What I Learned When I Learned to Run

When I wrote back in March about my upcoming challenges to raise funds for SAMH, I promised/threatened to post regular training updates but - perhaps to everyone's relief - I've failed to act upon it before now. My first challenge - running the Colour Me Rad 5k - is just nine days away now, so I thought it about time I shared a few reflections on my preparation for the event. 

It's fair to say that I am not a natural runner by any means. When I signed up for a 5k I wasn't convinced it was even a realistic goal. I've tried to take up running on various occasions over the last few years - going it alone or using the 'Couch to 5k' plan for guidance - but my attempts have always been relatively short lived and I've never been able to cover any substantial distance. 

When I last wrote, I had only just started training, struggling my way through a couple of 3.6km loops from the door of my flat in a pathetic sort of half-jog interspersed by lots of walking. It was a bit hopeless and it hurt and I was already wondering what on earth I'd signed up for! 

But I stuck with it.. and I'm pleased to say that now - some two and a half months later - the effort has paid off and my running has improved considerably. I've learned how to be a better runner and, through the process, I've learned some other valuable lessons too..

1. I learned that it's okay to take things at a pace that feels right for me. 
One of the things I picked up fairly early on in my running efforts was that the gentler a pace I ran at, the more distance I could cover before I had to give up. I discovered that, for me at least, the key to running lies largely in the breath: if I can breathe without struggling to fill my lungs, I can continue to run. A slower pace makes my breathing more comfortable, meaning I can cover more ground and the experience is just a more pleasant one all round.

It seems so obvious, yet there's something almost counter-intuitive about running slowly and it feels embarrassing to do in public. It took me a lot of discipline (and the cover of darkness!) to begin with to ignore the nagging worries about how quick my pace should be and to focus instead on finding and sticking with a pace that felt right for me. Once I learned to do that, everything else began falling into place (and my pace increased quite naturally!).

I feel like that's probably true for a lot of life too. We can become so preoccupied with how we think we should be doing things (what we should have acquired or achieved;  how far on in our careers or relationships we should be..) that we forget the brilliant truth that each of us is entirely unique - that life doesn't come with a mileage gauge and that it holds so much more meaning and enjoyment when we take it at the pace that feels most comfortable to us.
2. I learned the art of perseverance. 
In so many ways and on so many occasions, running has shown me the importance of pushing on: pushing on in spite of the early belief that I would never be able to run; pushing on through the shame of being so embarrassingly slow; from there, pushing on through the horrible muscular pain that would strike about 3km into every run; pushing on when the heavens decided to open and leave me thoroughly soaked; pushing on beyond my usual loop to complete my first 5km route; and even then, still pushing on. 

It hasn't been a new discovery, but rather a recurring reminder of what rewards can be reaped by not giving up but carrying on even when things feel tough.  
3. I learned not to do too much too soon. 
A lesson that has to be held in tension with the previous one, this was painful to learn. Literally. 

Having managed my first slow 5k after only a couple of weeks of training, I continued to push myself on, both in running it slightly faster and in gradually increasing the distance from 5k to 6, 6k to 7 and then, on the 30th of March, from 7 to my first ever 10km run. It felt great and I was utterly delighted! 

The problem was, I was so delighted that I went and did it again the next day ..and then again the next. It was half-way through this third run, when putting my foot on the ground began to really hurt, that I should have known I'd done enough. Instead, I forced myself to continue and can only assume it was the endorphin fog alone that allowed me to finish, because I ended up damaging my achilles tendon in a way that left me barely able to walk. 

It was a hard but valuable lesson in the importance of permitting yourself to rest ..and the often-painful consequences when you choose not to.  
4. I learned to have a little patience. 
As a result of that injury, I was out of action for a good few weeks. I didn't quite know what to do with myself and was desperate to get out and run again. I wanted it to just stop hurting. Now. Immediately! It was only thanks to stern warnings from friends that I didn't just go out and run on it anyway. Instead, I had to be patient and allow it time to heal: resting it with ice and elevation; gently beginning to work the muscles by swimming; starting to walk some distance; and then taking my first tentative running steps with short, slow jogs.

It felt like a lengthy and frustrating process, but it was only by listening to my body and patiently waiting it out that I was able to break back into running successfully instead of causing further, longer-term harm.

I'm not very good at being patient when it comes to myself more generally: I want to feel better, now; I want to fix that problem, now; I want to be able to do x, y & z, now. It was a good lesson in how to be more gentle with me; how to tune in and wait for the right timing; and how to accept that just waiting can be strengthening in itself.
5. I learned to identify my weak spots ..and then give them some support. 
I know from painful past experience (feeling my kneecap pop whilst climbing a tree and again getting up from the toilet after hiking Bennachie. Yup.) that I have a weak left knee, so I've always strapped it up with some form of support whenever I run. After achilles-gate, I wear a support on my right ankle now too, every time I do anything other than a short, flat-surfaced run. It just seems like an obvious thing to do.

It makes me wonder, then, why we don't treat other weaknesses in a similar way. It seems to me that we put a lot of unnecessary time and effort into denying or trying to hide our weaknesses - because heaven forbid  anyone should know we aren't perfect - when learning to identify and be open about our struggles might actually ease their pain and create room for strengthening and growth. 
6. And finally, I learned that sometimes I'm capable of more than I ever thought. 
With the help of all those knee and ankle supports, I was able to build my running distance back up, conquering that 5k, 7k and 10k all over again. And then one day I just kept on going and found that I could conquer 16km. Ten whole miles!

And then, ten days ago now, I went a bit further and conquered 21km - a half marathon(!) - in about two and a half hours.

For someone who doubted she would ever be able to run, the sense of achievement was phenomenal. I was honestly, truly afraid that I wouldn't be able to complete the 5k, but it turned out I was more capable than I thought and I've gone on to do more than I ever could have dreamed.

I wonder if this could possibly, maybe, be true for other areas of life too?

Either way, I've proven to myself that I can run. I've covered the 5k and know that I can do it at an acceptable speed. I've got nothing left to prove to myself now and am going to just enjoy completing this particular challenge instead, looking forward to next Saturday where I can revel in the atmosphere and colour bombs and aim just to cover the distance, have fun and get as messy as I can!
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