I was lucky enough to get a ballot place for this year’s Royal Parks Half Marathon and, at the risk of annoying those who failed to get a place, am feeling strangely ambivalent about it.
I entered the ballot largely on a whim having been told it was open by a friend who ran it last year. And I entered fully expecting I wouldn’t get a place. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve failed to get a spot in the London Marathon (something I really do want to run at least once) and imagined my record of losing the random lottery and then being bombarded with offers to get a place by raising a huge amount of cash for charity would continue.
The problem is not because I have any problem with the distance. For a large part of last year my weekly long run exceeded the 13.1 mile half marathon distance. Nor am I concerned about the training, although I can’t help but wonder how on earth I will fit it in.
Instead I am troubled by the knowledge I’m an incredibly anti-social runner.
As an adult I have only run with other people on three occasions. Once in the Roehampton 10k, once with the Nike Run Club when they had the FuelStation on Clapham Common (and I do think its a shame it was removed, though recognise it was not universally popular) and once with my wife. I am an anti-social runner; the prospect of sharing a few miles with several thousand other people does not appeal.
While I found Haruki Murakami’s part-memoir, part-running diary What I Talk About When I Talk About Running slightly disappointing (perhaps because my expectations were not well-managed) his view of running as a solo challenge did resonate. I care little about my performance compared to other runners, but I care deeply about my performance compared to my past efforts. It is deeply troubling if my pace and stamina are not steadily improving. And my current form, suffering the impact of a bad chest infection at the beginning of the year is downright depressing, however much I tell myself it’s an understandable blip.
In addition the almost meditative nature of running provides an appeal. Murakami comments “Somerset Maugham once wrote that in each shave lies a philosophy. I agree … No matter how mundane some action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act.” I can see how exercise, or at least running, is often cited as beneficial to mental health. And I can even see the attraction of running to the likes of Sri Chinmoy devotees (even if my lack of spirituality leaves me viewing such groups with suspicion).
But how does that work in a large organised run? How can your performance be your own when pace will often be dictated more by the size of the pack and the road they are trying to fit? Or inner peace sought among the hubbub of runners and supporters?
So, I have eight months to prepare physically – and I have no concerns about that at all – but also mentally. I hope to divine some meaning to the undertaking of collective exercise, but I’m terrified that eight months just isn’t enough.