It’s 8am on a Monday morning, my lungs are burning and my legs feel like lead, but a smile is spreading across my face. I’m running to work and I’m on the home stretch of the 6.5 miles route. I’m going to be sitting down for the rest of the day, there is no need to leave anything in the tank, no need to hold back, now is the time to go all out. I make the last turn and I’m there. I stumble to a halt, bent over double to catch my breath and checked my watch.
44 minutes 23 seconds since I set off from home. My personal best.
Friends and family can testify, I’ve come a long way the last few years with the last few months see massive changes and improvements to my training and, as a result, my body.
5 years ago, I started dating Sophie. She was already keen adventurer; obsessed with BMF, an outdoor circuit training sessions run by ex-soldiers; and regularly went on long runs on her lunch break. I, on the other hand, enjoyed walking out of work and into the first pub, staying one too many, and having a bacon roll the next morning to aid my recovery.
It was clear that Sophie enjoyed sharing her activities with other people, always drumming up a solid crew, but it was not something she had ever asked me to join her with. Why would she? I’m not sure I even owned a pair of running shoes!
They came back buzzing, glowing, and chattering away.
I wanted to be a part of it.
One Saturday, we were hanging out and I nervously plucked up the courage to ask Sophie about joining in. There was an instant flicker of pure happiness that flashed across her face, “I’d love you to come along, I’ve been wanting to invite you out every time!”
I’m all for jumping in at the deep end but, this once, wisdom prevailed we decided that the best first step was for me to run the 2.2 miles from my then home to previous office. Easy. 2.2 miles, I quickly looked up average running speeds and worked out I should be there in 15 – 20 minutes, that’s nothing, barely an episode of Neighbours.
The morning came and I woke up eager to get started. I stepped outside, it was a glorious day and I knew this was going to be the start of something amazing. I started running along. Yes, I was running, not jogging and this was my first mistake. I was screaming along, wind in my hair, a spring in my step, when it started to hit me: my breathing got heavier. Heavier and heavier.
It’s not meant to be this hard, is it?
All of a sudden I was struggling to breath. No, I must keep going, come on! But I couldn’t. I couldn’t breath and my legs felt like they weren’t able to take another step. I ground to a halt and tried to catch my breath. Once I’d regained some composure I got my phone out and checked how far I’d come. 1.03 miles. I’d been ‘running’ for 11 minutes. That can’t be right? I look up and see I’m at London Bridge, not even halfway to work. Bugger.
I bravely walk-jogged the remainder of the way to work ending up shuffling along into the showers after 30 minutes.
What was this hell? It wasn’t meant to feel like that, surely? I knew I wasn’t particularly fit it felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest the whole way.
I was determined to get through this though. I had a new girlfriend to impress.
I sheepishly told her what had happened – note: I can’t lie to Sophie, when I try to avoid telling her things I just end up blurting them out at inappropriate moments so have learnt it best just to ‘fess up. Besides looking at me like I was a lost puppy she diplomatically told me how here first run had been terrible too, but you need to keep working at it.
I did. I started jogging (not running now…) to work several times a week and before I knew it I was making the whole 2.2 miles without walking. Then my times got faster. I was really seeing an improvement. However, every time, I still had that uncomfortable feeling in my chest or in my legs. I thought that was supposed to go away when you get fitter?
Sophie and I had signed up to attempt to climb Mont Blanc in the French Alps, at 4810m above sea level, we would need to be very fit as well as trained in all the necessary safety aspects of being in an Alpine environment, on a glacier, and at altitude.
We both stepped up our training and I really started to notice big improvements. I started going out on longer and longer runs getting up to 10km and sometimes a bit further. These distances and the times I was doing them in seem small now but I was so happy and impressed with myself when I finished my first 10k.
It was while we were slogging our way up the final summit slopes of Mont Blanc when I had my epiphany. Struggling to breath, legs feeling like lead, and still a long way to go, I realized that I could keep going. I didn’t need to stop. Yes, I felt uncomfortable. If someone had offered me a seat I would have leapt at, well slumped onto, it but I didn’t need to. I can carry on.
We did carry on. After 5.5 hours of climbing with over 1200m of ascent we were there, on top of Western Europe and it was 9am. All our friends and colleagues were sitting down to begin a day’s work and Sophie and I had been going since 3am. After some photos and hugs and some very British handshakes on the summit we started the 4 hour descent but something had changed in my mind.
Being tired, being exhausted even, is ok. It doesn’t mean you have to stop.
After that I started running more, running further, and running faster. I started to look forward to that feeling of discomfort, knowing that it meant I was pushing myself harder than I had before. That, as a result of that discomfort, I would need to push myself even harder next time to experience it.
Since then, I have had good times and not so good times; I ran the London Marathon in 4 hours 33 minutes; I built up to running Brighton Marathon with completing my 20 mile training run in 3 hours but then, on a little 3 mile run managed to trigger the IT Band issues runners fear; and I started enjoying trail running. The whole time, I’ve found comfort in the discomfort that physical exercise brings – though nowhere is it more apparent than in Scottish Winter climbing which takes suffering and enjoying suffering to a whole new level.
The last 6 months I discovered Fitter London, a fitness group that run some pretty amazing strength and conditioning classes among others. I had been recommended starting kettlebell training to improve climbing performance and shoulder strength and I found something so much more here.
Coupled with Fitter Food, their nutrition company, I’ve seen bigger differences in the last 6 months than the last 5 years combined. My body shape has changed completely – I’ve got the beginnings of abs (!) – my energy levels are always increasing, and my focus on training has been greatly improved. Through these classes I’ve learnt to not just push myself further but to listen to my body and know how much I’ve got left to give. I know when I can push myself harder and, when I’m near the end.
As I set off on this last run to work, I had no intention of going for any specific time or to beat any personal record. I set out to go on a great run and to push myself. I wanted to put myself in that position of discomfort and maintain it. Not ease off when I’m feeling tired but keep going.
How long can I keep going like that?
Ticking off the miles, I felt incredible. My breathing was heavy, my legs felt heavy, but I knew I could keep going. When I came up on the last mile, I knew I had plenty left in the tank but I also knew I’d be sitting at my desk all day.
Why did I need anything left in the tank? Lets run it down completely.
And I did, I stepped up the pace and really pushed that last mile, every step feeling like my last but forcing myself to take the next one.
As I pulled up and checked the time I was shocked, I’ve not run that fast before. Ever! It might not make Haile Gebrselassie break a sweat but that’s not the point. I felt like a champion. I am a champion. I had beaten any previous running record I’d set and I know I’ve got more to give next time. I now can’t wait for my next run and see if I can beat it again.
It is not about breaking personal records all the time, however. I never set out to run faster. I set out to have a great run, work up a sweat, and start my day feeling on top of the world. Whether that is walking, cycling, or running to work, it doesn’t matter. Getting your heart rate up, getting a sweat on, and enjoying feeling alive through that discomfort is what is important. We spend so much time sitting down and stationary, we forget what our bodies are for.
Get outside, remind yourself what your legs are made for.
Recently I found a video by Will Gadd, an incredible alpinist and climber. He has a fitness and strength I can only dream of aspiring to but his motivation is the same, maybe I can get there too one day? Move.