I never expected a pandemic to turn me into a runner, but this year is turning out to be all about the “Well, well, who would ever have thought it?”
I’ve been running half-heartedly for several years. Usually that would be an argument to give it up, but (a) several of my friends and acquaintances are obsessive runners and I’m curious to know what they see in it, (b) it’s a useful life skill – you never know when you’ll have to run for a train or from a wild animal, and (c) some people can’t run, and the day will come when I won’t be able to, so I feel I should do it while I can.
Pre-lockdown, my upper limit was 10km – and only with a group, for moral support and distraction.
During lockdown, I started going on the occasional solo run, and on one of these I bumped into a girl I know. She asked what distance I was doing and I told her 10km.
“I’m doing 50,” she said brightly. “I’m up to 48 now and I’m starting to feel a bit tired.”
I’ve never seen anyone look less tired. She looked fresh as a daisy, and when we said goodbye she shot off as if propelled by rocket boosters.
Well, that gave me some perspective. I was so inspired by the encounter that I tagged an extra 3km on to my run, thus breaking my mental block of “10km is my limit”.
The following weekend, the sun was shining, the temperature was delicious, I had slept well and I was full of energy. When I went for a run, it felt effortless, as if I was being carried along on winged sandals. It happens sometimes. I don’t know what makes it happen or how to induce it; you just have to enjoy it when it comes around.
I did 16km that day. And the thing is, I could have done more; in fact I wanted to do more. I was still fizzing with energy at the end of it. So why didn’t I do more? Because of my head. That stupid mental block again, saying “Gasp! I’m in uncharted territory here! Way past 10km! What if my legs suddenly stop working and I can’t get home?”
The next day I told the mental block to shut up and did 20km. The following weekend I did 25. This weekend I did 28. And here’s the odd thing: I enjoyed it. Over the last few weeks, for the first time ever, I’ve found myself wanting to go running.
And just like that, I’ve found my inner runner.
Here’s the revelation: long runs are different from short ones. Not just in distance, but in quality. You know how planes take a lot of energy to take off and climb to cruising altitude, but once they’re there, they switch to autopilot and just go? Well, running turns out to operate on the same principle. I find it takes a lot of energy to get out the door and out of my immediate neighbourhood (I often procrastinate for ages, thinking “Urgh, once I’m out, it’ll be hours before I’m back…”) but as soon as I’m at the end of my road, I switch to cruise mode and find myself propelled forward with scarcely any effort.
Your perception of time changes too, on longer runs. You know how on long-haul flights time becomes meaningless? A little while into the flight, you can’t tell if you’ve been on the plane for two hours or six hours or ten hours, and it barely even matters. The plane is where you live now. You’re not even thinking about the destination.
Similarly, with short runs, as soon as you set off, you’re waiting for the end, whereas with longer ones you don’t really think about the end or about how long you’ve been going for or how long you still have to go; you’re just in the moment.
The Greenwich foot tunnel has just reopened after being closed for lockdown, and it’s opened up a whole new world to me: the Isle of Dogs. I always thought the Isle of Dogs was just offices and industrial estates, but it turns out to be a delightful area, with the riverside path, docks, parks and pleasant residential roads with quaint houses and pretty gardens.
Running along the docks there today I bumped into a guy I know. He’s one of the most inspiring people I know. He has the most incredible make-it-happen attitude – since moving to the UK a few years ago from Syria, he has done a master’s degree and an internship in Parliament and had a series of jobs, each one a step closer to his ultimate career goal of being a financial analyst. He has a wonderfully positive approach too. Some of the jobs he’s done sounded pretty grim – one involved a two-hour commute each way and required him to spend his weekends studying, because it was in a field he wasn’t familiar with – but he was always enthusiastic and happy to have the opportunity to learn new things. And as soon as he stopped enjoying a job, he left, no qualms, no hang-ups. He also has a sense of honour that I admire – during an interview for one role, he realised that he would be required to sell people products accompanied by small print seeded with traps designed to exploit them, and he refused it on the spot, asking the interviewer “Do you believe in this product? Well, I don’t”. He is delightfully confident without being arrogant. I heard him talking to a French girl once and trying out his French on her: “Salut ! Ça va ?” She said he had a very good accent. “Yes,” he replied. “I have a very good accent.” Then he added cheerfully “But I don’t have a very good French.” And he will happily tell you how proud he is of his achievements, not in an arrogant way, just a satisfied way: “Not many people would have done a master’s degree, an internship and a job within a year of moving to the UK from Syria.” He is also good with names: he will come bouncing into a group, talk to everybody and the next time he sees them will remember their names and address them by them, which is not only indicative of concerted mental effort but also one of those little things that shows respect for other people.
So I bumped into him running in along the river and he told me that he’s now working at Moody’s, the rating agency.
“We’re crazy busy at the moment,” he said. “In a crisis, everyone wants to be rated.” Then he said “A crisis is bad for some people but good for others. I’m one of the lucky ones.”
It echoed what another friend of mine told me during the last economic crisis: “You can be sure that if someone is losing, then someone is winning.’
I asked how his family in Syria was doing. He didn’t give details but he said things are very bad there. Inflation is out of hand and crime is spiralling. “But not low-level crime,” he said. I’m talking about family members killing each other. Because when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose, and you don’t care if you get arrested or executed.”
He said he didn’t expect things to improve for at least the next five years or so.
How do you react to something like that? There’s nothing to make it not awful. He said he was in contact with his family every day, and I said it must be a relief to them that he was here.
“Anyway,” he said, “I don’t like to focus on the negative.” And he told me about how he was about to go to Spain for a month (although he had only bought a one-way ticket) to work remotely from the beach. A friend would help him find somewhere to stay there. He was moving out of his place in London, but he would look for somewhere new when he came back in a month’s time. (It should be noted that looking for a place to live in London is not an exercise for the faint-hearted.)
I couldn’t help laughing and told him how much I admired his attitude. If he doesn’t like a job; he leaves it. If he wants a change of scenery, he ups sticks, buys a one-way ticket and goes. He moves out of a flat with nowhere else lined up to move into – it’s OK; he’ll find somewhere. He doesn’t fuss about being secure or knowing how things will turn out tomorrow.
He just shrugged and laughed and said “I’m from Syria. That’s how we do things.”
It reminds me of George Monbiot’s paraphrasing of Benjamin Franklin: “Whenever you are faced with a choice between liberty and security, choose liberty. Otherwise you will end up with neither.”