I can’t say my interest in running came from nowhere. As a teenager, I ran at school and even won one or two races, but I didn’t have a good attitude. If I wasn’t going to win, I wasn’t going to compete, so my interests drifted in other directions – partying, exotic holidays, smoking and more than the odd glass of vino. I took up running again when in the second year of my teaching career, I was told I would have to teach another subject in addition to English. I had a choice. Needlework or Games. I wasn’t enamoured by the prospect of either, but supervising netball or hockey seemed the lesser of the two evils. I decided drastic measures would have to be taken if I wasn’t going to embarrass myself in front of a load of teenage girls.
To keep fit I started going out on my bike with my husband on his evening run. Then I thought, maybe I could do that. It was struggle because smoking twenty cigarettes a day, wasn’t conducive to running. Nevertheless, I decided I would give it a go. So I started, with walk a lamppost, run a lamppost. I began with half a mile, progressed to a half a mile out, half a mile back. And I wondered, if I cut out the cigarettes, maybe I would feel better. So that’s how it all started and I went from lampposts to seven marathons all under 3hrs 15 and one at 3 hours. I wouldn’t say it was effortless but by having goals and incentives I achieved more than I ever thought I would. Back in the day, before Parkruns and the popularity of running for fun, it was a strange thing for a thirty something woman to be doing. There were often lewd remarks shouted by men from passing cars and I had to choose my routes carefully in order to dodge the kids who wanted to brush up on their stone throwing skills.
When we moved house, I found a running club and was the only woman of my age – the rest being girls in their early teens competing at club level in sprints, middle-distance races and cross country. For my first cross country race I borrowed a pair of spikes two sizes two big and by the time I had finished (we competed with the men in those days) they were gathering in the tape used to mark out the course. But the male stalwarts of the club were encouraging and said, with a bit of training and decent pair of shoes, I’d definitely go quicker. One of the coaches who trained the girls asked me if I would like to join their group. I felt stupid at first, a woman my age running around the streets with a pack of teenagers, but for the coach, it killed two birds with one stone. He had another adult on duty, and someone who could be the Lantern Rouge limping in with the back markers at the end of the session.
Twice a week training at the athletics club and leisurely runs with my husband improved my fitness. One or two mothers of the teenagers decided to form their own little running group and it grew from there. Inevitably, I met other women of my age and ability and we helped one another to improve via a bit of friendly competition.
At the beginning, I went out running when I felt like it, but I decided, after the cross country disaster, I needed a goal – and that was to take part in a race that would be challenging yet enjoyable. This was to be a half-marathon. Being before the time of Strava and Garmin, I started to keep a running diary, several running diaries in fact. Also, pre-internet I read books on distance running, The Complete Book of Running by Jim Fixx was my bible. I read up about mileage, different workouts, long slow distance, speed work, nutrition. I had no idea putting one foot in front of the other could be so complicated, but boy did I enjoy it. I know it’s a cliché to trot out the old phrase, success is ten percent talent and ninety percent hard work but it is true in my relationship with running. I was fortunate enough to find a female running partner who was more scientific in her approach to distance running and between us, with the help of running books, devised a training plan. Having someone to share my goals with made it easier to stick to the schedule. I completed my first half-marathon three months later, in a decent time, feeling I could go further and faster.
Unfortunately, my first serious training partner moved out of the area but through the athletic club I was beginning to meet other people, mainly men, who I could train with but were faster and stronger than me. Although I trained with them and followed their schedule, I had learned from competing alongside them in shorter races that it was a mistake to stay with them from the start, as inevitably I would ‘die’ before I got to the end. Before I achieved my three hour marathon time, I had already completed four marathons, chipping away at the time. My first ever marathon was completed really hilly course and I was pleased with my time of just over four hours. I decided that if I was going to go faster, I had to plan, not just the build-up, but the course as well. Once I had run the distance as a challenge, my goal was to find a course that was flat, at a time of year where it wouldn’t be too hot, too cold, too windy, too crowded. Before the advent of spreadsheets, I spend time looking at timetables of races in running magazines. I would put in the long slow distance runs over winter, compete in some shorter races in the spring to ensure I was able to run at a faster pace. I would look for a 20 mile race, or a half marathon a month before the marathon. This would give me a chance to set a realistic goal for the pace I would run in the target race. To ensure there would be no hitting the wall, I practised running 20 – 23 miles in training several weeks before the actual event. This trained my mind as well as my body – it gave me confidence and taught me not to fear the distance.
On the day of the marathon, I had a plan. I wasn’t going to run faster than seven minute mile pace. If I could keep that up, I could beat my previous time of 3hours 15 minutes. I had factored in the inevitable slowing down in the last five miles but I would have been delighted with shaving 5 minutes off my PB. I recognised several other women on the start line, all of whom had similar times for 10K and half-marathons to me. They all set off at a fast pace. I could have gone with it, but I stuck to my plan, checking off each mile on my watch, making sure I took on water, even though I didn’t really want to.
At 20 miles, I hit a stretch of road where the wind was strong in my face and found myself running behind a very tall man. The temptation was to overtake him, but instead, I tucked in behind him. I believe it’s called marginal gains now. Every bit of strength I could save would help me to knock off a few more seconds from my time. At this point I was being towed along by him and was running faster than I had been at the beginning of the race.
At 23 miles I was beginning to suffer like most of my fellow runners but I managed to stick to my original pace. Within a hundred metres of the finish line I could see one of my rivals in front of me. She was really suffering and her pace had dropped to a jog. For a split second I thought, let her go, then the competitive element kicked in and I went past her, not only to achieve a time of 3hrs 1 minute, but to achieve the position of second female in the race. At the end of the race, I was tired and sore and did feel a strange sense of embarrassment at having snatched second place from my rival but then I felt an immense sense of pride because it was the perfectly executed race plan that had allowed me to reach a standard I would never have dreamed I could reach.
When I had a baby, at the age of thirty-nine, the running diary fell by the wayside but I never gave up on the training and now use a couple of fitness/running apps to keep track of my training. It may look like jogging now, but as far as I am concerned I am still running, I am still challenging myself. I can’t run at six minute mile pace any longer, but I have other goals, for instance to achieve 90% in the Parkrun, which means to being in the top 90% for 5K in my veteran women’s age group; to be able to run for two hours across the moors near to where I live, to still feel that buzz of well-being when you know you have pushed yourself out your comfort zone, because after all that’s what being human is about – challenging yourself, setting goals how ever small and achieving them.
One final point. My marathon record has stood for over thirty years at my athletics club. Several young women in their twenties, much better athletes than I ever was, have tried to beat my record – one of them came within twenty seconds – but it still stands, and it shouldn’t. They say, ‘I was on for sub-3 at 15 miles.’ I want to say, ‘Well you set off too fast, you didn’t stick to your plan.’ As I said earlier 10% talent 90% effort, maybe I should add planning to that!