Conquering the running demons

JESS MCGUIRE
Last updated 14:36 25/05/2012
Cliff Young
INSPIRATION: Cliff Young won the inaugural Sydney to Melbourne Ultra Marathon at the age of 61.

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OPINION: I would dream about being able to run like most people dream about being able to fly, for it was only when I was asleep that I could finally do something my body seemed unable to accomplish in real life: I'd put one foot in front of the other and propel myself down roads and tracks and over mountains and through the trees, all the while effortlessly filling and emptying my lungs with oxygen.

In real life, however, running the way I ran in my dreams simply wasn't an option.

As a child, I was a reasonable sprinter and was usually able to score myself a coloured ribbon of some kind in the 100 metre or 200 metre races at school athletics carnivals, but anything further than those distances had me gasping for breath, clutching at my chest and begging to borrow an asthma inhaler off a nearby student (I clearly believed puffers had magical powers that could even help those who had not been diagnosed as an actual asthmatic by a licensed medical professional).

The idea of participating in the "cross country" event - a misleadingly named 3km run that saw competitors soaking up the sights and sounds of a couple of suburban streets before doing a lap of the school oval - was absolutely laughable to me.

By the time my school years were over and mandatory physical exertion was no longer a part of my life, I had already heartily embraced smoking, and once my tobacco habit made friends with my predilection for alcoholic beverages, it only took a couple of years for whatever vague level of fitness I may have had when I was younger to completely disappear.

"I can't run," I would tell people, probably with a cigarette dangling from my mouth and a beer in my hand, "I'm not actually physically able to, my lungs pack it in after about a minute."

As though I was built differently to every other human being on the planet, a flawed version of the factory model that had somehow, accidentally, been released onto the market with all the rest of the functioning people.

I knew I was making the situation worse, what with all the recreational boozing and fagging, but still felt absolutely certain deep down that even if I did cease indulging in all my bad habits, running continuously for longer than sixty seconds was simply not an option for my body.

I quite liked dreaming about running, but I had absolutely no desire to punish myself physically by attempting (and failing) to do it in real life.

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Cut to the day my friend Paddy lent me a book called Born To Run by Christopher McDougall.

I reacted the same way most normal people would if kindly offered a loan of a book seemingly about exercise - I smiled and graciously thanked Paddy for his thoughtful offer, and when I got home I put the book on my desk and didn't go near it for months.

I'm a busy woman, so the idea of spending any spare moments I had reading a text about running seemed about as appealing to me as pressing play on the Crazy Frog Presents Crazy Hits album, or repeatedly slamming my fingers in a door, or having Kim Kardashian read the Herald Sun letters page aloud to me.

However, there eventually came a time when I was suitably bored enough to pick it up and I decided that at the very least, I could finish the first chapter before returning the book to my friend.

That first chapter was interesting enough for me to bother with the second, and by the time I completed the third I knew what I held in my hands was a book that was probably going to change my life in some way.

Without going into too much detail, Born To Run tells the story of a reclusive Indian tribe from the Mexican Copper Canyons called the Tarahumara whose society revolves around running, the eccentric American runner known as Caballo Blanco who studied their ways, and the ultramarathon event he decided to create which saw some of the world's greatest long distance runners travelling to the  land of the Tarahumara for the chance to compete against the indigenous people.

It's a story so unbelievable, I often found myself grabbing my laptop to "fact check" what I was reading because it all seemed so impossibly wonderful.

And while sharing the absolutely thrilling tale of the greatest running race hardly anyone got to see, McDougall peppers the book with facts and anecdotes that promote the idea that the human species, as both the book title and the Springsteen song insist, were born to run.

And not just in short bursts, either - McDougall offers up to readers the "endurance running hypothesis", which is the theory that before we learned to make weapons and hunt down creatures for food using spears, humans would chase animals over long distances until our prey collapsed from exhaustion.

Once we mastered using weapons for hunting, most of us forgot how to run - but our bodies are still built to do it.

"Well, I'm a human," I thought to myself once I had finished the book, trying to process everything I had read, "or at least I was the last time I had a check up at the doctors. Is it possible that... that even I could learn to run for an extended period of time?"

I talked about it with friends of mine who I knew loved running, people I had previously written off as sick bastards but who now possibly had advice that could be useful to helping me to join their sweaty cult.

One pal, JP, told me that when she started running she used to imagine herself as Cliff Young, the late great runner-slash-potato farmer who captured the heart of Australians in 1983 by winning the inaugural Sydney to Melbourne Ultra Marathon at the age of 61.

"I would imagine myself in a pair of gumboots," she said, "just shuffling along slowly but surely, like Cliffy did - the important thing is to keep moving, not how fast you're going."

I'm not going to lie to you - this seemed to me to be a piece of absolutely useless advice, and I made a mental note to avoid asking JP for running tips in the future.

If this was the best guidance I was gonna get from my jogging chums, I had no choice but to try and make a fist of it on my own.

I got some myself some running shoes, made a killer playlist on my iPod (surely the most important of all pre-exercise rituals, no?) and headed to a nearby park that has a 1km loop track around it.

I started running, and sure enough after a couple of hundred metres, I began to feel the familiar sensation of not being able to breathe properly kicking in... and then, I heard the voice of JP in my head.

"Imagine yourself as Cliffy Young, Jess", the JP in my head whispered, "you're wearing gumboots now, so just slow down and shuffle along, take your time, just keep moving, that's all that matters!"

With the image of Colac's finest in my head, I slowed down but kept moving. My breathing got better. I did one lap of the park, and since my lungs had suddenly decided to play ball for the first time in my whole entire life, I kept going until I had finished another.

Afterward, my chest felt like it was going to burst. Not just because I'd run - well, plodded along continuously for - 2km and I was exhausted, but also from excitement because I'D JUST RUN 2KM! AND SINCE I TRULY BELIEVED I HAD BEEN BORN WITHOUT THE ABILITY TO RUN,  WHAT JUST HAPPENED WAS ACTUALLY MIRACULOUS! SOMEONE ALERT THE VATICAN!

This happened a couple of months ago at the beginning of February. As I lay in bed later that night, I decided that if I could manage to do something so previously unfathomable as running 2km without stopping, I could probably do 3km. Which I did, later that week.

I started looking at my body in a new light. No longer was it the disobedient failure I had loathed for so long; I'd underestimated it, for it was capable of things I could've never imagined.

A few weeks later, I cracked 4km. A few more, and I'd conquered 5km. I set myself a goal of finishing the 8km Mothers Day Classic run in Geelong, and two weeks ago I'm happy to say that despite the miserable weather and a head cold I was battling, I completed the course.

Sure, at one point a woman pushing a pram managed to overtake me with embarrassing ease, and yeah, okay, I was one of the last to cross the finish line.

But you know what? The great thing I've discovered about running is that it really isn't about comparing yourself against other people. The only person I'm trying to better whenever I put my trainers on is myself.

And there's something fantastically liberating about smashing through my own self-imposed limitations, too.

All those old mantras - "I can't run. This is just the way I am and I can't change" - were just falsehoods that were holding me back.

I know that sounds like the kind of nonsense you'd hear on a late night informercial for a cheeseball American motivational speaker, but I swear to God it's true.

If I can run, and keep breathing, and even occasionally smile while I'm doing it, then there's a pretty good chance I can do almost anything I put my mind to.

On the off chance reading this has sparked a desire to give running a go, I'm going to leave you with two inspirational things to help motivate you.

First: the words of acclaimed Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, a man so enamored with the sport of running that he wrote a book about it (called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running).

"Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you're going to while away the years, it's far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive then in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that's the essence of running, and a metaphor for life."

Second: a picture of Cliff Young (see above) hurtling through the fields of Colac wearing gumboots as running shoes and looking as graceful as a gazelle in the wild.

-Daily Life

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