It’s a frosty morning in November and I’m hobbling over the finish line of a charity 5k looking like a dying slug. I should be feeling victorious – 12 months previously, I could barely run for a bus – but this slug feels like a fraud, one who didn’t really earn the medal presented to them. I also feel bad for my friends, who finished a good 20 minutes before I did and who’ve since died of hypothermia waiting for me.
Let me take you back to the starting line, an embarrassing 50 minutes and 21 seconds ago. I’m surrounded by runners – actual runners. These ones have expensive trainers and abs and know what they’re doing. Someone cuts the ribbon and we’re off. Well, they are. My friends quickly become dots on the horizon and soon I can’t see them at all. I have ran 5k before, but very slowly, and not since a hip injury in the summer. Suddenly, it dawns on me that I might finish last. Or worse – not finish at all.
A kilometre in and everything is awful. It’s supposed to be a fun run, but I’m having a terrible time. My breath is raggedy, my legs are on fire, and all I can think about is the humiliation of being lapped. At that very moment, one of my friends – who says she’s never ran before – glides past, all smiles, looking like a fucking gazelle. I find myself praying for death.
Each step is agony, but somehow I slither on. Another friend who’s already finished jogs across the grass to offer moral support. It’s taking everything I’ve got to put one foot in front of the other at this point, and I’m incandescent that she’s not even breaking a sweat. “Go on without me!” I sob dramatically. Thankfully, she obliges, and I’m left to languish in sweat and self-loathing for the final 200 metres.
What feels like eighteen years later, I finally cross the line. I’m not last, but I may as well be. My friends are lovely and supportive, saying all the right things, but every well done feels patronising and the medal a shameful, stinging reminder of what a failure I am.
I almost hung up my trainers for good after that but I’m still going. Two and half years on, running has completely transformed my mind and my body. It has gone from being something I endure to something I enjoy, but despite the fact I do it two or three times a week, I still don’t feel like I can really call myself a runner.
In the beginning, that was because it was factually incorrect. In those early days, struggling my way through a couch to 5k programme, most of it was walking anyway. But even as the running time gradually increased until there was no walking at all, the word “runner” didn’t fit. Maybe it’ll come when I don’t hate it, I told myself. When I’m faster. When I’ve got the right gear. When I know my fartlek from my elbow.
Today, I’ve taken 20 minutes off my 5k time, have a few more medals in my collection and many hundreds of miles under my belt. I’m also four stone lighter than I was during that horrendous 5k, which means I was carrying the equivalent of a mid-size microwave, two newborn babies and a Chihuahua with me over the finish line that day.
But it doesn’t matter how many races I enter or badges I get on Strava, though. It doesn’t matter how much weight I lose. The word runner still sticks in my throat, and when I do describe myself as such, it’s always with a caveat, downplaying any sense of achievement. I’m a terrible runner, a slow runner, barely a runner. I might not feel deserving of those race medals, but if there’s an award for self-deprecation going, she’s mine.
It was on a deliciously downhill segment of a 10k recently that I had an epiphany. With the wind at my back and a spring in my step, I realised that being a runner isn’t something to be won, or an achievement to be unlocked. No one is going to grant me permission, or stop me from calling myself a runner. I am my only opponent and my only obstacle.
That’s the great thing about running, and the reason I fell in love with it in the first place: it silences that saboteur in your head, for a while at least. Forget the terminology and the training plans; all you need to do to be a runner is put one foot in front of the other and keep doing it. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you are, or what you look like doing it. All that matters is that you do it.
The road is long and that saboteur is still chatting away. There will be times that I stumble, I know. But I will keep going, calling myself a runner until it feels natural, and reminding myself that I run, therefore I am.
Written by Carrie Lyell