It’s my 20th anniversary, and I’m in the mood to celebrate. Anniversary of what? I hear you ask. A marriage? Nope. That crashed and burned a long time ago – and I wasn’t a child bride. Sobriety? Nope. Wrong again. I’m currently supping a can of M&S rum and coke on the train home from Edinburgh, as it happens. Plus, my alcohol dependency eventually resolved itself – you’ll see why. Smoking perhaps? Not quite. I tried it when I was fifteen whilst slumped all Kevin-&-Perry-like under the slide on Warley park, but couldn’t get the hang of inhaling at the right time. Not one to give up, I gave it another shot whilst at uni, but kept getting tonsillitis for my efforts. Drugs then? Snorting coke or popping pills? Erm, hardly. The closest I ever came to that was briefly dating a pothead scaffolder who looked like Jay Kay. He couldn’t string a sentence together, which eventually caused problems – I think he forgot my name.
So, what then?
It’s the 20th anniversary of my putting on a pair of trainers and going for a run. And that’s worth celebrating.
It was hard going. I remember setting off from my mum’s house and seeing the road ahead of me all bendy like a cheap, warped tablespoon handle that’s come off worse in a battle with some overly-frozen Ben & Jerry’s. The pathetic rises in the tarmac threatened to defeat me long before my trainers even got close. The fear itself was enough. And so I walked. Just until the bendy, warped spoon road flattened out enough for me to believe I could face it.
I was eighteen, and it was August 1996.
I felt foolish, and paranoid. Are people laughing at me doing this? I frequently mused. Will I see anyone I know? God almighty, I hope not.
I remember the endless, gradual incline of Albert Prom, and berating myself for being unable to cope with the half-mile ski-slope I saw ahead of me. That’s what it felt like – running up a ski-slope. But I couldn’t run up it. Surely I’ll NEVER be able to run up it! When will this get any easier? My mind had to resign itself to the fact that it might not. Not ever. That was the harsh reality.
I would stop religiously at the end of Albert Prom, near the spooky old peoples’ flats or ‘sheltered housing’, which was ironically situated near the graveyard. The juxtaposition didn’t hit me at the time. I’d pull over panting and wheezing, grateful at least for the most tortuous part of my ordeal to be over. I’d meet the pitiful stares of fascinated onlookers. Dog walkers who on occasion may even risk collision with lampposts due to their insatiable appetite for tame voyeurism.
I’d pray for endless traffic on the main road just before the park. Is it safe to cross? I hope not. The fake hand-on-hip stance indicating mild frustration at being somehow held back from continuing on my way by inconsiderate drivers happening about their business. Shit. It’s clear to cross. I’ll have to start running again. Oh, hang on – there’s a learner driver approaching quarter of a mile away. Best wait until he’s gone.
Across in the park I’d happen across other runners. Some were ambling around, chatting idly. Chatting! Did they have no respect? They made it look so easy. How did they make it look so easy? Nothing about it was easy.
And then there was the downhill bit. Thank God! At last some brief reprieve from the lung-busting humiliation of the previous two miles (at most.) This was the part I grew to love, when just for a short while I could pretend to be a runner. I could seemingly float down the side of Manor Heath Park and make it look as though it wasn’t actually killing me. I could begin to vaguely understand what that feeling of ‘wind through my hair’ felt like, and the first seedlings of feeling a sense of freedom through running were sewn. But why can’t it all be downhill? That part seemed so unfair.
Once back on the flat, I’d have a half-mile plod back to my mums. Each time, seeing her driveway come into view felt like the first glimpse of the finishing line of the London Marathon. It was the visual cue for my mind to tell my body in no uncertain terms that it was done in. I couldn’t possibly take another step. And the truth of the matter is that every single time I walked back in through her front door I FELT like I’d run my own personal marathon. I’d beaten the demons that told me I shouldn’t even bother trying.
‘Did you enjoy it, Love?‘ She would call down from the upstairs bathroom, as the mild stench of bleach crept down the stairs and told of a motherly cleaning frenzy.
‘No. It was bloody awful,‘ I would shout back up to her. Why lie?
It’s now August 2016, and I’m 38. This morning I ran twice around Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh – we were up there with Gav’s work. I ran around it because I could. I ran because it was beautiful, and because it makes me feel free and alive and grateful to see the view of the sea, and the hills and the houses dotted around like little beige Duplo blocks set out by some oversized child.
The first mile was a surprising climb, and my mind raced back to the 1996 ski-slope from my mum’s front door. It felt like that today. I reached the top, and saw the view. A man walking towards me smiled generously as he walked his enormous Dulux dog with fascinating dreadlocks – surely a Highlands speciality breed. I smiled back and even managed to squeak a dry-throated ‘Hi’.
The second lap felt easier, as I knew the view I had to look forward to, followed by the faster downhill mile to finish. Perhaps familiarity does breed feasibility? It seemed that way today. As I let my legs roll freestyle down the final, fast mile, I saw Dulux dog man again. ‘Three times?‘ he asked me as I ran past, in his unambiguously Scottish lilt.
‘No! Two’s enough for today!‘ I replied, once again marvelling at the dreadlocked dog. He smiled a toothless, weathered grin and I ran off, back to our hotel on semi-broken legs.
You see, 20 years ago I wouldn’t have been able to do this. 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have got to see the view, or meet the kind, weathered man with the dreadlocked dog. I wouldn’t have felt the freedom of that final fast mile – twice – and nod at other runners who looked like I felt back in 1996.
So, today I ran because I can.
And that’s worth celebrating. I’m celebrating the fact that I could.