Updated: Oct 21, 2021
It was June 23rd 2020, my Lockdown 18th birthday and Day 93 of a whole new world! Boris Johnson had cancelled school, except for children of essential workers, as well as my A levels and the prospect of what this meant for my further education at university, was weighing heavily on my mind.
I’ve always been skinny and not prone to putting on weight but I felt sluggish due to over-eating and one too many fast food take-aways. I hadn’t used the hour outside suggested for exercise by the government but the night of my 18th – the start of adulthood – I decided to take responsibility for my mental and physical well-being.
Competitive by nature, I was really missing playing matches at my tennis club and badminton with friends. The tennis club had recently opened again but restrictions meant that balls could only be handled by the server and close contact at the net was to be avoided; it just felt too restrictive and badminton courts were still closed. I wanted to take up a sport to fill the gap that was both competitive and independent.
Recently, I’d watched a tv show based on an Anime novel called, Run with the Wind. It was about a boy who wanted to rekindle his passion for running after a knee injury ruined his chances of competing at the Hakone Ekiden race. This passion and dedication for running resonated with me so much so that I wanted to try it. After all, if I could no longer compete against others then I would challenge myself.
On making my decision, I was eager to get started, however, thoughts of embarrassment plagued my mind. I felt intimidated. What if others saw my poor technique or heard my gasps for air? The feelings of inadequacy spiralled until I felt like a fraud for even attempting to run.
So, I slept on it! My mind was racing throughout the night, thinking of how to run without others watching me until I had a realisation, looking outside my own window! I would use the night to conceal myself! The next evening, I headed for Holmebrooke Valley Park. I waited until dusk and set off on my first run. It was not pleasant! I ran 2.3 miles, the route I had planned for myself, and had to stop 5 times. The time taken was 26 minutes and 43 seconds: I logged it on the app, Strava – I now had a time to beat, the challenge had begun! Arriving home, I was exhausted, in pain and couldn’t move for an hour but I now had incentive and felt a sense of achievement.
I continued to run every 4 or 5 days and gradually started to replace my equipment to improve my performance. First to get the chop, was my lanyard slim-line bag containing my phone; it obviously bounced around on my chest as I ran so it was replaced by a phone armband. Next up was a better running top, I was getting by with ordinary t-shirts but I needed a more light-weight, breathable top to stop me over-heating. Then I replaced my trainers. Once I knew that running was for me, I invested in a pair made especially for the sport with cushioned soles. And finally, I bought calf compression socks to stop my shins feeling bruised after a run.
As August began and my A level results loomed ever more closely, I began running every day. Pent up anxiety dispelled as I ran with the wind but more often than not, the still heat of the summer. Running became easier and easier, my times became better and better. The effects on my mental health were considerable and positive.
Research suggests that physical activity triggers a release of dopamine and serotonin which can improve mood. Dopamine is often called the ‘happy hormone’, a primary driver of the brain’s reward system. It spikes when we experience something pleasurable and for me, this had become running.
A levels results secured a place at university to study English Literature, I was happy and excited for the future but a little nervous about COVID and what this meant for lectures and studying. I continued to run and feel the benefits; it had become a routine in my daily life.
Then, on September 16, I made my fastest time – 16 minutes and 21 seconds! This was ten minutes and 21 seconds faster than my starter time back in June. I was buzzing. I felt the benefits as soon as I started playing badminton with the university team: my cardio had improved significantly.
Try as I might however, I couldn’t beat my best time; I couldn’t even match it as the months flew by. I tried to recreate what I ate, how I slept but to no avail and although I still loved running, I was starting to stagnate a little. I needed motivation which led me back to where this all began. Re-watching Run with the Wind the following January reminded me of how the characters were able to run their twelve-mile sections in the Hakone Ekiden. It was through their strict marathon training. I never considered marathon training, after all, I could barely run a year ago but now, I wanted a new challenge.
TBC: Part 2 in our next edition.
Words and images: Jack Jerram