I grew up competing at the weekends with horses. Not to any great level or a particularly high standard, just local stuff, but it was enough to get the adrenaline pumping and to foster in me a life-long love of taking part in competitions, and all that goes with it.
There is something intrinsically good for you in setting a goal to work towards, in having a focus, in seeing yourself improve, and in learning to dig deep and push yourself on when all you want to do is stop, particularly when sensible people are safely tucked up indoors warm, dry and well fed and you are cold, wet, tired and hungry. Under those circumstances, the regaining of the warmth and the dry and the eating of the food when it comes feels a thousand times better than if you'd never got cold and wet and hungry in the first place.
I stopped riding and competing a few years ago. I've spent the last ten supporting M at various marathons, most of them off road and hard-core, (what he calls lumpy or gnarly). Think the Grizzly in Devon, the Bob Graham Round in the Lakes (less a marathon, more a feat of endurance), a 60 mile race in the South East, the Clarendon here in our own back yard, the Jungfrau in Switzerland, the Exe to the Axe in Devon, The New Forest Marathon. He trains hard, he runs hard, and he achieves.
He tells our boys the story of how, at school, he was the last to be picked for all the sports every time, and so grew up convinced he was rubbish at them. It was only in his twenties that he discovered running, then as a means of getting fit for rowing at Cambridge. The rowing faded over time but the running remained.
His best time for the London marathon is 2:45 hours, and he generally completes the more lumpy gnarly off road marathons in a little over 3 hours. If he isn't in the top 3-20 of the racers I know something has gone wrong.
He is modest about his achievements, but I tell the boys that, were their Dad to race against those lads now who, forty years ago thought he was too rubbish to have in their teams, I suspect the shoe would be very much on the other foot. It's been a very useful tale at various points of our boys' school careers, because neither of them are sporty and if you are a school boy who isn't sporty life can be not a great barrel of laughs at PE time.
Back to now, and every single time we go to one of these events I experience the same pang of regret and envy that it isn't me competing any more. I thought it would fade, but it hasn't.
In the past fortnight three things have happened. 1) I met up with old friends I haven't seen for twenty years and learnt that one of them is currently representing GB in Triathlons (despite having five children and a yard full of goodness knows how many horses to look after). 2) My friend Mrs Ibbot ran in her first 10k (6 mile) race, in memory of her mum. Despite only having started running about six weeks ago she finished in a flying time of 1:01. 3) Yesterday we went to Winchester, where the half marathon was in full flood through the city.
We stopped to cheer the lead runners as they came in, and then those further back as we walked back to the car. I could sense M's attention was fully on the race and knew he was thinking about where he would have come had he been running it. Then as we walked under Kingsgate, one of the runners pulled up declaring he was done in and couldn't run any further.
He was half a mile from the end, he'd run 12.5 miles in a little over two hours. The race marshal commiserated about running out of energy and ushered him over to the pavement where a lady in the crowd gave him a jelly baby. I was about to walk past when I found myself turning back. I'm a runner too, I heard myself telling him. Don't give up now, you're half a mile from the finish,. You can do it! You'll regret it so much if you stop now. You can just walk the last bit if you need to. Half a mile? he said, looking up, chewing the jelly baby as the lady smiled at us, is that all? And he grinned and trudged wearily off up the road while the crowd clapped and roared him on.
Something woke up in me then. I heard myself saying to M that I thought I'd like to enter the race next year. Really? said M. I'm thrilled! When we get home I'll find you a 10k to run as part of the training and if that goes well, we'll enter the Half together.
When we got home, he duly looked up 10k races as a step up from the 5k Park Runs I've been doing most Saturdays since the start of August, and entered us both for one at the tail end of December. He is way faster than me, but has said he will run the race by my side egging me on (it will be like the hare encouraging the tortoise). He does the same at the Park Runs and it has made a huge difference to my times, which have improved from over 28 mins to a new PB of 25.12. He's also going to work out a training programme for me.
It's funny how one simple decision like that changes everything. Normally, having run 5k yesterday I wouldn't run again today, or if I did I'd just do a mile, but today I feel different: I have a competitive focus again, something to aim for. So I took the dogs out this morning on our 5k loop along the lanes and back through the fields. I had my GPS on and produced the best time for that route I've yet done. I felt sick at the end and a bit wobbly, but it soon went.
Six miles doesn't sound like much perhaps, but it's enough of a goal for me for this year. If it goes well I will be doubling it plus an extra mile to do the half marathon. I can already feel the thrill of excitement at the thought of having access to competitions again, and that framework of getting up and out in all weathers, which I (believe it or not) enjoy.
In the end the time of runs isn't as important as doing them, as being able to tell yourself you've done it. That alone is a good enough reason to get out there and start running. By the time you've added in the health benefits, the not needing to watch what you eat, the sweating out of toxins, the relaxation and stress-busting nature of it, the improved strength in your muscles, the camaraderie of being in a race (or Park Run) with others, the feeling of your lungs working properly and the wonderfully clear, clean sensation you get afterwards when you've showered and are warm and dry. Well, there's nothing like it, and even better it's free and only requires a decent pair of running shoes. All you need to do is start, like I did, running for a few minutes and walking for a few, then running again. Before you know it you've run half a mile without stopping, then a mile, then three, and then a Park Run is in your sights and you'll be off.
Have I convinced you yet? :o)