It’s fair to say that in the past year I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with running. I’ve always been a ‘natural’ runner, lucky to grow up in a rural area that allowed me to put on my trainers and run off somewhere without a care in the world. My first competitive memory is of me breaking away from the pack in a sports day race at primary school, only to be overtaken by a boy in the last 50m. Throughout school I enjoyed racing, simply because I found it fun – the adrenaline rush at the start of the race, the burning thighs, the splash of mud, the desperate sprint finish. Away from races, running simply provided an opportunity to be outside observing nature. It made me feel happy and healthy.
Growing up I was fortunate enough not to develop an injury that would prevent me from being active for a sustained period of time, despite taking part in Modern Pentathlon from the age of 12. That was perhaps because I didn’t take the sport seriously enough to allow this to happen – living miles from anywhere meant training intensely would have been an immense ask on my parents both in terms of money and time, and I didn’t want that. Rather than joining an athletics club, I did most of my training for the running phase myself. To me, the sport simply provided social opportunities and a personal goal to work towards. But in my late teens, I stopped enjoying it as much. It had become a sport full of pushy parents, with their emphasis seeming to be on results and winning. This new pressurising environment rubbed off on me, to the extent that going away for a weekend to compete no longer felt fun.
After starting university, I dropped the other four sports to focus mainly on running as the sport to supplement my studies. Attending more structured and coached sessions soon made me regret having as a young teenager turned down offers by scouts to join their athletics club and chosen instead to stick with all five sports equally. Competing in races solely for running, rather than as part of a multi sport, was something that I’d missed. In making running my main sport, I once again had found the perfect balance of fun and competition – a serious hobby that I genuinely really enjoyed. Running brought so many positive elements: a way to meet people; a way to de-stress; a way to keep in shape; a way to have a personal goal. I didn’t have to think about as much as I had with the other sports: commanding a new horse over a course of show jumps; focussing carefully on my sights during shooting; anticipating and responding to the actions of my opponent in fencing; preserving a good technique while swimming…Or at least, what I did have to think about didn’t feel like a task – it just came naturally. And running was such an easy thing to do – all you needed was a pair of trainers and some motivation, the latter being something I’d always had.
In second year I was in the best shape I’d ever been in – the shape I would have probably been in a few years before had I focussed solely on running. Making massive improvements in my times felt brilliant, and with the BUCS Cross-Country Champs a few months away, I was confident that I’d perform significantly better than the year before. Whilst it wouldn’t be anything remarkable by national standards, it would still be a great personal achievement. I worked super hard in training, pounding the track and dashing up the hills, all in a quest to become better. In mind, body and spirit, I was feeling fantastic.
Then one day a pain that I’d never felt before showed up in my right leg. After a week of rest I ran again while at home for Christmas, only to have to stop. I couldn’t remember the last time, if ever, that I’d pulled up on this route. The pain continued to present itself everytime I ran, but I told myself it would go away. I was running so well, I couldn’t stop now. In mid January I winced my way through a two mile cross-country race, only to ironically finish in my best position of the season. The pain persisted as I walked back to the train station, and it never left. Every step I took was greeted with a sharp sting in the back of my lower leg, and my bone felt tender to touch. I’d never experienced anything like this before. Walking – something I’d done everyday since I was able to stand on two feet myself – was no longer something I could do without thinking about it. I’d pulled muscles before, but this felt totally alien. Walking home from uni a few days later, tears fell down my cheeks as I realised this was a serious issue that, as long as I continued running, was not simply going go to go away.
A week later was the day of the championships. The day before them I got hold of some crutches to help me rest my leg, following a doctor’s assumption that I’d picked up a stress fracture. I was persuaded by team mates to travel up to the race regardless, having already bought my train ticket, and eventually I gave in. I’d never had to be so dependent on other people to help me. Having people hold doors for me, carry my bags, pay for my bus ticket and so on made me feel useless. Seeing everyone warm up in our team colours brought a sting to my chest. I’d been so excited for this day. Of all the national competitions I’d gone to for pentathlon, none had I looked forward to as much as I had this. The course was one of the muddiest I’d ever seen, yet I still felt pangs of jealousy as I saw my team mates crossing the finish line.
Six miserable weeks later I came off the crutches, and the pain when I walked had gone. I felt like a bird released from captivity, free to resume its natural gift of flying. Not being able to be as mobile and independent as I’d always taken for granted had made me retreat inside a hole of frustration and embarrassment. In my first seminar without crutches, I spoke more than I had in the past six weeks of that class. In being able to walk on two feet again with no pain, I was back in my comfort zone, and I’d re-found my voice.
Two weeks later I couldn’t wait any longer, and had to run again. I felt gross – my legs had atrophied slightly and I pinched new fat around my hips. But above all, I just missed it. Watching my team perform at an athletics competition made me fidgety – I wanted to be on the start line again, flooded with adrenaline. But when I put on my trainers for the first time since the January race, I felt nervous. I went for a slow jog on the grass to test the leg, feeling cautious. There was no pain. I breathed a sigh of relief. But my chest felt tight just from a gentle loop around a football pitch. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be back in no time,’ I told myself.
But of course, that was just wishful thinking. Training sessions were restricted to just doing the warm up jog and no speed work. I’d never had to worry before about taking things slow when it came to running, and I soon found myself getting impatient. Watching people do 400m sets on the track from the side, knowing I’d have been up there with them a few months earlier, was hard to watch. Training with my team mates became less fun, as seeing them speed off effortlessly in front of me made me feel demoralised. With exams then demanding my attention, I told myself that over summer I would get back in shape. The summer sunshine meant there was no excuse not to be outside running. But my determination to reclaim my old fitness only impeded my recovery, as I attempted to do too much too soon. Hints of pain re-emerged, meaning I had to rest more in between each run than I hoped. With increased devotion to post-run stretching came a sense of desperation.
But the recovery wasn’t only difficult physically. Alongside the gasping breaths after attempting sets I’d have previously coped with fine came tears of frustration and self doubt. Running was no longer something I didn’t have to think about – every step was placed with anxiety, as I anticipated a burst of pain in my leg. I felt like something was holding me back, and realised that it was fear. I was scared of damaging something so valuable to me again, and having to return to what had been a lonely state of immobility. It was a complicated injury, not caused by one single significant action, but an accumulation of impact pressure that had built up over time. Like an alcoholic who didn’t know his limits, I felt like I didn’t know mine either. But instead of drinking more to test myself, I let my liquid of lust drip away, as the potential risks of pain and feelings of incompetence reduced my desire for the end result. Feeling like I had to think about what I was doing had made running cease to be an enjoyment, and instead a constant indicator of inadequacy. My confidence had vanished, and the motivation to run that had previously come so naturally to me had gone. Feeling disillusioned, excuses began to be made and my frequency of running dropped.
Then I went to Iceland in August, and my trainers were stuffed into my backpack. It’s always my intention that I’ll go for two or three runs during a trip, as it’s a great way to observe scenery and everyday life. On coming back from the Westmann Islands I was spending an evening in Selfoss. Its main attraction is probably the glacial Ölfusa which, as Iceland’s largest river, runs through the town to the east of the mountain Ingólfsfjall. The bright blue river flows fast as it gets closer to the town centre, whipping up whirlpools and creating a constant ‘shhhhh’ sound as it surges downstream. The sun was out when I arrived, and I sat on the banks of the river eating cheap cake from the local Netto. My food the day before had consisted of a cheese sandwich and carrot sticks. My jeans were looser and I was hungry. But as the wind picked up my hunger became directed towards something else. The sugar from the cake had filled me with energy, and I felt impatient. Suddenly I had a real desire to move and be constantly active. I’d been on only two runs in the two weeks leading up to the trip, panting through three miles and feeling fed up after finishing. I’d gone running because I’d felt that I should, not because I wanted to. But today was different – the rush of the river had stimulated in me a craving to run that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
In the early evening I put on my trainers and stretched outside my hostel, taking deep breaths. But the difference was that they were breaths of excitement, rather than anxiety. ‘I’ll just go for a short jog along the river,’ I thought to myself as I set off. I felt no pain in my leg, and ran comfortably for 25 minutes to the suspension bridge where I’d thought I would stop. My breathing was slightly laboured, but then I spotted a path leading off. ‘I can go a few minutes more,’ I thought. Gravel crunched under my trainers as I ran past a sign named ‘Hellisskog’ into a cosy section of small fir trees, where little wooden bridges offered different choices of direction. I randomly chose one that led me along a quiet gravel track. I had no idea where I was going, but I felt great. I was running with a fluidity that I hadn’t felt since before I got injured.
10 minutes later my legs started to ache a little, hinting that they wanted to stop. Had I been at home or in Regents Park at this point, I would have listened to my body and gladly given in. But here I felt curious about what was ahead, and for the first time in a while I stopped thinking about my leg and just ran, concentrating on the views around me instead. 10 minutes later I turned up at a grassy mound of rock. A sign called it ‘Stori Hellir’, translating as ‘the big cave’. It’s allegedly haunted by a man who hung himself there after suffering a broken heart. But as I bounded up the grass to the top of the cave, I felt nothing but pure elation. Strong winds buffeted my face, but with a revitalising energy that made me grin from ear to ear. Ingólfsfjall with its prominent presence looked down at me proudly. I felt like I’d just finished a marathon – a true sense of mental and physical accomplishment.
The natural monument I was standing on wasn’t even that special, but to me it served as a huge landmark. It signified progress and pleasure. The spirited drive of the river had spurred me on, and the curiosity that comes with being in an unknown area had made me go further than I not only expected to, but would have had I been running in familiar surroundings. The new scenery had distracted me so that instead of constantly thinking about how well I was doing, I was picking up positive emotions from environmental stimuli, which in turn made me feel good as I was running. By the time I got back to my hostel, I’d run around four miles in total. Whilst there’s nothing significant about that distance, it was the first run in 2013 that I’d enjoyed. My motivation to run had returned, and it was thanks to being in travel mode.
This experience made me realise that I’d been approaching getting back into running with the wrong attitude. Just like the pushy parents from my pentathlon days, my improved level of running had begun to emphasise results and performance. Upon having to stop, I hadn’t processed that before I could get competitive again, I’d have to work my way up from a more modest base. By putting pressure on myself to return to my pre-injury standard, I’d forgotten the core principle that had always previously governed my view towards running – the idea of it being fun.
Now I’m in third year and am still not able to run as frequently or intensively as I’d like to, partly because of work and partly because of little protests from my calf muscle now and again. But I’m simply grateful for the fact that I can run in the first place. My brief period of immobility made me feel so much more grateful for the fact that I’m able to move my legs at all. But that evening run in Selfoss highlighted why having this ability should be something to appreciate and enjoy, rather than use as a harsh measure of personal quality. If anyone asked me for advice on getting motivated to run again, I’d tell them to go travelling, and let curiosity carry their legs further.