Looking back, I’ve been a runner most of my life. From scratch races around our estate and school sports days, cross countries and a brief dalliance with a running club I’ve always done it. And I’ve always loved it.
I was born with several heart problems. The main one was a hole in the heart, but there were a few other things that when combined, put my life at risk. As a child, up until the age of about 6 or 7 I spent a lot of time in hospitals and had open heart surgery at a young age when such a thing was very much still in its infancy. I was weak, scrawny and described by my surgeon as “a very poorly little boy”.
I got through, but for a long time I stayed as very much that same scrawny little boy. I don’t know whether my illness contributed, but I took a long time to really grow and always found myself playing catch up with kids of my own age. I was forever skinnier and until I was about 16 years old, I was shorter too. Where any kind of sport was concerned it didn’t bother me a bit. I was always doing some kind of actvity, and while I may not have been the best, I was prepared to put in the hard work in order to improve.
In terms of running, I had a bit of an advantage from quite an early age. I seemed to have decent pace in sprints and about enough stamina to hold my own at longer distances. But I was never quite good enough to make me really happy. I still really enjoyed running though. However, always being not quite good enough began to get to me in the end and I would suffer mentally while running, whether it was a race or I was just out on a training run. Nothing terrible, just a bit of what I saw as a weakness. I’d drift off, losing focus on what I was doing and begin to hear my own voice often telling me I’d done enough, or that I was far too tired and that I should just stop and walk. As time went on I began to just lose interest. In the end on one of the final times that I entered the Great North Run (a famous UK half marathon) I had a bit of a shocker! I had trained sporadically and ended up just putting faith in the fact that I’d done the race enough times before to be able to know what I was doing. It didn’t turn out that way.
To compound my lack of fitness, it was a really sunny day and I got sunstroke. By the time I’d finished I found talking difficult and was slurring my words. I’d arranged to meet my then girlfriend – and now wife – along with, I think my mam and dad, at a certain point away from what would be a crowded finish area once I’d finished. However, by the time I arrived I think they were considering sending out a search party! I vaguely remember asking a man on the baggage bus where our meeting point was but really not understanding his explanation, such was the state I was in. In the end, I gathered my thoughts somewhat and just staggered in the general direction of where I felt it was and finally found my welcoming party. After that, I remember being forced to drink a lot of water and then falling asleep on the back seat of the car, draped across my girlfriend’s lap. I genuinely don’t remember much at all about the actual run.
Needless to say, the whole experience put me off running for quite a while and it was a long time before I found the motivation to start running seriously again. However, to cut a long story short, I got motivated enough to do one final Great North Run (my 6th) in order to exorcise those particular demons, ran it in a decent time, proved a point to myself and then more or less gave up running for a number of years.
Until my mid to late 40s I didn’t really run again much at all. And then – as has been documented in a few previous blogs – heart problems struck again and I decided that I needed to get fit. As far as I was concerned I’d had a gentle brush with death and wasn’t prepared to sit around and allow my body to go to seed any longer. So I ran for my life.
Even then my running was relatively sporadic. I’ve always been particularly prone to niggling injuries and sadly it’s always been something that I’ve allowed to put me off. I think as I’ve got older I’ve got mentally weaker in terms of levels of determination and used small injuries, colds etc. as a good enough excuse to duck out of a run or two. But then something else happened that completely changed my outlook and fortunately allowed me to make my body a great deal fitter and stronger.
When Coronavirus struck, I ran. Simple as that. Being told that I was particularly vulnerable to the virus and then watching how dangerous it could be, made me think. I needed to be as fit and as strong as possible. I had to be prepared to fight. So I fought. And this time I fought properly.
By March of this year I was in lockdown and unable to work. I genuinely didn’t know what I’d do to get through the initial four weeks that I was going to be away from work. So when schools closed and Joe Wicks decided that he’d run a live family fitness class every morning of lockdown, I jumped on it.
Initially it was our whole family. But when my four weeks turned into 6 months, things got busier for the rest of the family. My kids were being schooled remotely (until my then Year 6 son went back to actual school) and my wife was working from home. This left me, pig-headedly doing a Joe Wicks workout every morning at 9am and without realising it for a while, getting much fitter and stronger into the bargain. Suddenly one morning while having a shave I noticed the appearance of actual muscles on my arms, across my shoulders and chest and thought, well this is a bit different!
After a few weeks I felt fitter than I had in years and so started getting into the habit of finishing a workout and then heading out for a run on at least a couple of occasions in a week. And what a difference a bit of strength makes! A couple of weeks later and I was beating personal bests every time that I went out. If I ran 3km on the Tuesday, then I’d run 3.5km on the Thursday, until I was regularly running a 5k after a couple of workouts per week. Just over a year ago, I started to do Park Run and after a couple recorded a 5km personal best of 28 minutes and 56 seconds. That was enough to give me an excuse to stop again! Now, after a few months of going out running, that personal best has been broken several times and now stands at 24.48. Who knew that being actually, properly fit could make such a difference!
Clearly, taking fitness seriously has really worked for me. As someone who’s thought of himself as a runner for years, I’ve now realised that this is actually the fittest I’ve been in probably 25 years and at the same time, the best I’ve been at running! Other commitments mean that I have to limit my running to twice a week, but I find myself getting quite giddy in the lead up to a run. I can’t wait to leave work on a Thursday so that I can get home, stretch and then go for a run with my son. I wouldn’t say I was obsessed, but it’s definitely a mild addiction.
Recently, because of new lockdown rules, grassroots sport was cancelled and I usually coach an Under 12s football team. Armed with the knowledge of what the last lockdown did to my team, I was quick to put in a plan. And armed with a new fitness regime, it was always going to involve running!
The last lockdown meant that the only contact I had with many of my players was via a parents WhatsApp group and all that I could really do was check how they were. It also meant that by the time they returned to football, months later, many of them were really out of shape. So this time I had a plan.
We’ve set a 5km challenge, meaning that we’re trying to get every kid in a squad of 14 to run at least 5km per week. This will hopefully keep them fit. We’ve formed a club on the Strava app, meaning that we can all check each other’s progress, the kids are getting respect from each other and there’s a good level of challenge as they can see each other’s efforts in the app. As a coach I can keep an eye on who’s doing what and it’s definitely going to help me to pick a team when we’re all back together as, apart from anything else, I’ll know who should have the fitness to last an hour of playing time! While there are some who’ve avoided it, the majority have taken up the challenge and I know that they’ll be in better shape than last time when we finally play again. The whole thing seems to have kept spirits up within the team too and it’s been brilliant to see each of them trying to improve on their efforts. It’s also been a brilliant way for me to test myself and set a good example to my team too. We’ve even got one or two of the mums and dads joining in too, so running has been a bit of a saviour over the last month or so!
So where am I at with my running currently then? Well, given everything in my life – and I’ll be honest, my age – I’ve made sure that I only go out and run twice a week. I run on a Thursday evening with my son, simply because that’s when he should have his football training. I also get up ridiculously early on a Sunday morning and go out for a long solo run, while there’s hardly anyone around.
Fitness-wise, this is great. I’ve been out on the last four Sundays and starting with a 5 miler, have progressed up to my latest effort of 8 miles. This is the furthest I’ve probably run in at least 10 years! I have to say, I love it. There’s nothing quite like running through a foggy Yorkshire town at 7am, knowing that it’s more or less just you for streets and streets around! I’m alone with my thoughts, watching day break (sometimes I even see the sun come up, but this is northern England, so it’s a rarity) and just completely relaxed. It hurts, I must admit, but it doesn’t really matter. As I’ve previously explained, I’m much fitter and stronger and so feel that I can recover fairly quickly, where before it might have taken me days of walking like I’d had a blunt object inserted somewhere unpleasant before I was back to feeling even remotely normal. Like I say, it’s amazing what being properly fit will do for you!
If the pandemic allows I plan to run at least one race for charity in 2021, partly to raise money for a heart fund, but also in memory of a couple of friends who we’ve lost this year. It’s been a tough time and I’d really like to be able to give a little bit back. And now I have a way of doing that again.
It feels like a bit of a success story. I’ve rediscovered something that I really loved and feel that I’ve become much, much better at it too. And for a man of my advancing years it’s been a real boost. Given the context of things with a global pandemic, lockdowns, normality being taken away and the fact that we’re unable to see family and friends, I think we all need a bit of a boost. Perhaps, if you feel like having one too, you might go out for a little run and see how it feels? I’d definitely recommend it!