Recently, I found myself reminiscing on the days of the first lockdown with a worryingly amnestic nostalgia. Time, like a wave, has ebbed away the specificities of that period; the nights spent with hands clasped in prayer for my mum’s health, the anxious churn of my stomach when I thought of my A-Level results. That’s all gone. Instead, my brain has managed to conveniently distort the truth so that when I slip into the recesses of my memories to escape current realities, I see that time as a golden age of post-exam freedom and the start of my new-found joy: running.
Like many during the springtime haze of lockdown, I downloaded the couch to 5k app. It was a fun challenge to boost my ego. Digging out my gym-gear, I pictured how smug I would feel casually dropping “I did 5k this morning” into every conversation that allowed it, and like the unashamed Gemini that I am, the heady promise of bragging rights propelled me out the front door. This wasn’t the first time I had attempted running, several times in the past I had laced up my trainers, filled with gumption only to limp back down my road after 10 minutes, a shooting pain in my torso and egg on my face. Despite this, lockdown provided me with a refreshed determination (and a lot of time to kill).
At first, I would sprint for 60 second intervals. There was no technique or refinement, just the desperate flailing of limbs and the spasmodic choking of my lungs. The music in my headphones would be cranked to full blast or else the voice in my mind urging me to quit would win. As I continued, I learned to sideline my aching hips and the uncomfortable sensation of fighting to put air in my lungs. I started to let my mind wander. I would run and as my trainers slapped against the pavement, I would think about those first times I attempted running as a pre-teen.
“Running became meditative, every breath I drew felt communal and with each forward stride I was reminded to celebrate the privilege of my healthy, living body.”
My body was still framed with the sweet, pudgy blubber of childhood and I wanted rid of it. Without warming up and without a bouncy playlist (the essentials of a good run), I would condemn myself to sprinted laps around a nearby park. Running then was nothing like it is now. There was no freedom. I didn’t pause to notice the bleached flecks of light that sparkled on the glinting surface of the pond I circled or the chuckling gaggle of older women, donned in legwarmers as they made their way to aqua aerobics.
I was busy, focused on punishing my body. The challenge I set myself wasn’t invigorating; it was destructive, and the words I heard were not the encouraging Geordie accent of the coach on my running app, but the sinister machinations of mental struggle. I run now and as my tracking app tells me of the milestones I reach, I think about just how far I have come. I have learned to love it.
For as long as I can remember, my house has been littered with trainers and water bottles. My dad is an avid fitness fanatic. When I was small, he would pick me up from nursery and I would take pride of place atop his shoulders on the short walk home. Physically, he has always been solid. As a teenager, I would accompany him to the gym. He would run miles on the treadmill, hop off and then swing upside down from the pull-up bars, waving at me and grinning. I would act embarrassed knowing deep down I was in awe of his strength and stamina. He continues to find joy in movement, and embodying his attitude has helped me do the same.
“Running is more than sport or a hobby, it has become a marker of freedom and a skill for survival.”
I had formed a steady running habit when I learned about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery last spring. His death, like all other Black lives lost to racism, devastated me. As people began campaigning in his name and pledging to finish the run he never got to, my weekly runs took on a new significance. Running became meditative, every breath I drew felt communal and with each forward stride I was reminded to celebrate the privilege of my healthy, living body.
When temptation to give in reared, I would feel compelled by necessity to continue. Perverse images of being chased would invade my mind and I’d power on, reimagining my weekend run as training for my inevitable persecution. These intrusive thoughts became all too real when I discovered the tragic story of Sarah Everard. On dark nights when my frugal student mindset has me traipsing the boundaries of postcodes to save pennies on cab fare, the knowledge that I could, if needed, run all the way to my front door comforts me. Running is more than sport or hobby, it has become a marker of freedom and a skill for survival.
I run because I can. I run because I have to speed up my body to slow down my mind. I run and I sweat. Sometimes, bitter winds leave tear tracks down my face, other times I sing lyrics aloud like an incantation. Without fail, my chest burns, and the burdens plaguing my mind lighten. I forget about my reflection when I run but in the dead of winter, the stinging warmth of blood pools back to my fingertips and I am reminded, in the best way, that I exist within my flesh.
The irony is that most days I have to force myself into my leggings and out of the door, dragging my heels until muscle memory kicks into action. Yet, once I am out I see the sky above and let my gaze follow swooping birds, I press shuffle on my playlists and let the songs that best fit my mood flood my ears and I always feel better afterwards. Running is reclamation, of exercise, of space and of my body. I never knew I could love it so much.
Nali is a student, freelance writer and a maker of tote bags. @Nalisheboo
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