One of the reasons I started running: it turned out to be one of the easiest and cheapest options for staying fit and healthy after welcoming children into my life. Prior to that, I focused on swimming. I’m an average runner. Objectively speaking, I’m much better at swimming. In the Great Scottish Swim I regularly place in the top-10 of my age group and have finished in the 10% of swimmers overall over 1, 2, and 3 mile distances. While I still love swimming, it can be a faff. Getting in 20min of decent exercise can take over an hour when you factor in changing, showering, and the über-complex lane availability system at my local leisure centre. Outdoor swimming is wonderful, but there’s that frustration of driving hours to a loch and then seeing blue-green algae.
I ran my first 10k when my daughter was still in the pram. I was still focusing on swimming then, but turned to running as something that I fit in-between trips to the pool. I didn’t particularly enjoy running, but endured it because, like leafy veg, it was supposed good for me.
It was after my son was born that running because the most practical option. Any baby will turn your life upside down, even if it’s a fairly “easy” baby (in other words, one who sleeps). My daughter was, after some initial difficulties with a strange transient protein allergy, a pretty chilled out kid. She loved sleeping.
My son, however, was a different story. He was born with a cleft palate, was colic, and had a host of other dietary issues. Even before his cleft repair surgery, we were in the children’s hospital more often than I like to remember (being in a children’s hospital is a terrible, wonderful, and draining experience; you see some tragic things, but I was continually amazed by how helpful, strong, and resilient people can be). I seldom got out to the pool for my weekly swims because there simply wasn’t time. The stress combined with fatigue led to some poor health choices. Too much coffee, sugary junk, and even though I hate the stuff, regular trips to the McDonalds drive-through. I think what lay behind theses uncharacteristic fast food binges was a psychological attempt to feel in control of something when life was so hectic. Many days, I had no idea what was wrong with my son, but he kept screaming in pain and would never sleep despite our best efforts. There was some comfort in buying some horrid apple pie, McFlurry, and a coffee because it became everything that life wasn’t: predictable, controllable, with the promise of instant gratification.
It wasn’t anything drastic. I didn’t gain a huge amount of weight or anything, but my health was on a downward curve. In reality, the mental effect of the junk food was worse than anything physical. The reliance on pure sugar and caffeine to created this awful jittery and often incoherent vigilance.
Then I started running. The benefits of running are well documented. It goes without saying that running is no miracle cure or a magical solution to life’s problems. Everything didn’t change overnight and I still didn’t particularly enjoy it at first. But it was the most simple way to get myself out the door (be that my house or the hospital) and it afforded me some headspace for 20 minutes. It was also a much healthier way to deal with that feeling of overwhelming chaos that comes with having a very ill kid. As Clare Allan puts it:
“Running is the most brilliant way of showing the mind who’s boss. Your brain may be screaming at you to stop, telling you you can’t keep going, you’re not fit enough, you look pathetic, and still you just keep on running.”
Running helped me to manage the chaos in a healthier way. Fast food offers the semblance of control and predictability, but nothing of value. You have to keep returning for the sugar high and hit of predictability. It might be comforting, but if offers no way out. We really don’t have much control. Running helped me deal with that fact.
On a run, things change and it seldom goes exactly to plan. Your legs get tired, but you press on. You get a stitch, so you breathe with a different rhythm to alleviate the pain. There’s a tree that has fallen across the trail, so you need to jump over it or double back. Sometimes a pavement is so icy you have to change your route. In running, it’s necessary to shift and adapt goals on the fly. In running, you have to be present in a world in flux, but learn that you can – most of the time – deal with the ebb and flow. Sometimes a run goes to plan, sometimes it doesn’t, but you have the small victory that you were able to get out the door and do something positive.
I eventually fell in love with running. It helped me get into a better frame of mind. It helped me develop resilience. I became an all-round healthier person.
My son’s health eventually improved and his cleft repair went as well as it possibly could have. Life once again settled into a nice rhythm. But running became part of my life and it remains that way. Along with all the other things I’ve mentioned, running gives me solitude. It has also introduced me to friends and a supportive community I wouldn’t want to be without. This dynamic of running being such a personal endeavour within community makes for a fascinating dialectic.
Both of my children see that my wife and I run. The see us sweaty and striving to the best of our ability for rather average times, not winning races, but still pushing outside our comfort zones. I hope that sets a good example for them. The kids love coming along to races and things like parkrun. My daughter was excited when my running club started a mini-Harriers group that introduces young kids to the simple joy of running, jumping, and throwing.
I’m also delighted that my kids now ask me to take them out on runs as well. My daughter specifically requests trail runs because she loves the feel of bounding down a hill, darting around trees (child after my own heart!). It feels like a real adventure. At the finish of a run, she begs me to stop and get a daft self-timer photo, “To make mummy laugh.” We run at the camera, jump, or goof off in some other way. It’s silly and something I’d be too self-conscious to do on my own, but with a kid it feels totally acceptable. And it is fun and reminds me that while running is a seriously important part of my life, it’s better if I don’t take it too seriously and forget the simple joy of it in the midst of track sessions, training plans, and so on. I’m sure the kids won’t be terribly keen to run with their naff dad when they get older (even though I hope not!), so I’ll enjoy and relish all this while it lasts…