Some days I wonder why I run.
Like the 10k I ran recently. I got out of bed feeling shaky and awful – a classic Saturday morning “overload hangover” from the working week before. Not sick, as such, but mixing autism with certain work activities can be like mixing grape and grain. It hurts the morning after!
So I got up, had my pre-race breakfast and coffee and drove to the start line, singing along to Bryan Adams on the way. Relaxed and easy. I kidded myself I felt better, at least enough to run. Tried to reconcile myself gently to the fact that although I had a target time for today, I was going to miss it, and that was OK. (Spoiler: it wasn’t OK. When you are autistic and you have a plan, and that plan involves the limit of exertion and exhaustion, and things don’t go right… it was never going to be OK!) Warming up felt like my body was lead. I pushed through it, stretched off, smiled and bounced and generally pretended to be up for it. Making a final trip to the ladies before the start, I caught a glimpse of my face in the mirror. It was a rather unattractive shade of grey.
Despite the glorious weather and the stunning off-road scenery, inevitably, it wasn’t a pretty race. I did eventually find my target pace around the 8th kilometre – but by then it was way too late. I was almost in tears over the finish line. But I did finish, and with no injuries. So perhaps not as complete a failure as it felt at the time.
Having comprehensively bombed at that race, I’ve nevertheless decided to start training again for a longer distance. There are a couple of 10 mile off-roaders near me around October-November time, tempting me with idyllic photographs of smiling past-years runners on country paths in the rare autumn sunshine – and of course that is the perfect amount of time for me to build up from a 10k. So naturally I go for it … but after that last race, I ask myself, why?
I was thinking about this again on my training run this morning. It was, as I like to put it, “piss-istently raining”. The wind gusted entertainingly, throwing occasional bursts of spray into my face. I slipped around stiles, mud sliding under the somewhat inadequate treads of my road running shoes. By around mile five, my ankles were screaming; my calves, having given up some time ago, sobbed quietly in the background. Why would do I do this to myself?
Because there’s something else. Something in the core of the pain and the wet and the cold. In every stride, smoothing and lengthening over miles from an invariably disjointed start, is something real and solid. Something strong.
The patter of rain on concrete. The rhythmic slap of wet ponytail against waterproof fabric. The wind in my face and the mud on my legs. Even though my calves are aching, I know they can do this. The rain has stopped being something to cringe away from and has become a relief. Wet leaves shower me with water, sweet and cool. In this bubble, in my stride, it’s just me and the next hill. There is nothing else in the world.
Walking, I think, is a complex activity. You go out for the day, maybe with friends. You take food and drink, layers for the weather and maps for the route. Walking events are a mass of people, chattering incessantly, making noise that drowns out the scenery. Climbing mountains, exploring coastlines: these are beautiful things that I love to do. But they take mental effort and planning.
Running is simple. Running is clean. During a race, the pack spreads out. I have space to stretch my legs, to lengthen, to live in the moment. Undistracted by people and noises, lacking the anxiety of location or direction, running is an experience pure and physical. Off-road, I drink in the scenery and revel in the feel of the ground, yielding under my feet. Training runs are quiet mornings, lost in thought, discovering rhythm. Giving my body the time it needs to find balance and focus. Resting my mind.
Yes, my legs are under-trained. Yes, there is effort and discomfort. But in the end, it is that running long distances gives me space to get away from the busy, overloading world, and recover myself.