The Pony-Dog Runner
I couldn’t run far or fast or really even at all when I first started running. Even as a little kid I was hopeless. I’m too slow. It’s because I’m fat. There must be something wrong with me. I’m no good at any of this, I told myself and it seemed that other people must think the same thing: “Come on Jenny, you can run faster than that! Jenny needs to go to Jenny Craig. You’re lazy, why don’t you try harder?” came the shouts and taunts. Some of them from teachers at school, and for a long time I thought they were right. I believed it all, but it wasn’t true, never had been, but it took me a long time to find that out.
I only found out after I hiked almost 400km on my own. People said that I wouldn’t be able to do it, just like they did about running, but this time I decided they were wrong. After the hike I realized that I could pretty much do anything and a new belief started to grow inside me: I really am quite amazing and so is the world. The lies of the past left behind, the universe opened up to me and I started to wonder about what I could actually achieve if I went after it.
The thing was; I’d always wanted to run. It fascinated me no end the way runners seemed to glide through time and space and I marveled at their capacity for their accelerated forward movement. How do they do that without feeling like they’re dying? I wondered. Back then I didn’t understand that being able to run like that only came with time as fitness increased and the patience to persevere when it seemed like change would never arrive and a kindness to the self that wiped the slate clear of all the self-limiting beliefs that had accumulated over the years; you won’t be able to run if you believe you can’t. I didn’t know that runners were made, not born.
My nightly dreamscape was filled with running. I’d been running there for decades. In these running dreams I was myself, but was also able to watch myself doing this amazing thing. I felt free and invincible in these dreams and when I watched myself there I looked euphoric and unstoppable. I was never out of breath, my muscles never burned, and in my dreams I chose to run because it was quicker and easier than getting in a car. I knew it meant that I was supposed to run in my waking life, but I kept pretending that running wasn’t something I could actually do. I told myself that I wasn’t “that sort” of person. I did that for decades, but the desire to run never really went away.
The end of the big hike was a perfect time to start running because I was coming off a good fitness and endurance base. I went and got a pair of running shoes and started out attempting to run 6km through the national park near my house. I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone seeing me doing this crazy thing, and in the park I knew I’d be alone.
I couldn’t run very far at first, in fact, probably only one hundred metres at a time. I really hated it. It made me angry and I felt stupid and uncoordinated. My lungs felt like they were on fire and my legs as though they were filled with battery acid. “I can’t do this!” I yelled at the sky. Sometimes I even cried, remembering how stupid I’d felt when I was younger and people had told me I was fat or lazy, but then, the voice of reason cut in and said, “oh yeah, well, if that was true, how did you manage to hike almost 400km on your own carrying 22kg then?” That voice always shortened me up and I ploughed on with renewed determination.
I couldn’t stand running in the national park, which is crazy because I love the bush, but I just hated it so much that I decided to brave running on the road. I mapped out a 5km distance and did no less than that everytime I went out, although I still walked more than I ran. When I heard a car coming around a bend I slowed to a walk because I couldn’t stand the thought of anyone seeing me while I was trying to run.
Running on the road wasn’t much better than the national park, but I met another runner at a music festival and we got to talking about running drills, something I’d never heard of before and I added a few of those to my road run. Another friend told me about alternating running backwards with running forwards, so I applied what they had both said and I skipped across the centre line, ran up and down the table drains, jumped over tufts of grass, twirled forwards and backwards and dodged over sticks and leaves. It became a little more tolerable, but I still couldn’t run very far without feeling like I was dying. This is terrible. There really must be something wrong with me, I thought. It had been more than three months since I started running and I still couldn’t run even 2km without feeling like I needed to stop, so a 5km run was punctuated with at least five, but more like seven stops, each one with its own feeling of failure attached.
I love learning new things and it never occurred to me to Google running or read any books on it. I just thought that it was something you did, like walking. I live in a tiny town, and apart from the advice I’d gotten from my two friends about running drills, I never talked to anyone about it either. It wasn’t until I entered my first running competition, where I came third last, that I got to ask questions that had been bothering me for a long time. “I’ve been running for around three months now and I still can’t run 5km without needing to stop. Is there something wrong with me?” I asked another runner who had just told me she was training for a marathon. “No, just keep running. If you keep running, the feeling goes away,” she said. I didn’t believe her, but she was right. I started researching running online and even bought a few books on it. Since then I’ve been able to run non-stop on all my runs and if I feel like I’m about to die, well, I just slow down. I’ll never be as fast as most other runners, but that’s ok because that’s not my goal. My goal is to run and to feel amazing for doing it. For a while I did.
All the stuff I read kept hammering on about personal bests, negative splits and other performance-based metrics. I decided that I too had to buy into the idea that I needed to best myself and that I simply had to attain a negative split every time I ran. By this stage I had mostly given up running on the road and ran 6.6km on the beach barefoot almost every day. I loved running on the beach. There was just something about running there that could not be found on the road. Sometimes there it felt like it did in my dreams and the need to stop or slow down just evaporated as my legs moved on their own and my thoughts drifted here and there. Once I saw ponies in the waves in the distance. Their owners must have brought them to the beach to play in the surf. As I got closer I saw that they were actually big dogs and I looked forward to seeing them up close cavorting and chasing. When I arrived though, the beach was empty. There were no ponies, no dogs nor any humans, just waves and sand. They had looked one hundred percent real. I couldn’t believe I’d imagined it.
I made a negative split once, just once. I knew I was slow too. It took me almost an hour to run just under 7km. This, paired with my inability to attain a consistent negative split left me feeling like I wanted to give up running. I never said the word “failure” to myself, but that’s what it felt like. I went from looking forward to running on the beach to disliking it altogether.
Not long after this, I saw an old friend who had been a long distance runner for many years. “Oh my god, you look amazing!” he said.
“Thanks! I’ve started running. Do you still run? How fast do you run?”
“Yeah, I still run. I run at around 12km an hour.”
“God, that’s fast,” I said, a bit deflated, “It takes me nearly an hour to run just under 7km.”
“No,” he said, “You’re an elite athlete. How many other people do you know who can run? Probably none, right? You’re one of Australia’s elite athletes just by being able to do this.”
After that I stopped measuring negative splits and pretty much gave up on running times. If I measure anything at all, it’s my average heart rate because that’s a gauge of my overall fitness and that’s more important than speed. All the measuring did one thing for me though: I now know that I can actually walk faster than I can run, which is both hilarious and ridiculous.
Ultimately, I accepted that I love running barefoot on the beach, not with shoes on the road, and that there may or may not be pony-dogs in the waves, but that’s ok because I don’t run to have personal best times or consistent negative splits. I run because that’s where I’m free and freedom has very little to do with metrics of any kind.