeare, my first 5k run, held simultaneously and on the same track as a 10k, half marathon and full marathon. On the other hand, after a 5k and a 10k I am most assuredly a runner, and so this is, technically, a runner’s body.
While hardly setting anything alight, after just a few weeks a time of 32.33 and a position of 43rd of 81 was more than enough to make me think that progress is a decided possibility. And I learned some incredibly valuable lessons.
The lessons began last Thursday, when I bumbled down to the beginners’ running group organised by Oxford’s Sweatshop running store. There are several great things about these sessions, the most appealing of which is the fact that someone always hangs back with the back marker meaning there’s no shame in walking, no one gets left and abandoned the way I did in games at school. They also operate a “15 minutes out, 15 minutes back” system, so you always finish at about half an hour, and so that everyone gets the same time but gets to run at their own pace. I’ve been for the past two weeks and I’m hooked – I love the atmosphere, the way it’s run, and the sense of community.
What I learned that first Thursday was the strength you can gain just from having someone run by your side. Whether it’s distraction from the pain, wanting to keep alongside someone, guilt, shame, or something else entirely, the facts are simple. In training I had struggled to limp 12 minutes without a walk break. That day, I ran the 15 minutes back not comfortably but without killing myself at least.
The lesson to be learned from that was magnified even further today. About a thousand of us lined up at the start. Right to the end of the 5k lap (10k runners did 2 laps, the half and full marathoners did 4 and 8 respectively plus a little more) we were surrounded by people – not so many you couldn’t go at your own pace, not so few you were ever alone. I ran the first 3k without a single stop. That was over 20 minutes. Percentages more than I had previously done that couldn’t be explained simply by the fact that it was race day.
The bare fact is this. Running on my own I run about 50% less without stopping than I do when running with other people. In other words, when I run on my own I am running with a huge mental deficit. Because if I can run in a crowd, then my body *can* do what it tells me I can’t when I’m on my own.
It was a startling revelation, because as a rower what I have always thrived on, the existential edge of pushing beyond what I thought was possible, sustaining the pace for just one more stroke, watching the metres ticking relentlessly down, 10 at a time, 100 at a time, 1000 at a time. I had assumed that running would be the same. That motivation was an engine that would come from within. This has forced a major recalibration. My running body is currently ahead of my running mind. That means my training has to be as much mental as it is physical, because at the moment I am training my body incredibly inefficiently – I could be pushing so much harder each session than I do.
So what I have gained from today’s run is not only a personal best (not hard as my first 5k), not only further confirmation I am on if not “the right track” then at least a track that doesn’t least to a dead end, but some incredibly helpful feedback for my training focus. I need to learn how to get my mind to allow my body to do what it is capable of. I’m not sure what different tricks and tools I’ll use in the attempt, but it helps that I know what I’m looking for.