No one would argue that running isn’t good for you, but do we really have to pretend to like it, too? Séamas O’Reilly Sun 6 Dec 2020 13.00 GMT
For the 126th time this year, I turn the corner by the rowing club and begin the climb towards Stamford Hill. I have half a kilometre to go. Mist has settled on the river to my left, where waterfowls, Egyptian geese and a single, stately heron have gathered by some rushes in a dazzlingly pretty scene for Haringey in late November. They likely make some pleasant noises, but only the fortunes of HMS Royal Oak reach my ears, as my earphones sizzle with its battle against four French frigates near the Bight of Benin in the War of 1812. I am trying to enjoy myself.
Last November, with the cooperation of this magazine (ie they paid me), I defied my natural inclinations and did a radical diet and exercise overhaul. The experience produced not just an eminently readable lifestyle piece, but a substantial improvement in my general fitness. And then, shortly before Christmas, it ended, as did my adherence to its stipulations. I jettisoned the protein shakes and the thrice-weekly workouts, and gamely resumed my close personal relationship with butter, sugar, alcohol and grease. I discarded all the measures that had given me these results bar one – running.
Despite having only sporadically jogged before all this, I’ve run 600km in the past 12 months. I’ve stretched, flexed, accumulated gear and tracked every metre via apps (my full total is actually 642.8km, but who’s counting). To outside eyes, it might seem like I’ve found a burning passion for the hobby, but I’m here to report quite the opposite. I run, and will continue to run, but I hate running with every fast-twitch muscle fibre of my being. For me, running is something I hate but do anyway, like flossing, going to parties, or watching Question Time. I just sometimes wish it was one of those things that everyone else hated, too, like cold sores, papercuts, or watching Question Time.
I enjoy the smugness of having finished a run and the chittering bleep of apps spraying me with stats afterwards. But both of those concessions are, let’s face it, just roundabout ways of saying the best part about running is when I stop.
I feel the need to say these things out loud because people who actually enjoy running dominate the discourse around the subject. This, inarguably, makes sense. Letting me talk too much about running would be like handing the NHS or BBC to people who want to break those institutions down and sell them for parts. But I feel like I should take the opportunity to say something that must be true for more people than me alone: running is good, but it feels bad, and it’s OK to say so.
As someone who hates running, I feel like I can do a better job of advertising its benefits, since I can see past the tedium and pain for its true values. The reasons I do it are simple enough. It’s efficient and is an easier way of staying non-spherical than consuming less food and drink. There’s a pleasing calculus to the fact that the faster you run, the harder it is, but the quicker it’s over.
Running forces me out of the house, invaluable during lockdown when my daily run became my sole escape from the confines of the flat. I will even grudgingly admit that there is a certain mental clarity that comes from running. A lot of my thoughts are taken up with things like, “This is sore and boring” but, yes, it can also act as a space for reflection, untangling strands of stress that have accumulated in your head.
More importantly, as someone whose income has been all but eviscerated by Covid, running is cheap. I mean, it’s free, really, so long as you don’t count the small but steady investments I’ve made in accessories. These are either practical tools, or impractical ones that make things more bearable. I always listen to something as I run. Not music since it puts me off my rhythm, and not podcasts since the ebb and flow of casual speech is distracting. Instead, I listen to audiobooks, the more prolix, distant and dry the better. This year I’ve listened to 12 entries in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin saga, the peerless nautical fiction series set during the Napoleonic wars. To aid me I use good, waterproof earphones that won’t jostle, fizzle or spurt out their last charge just as I’m getting to the good bit in the Battle of Cape Santa Maria (5 October 1804, 350 killed/wounded, 600 captured).
My final recommendation is to learn to love tracking. I discovered early on that the right fitness app makes me feel like Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, training at a hi-tech lab while a team of Soviet boffins logs every electrolyte coursing through his drug-addled bulk. I use Strava to track my personal records and connect it to Nurvv, a wearable that adheres to your trainers’ insoles and sends a flurry of blips and bloops to its connected app, giving you a dizzying litany of notes on your performance. For some reason these raw numbers, charts and graphs enhance the smugness I feel, weaponising it to something truly indecent, and capable of offsetting my aversion to running itself.
There are other methods. I have thermals so that even on cold days I have no excuse. I wear trainers so bright and garish that I will never be tempted to wear them in any other context, thus preserving their cushioned soles for running, and running, alone. It’s how I get out there to turn that corner each day, and the next, and the next after that. You may take pleasure from the herons and the Egyptian geese, the misty drizzle and unseasonal breezes. You may even enjoy the running itself. The rest of us have to make do however we can.
Follow Séamas on Twitter @shockproofbeats