It’s a bright, clear morning in mid-April, 2011. I’m sitting at the dining-room table simultaneously drinking cold coffee, re-lacing a battered, muddy pair of trainers and eating half a pepperoni pizza. It is half past six: in exactly three hours’ time, a klaxon will sound and that’ll be it. 26.2 miles. The dog is lying with his head flopped onto his front paws, looking at me with tired, suspicious eyes. What are you doing here, at this time, he seems to ask. Good bloody question, I think, and stomp off to find the pack London Marathon sent weeks ago but which I have not, as yet, opened. It’s going to be a long day.
I’d never pulled on the Lycra in my life, 12 months before this day. If you’d asked about running I’d have laughed in a jealous, I-wish-I-could-do-that-but-it’s-just-not-my-style sort of way. I was 20 at the time, in my second year at university, studying English. In my head I had licence to be staying up till the wee small hours, pretending to know something (anything) about Chaucer, talking about the Smiths as though Morrissey had been a personal friend, getting experimental tattoos and wearing long, tie-dyed headscarves.
Instead, from January onwards I was leaving our dingy, mouse-infested old house on Divinity Road armed with loud music, a spare jumper, money for juice along the way and a crumbly Ben’s cookie. Week by week I tramped Oxford’s quiet, sleepy streets before heading further afield, out of town, hopping across muddy brooks and being chased by apoplectic bulls. It was The Dreaded Event for months, but as my mum and I stumbled onto the final stretch at Horse Guards Parade, and an official put something gold and red and heavy round my neck (everything’s sort of hazy after that long in the sun), I felt more alive than ever before, or ever since.
That day, we raised over £3,000 for our chosen charity, the Trinity Hospice, where a good friend of ours had recently spent her final days in the facility’s beautiful grounds, drinking champagne and giggling with her teenage daughter. We wanted that to be possible for other people, too. And after four-and-a-half hours we both fell – there is no other word for it – over the finish line. It was the single best day of my life.
Putting one foot in front of the other, even for that long, doesn’t require much co-ordination, or skill, or a certain body-type. Running is one of life’s few, totally mindless activities. You can churn over whatever happens to be in your head for 45 minutes, knowing you don’t have to talk to a single other person for all this time, or you can switch off entirely and listen to Get Lucky on repeat. Unlike the gym, running doesn’t ask for £70 a month direct debit and a deposit for a locker key. Running doesn’t present you with a 6ft4 bodybuilder named Brad, your ‘personal trainer’, who’ll continually pester you to ‘work it’ as the Top 40 pummels at your brain and sweat clouds your eyes. Essentially, to run you need some shoes, and that’s it.
One of my favourite writers as a child, Lemony Snicket, once said that you would run much slower if you were dragging a heavy something behind you, ‘like a knapsack, or a sheriff’. I disagree, metaphorically speaking at least. Running’s about precisely that: bringing your ‘knapsacks’ along for the ride, dragging them out to be faced in the harsh light of an early morning, pulling them up a hill on Hampstead Heath and realising that those problems which seemed so great, so insurmountable, are actually not that important after all. Running is one of life’s great perspective-providers: once your 47kg dog has managed to pull ahead on your Saturday morning jog, all the complexities of family and friends and work and commitment fade as your body, indignant, propels you forward to reclaim some dignity.
This is why I run: but what about others? After a chat with the Hadley Wood running club in Enfield, one of their representatives told me about what she terms the “shared experiences” it can provide: an environment in which “the initial self-consciousness and weight worries” are banished in a way that few other activities allow. “I believe it’s about so much more than just ‘the run,'” says Katey Ross. “It’s about achievement, having pride in oneself, and overcoming barriers – many of which may be self-imposed”.
My old local women’s club, the Mornington Chasers, have been organising training sessions and events for almost 30 years in and around north London. Mairead, a long-time member, tells me that she runs for fun and enjoyment – “I do it because of how it makes me feel.” Most importantly, she says, “I couldn’t care less about what it looks like”. And herein lies a crucial, often very real drawback to the aspirations of many female would-be runners. It’s a fundamentally messy business: sweat and red faces and blisters and chafing. Sadly, there will always be people who find this a) repulsive to behold, b) bizarrely erotic or c) intimidating. I once had a man throw half a box of KFC at my head as I passed him on the riverbank. Friends have been wolf-whistled, stared at, propositioned at traffic lights as they change the track on their iPod.
It’s understandable why some women feel reluctant to get out there: aside from simply not wanting to (which, obviously, is fine too), the mass media-induced frenzy of so-called ‘information’ stares young people in the face on a daily basis, and being thin and clear-skinned and flawless has never been so touted. Yet running, whilst it might give you these things in the nicest, most natural way possible, is not very ladylike during the act itself.
Take the abuse received by Paula Radcliffe after her squat in the 2005 London Marathon; as though it would have been more prudent to nip into Starbucks, order in a quick panini and ask to make use of the facilities. A woman (ugh!), running fast (double ugh!) and now – now! – filling our TV screens with this? But Radcliffe’s pause, at the 22-mile mark, was a victory for female runners and a victory for feminism. Now we’re ‘allowed’ to run, and most people accept that doing so probably won’t turn us into men. Yep, that used to be the party-line. Run, and you’ll get hairs on your chest and become barren. But the world watched Paula Radcliffe wee, and then it watched her win.
We might not think it, but the fight for women’s running specifically – along with all the other fights on so many, many fronts – took a lot of gumption. Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to officially run a marathon at Boston in 1967, so angered one jaded official with her very presence in the race that he tried to physically force her off the track. Despite the fact that this, the oldest annual marathon in the world, was open to both sexes, it was simply assumed that no women would enter and, apart from Switzer, this assumption proved correct.
Her attacker was “a man of his time… Women weren’t supposed to be going out in public and doing these kinds of things,” she said, in an interview with the BBC World Service in April 2012. Switzer claims that “I started the Boston Marathon as a young girl, and came out the other end a grown woman… I grew up during the race.” It’s deeply humbling, learning of such prejudice and feeling these debts. I was the same age as Switzer when I ran the marathon: my biggest problem was that, two days before, I’d been out dancing until 4am when I should have been carb-loading; hers was assault.
To go for a run is to explore, to dash through puddles and jump over fallen logs and slip in mud. It’s such a fundamentally primitive activity. If we were in a corny 80s children’s film, this is the moment some kind soul would lean in and ask, ‘but Zoë, what are you running from?’ in a deep, searching voice. And I suppose the answer is, I’m not running from anything, but because I know that one day I won’t be able to run any more. The two most frightening possibilities: losing sight – being unable to read – or losing mobility, and being unable to run. I’ve read Times columnist Melanie Reid for two years now, and it has only convinced me further of the need for these wake-up calls. After falling from her horse in 2010 Reid is now paralysed from the neck down, and writes about the experience with sometimes appalling, frequently heartbreaking candour. No matter how long we all have to live – whether it’s a year, 10, 20, or 50 – it’s not aeons in the grand scheme. I would be loathe, aged 60, to remember myself now, aged 24, worrying and fussing over the shape of this body part, the protrusion of that. Life’s too short; running has taught me that. It’s about holding five, perfectly-formed fingers in front of your face and saying, yes, I can see these, isn’t that great, and patting your legs to say well done, you have successfully walked me to work, or to meet a friend, or to the chip shop. This won’t last, and it’s so important to remember that.
Haruki Murakami, another favourite writer of mine, published What I Talk About When I Talk About Running in 2007. Amongst the plethora of exciting and inspiring ideas in the text is a quotation I tried (and failed) to memorise the night before the marathon. “The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky always. The clouds are mere guests in the sky that pass away and vanish, leaving behind the sky.” Putting one foot in front of the other is something I do because I can, because every day it reminds me how lucky I am: to have ears that hear, eyes that see, a mouth that probably won’t ever be quiet and legs that can run.