The Oatmeal has managed to summarise this beautifully for people such as myself in the book, ‘The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances.’ It’s a delightful cartoon documentary of one man fighting all those demons that so many of us fight every time we don those running shoes and trot off down the street. There are the Krakens that we slay. There are all those whispering Bleurch things that tell us what a jolly good idea it would be to slob out in a comfy chair and consume vast quantities of salty snacks. However he also tells of that wonderful joy that the runner feels when he or she just runs and runs and all the voices in his head go quiet and there is just the joy of running.
I’m cheating a little here in that this occurred a couple of years ago but I reckon it would fit here quite nicely.
Running and the Tricksy Brain
I’ve been doing some running lately.
Oh no, I’ve just lost at least half my readership. I remember reading a quote about equations. It was something like, for every equation you use in a book then half of your readership will be scared away. I was convinced that this was something that Isaac Asimov had been told and he related in his autobiography. Google tells me otherwise. It seems Stephen Hawking produced this little gem, in his book, A Brief History of Time. However I have chosen a non mathematical way of chasing you all away. I know of very few fans who do any running but I have met quite a number who have struggled with the tricksiness of their own heads, so maybe we have some common ground there. I’ve found this running business to be a fascinating experience for what it does to the inside of my head and if there are any of you left still reading this I’d like to tell you a little bit about it.
Over the years I’ve often thought that this running lark might be a jolly fine thing to do. It’s easily accomplished, should be really good exercise and it’s absolutely free. So every now and again I would don shorts and training shoes and off I’d go. A couple of hundred yards later I would be huffing and puffing and aching and hurting in all sorts of places. My brain would be screaming at me to stop before I died. I knew those messages were ridiculous as I’ve seen vast numbers of people run more than two hundred metres so surely it couldn’t be fatal. I would push on a little further but the pain overwhelmed me and I would be found clutching a lampost, fighting for breath and feeling thoroughly useless and ridiculously unfit. I was sure that this reaction must be psychosomatic despite what seemed like so much physical evidence so would try again and again and just find myself clutching yet another lampost feeling pathetic. And so things continued until I discovered something called Parkrun. Every Saturday morning for 09:00 large groups of volunteers mark out a 5 kilometre route, and runners turn up to run the course. You get a bar code by registering on the web site and the volunteers will time you and provide a finishing tag. You then take the barcode and finishing tag to the scanning team and the results are then published on the Parkrun website. A marvellous resource indeed and completely free but of course I worried and dithered for along time before I went along to give it a try. I mean this was 5 kilometres for goodness sake. That’s a long long way. Surely I could never run that kind of distance. Armed with this mighty multitude of negative thoughts I turned up to give it a try, confident that if I found it too difficult I could just give up and go home. This plan was immediately scuppered when I encountered a friend and work colleague there who assured me that after he finished he would wait by the finish line to cheer me in.
I started near the back of the field and was cheered to find that we set off quite slowly and the people around me were doing quite a gentle little trot. Excellent, thinks I. This pace will suit me nicely. Then after a kilometre the pain hits. I can’t breathe and I know my face is contorting madly as I strain desperately to try and get some air into my lungs. It seems that it doesn’t matter how wide I open my mouth I just can’t get any oxygen in there. I’m now swaying from side to side with my mouth agape doing a fine impersonation of a great galumphing hippopotamus.
My mind screams at me to stop before I die. I keep going. My heart starts thumping and I feel a pain there. See, says my brain. You wouldn’t listen to me and now you’re going to have a heart attack. I ignore the pain and carry on. Now the muscles in my legs are starting to do strange twanging things. I imagine tendons being stretched to breaking point and snapping abruptly leaving me with useless floppy limbs. I reject the floppy limbs scenario and keep going.The brain then realises that it needs to get more sneaky if it’s going to get me to stop. Maybe you could just rest for a bit Jim. Surely just a moments rest wouldn’t be too much of a problem. Possibly a rest might help and then you could run faster after you’ve recovered. Tempting indeed but I realise these are brain tricks. At that point one of the volunteers shouts out the time we’ve been running. I start doing calculations in my head trying to figure out what speed I’m going and extrapolating my finish time if I actually do finish. This keeps me occupied for some time and I pass the 2 kilometre marker. This is a revelation as I realise that I haven’t died yet and the pain hasn’t gotten worse. What’s even better is that I’m now breathing fairly evenly. There are still scary wheezing noises emanating from my mouth but I no longer feel like I’m fighting for every breath. This buoys me up a little and I push on to 3 kilometres with only muted screaming noises going on inside my head. Then the doubts come flooding back in. Three kilometres is only a little over halfway. That strange twanging feeling at the back of my knee has made itself known again. Maybe if I keep going it will just snap and I may never be able to walk again. I picture myself negotiating the rest of my life in a wheelchair. It all feels so vivid and I’m convinced that the reality will be realised in only a few seconds if I don’t stop now. I try distracting myself with numbers again but it isn’t working. I’ve slowed down from a trot to a totter and look close to falling over. A volunteer asks me if I’m OK and I try to look brave and assure them that I’m absolutely fine. They ask if I’m sure and I reply in the affirmative. I obviously don’t look OK. Then something magical happens. I encounter the 4 kilometre sign. This sign means there is just one kilometre left. I start counting down. These are manageable numbers now. The end is no longer an unobtainable goal. I count up to a hundred and that means there are only about 900 metres to go. I count to another hundred and think aargh, these numbers aren’t going down very much. It’s still a long way to the finish. However, thinks I. Maybe I haven’t been entirely accurate and possibly instead of 800 metres left there are only 750. In fact while I’ve been thinking about this I could have run another fifty metres so there could only be 700 metres left. No that’s silly you’re just kidding yourself. I argue back and forth about how much I’m deluding myself as regards the distance left to cover and then all doubt is vanquished as I see a sign telling me that there are only 300 metres to go. Hurrah thinks I surging forward and then rapidly running out of steam as I find that 300 metres is still quite a long way. Eventually I stagger across the finish line and collect my finishing tag. I lie down on the grass feeling totally exhausted but elated. My mind told me that it couldn’t be done. It was absolutely emphatic about it and yet it had lied. I had reached the end and although I ached and hurt, I was not injured and I was now a 5 kilometre runner (albeit a 5 kilometre runner who was walking like a drunken cowboy). This was a distance that I never thought I would attain. I’ve been out running quite a bit since then and the battle against my brain still happens every time. It was particularly prominent recently when I started to run 10 kilometres. My brain said this was a ridiculous notion and threw many obstacles into my path. I would say that I stepped deftly around these obstacles but I think it is probably more accurate to say I staggered and stumbled my way through until I reached my 10 kilometres. I’m more confident about my running now but the brain still occasionally wins through. If it can’t stop me it tries to suggest I should rest this week and run a little slower so that I can make an extra special attempt next week. It’s a tricksy little bunch of neurons that brain thing.
I wonder if I should have a bash at a half marathon?