I sometimes wonder what took me so long. No, not when I get to the end of a Wednesday night club run only to see the club’s faster runners already changed and on their way home. I wonder why it took me so long to start running in the first place.
Until my 40s I’d convinced myself that I was an above average but not gifted swimmer, and that was where my sporting ability began and ended. And I’d always hated running which pretty much put paid to participation in most of the other more predictable sports for British males.
Like many, my attitude towards sport was formed at school. At primary school I remember a fantastic sports day with noise and trophies, but the participants were the people who’d got through the preliminaries in the normal PE lessons. The majority of the school, me included had to make do with being spectators on the day of the finals.
One summer, someone marked out a 400 metre track in a local park and my dad took my younger sister and I (and a rickety stopwatch) to put us through our paces over a single lap. It was a typical story of the hare and the tortoise with me speeding ahead, tiring after 200 metres and my sister almost managing to overtake me, just before a “freak accident” caused me to “fall” and sit on the grass clutching my leg, before “limping” to the finish line.
At secondary school we had a termly timed run, confusingly called the “Bristol Road Run” (my school was in Birmingham). It was probably no longer than half a mile but it used to destroy me – I can still feel the burning sensation in my lungs as my ability to breathe quickly melted away. School had a well resourced PE department including a proper running track, but I don’t remember any of the teachers thinking there might be a better way to teach us to run apart from shouting at us to run faster. So obviously, as soon as sport became optional (as a school leaver), I retired.
Apart from the occasional swim, one or two games of squash and maybe three half-hearted games of badminton, I don’t remember doing much else that could be loosely described as “sport” for something like 15 years. I don’t think I bought a pair of training shoes until my late twenties and only then because I thought they looked cool rather than because they were designed for a particular activity. Fortunately I’m blessed with the kind of metabolism that means I don’t pile on the pounds so there was very little impetus to review my lifestyle.
At some point during the 1990s, for a reason that escapes me, I started to flirt with the idea of running. Wearing the same shoes I went clubbing in, I started running down the Thames once a week, going further and further each time. I even promised I’d do a sponsored run at one stage until noticing that the totally inappropriate footwear was making my big toe nail go black. Eventually the nail dropped off, it made me feel queasy, and I gave up (again).
In my 40s, my confirmed sporty-wife (yes, a wonderful example of how opposites attract) took up triathlon. She swam, she cycled, she ran and I sat and watched or looked after the kids. I remember one hot day at Dorney Lake, sitting on a grassy bank watching the triathletes running up and down and thinking “I’m an ok swimmer, anyone can ride a bike, maybe I could learn to at least tolerate running. Couldn’t I?”. Some of the men running up and down had body shapes almost as unimpressive as mine, but wore their lycra tri one pieces with pride.
So I broke one of my taboos and handed over money for a product made by the evil cult that is Men’s Health. A one-off book filled with tips, training programmes and kit for people wanting to get to grips with swimming and cycling. And running.
One page proved to be a revelation. A 6 week walk-to-run programme that I have since photocopied and emailed to potential converts to the running cause around the world. It really did the trick and the day I finally ran 30 minutes without wheezing or burning lungs was one I’ll always remember.
Then I was on the slippery slope. Shoes were bought that felt better than they looked, the distances increased, Runner’s World was openly browsed on public transport, I started spending more money at Decathlon and Nike Town than Oddbins and Fopp Records. I even entered my first race since the “sibling classic” in the 1970s. It was only a matter of time (well a couple of years of plucking up courage) before I was to stand up and admit to a group of strangers that “My name is rundontrun and I’m a runner” (debut appearance at a running club).
The great stand-off of 30 years had come to an end.