It’s the night before a race; and once more I have that delicious mix of uncertainty and excitement. A half-marathon, this will be my 45th so I’m not exactly a novice; but this will be the first time I have run tomorrow’s race, so that excitement burns just as intensely.
The event is the BHF Harewood House Half Marathon, only the second year it has been run (here is my write-up of last year’s). So I know what I’m going to – in fact I ran a circuit of the estate last weekend as my final training run. I finished cold and ‘running-on-empty’, but then I had made it a 17-miler. Just to be on the safe side. And I finished pain-free, and no ill-effects the following day.
45 times out; ageing and slowing; but hey, I’m still going out in the cold early tomorrow to run 13.1 miles in a very beautiful setting. I know this circuit is hard and hilly and demanding; I won’t ‘race’ as such, I will run my own pace (or, rather, the pace my body tells me) but I will run, and I will love it.
When I started this blog I called it T-A-R-S because I had had so many years of pushing my body, and hurting it, driven by targets and split-times and PBs. But in the end I had a Damascene realisation that I could not forever keep getting quicker, and once I accepted that, it was liberating. I slowed down, I enjoyed the runs more, I felt the runs more in their own right, and (Rule No 1) I listened to my body more. And I stopped hurting it. I used to accept that the longstanding pain in my right calf, or my left knee, or my right bumcheek, or even my shoulder, were all a normal part of the work I was putting in. But now they are gone.
I found that my body is capable of amazing things, if I respect it. In the last few years I have learnt to allow the pace of my runs to be set not by targets or the stopwatch, but how I feel, by what my body is telling me. I am slower overall, yes: but often I can cruise along with almost no effort, heart and legs and lungs all in perfect balance, harmony. And some days I swear I can fly. Pain free and uninjured. I still record the times and splits, but out of interest rather than dictated to or judged by them. If I’m quick I smile; if I’m slow I shrug but enjoy the running nevertheless. Pain free and uninjured.
I have re-engineered my form in the last two years, more upright and keeping my arms lower and – most important of all – with a shorter stride which now has me fore- or mid-foot striking instead of overextending. If I hit an incline or want to go quicker I just put in more back-chopping strides. But at the mile-12 marker of a Half when I have been holding my pace back (I call it “Split-12”) I ask my body how it feels, and if we are both ok then I can let myself rip, just for the last mile (which now is a glorious celebration rather than a gasping tunnel of pain) … then I can let my knees come up, and I touch the ground less, and I leave them all behind… and I finish strong, and unhurt, and safe, and high.
Also I have experimented with yoga, and while I have never been taught or learnt to meditate, I know without a shadow of doubt that it has made me better balanced, better aligned, made me stronger, improved my form, and made me run in a more harmonious way. I have also become leaner; which is a nice side-effect.
And I have finally come to terms with the fact that three years ago I had a small heart attack. It was just a small one, but as an injury it was (is) rather more impactful than a hamstring or achilles or calf niggle. It means that I now have to put a red ‘X’ on my race-number and details of my meds on the back; and I have to fight the beta-blockers for the first 15 minutes of every run. And while I resent it, I can still record my admiration and gratitude for all the amazing scientists and medics who have cared for and continue to protect me. So I have adapted, survived; and I think I am better for it.
So my body and I are fine now. In fact more than just ‘fine’: I respect it, and I let it decide how far and how fast we are going to go. I have found that if I do this, it will take me to the most wonderful places. And even at my age it can still learn and change and adapt and get better. We run longer, easier, yogafied and with better form; finishing strongly, pain-free and uninjured. I am in awe of my body, and respect it. I feel privileged that it continues to take me out. And I realise now that I am still learning; my body is still responding. Of course I am not changing my body: it has always been capable of these things, I have been slow and now I’m just catching up. Not for the first time, I feel humbled and in awe that it continues to carry me, and put up with me.
It’s late. I need to pack up my bag. My pre-race stuff, my race kit, my warm after-kit; I need to pin my race-number (with its ‘X’ and meds) on my vest.
Because tomorrow my body is taking me for a run. Some days when my body takes me for a run, my heart soars. Let’s see how tomorrow is, in the British Heart Foundation Harewood House Half Marathon. We might finish under two hours or it might be a little more; who knows, we’re not particularly fussed. But I know – we know, my body and I – that tomorrow we will enjoy our run. We will simply enjoy the running.