What I think about when I am running (with apologies to Haruki Murakami)
Apart from work, our family and friends, we are, I suppose defined by our interests. Outside of spectating at sports activities (at Fir Park), I probably spend too much time reading and listening to music. The other major space in my life for about 20 years has been running.
I started running as an alternative to swimming, which was, to be fair, doing my head in. Apart from a little enforced cross-country at school and a bit of school games sprinting, I had stuck to playing football. But around 1992 and having finally successfully stopped smoking I needed to compensate, gain fitness, get good at something I could stick at and that would absolutely not involve swimming 20-40 laps of the pool.
I began running for 5-10 minutes continuously and over a period of time this expanded to 30 minutes. I had the good fortune to live on the doorstep of Strathclyde country park (and still do), which opened new possibilities for routes and different types of runs. From there I eventually braved running at work – the Kelvin walkway, Garscube and the Clyde-Forth canal were ideal green lungs in the city. I found a couple of pals to run with as alternatives to five a side or aerobic ‘tune-up’ 30 minutes group exercise sessions. The University’s gym also had treadmills and these also became familiar parts of the routine.
I read about running, nutrition and training. I introduced intervals, hills, easy days, tempo and longer runs. I got myself an early sat-nav watch with which to pace and set distances for routes. Compared with later, I did scarily quick times on the treadmill for 4 miles and longer (those were the days) and finally I started doing some organised races in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dunbartonshire – a mix of 10Ks and half marathons. The first 10 k was a hot night in Helensburgh. An amazing experience, as was a 10k that went up Arthur’s seat and then the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. The Glasgow half was my first experience of a big race of upwards of 5-10,000 people and was just fantastic.
While I had quite a few injuries, none of them were fatal and I regularly went through the cycle of accelerating fitness, injury, denial, recovery and starting again to build up fitness. However in my early thirties this took considerably less time than more recently.
My running life peaked with two marathons in 2004 (London) and 2005 (Paris), the latter involving a time of 3 hours 47 when I was running long distances per week, at a light weight, and stuck to a really effective training regime for 4 or more months. The London marathon was one of the most incredible days one can experience, and as a participant completing the race in front of hundreds of thousands of spectators – unforgettable. A few months later, however, I became head of department and that was the end of that.
Thereafter I kept running but the longer distances of 7 or more miles became rarer and I succumbed to a couple of longer-term injuries. A mixture of these sorts of problems effectively stopped me running for most of 2011 and 2012 and by then I had discovered new problems with my calves. All very depressing.
However, in part through the efforts of my physio Dave Nugent and by taking a much more conservative approach to building distance and miles, I seem to be on the road back. I now run every second day either in Strathclyde park or at work in Glasgow and I am now covering 20-25 miles a week with at least one 8 miler each week.
It is a positive achievement to re-attain each milestone that makes me feel I am back just a little closer to the (age-adjusted) levels that became normal for me prior to 2005. It is also great to retrace the older routes I used to do as I get a little stronger. One thing that is painfully apparent, however, is that 49 year old legs cannot go as fast as 30-35 year old legs. And, there is the non-trivial matter of weight – will it come off as easily or at all, compared to a decade or so ago? Perhaps, most importantly, can I stay healthy and avoid injury?
What do I think about when I run? In the first place I find it very hard to think about work in any organised or sustained way so I usually do not try. I like to look for landmarks and see what is going on around me. In my time I have seen peri-urban deers in Glasgow, shared routes with ‘celebrity’ runners (mainly footballers), flattened a drunk man coming round a blind corner, and battled the runners’ curse of commercial dog walkers. I don’t like listening to music when running but spoken voice radio is great – I bought a new personal sports radio yesterday and tried it out this morning. I used to run with one or two specific people – they have now both left the University but I am now really quite content running alone, lost in my own thoughts and worrying a little about the next hill.
It is quite hard to distil what goes on in your head when doing this sort of exercise. A lot of it is about monitoring your body and the environment around you. I have dodgy ankles (post-football) and I find psychologically that wearing glasses helps (I would never have done that even 3 or 4 years ago). But most of the rest of the time, assuming that one is content with the pace, I am just there enjoying the moment.
Running is, I am sure, linked to one’s personality. It suits me well, it clears my head, and I am probably addicted to post-run serotonin. It organises my week, impacts positively on what I eat and I miss it terribly when I am injured. It is also great to (gradually) work harder and feel your strength and stamina improving. I am comparatively slow now but within those more limited age-related parameters discussed earlier, and in trying to avoid injury, I am slowly improving. Long may it continue.