Last month I did a daft thing.
But it was also a good thing.
Sometimes you have to try to keep your promises to yourself.
13 years ago my Mum died of cancer. 2 years after I ran the 5K Race for Life. Mum’s death had affected me so much, it almost literally felt like a race for my life. And then, guess what? It almost was: I struggled big time to finish just 5 km. My lungs felt as if they were about to explode. A few weeks later, they almost did. I had, unbeknown to me, been running with a lung clot and deep vein thrombosis. I guess that has to be one of the best excuses for a poor race time.
Cue a new disability (I was already profoundly deaf) – unable to walk 6 steps without getting out of breath. I felt about 90 years old not 38. I got a walking stick and tried to walk 10 steps without a stop. I tried cycling v-e-r-y slow-ly as it supported me better. I was at that stage not a patient person and it frustrated the hell out of me. I vowed to myself (only) that eventually I would get back to fitness and run the damned race again.
All sorts of things got in the way. They tend to, don’t they? But I kept staggering outdoors when I could manage it and trying to jog a bit. Then a tiny bit more. Sometimes it was almost enjoyable – once on near year’s day in Warsaw where I was on a posting– there was a thick white layer of powdery fresh snow to run on – and only me out in it. After lapsing for a year or more, a serious bout of discrimination by my employer sent my stress levels soaring. And one evening I just thought ‘I need to run a bit’. So I did.
Fast forward to July 2015 and I had built up my distance. I made myself get sponsors (something I have detested doing since primary school) and commit to the Race. I turned up. Then – uh oh! I realized there were 3 categories – runners, joggers and walkers. After the usual mental procrastination, I placed myself at the back of the runners and hoped for the best.
And we were off! Lung clots leave you with reduced lung capacity for the rest of your life. Running on the flat is fine, but hills can be a nightmare, stealing your breath away. So the start of the race (the exact route had not been available) challenged me with several hills. When I passed the 1km point I felt dispirited as I was already quite breathless. A lot of women overtook me. But there were various very young women who seemed more interested in telling the world about their ‘run’ (for which read ‘walk with phone welded to ear’) so I overtook them. Then later I overtook some people who were actually running. It was a natural thing – sometimes pushing on, sometimes seeing other faster women go ahead.
Then it hit me. This was it. This was life. The race. The ups, downs, pushes and backslides.
I saw it with clarity, remembering some of the competitive environments in which I had worked – the music world where the pure joy could be squeezed out by the ruthless competition; the Foreign Office with its obsession with ‘the top 10%’; the political jostling for power at the top of most organisations had known. It was all a ‘race’ but for what?
I paced on, counting my steps. Then, there was the family waiting to cheer me on just after the 4k point. It felt cool. The winners (approximately one third my age) had of course finished while I was halfway round, but I was still in the middle of the running/jogging mob. Just as I got complacent, the final kilometre presented the steepest hill so far. I made an onlooker laugh as I swore (at the hill, not the onlooker) not too quietly. Then I got there- finished and it was all over with a time that was 10 minutes better than my blood-clot stagger in 2004.
I kept my promise to myself. It felt good. But the real achievement was seeing clearly for the first time that I had inadvertently signed up to races in which I didn’t want to compete.
Life can seem to send you charging in a particular direction. It can make you feel you have no choice but to compete and ‘keep up’. It’s good to catch up with yourself rather than others – to set your own pace and decide what makes you feel good.
Good luck with your own life race!