Running, ageing and motherhood. Creative Non-Fiction by Elinor Johns.
The first race I completed was a 5k ‘Race for Life’ to raise money for cancer research. This was instigated by my younger sister who, like me, felt that she was getting closer to ‘Extinction’s Alp’ now she had hit 40. The need for self-preservation and altruistic fulfilment had changed us both, though not enough to stop us running the course with a hangover. With smug confidence we’d agreed that a bottle of wine or two, the night before the race, was a lovely idea. That cruelly bright Sunday morning, I cast aside the natural desire for a fry up eaten while under the duvet, my tongue coated with regret. My sister and I squeezed our flesh into sports gear under the scrutiny of our children (You have a lot of skin, don’t you, mummy?) Off we set to increase the thrumming in our brains and the sickness in our guts by jogging around the park dazed with head spin. A meandering 37 minutes later, we pulled each other over the finish line, energised by the cheering of our loved ones (Go on mummy – if you can do it, anyone can!) I will never forget the elation as the serotonin overtook the nausea and the searing light glinted off our medals; we squinted in painful joy, even while collapsing on the grass.
I had trained for 5 months to get to a point where I could run 5k. Initially, I found it difficult to run 200 metres from the front door. The first time, I managed to keep going to the end of the road in order to let a chap running towards me pass me by. He gave me a friendly wink and a nod; I held my breath until he had gone and then staggered home, my face luminous pink, my breathing ragged, and somehow my feet already sore. My husband opened the door and with brutal honesty, chortled at what little distance I had covered. I was disappointed and yet, I felt touched by that show of camaraderie from the other runner. In time, I would come to appreciate that this is never more apparent than in a race. It is that mutual support and positive feedback which gives the runner a sense of competence, and accomplishment.
After the Race for Life, I went out running with the dog one day, expecting to run 5k. Half an hour later I found my breathing changing to a new, deep steadiness, and my whole being sparked, surging with adrenalin; I wasn’t running, I was dancing and I didn’t want to stop. This wasn’t about weight or health: this was about freedom. I was soon to rediscover the child-like joy of propelling myself across clogged, ploughed fields, kicking up mud on the banks of the river, and feeling the spongy moss on the heath give beneath my trainers. That day the sky was blue and clear, with few clouds like chalk marks of approval against the brilliance, and I bounced along the lanes noticing the countryside around me for the first time in years.
In “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” Haruki Murakami says that he can detect the seasons in the feel and smell of the wind as it changes direction and as he runs by the river he feels insignificant, yet part of the natural process: “one tiny piece in the mosaic of nature…a replaceable, natural phenomenon, like the water in the river that flows…towards the sea.” I understand this. Even in the winter, on days that seem leaden and bitter, once I am adequately dressed for the weather and jogging along, I feel joyfully connected to nature. I too, run alongside the river; it coils ahead, camouflaging chub and barbel, hiding translucent newts, and alien crayfish beneath its slick membrane. I race the mallards and the moorhens. The other day, a woman stopped me on the bridge to share the lucky sighting of a vivid kingfisher poised on branches above the old ford. Herons, like statues stand in the water, balancing with dignity on one long stem. I enjoy the sight of long grass frantic in the gusts, the trees rustling indifferently while, in the bushes, birds pip and trill. In “Marathon and Half Marathon” Sam Murphy writes that “Running gives us an opportunity to face the elements, breathe fresh air and see greenery…fulfilling an innate need that Eco psychologists call ‘bio philia’” which boosts serotonin levels “making us feel more calm and content.”
However, Murakami is fatigued as he runs by the Charles River and jealous of the young, female students who “run like the wind.” He describes their blonde ponytails and their brimming self- confidence, saying, “You can definitely feel a sort of aggressive challenge emanating from them,” though this tells us more about his machismo than it does about the other runners. He comforts himself, “Not to brag, but these girls probably don’t know as much as I do about pain,” yet he has no basis for his assumption. Throughout his book he associates running prowess with miles notched up. At 57, he is frustrated that he cannot complete marathons in under 4 hours as he used to, but he suffers from an incapacitating hubris.
I admire him for running so many miles, but if he had ever done any interval training he would know how much it hurts to train at speed like those college girls. While he acknowledges their legs kicking the ground more “cleanly and powerfully” than his could ever have done, he resents their privileged Harvard education. In the next breath he diminishes their status, valuing them only in terms of how attractive they are. He says “Still, it’s pretty wonderful to watch these pretty girls run.”
I don’t run to be pretty, but I am glad that running led to my being a healthy weight and I still run races to impress my daughters. Over the last few years I have taken them out running with me and we have entered shorter races together. I see in them that strength and vivacity that Murakami envied, as they sprint ahead of me for the last two minutes of our runs. Their beauty is in their determination to keep going, to vent their energy and revel in the abundant joy of running. Carol Gilligan, a Harvard professor who researches girls’ psychological development points out that often teens “become more relationship oriented and more concerned with being accepted and pleasing others, sometimes compromising their own needs to do so.”
I hope that running will give my daughters the self-esteem they need to assert their own needs. I worry about the pressures of social media. My daughter shows me an app, Perfect 365, which can change her appearance in on-line photographs, altering her features beyond recognition. Then she shows me a picture of a schoolgirl’s cleavage, posted on Instagram to be graded with marks out of 10 by the girl’s followers. This is a ‘game’ called “Can you rate me?” which my daughter scorns, but it makes me wonder how far attitudes have changed since I was a child. I resolve to tell my daughters that in the 70s feminists protested against the objectifying of the female body at Miss World competitions. I want them to know about these campaigns against a patriarchy that judged female self-worth according to body image. Clearly, we still need to educate our children to renounce these attitudes. I am hopeful that instead of joining such degrading fads on social media, my children will use running races as a way of rating their body’s achievements simply for their own satisfaction, rather than anyone else’s.
In my first 10k race around Hatfield House, my daughters greeted me gravely with the news that I hadn’t won; but it didn’t take them long to understand that the competition was about only my own personal best and that this attitude is transferable to other areas of life. As Alexandra Heminsley puts it in “Running like a Girl,”
“It was in running that I discovered that the scope of our achievements is not determined by others but by ourselves.”
I have completed seven half Marathons to date and three of them were in Reading. The event sizzles with celebratory euphoria. I have run past bands varying from gospel choir to steel drums. Usually someone will tap into our fantasies, rousing a cheer, by playing “Eye of the Tiger” on the guitar in their front garden. The first time, I felt overwhelmed by the display of kindness; who were all these strangers who cheered at the sight of my sweaty face, poised to refresh me in between official water stops? Children wanted to high five me, adults held out jelly babies in one hand and, a little beyond the call of duty, fingers caked with Vaseline in the other. I hadn’t felt so cared for since the anaesthetist’s lengthy apology for dropping morphine in my eye, during my caesarean.
Sweeping down the ramp into the Madejski stadium provided such a great denouement; the curve of the track allows you to see the finish line, the crowd fizzes with excitement, the beat of the music vibrates with your final steps as you pummel your way across the finish line. Each time I run into the stadium I feel like an Olympic athlete, and even though footage shows me waddling like a demented duck, I feel much closer to a panther; in my head I am elegant, powerful and invincible. I can’t wait for the day when I follow my daughters into that stadium, to share this ecstatic feeling, addictive as any drug without the ill-effects. Most of all, I want them to cross the line loving their bodies for the strength, health and stamina that running races will give them. I want them for these reasons, to believe that they are beautiful.
When I started running there were those who discouraged me, warning me I would damage my knees and bones. Others cited Jim Fixx, who, back in the 70s, wrote best-selling books on the health benefits of running and then, bless him, aged only 52, keeled over and died whilst out jogging. Of course, these things can happen, but they are far less likely to affect runners than those who are more sedentary. Jim Fixx had a family history of early death from cardiac arrest and may not have made it to 52, if he hadn’t given up smoking and started exercising. Statistics show that the heart attack mortality risk is a whopping 70% lower for those who run. In addition, a study from Arizona State University “found that highly active women over 35 years old had a far higher resting metabolic rate.” According to a new machine at my local gym, I have the metabolic age of a 34 year old. This may be a ploy to keep up members’ morale in the face of higher fees, but so delighted am I that I have been stopping strangers in sports shops to tell them. For my 50th birthday I might just get my metabolic age tattooed on my forehead.
As for knee injuries, it is football and rugby players who ruin their knees more frequently than runners, although given that there is a condition officially called Runner’s Knee, I would be hard-pressed to deny that injuries like these occur. I admit, too, that I had a stress fracture in 2012 that prevented me from running Reading that year. In all honesty, most of us can avoid these injuries by following a training programme. When mileage is built up carefully evidence suggests that running is actually good for your bones. As you run your musculoskeletal system must bear the weight of your body and the force causes bone density to increase.
Mona Shangold, in the “Physician and Sportsmedcine” says running helps improve “cognitive function, enhances mood and promotes daytime alertness” It also helps combat the symptoms of fatigue created by menopause by helping you sleep better at night. Physical activity is also linked to a slower decline in memory. So, in the light of all this, when those nay- sayers shake their heads I just smile at their scepticism, the better to irritate them.
Significantly, running has moved me to look beyond the surface nature of who I am so that I no longer worry about my own body image. I’m not suggesting I don’t care about the way I look; I have considered experimenting with sellotape behind my ears to get a cheap version of a facelift, but I comfort myself that as I get more longsighted I won’t notice the wrinkles. The fact is, I don’t fear losing my allure as I age because I don’t feel defined in those terms anymore. In this sense aging can be liberating. Our sexual relationships shift, and while sex can remain fulfilling into old age, sex appeal is not a marker of self-worth. Running can help maintain and increase libido, but that’s just a lucky side-effect. It is not why I run. Katherine Switzer, who famously gate-crashed the Boston marathon in 1967 explained it perfectly. She said that women may say that they run for their weight or health but it is more than this; we run because “running makes a woman feel like a hero.”
Perhaps it is the chemical effect of the “runner’s high” that creates such a sense of self-esteem and achievement. After a morning run, still blissful, I will rub the dog down whilst listening to the radio. Sometimes I hear mothers call into radio programmes to bemoan how invisible they feel as they get older and go through the menopause; infertility has led to them feeling a lack of femininity and a sense of displacement. They lack empowerment: the very feeling runners get from the release of beta –endorphins. When I hear such lamentations I feel charged with the grandeur of this knowledge, a need to spread the word and let others see the light. The dog looks at me askance but I am on a mission; I grab the radio and yell, “Run, you mother, run!”