‘Running’, says American long-distance champion Kara Goucher, ‘allows me to set my mind free. Nothing seems impossible, nothing unattainable.’ Now, I’m not sure how she feels when she enters the second kilometre of a five-kilometre run, but whatever it is, does it come in pill form? No, safe to say, as I shuffle out the door in my dad’s old trainers, avoiding eye contact with my year 5 teacher, who seems, alongside what can only be described as everyone I’ve ever met, to have picked this exact moment to walk past my house in a government-compliant parade, a great many things seem impossible, returning with my dignity, and my ankles intact most definitely amongst them.
I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that by 300m in I’m on the brink of cardiac arrest. I’ve seen Big Little Lies, and I can tell you that going for a jog looks as much like Reese Wetherspoon and Nicole Kidman dramatically powering down the California coastline as Ben Mitchell looks from one episode of Eastenders to the next. Running, in popular culture, is almost ubiquitous with meditation, with getting some quiet time to oneself, with setting your mind free. Part of me wonders whether any of these script writers have, you know, run, before. Even Claire Underwood, far from pulling one of her intercostal muscles from manically inhaling after two laps of the park, manages to plot the overthrowing of Xi Jinping or something – I never really watched House of Cards. If these characters sweat, they glow, and most of them, somehow, go for runs in the morning: if I went for a 5km run at 8:00 then, upon returning around lunchtime, I’d be incapacitated for the rest of the day, wondering if I can blame the woeful performance of my respiratory system on psychosomatic coronavirus. I was promised that running would clear my head, but, as I approach the third kilometre of what can probably only be called a jog with Holly Willoughby levels of optimism, not only am I equally stressed about essays/exams/the impending recession as I was on the sofa, but I’m also in agony, absolutely knackered, and bordering on the tachycardic.
It’s not just my shins that running ruins, either. Through some perverse Pavlovian conditioning, the songs on my running playlist, when they screech out of the radio, make me come out, somehow, in both a cold sweat and a hot flush. The first bars of ‘Break my Heart’ by Dua Lipa now immediately raise my blood pressure to levels that probably constitute a pre-existing health condition.
This self-flagellation in the name of being able to nonchalantly ‘go for a run’ – as if I lived next to Battersea Park, returning home to my walnut milk and mango smoothie, before sitting down to begin work for whatever sector of the finance industry I happen to have sold my soul to – coincided almost with leaving the house becoming illegal. It was as if, now that exercise was restricted to once a day, I was immediately compelled to actually use this gift in the name of individual liberty. Now, I thought I was doing pretty well by about week three: sure, I was working at a pace only a few orders of magnitude off the half-life of Xenon, but at least I was running, right? Then, with the kind of catastrophic impact I presumed confined to the Cretaceous period, that ‘Run 5, Nominate 5, Donate 5’ challenge spread through Instagram like a – well, it spread quickly. Suddenly, my half hour 5k runs were not ‘a step in the right direction’, but a pathetic, directionless shuffle. Friends who I can absolutely guarantee have never even powerwalked, let alone run, were posting times which I’m pretty sure qualified them for the 2024 Olympic team. ‘Yeah,’ I laughed with them, ‘isn’t my time tragic? … damned shin splints…’
When I first ran in under half an hour, I thought I was basically on par with Kara Goucher. I knew I wasn’t that fast, but little did I know I was running at the pace of, and I quote this from a friend, ‘my diabetic mother’. ‘Join Strava!’ they said, ‘we can track each other’s runs!’ Frankly, I think this is the kind of thing George Orwell feared in 1984. I’m already haunted by the Alexa-like voice in my earphones that updates me on the quality of my run: ‘Heart rate: maximum’, she tells me, with a tone I can only compare to the safety video on an Easy-Jet flight that tells you to remain calm and breathe normally on the off chance you’re hurtling into the Atlantic ocean, ‘Intensity level: 5. This exercise is extremely strenuous for you, be sure to rest after! Distance: 1.8 Kilometres.’ To make matters worse, at the end of each run, she has the audacity to tell me that I’m ‘below average’, and that, get this, that run decreased my fitness by 4%. I tell myself, naturally, that this is a GPS error. It’s the tech that’s malfunctioning, not my heart. I turn Dua Lipa off, try not to vomit, and limp back home like a wounded elephant. My face the colour of the BBC breaking news banner that scrolls across the screen whenever Boris Johnson/Dominic Raab/one of the other ones walks into the press briefing, Hollister tracksuit bottoms drenched with sweat, I ring the doorbell:
‘How’d it go?’
‘Yeah, it was good: nothing felt impossible, nothing unattainable, you know, the usual.’