Last May, some, hmm…8 months ago, I took up long distance running. A slightly unusual thing for a military historian to do, I concede.
One of the problems with writing and researching history is that it is very much an indoor job. Couple that to a day job, then it is completely possible to hardly see sunlight for months on end. As interesting and productive as it can be, it isn’t always conducive to good health, mentally or physically. I had been having a tough time with aspects of my life last year, and realised that I needed to do something positive to try and get some endorphins going and make a change. I’d spend months on end in doors, practically welded to my laptop. I had to get out and do something.
But why running, a seemingly insance pursuit? To regress, some family history. My dad took up running during the ‘running boom’ in the late 1980′s, and ran some very good times – 59 minutes for 10 miles, and a marathon in 3:04:00. He also had a rather intriguing obsession with running up and down Butser Hill, for which I believe there is professional help. But I grew up watching my dad train, while also being a dad and working full time. The smell of deep heat stays with you for many years! Years later my younger brother, Scott, took up running, and within a few years had also run 10 miles in 59 minutes.
I grew up seeing the benefits of long distance running, but also the extreme hard work that it takes to not just complete, but compete. Having been the black sheep of the family and having never run more than a mile for many years, on a whim I signed up to run the Great South Run for Mind, the mental health charity. It is a cause that it very close to my heart, and completely appropriate given the benefits of exercise in beating mental health problems.
Make no bones about it, if you’re not in good shape, starting to run is incredibly hard. Those first few miles are no doubt the hardest, breaking the three mile barrier is like an ever-present brick wall. But to a bloody-minded individual like myself, I find it hard to just complete something, I always want to do it to the best of my ability, to push myself and see what I am capable of (and also prove people wrong too!). I’m never happy with my time in any race, as soon as I finish, I’m thinking how I can break the next milestone – what does it take to run 10k in under 40 minutes, of 10 miles in under 1 hour 10 minutes?
In some respects, long distance running is like planning a military operation. You have to think about what you want to achieve – a time target, or a certain distance, whatever – and the resources that you have – time, money, nutrition, your body etc. Think about the time that you have, and plan how you are going to get there. Looking back, it seems quite ironic that I was writing about thousands of servicemen, who would have been at the peak of fitness and displaying supreme feats of endurance, and I was a couch potato, stuck to my laptop!
There are other military parallels. I had always marvelled at the physical feats of some of the people I have read and written about – Chris Ryans epic march out of Iraq after the Bravo Two Zero operation, the epic yomp across the Falkands, or the advance of the Paras from their drop zones outside Arnhem to the outskirts of the town, almost ten miles, heavily laden and under fire. Sometimes these feats seem super-human. You wonder how people manage it – are they like the rest of us? And it dawned on me, after watching a video by CT Fletcher, the inspirational American bodybuilding guru. He explained that most servicemen are in the best shape of their lives during basic training. As he says ‘what you didn’t think you could do, your drill Sergeant MADE you do’. And that probably explains why standard for the Paras is 10 miles in 1 hour and 10 minutes – a time that few runners manage, in running gear and on flat courses. A big, scary bastard shouting at you helps, but if you want it bad enough, you will be able to beast yourself towards it.
The funny thing is, that although there are more people running now than ever, the average times have dropped compared to when my dad was running in the 1980′s. Why is this? Are people happy to complete rather than compete? It’s hard for me to say; I’m by no means an elite athlete, far from it. But I do sense that people do not tend to push themselves in terms of intensity – what can I achieve? What am I capable of? Personally I feel that when I am pushing myself to the limit, that is when I’m really getting the benefits. If you say, ‘I don’t think I can run that fast’, that’s the biggest impediment to you doing just that. I know it is possible to do things that you have never thought possible – I’ve seen people do it. I also think that you need to have a strategy. The marathon is obviously the ultimate symbol of long distance running, and has a mythology all of its own. But I don’t want to get drawn into the 26.2 just yet – I’m not really interested in running 26.2 miles at an ‘ok’ standard, if I can’t really push myself at 10k and 10 miles first. It doesn’t seem to make sense to me to try and ‘run’ before I can ‘walk’!
There is plenty of literature out there about running. I have particularly enjoyed ‘ Running with the Kenyans’ by and ‘Running with the Mind of Meditation’ by Sakyong Mipham. Running with the Kenyans looks at the secrets of the Kenyan runners who have been the best long distance runners in the world for the past two decades. Many people have tried to find some supposed ‘secret’ as to why the Kenyans are so good. It transpires that there is no ‘secret’ as such, just a combination of factors, and a lot of hard work. Meditation and running also have strong parallels – breathing and thinking are very important to both, and the power of the mind, when harnessed, can take you places. Sakyong Mipham is a Tibetan meditation master, and ran the Toronto Marathon with a new pair of socks – a classic error. After a few miles he developed a blister, and by the end of the race his shoe was full of blood. He managed to finish the marathon by telling his mind that the blister simply ‘wasnt there’. Inspiration stuff (if a silly mistake in the first place!)
Running really is a lifestyle. I joined Portsouth Joggers Club last year, and have found running with likeminded people to be not only beneficial to my training, but also great fun. A little tip – run with people who are just a little bit faster than you – it pulls you along much faster than you would ever run on your own! When I run on my own I always run with music – I have a playlist of songs that are just the right tempo to push me along. Although running keeps you healthy, there is a downside – if you are eating for stamina and putting in the miles, you are looking at lots of carbs – and that means pasta, rice or potato. And day in day out, there is only so much that you can do with staple foods like that!