The First 100 Miles: How I Started Running At 41 (and love it, injury free. Mostly).
List of reasons I hated running and avoided it for 40 years (my entire life):
- It makes my knees hurt
- It’s dull
- I’m bored just thinking about it
- It makes my ankles hurt
- It makes everything hurt
- I can’t breath if I try to run to the end of the street
- I’m falling asleep and hurting just thinking about it
- I actually love walking but if I run all my joints will snap and I won’t be able to walk anymore
Honestly, that was exactly what I thought of running, roughly since birth. Actually that list evolved over time (obviously, like a child, I ran like a total nutter for the first 10 years, then was made to run cross country in the cold, rain, mud and wind at school, with an inhaler around my neck, and the relationship deteriorated from there).
Cut to just before Christmas; It’s 7am, I’ve just got back into the house having just been for a small run (about 3 miles) around my local neighbourhood (roads and a flooded park). The first Storm Frank gales are blowing up outside, it’s dark, dank and very, very British. And yet, despite that list up there and the worst of grey skies, I left the house with a smile and returned feeling elated. Those 3 miles took me over the 100 miles mark since I started playing at running back in October (it was December 30th when I nailed that). Running: I get it now.
So how (and why) did I go from the Anti-Runner to 100 miles in 10 weeks? Or more accurately – How did I go from hating running and not being able to run to being able to run and loving it?
If you’re like me, you want to see how the sausage is made; so here’s a brief guide to how I did it:
First came the motivation:
Whilst I absolutely KNEW that runners were mental; deteriorating their joints by pounding the pavements in the cold and rain, and that running was not for me, I’d always been curious about a couple of things: Why do so many do it when it’s clearly boring and dangerous? And what is this runner’s high all about? What makes something inherently painful, addictive?
Having had a couple or three tattoos I’m more than aware of the pleasure of positive pain. I work out, get stabbed with needles sometimes, have relationships with women etc, so I know that not all pain is to be avoided. And yes, can even be deeply addictive.
But running is a long, drawn out, laborious type of pain isn’t it? Achy limbs, burning lungs? Yes, sometimes. But stay with me.
Most Thursdays I watch the local running club migrate past my front window like a pack of neon hunters (or neon biscuits as my girlfriend calls them for reasons known only to her), chasing down the simple high of camaraderie and happy hormones. With no idea why exactly I always felt a twinge of envy. A tiny part of me, just an ember mind you, was stirring and the breeze they left in their wake was feeding oxygen to that spark.
So I made a decision: I was going to learn to run. No, more than that; I was going to learn to enjoy running. This was an experiment in two parts:
- To see what all the fuss was about (discover for myself what made them all do it, and keep doing it)
- To see if I could do it without injuring myself. Was running without injury, only benefits possible? Could I actually enjoy it?
A bit of Google time lead me to a chap called Chris McDougall. In 2008 Chris wrote a book called Born To Run. A book that was so popular that it almost single handedly spurred a movement of ‘barefoot running’. To cut a long/short: Chris’s journey (physical and mental) took him from an injury plagued indifference to running to an ultra marathon inspired by a tribe of Mexican barefoot runners who pretty much epitomised the natural running style we think our ancestors perfected for the purposes of hunting. Only, they still do it today, 30,000 years later. Whilst we lollop about in our very expensive, heel cushioned, heavily marketed trainers (picking up injuries every 10 minutes), these dudes are running 100k for fun in shoes made from tyre treads. And not getting injured. For fun.
I devoured this book and then read another called Cool Impossible by Eric Orton. Eric trained Chris in the barefoot running style, so if I was going to do this then I needed to do it properly, and use the unorthodox advice of these outliers that promised me an injury free track to running freedom, rather than the tried and (not altogether) trusted methods espoused by ‘experts’ backed by the marketing machines behind the trainer juggernauts that sales numbers suggest the majority defer to. The problem is, the majority are getting injured. A lot.
I was sold on Chris’s enthusiasm for his experience and his belief in the ability of the human foot to run more efficiently and safely when unsupported by modern footwear tech. Listen to his TED talk about this here.
Setting a simple, achievable goal and preparing for pain
Now I had a couple of clear points to counter my previous ‘misgivings’ about running. Let’s readdress them:
It makes my knees hurt
If I can prepare my joints and muscles, get my form right and take my time then preventative maintenance will stop this from happening
This get’s it’s own section below called “On the dullness of running” – bottom line; there’s nothing boring in life, only boring people. It’s what you make it.
I’m bored just thinking about it
It makes my ankles hurt
It makes everything hurt
See 1 again (and stop whining!)
I can’t breath if I try to run to the end of the street
Apparently, the stamina, lungs, breathing thing is one of the first things to quickly resolve. Scott Jurek is an ‘Ultra’ marathon (50-100k) runner and he recommends running so slowly that you can still breath deeply through your nose; man that feels good. Do that as often as you mindfully can. Which often isn’t up hills… The first few runs, yes I was out of breath. Then once I learned how to breathe properly, relax and pace myself it completely went away (the issue, not the breathing) really quickly. Honestly, your lungs will adapt VERY quickly and you won’t have a problem.
I’m falling asleep and hurting just thinking about it
See above and below.
I actually love walking but if I run all my joints will snap and I won’t be able to walk anymore
See everything else. But keep walking anyway.
It was becoming deeply apparent that I was fast running (NPI) out of excuses. In fact, I had no excuses. What I had was a clear plan of action that sounded like it might just work.
On the dullness of running
Before I tell you what I did, let me just address the ‘dullness’ issue. I am now a running bore and find myself slipping phrases like “on my run this morning” “sure, after my run later I can look at that” into conversations at work, on the school run, on the phone to my mum etc. To which most folks (who don’t run) say something like “uuurrrgh, running’s so dull! And it’s bad for your joints”. And you know what? They are partly right. Here’s the correct answer:
“Only dull running is dull and only poorly prepared runners with crappy footwear and poor form get injured all the time”
There is another way as it turns out:
This morning (This being a different morning to the one I refer to at the start of this post. I tend to write via wormholes) I went for what turned into a 5 mile run after the school run (ironically named given how many asshole 4x4s take part…) and before I got to my work desk (a standing desk from which I tend to perform little salsa moves with my legs as I type to keep my glutes happy. Yes, even now).
I started at my house, headed out around a few local streets and down towards the trail that runs around my local golf course and along the canal. The sun was out but it’s cold and that’s actually pretty good running weather. The almost spring sun gently warming the back of your neck as your movement warms your core and keeps the chill out.
As I rounded the track that surrounds the golf course, dodging the pebbles and puddles, I was startled out of my podcast by a huge hawk of some kind launching itself off the track in front of me; a flurry of wide wings as it left the squirrel entrails for me to skip over, to return to after the threat in running tights (me) had moved on. I passed the usual array of dog walkers, post school run mums, late-to-workers, homeless and meandering philosophical types and said hello to every one. And every one smiled and said hello (or morning or hi or hey) back, because that’s how it works when you run; people respond, everything responds; the feedback from the trail sending signals through the soles of your barefoot style shoe shod feet, the weather, whatever it does, the animals, the people. It all responds because you’re connected to all of it. I know that sounds a bit voodoo but that’s how it feels. It feels good.
The rest of the run was just as eventful; rabbits running around the canal side (yes, rabbits!), squirrels and magpies foraging for the same scraps, a fat blackbird that refused to budge no matter how close I got (your running neon doesn’t scare me stupid human, his impassive beak and eyes seemed to suggest). Trail, sky, trees, buildings, animals, peoples, smiles. It wasn’t dull. It could have been if I’d looked down, got lost in dull thoughts about work or money or who and what I miss/desire. But I stayed mindfully in the present and loved every second.
the oldest and most important human movement that contributed to us being who we are now makes us feel connected to everything because it connects us to everything. Just go with it.
Dull has no place in your head. Dull is like sadness or happiness, it’s a choice. Nothing is dull until YOU decide it is.
How the running sausage was made
(You’re picturing a sausage with legs aren’t you? If you weren’t, you are now…)
I’d taken the philosophical advice from McDougall:
Run lightly for fun, not competition. Do it to feel free, to float over the Earth in the manner you were born for like a quiet hunter chasing down his quarry. Only your quarry is tranquility (and killer glutes).
And I’d taken mechanical advice from Orton:
Prepare the bits that can go wrong so they’re strong and don’t go wrong (as often). And run slowly, run mindfully, take your time, it’s not a race. Not yet anyway.
Prep was easy and fun. On Orton’s advice I ordered a balance board (I love the RooBoard) and some hiking poles to help me strengthen my ankles and my calves and all the squillions of little muscles and tendons and bits and bobs that work around the complexity of the majestical human foot-piece. And I did what he prescribed: Lots of irregular standing on the board, strengthening my legs and ankles in various awkward positions, focusing on posture, thinking about form and generally getting ready to be ready in the right places.
I would perform squats (deep, fulfilling ones) as these seem to go a long way to fixing just about anything (and preventing a great deal more). These are a little more powerhouse when you swing a kettlebell in front of you when you’re doing them but don’t feel obliged.
I procured a floss band to wrap around my knees and ankles if they started to play up, which they occasionally did for a while. Get a Voodoo Floss band, really, if you move and simply love recovering quickly, get one. And then Google Kelly Starrett to find out how to use it.
I carried on with my Yoga, my push-ups, my pull-ups and all the little movements I know keep me supple and fit for purpose.
Eat to run
I’m not going to harp on about diet for this post. Nutrition IS important, but this is more about my journey rather than the mechanics. Fear not I will bore you with all that at some point and if you really want to know then get in touch and ask – I’m always happy to share. In the meantime, this is the list I have pinned to my fridge at the moment to give you some insight:
And then, one morning, I went for it. My first ‘proper’ run – pretty much, EVER.
I managed maybe a mile and a half, I focused on form like Eric taught me, I went s—l—o—w and I breathed deeply through my nose like Scott Jurek advised and I did it in my Luna Sandals (built by Barefoot Ted). Towards the end of the run my left knee did what I always assumed it would, it started to ache, down the side, IT band style – maybe.
But I’d done it. Run 1. A little bit out of breath sure, a bit of a knee twinge sure, but I’d done it. And I felt something else. Only a tiny something else but it was definitely there; I felt good. Not just pleased with myself for taking a small step in a positive direction, but a tiny sense of general well-being and I decided right there that I wanted to amplify that feeling. A tiny flame had been lit and I was going to fan that flame by waggling my crazy running legs at it.
The running continued and the pains subsided. A bit further every time, less pain, keeping up with the stretches and the squats and the band and the rest of it. No pushing, no speed, just total immersion in each and every run. Form, presence, no competition.
How to get ‘runner’s high’ without exploding
I’d thought ‘runner’s high’ would be some hard won blast of happy hormones in response to the pain of pushing yourself to a quicker pace or a faster mile or something equally painful. Either way something hard earned. But it isn’t, it really isn’t. You get your high EVERY single time you put on your shoes and head out the door and just run. Not at the start maybe, not when you’re feeling tired or hungover or stressed or full of difficult questions and you simply don’t feel like heading out into the cold in shorts and running under grey skies. There will be no high right then. But when you get back, and you strip off your gear and get under that luke warm shower and process the last half hour you’ll have beaten the hangover, woken up, loved the weather, smiled, forgotten your worries and answered your questions. And when you come down from that you’ll know what you need to do again, and again, and again. And running will have you. You’ll get it.
Let me summarise: Barefoot running works and is a great fit for a post 40 worried about his/her knees type. It’s also gloriously addictive. If you think running is dull, stop being dull and run where it isn’t. You can have a runner’s high every day. You will lose weight and look awesome (be prepared to develop a very sexy bottom). Being prepared with a few of the right movements is very important – preventing the injuries happening in the first place is the key. Do a bit of homework, get the right gear (keep it simple and don’t spend much, you don’t need to) and don’t listen to the masses because most people are either running with the wrong form and the expensive trainers that will cripple you and the other lot will tell you that running will cripple you anyway, and it’s dull. They are all wrong, be your own experiment.
The post summary epilogue
Did you ever see one of those Star Trek episodes where the Captain would fall in love with a woman and live inside some sort of time loop, worm-hole log cabin for 40 years being all self sufficient and happy and then resurface into the real world only to find that for everybody else only 5 minutes have passed and he hasn’t aged a day? And didn’t you think that was cool; how you could live a happy lifetime inside a time bubble and then come back to now and get another chance at living it again? Well that’s what running is like, and you’ll just have to do it to find out why.
Well, nearly the end. Don’t forget to have your say below, I’d love to hear about your running escapades, successes and failures! And if you find this in anyway useful or interesting please share the love socially and don’t forget to sign up to my (very rare and non inbox insulting) newsletter that simply updates you on any new posts or books I might knock up. Cheers dudes; peace.
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