Having grown up with an aversion to sports, it was surprising to find myself running a half-marathon.
Back in the “Before Times”, there was an inexplicable annual event known as the Primary School ‘Sports Day’. During these torturous and useless hours spent sitting in the summer heat, there was only ever one prize that I wanted to win.
That was ‘The Most Amount of Sports Days Skipped in a Row’ medal.
This wasn’t a thing that actually existed of course. But I still spent my entire school career trying to get out of Sports Day. Each time it rolled around I would start preparing. Not by trying to hit personal bests on the race track or practicing my hand-eye coordination. Instead, I would prepare by laying down the groundwork for the various fake colds or stomach bugs that would mysteriously arrive for those twenty-four hours.
I, like many chubby and perpetually embarrassed kids, despised most competitive or team-based sports.
Unable to run two minutes without wanting to vomit up a lung, I would spend the whole week dreading P.E classes. Sports Day was the ultimate torture for someone like me.
For me, sports have always been more of a punishment, not an enjoyable activity.Jessica Cullen
So in May 2021 when I found myself in the middle of Regent’s Park and my eyes were burning with sweat and my ankles were so stiff that they could snap in half, I could almost hear my younger self screaming at me in annoyance.
Were all those faked illnesses and exaggerated menstrual pains for nothing?
For me, sports have always been more of a punishment, not an enjoyable activity. My history with it can be somewhat tied to my history with body image. Sports was a way to sweat. Sweating was a way to lose weight.
Running in particular has been the centre of a particularly friend/foe based relationship. Back in school, when we were forced to run once around the track as a warm-up I would normally be found trailing behind everyone else. (Normally electing to walk after ten horrible seconds of jogging.)
So when I signed up over a year and a half ago to run a half-marathon it almost felt like I was betraying my younger self. The one that would work so hard to avoid any physical activity.
I signed up for the half marathon back in February 2020. The run was due to be in the Spring.
What a choice year to happen to commit to such a thing.
I was doing the run with my boyfriend which greatly helped. When all is said and done, being in exhausing pain and hating yourself for ever buying a pair of trainers is way better when it’s a shared experience.
I’ll never forget the day I ran a full mile without stopping. I think I saw a snail outpace us. But the feeling of looking down at my phone and seeing that I’d hit the 1.0 mile mark was one of the best things I’ve ever accomplished. I didn’t know I could do that.
Our training sessions began to feel fun and exciting. Each extra mile was another insane achievement. I was actually looking forward to the day of the event.
Then, this mad thing happened.
Our half marathon, much like countless other events and gatherings across the globe, became lost in a purgatory of never-ending cancellations and reschedulings.
But hey, no matter. We decided we would press on and keep up our training to make sure we didn’t lose the progress we’d built up so far. The half marathon was rescheduled for October that year. We could keep going until then.
I’ll never forget the day I ran a full mile without stopping. I think I saw a snail outpace us.Jessica Cullen
Most evenings and every weekend, I would religiously strap on my trainers and run a handful of miles.
We weren’t the only ones. Over the course of the pandemic Strava logged large spikes in outdoor activities, especially running. (Not surprising considering it was one of the only things we were actually allowed to do).
I was becoming frequently surprised by what my body was doing and becoming better with each session. Come October and another blow. The half marathon had been pushed back again. This time to May 2021.
It was turning into a bit of a sunken cost fallacy. We had spent so many hours and miles trying to get where we were.
So we pushed on. Every weekend, another mile.
Ironically, the better I got the worse I began to feel. It would take up a whole day of my weekend to go on a run and spend the rest of the day recovering. I would be ravenous after a session and I was constantly in a state of mild exhaustion.
After a few more months the enjoyment and motivation began to crumble. I was getting bitter about the amount of time it was taking up. What had started as a fun challenge was turning into a grueling and relentless task.
Why did I keep going? It certainly helped that someone else was going through the process with me. Shared motivation is much more powerful in these situations. But ultimately, it was pettiness.
I was annoyed at the half-marathon for getting pushed back. I was angry about all the Saturdays and evenings I had missed and wanted to finish it as a ‘f*** you’ to whoever had organised the whole thing.
Then came the final slap in the face. I opened an email one day to find that the half-marathon had been pushed back. Again. To June.
It was only one more month but I couldn’t take it any longer or put my tired body through anymore. So we decided we would run the half-marathon by ourselves on the day it had been scheduled for May. There would be no finish line, no bystanders.
On the day we set off I had podcasts lined up to boot and a beautifully motivating mantra in my head that just said ‘Let’s Get This Over With.
It took us a wonderfully unimpressive two hours and forty minutes to finish.
What a mad thing it is to set yourself a physical challenge and actually complete it.Jessica Cullen
By the time we came to the end, my ankles felt as fragile as crackers and my boyfriend’s nipples were red raw.
As we sat on the grass afterwards in the sun and I ate my celebratory £3.50 99p Flake from the ice cream van, I realised how miraculous it was. What a mad thing it is to set yourself a physical challenge and actually complete it.
The more time has passed, the more proud I’ve become of our half-marathon. Not only did we manage to complete it but we kept up the training for almost a year and a half.
Even though there was no symbolic physical finishing line or cheering supporters, we still felt like we had accomplished something. (It’s a good thing we elected to do it when it did, as a few weeks ago I received an email to say that the half-marathon had been pushed back again.)
In a way, the gruelling training was part of what got me through the pandemic. The routine and little achievements were something to look forward to and keep up momentum.
The whole time we had been training, I couldn’t help but feel like a stranger to my younger self. Then I realised that in a weird way, she would have been proud. Not necessarily because of my success in completing the challenge (although she probably would have been impressed) but because, in the end, I had almost done it out of spite.
In a way, it would have been her ultimate goal. The only thing more prominent in my mind other than pride was relief that I would never have to do it again.
I had, essentially, written off a sport.
And young Jessica would have loved that.
Photo Credit: littlemissfearlessblog