I distinctly remember opening the first page of my favourite book, Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers, staring at the first page, and feeling nothing. I saw the words, understood them, and though the text could not possibly have changed, it did not affect me at all. Fifty pages later, I was half-way through the book and felt little more than there goes another hour in quarantine. Other times, I have sat down to begin a piece for Escapril, a mainly Instagram-based conglomerate of prompts to keep people busy, and would feel a distinct lack of inspiration to explore my day. On the darker days, I would even pull out the half-drafted summative essay I have due, stare down at the series of Elizabethan phrases that no longer made sense, then quickly shut my work again. It was less writer’s block, and more writer’s apathy. Everyone knows I’ve done nothing today, and won’t have done anything tomorrow. Why bother being disingenuous? By the end of the day, I will have written a poem mostly fictional, evading the drudge of current life as desperately as possible. I had to do something.
Oliver Shrouder, 2020
Initially, running would never have been my first choice as something from which I might carve a daily routine. I have vivid memories of coming last in Sports Day races throughout primary school, dropping eggs from spoons, tripping over whilst in a sack three times my frame. Even during secondary school, not being last became a cause for celebration, even if I ran at a third of the speed of everyone else. However, once these compulsory PE lessons stopped, so did my necessary exercise, and outside of birdwatching walks and the more recent gym visits, I rarely exercised. From these examples alone, one could call me the ‘antithetical runner’, someone removed from the very concepts of either speed or endurance in their daily life – let alone within the context of exercise.
Within the second week of April, I had managed to run 5 kilometres in just under 29 minutes, a feat I thought near impossible of myself.
My first run was two days before I left Norwich, returning to my home town to isolate with my sister, whilst my key-worker parents were away. I decided, as I had recently discovered a quick path to the park, to run the length of it – just as a test of endurance. To the surprise of nobody, I managed under a kilometre before my ragged breaths left me gasping and walking for the remainder of my attempt. Every other minute I was standing still, hands-on-knees, gagging for more oxygen. Untimed, I had no idea how long I spent standing around, or what pace I had managed. All I knew is that each Two Door Cinema Club track had suddenly become too long; I couldn’t finish a single one before stopping.
However, once I had finished, I had such a distinct sense of elation that I could have run it again just to let the emotions out. It had been a long time since I had sat down and simply smiled at myself for having done something. Despite this, I didn’t run again for a fortnight.
When I decided to pick it up again, it was alongside my sister, as both of us had lost all sense of time and routine. I had summatives due in over a month and was failing to feel the pressure; she had recently been told her GCSEs were unlikely to take place, and was spending odd-hours adding to her art piece, just in case coursework still counts. I would help her with an English essay here and there, but we had no way of telling ourselves TODAY WAS A TUESDAY! THIS IS HOW WE SPENT IT!
This was how we decided to run. Only three kilometres at first, untimed, around the block to Tesco, pick up some necessary items, and head back. Neither of us ran the whole thing, but, regardless, we had completed a second run. Then a third. Then a fourth. No thanks to the state of my legs, it took around five runs before I began to feel the toll of pavement pounding on my ankles. Quickly I purchased both running shoes and insoles to stave any ankle or joint injuries as long as I could. Once these were on, I decided to extend the distance.
It was also around this time that my sister introduced me to the fields, a conglomeration of walks and private roads that extended around both my home-town, the train tracks, and about three different villages. Part of me felt almost disgusted that, less than a kilometre from my house, was an outspread patchwork of runs that took up more space than my home-town. Had I really never bothered to walk even a kilometre in a different direction? However, the moment I made it there and began running, it felt like I had discovered a Lincolnshire secret. I felt guilty for never noticing, but I felt lucky that something like this was so close to my house.
It was here that we both completed our first timed 5-kilometre runs, though neither of us broke thirty minutes at first. However, after around two weeks of consistent running, gauging distance by the pain in our legs as much as our desperation to be fast, we both quickly and proudly met our goals.
Oliver Shrouder, 2020
With my journey in mind, I want to speak directly to those who do not run, and, furthermore, I want to speak to the past-me – the person who wouldn’t run, the person who revelled in the bottom-third.
The biggest hurdle of running is, by a large margin, nothing to do with running. If it was solely down to that, I have no doubt most people would happily do it. Here, I want to address the problems I faced once I began running, and how I overcame each. On each run since planning this piece, I began to consider a lot of the apprehensions I had before I started running, the few things that prevented me from leaving the house back before quarantine, and why they hadn’t affected me as much since.
A large part of my avoidance of exercise, despite being interested, was that part of me couldn’t help but cringe at the idea of me running: huffing despite having left the house for five minutes at most, having other runners turn and laugh at me barely able to make it out of my house, let alone commit to a relatively long distance. Before stepping out, I used to have very distinct mental images of simply pausing during a run, and hearing other runners scoff at my pathetic attempt at a jog, telling me to go home before I even start. As I have found with most things associated with social anxiety, just doing it tends to prove your brain wrong, and you realise most people smile at you for simply making the attempt to do some exercise. The absolute worst experience I’ve had during the day running was a dark look from a fifty-year-old, who had the eyes of someone asking why are you out during quarantine despite being out with his dog too. I am more than used to these silent exchanges now. Everyone is out exercising, and every one of them is judging another for doing the same thing. It’s a borderline in-joke.
One of the most harrowing things about beginning to run is the realisation that breathing suddenly does not feel pleasant, and is more akin to a minor panic attack. This was the reason I stopped so much to start with. The fear of my lungs giving out far outweighed the fear of looking slow, and I had to pause and let my ragged breaths turn back into the slow resting breaths I was used to. This is something you almost have to get used to during the opening weeks of running. It hurts your throat. It’s almost scary. Nobody starts running as a runner, and your breathing will improve steadily but not immediately. However, you’re not dying, and you’re not competing. Let yourself breathe.
Oliver Shrouder, 2020
I Hate Running
From my current experience, I have found few people who truly enjoy the feeling of running in and of itself. Instead the act of running is more of a caveat to be able to improve fitness and quickly explore the space around them without the need of a bike or car. Personally, I also hate running, but I am also willing to put up with it for the sake of discovering a new route, or the nest of a new bird, or simply being outside. I cannot speak for everyone, but I find it too easy to get bored sitting outside, so being able to move whilst enjoying the sun is always a plus. However, a distinct consensus for all runners is that the feeling of stopping running is one of the most euphoric things you can experience, especially in the current climate. The feeling of putting your legs up with a glass of cold water, sitting on the knowledge you have just run, feels amazing. Even if you’re completely ambivalent to the act of running, try running as far as you can, and then simply sit down once you’ve returned. If anything makes you want to run again, it’s that. Allow running to be a catharsis.
Running is Boring
This is one of the most distinct problems of any exercise, and one I had to personally get over. Once you’ve done a thirty-minute run around a brown dry field five times, your brain starts to clock out of the scenery and clock into the fact your abdomen burns and your ankles ache and you’re dehydrated and before you know it you’ve found yourself in a position that makes the run nothing short of excruciating. I’ve found my fair share of ways to combat this, which may not work for you, but may help you in the more painful moments outside.
Avoid listening to short songs, or songs you know. I found that, after running frequently, I could predict exactly the speed at which I was running based on what song was playing, or when it finished, and it reduced my earphones to a series of indicators showing how long I had been out. When it’s been fifteen minutes with fifteen left, the last thing I want to think about is time. Personally, I either listen to albums I don’t know well, or songs with less distinct structures that allow you to forget time is passing with ease. For me, Come In by Weatherday has been perfect, as their songs are less structured, almost random in terms of length, and this helps me enjoy the music a lot more.
Running hurts, and this is simply a fact of the hobby. However, as a rule of exercise, you can always do slightly more physically than you can mentally. This is what I call the ‘Gym Rule of 12’: if you can do 10 reps of anything, you can always add two more. If you can’t, you’re pushing yourself too hard. If you can do 12 easily, you’re not trying hard enough. From this, whenever I set a personal goal of ‘I can rest once I’ve passed this bend,’ I always try to go slightly further, even if it’s a hair’s worth. Almost universally, I’ve found that the pain subsides once the bend is passed, and I can run even further. This constant shift of goalposts helps me walk less, but I am always aware that these are my goalposts. If I genuinely can’t make it to the bend, I’m not above walking!
For the sake of boredom, I try and line out a couple of things to come home to. Sometimes I will read a chapter of a book and avoid the last pages, letting my brain fill them in as I run. Other times I will half-write a poem, fill in the blanks as I run, then write it once I’m back. Even on slower days, sometimes cooking dinner is enough, or simply the sound of clinking ice in a tall glass of water.
This may work less well, but I find a lot of interest simply in the environment. I can watch the Spring insects fly around me, watch the corvids peck at the fields and scare off the pigeons, watch the scurry of chaffinches, or look up and try to spot any kites or sparrowhawks that might be passing over. Even if the environment never changes, there is always new wildlife visiting the area, and that is something worth looking out for. This scenery also works as inspiration for my writing, and when I allow myself some time to walk, I’ll pull my phone out and scribble down some possible poem lines based on it.
As an authorial note: I thrive on routine, so allowing myself a ‘designated running hour’ between four and five is more or less enough motivation. The knowledge that ‘this hour is meant for this’ almost forces me out of the house, and as a result I manage to go on a jog nearly every day at the same time.
Oliver Shrouder, 2020
At a point, I stopped using my Fitbit account to track the speed at which I ran. Seeing myself beat 30 minutes was both a shock and a personal feat, so the next day I tried to do the same, but slightly faster, then the same, but slightly faster. As you can imagine, by the weekend I had been reduced to doing 3 kilometre runs, and found myself working back up after exhausting my tendons. This is not to say that I’ve given up on running, but it is to say that it’s important to hold a personal standard without feeling the need to consistently overcome it. No matter the speed, running for so long is impressive, and the idea that every day is a new personal best is a pressure I quickly removed. For now, I’ll aim for the 30-minute mark, celebrate if it’s less, and try again tomorrow if it’s more.
As Haruki Murakami says in his running memoir, ‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.’ In more recent runs, I have allowed myself to forget distance and go on more runs for the sake of explorations, looking for new places to run rather than perfecting the routes I already knew. As I quickly found, I have not explored nearly as much as I had assumed, and I hope in reading this, you let yourself out and try to spot some new places around your own home that you can visit, or make a route around. Remember that being outside is the impressive part, even if you feel slow, and no matter what, tomorrow you’ll feel better, and tomorrow you’ll feel better, and tomorrow you’ll feel better.
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY OLIVER SHROUDER
EDITING BY MILLIE NORMAN