My friend Duncan does an email newsletter called “Beginnings”. It’s about starting new things, and his most recent one was about his experience learning to run at the age of 35.
I can empathise with this, because I made the same journey myself at the age of 28. I did this as someone who found himself newly single and inclined to make the best possible impression on London’s largely apathetic dating scene. I wasn’t very good at it (running, rather than dating, though if the glove fits…) but with daily jogs and a tightly-controlled diet I lost three stone in three months, so I must have been doing something right.
As my life has evened out again, more of that weight than I would like has returned, but the running has stuck with me. I’m a regular at parkrun, where I have – at the time of writing – completed 181 events since 2014. Each course is measured to be 5km, which means I’ve covered 905km, or around 562 miles on race days, which obviously doesn’t include the time spent training or doing non-parkrun events. In that time, I’ve also run four 10k races, for example.
At this point, I want to make two things very clear:
1) I’m not very good. My mean average for a 5k is probably around 26:30, though after a couple of month’s heavy training I did hit a golden era of sub-25-minute times, with a PB of 24:11.
2) I still don’t really like running very much. It’s uncomfortable and frequently demoralising – especially in summer.
But I keep doing it, and for that I have to thank parkrun: a series of free, timed 5k races every Saturday morning around the world. And for parkrun, I have writing to thank.
Back in 2013, I was writing news and editing long-form content for the hiking and running shoe brand Merrell. Every day I was editing articles written by incredible human beings running ultramarathons and engaging in other superhuman feats. It was impressive, but alienating: I wanted to read about people like me – the kind of people for whom lacing up and not giving up half way around was half the battle. So I pitched just that as a weekly column and got it.
The site is no longer live, so I can’t link to it, but as I write all my stuff on Google Docs, I have all of the copy saved. It begins like this:
“If the incredible men and women writing about their feats of endurance are rightly called Merrell Alphas, I’m a Merrell Gamma at best. In fact, me writing about running is a bit like a goldfish penning a column on castles: sure, he may have seen a replica of one in his bowl, but he’s probably still not best placed to write a piece about Neuschwanstein.”
...and so it continued. But I needed material for a weekly piece, so I decided training for a race would be the perfect thing. I did Couch to 5K training and eventually made my debut at Wimbledon parkrun on November 1 2014 with a not unrespectable time of 26:21.
Anyway, inspired by Duncan’s lovely email, I thought I’d offer my own tips for newbie runners, based on my seven-year journey to becoming a mediocre runner.
You’re not as fast as you think you are
This sounds a bit patronising, but it’s not meant to be. People starting out tend to go too fast, and then beat themselves up when they inevitably have to stop two minutes later. Drop your pace. Then drop it again. Endurance first, speed later.
Get the right shoes
I get why people may not want to drop £70-£120 on a pair of running shoes when the hobby may not last the week, but running in cheap trainers almost guarantees you’ll have a dreadful time and sore knees.
Ideally, you’ll get your gait assessed too: turns out I run slightly inwards, so needed shoes with banking on the sides so my knees wouldn’t hurt. I found this out in the Asics Store in London by running on a treadmill for 30 seconds while the shop assistant watched. (I had to sign a piece of paper saying it was my fault if I died during said test. If that were a risk, it’s probably safe to assume I’d have had bigger problems than the suitability of footwear to contend with.)
Distractions are important
Some of my running friends refuse to use headphones. I personally think they’re essential because running is a so damned boring. For shorter runs, music is good for maintaining a beat, but for longer advenrtures where you’re taking a slower pace and it’s more about dogged endurance, then podcasts or audiobooks make a great distraction.
Perseverence is key
Nobody is brilliant right away, and that's demoralising. If you can only run for a minute without stopping on day one, don’t give up! Try Couch to 5K, which gradually builds you up to running 5km without stopping via managed runs and walks.
Anybody can run 5K, and that’s not just a soundbite: I genuinely believe it to be true. It just requires patience, commitment to training and the strength of character not to give up on it when you hit demoralising obstacles.
If I can do it, anybody can.