I have something in common with Paula Radcliffe. Like her, I suffer from a degenerative arthritic foot injury. The difference between us (well, one of many) is that Paula continued to train on her arthritic foot for up to 140 miles per week for international championship events, while I gave up road running several years ago in order to enjoy my running. Of course, I don’t have to think about competing at the highest level. I’m out for personal achievement and life-affirming, lifelong fun.
The Olympic Games, with all their shared joyfulness and astounding British success, have undoubtedly inaugurated a national sea-change that says, if nothing else, people like us can do remarkable things. As a result, many beginners will surely take up running. And that momentous first run – with a head full of plans, targets and resolutions – will be a run full of dreams. Soon enough, they’ll buy those How To Run Your First Marathon books and relentlessly pound the local streets. Being realistic, they won’t think of emulating Jess Ennis and Mo Farah. They’ll aim a little lower – perhaps at a marathon. Ah, the city centre marathon, that Gargantua of the athletics world! Or, in my view, the race that threatens to turn running into a soul-destroying, injury-increasing and mind-numbingly boring sport.
Of course, it’s good to see people enthused by an inclusive and celebratory Olympics. But let’s suppose that instead of jogging off down the street, we all headed for the grass and woods, for the trails and paths? What would happen if we replaced the easy lure of city running – with its taped, marked, marshalled roads – with the world of birdsong, cloudbursts and mud? What if we substituted the jog around the local housing estate for a more adventurous route?
We may run for health and wellbeing but, just as importantly, we need our running to inspire a renewed awareness of the world beneath our shoes. We evolved to run in order to hunt, eat and communicate. It’s good for our bodies and good for our heads. Historically and physiologically, it’s part of what we are: to move over our earth, not over concrete and tarmac.
The sense of achievement, which marathon runners are so eager to pursue, is real. But running 26 miles and 385 yards along claustrophobic, smoggy city streets blinds us to the fact that just beyond the traffic-coned, orange-taped roads is an enriched and enhanced version of running – on fields and hills, through woods and forests, in parks and along canals. It is running without the glamour, the ease and the carnival; it’s running as something personal, brave and unfamiliar.
Here is my plea to any post-Olympics would-be marathon runner: stop for a minute and think about what you’re embarking upon. Do you want a racing challenge? There are vast networks of countryside trail and paths (with recognised races for any distance, from 5km to 100 miles) both inside and outside every city. Want to lose weight? Nature’s rough and rolling floors will burn fat much faster than any pavement, and will preserve your bones and joints better than inelastic and unforgiving tarmac. Space and time to think, to breathe? Be alone on a hilltop, beside a river, in the dense heart of a forest. Stop and listen.
What you’ll forfeit by deprogramming yourself from the cult of the marathon is simple: you’ll lose the chance to tell your friends that you ran a marathon. That’s all. What you’ll gain is a connection to the planet that you couldn’t dream of, and a glorious separation from the tick tick tick which paces that pavement-jarring left, right, left, right, left, right.
As the women’s Olympic marathon was starting, I was toeing the line in a farmer’s field at a fell race in Lancashire along with about 100 other runners. No roads, no drinks stations, no car-mounted digital clock to follow – just rolling moorland, twisting paths, stream crossings and lung-bursting hills. The big blue sky turned quickly to grey, the thread of runners untethered itself and for a while I was left alone with only the rough moor and the breeze-blown clouds for company. In this setting, road running seemed little more than an absurdity.
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