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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) 

By Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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