That really looks like fun, doesn't it? (Photo from Royal Parks Half Marathon website)
That really looks like fun, doesn’t it? (Photo from Royal Parks Half Marathon website)

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.

I’m not sure if it’s fatherhood or personality or opportunity but I generally think that life is pretty good. I may not have everything, but what I do have fills me with happiness. Whether it was the huge amusement MiniMe found in the game we were playing with his cars yesterday, or being able to type this into a beautiful Apple MacBook (Apple machines give joy in a way that PCs and Windows can’t even imagine) there is so much joy and happiness to be found in any life it’s hard to understand why anyone would be miserable.

But recently I’ve been exposed to mass misery during rush hour commutes.

I’ve been very fortunate in being able to avoid rush hours for most of the past few years. I’ve not had to regularly commute into London by train or tube since 2003. Between 2003 and 2007 my commute was a relatively civilised bus-ride to Westminster and a delightful constitutional from there to St James’. Since 2007 my work has meant that I’ve largely been based at home, or my travel can be timed to avoid rush hours, or at least against the flow. But in the past few weeks I’ve not been able to avoid rush hour, so I’ve found myself crammed into trains, tubes and buses with the rest of humanity far too often for my own liking.

Now this isn’t a complaint about train length, under-investment at Clapham Junction or even 20th century working practices in a 21st century world (how many commuters absolutely need to be in their office rather than working remotely) but about people. About you and me. We are the ones creating rush hour hell twice a day, five days a week.

This morning I just missed a train from Clapham Junction, meaning I was one of a few on a platform and perfectly placed at where the train door would stop. But before the next train arrived the platform filled and by the time the doors opened four or five people managed to get on the train in front of me. Somehow they managed to insert themselves into a gap of just a few feet between me and the train door so they would get on first. In what way is this acceptable? Are there any other situations, like the bank or a post office, in which they would – without a qualm – simply abandon manners and shove in front (there at least they would have the advantage of getting served sooner, there is no advantage in getting on the same train a few seconds earlier, it still reaches the destination at the same time).

And then on the train, we all cram together and share looks of such stoney-faced misery it’s hard to tell if we are victims of Medusa or Medusa herself, forcing everyone else on the train to avert their gaze. From the pushing and shoving, to swearing and cursing, the misery of both the commute to work and the commute to home has left me wondering if people are actually happy about anywhere they are going. And watching young and healthy men sat on the tube studiously looking everywhere but the swollen belly of the obviously pregnant woman just inches in front of their faces makes me realise that if chivalry isn’t dead it most certainly doesn’t have an Oyster card.

What I dislike most of all is that I find myself pontificating on it all, like some sort of awful tabloid columnist. (I’ve even wondered if I should give these musings a title, perhaps make them regular, how about ‘Friday Feorising’, just so we have visual and well as aural alliteration?) In a bid to be positive about it I’ve been trying to think where the switch is that turns people from being ordinarily polite, happy people into the rude and ignorant. Is there some stage in the journey at which a small change would make all the difference? I assume many of these people are perfectly happy beforehand, perhaps enjoying a family breakfast, or a pleasant stroll to the station. But somewhere it all changes. Maybe if we could find that switch we could stop it being flicked. Maybe we should all be a bit more like Winkworth’s and start offering free hugs to prevent that descent into collective depression and low-level sociopathy.

Perhaps Winkworth’s are the people with the answer and in years to come they won’t be remembered for their prowess at marketing property, but their contribution to the nation’s happiness. Realistically, I know that pinning my hopes on an estate agents isn’t sensible (it’s essentially saying that I think Foxton’s are capable of being a force for good). Instead, we have to be the ones who make the difference. This is something over which we all, collectively, have control; we are the ones who get on our trains and look so miserable it becomes contagious. We might not be able to directly influence Network Rail’s spending plans and we may be doomed to suffer the effects of Gordon Brown’s PPP on the tube for decades to come. But we can exercise control over our moods and our manners. I’m not suggesting we commute with manic grins, but if we at least avoided the Gail Mcintyre false imprisonment look it would make all the difference.