It's Saturday morning and time for my long run: the part of my training that still gives me butterflies and can cause me to wake up early with nerves.
The Royal Parks half-marathon is three weeks away, so this morning I am planning to run ten miles. It's not quite where I wanted to be at this point - a hiccup (read: prolonged summer holiday laziness) near the start of my training plan means that rather than peaking now with my longest runs, and having the time to taper off with a restful short run before the race, I will be instead be working hard to steadily add the miles, and hopefully the stamina, right up to October 6.
It's been a tense couple of weeks. I have not been calm in preparation for this race this year, not at all. My nutritional input has contained far more alcohol than is wise, and my sleep bank is sorely depleted. I'm still mainlining quinoa in the hope that it will counter some of the stupid decisions I have made lately about what I've put in my body (and also if I'm honest in the hope that one morning I will wake up looking like Gwyneth Paltrow) but I have no illusions about the damage I've done to my energy stores. So this morning, as I'm getting dressed in my running gear, I'm feeling nervous and a bit guilty about how my legs will cope with the miles I'm about to ask of them. Also: it's raining. Really properly raining. I'm about to go out with a hangover (don't try this at home) and bags under my eyes so big that Ryanair would charge me double, and to cap it all it's raining.
I automatically reach for my ipod. Lately I have been relying heavily on loud music to distract me from the pain of running longish distances feeling underprepared. I admit it: too much of my training this time around has felt like a chore. But this morning my entire songlist looks inadequate: cheesy, repetitive, dull. On a good day I'm happy to admit this about my running music tastes - who needs thoughtfulness when you can have a stupidly happy bass line that will pound under your feet as well as in your ears? This morning however it's clear that there's nothing here that will help me.
Taking a deep breath I make a bold decision. This morning I'm going to run as God intended: naked of earphones, wire and MP3. I am going to run Without Music.
Quickly I grab my water bottle and watch and step outside and shut the front door before I can change my mind. Immediately the coldness of the air on my bare legs makes me whimper. I zip up my anorak and tell myself to get on with it. My watch gives the soft bleep that tells me my pace is now being tallied and judged. A gust of wind raises a line of goose bumps across my shin. Ugh ugh ugh. I take a deep breath and
I am running. For a while I can't hear anything despite the lack of headphones. My fatigue is making me numb to my surroundings. Gradually a sound emerges: the patter of rain on my back. Then the whisper of the material of my hood moving against my ears as I run. It quickly becomes annoying and I push it back so my head is exposed. My face is wet in moments. Sod it, I think and I
run a bit faster. For the next ten minutes I deliberately empty my mind: the mental equivalent of hiding under the bed. After a while - arms still moving, legs still moving, silence all around (I have set off early in the morning to avoid more people seeing my humiliation) - I let myself emerge again. Strangely, nothing hurts. My legs feel steady, my back feels strong. Without the music pushing me forward I have found my own rhythm. Not just that, but I have found a rhythm that suits me better. I am holding myself straighter and breathing more easily when I don't have to force myself to keep up with someone else's timing.
I smile and feel relieved, until I remember: what about the hill that's coming up in a mile or two? I think for a moment, and swerve down an avenue to my left, making up a new route on the go to try to maintain this happy equilibrium. I run on, and on and still I am feeling good. I cross the park, and right on cue a scrappy little terrier wearing a ridiculous raincoat comes at me and I have to do a little sideways quickstep to avoid kicking it (tempting though it is) and then falter for a moment when it comes back at my heels but then there is the owner, with the grace to look embarrassed (by the dog or by the coat, I can't tell) and I am running freely again and even the lurch in my rhythm doesn't seem to have done any damage
and this is lovely - so lovely that in fact I am absent-mindedly wondering whether or not I could get away with more wine as part of my training programme though surely actually that would be physically impossible - when I realise that for the last three miles I have been running downhill and that that means in a little while I will be running three miles uphill and that those three miles will be miles 7, 8 and 9 - with no music. A blip of panic grips me briefly, but I take a deep breath and tell myself that everything will be fine and I look around me a bit more because also, I realise, when I'm not plugged in to mindless beats, I am paying far more attention in general.
It is still raining, but the steady drops have changed to more of a mist - the kind of English rain that blessed so many complexions before the invention of fake tan - and it's deeply refreshing. I feel as though I am rehydrating through my skin as well as from my water bottle. The path is patterned with pretty yellow almond-shaped leaves from the trees that line misty, muddy fields on my left and birds sing and shuttle back and forth over my head and the earth smells clean and fresh and even the occasional shush of cars passing on wet roads sounds soothing. I feel happy and fit and calm and I remember why I love so very much to run. I run away from my problems, I run to solve them, and I run back to them with a new perspective. I run because I know that with the money I raise from this race I will help the National Autistic Society to help more people like Grace and me. I run because it reminds me how strong my body is. I run to remember who I am. Small wonder I've been finding it difficult with other people's voices in my head.
Next Saturday it's 11 miles. I plan to do them au naturel, too. Brace yourselves ..
I will be running the Royal Parks Half-Marathon for the third time on October 6, in aid of the National Autistic Society. To support me, and the work that the NAS does to support people affected by autism, please click here