I used to hate running. Absolutely despised it. When I was at school, finding out that PE was going to be a cross country run was devastating. Ploughing through soggy, muddy fields, my flimsy plimsolls soaking wet, a stitch in my chest and my lungs on fire. Miles behind everyone else, embarrassed to be the last boy in the class back off the course. This agony with nothing compared to the school sports day of 1986 when, aged 12, I was selected (forced) to represent my form in the 800 metres. Not only did I finish in a distant sixth place (out of six), I was lapped by the winner. Lapped in a two-lap race! The shame of it!
From then on I avoided running as often as I could. My passion was football. Give me a ball to chase around and I could do so for hours. Every night I was at the local park with my brothers and friends, playing matches against anyone who was up for it. I eventually banished the shame of that 800-metre race when I was made captain of the school team. It wasn’t long after that when I hurt my left knee for the first time. I jumped for a header and landed awkwardly, hyperextending it. Being just 17 at the time I thought I could run it off, but it took a good few weeks for the pain to ease. What I hadn’t realised back then was that I’d partially torn my Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) and that this was to become an ongoing problem.
Over the next few years I carried on playing amateur football, and every couple of seasons I’d tear that ACL a little bit more until in 2009 it went completely. I was out of action for a year after an operation where some of the strands of my hamstring were pulled though into my knee to rebuild the ligament. Playing football was out of the question for a long time, so I spent a lot of time in the gym to give me my serotonin buzz. But it wasn’t the same. I missed playing football so much; the camaraderie of being with my teammates, the laughs we had, the battles on the pitch, the elation of winning a game. So I kept trying to come back. I could still play, but it was getting more and more painful. When I had had the ACL operation, an MRI scan had detected some early stages of arthritis, and it was pretty clear to me that this was getting worse. By early 2017 if I played a game on a Saturday, I was still in pain the following Friday. It was at this time that someone suggested I take up running.
The thought of putting myself through that humiliation again was not appealing in the slightest, I just wasn’t a runner. Or so I thought. It was put to me that if I could chase a ball around for hours on end, why not do the chasing without it? My main problem was all the twisting and turning that football involved. Running would be far more straight forward and I’d still get the exercise I craved. I was very apprehensive about it at first but a couple of short jogs made me see the light. I could actually run, and run for more than 800 metres now! It was still a bit boring though, out there all alone. Then I found Parkrun.
28th October 2017 was the date of my first Parkrun. We were visiting family in Margate and I went along with my newly printed barcode. I was hooked straight away. Everyone was so friendly, I got cheered for simply turning up for the first time, and I did my 5k in a respectable 25:26, finishing 22nd. Over the next few months, I would try to get to as many Parkruns as I could, and also plucked up the courage to enter a 10k race too. This meant having to train. It also meant having to find some proper running shoes as I’d been turning up in trainers and coming home with blisters. As time moved on I realised I’d become quite fond of running and that feeling of crossing the finish line at 9.25 am on a Saturday had replaced the buzz of kicking a ball about.
I picked a low key 10k to start with; The Asics British10k! Wow. What. A. Feeling!!
The biggest Parkrun I’d been to had around 300 participants. Now I was in a pen with 1,000’s of other runners. I had trained up to 5 miles by this point, and when I hit that distance I was flagging. However, the amazing support on the roadside carried me on and I gound myself hugging fellow finishers at the end as I waited to get my medal and goodie bag. It was such an amazing feeling that I knew I’d found a new love. I finished in 53:58 too, well below my target of an hour.
From then on I wanted to do more and more. A friend had entered the Knebworth half marathon but had gotten injured two months before the event. She transferred her place to me. This scared the life out of me but it was also the most exciting thing I could think of too. I started training more and more when my knee decided enough was enough.
It happened when I’d tried to run a 10-mile Parkrun sandwich. I knew I was pushing myself but I didn’t think it would backfire so badly. All those pains I used to have from football were back with a vengeance. It was only three weeks before the race too. I spend those three weeks resting, icing and praying it would work out. I had an easy get out; my knee couldn’t take the distance, but I desperately wanted to prove I could do it. Race day came and I managed to get a free massage beforehand. The lady used some Jedi mind tricks on me to convince me I’d be fine and off I went on my longest run ever.
It’s amazing what goes through your head over 13.1 miles. I’d saved a two-hour long podcast from Tim Lovejoy to listen to. It was November so it was cold, but it was also sunny and quite beautiful. The scenery was amazing. The hills were brutal. But, 1:57:48 later I crossed that finish line. I don’t think I have ever cried at the end of a football match I played in, but I cried once I got over that line. I still get emotional about it now.
Since then I’ve gone back to 5-10k runs as I know my knee won’t thank me if I keep pushing it too much. I did run the Hackney half last year, which was also excellent, but for me, nothing will beat the feeling of crossing that line at Knebworth.
Running has given me such a lot in these last three years, especially during lockdown where it’s helped keep me sane. If only I could meet the 12-year-old me, I’d tell him not to let getting lapped in an 800-metre race put him off going again, and again, and again.