Lessons I’ve Learned From Running

I went out for a run and left my fiancé.

In September 2004, I went for a run. Halfway, I realised I had to call off my wedding and end the relationship with my fiancé.

Here’s a little background context: I was living with my fiancé at the time. We’d just finished a complete renovation of the house we bought together. The wedding was planned for December — just 3 months away. I’d chosen the dress. The food. The band. The cake. The flowers. We were good to go.

Then I went for a run.

You see, for me, running has always put life into perspective. Before I studied meditation and began ‘practising’ meditation, I had already experienced this beautiful awareness of life and the observation of my breath ebbing and flowing with each footfall. I just hadn’t realised how powerful this could be. How much clarity it could bring.

It can hurt.

Oh, the injuries. I have known fellow runners who rarely get injured — they breeze through the ultra-mileage with an occasional rest day to recover. I am not blessed with those legs. My muscles and bones like to feel the miles they’ve run and remind me of it for days, sometimes weeks afterwards.

I was lucky enough to be accepted for the London marathon for a second time. I was even luckier to be living in London at the time. Such beautiful training runs — through Notting Hill, then Hyde Park, Green Park, past Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Downing Street, the Houses of Parliament, along the Thames, past the Tower of London, over Tower Bridge, along the South Bank, all the way back towards home… I inhaled the gorgeousness of London with every footstep.

Until one day as I was almost home, just a few weeks away from marathon day. I felt the twinge. I was at 16 miles of 18. Just two miles from home. Almost through Hyde Park. So I walked. Then ran. The twinge evolved into a pain. My walk became a limp. I was devastated. The tears came. Exhausted and empty, I shuffled through the busy bustle, sweaty and sobbing. Taking it step by step — the longest 2 miles.

I still haven’t run a second marathon. But I have picked up the pieces many a time. I have rested. I have listened to my body. I have begun again. You see, if my injuries have taught me anything, it’s that you can always begin again.

It’s hard.

I always laugh at descriptions of races when they use the word ‘undulating’ to describe the course. This usually translates as really big hills.

I first started running in my early twenties— my dad had run for years and he took me out for one of my first runs. We went slowly. Living in Yorkshire, we lived on a hill — there was no way to avoid them — there were hills in all directions. So, we went slowly.

My dad taught me to embrace the hills.

“Take little steps… fairy steps… go slower and you might surprise yourself… breathe… go even slower… take even smaller steps”.

Then, that feeling when you get to the top of a hill! There’s nothing like it… the sense of being alive radiates throughout every cell. No matter what the weather… reaching the top of a hill and pausing for a moment to take it in, to inhale the view, to feel a sense of perspective. Significance and insignificance swirling together — that sense of strength and achievement completely humbled by the vastness of nature surrounding you.

I still take fairy steps today.

And the view is always worth it.

It can be monotonous.

I could lose myself in training. Back in the day when I cared more about the miles than the moment, I would often do the same routes, at the same time of day, pounding the same pavements to clock up my mileage for the week. Some days I dragged myself out. This taught me a few lessons along the way.

– When it was long, repetitive, tiring and felt relentless, I broke it up into manageable parts. Bird by bird… The end of this road. Up the hill. Past the river. The next road. And so on. Even the longest of journeys can be broken down into smaller sections.

– It doesn’t have to be monotonous. This is where my mindfulness practice began. To bring awareness to my running. The cold air at 5 am in the winter. The city waking up, just me and an over-confident fox for company on the quiet London streets. The tube stations still waking up. The sounds of the pigeons welcoming in the day — cooing from the rooftops. The sensation of my breath. The cadence of my stride. There is beauty in monotony.

– If nothing else, I gave myself a soundtrack. How could a run be anything but fabulous when I had a playlist I’d curated of all my favourite tracks. I chose my mood.

It can be cold, wet, and windy.

I’m British — I had to mention the weather at some point. I’m surprised I’ve made it to my third month on Medium without approaching the subject!

I’ve heard the phrase “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing and footwear” and I generally agree. Rain or shine, adjust your layers, choose your footwear and join the elements in their meteorological performance. I always find the only hurdle for me is getting out of the front door in the rain. Once I’m out, I’m wet, I’m a bit cold, but I’m doing it. It’s happening to me. Then, I’m enjoying myself. Even laughing at the absurdity of a car driving past, drenching me with dirty puddle water — I really need to learn how to nose-breathe whilst running — puddle water tastes pretty grim.

Yes, there’s a limit. If there’s a storm or a risk to my safety, I’m staying indoors.

Otherwise, I’m out there.

It’s lonely.

Sometimes. When I first moved down to London from Yorkshire, I naively went for a run and cheerily said “Morning!” whenever I passed someone. I soon realised that people don’t do that in London. I would rarely even get eye contact in return. But it didn’t dimmish my sparkle. I would continue with my smiles, my random greetings and occasionally somebody would reply, a brief smile would surface, or their eyes would meet mine. Sometimes, I would find myself running alongside a stranger — we’d exchange a few words about our runs, our days, our lives before separating at the next junction.

But let’s go back to running alone. In being able to spend time in your own company, there’s a wonderful quiet and stillness that occurs. You lose yourself in the waves of your breath. Then, your inner knowing can speak to you. You have sparks of ideas. Realisations. Clarity.

It was a moment of clarity, back in 2004, that made me realise I had to end my engagement.

It was early morning. I was on holiday with my fiancé and my family. I had got up early to go for a run with my dad and I was a little bit quiet. We weren’t going far. We weren’t going fast. But my mind was racing. It felt overwhelmed… and then completely clear.

“Dad, I don’t think I can marry him”.

I had realised that this man had been chipping away at my self-esteem, my confidence, my sense of self-worth for too long. I had almost lost my inner spark — it had been ground down for some time, mistreated, bruised. This perfect little run in the early morning heat gave me complete clarity and confidence.

What came next was total support from my dad.

“If you choose to marry him and that makes you happy, I will walk you down that aisle but if you decide not to, you have our total support. There’s always a way out”.

And there was.

I made the right call for me.

I began again.