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What Running for 30 Days taught me

Across September I ran or walked a mile every day. This was part of a challenge set by my friend Jeff. A huge advocate of running for mental as well as physical wellbeing, Jeff himself is running every day this decade…so a month seemed like the least I could do challenge wise. 

Why do it? 

  1. It’s 2020 we could all use some positive focus. 
  2. My running, while steady enough could use a periodic kick up the butt. 
  3. I had a book due October 1st (and any reason not to be doing that some of the day) 
  4. Bragging rights? 

Spoiler alert, it had a positive impact on all these. 

This also came on the back of a reassessment of both my exercise routine, and my relationship with exercise (and by extension my body) and (spoiler alert again) it had a really positive impact. 

Which isn’t to say I loved every run. This is not one of those blogs. I will never be that runner. Running is in equal measure: boring and hard work. Also I contest the person who said ‘you never regret a run’ I have deeply regretted many a run. To that end, there were many days where I would have possibly chopped off a leg not to run. But I did it anyway. Of the 30 days, I did a walk on 4 of them. Which as it averages out at a day a week seems fair. They were a 50/50 split between days when I was out and about (shocker for 2020) and didn’t have a chance for a proper run, and two days where my body just said a proper ‘no’. 

It’s important to acknowledge too that physically it was a struggle. I’ve been having a pretty rough time with my Ulcerative Colitis in a flare in recent months. And it’s a bit of a Catch-22, stress makes it worse, running reduces stress…but running also sometimes makes it worse (think about terrible stomach cramps, and desperately needing the loo and add jiggling about on a run for 40 minutes to that…not, as they say, the one). And added to that the fatigue that comes with it- chronic illness people will understand it’s not just the ‘bit tired don’t feel like it’ feeling it’s the cumulative total exhaustion. Again sometimes exercise helps, sometimes it feels utterly impossible. I worked around it, I changed time of day, I did different routes, I did less. 

That was an important lesson in running every day, not being so prescriptive about distance. While the challenge was ‘a mile a day’ normally I would beat myself up about running any less than 5k, or not meeting another arbitrary target I had set myself. But with the promise of running every day, that fell away. 

And that actually was key to a shift in exercise mentality I’ve been trying to teach myself. And which finally might have stuck. 

I hate to be that person, you know the Joe-Wicks-ing ‘lockdown was a real shift in my relationship with exercise’ person…but it was. I was at once stuck in a gym rut pre-lockdown- doing the same old routine, 4-5 times a week, bored of it and not progressing, but also not doing anything about it (largely because of a long ingrained fear of any kind of fitness instructor that stems from PE, which I wrote about more in this piece here. But also because I have a longstanding problematic relationship with exercise and food and all that comes with that. 

My issues with both have generally been under control for many years, but looking back I knew I was slipping back into the more hardline mindset of x exercise = y food and having an increasingly poor relationship with my body. Many things contribute to that. People around me talking about diets a lot. Feelings of not being ‘sporty’ enough to make changes. General stress and wearing down. Being unwell with my chronic illness but not aware of it yet (yes ironically being ‘fat’ earlier this year was actually ‘being ill’). And being suddenly forced to switch up my exercise routine in lockdown was actually really what I needed. 

And actually the September running challenge came at the right time. I was feeling a lot of pressure to go back to the gym the minute they reopened. And actually I’ve now decided to take a full year off from the gym. I may well jump right back in when that time is up. But a year off – still exercising, and possibly exercising more, is the reset I think I need. 

I struggled with the running challenge most in that respect actually- the feeling I ‘should’ be doing other exercise, doing more, even with running every day was the hardest to overcome. But in pushing through, by the end of the month my brain had caught up with my body and realised, this was ok too. 

I think it helped that I also coupled it with a commitment to try and do Yoga every day. I didn’t manage every day nor did I track that but I think I got to about 25 days out of 30, which while running too isn’t so bad. Yoga used to be a huge part of my life, to the point I was considering becoming a teacher. But I stopped going to classes, and then found myself too intimidated to return (seeing a pattern here…) but by recommitting to practice, I found I am now back in the place where I want and need to do Yoga (yes I’m afraid I’m that yoga wanker as well as a running wanker) and who knows, maybe I will reconsider that teaching too…

And so all that aside what did I get out of a month of running? 

Well, a comedy relationship with a bunch of stoned fishermen who spend every day at the lake I run around for a start. Try not to breathe too deeply going past…

For me what I really got back was running as a place of headspace and thinking time. Which is really why I do it. There’s no denying eve without a book deadline I struggle to stop working. Years of holding down a ‘day job’ alongside either studying or freelancing mean I just work, constantly. Having even half an hour a day where I had to be somewhere else physically helps that enormously. And in a month of high-pressure work running really helped focus and thinking time. Ironically I thought very little about the book I was finishing writing during my runs. I did, however, find I was daydreaming about other new writing project and just daydreaming in general…which was exactly what I needed to get back to my desk and write. 

September should have been a month of hard training to run first all three Disneyland Paris runs at the end of the month, and then the Cardiff Half Marathon. As much as the challenge of training for big runs is good, actually for 2020, a slow and steady, day by day month turned out to be exactly what was needed instead. 

I’ve taken a few days off running since the end of September- a reset is always important too, as it mixing it up getting back to other forms of exercise- I’ve missed the spin bike and a HIIT workout. But I’ll be back running around that lake next week (and hopefully continuing my 2020 streak of not ending up IN the lake) 

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‘What if I don’t think about the books’ Fear and finishing project book.

In the spirit of blogging this whole writing experience, it seems apt to mark this moment of sending off the first draft to the publishers. And while that is no doubt a moment of victory. I feel a little like I’m being judged in my celebration of that from academia with a sort of hair toss and a ‘Yeah and?’ because obviously in academia, everyone has a book, and like probably a better one than you. 

That’s what it feels like sometimes, all the time actually, this bitchy playground where the mean girls are looking over going ‘she’s writing what?’ and ‘oh my god she’s like blogging and tweeting about it, bless.’ 

Because I get that I’m not a ‘proper’ academic. And I get that my blogging my way through the book is probably met with snobbish disdain and yes, yes I frequently think about when it doesn’t survive peer review and I fail at it, how foolish all this will look. 

But also what if, what if it does actually make it the whole way. And what if my being honest about all this, all the way through helps someone else who doesn’t quite belong with the cool kids of academia (yes I’m aware that’s an oxymoron) 

And also I refuse to accept that this isn’t a big deal. I get that in academia you all churn out books like nobody’s business. But for normal people like me. (normal is a relative term here) it’s a pretty fucking big deal. 

Because here’s the thing. As much as on one hand I’ve never known ‘what I want to be when I grow up’ there’s one thing I did always want to be: a writer. And I think in many many respects I can now actually tick that off a list. But a pretty biggie in that dream is a book. 

So excuse me if I’m going to do my best to step back from that academic noise and say: but I wrote a book. That’s a pretty fucking big deal. 

And how was finishing it? 

I’d love to say anticlimactic, but I’m nothing if not extra, and I actually managed to end writing it on one of my favourite parts. And then I sent it to the publishers listening to one of the songs I’ve used on a loop to get the fucking thing done. What I can’t be extra about my book about the most extra play ever written? 

Thinking of which, there were a number of things I learned about writing in the process. The first being linked to just how…extra this play is. I realised, this morning actually so a little too late, that the reason I got so bogged down in the book, is because when you spend so long writing about Kushner you start thinking like Kushner. That you have to include all the things, every last thing he includes you feel like you have to include. This is the point at which I remind you all that the play is 7 hours long. There is no book on earth that can encompass all that and still be readable. That’s why in one respect it’ll always feel ‘not enough.’

I still had that fear. I kept hearing Ted Mosbey ‘What if I don’t think about the books’ In How I Met Your Mother (yes, sitcom wisdom, deal with it) Ted recounts the story of an architect who made a perfect library, but forgot to account for the weight of the books. So it sank into the ground. Ted tells the story as he’s putting off taking the leap to starting his own architecture firm.

Because he’s scared of taking that leap. For a long time I couldn’t write this thing because I was too scared of it failing. I’m still very scared of it failing but at least I did the thing. It also reminds me of one of the songs I listened to on a loop while writing it, which maybe just maybe seeped into my brain enough to get it done too; 

Cause I will say I don’t wanna play if I am gonna lose

I don’t wanna lose cause I didn’t play

And that’s sort of it too right. It’s easy to sit there and forever regret not doing it. And I asked myself, as the world seems to burn around me and whatever career strides I might have made look doubtful again, what’s the thing you’ll regret not doing? and it’s always this.

And what else about writing it? I enjoyed it. Sorry, I know that you’re not supposed to enjoy writing apparently, and think it’s the worst thing in the world. But to me it’s always been the very best thing. Did I love a week of going around in circles for one key bit of argument? No, not at all (did I give myself a ‘self five’ when I worked it out, hell yes) Did I enjoy trying to make the structure fit that felt at times like trying to make the play itself 2 hours no interval? Also not so much. Will I cry a lot when I get feedback that my dyslexic writing style is apparently not suited to academic writing? Yes. 

But did I read the final copy and think ‘Yes, yes this is what I wanted to say’ and did I fall in love with the play all over again in doing it? Yes. As above I didn’t say all the interesting things I could say, but I said a lot of theme. And I said them my way. 

And I know nobody wants to hear the ‘silver linings’ of 2020, but I couldn’t have done it without that. Given the choice, I think I’d rather not have lost my job, been locked in my house for months all that. But also, maybe, just maybe in the long term this is what I needed. Maybe this was more important than the job that never was, and it really was a blessing in disguise. 

Or maybe it at least gave me something to do in 2020. 

I learned a lot about how I write. Or more accurately accepting how I write. I look enviously at people who have extensive planners and white boards and they have a process down to the last hour as to how they’re going to draft it. 

With all the will in the world that is not me. I am a messy messy writer. There’s not really any plan. There never is. I realised that the only way to write this was to do it like I write fiction; let it tell me the story. When I write fiction there’s never a plan until ¾ of the way through when I wrangle what the characters  have ‘told’ me into something resembling a plot. And ultimately that’s what I did here- what’s the list of things I want to write about? Great, how do they fit together. And I wrote what I wanted, when I wanted to write it rather than trying to fit into an artificial plan of ‘write chapter 2 here, then 1’ etc etc. Which is probably why I ended up writing what was for me the thing I most wanted to say last. And editing the thing I like best last. It might not be the way they teach you to do it, but surely getting it done is what counts? 

And that’s what I rested on to finish too. I wrote on a notecard above my desk ‘80% is good enough’ I can hear the screams of horror at that. Surely nothing less than 110% is good enough right? Well maybe, but also done is better than perfect. And I’d rather have done. 

That was a tough 7 weeks, from when I really went all out on this. And tougher again in the last 2 weeks. I’m mentally exhausted. So, so tired. Paranoid about the judgement from people at my ‘self indulgence’ at doing this. Worried about time I’ve ‘wasted’ not job hunting. Doing this against the backdrop of a pandemic and all that hasn’t helped either. But it’s done. I got further than I ever thought I would get. And it’s ok to say I’m proud of that. No matter what happens next, I finished it. And that’s something.