About Me

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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Run for your life

Today is the London marathon. I am watching it on the tellie, dressed in my running gear having just come in from a short jog around Highbury Fields. I am not a natural runner. I have long gangly limbs and most of my 'muscle mass' is to be found on my arse. Theoretically I could be a cyclist or a rower, but I have tried both with uninspiring results. My body is best suited to lying on the couch watching others play sports. And yet I run. Slowly and inconsistently, I have run for most of my life.

In my youth my height meant that I was a reasonably valuable member of netball and basketball teams. Basketball training was where the running started. It was not a happy beginning. As a young basketballer any time spent training without a ball in my hand or an opponent in my sights was a drag. 'Fitness training' was my least favourite activity but if it was just a few sprints or sit ups on the court then it could be endured because real training wasn't too far away. Training outside the stadium, at the beach or the local football ground, was tedious, but with team mates to laugh at me when my legs collapsed after a sprint up a sand dune, and a coach yelling at me to go harder, it was bearable. There was nothing fun about the early mornings slowly jogging around the deserted roads of the suburban fringe, with my mother trailing behind on a bicycle. I hated running, but I did it for the team, or at least out of fear that I would be dropped if I didn't.

Then I went to university, stopped training, started drinking and got fat. I still hated running, but not as much as I hated being fat. So I put on my sneakers again and one foot in front of the other jogged around Kings Park and the Swan River near the University of Western Australia. I never ran more than 5km, and I ran slowly, but I began to notice other benefits. By my final year I realised that the day I could run an extra 100m was the day I could revise another few pages of my text book. Running was teaching me to push past my limits, and the fruits of discipline.

I left university for work in aluminium smelting and continued jogging slowly around the bushland, mangroves and beaches of Central Queensland, which was fine in the 'dry season' but awful in treacly air of 'the wet'. Back to university and back to Perth for my PhD and my midday run along the Indian Ocean coastline south of Fremantle was a brief moment of sanity in those lunatic days of write up. I entered my first 5km fun run around Freo. Across the continent again to the cold air of the New South Wales tablelands and my first academic job, where I ran in snow and sleet, losing feeling in my fingers and toes. I ran the 14km Sydney City to Surf. And still, if you'd asked me, I would have said that for the most part I hated running.

I am by nature very lazy. Given the choice I will always lie on the couch and read a book, watch TV, or, even better, sleep. I kept running to keep from getting fat. Running up a hill, alone, in the sub-zero sleet on the farm where I lived and worked teaching sustainable agriculture, I visualised carbon dioxide and water molecules coming out of my mouth, smoke from the fat burning off my bum. I also imagined my childhood nemesis, who I knew had been putting on the pounds, and was driven by the thought that if I achieved nothing else in my life at least I would be thinner than her when I went home. I would be a horrible person, but I would not be fat. My mantra was 'keep running you fat lazy cow' (polite version).

I moved to London, and jogged along the Thames and over Hampstead Heath. In a pub after the Great British 10K one year with my brother and a friend, we toyed with the idea of a marathon and dismissed it before the bottom of our second pint. Then one January, all in need of a resolution, five of us signed up for the Edinburgh marathon (which is easier to get into than London, is a lovely scenic course and a good excuse for a weekend in one of my favourite cities).

Marathon training was hard. It began 12 weeks before the race, required running or cross training most days of the week, and took over my weekends. Sundays I would run in the morning and then sleep in the afternoon, exhausted. Pretty soon I was running further than ever before, every week. This meant that every week I would feel a new level of pain, and every Monday I would be hobbling up the stairs at work. Men cat called, even whilst taking a Sunday stroll in the park with their girlfriends. I discovered whole new areas of London and got to know the Lea Valley more intimately than I ever imagined.    

Marathon training taught me some of my most important lessons. It taught me the power of negative thinking. 'Keep running you fat lazy cow' might have been enough to drag my sorry arse up a hill on a freezing 7km jog, but 27km into a long training session, far from home, it was a very dangerous thought. At that point my body believed whatever my mind told it. If I have told my body it was fat and lazy it would have stopped running and found the nearest chip shop. 'You are a big, strong girl, keep going', became my new mantra. Its purpose was to keep out negative thoughts, and it helped me keep my head up and keep putting one foot in front of the other until I got home, took a shower and fell asleep.

The marathon itself taught me to live for the moment. My companions had all run off ahead of me by the 2km mark and alone in the crowd I thought to myself 'this is probably the only marathon you will ever run, enjoy it'. And so I did. I kept slowly shuffling along, chatting to people who were at the same pace for short periods, listening out for all the cheers from the crowd along the way, laughing at the humiliation of being overtaken by Uncle Bulgaria, the Womble (who is considerably taller than he looks on TV). Around 30km, on my own, out along the coast, a lady standing in her front yard yelled 'I love seeing strong women achieving their goals', putting a smile on my face for the rest of the day. I 'ran' the whole way, without walking or stopping. When the 40km marker appeared I knew it was nearly over but I had no idea when. I was running so slowly that it seemed possible that I would be running for the rest of the afternoon, but I kept going. One foot in front of the other.

Then it was over. I couldn't lift my foot onto the step for the volunteer to take the chip off my ankle. Very kindly she bent over to the ground and my officially recorded time was 4:52. Later that year a woman won the gold medal in Beijing running the marathon in 2:26. I have never felt pain like I felt that day and for the following week, but I had 'run' a marathon.

I didn't run further than the bus stop for the next six months. I laid on the couch a lot. Eventually I put my sneakers back on and got back out onto the pavements and parks. I slid back into my inconsistent routine of jogging, mostly for fitness but also because sometimes as I close my eyes at night I dream that I am running on an empty street. In the last couple of years I have discovered that running is a good cure for jet lag, especially on work trips. In that hour that I usually get between being dropped at the hotel after a long haul flight and picked up for dinner or my first meeting, I head straight for the treadmill. It feels good to get the blood circulating. Running is a great way to discover a city, and on holidays I head out onto the streets and parks, but for work trips the treadmill is more reliable.

I go through phases, sometimes not running for months. This winter has been one of those phases, initially due to a chest infection, then simply inertia. I have also been suffering terribly with procrastination, noticing a lack of commitment to almost everything. This is not a co-incidence. And so, after many drafts of post-it notes, very tidy cupboards, many books and webpages on productivity, I simply put my sneakers on, and went jogging. I have now been jogging for 11 days in a row. Very slowly, no further than 5km. It is the one thing I know I can commit to, and the one thing I know brings the structure and discipline I need for the rest of my life. That extra 100m - another paragraph of a grant application, another essay marked.

I no longer hate running, but I will never be a runner. If I could take a pill that burned 350 calories instead of going for a half hour jog I probably would. I hope the drug companies never invent that pill. I also have a note in my diary for 22nd April, the day the ballot opens for next year's London marathon. I don't know if I'll apply or if I am prepared to hobble around for 12 weeks next winter, but I hope I will keep jogging, very slowly for as long as my legs can carry me. 

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