Here’s an article I wrote for The Majellan last year (I think it appeared in the Autumn 2020 issue). In case you’re wondering: yes. Majellan, Champion of the Family, is the same A5 magazine your mum used to read when you were five! If you’d like to subscribe, it’s quite reasonable. Let them know I sent you!
Thunk, thunk, thunk. I hate this. I hate this so much. Thunk, thunk, thunk. Surely it’d be easier to shift a huge bag of potatoes. Thunk, thunk, thunk. I can’t breathe. I need to stop. Thunk, thunk, thunk. This is the worst. Thunk, thunk, thunk. OK. Just to the next tree.
I’m not sure how, but I’ve become a Person Who Runs. I mean, obviously it didn’t just happen. I got one of those Couch to 5k apps and obeyed the little robot voice that told me to “RUN-for-ONE-minute”; I obeyed when “ONE-minute” became “FIFteen-minutes”; and then, when I finally managed to run five kilometres without dying, I joined the local parkrun with my friend Jacinta.
Have you heard about parkrun? It’s a free timed 5k run that’s held every Saturday at parks all over Australia. The one near me is a real community event for people of all ages and abilities, plus their dogs and their babies. I’m a fan, even when I’m not enjoying the running part.
It’s weird that I’ve taken up running. I don’t look like a runner. If I’m honest, I look like a lady who has been pregnant so many times, her body has forgotten how to look not pregnant. And I don’t enjoy running, though I do enjoy the smug feelings that come at the end of it.
I’ve come a long way from when I first started out. For one thing, I figured out how to settle into a rhythm, and breathe so I’m not gasping like a fish all the time. I also worked out that I need to firmly strap down all of the parts of me that jiggle. This was a game-changer. When I get dressed for a run, I’m like a sailor preparing for a storm on a ship. A large, unwieldy, overly bouncy ship. Batten down the hatches, folks.
There’s a boy up ahead of me running with his mother. He’s over it. “This is stupid! I don’t want to do this! I want to stop! My legs hurt!” For a moment, I stare at him. It’s as if my subconscious has come out of my body and manifested itself as a small child. Has the voice in my head taken human form?
At primary school, I wasn’t one of the sporty kids. When the class needed to be divided into teams, the teacher would appoint two captains to take turns choosing classmates for their side. As their teams grew, their teammates would whisper suggestions. I can still remember the disappointed, reluctant shrug my captain would give at the end, when he realised every other child had been chosen and he would have to assign me to his team. I tripped over, dropped balls, and was oh-so-slow. I was a liability.
The thought of having to run scared me. Like, properly scared me. Behind my eyelids, I can still see my classmates waiting for me at the opposite end of the oval. They finished the cross-country course ages ago. They are bored. As I flounder along, they seem to get even further away. I am never going to get there. Those tiny specks at the end of the oval, they’re annoyed with my freakish incompetence. It’s never going to end. I will be stumbling across this oval for the rest of my life.
I don’t want to sound disturbed, but when I run, I need to fight a chorus of voices in my head. Along with my entire Grade Four PE class, I studiously ignore the judgey voices telling me that taking time out to run is selfish, that I’m a Bad Mother. And it would seem I’m not alone here. Many mums put their own health last when sorting out priorities. We would rather be unfit, than be seen as an unfit mother. It’s hard to convince myself that exercise will help me to be a better parent in the long term, but I know I must.
And so I plod on. I’m not going to be the fastest, or the strongest, and I’m definitely not going to be the one who looks cute in running clothes. My super power is that I turn up, no matter what. In winter, I splash through puddles, rain streaming down my face. In summer, I plough through the dust and the heat. Jacinta finishes a full fifteen minutes ahead of me and waits to cheer me on at the finish line.
There is something wonderful about running in a group of encouraging people. That man who always finishes in the top ten per cent doesn’t know it, but his gruff nod and “well done, keep it up” means the world to me. Somehow, acknowledgement from the fast runners gives me permission to be there.
Running is a great way for me to sort out the chatter in my head, and is well suited to prayer. When my friend’s baby was in the NICU, I managed to pray a full rosary while running. I counted decades on my fingers and huffed out prayers to fit the rhythm of my pace “Our FA-ther, who art in HEAV-en, hallowed be thy NAME…” I offered my pain up for the tiny little fighter all covered in tubes. It felt good to be actually doing something, instead of feeling powerless.
It can feel, sometimes, like taking time out to run is selfish, that I’m cheating my family by doing something for myself. I know this isn’t true. My kids need a healthy mum. Lately, my fourteen-year-old daughter has joined me on a Saturday morning. Matilda is a natural runner, very fast and completely unselfconscious. I love sharing this time with her, even if I’m running miles behind!
At the turn-around point, I’m really struggling. The anguish is written so plainly on my face, when I pass Complaining Boy, his mum points to me. “See, Timmy,” she says in an encouraging voice, “you’re not the only one who’s struggling!”. In my gasping and spluttering, I have become a Teachable Moment. Happy to help, lady.
But here’s the funny thing. After eighteen months of lumbering along with no improvement, I’m starting to see some changes. While my body hasn’t yet remembered how to look not-pregnant, I’ve lost a lot of weight. These days, I rock more of a first-trimester physique. And my times are getting faster. I’ve almost caught up to Jacinta. Last Saturday, one of the parkrunners approached me.
“Hello,” she said, “I’m just a random stranger.”
“Hello, Random Stranger,” I said.
“I wanted to say I’ve noticed how much you’ve improved over the past month. You’re running so fast!”
As I smile, and thank the random lady, I catch Jacinta’s eye. My pragmatic, no-nonsense friend is crying. “I’m just so proud of you,” she sniffles.
Well, that’s the end for me. I didn’t mean to get emotional, but tears immediately spring to my eyes and Jacinta and I become a sobbing, hugging mess as Random Stranger carefully backs away. It’s silly. It’s just sport.
Except that it’s not. It’s friendship and community and health and discipline. It’s a clear head and a place to pray. It’s being a Good Mum. It’s self-care. It’s telling my Grade Four captain that I do deserve to be on his team. It’s refusing to be afraid. It’s the reason why, when I go on holidays, I look up the local Mass times and the local parkrun. It’s finally reaching the other end of that oval.
I wipe my face, smile and shrug. “See you next Saturday!”