Run to your grave

I love running. All the same, a lot of my reasons for exercising could fairly be called “a bit negative”. I live in terror of mortality. Not of death: dying, based on the couple of times I’ve been ill enough to slip out of consciousness, is going to be a piece of piss. Maybe I’m just exceptionally bad with pain, but mid-agony, the promise that it will all fade into hushed darkness when you shut your eyes is actually not that terrible.

I’m not even afraid of ageing — the wrinkles, grey hairs and incremental sag strike me as interesting rather than grotesque. No, the thing I fear is frailty. Hobbled feet. Brittle bones. Winter falls. Needing to ring a warden to open my jars. Strokes, and the sideways slump into dementia.

So, I run. And when it’s rainy and cold, and the duvet feels more alluring than the pavement at six in the morning, I think about bone density and BMIs and how every step is putting a tiny bit more distance between me and my inevitable demise.

My first few years as a runner were defined by this grim sense of fleeing the reaper – and maybe unsurprisingly, I didn’t find it especially joyful. I found it more or less exactly as enjoyable as you’d imagine grinding out miles under the patient eye of Death to be. Then, a couple of years ago, a friend who was a much better runner than me invited me to join her on a loop.

Running with someone else is very different to running alone. Just having someone to talk to is a distraction from the beating of your own feet, while their presence immediately halves any anxiety you have about other people seeing you in Lycra. (My alternative tactic for dealing with this was to wear an aggressively pink tracksuit, a visual code for, “You want to stare and shout something, lairy taxi driver? Well BRING IT ON! I am RIGHT HERE and I am FUCHSIA!”)

The other thing about running with someone better than you is that you find yourself going further – and faster – than you would do otherwise, just to keep up. And around the third mile, I found something out: I like running. Not the first fifteen minutes or so, but then that’s just the warm-up. After a while, you stop fretting about the way you’re running, and just run.

It’s not all unconscious instinct, of course, and like most regular runners, I’ve had scrapes with pain (shin splints, bruised heels) that needed to be corrected with lots of scrunch-faced scrutiny of my gait and posture. But with practice, good form becomes habit and the rhythm of your own movement lulls you into somewhere between thinking and not-thinking, ideas and memories and awareness of the outside world skipping freely across your brain.

And, sometimes, peace gives way to pure pleasure, the feeling that your muscles are all lit up as you hunt your way to the finish. I never quite know how to explain this to people who say they don’t like running: “Sure, it’s a drudge, but what about those ten minutes of a two-hour run when your whole body is ablaze with the joy of movement, huh?” Even to me, that sounds like a bad bargain sometimes. It isn’t though. I just love running.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2011; photo by Relish Running Races